Short films on Vimeo – there’s a lot of them out there. Some are even good, and you can ‘like’ them, and choose to follow the filmmaker. But, to make a generalisation, very few of these film-makers have thought enough about ‘form’.
Form can be imposed at two points: the editing bench springs first to mind, which is where Eisenstein, the author of the celebrated ‘Film Form’, placed a particular emphasis. But it can also be imposed in the camera, at the moment the film is being shot. This is Stan Brakhage’s major contribution to film aesthetics: even if he did not discover it, yet in view of the magnitude of his corpus, it is where the idea was most explored.
Now compare music. The same challenge exists: how do you impose form on a sequence of sounds? Western music answers this differently, since it has some eight or nine centuries of history behind it (assuming, arbitrarily I concede, a starting-point of Gregorian chant). Those centuries have been used to explore expressiveness of effect, but also to explore expressiveness of means. Composers have asked themselves questions about how to juxtapose notes, sequences of notes, sections of music – as it were, words, sentences and paragraphs.
Film is 120 years old, but has it concerned itself with these formal questions? Not nearly enough, because film is assumed to be made from representing persons, objects, dramas. It is not: it is made from frames and shots and sequences.
Music is made in the head, in itself, of itself. Film can be made in the head, but for the most part it is made from what is in front of the camera. It may be made ‘in itself’ but it is assumed mostly to be made ‘of something else’.
This train of thought is prompted by hearing the pianist, Cédric Tiberghien, perform John Cage’s ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ at Snape in Suffolk on 12 June. This is music made in Cage’s head, seemingly outside the Western tradition since he took his inspiration from Eastern philosophy and the sound of Eastern music. He wanted to break the listener out of the expectation which he or she brings to the music, in order to enlarge their understanding of the world. However, Cage did not jettison Western music. For a start he used the pianoforte – and then radically amended its sound world by the idea of the ‘prepared piano’.
This ropey image shows the piano prepared by the insertion of screws, nuts, bolts etc. between the strings to alter their timbre and make the piano sound more percussive, a process which Tiberghien said took him five hours. As we peered into it before the concert began, someone said, “Isn’t that fabulous?” – before she had even heard the noise the piano would make. Then someone commented, “Look at those screws. It’s hard to get that kind these days.” When I took this photo, someone asked, “Did you get a photo? People will never guess what it’s of.”
Secondly, the title ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ looks to Western compositional tradition, an AABB structure going back to 17th/18th-century sonata form, at least for thirteen of the sixteen sonatas. It is in the interludes particularly that Cage breaks away from this (which is why they are interludes). And the overall structure is a formal one: sonatas 1 to 4/interlude 1/sonatas 5 to 8/interludes 2 and 3/sonatas 9 to 12/interlude 4/sonatas 13 to 16. Listening to it brought to mind Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, whose ‘thirty variations reiterate the harmonic implications of the same bass in thirty different forms’, so that when at the end the opening melody is brought back, we hear it differently. It feels cyclical.
I think cyclicality is a part of the Sonatas and Interludes. I read that it starts and ends in G major, although in my musical ignorance I could not hear that, except subconsciously perhaps since when the piece came to a close you could feel a sense of a journey completed.
So, is hearing the Goldberg Variations a cerebral exercise, and hearing the Sonatas and Interludes an ‘emotive’ one? No, since they are both cerebral, and both emotive. At Snape, in a darkened auditorium (where I could not read my notes to give me an intellectual way into the piece), I listened transfixed to the sounds, the clusters of sound, and each of the twenty pieces, and experienced a direct communication across the darkness from the pianist’s hands to my brain processing what my ears were hearing. This was underlined by the softness of the sounds as a result of the dampening and detuning provided by the piano being ‘prepared’. The result is much more piano than forte.
This served Cage’s purpose well. Drawing on ideas he had read in the work of the Indian sage Coomaraswamy, he wanted to convey eight ‘emotions’ (humorous, angry, fearful etc.) that led the novice to a ninth state, that of tranquillity. I could not hear any of the eight emotions, except perhaps anger, but you get a strong feeling of tranquillity being the core of the piece, its purpose and its effect. Again, Cage (I think) rejects the Western idea of ‘programme music’ for an ‘atmosphere’.
Sonatas and Interludes therefore looks both east and west, an idea confirmed by Cage’s very helpful comment that the bell-like sounds are from Europe and the drum-like sounds – metallic, wooden, dampened, detuned maybe – are from Asia. This is what makes it such a major work, straddling a divide between east and west, a bold attempt at global synthesis, suitable it may be considered for a country that had just fought a major war on two fronts, Europe and the Pacific – and had won. The USA was opening itself to the world, in effect was de-isolating itself.
Cage is therefore very much of his time, and it is also true that his originality allowed him to be fascinated and seduced by an Asian sound world, notably the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia. After Cage came the Japanese Toru Takemitsu, a master of ‘Japanese sound’ influenced by French musical impressionism, Debussy, Messiaen and others. And his rain music evoking rain-drops on water, patterning it to the eye, and resonating it in the ear, is very close to the sound world of the Sonatas and Interludes.
So, it was a wonderful concert. But as someone interested in film, I was envious: why cannot our film-makers do something like this? Take Brakhage’s Text of Light (1974, 67 minutes). This is an abstract film composed entirely of light patterns, but any sense of form eludes me. You can admire its textures and their variety, and the idea that “All that is, is light”, but where do you enter this work, where do you leave it? In defence, Brakhage might invoke the idea applied to Sonatas and Interludes, that Cage is “following a system, but he has no idea where he is going” (see James Pritchett in ‘Six Views of the Sonatas and Interludes’ at http://rosewhitemusic.com/piano/writings/six-views-sonatas-interludes/), but this is admirable only up to a point, for where is the system being followed?
So, going back to Vimeo. Too many of the films I have been looking at feel too experimental, too random. There may be virtue in jettisoning Western ideas of order, tradition, proportion, a classical architecture as it were, but as I watched and admired these films I longed for those ideas to be brought back. But because film has not got all those centuries behind it, it lacks the grounding which Cage had in launching his experiments.