John Grzinich's 57 minute video, Sound Aspects of Material Elements will be premiering at the Calgary International Film Festival next week. I had a chance to preview the film on DVD, and to play it for two of my classes recently, with John visiting. Given our history of collaboration and my ongoing studies of sound and moving image, I thought it would be interesting to narrate my impressions of this work.
Sound Aspects is a unique film, driven by sound, an elegant collection of acoustic location explorations over a three-year period. Static shots record open landscapes, blowing grass and drifting clouds, slight manipulations of abandoned and natural objects, solo engagements with architectural structures, duos and occasionally larger groups of participants “playing” simple found materials, with an emphasis on the resonant properties of tubes, wires, wind and water. In each case, all sounds are sourced within the location, augmented and activated through simple acoustic techniques – dependent on portable equipment which can mix or amplify. Each “situation” becomes an instrument, each “place” is approached as a rich source of sonic matter.
The film is interesting in its formal severity, a repeating structure. A black screen is bathed in continuous sound, and a sudden flash reveals the source of what we hear. This shot is held, or a series of related shots provide dramatic views and close-ups of contiguous space. Gently, the image fades to black, and within or around these black zones, a period of sonic overlap connects two regions. We listen in darkness until another image flashes on the screen, revealing a new source. Very slight variations in overlap and pacing heighten attention to sonic bridging (the anticipation of events through sound) as well as timbral relationships between sound-worlds. The film unfolds slowly, with each beautifully framed, unhurried static shot allowing movement to pass through. The images are crisply filmed in rich grays and blacks, which tend to equalize diverse landscapes and seasons.
Sometimes the source of the sound is evident, occasionally it is tangential or implied. Like many of John’s studio compositions, the sound is multi-layered, complex and continuous. It makes use of a kind of restlessness inherent in natural forces – the movement of water or wind, swaying branches, crackling snow. There is not, however, an overemphasis on “nature” as an idealized or separate realm. The fringes of rural Estonia provide many intermediate spaces – a territory that is utilized and activated in this project.
Sound Aspects is also interesting for its particular engagement with image-sound relationships. As an object of ‘sound art’, it negates or sidesteps a widespread fascination with acousmatic sounds (those heard without seeing a source). Here, nothing is hidden – there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and image. This showing or explication of the recording situation immediately diminishes an obvious sense of mystery (one which accompanies many field-recording based compositions) and replaces it with something much less obvious. At the same time, the technology works to reveal the unheard, to listen into materials, and to allow us what John calls a "nonhuman perspective". This is a refreshing mode, and it reminds one of the feeling of discovery. Sound Aspects demonstrates its own making, and yet is more than simply a demonstration.
I remember a conversation John and I had many years ago, when we imagined a composition in which each sound source would be documented, along with its subsequent manipulations, combinations or edits. We wanted to reveal the work behind the sounds, both as a way of observing for our own learning, and as a way of demystifying the sound production. Sound Aspects has found a way of accomplishing this idea through a dramatic simplification and limitation of the process. This simplicity is deceptive, for any number of reasons.
Field recording based composition often exists in a relationship to contextual information (or its lack). Lacking information, we listen closely for materializing sound indices to give us knowledge about the type of objects, their weight and density, or the acoustics of a space, and so on. If we are given information (recording notes, photographs, etc.), the recordings operate as a kind of signifier - a stand-in for an unknown location. We are put into the situation of imagining distant (often exotic) places and the traversal of space by absent bodies.
As is often stated, all recordings are the result of a complex chain of technical factors and material decisions – the type of microphone, its proximity to any sources of sound, the acoustics of the space, movement of the source and/or mic, etc. (Not to mention technological factors on the reproductive end…) And, of course, recordings are often mixed or manipulated in extremely complex ways which obscure sources entirely. The common argument in favor of the acousmatic is a focus on “sound itself”, but each composition finds itself enmeshed within complicated negotiations with the absent. This can be both a pleasure and a distraction. Sound Aspects, besides showing the play of materials, also "plays" this border between the known and the unknown.
Because of this, the film finds itself somewhere between ‘sound art’ and cinema. Unlike most of cinema, only real-time sound capture is used. On the other hand, we feel a strongly and persistently disjunctive relationship between what is seen and heard, because of the unusual miking techniques. While the shots are wide to medium-length, placing the figures or objects into a setting, we hear something interior. We listen into spaces and materials through contact mics or small mics inside containers, tubes and vessels. These decisions amplify, magnify and distort the sonic landscape. It feels like existing at two scales at once, like looking at an x-ray of a place. Desolate Estonian fields, ramshackle barns, windswept telephone wires, nighttime fires, abandoned and corroded metal tanks or girders, rustling grass and plants, invisible stroking of wind, restless ripples of water.
Sound Aspects of Material Elements doesn’t illustrate, interpret or elaborate upon sound with images, it just shows - demonstrating the elements at play in a particular situation. The links between sound and image are more than just causal. They are the result of careful exploration, fine-tuned framing, and a delicate balance of the haphazard with the instigated. My favorite moment in the film is when a contact microphone, adapted with many fine metal filaments, is placed on an ant mound and played by hundreds of tiny ants that scurry around, carrying pine needles to and fro. The crackly sounds of their feet on the metal disc, the soft plinking of the metal rods, and the distant, complex rustle of the entire mound create an elaborate, satisfying moment. These small creatures are activating the environment, and this in turn feels similar to other sections - a group of people pressing tuning forks onto a metal surface, raindrops falling onto concrete, or branches randomly striking a wire fence. Each situation is both activated and intrinsically active. Ultimately, the film is about looking and listening closely, exploring the potential within environments and finding pleasure in play.