If art were easy, everyone would make it. Sure, for some, creative craftsmanship is second nature, like walking, breathing, or composing a beautiful sonnet. For many though, talent is trumped by time, demands, lifestyle, situation, and most importantly, money. Besides, we no longer live in a society which values the artisan as a professional. Instead, the writer, the rock star, or the painter are seen as ideologues, avoiding the constraints of society to continue on in their noble if non-practical pursuits. For Ken Vandermark, following his muse means a life of constant struggle. Between booking gigs and securing payment, he continues to hone his abilities. After all, he’s a Musician, and as such, lives and dies by the sonic circumstances he creates.
As part two in his amazing documentary series Work, Daniel Kraus delivers yet another stunning celluloid portrait. As he did with Sheriff, he takes a willing subject, sets up his cinema verite camera, and lets the story tell itself. In Ronald E. Hewitt, small town South Carolina lawman, the director found a perfect foil for all the stereotypes and standards he hoped to explore (and explode). Vandermark is equally unique in that he’s an avant-garde jazz specialist, a dada deconstructionist who follows the very fringes of an already outsider genre. We anticipate a difficult, demanding individual, someone who already feels marginalized because of the particular sound he strives to create. With both men, Kraus uncovers something much deeper.
Vandermark is not an unknown, toiling away endlessly in self-imposed exile or industry avoided recognition. Instead, he has a following both locally (in his home base of Chicago), nationally (he tours the country frequently), and even internationally (we hear about upcoming gigs in Norway and the Netherlands). Far from the starving artist, he lives quite comfortably with his wife Ellen Major. Of course, her being a pediatrician does help when the bills come around. Yet as part of this story, brought to life by Facets on a delightful DVD, we do see the man besieged - over charts for a future performance, with agents who can’t commit, with printers and CD manufacturers who tap his limited resources, with venues that offer only superficial support. Living up to the series title, being a musician is clearly ‘work’ for this tireless virtuoso.
Kraus doesn’t shy away from the aural element, either. We see several performances, and this will be the area where Musician tests even the most learned audiences’ perception. Vandermark makes a beautiful noise, a combination of dissonance and harmonics that seems random until you realize how hard it is to get such chaos to feel coherent. In a post-performance Q&A, he says something that ties directly into this. After listening to one of his favorite instrumentalists, he was blown away by the fact that this man could create four LP sides of atonal improvisation. He, on the other hand, hit the wall at five minutes. Realizing that he needed to breakdown the barriers before he could embrace his abilities, Vandermark started said inner journey. We see several examples of his success throughout the film.
The DVD version of Musician adds even more illustrations. Over one hour of deleted scenes allows for more concerts, more concerns, and more clarification. Vandermark is not a snob, believing that people who don’t “get” his approach are simply lacking in perception. Instead, he compliments those who try to meet his music halfway, while embracing the many different ways he expresses himself. One of the most effective moments in the film itself comes when Kraus uses a montage format, showing several of the over 100 albums Vandermark has released as part of his bands The Vandermark 5, Bridge 61, CINC, and Powerhouse Sound, among many others. It indicates the level of commitment the 43 year old has put toward his talent. Even better, it flies in the face of those who continue to view artists as lazy, self-indulgent, and unwilling to support themselves.
Kraus again expands his visual language, using unusual set ups and less handheld happenstance. For the finale, a stirring rendition of a composition made up of what appears to be one single note, the director lets his camera hang back, slowly moving away from Vandermark as he makes that sole sound say hundreds of interesting things. Even better, when faced with an issue at the Canadian border (it’s over the narcotic notoriety of being musicians and the numerous compact discs the band is bringing to the performance), Kraus simply stops filming. We don’t get the typical cops and contraband confrontation. Instead, Vandermark reflects on the situation long after it is over, giving it the proper weight and outlook.
Indeed, what’s best about the Work series, and Musician specifically, is that it asks us to drop our own preconceived notions of what a job entails to actually experience what it is. Kraus’ decision to avoid talking head narrative or other forced storylines may seem scattered at first, but the pieces typically add up to one enlightening set of life lessons. In the case of Ken Vandermark, we clearly see someone possessed by the power of music - how his saxophone sounds when pushed beyond the normal registers, how seven instruments all playing improvised lines can come together like a surging sonic maelstrom. As an example of filmic language, it argues for Daniel Kraus’ continuing growth. It also makes the wait for future installments (including Professor and Preacher) all the more difficult.
As with all art, however, the waiting stands as the hardest part. Vandermark will sit in his small side office, toiling over a calendar that seems to run out of available space and dates rather quickly. Yet with each addition, each highlighted event or tangential task, he moves forward. Even hunkered down in his basement, instrument in one hand, white out in the other, desperate to make sense of the aural cues clamoring in his head, he presses onward, knowing that there is no stopping without jeopardizing everything he’s done. Sure, it would be cool, or fun, or a dream come true to be a musician. Reality, however, tends to ruin that fantasy. Filmmakers like Daniel Kraus can be thanked for showing the situation for what it truly is - very hard work.