As a kind of soft opening to the Improvisation Summit of Portland in 2014, Creative Music Guild partnered with Northwest Film Center to screen a film called, The Reach of Resonance. Although not many ideas are particularly new and few techniques presented there are truly groundbreaking in contemporary art, I found extraordinary value to it. It is presented more like a digest of past performances, going as far back as the 1970’s, focusing mostly on three artists: Jon Rose, Miya Masaoka, Bob Ostertag. How each section blends with the other and the overlap of each compared to the last illuminates the power of sound and the human spirit. There is also an edge of political activism encoded in the work, explained by each artist in vivid detail.
Someone new to the subject, without a frame of reference, can be equally inspired by this film as someone who is already hip to the notions therein. This was proven by the company that I took, who viewed these ideas for the first time. The screeching of bowed barbwire and synthesized cockroaches did not cause great trouble at all for this laymen, in fact, she was intrigued and listened deeply. It can be all too often just screeching and disruption with experimental music, something that I found humorously demonstrated in the comedy film (Untitled), but these artists transcend that cliche`, opening the heart of the viewer.
Jon Rose seemed to get the most screen time, possibly because his work speaks to and soothes that division between popular and unpopular music. He plays fences. He is a master violinist that got in to the fun of building and inventing new instruments. He made anything he could in to a violin, from bicycles to multiple violins. His work with fencing comes from being Australian. He found abandoned, decaying fences endlessly all over rural areas, so he started playing them with his bow. The result is a vocabulary and technique compelling enough that eventually it was brought to theater. Scenes of Kronos Quartet learning the work punctuates the formalism he invented with it. He describes the absurdity of English capitalists trying desperately to control the Aussie environment, to recreate pastoral living, against all odds, to expand their empires, because they simply can’t see the environment as-is. He was invited to Israeli fences dividing Palestine. When security agents interrupt his exploration of the acoustic properties, a supervising officer is touched as he listens on headphones to the freshly improvised tone, recorded in the moment by Mr. Rose.
Miya Masaoka seeks an ecology in music. She discovers relationships with living things that we typically take for granted. I can not say that I managed to focus properly on the technical aspect of her work, but somehow she managed to produce sound from cockroaches while lying naked and still on a table, as they crawl across her perfect human body. Actually, the cockroaches were similarly beautiful when it came down to it. They aren’t your typical city roaches that appear in your sink, crawling up the pipes. These ones are noticeably exotic and seem a bit more poised. She also taps in to the natural energy levels measured in plants, translating that in to sound, then interacts with them to demonstrate their relationship to people. Her work is more explorative than conclusive and perhaps could be meandering a bit, but very compelling and thought provoking.
Bob Ostertag demonstrates the principle of “creative discontent” very directly. Though that idea (coined by Jiddu Krishnamurti) is not directly discussed, he exudes it. His medium is technology and people, but as every artist in this film, the collision occurs in the music. He became discontent with his work realizing that he was bonding people to machines rather than bonding people to people through technological media. Discontented, he flew to El Salvador and helped with a massive, bloody resistance movement there in the early 1980’s. After returning to America, beaten and weathered, he felt grateful for life, so his next body of work fused people while using technology to help the creative process. Rather than complex technical systems that happen to involve musicians, he composed for string quartet, transcribing tape audio from protest movements. He is an adventurous artist, brave and serious. He responds to discontent but never quits, finding new ideas to accommodate and explore what troubles him.
Steve Elkins is the Director of this film, making appearances at the beginning and end. He is a multi-disciplinary artist (including music) and has poignant things to say. At the end of the film he restates the relationship to music that musicians can have. It is not about the musician and what they do with it, it is about the music and its relationship, not just to the musician, but with everything. Music is not something any of us do, it is the ultimate reality. I personally realized that movement comes first, then music. The universe is a dance, a creative one (Steven Schneider said that). We are part of that creativity, so our input with it is a varying degree of resistance. Its just whether or not that resistance is interesting, beautiful, ugly, or whatever subjective state-of-mind stemming from it.
Improvised music is basically an act of non-resistance. The musician performs with moment in cooperation with all that is happening in relationship. It builds equanimity. The whole dance of it naturally involves a range of acts and feelings, but the basic thing there is relationship and non-resistance. This is why the musician producing dissonance can be warm and caring while the one with melody can be cold and arrogant.
The Reach of Resonance reminded me of my mission in life, as a musician, and how incorrectly I’ve been viewing that, explaining why I have felt stuck. A truly inspiring film. You can view the trailer here, or rent it for the cost of a mind-numbing beer. Do it.