Sound and color: A trip through experimental films with jazz improv

| Film Editor

Long gone are the days when films were accompanied by live orchestras inside theaters. It may be hard to imagine, but before the age of recorded sound in motion pictures, a pianist, for instance, would be given a sheet of music to play along with silent films. “Sonic Visions: Experimental Film + Live Jazz” took us back to that era, but with a provocative twist: it was entirely improvised.

Hosted by the Film & Media Studies program, this experimental event featured a lineup of eleven short avant-garde films from prominent filmmakers Stan Brakhage, Walter Ruttmann and Tomonari Nishikawa. All films were projected without sound. Instead, a jazz trio of renowned musicians improvised a music score as they watched these films for the first time. The trio consisted of percussionist Thurman Barker, bassist and Washington University Assistant Professor of Music Paul Steinbeck and saxophonist Joel Vanderheyden.

The result of this extemporaneous program was surprisingly organic. For one, the absolute abstract imagery of the films lent to a certain flexibility that allowed the musicians to experiment freely with their instruments. This is because Brakhage’s films, such as “The Dante Quartet,” implement fast-cutting techniques and scratched, hand-painted frames. Every short film in itself is an intense, colorful experience that can accurately be described as a moving Jackson Pollock piece. Similarly, Ruttmann’s “Lichtspiel Opus 1-4” was purely abstract animation: bits of definitive patterns, shapes and rhythm that demanded sound.

Undoubtedly, the uniqueness of this experiment laid on the improvisational aspect of the live music. Although the event was described as “live jazz,” the end result of the performance went beyond what one would expect jazz to sound like. The sounds were both ethereal and ambient.

In addition to the saxophone, Vanderheyden played the flute through a synthesizer, which added an atmospheric, lingering and distorted melody that, at times, perfectly synced with the pacing of the film.

All three musicians admitted that this experiment was more challenging than expected, yet fully rewarding. When deciding what specific sounds to perform along with the film, Joel Vanderheyden said it essentially came down to instinct.

“For something like [these films], it’s about engaging intensively with the visual material and finding a point to be intuitive. It’s a play of light,” Vanderheyden said. “What’s the light doing? Is it moving in this direction? Is it vibrating? Is it pulsating? What kind of color is happening? All these things have analogues to things that happen in music.”

Part of the challenge derived from the pressure to organically complement each other’s performances, since the performance was fully unrehearsed.

“This type of setting, for me, feels like trying to have a very dense conversation with people that don’t speak your language and trying to be creative in ways that you can represent things so that [the audience] can understand. And your point can come across in very abstract ways,” Paul Steinbeck explained.

Thurman Barker explained to the audience that he had to remove jazz knowledge from his mind during the performance in order to fully immerse to the visual experience that the films provided.

“I didn’t know what was coming next [in each film], and I had to use my own judgement on whether to pause, play, what instrument to use.” Thurman Barker said about the difference between a regular jazz trio performance and this experiment. “If I was in a [regular] jazz trio, I would know all these things—how it was going to come about and what was around the corner.”

This use of judgment was evident in Barker’s performance when, in certain moments, he switched his drum kit for the xylophone for a more esoteric sound, especially during Tomonari Nishikawa’s film “sound of a million insects, night of a thousand stars.” This two-minute film was created after the filmmaker left film buried overnight in an area 15 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The result was a series of aggressive blue-colored film frames filled with scratches and dirt.

Although at times there was a clear mismatch of music and images, the seamless cohesiveness of each instrumental performance made these films a natural pairing of sound and color. It was an ultimate experience of senses that required audiences to be fully present and to indulge in the visual dynamism that the musical performances created.