New sounds, visions on classical DVDs

by David Patrick Stearns

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

30 September 2009


Some classical music questions never die, chief among them: how to translate this strictly audio art, whose power and mystery comes from its invisibility, for the DVD age?

The great orchestras of the world don’t worry so much: There’s always a charismatic conductor for the camera to focus upon. But forward-looking composers wishing to avoid complete marginalization have to come up with their own versions of “Pictures at an Exhibition” (the Mussorgsky masterpiece inspired by Viktor Hartmann paintings), which often means not only writing the music but creating accompanying images that, with any luck, don’t literalize the music to death.

Such films as “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), “Powaqqatsi” (1988), “Decasia” (2002), — once cinematic anomalies that took this plot-driven medium into the plotless realm of abstract art — are now the artistic godfathers to a series of new-music DVDs that show the range of possibilities. On Medici Arts, Brian Eno’s 1978 ambient music manifesto, “Music for Airports,” gets a dreamy, ghostly visual element shot at Amsterdam’s Airport Schiphol.

Phil Kline’s sprawling, 65-minute ambient score “Around the World in a Daze” becomes a more engrossingly contemplative experience when presented in conjunction with a provocatively assembled photo gallery (Starkland).

Most delightful is Sufjan Stevens’ “Brooklyn Queens Expressway,” a dazzling triple-screen extravaganza with images that turn the serpentine, traffic-packed New York City roadway into an urban kaleidoscope (out in October on Asthmatic Kitty Records).

In all cases, the music soaks up visual stimulus like a sponge. Thus, these pieces aren’t just more noticeable in the marketplace. They become more audible by being visual. By nature, ambient composers such as Eno and Kline aren’t writing music that screams to be heard above the crowd. Quite the opposite: It often functions to blend in with what’s around it. However, giving it a visual element creates counterpoint that puts the musical qualities into higher relief.

The Eno score is spare and dreamy, with a few, deliberately articulated piano notes against vague, slow-motion blips of electronically homogenized vocal sounds. It just hangs in the air — agreeably and without urgency. Eno’s original idea was to capture and enhance the disembodied airport experience in ways that can act as musical Valium or be heard more intently as a legitimate (if unorthodox) musical experience.

The new-ish Frank Scheffer film (not to be confused with various amateur videos made for Eno’s music) shows people, escalators, runways, and airplanes scrupulously shot out of focus, creating a hazy, hermetically sealed, jet-lagged world. Eno gains new relevance and energy, thanks also to new arrangements by the Bang on a Can composer collective: Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Evan Ziporyn.

Musically, Kline’s 10-part “Daze” is like those Olivier Messiaen orchestral works that are suites of free-standing tone poems, all from different sound worlds, that impulsively eschew the traditional notions of symmetry, proportion and structure. Kline’s range of expression includes a mournful string quartet, the layered electronic jingling of his popular “Unsilent Night,” and a distantly recorded steel-drum band playing Bach. Visual illustrations — still photographs from family pets to a grassy stream — often seem so unconnected that Kline is working with a John Cage-style faith in the accidental poetry of randomness.

One section, titled “On the Waterfront,” comes with the koanlike sentence “This is not a recording but something happening right now in Istanbul.” The audio portion could either be real-life sex or torture. The photo is a New York cityscape. Does it add up to anything collective? Not today. But maybe tomorrow. And with each encounter, I’ll study individual components more closely than usual.

The implied profundity of incongruity easily goes to extremes: Earlier this year, American Opera Projects workshopped a piece that juxtaposed Arvo Part’s “L’abbe Agathon” with a Sophie Calle video of her mother’s deathbed. At its best, this approach is seen in Kline’s “Love U 2 Death” section of “Daze”: The audio is an electronic splintering of Wagner’s “Liebestod” while the video is a snowy, abandoned factory with a German-language sign advertising bridal wear.

No such ambiguity exists in “The Brooklyn Queens Expressway.” With works from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” to Kline’s “Daze,” you’ll probably want to hear only the music after getting to know it well. But with Sufjan Stevens, both composer and video director are the same person in “BQE” — one reason why you’d never want the two elements separated. The music is far less radical than Kline’s; it’s like a traditional film score, but one that plays cat-and-mouse with the triple-screen images.

A collage of ultra-dense traffic is incongruously accompanied by a lullabye, though appropriate rap music is heard while the camera races down the nighttime highway. As much as the three screens often convey the cheek-by-jowl urban landscape of Brooklyn, they also often work together with an almost sculptural sense of abstraction — a Robert Moses fantasy come true. At one point, traffic lights go out of focus and resemble moonbeams. There’s even a T&A element: Three attractive, scantily clad women make occasional appearances with hula-hoops.

Whether or not this all adds up to art can’t be determined with a genre that’s still in its frisky adolescence. But I gained an even greater appreciation for the almost ruthlessly tight organization of “BQE” when watching the extras on the DVD, which look like outtakes that were too good to toss but, in fact, didn’t add up to art. And “BQE” is the lightest of the bunch — it’s Offenbach to Kline’s Beethoven.

The dissemination of these composers might be further helped by not having to troop out to some weird part of town to access the cutting edge. Then again, with ultra-indie companies such as Asthmatic Kitty Records, can the world be properly alerted to the fact that they exist?

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