A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness
A Sonic Reading of Visualised Space
Published online for The Wire, London, September 2014
What does an image sound like? What does a sound look like? These are persistent questions in defining what the term audiovision means – yet one wonders if these questions miss the mark? Especially when considering the paucity of engaging son-image constructs in the entwined realms of film, music, and music-video. Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s collaborative experimental film A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (2013) offers an exciting point from which to observe the dynamics between sound and image. But let’s move cautiously. Audiovision necessitates perceiving things not evident on the surface.
The narrative structure of the film is broken into three domains with one performer appearing throughout: Robert AA Lowe. Maybe he’s the thing we should follow, but the film grants no reward as we track his meanderings. As Robert defines the momentum of the film, let’s start at the end and work backwards, picking up the audiovisual crumbs he and the film have left in their wake.
The film finishes with Robert disappearing into darkness. He’s walking down a dingy side-street. The camera’s f-stop allows him to become nothing, to blur into the beyond of the film. Location sound atmosphere embeds this disappearance. The film audiovisually naturalises itself, resembling the tail of a documentary plume. It seems worldly, familiar, identifiable due to the apparently ‘real’ sounds of the outside world
Preceding Robert’s walk-out/fade-out is a live performance. He had just appeared as a guitarist/vocalist in a black metal four-piece who run through some extended songs on a small stage in a bar in Oslo. The concert footage and Robert ’s exit through the venue onto the street feels like a single extended long shot – the kind of Steadicam trick lots of videos do to artfully construct a real-time phantasm due to the so-called real-time being so orchestrated.
But the camera isn’t gracefully gliding like a prancing ballerina. It is hesitant and unsure of its motivation, finding something of interest – a hand, a face, always a performative fragment – and resting with it. It’s a quizzical perspective, like aliens watching humans or humans watching aliens. For sure, any underground gig by any of the current plethora of musical sub-sub-sub-genres can appear like this to an outsider.
If the camerawork seems only forensic – analysing without disclosing its findings – what is hyper-analytical in A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is its unique soundtrack. This isn’t your standard setup where footage is synched to a feed from the mixing desk and combined with a slight layer of ambient room sound. When we’re resting with any one performer, the sound of the music initially sounds live but soon reveals itself to be analytically live: we hear a ‘de-tracked’ version of the whole band sound, as if a mic is placed just against Robert ’s amp when he’s being filmed, or among the drum kit when the drummer is playing and so on. It’s not like dub mixing, though, where absence is deliberately rendered palpable and erotic. Here, the sound always seems detotalised, replicating the perceptual focus we use more and more everyday to filter out meaning from noise so we can concentrate on what we desire to listen to.
It’s a remarkable scene, born of a type of audiovision that psychoacoustically relates to this dominant everyday mode of ‘unlistening’. The result is like a morphing lo-fi undulation of dimensional fabrics which weave a proximate sense of being in the depicted space. The real-time/space continuum effect – as with the vast history of experimental film and video practice – culminates in a desire to anti-narrate depicted places by transfiguring the nominal language of angles and edits, demonstrating how film language and form constructs its unreal version of time and space.
But this same history is also profoundly biased toward visual, optical and ocular modes of signification. Stan Brakhage undoubtedly forwards a comprehensive pondering of how an alternative cinema can narrate without using realist, naturalist or illusory codes of representation inherited from previous centuries of literature, theatre and painting – but it’s all eye, eye, eye. Watching and hearing Robert and the band onstage reminds one of the invisibility of the ear, ear, ear.
After the camera has become absorbed in the world of its onstage performers – replicating and evoking their own solipsistic rituals of noise engulfment – it floats out to the audience. There it sails on a small ocean of facial islands, buoyed randomly, bumping into inscrutable visages engulfed in their own solitary consummation of the sound waves radiating from the now-unseen stage. This on-screen shift from performer to auditor usually expresses an anthropological impulse, elevating the real face of a real person engaged in experiencing something. But Spell feels devoid of this humanist impulse. It’s driven by the animist allure of sound.
While watching the black metal song performance meandering from performer to audience, merged with strange ambient inflections of sonic precision and diffusion, I thought of two similar deconstructivist moments of visualised real-time performance.
The first is the amazing ‘matrix-mix’ by François Musy for Jean-Luc Godard’s little-acknowledged Soigne Ta Droite (1987 – Keep Up Your Right). It depicts an intense relationship (real and imagined) of Catherine Ringer and Fred Chinchin of the group Les Rita Mitsouko as they embark on recording a new album. While Godard’s previous experiment in the aural deconstruction of music recording is the more famous Sympathy For The Devil (1968), Keep Up Your Right is more about tape-time and its verticality of content, courtesy the time-shifting phenomenon of multi-tracking recording, which arguably manifests schizophrenic conditions. Ringer and Chinchin play out their heady l’amour fou while they play the various channels of their multi-track in the studio, granting us a pre-Classic Albums insight to the formulative possibilities of a song prior to its ‘mastering’. Musy and Godard also utilise the same multi-track as part of their mix of music throughout the film, so that we don’t actually hear the songs as much as we are inserted into their possible outcomes, thus leaving us as unfixed and dislocated auditors. This is the exhilarating feeling I got while floating with the camera between performers and audience members in Spell.
The other remembered moment is less radical: David Simon & Eric Overmeyer’s TV series Treme (2010–13). Most praise for this series is aligned with conservative liberal ideals of musicology – that somewhere there exists ‘real music made by real people’, or contradictorily, ‘real music made by real poets who observe real people’. Treme certainly pays lip service to these notions, mostly in quite embarrassing ways. But because the series is grounded in African-American traditions of music-making which seem more alive and celebrated in New Orleans than most other industrialised cities throughout America, there are numerous scenes involving the production and presentation of live music.
Mostly, they occur across a network of smallish venues – some with amplification, others without. Still other scenes are in the street, on the sidewalk, in the studio, in gymnasiums, in churches. But the liveness of sound is always palpable. All these scenes are enlivened by multiple microphone perspectives utilising the 5-channel audio space. At the least, the mix is of a frontal stereo space to which is added the centre channel which provides synchronous focus for the on-screen events, while simultaneously deepening and broadening the spatial dynamics of the mix. Put simply, one will hear a clear and detailed live stereo recording to which is added, say, the trombone being faded up a bit louder in the mix when a close-up appears on the screen.
Despite their differences visually, narratively, formally and even musicologically, Treme and Spell’s actualisation of sound emboldens the resulting audiovisual experience beyond and despite whatever the rational parameters for assessing them as a TV series and a film are. The secret power of audiovision, I feel, is its capacity to destroy the object of its own making. Not destroy as some two-bit juvenile pseudo-radical punk-noise effete gesture, but as a creative procedure intent on investigating the dynamic interactions between aural/sonic codes and visual/image codes.
In the preceding two thirds of the Spell, Robert is first living in a small commune in Estonia, then on his own exploring the natural beauty of a Finnish forest. The former depicts him caught on the epidermis of the self-centred babble-space of the commune’s oneiric utopia. The latter captures him luxuriating upon the skin of the forest’s immersive eco-system. Both scenes frame him in connection with a living realm, to which he silently displays and performs a nuanced engagement. These two psychological workshops possibly inform the final third of the film staged in the Norwegian music venue.
Maybe the final third of the film is the materialisation of how he has come to comprehend his place in the world. Whatever, the film materialises that space through sound rather than rationalising it through image. As Robert walks away from the therapeutic fracturing of his onstage performance and rendering (à la Soigne Ta Droite’s multi-track breakdowns), he passes into the world and onto the street. It’s the same domain that informs the sonic and social dynamism throughout the history of New Orleans second-line performance (à la Treme). Audiovisually, A Spell To Ward Off Darkness does this and all that too.