What piece of art changed your life? How did it affect you?
Stan Brakhage's films Moth Light (1963) and The Dante Quartet (1987). I saw Moth Light when I was in junior high or high school (13 or 14 years old) in Minneapolis, most likely at the Walker Art Center. This 4-minute film uses optical prints of moth wings, blades of grass, and flower petals to create a kind of abstracted shadow play out of organic materials. At the time, there seemed to me to be a correlation between the film's visual language and the logic of the music that I was just beginning to investigate in earnest—Cecil Taylor, George Crumb, Anthony Braxton, and Stockhausen, in particular. I had checked albums by each of these artists out from the public library and while being perplexed by them I was also intrigued and determined to come to terms with the music I was hearing. When I saw this film during that same period, a light bulb flickered on in my head. I fancied that in this film I could "see" whatever it was I thought that those musical artists were doing. But, at that young age, this new understanding was mostly intuitive for me.
Several years later, while I was a sophomore in college, and after having achieved a much more intimate relationship with the creative avant-gardes of both improvised and composed music, I took an experimental film class and one of the works shown was Brakhage's Dante Quartet. These are painted films. Extending from Moth Light's example of how to create film without actually using a camera, Brakhage actually paints directly onto film frames, one at a time, to make long moving and evolving abstract paintings. Each frame is its own painting and yet the sequence of frames creates a kind of "animated" painting or even a "visual music."
The light bulb that had flickered on in my early teens now suddenly seemed to be burning with high wattage intensity. In the Dante Quartet, I was able to perceive the clarity of each painted frame while also being aware that the frame-rate speed of the film was imparting a kind of rhythmic intensity—dare I say a "groove"—to the visual experience of the images. All of this clarified for me what, to this point, had been a vague notion of how an improviser hears and creates sounds in real time. Music can also be experienced as a lightning fast sequence of tiny frozen "sound pictures" moving forward in time to create a coherent work.
From the time I saw those Brakhage films, my understanding of how to think about what I was doing with music changed from vague and indistinct to crystal clear because I finally had this visual analogy for the sound gestures I was making. Brakhage's work ultimately enabled me to understand my own process and thus gave me a new confidence in and enthusiasm for real-time creative music making.
*I see that both of these films are up on YouTube but I encourage anyone to see the actual films in a theater at least once (I mean with light and shadow) or at least a hi-def version on DVD or better yet Blu Ray to get a sense of the rhythm of the frame-rates and the depth of the colors and textures.
Local jazz and improv fans will know Craig Taborn as the pianist in the quartet that Peabody's Michael Formanek put together for his excellent ECM CD, 2010's The Rub and Spare Change. Now, Taborn has his own disc on ECM, a solo piano recording, Avenging Angel. It's alternately delicate and intense and rewards repeated listens, like the best of ECM. Taborn figures to play a generous selection of such material tomorrow evening at An die Musik. Showtimes are 8:00 and 9:30 pm.