Steve Elkins’ thoughtful, fascinating film about experimental music and musicians has been making the festival rounds for the past few years, and is finally available to screen on demand. It’s exactly what our site is about, and is highly recommended to all of our readers.
One need not be familiar with our site, or even with experimental music, to be familiar with one of the names: last year, John Luther Adams won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy for Becoming Ocean. In a coup of sorts, this film captures the composer as he’s becoming inspired to create that very work. It’s a perfect starting point for the film, because Adams’ music, although intensely creative, is still accessible to mainstream audiences. Meanwhile, Misa Masaoka interacts with the natural world while Jon Rose and Bob Ostertag explore the porous line between music and politics. Their subject matter could not be more timely.
Adams admits that when he first visited Alaska, he felt that he was “running away … from the centers of music,” but that he soon realized he was “running to a different center to a different music.” By this admission, he underlines the connection between location and inspiration. As the Aurora Borealis sparkles overhead, one imagines the music of the spheres, but Adams finds silence to be his greatest inspiration. His patient music reflects the “reservoirs of silence” that he wishes to preserve in Alaska and elsewhere; he believes “music (can) matter as much as politics.”
While Adams seeks to translate nature to music, Misa Masaoka uses nature as instrument, seeking to reflect its array of voices. The “tactile nature of wood and string” leads her to samples of heartbeats, EKG machines, and other means of transmitting electrical impulses to music. She starts with humans, then moves to plants and cockroaches. She allows the latter to crawl across her naked body, and the former to have a “solo”. Is this “natural” music? In one sense, not at all, in another, absolutely.
“The violin is a pain,” admits Jon Rose, as he breaks one in a doorway. Then he blows one up. Then he begins to make monstrous, mutated string instruments. His disregard for convention leads him to surprising places. Watching him ride laps on a bicycle-powered violin brings back memories of childlike glee, pasting the head of one model on another. Rose continues far past where most people stop, ever restless, ever curious. Soon he has a bicycle orchestra. The expression “everything but the kitchen sink” does not apply: he uses the kitchen sink too! His friend asks, “Why, Jon?” ~ he calls his music “unpopular music,” challenging definitions of quality based on popularity. “I love to play for an audience of nobody,” he admits, but he doesn’t. “You can’t play barbed wire,” he says; and then he does. His initial motivation is to investigate sonic properties, but as he gets to know the fences he uses, he begins to ask why they are used; and at this point, his music becomes interactive. The fence – both literal presence and metaphor – becomes an opportunity for sonic and social transformation.
Rose teams up with Ostertag to add accelerometers to soccer balls and kayak paddles, while Ostertag teams up with stop-motion filmmaker Pierre Hebert to create audio-visual experiments. But Ostertag’s time in El Salvador colors his later experiments. He records a boy burying his father: the shovel, the tears, the fly. It’s field recording as political protest: the exposure of truth through sound. He travels to California to translate a gay rights riot to a score, enlisting the aid of the Kronos Quartet, whose sounds occupy the frames of the film. In light of the recent Supreme Court decision, this segment possesses particular weight: the resonance of the title.
The editing of the film is wise throughout: a swiftly-moving blend of film stock, nature in motion, live interview, split screen, animation and more. The interviews (responses only; no questions) are intercut until the viewer begins to see them as interconnected: pieces of a tapestry with a simple message: that because music is interwoven with everything from nature to humanity to politics, music has the ability to reflect and change as well as to entertain. Even without visuals, the audio works as sound collage. The Reach of Resonance deserves the prizes it’s received to date, as well as those it is likely to receive from this point on; the general public has just received a gift. (Richard Allen)