Introductory Notes on Film as Music

by Robert Schaller

address to the Brakhage Center, University of Colorado, Boulder, February 9, 2015

As a starting point for this discussion, consider this three minute video of a performance of a piece of music: Elliot Carter’s Catenaires, written in 2006, performed by Sean Chen in 2009:

I wanted to open with this because it offers a good example of what music, as a long-established art of organizing events in time, has to offer to experimental film. As I see it, it’s offerings are in two major categories: the formal (conceptual) and the physical.

Music shares with other arts a certain irreducibility of its meaning from its totality. This ambiguity of meaning in music is not unique in the arts; Robert Frost is reputed to have responded to a question about the meaning of one of his poems, “what, you want me to say it less well?” Art is not communication in the sense that an artist has a message, encodes it in the work, which the viewer then decodes to end up with exactly the message the artist started with. The work of art is not a string of gobbledygook, meaningless in itself, whose only importance is to carry a message from point A to point B. This is no more true of poetry or painting than it is of music.

However, music is unlike the other arts in at least this respect: whereas for most of human history arts like painting and poetry have used symbols that correspond to actual things — words and representational images that have denotative and connotative meanings, symbols and depictions already laden with meaning — music has always been devoid of reference. It is in this sense that I take the expression Brakhage liked to repeat, that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” (1)

Music is pure: non-referential and unencumbered with the ten thousand things that clutter this world.

As philosopher Susanne Langer put it:

“Music … is preeminently non-representative … It exhibits pure form not as an embellishment, but as its very essence; we can take it…and have practically nothing but tonal structures before us: no sense, no object, no fact.” (2)

Music offers “..the mystery of a work of art without ostensible subject matter…” (3)

It is ethereal, spiritual, disembodied, substanceless form.

Secondly, the video makes a material point, one that is perhaps so obvious that it is easy to overlook. Making music is fundamentally a physical act: it is, at root, the production of a pattern of vibrations in the air, and something physically must be caused to vibrate so that the air will vibrate. It invites us as embodied beings to immerse our whole physical selves not just in listening, but more importantly I would say as a maker of films, in the making those vibrations that are the tangible, sharable art of music.

One of the saddest conceits of the digital age is to ignore this fact, and it is important to realize that there can be no music apart from something vibrating, whether a vocal chord, string, or speaker: something is moving. One of the most important qualities of music is that it is intimately related to our bodies: vibrating and moving are in intrinsic part of what we are, and thus music is made of the very stuff of our being. This kinship between our body and the art of music is vital, and relates to film as well.

Music can offer us these possibilities, both actively as a maker and more passively as a listener, because it is of the same stuff as we are: it is like us, both intrinsically physical and profoundly immaterial. It shares the duality that is central to our own natures, one that is often referred to as the duality of mind and body. It is essentially like the life of a living being. To quote Langer again,

“…there are aspects of so-called “inner life” — physical or mental — which have properties similar to those of music — patterns of motion and rest, of tension and release, of agreement and disagreement, preparation, fulfillment, excitation, sudden change, etc..” (4)

We exist in time, our thoughts and feelings rising and falling, quickening and slowing, having flashes of insight and moments of despair; our bodies full of energy or lethargy, excitement and vitality or calmness and peacefulness. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually, we are never at rest, but always passing from one state to another, always existing, until we no longer do.

The practices and techniques of making music, particularly in it’s construction and playing, have evolved so as to create forms and feelings that resonate with us, whose living processes are like those that it creates.

So what of film, and experimental film in particular — film as art, in the purest sense?

The relationship between music and film that is most often understood is that music provides emotional connotation to images which otherwise are either emotionally ambiguous or lack inherent emotion altogether. And this is certainly one of the ways in which music can relate to film. One of the basic exercises in a film scoring class is to have every student take the same film clip and give it an emotional content using music. The variety of meanings that the different pieces of music can give to the clip can be amazing: the same clip can be, thanks to the music, sad, happy, frightening, peaceful, or unsettling. Music is used universally for this purpose, and beginning film teachers knows how difficult it is to get students NOT to rely on music to give a film coherence, but to achieve coherence with images alone. We are used to music being used by films: it is a convention.

But there is nothing necessary or intrinsic about it, and the reason that what we call “conventional” cinema is thought of as conventional is, I think, the result of the circumstances into which the medium of cinema was born, and these initial circumstances have colored and constrained it ever since.

Photography was invented in the early 19th century in order to extend representational painting in two directions: to make painting automatic — the “pencil of Nature” as Fox Talbot put it — and to be more hyper realistic than even the most detailed painting, as realistic dioramas Daguerre thought. Photography was thus born with a very strong realist agenda, and inherited all the extensive theoretical apparatus that came with that territory, which was considerable.

Cinema was an extension of photography, created with the same realist goals. Once it became a fact, it was quickly snapped up and coopted by the existing art of theater, which saw in it a possibility of creating what Brakhage referred to as “cine-plays,” wherein the film itself merely serves to create a transparent window with no qualities of its own, one which calls no attention to itself. This became “Conventional Cinema.”

Conventional cinema is thus characterized by rules and practices that come from other art forms.

I need not here elaborate as to what these alien rules prescribe. Many, many others have thought deeply and extensively about the issue. Suffice it to say that while it is true that film is quite capable of producing “cine plays,” this is only a fraction of it’s full capabilities. The entire history of experimental cinema has been in large part a long effort to cast off these rules. The good side of this conventional neglect is that they remain relatively free from the contamination of commerce and instrumental appropriations in the service of power: they are useless, and thus an unspoiled province for art.

And what are these qualities? William Wees’ term seems most apt: cinema is “Light Moving in Time.” It is a temporal organization of cinematic representations of what in Brakhagian terms might be called objects of the eye-mind. These objects consist, on their most basic perceptual level, of instantaneous registrations of light which enter the mind trough the eye as the eye jumps and drifts through the world around us, forming a kaleidoscopic stream of light-impressions which are constantly shifting, constantly changing, and constantly renewed. (5)

Most often, the human mind interprets these eye-objects as pieces of a static puzzle, and assembles them into an image of a stable world around us. Conventional cinema relies on this “conventional” process, depends, in fact, on its continuing unnoticed.

But if we suspend that process of automatic interpretation and attend to the as-yet uninterrupted eye-objects — or, as Brakhage might put it, to see with an untutored eye — then it becomes natural to ask after the nature of these eye-objects. What are they like, raw and uninterested?

Here we run into a problem: if we try to use words to describe them, then we are interpreting them, abandoning them as they are. But if we don’t use words, if they are essentially irreducible, how then can we talk about them, understand them, or organize them? What kind of meanings can they have?

And here it is that music suggests itself, for this is very much akin to the landscape of music: as already noted, music creates structure out of irreducible “musical” objects that have no specific meaning other than themselves. Music is both physical and immaterial, as is vision; music presents an uninterrupted stream in time, as does vision; music is even tinged with emotional associations and a smattering of onomatopoeic suggestions, even as eye-objects come with hints of images, that can be brought out or not, depending on both the musician/filmmaker or listener/witness.

Film’s similarity to music pertains to what it is that other arts are not: “Light Moving in Time,” a temporal stream of irreducible perception-objects. It is in thinking of it at this most basic and, at one and the same time, most abstract and most materially specific sense, that the methods, practices, and insights developed over millennia in the art of music most apply to the art of the moving image.

1. Walter Pater, The Renaissance: studies in art and poetry, (London: MacMillan and Co., 1922) p.135

2. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) , p. 209

3. ibid, p.216

4. ibid, p. 228

5. Wees, William C., Light Moving in Time (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), Chapter four, especially sec. 3, pp. 85ff