The following transcription is an edited version of live dialogue between Robert Fenz and Wadada Leo Smith that took place at Camden Arts Centre on the occasion of no.w.here's first event in the Reverberations series (6 August 2008).
Reverberations is Lottery funded by Arts Council England.
William Rose: I thought a good place to begin would be to ask Robert, could you talk a little bit about how training with Leo, studying trumpet – at what point you realized that was applicable to other art-forms like filmmaking?
Robert Fenz: When I started studying trumpet with Leo I began to think about the importance of practice with film, its something that people don’t do that much. They might write a script but they don’t practice with the camera and since my cinema is image based – which means that the image is primary, it communicates most if not all the information. I felt that learning how images ‘speak’ was important, and I only learned that by practicing filming. Studying trumpet with Leo helped me to understand the need for that in my day-to-day. Separate from that, learning about improvisation and how it works in jazz music and other musical idioms, influenced and affected my approach to whatever subject I pursued.
I mean, we live in a time when non-fiction film is often scripted, and when you write a grant proposal you are expected to write and present the script for a non-fiction film. I consider my films to be non-fiction, but the idea of scripting something that hasn’t happened yet is really kind of mind blowing to me. Studying music with Leo reinforced my belief that I needed to go into the world with an idea – do research on a subject and arrive at a place where I would be prepared to adapt and change the film completely, in the moment. In Greenville. MS I went to film Leo’s step dad, Bill Wallace – I’m eventually going to make a portrait of Leo and that was a part of that idea – and when I was there I thought, "wow, its really difficult to film in the South." I’d filmed in many cities and when you’re in a city you’re noticed but less-so. Down South, when I was out in the street I was very visible. I mean, three towns over knew I was shooting a film. They didn’t know who I was exactly, but that I was the guy with the camera shooting a film. So I thought how can I express (or present) my subject – the subject being the South – in the context of my series Meditations on Revolution – which is just that really, a meditation on the word 'revolution.' And I saw a sign that said ‘G Town Boxing Ring’ and went in and the guy was so beautiful – Terry Whitaker – and he said, “come on back”. The boxing ring was built by him for the neighborhood children. I went over a five-day period and no children came, and I said “can I film you?” and he said “that’s fine” so I shot another three days of just him in practice. That film is really about practice. It's as long as it is because the workout was thirty minutes. You know… it’s hot in this room and it was really hot in that gym. I guess that I expect that people will feel hot when they watch it – as though they're participating in the workout which is both satisfying and exhausting. So that film, regarding Leo impacting my thinking about practice, grew out of studying music with him.
I made a shorter version of the film that was very easy to watch and then felt wrong about it. The intention was for you to feel like you're in the room with the boxer, you can’t just walk away after watching someone work so hard without feeling as though you worked hard yourself.
Anyway, when I met Leo I knew he had a serious interest in film, and it was a nice meeting because I was just starting to work with film and when I approached him I’d never played trumpet before. I had no musical background and I said, “Would you teach me the trumpet?” I expected him to say “no” because I had no background but he said “well, its good that you haven’t learned things wrong – so we can start now” [laughter]. So we started and we did some very basic things like blowing air through the mouthpiece, or he told me that Miles Davis would spit rice through his mouth one kernel at a time so I walked around spitting rice one kernel at a time [laughter]. I didn’t become a good trumpet player but those exercises were great learning tools for anything else I wanted to apply them towards. And I still think about the trumpet because the trumpet is a lot like the Bolex camera and that’s a camera I’ve used a lot. The Bolex has three lenses and, well, I won’t push the connection too much but it has three lenses, a trumpet has three valves…
Leo plays the total trumpet, he plays every part if it which was a revelation to me. Every part of that instrument can make a sound and be important, so I thought that I could do that with film – that every part of a film could be important and have a function, even flares. In a way flares are sort of cheesy, they quote a certain period of independent film, but at this stage of filmmaking I find the more you see the chemicals reacting to film, the better because we live in a digital age where nothing is random, there's no chance, and film is full of random chance because every frame of film is different. One frame of film has a million different pieces of grain. Every piece of that grain is different. Every frame then is different. So it vibrates.
Leo Smith: Robert asked to play trumpet, but I don’t teach trumpet. I teach at schools in the music departments and they want me to teach instruments, but I won’t. The reason I don’t teach them is because I don’t have anything to teach people about how to play instruments. What I’m interested in is ideas so I teach the application of ideas to an instrument. If you’re in a particular discipline or other medium of art and you want to know something about that medium you go and try some of those things. You don’t go and try them just to become a trumpet player or saxophone or drum player or a voice player; you try them to express something about what it is that this other thing is – that you have to make a relationship between. For example, if you play the trumpet as if it’s a trumpet you’re probably not going to play it. But if you play the trumpet as though it is a part of you – which is an idea – then you can play the trumpet, you can play anything you want to play on it.
So when Robert said, “I want to play the trumpet”, we said specifically that we would look at ideas about music and more closely, ideas about improvisation. Because everybody thinks that improvisation means doing something – that’s wrong, it’s not true, It is part of the action of doing something but that’s… just doing something won’t be doing it, it'll be not doing it, okay? So when we started looking at ideas about improvisation, he’s asking these questions: “What should we think about when we think about an image?” “How can you improvise an image?” When you’ve got this stuff, you’ve got a table and you’ve got knives and forks and the axe that’s going to chop the film a certain way.
RF: As a fixed thing, yeah.
LS: It looks fixed but the film isn't fixed because an improvisation is an idea that has some kind of system around it, and if you propose for yourself a certain way to deal with that film even though the images seem fixed ... you could make a comparison to twelve notes. Twelve notes are fixed but no one uses twelve notes, you use the sound, sound is different to twelve notes. To be a creative musician you have to have – lets say if you play a single b-flat – you have to have at least five or six of them, at least five or six that you can play anytime and if you multiply that five or six by lets say fifty, those are probably as many sounds as you can get out of the five or six b-flats you have. With film, if you got an image there’s a lot you can do with the image that completely destroys it's relationship – and by destroying I don't really mean 'destroys' – it just, it changes its relationship. Like the last film we saw, everybody noticed it was a wall right? Right? Okay, but when you looked at it did you see the wall? [silence, laughter]
It’s okay; the wall was there, that was the image. But what happened to the image? It got involved in this process of becoming and unbecoming – changing. Both in terms of velocity and shape – you saw that right? You just watched it. [laughter] Okay, that’s improvisatorial – you could never, ever reproduce that film like that – Robert couldn’t even reproduce it like that – no?
RF: It’s true.
LS: Tell em. [laughter]
RF: But you know that speaks to something that’s more fundamental in film which is – and I'm not saying this in opposition to video – but I’ll speak more to what makes film film, and part of what makes it film is that you don’t know what you’re going to get when you shoot, right? You go and shoot some place and there’s many factors that might affect your ability to get an image. There is the chance that you may not get an image at all. You have an idea but there is no way of checking how it will look. In the case of this film I thought I’d like to go to the wall and shoot it in that way but I was not sure if it would look the way I hoped it would, but in the end it did. And right there you have my effort to bring improvisation into it. Because it came out of an idea, that I didn’t know would work. When I first saw the footage I felt that it did, and I left it close to how I shot it – more or less how I had pictured it in camera. But again, its not because it occurred in camera that makes it improvisatory for me. It has everything to do with having a thought, an idea of how to do something – trying it out and then accepting the way it worked – which is something Leo helped me with a great deal.
I can be very particular and obsessive about what I’m producing, and Leo has helped me a lot just to let things be the way they turn out, and in that sense it remains more true to the initial idea which I found...very powerful and has allowed me to continue to produce. I have some films I’ll never finish because those are films I keep working on [laughs] and messing up and they’ll never be done. This wasn’t one of them. Eventually, I decided I would have the images repeat so you’d have a shifting dynamic – well, you have two views of the wall ultimately. You have two views that occur, two frames at left, two frames at right – sometimes its three frames, but the thought was to shoot so that you could see both directions at once in a way.
LS: And one had sound and one didn’t.
RF: Exactly. So it's in two’s. Two directions and you’re seeing it both from the side of the United States and the side of Mexico.
Then the boxing film, you know as I said, I cut it down a lot but when I reedited it, I left the flow that had occurred while I was shooting it. These films are quite different from the rest of my films in a way, partly because in the boxing film I used more in-camera editing than I usually have in my work – and I allowed that because I felt that it was true to what was taking place on the screen. There are a lot of mistakes in it. I shouldn't say they're actual 'mistakes' because-Leo also helped me with that word [laughter]. He always said that in an improvised performance there are no mistakes, there’s only what takes place so that every night is unique, every performance is unique, and why it's so special for Leo to be here tonight is because this won’t take place again. It might take place but it will be in another way and in another fashion influenced by the fact that he didn’t just fly from Los Angeles and that he doesn’t feel the way that he does right now due to the conditions of the day.
LS: Also, if we would have heard a different version and the film would have been different; it wouldn’t have been so hot.
RF: Oh yeah.
LS: But you know, thinking about the boxing film – one of the things that’s focused me in on boxing, not boxing but this Greenville Mississippi film, what’s the real name of it?
RF: Greenville. MS
LS: As I think of it, that film is really about light and dark. And I don’t mean negative and positive forces. I’m talking about the way I see it because when I’m playing the trumpet I have a little viewer right there on the bell of the trumpet and all I see is a fluctuation of light and dark, and that’s what I go by. I can tell when its getting close to certain sections by how big the image of light or dark is. It’s about that big on the trumpet there. But… I’m just telling you how I look at it while I’m playing because I’m not watching it – it’s from there. The next thing is that when you’re boxing, what are you doing? You’re building stamina, and the ultimate goal of boxing is not really stamina but strategy… you see that? It’s strategy. So when I’m playing against that particular film, it involves a level of strategy. How do I construct a bridge across this film as it’s going, using a strategy to be able to – by the end – knock the boxer out so to speak. That’s important for me because if I just played against it I think I would lose it, I would lose the quality of the film because I’m not expressing images, I’m trying to express the spirit of what it is when you get inside a ring and how you have to survive and make your way back and forth and around that ring to keep from getting wiped out. And that takes a good strategy. In this film, this particular time, I used a lot of posing. I don’t know if you noticed, you probably thought I was standing but I wasn’t standing, I was posing [laughter]. Like this – I was posing. And if you notice, I rarely took the mouthpiece from my lips because that was one of my strategies, that I would investigate the kind of endurance this boxer would endure in the ring – because he’s not in the ring when we see him – he’s preparing for the ring. So my music against this film is a psychological reference to the inside of the ring which he’s not in, and we don’t know if he’ll go there, maybe he won’t ever get a fight. But… that’s what it is. I see you smiling. But it's true. I don’t care how you smile, its true. [laughter]
RF: But I think that what you’re saying speaks to how you approach moving images when you perform with them. I think that in general you perform not ‘to’ them, but ‘with’ moving images, and that is profoundly unique. It's also something that really influenced my attitude towards sound in film. Most of my early films are silent because I had studied with Leo and was intimidated about bringing sound to the work. I didn’t really have a sense of how I should, and I didn’t want to have the sound move the images. I wanted the sound to exist with the images, as it did tonight. Somehow… what struck me in this evening’s performance was that when you were playing, the music brought out the images at moments, and at other times you just heard the sound, you know? There was a real equal dynamic that made it possible to appreciate both mediums. We did another film together called Vertical Air in which I flew across country in a helicopter – I had been listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman and my brother was a helicopter pilot so I thought the helicopter could really reflect the kind of music Coleman was playing at a certain period in his music making, and also somehow speak to Leo and his performance… because it can move in any direction. So I cut the film and right afterwards Leo gave me a call and said “I’m doing a performance at the Alligator Lounge in Los Angeles, why don’t you come out and show the film?” So I did but the intention was never to show the film and have Leo play to it. I showed it in a separate room, it was out of view, and you [to Leo] did a thirty-minute performance with a percussionist and that’s what I placed on the film exactly. Now when you hear it– it sounds as if the music was working with and to the images at the same time. This does take place sometimes when you put a piece of music next to any film, at some point there might be a connection that occurs between the two – but I think that because he wasn’t looking at the images (during the performance) there was an openness that came out of the relationship between sound and image that was unique. You know–I think that there’s a musicality in my films that isn't literal. I mean, there are filmmakers who have tried to make literal connections between music and film since the earliest days of cinema, and from not so early days – say mid century, people like Harry Smith who did animations to Thelonius Monk's music – but he cut the images directly to it (the music) and tried to make a very specific connection in the animation to Monk's performing. That was never my goal, my goal was to keep them individual – the two mediums – but to have them compliment one another and for their union to somehow benefit each.
LS: That works very well and it should because if you separate the two at one point – which you can do – it should be satisfying for either version because ‘independent’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘disconnected’. But it does mean that both pieces of art can exist on their own and have their own individual meaning.
RF: Sounds like a good relationship. I’ll go back to speak a little bit about you as an inspiration. We used to talk about inspiration and influence. I feel inspired and influenced by your work as I said before, but something important you helped me do was listen – listen to see better. As I was saying earlier, most of my films really depend on the frame, the composition and duration of how long I choose to make a shot to communicate the ideas I’m working with. Now I also structure my films in part by how long I make a shot. So unlike some so-called Structuralist filmmakers, I don’t decide how long a shot will be before I make it. I allow the moment in which I’m filming to determine how long it will be. But that absolutely affects how the film will be shaped during the edit. So if I decided to shoot for ten-seconds or thirty-seconds or one minute, I never shorten it. It has to be as long as I made the shot because I want to be true to that sense of improvising when I'm making a shot. And because I remain true to that improvisation I hope it enters into the finished project. I think it does in the films you saw here, but certainly I feel that it does in other works that weren't shown tonight.
LS: Why don’t we let them ask some questions?
RF: We can open it up to questions if you feel like asking them.
LS: No, you have to ask questions. If you don’t ask questions, how are you going to find out what we’re thinking? I mean, right now we’re shooting some hot air at you and you’re taking that in, but you must have some questions!
Brad Butler: I was quite interested in the balance that you had when you were playing the trumpet just now – the balance between you playing the room… and I’m thinking that we did an event recently with Evan Parker and he said that he would feel the room with his instrument, that he would start off and he was kind of acoustically challenging the space until he found a parameter and then he brought it back in. But then you described what you were doing with this very nice visual, black and white… I didn’t know if you were watching the images at all and I felt as if you were almost trying to take yourself into a thinking space with which to play the instrument. So I was kind of wondering about this balance in terms of the process you were going through – the room, the film, the instrument.
LS: Okay, all of them. That’s the short answer. The long answer is, I used the floor a lot and sometimes I’d stand up and hold it up and shoot it out. When I shoot it out this way I’m using all the walls, and it’s a much longer distance from the floor and the trumpet – so the sound becomes different for me. I hear it differently, it makes me feel different. And also the back hurts sometimes, you know the backbone, and sometimes it gets too much and I’ll bring it up and experience it from there [laughter]. And really, for me, when I was talking about that light and dark stuff that was happening – I can’t see it really detailed – but I can see the flashing of light and dark and that also inspires me to give some silence, and if I find enough flickers that inspire me to come back in, I’ll come back in. And sometimes I don’t look there because for me sometimes the best way to play music is not to see anything so I close my eyes. Okay, so I’m working the floor, the walls, I’m getting a few little images from time to time… and the back. That was my process for how I played that. Because physically it has [inaudible] to do what you do. For example–If the seat was uncomfortable maybe I would have stood up the whole time but it was actually comfortable so I sat down in between.
RF: When we walked in the room today there was quite an echo, but I have to say that when I heard you play I didn’t hear it – you said you really were trying to beat the boxer by the end and knock him out. So I feel that you knocked out the room by not having the effect of this echo influence the sound.
LS: And plus all these people here, they did it. Because when there are live people in a room – if you put a room full of boxes the sound would be almost the same – not exactly, but almost. But when you got live people in a room there’s something happening to the space, it warms the room up a little more and your presence causes a reaction as well. It's like the whole space is ritualized by what’s in it, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Audience: Can I address a question to Robert? In a lot of improvisational and experimental film work there can be a tendency to lump-in the kind of exposure and focus of technicalities with everything else and improvise that along with everything else. You seem to be particularly sharply focused and particularly focused yourself on what you want your audience to see. I didn’t see very many shots out of focus or exposure… is that a conscious decision? I mean, are you a technical filmmaker that works as an artist? How do you get that balance? How do you structure what you want the audience to see on screen?
RF: That’s a really good question. I don’t want this to be loaded but I’m trying to make a good image – and what I mean by a good image is one that pays attention to light and it's expressivity, and what it illuminates ultimately. So when I say I want the image to 'speak' to the idea, its because I’m relying on it in its silence to 'speak' to the idea, and I feel that it is more effective if I’ve managed to make a frame – and maybe in that sense it links itself to photography and I want it to speak as a photograph might, without the need for words. Now I have the advantage of working with time, because I make films, moving images, so it is basic that I get to make connections over time so images are speaking to one another through the whole trajectory of the film in noticeable and less noticeable ways. When I was studying with Leo I learned to appreciate sound – just making a sound – through practicing the trumpet… and when I tried I didn’t make such great sounds but I tried to make good sounds – I mean clear, articulate sound. So I feel that when I’m working with the image I’m trying to do the same thing, I’m trying to make an articulate image.
Audience: Did you record sound in the gym? And did you decide consciously that you didn’t want the option of working with that sound?
RF: There was an interesting sound in the gym, but it was such an overwhelming sound, it was the fan in the room and it was just like RAAA, so I could have had RAAA over the whole film and that might have been interesting...but I decided against it.
William Rose: Could you talk a little bit about the project you’re working on with Robert Gardner, and the influence of his way of working with chance, circumstance and intention?
Robert Fenz: Oh yeah, that's a discussion which I think is valuable right now. There are so few good words to describe different kinds of filmmaking, I chose 'non-fiction', some people would say ‘documentary’ – I don’t like to use the word documentary for different reasons, but I’m going into the world and making images that are representative, they are reflecting reality. Once they enter the film emulsion they are no longer reality so even the term 'non-fiction' is an issue. Filmmaking is subjective because every frame is subjective – I mean every shot you make – even a surveillance camera is subjective – someone had to position it to capture a certain image, so there’s no objectivity. Gardner works in ethnographic filmmaking – he’s been positioned there but he’s really much more of an artist-filmmaker because he so much brings and acknowledges his voice – his subjective voice – even though he’s dealing with concrete subjects. Whether that be in Benares, India – Varanasi as it's called now – and the industry that takes place around death. Still, he’s allowing his emotional sense combined with strong images to affect how you interpret the project.
As an influence, he again reasserts that non-fiction filmmaking very much contains a maker's capacity to be responsive in the moment and to make decisions in that moment that are shaped by their practice – the literal practice of working with a machine – but also the practice that comes from the research and study that may have gone into the project itself. Leo met Gardner, I don’t think you’ve seen his work but he writes quite a lot about something called ‘intention, circumstance and chance’ – which is that he goes to a place with intention, the circumstances change that intention, and then when he’s there, chance influences in the end what the project is, right? Because we as filmmakers – and I am certain there are filmmakers in the room – must go out into places and … of course when I feel that a film is powerful, to me, it's because it acknowledges life as it happens and isn't so hung up on having to control. This is true of narrative film as well – control the situation in order to meet the idea. But then this is the country of Alfred Hitchcock who maintained major control in his films, he controlled every part of their getting made, but then there are people like Pasolini, Godard, who use improvisation, some people have trouble calling improvisation improvisation. But they at times – very often – worked without a script and would make or allow things to happen even though they were working from a premeditated and or fixed idea. So improvising for me is like… well I’m going to stop before I get into trouble.
LS: Well, you don’t have to define it but you have to know that it's not just something you do and that there are lots of different ways of doing it. That way you don’t get mired digging a hole so deep you can’t get out.
RF: When we began working together, I felt that your interest in filmmaking factored in the compositions that you were making. For me, when I was listening to the music you made, and even what you make now, Leo’s ability to make a transition like this [claps], like a film cut – in a moment switch completely out of one kind of sound to another seemed to me like it could easily have been inspired by film. Particularly a performance you did at Cal Arts where you had separate stages on which different musicians were playing, and maybe you could describe that night better because that for me was a cinematic night.
LS: Yeah, I love film, but the films I love are not from Hollywood. My favorite filmmaker is Tarkovsky and a couple other people like Kieslowski – those kind of filmmakers I like very much. But over the years the most interesting things to me have been films – the only thing I enjoy really now is film, and it has been for the last ten or fifteen years ¬– you watch a film and you watch it over and over. For example, Nostalgia [Andrei Tarkovsky, 1984] I believe it is – that film – the most exciting thing about that film to me is not necessarily the characters but how at the very end you don’t know whether the guy died or not and you see his pond and you see his house and you see the dog and you see the cathedral and all this happens so gradually that you only notice it once its all in place. To me that’s one of the most fantastic shots that I can think of in film. And I try to do this same thing with notes – I don’t know if you noticed in the boxing film, Greenville. MS, just the slightest change of the trumpet valve and the slightest relaxing of the lip will produce multiple sounds, and I can select which one I’m going to control and I can select which one I’m going to allow to have a little bit of audibility but not control it and let it go wherever it wants. And if you think about that, its kind of like that setting I mentioned in Nostalgia, and that’s the way you can think about it in films. Another way to think about it is when I’m looking at that play of light and dark there – how it's large, small and other shapes – I’m feeling I can do the same with sounds: I can shape them exactly as I want, I can shape them nearly exactly as I want or I can allow them to exist because the trumpet itself has a lot of sounds in it where I just use it. And once I start using it I figure out at some point – if I want to – that I’ll shape it in a way or I’ll allow it to find its own shape because almost every instrument has a lot of music in it that many people fight in practice to keep from coming out. And I don’t fight it, I let it come out [whistles], because my theory about the trumpet is that it will sound the way it wants, whenever it wants, whatever way it wants to sound. I let it sound just like it wants, whichever way it wants to sound, and I’m not embarrassed about it, I love it.
So yeah, that’s a big connection to film and light, and you know film is an orchestration of different kinds of light. I was born in Mississippi and the most startling light I ever saw in my life is when you're up early in the morning and you look out and see the sun like it's coming up out of the ground. And you’re a young man, lets say I’m fifteen or thirteen or whatever, and I see this come up and guess what? It's coming up out of the ground which means that the sun is below me and if I keep watching, at some point its going to come up near my knees, my chest, my head and then it's over my head, okay? That’s a fantastic feeling to watch occur – and again this is about light you see, and how do you shape it in music? Exactly the same way. You allow the notion of progression to elevate itself up and up and up. One sound, you can do the same thing with one sound.
Brad Butler: This is a question for Robert: bearing in mind that you’ve known Leo a long time and because of the way you’re talking which runs quite deep – you talked about the idea that you want to make a film about Leo, and it must have occurred to you…
RF: Well I wouldn’t make a film about Leo – I would make a film with him I think [laughs].
BB: …that was my question, it must have occurred to you at some point – “how would I deal with something like that?”
RF: It's certainly a challenge – I made a film of Leo's friend, Marion Brown, a few years ago. He’s maybe in his late 70's now, and you know a film is short so how do you deal with somebody’s life in a short amount of time? No matter how long a film is, it's still short relative to someone’s life. So how do you cut out and say what’s right? In the end I decided to let him speak. We did many interviews and in one of them he spoke quite a bit about his life, and it was about seven minutes long so I decided I would keep just that. And the rest of the film is really an effort to give an emotional expression to those seven minutes of speaking. When the film opens he isn't present, but you’re brought into a space where you’re able to meet him and where he’s able to tell you about his life, and then we leave right? So seven minutes isn’t very long but a great deal can be said in that amount of time. Any film is part of something larger than itself. The fantasy about film is that it's going to answer every question, but everyone in the room would make a different film, so what does that mean? Even if you aren't filmmakers, you could all make a film and they would all be different...really. I think that’s really what’s powerful about it, and maybe people feel that they have a desire because film has a power – because it's made of images and images speak to us in a way that’s different to music though there are similarities – but it's that sense that they want it to answer all their questions – no film does that, its always a little part of something larger.
BB: I think you misread my question. That would be a film about something, but the crucial thing was a film with someone – and many of the crossovers that are happening in terms of cinematic language, in terms of musical language, it seems to me you’ve talked about shapes and repetition and tempo – we’ve talked about spatial qualities, etc., and because I’m a filmmaker I create images in my mind and I was just interested in the images you have kind of… [inaudible]
RF: Well I have no idea what images I would make, but I appreciate the question and understand what you’re saying. I mean, collaboration is difficult, and if we – and I hope that we will – collaborate on a film that would somehow project his life, you know, I would have to see where Leo was, and where I was at that moment, and figure out what images might be made. I would definitely start from a place that I thought was valuable to the film so I might go back to the South or visit Leo where he is now as a point of departure. But then that might not even be important to whatever the film ends up, you know? What’s important is that something is communicated that hopefully gives another view, an expanded view on Leo and his music. How that comes about would only be known when it's made.
Audience: I was wondering how you feel about the fact that most of your improvisation process sort of occurred in a time and space separate to us and whether you had ever explored the possibilities now of live editing and visual creation, or whether for you that’s something separate, and does it matter that the improvisation of the musician with us is occurring only now. How do you feel about it being fixed, or kind of giving over the improvisation to the machine in a way in this moment.
RF: In some of our earlier performances Leo included me in his ensemble and what I always loved was that I was the person bringing film to it, I felt like I was included in the musical ensemble, not independent from it. The first time he asked me to do that was in New York and I brought the film that I was working on and I was thinking, “how can I improvise with them using film?” I thought, well I can edit in the moment, right? So I separated single shots or made combinations of shots and then projected those when I felt they were appropriate during the performance. In that sense I tried to address that issue in real-time. Other kinds of musicians do that too, like Christopher Marclay and people who are working with found-sound and collages and things like that. So that was interesting for me, but it wasn’t something I felt I necessarily wanted to continue to explore for different reasons. Often there’s no opportunity. I may want to try something but, if there’s no venue; so thank you Camden Arts Centre – if there’s no one to assist; so thank you no.w.here – then you can’t do things.
Audience: But with digital possibilities like VJ’ing and stuff, does that interest you?
RF: An acquaintance of Leo's, Richard Teitelbaum, and many other musicians no doubt, have done performances with Mac computers that address the issues of improvising, but I think you could speak more to that. I know you’ve performed with musicians that do that, Leo.
LS: Yes, I’ve worked in that context, but I want to speak to your voice because I think it's more interesting than that other part. When you bring something into a space and you bring something extra into the space, its already changed and the expectation about that something that existed before, has also changed because then you have to think of it in this other dimension. What makes a film new for me – I have seen all of Robert’s films more than once, many times – and what makes it interesting is that the film becomes new for me. For example, I would never watch one of Robert’s films just before playing to it, a week before playing or something like that. Because them I’m watching the film, and when we say that we are going to perform together, and this is a performance by the way – it’s a performance. I want to have the freedom of coming in and adding another dimension to that space – just another dimension – so that by chance or by will or whatever, people will see the film in a different way. I think you can do that because when I see a film more than once, my notion of that film changes as I see it. I have a different relationship with it and I have a larger relationship to it, not from knowing it but because this is another viewing of it.
Audience: [inaudiable]… in the two films you played with. How do you treat the tradition of American black music? How do you decide what is you, what isn’t you?
LS: For me? Everything is me [laughter], and the reason I say that? Because for me the only definition of American music is that an American has made it, and if someone asked me, “do you play the blues?”, or “what’s your connection with the blues?” I would say “it's in there, it's in that music I played”, and if they said “well can you put your finger on it?” I would say “no”. And if they say “well if it's there, why can’t you show me?” I would say, “well, look at that river, can you tell me if there’s a fish in there?” I’m not going to ask you to go and show me because I know that inside water there’s the possibility that a fish could be in there [laughter]. So there's a possibility that the blues is in there somewhere.
But let me answer a different way. I write music for all kinds of instruments, string quartets, whatever. Whatever tradition you can think of, the gamelan, the gagaku, all of these things I write for but, guess what? It’s the same music. My challenge is that I’m writing for instruments where I’m going to have an experiment with them and put myself in them. Which will reduce their tradition for that moment, just that moment, it won’t kill their tradition, it will reduce it for just that moment. What that does for me is it allows me to experiment with what an instrument can do as opposed to whatever that instrument does in it's cultural tradition. And that’s why I can say that what makes it important is who it is that does it, and maybe where they’re from contributes to it, if you want to say what is American music, for example.
William Rose: I’m afraid we’re going to have to end there but I wanted to say thank you all for coming, thanks to Camden Arts Centre and to Leo and Robert. [applause]