Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Gone With The Wind at the Raven Row Gallery

The rather flippantly titled Gone With The Wind exhibition at the Raven Row Gallery in London showcases the sound art of three veterans of the form: Takehisa Kosugi, Max Eastley and Walter Marchetti. The gallery itself is situated in an 18th century house in a warren of narrow streets near Spitalfields which have yet to fall victim to the shiny promises of redevelopment or to the glacial, eastbound flow of the City’s steel and glass mass. From one of the upstairs rooms you get a truly bizarre rear view of the facade of an 18th century terraced house propped up like a movie flat in front of a modern office development of typically bland functionality. As a token gesture towards preservation, it takes the biscuit. The gallery keeps this house at least from suffering such an inbetween non-life. The three artists essentially get one floor each of its four storeys (and what’s to be found lurking in the attic we shall discover later).

Max Eastley’s graphic scores are exhibited beneath glass in the entrance and exit lobbies, partly in order to preserve the mystery of his first floor installations, which are very much integrated into the period feel of the rooms, and need to be free of extraneous distractions. The scores exemplify the balance which sound art strikes between its visual and musical elements. They are beautiful illustrative works in themselves, water-coloured, stippled or densely inked, and would appear to be abstract in form did they not have the functional purpose of suggesting the organisation of musical pitch and tone-colour. The score’s aesthetic beauty perhaps guides the mood of the performer, who draws ideas from studying them and is encouraged to provide a similarly pleasing palette and outline of sound. A sketch of a butterfly’s wing presented as a score is partly a conceptual work, but also points to the affinity of Eastley’s music with the natural world, and the very hushed quality of the sounds his unobtrusive self-made instruments generally produce. The score invites a musical interpretation of the coloured patterning of the butterfly’s wing, and the shape of its outline, but also the sound of its beating in flight. The butterfly motif is one which Walter Marchetti takes up later on, and butterflies also adorn the picture used to advertise the exhibition. In the adjacent room, which a circulation of the building will tend to bring the visitor to last, you can find sketches of Eastley’s musical automata, the likes of which you will by then have come across. They are tentative plans, half works of art, half engineering plans and cross-sections. Some of these may have been constructed, some may have worked to Eastley’s satisfaction, and some may have remained in ideal form. The sketches allow us to imagine the sounds they might make, to hear the music in our heads.

Kosugi with enhanced violin
The ground floor galleries are taken up with works by Takehisa Kosugi, alongside documentation of his artistic life. In the main room, a doubled row of photographs trails around three walls. Here he is in the late 50s, very neatly and conservatively dressed in sober suit and tie, conducting a cellist in front of a pipe organ which dominates the wall behind like the fireplace in a medieval hall. He is seen performing John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra during the composer’s influential 1964 visit to Japan. Cage is an invisible presence throughout the exhibition, his multivalent influence felt in the work of all three of the artists. In another photo, Kosugi holds his conventional instrument of choice, the violin, but is surrounded by tape reels, dials and wires, indicating that he intends to play it in a far from conventional manner. This is during a rehearsal for a performance of his landmark minimalist drone piece Catch Wave, which is eulogised in Julian Cope’s survey of Japanese rock and experimental (and experimental rock) music Japrocksampler. He places the 1974 LP recording at number 9 in his top 50 of Japanese albums.

The Taj Mahal Travellers with unusually conventional instrumentation
By the 1970s, the neat conservatoire look has been completely abandoned in favour of the wilder, long-haired freakiness he shared with his younger collaborators in the Taj Mahal Travellers. They were an improvising band who played lengthy pieces which layered microscopic sound elements produced by a wide variety of unusual percussion and string instruments and found objects as well as more familiar (but frequently distorted) tones from the likes of electric guitar, trumpet and harmonica over a droning base provided by Kosugi’s amplified violin, oscillators and short wave receivers. The organic was blended with the electronic. There were also vocal interjections into the general ebb and flow of sound, ranging from meditative chanting to vaguely unhinged babble. The Travellers are caught in performance in concert halls and more unusual settings, and also at various locations along the way during their extensive worldwide wanderings. There they are in a geodesic dome in Sweden with Don Cherry joining them for a group shot (did he also join them on stage, I wonder); they are bathing in the golden glow of the dawn rise (or sunset) during their daylong 1970 performance on Oiso Beach in Japan; walking through a street in Esfahan, Iran; standing by their VW minibus on a rocky plain spreading out towards splintered mountains, the middle of nowhere (or Afghanistan, to be more geographically precise); and finally, fulfilling the self-defining goal given by their name, posing before the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. You can follow some of their travels in the film about them made in 1973 and available over at Ubuweb here.

As we move into the 80s, Kosugi has begun to settle into sober elder statesmanship, the hippie garb discarded, and his equipment, fx boxes, turntables and wire-trailing devices now all confined to one desk. He has crossed the Pacific and is found in the company of the New York and West Coast new music aristocracy. This partly reflects his position at the time as composer in residence for the Merce Cunningham dance company. He is seen alongside Cunningham, and also David Tudor, both of whom were frequent collaborators with John Cage, and interpreters of his music. Such partnerships emphasise the importance of Cage to Kosugi. The composer’s visit to Japan in 1962 had been one of mutual recognition and validation, and proved a lasting inspiration to both Cage and the Japanese musicians whom he met. Japanese music, with its particular philosophical and cultural underpinnings, seemed to be naturally open to Cage’s theories of chance and incorporation of unconventional sound. Indeed, many of his discoveries and innovations were rooted in his fascination for Japanese culture. Different generations of experimental musicians with whom Kosugi has played are represented by David Behrman, who, with his tufts of mad scientist hair and loud paisley-patterned shirt (memorialising his roots in the 60s) seems to conform to Frank Zappa’s ideal of what the modern composer should look like; and Jim O’Rourke, the arch-collaborator and contemporary experimental and left-field rock music’s busiest man. Finally in the photographic section, there are pictures of three installations in which the sound is sourced from differently shaped objects which sprout from various parts of the galleries in which they were placed – a bulb in Spacings (1984), a ‘tree’ in Interspersions (1987), and horizontally hung tubes suspended from the walls in Streams (2001).

A similar work, Interspection (1989) can found on the wall opposite. Oscillators, piezo speakers and a powering battery are corralled within a wooden frame, splayed out like a pressed flower. The whole requires the close, craning attention you might give to a famous oil painting, but in this case in order for the ear to pick out the detail of the faint frog chirp which the circuitry emits. Two graphic scores are also framed on this wall: one in which the stave is drawn as lines of colour , encouraging a synaesthetic translation into the tonal palette and a free, intuitive interpretation of time; the other in which stave lines are punningly scored onto heavy paper, the wavy, uneven results of freeform drawing suggesting the undulant oscillations of held tones. On a table in the centre of the room you can listen to the CD Music of Group Ongaku, containing pieces made in 1960 (a recording of their debut performance in Tokyo), 1961 and 1970. This was the group centred around Kosugi and Yasunao Tone, and the record (number 40 in Cope’s Japrocksampler chart) demonstrates that many of the elements familiar from later improv music were already in place years before - Tooting toy instruments; the clatter of pans and clink of bowls; snatches of radio speech and recorded sound; jabbering and muttering voices; lurking cello pouncing into sudden scrawling motion; squiggles of saxophone skronk; floating piano chords and cat on the keys outbursts; tape manipulations and reverb auras; and the wheezing drone of a vacuum cleaner. The presence of the latter in the similar composition presented by the young composer Hermann in Edgar Reitz’s late-60s set Die Zweite Heimat suggests that the director may have been aware of this work or one of its many descendants. The debut recording, Automatism, is certainly extraordinarily confident, its unusual sounds created with an unhesitating certainty and strident confidence. You can find the album over at Ubuweb, here.

A TV shows videos of previous gallery performances. Wireless (1996) has Kosugi making amplified sound echo round the entry hall of a museum via a contact mic. This as much performance art as music, and betrays the influence of his time with the Merce Cunningham dance company. He drags a cluster of metal balls attached to the end of a belt along the floor, producing a grating, scraping rasp with occasional rhythmic bounce, and at one point twirls around in a noisy dervish dance. He plays his violin, playing on the resonance of the cavernous space and producing Bernard Herrmannesque shrieks of bird attack sound which fly into its furthest corners. He does a Nosferatu creep up the stairs and then suddenly dashes up with nimble steps, echo delayed notes forming an aural wake behind him. It is essentially a dance piece with his own music simultaneously produced as accompaniment. Elsewhere, he produces and antediluvian growl, sends the microphone his of a scouring wind blowing through the halls and corridors, and whispers into a fan, its rotation segmenting the sound and sending its tatters spiralling away.

The room at the back of the ground floor is filled with wavering blue and grey light as the surface of an ocean close to the shore is projected upon the wall. The sandy coloured floor boards on which we walk effectively becomes the sea strand. Visitors wandering in cast sharp shadows onto the shifting projection, becoming Caspar David Friedrich-like figure of Romantic contemplation, gazing out onto the endless blue. In front of his oceanic wall, several small transistor radios are hung adjacent to small transparent boxes of circuitry, each attached to long lengths of thread. They swing gently to and fro, their motion partly caused by people who have picked them up and toyed with them before letting them loose once more. They hang at just the level to tempt you to tamper, and this is presumably the intention. You discover that you can manipulate the sound which they produce by moving radio and circuit board closer together and further apart, causing the bodies to orbit each other in swooping ellipses. The radios are tuned in between stations, and the interference between the signal and the adjacent circuitry stirs up a spectral wind, whose aetheric howl adds to the feeling of Romantic isolation. This eerie sound provides the notional momentum can be thought to set the objects into swaying motion, which in its turn creates the eerie sound, which provides the momentum to set….etc. etc. etc. The pendant radios thus become an odd sort of radiophonic windchime.

The room off to the side of this installation is a sort of back entrance lobby through which the street outside can be seen, natural light entering once more after the projected flicker of the artificial, enclosed seascape. Here, in pieces entitled Pulses, we come across wires rising discretely from the ground, branching out in multi-coloured strands beneath a Perspex frame and producing small, square green circuit board ‘leaves’. These emit low, sputtering, fizzing and buzzing sounds, which become more audible if you zero in on them with an attentive ear. It is an insistent tropical rainforest chatter, a background surround sound of insect stridulation, bird cries and frictional frog rasp. This ambience forms an effective contrast to the previous room, a shift from one element to another, air and water to the canopied green light of the rainforest.

Following an arrow up the staircase to the first floor, we proceed to pass through a series of discreet, enclosed rooms which contain the sonic sculptures of Max Eastley. These appear to stir into self-activated motion, possessed of some animating spirit. Their low, half-heard scratches and sussurations create a hushed, haunted atmosphere in these empty 18th century rooms. In the first room, a loosely rolled tube of copper containing a fan motor periodically whirs into rotation, creating a percussive rattle which sounds like a sudden shower of rain pattering on the rooftop. Two pieces of blank parchment on the wall have tiny, filament-thin lengths of wire attached to a needle, which springs into action as you watch, moving minutely with insectile scrabble, according to some hidden imperative. If you listen very closely, you hear a faint scratching against the paper. It’s as if we are witnessing an act of automatic writing channelled by an invisible hand, producing no visible words. Eastley’s work can be intensely delicate and fragile, often seemingly designed for a short, mayfly lifespan. I got to the Sonic Boom sound art exhibition organised by David Toop in 2000 fairly late on in its run, by which time Eastley’s sculptures had ceased to function, remaining as a series of husks whose animating life had left them.

In the next room, a mirror hangs over a fireplace beneath which a needle hangs horizontally suspended over a small pile of iron filings, turning this way and that. This perhaps gives a hint as to the magnetic force which guides wire and needle in the previous room. This room is filled with the waveform sound of whistling, coiled spring overtones, which have no apparent origin (an example of the Sinister Resonance which David Toop explores in his recent book, perhaps). Two further doors in the room are locked, but pressing an ear against their panels, you can hear something emanating from beyond. There is stertorous breathing, a low moaning wind occasionally rising to a juddering bluster, and agitated windchimes and cowbells. It feels as if something is pacing outside, trying to force its way in. A small, discretely placed plaque towards the bottom of one of the walls reveals the origins of all of these sounds, without dampening the mysterious atmosphere. It indicates that the installation (which I suppose means the room itself) is a ‘mixed media composition with life amplification of Aeolian devices on the roof’. As David Toop, a long time friend and collaborator of Eastley’s, points out in his book Haunted Weather, he has long been fascinated by Aeolian harps, which sound the shifting currents of the wind without the intervention of any human agency. He wrote a brief history of them in 1976 in Music magazine issue 5. His sound sculptures are frequently triggered by the natural elements or by self-generated power and the noises which they produce often blend in symphony with the natural sound environment. This can be heard even without the visual element of watching the sculptures themselves in motion on the 1975 LP he shared with David Toop, New and Rediscovered Instruments (number 4 on Brian Eno’s Obscure label), the back cover of which provided diagrammatic outlines of Eastley’s instruments heard within. You can listen to the hydrophone sounding over the running water which powers it, as well as the metallaphone, the centriphone and the elastic aerophone. It can be found at Ubuweb over here. To see some actually in action, both on a windswept beach and in a studio space, take a look at episode three of Derek Bailey’s series on Improvisation, again on Ubuweb. Eastley appears after about 26 minutes.

The back cover of New and Rediscovered Instruments
Ascending the staircase once more to the second floor, we come to a series of open ended rooms dedicated to the work of Italian artist and composer Walter Marchetti. These rooms were silent (apart from the enthusiastic party of school children who piled through at one juncture). The only sound element to his works displayed here came via a pair of headphones in the first room. These played a piece with the title per la sete dell’orechio (no, haven’t a clue) which seems to be a recording of large objects being heaved into some subterranean lake (or perhaps, more prosaically, an indoor swimming pool). Watery explosions are followed by the ripples of echoing aftershocks. By a happy piece of synchronicity, you can listen to this aqueous bombardment whilst looking down into Artillery Lane below. At a stretch (of the headphone cable) you could also possibly look at the graphic score titled De Musicorum Infelicitate (2001) whilst still listening. This score consists of sheets of paper with a single-track stave running narrowly down the centre. It is almost entirely engulfed in a blizzard of dots until the final sheet, when there is nothing save a single dot (a G). From maximal chaotic complexity to minimal singular simplicity, this almost seems to represent a distracted mind calming itself down and achieving equilibrium.

Glam Piano - Marchetti's Musica da Camera no.182 (photo by Fabrizio Garghetti)
Entering the next room, you are immediately dazzled by the glare of dozens of small light bulbs which twine like a bioluminescent liana around a grand piano, and give off a sultry heat. It immediately brought to mind the extravagant glam showmanship of the likes of Liberace and Elton John, and perhaps also the showy, florid Romanticism of Liszt and Rachmaninov. The piano produces no direct sound, and indeed it couldn’t the lid being entangled in wires. But it gives off a synaesthetic sense, with its intense emanation of light and heat, that it might easily start to sing. Another unplayable piano is to be found in the next room, this one sculpted from a significant quantity of bog rolls (for those not conversant Southern English slang which is redundant anyway, that’s rolls of toilet paper). It shows the influence of the Fluxus movement on Marchetti, who produced his own variants on their happenings and provocations in 60s Spain (the Spain of Franco, in other words) with his ZAJ group. There are several photos and artefacts on display from this era. As which much of the Fluxus group work, it’s difficult to see the point of it beyond the creation of momentary startlement or the prompting of a couple of snorts of laughter. If you care about what it’s presumably making a gesture towards ‘subverting’ then perhaps it makes a greater impact, just as the pranksterish antics of the happenings might have had some shock value for those expecting their dose of high culture. Otherwise, it’s a lot of effort for such a one note joke.

Prepared piano - more keyboard art
On the wall is a rather more diverting work, Le Secche dell Tempo (the dryness of time? Don’t take my word for it). This echoes Max Eastley’s use of butterflies in a graphic score. Here there are many of them hovering incongruously over a map of an Antarctic peninsula, an environment in which they would immediately perish. They are connected by geometrically patterned networks of lines which create a grid spanning the white spaces of the map. The implied music was probably only ever meant to be played out in the head. Randomly fluttering and rigorously ordered, warmly coloured and monotonously cold at the same time, I suppose. Full of the same contradictions as the artist and his work, in other words.

There’s one more flight of stairs to climb, taking us to a small attic room on the top floor. Here chaos reigns, and the confined space throbs with a teeming cacophony. This is a room full of everything all the time at once. It is the Resonance Open, organised by Resonance FM, the experimental radio station which is broadcasting from the exhibition throughout its run. Younger and more established artists all contribute to the mad jumble, creating an attic full of the forgotten flotsam of life which has fused and spliced itself together into strange new forms. An old tape machine has melted in some intense heat, the plastic flowing into an amorphous, fluid form which looks like it belongs in a David Cronenberg film, and invites you to imagine what deformed, gelatinous sounds it might produce. Similarly, a fused cluster of old mobile phones hangs on the opposite wall, a techno-echinoderm hybrid from some nightmarish Lovecraftian rock pool. Johnny Trunk’s LP release The MMs Bar Recordings, made by Sandra Cross, consisting of announcements broadcasting the enticements of the buffet car on the London to Leicester train, revolves soundlessly on an old Dansette style turntable. Filament light tubes tumble out of the fireplace as if they have just wormed their way down the chimney. Another turntable is presided over by a small tutelary statue of the Buddha, who looks on as a blade, replacing the needle, incises a groove into a Perspex disc. The whole sits on an old cabinet, whose panels have been replaced by opaque Perspex onto which coloured patterns are projected from within. It’s a practical combination of DIY jukebox, disco and instant Buddhist prayer wheel.

Back down the stairs, you exit via the soundproofed booth from which Resonance is broadcasting. In the room facing it, three musicians were producing a playful racket from the varied detritus of discarded technology which cluttered their desks, bringing the everything all the time spirit of the Resonance Open attic into a live collision. Grubby Furbies who’d clearly seen it all looked on, heavy lidded eyes occasionally drooping shut with worldweary resignation. One chap felt compelled to climb onto his desk, the better to wrestle with the chunky sampler from which he was attempting to wrangle squeal and thumps of electronic noise. For an exhibition which had offered soundless works of sound art, and other sounds which only revealed themselves at close range, it was a bracing contrast to leave with such a squall of distressed blare ringing in the ears. Further broadcasts from Raven Row can be heard from Wednesday to Saturday on Resonance, between 12-5 in the afternoon. The exhibition runs until 17th July, and is well worth seeing – and hearing.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Peter Falk and John Cassavetes

Obituaries of Peter Falk have inevitably focussed on Columbo, and rightly so. He’s one of the greatest and most enduring TV characters of the 70s. His universal appeal is recognised in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, in which a group of Berliners see Falk (who plays a version of himself) walking across a patch of waste ground and call out ‘hey, Columbo’. But Falk also enjoyed a close and lasting personal and artistic relationship with the actor and director John Cassavetes, with whom he gave some of his most intense and revealing performances, and who drew forth (sometimes in the face of resistance) some of his finest acting.

Falk and Cassavetes met in 1967 at a baseball game (the LA Lakers, not that this means anything to me) during a half time break, as Falk got up to get a hot-dog. Both men new and admired each other’s work, and both had projects which they wanted to interest the other in. Falk had a script by Elaine May called Mikey and Nicky, which he was very enthusiastic about and thought would be perfect for Cassavetes. Cassavetes had the germ of an idea for a film called Husbands, and thought Falk would be ideal for one of the three male characters about whom the story centres. Cassavetes’ agreed to appear in Mikey and Nicky with such impulsive alacrity that Falk thought he was putting him on. When Falk tried to give him more details of plot and characterisation in order to sell the script to him, Cassavetes got animated and insisted that it was enough that he knew that May could write and Falk could act; anything else was just Hollywood business talk, which he was keen to avoid. It was an initial misunderstanding which characterised the tenor of their relationship – the one goading and wildly instinctive, the other cautious and prone to pontification. It was a meeting of opposites which somehow, against all odds (and sometimes against what Falk thought were his better judgements) worked.

The making of Husbands involved its three stars, Cassavetes, Falk and Ben Gazzara, getting to know each other intimately. In playing close friends on screen, they became close and lifelong friends in reality. The film shows how these three characters cope with the early death of another close friend by refusing to go home and going on a wild bender which starts in New York and ends up in London. Their boorish and overbearing behaviour is an instinctive expression of emotions which they can feel but can’t articulate. In the face of death, they try to demonstrate to one another that they are still alive and vital, and that their lives still mean something. Cassavetes had numerous meetings with Gazzara and Falk during which they would talk about their characters and what they would do and say. He wanted them all to bring something of themselves to the role, not necessarily in an autobiographical sense, but in order to reach something which they would personally recognise as true and honest. The results of these sessions would make their way into the scripts which Cassavetes was constantly refining, revising and adding to. The film wasn’t improvised in the shooting, but it had been improvised (probably more so than any other of his films) in the writing, which was a genuinely collaborative process. The personal nature of the film, and of the actors’ part in it was reflected in the fact that the characters’ names were originally simply John, Peter and Ben. When Falk and Gazzara suggested that a certain distance would be advisable, Cassavetes suggested they all choose the names they thought appropriate for their characters. He chose Gus for himself, Gazzara went for Harry and Falk Archie. As Falk recalled it, Cassavetes questioned his choice, at which point he pointed out that this was hardly demonstrating the freedom to create their characters from their own feelings which he had promised them. So Archie he was.

All for one - Archie, Gus and Harry in Husbands
The film has never been one which has found wide favour (and was only recently released on dvd), certainly not to the same degree as Faces or A Woman Under the Influence. Perhaps this is because the characters are not immediately sympathetic. We catch them at a painful and transitional point in their lives, and their reactions to their friend’s death is errant and desperate. As they draw closer together, their relationship with the wider world becomes more combative as they try to force some meaning from it. This is particularly evident in the mammoth drinking session during which they encourage people to sing songs which have some personal significance for them (they are evidently getting the rounds in to create a sense of instant camaraderie). They focus on one particular woman, a little more proper and reserved than the rest, and harry and bully her for the ‘inauthenticity’ of her performance of ‘it was just a little love affair. Falk eventually tries to goad a performance satisfactory to the three friends from the poor, bewildered stranger by promising to take off his clothes, which he proceeds to do, yelling ‘here they come baby’. The unfortunate woman who is the subject of his odd form of encouragement could be seen to stand in for Falk himself, who was unhappy with Cassavetes’ particular way of trying to coax performances out of his actors, often through elliptical suggestions, wild gestures or deliberate needling, but seldom through direct instruction. He wanted the actors to discover the core of their character for themselves, and the way in which they would therefore behave. Falk on the other hand wanted to be told the nature of his character and the way in which the director wanted him to play each scene. He initially felt that Cassavetes was leaving him in the dark and occasionally even deliberately misleading him. In Marshall Fine’s biography of Cassavetes, Accidental Genius, Falk says ‘in some ways, he deliberately tried to keep you off-balance, so you wouldn’t bring out old-fashioned technique and old ideas. But it was impossible. I didn’t understand him. I wanted to strangle him. I had no idea what Husbands was about. After it, I told him, “I’ll work with you as an actor, but not as a director”’. He would end up doing both.

The morning after - Husbands
The drinking scene is followed in the natural course of things by another which also received a great deal of criticism at the time. In this one, Gus and Archie lengthily and loudly throw up in the bathroom. This is a kind of emetic throwing up of emotions, violently and bodily brought to the surface. It takes place in the claustrophobic, black walled confines of toilet cubicles – a kind of literalised dark interior in which the black-suited friends crouch and huddle. In the way of close circles of friends, Harry becomes the third man in this scenario, feeling excluded from Archie and Gus’ intimacies (he is literally shut out from the toilet cubicle, against whose door he insistently hammers). He sadly reflects on how he can’t even vomit, as if this is an emotional failing on his part. Harry is in fact the one most prone to violent mood swings, allowing the intense quality of Gazzara’s acting full expression. Falk’s Archie is bewildered and slightly lost throughout, perhaps reflecting the actor’s discomfort with Cassavetes’ working methods. But this in itself leads to a touching and authentic portrayal of a man out of his depth, drawn into a series of events and encounters for which he is ill-equipped. When the three make their way to London they decide to pick up three women to bring back to their adjacent hotel rooms. Archie, who we witness making two exquisitely embarrassing failed pick-up attempts, ends up with a young Asian woman who seemingly speaks no English. In an awkward scene of non-communication, shot in the kind of extreme close-up which Cassavetes favoured, in which every flicker of reaction would be captured, her muteness forces Archie into self-revealing babble, beginning with softly crooned songs and ending with pleas for her to say anything, in whatever language. An innate reserve and hesitancy in Falk comes through here, and adds a touching air of bewilderment to Archie’s character. He simply isn’t bastard enough to carry through his seduction on an unwilling participant. He requires some tenderness. When she does respond, he recoils, and voices his confusion with reactive aggression. Again, this doesn’t make us feel very sympathetically towards his character, but it does display a kind of honesty.

Peter, John and Ben really did become the best of friends whilst making Husbands, and when the filming ended, there was a genuine sense of sadness. The emotions on display in the final scene in London, with Gus and Archie saying goodbye to Harry, who tries to disguise his distraught feelings with a rendition of Dancing in the Dark (songs always play an important part in Cassavetes films), are genuine. They did quite a few promotional shows around the film’s release, partly in order to extend the feeling of closeness and newly discovered intimacy which they had taken from the shoot. The Dick Cavett show, which you can find on You Tube here, here and here, set the tone, with the three friends conspiring to put their host on and essentially behaving as extensions of Gus, Harry and Archie. Falk makes the distinction between real sentiment and sentimentality, asserting that Husbands is full of the kind of emotions which are not contrived but genuine. Evidently, despite his reservations about Cassavetes’ directorial style, he was proud of the work which they had produced together.

Testing friendships - Mikey and Nicky
Cassavetes was as good as his word when it came to Mikey and Nicky, too, which he made with Falk under Elaine May’s directorship in 1973, although a torturous post-production process meant that it wasn’t released until 1976. Ostensibly a gangster picture in which Cassavetes’ small time hood Nicky awaits the inevitable hit after he has stolen a considerable pile of mob loot, it is really a study of an old friendship, upon which time, accumulated grudges and harboured slights have taken their toll. Falk’s Mikey accompanies Nicky on a night journey through the city. Nicky soon sees through his offers of help, realising that he is there to usher him in to the sights of the hitman, and that his small betrayals and bullying inconsideration have led to this one grand betrayal on Mikey’s part. Mikey apparently prevents Nicky from committing suicide at the outset of the film, and there’s a sense that Nicky has no real intention of escaping his fate. He leads Mikey on an antic dance through the dark, however, making it as difficult as possible for him to carry out his duty. The roles were once again perfectly suited for Cassavetes and Falk, and you get the sense that they reflected something of their own friendship. Cassavetes the extrovert, never afraid to cause a scene in public and intent on pushing people into giving their all, into being authentic in whatever they were doing. Falk more methodical, hesitant and thoughtful, putting up with his friend’s wild and sometimes overbearing expressiveness with a long-suffering tolerance, with the occasional exasperated outburst.

Male aggression - Nick and Mabel
Falk worked again with Cassavetes the director on what many consider to be his masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence. Whilst this is rightly seen as Gena Rowlands’ film, with her character Mabel its principal focus, Falk’s character Nick (Mabel’s husband) is also central. Nick is one of the ordinary Joes which Falk was so adept at playing. His loyalties are divided between the guys, the hostility of his strong-willed mother towards his wife, and Mabel herself, who he genuinely loves. There is an underlying element of class conflict here, too, with Mabel, a lover of opera and ballet, seeming to come from a rather different background than Nick’s Italian American working origins. Perhaps this reflected the divergent backgrounds of John and Gena, who grew up in relative poverty and affluence, and who had married some years previously in 1954 (family members of all generations and from both sides tend to turn up in small roles in Cassavetes’ pictures). Whilst the film is framed around Mabel’s ‘madness’, Nick also behaves erratically. Again, he plays a character which may draw on his own personality and disease with Cassavetes’ methods. Nick can’t cope with Mabel’s spontaneity and eccentric means of self-expression, her attempts to break through the stultifying expectations of housewifely behaviour and respectable propriety. When Mabel tries to get Nick’s work colleagues to express themselves in another Cassavetes communal singing session, Nick decides that she has taken things too far and shouts at her to ‘get your ass down’ (ie sit down). At other times he yells at her ‘you don’t move’, ‘shut up’ and, most hurtfully, ‘I don’t know who you are’. In the central breakdown scene, the mental disintegration is on Nick’s part as much as it is Mabel’s.

Gena Rowland’s performance in this scene (which Cassavetes characteristically allows to run its course, not allowing the audience the convenience and contrived release found through cutting at the point of emotional crescendo) is a bravura piece of acting, with absolutely nothing held back. For some viewers it might seem a little overdemonstrative. Not for me, though. It’s one of my favourite performances from one of my favourite actresses. Rowlands is so fearless and committed that the film is sometimes uncomfortable to watch but is at the same time an exhilarating and emotionally intense experience. Her portrayal of Mabel is magnetically compelling making it impossible for the audience, or for that matter Nick, to turn away. Falk matches Rowlands, however, with Nick exploding into sudden anger but also displaying real tenderness and bewildered hurt. It’s partly a reactive role, but no less impressive for all that. The comparison between Nick’s loss of control and Mabel’s is made by Peter and Gena’s duet. Nick’s explosive outbursts are considered an acceptable male expression of violent emotion, but Mabel’s struggle to express similarly intense feelings don’t have such an easy outlet, and her mental contortions in trying to deal with them are simply regarded as madness, with no attempts at understanding. Nick is another character who doesn’t invite easy sympathy. His efforts at a parental outing whilst Mabel is away in the hospital is abrupt and motivated by aggressively followed-through confusion. His feeding of his children with beer on the way back home in an effort to get them to sleep is certainly as bad as any of Mabel’s eccentric child-rearing methods.

Peter and Gena - A Woman Under the Influence
But Nick, for all the violence of his attempts to confine Mabel within his own narrowly constructed worldview, shows evident love for her. He just repeatedly does the wrong thing throughout, partly in his attempts to conform to some idea of social respectability and correct behaviour (perhaps even more important at this working class level of American society). Nick and Mabel have very little time together throughout the film. There is always someone else there (often invited by Nick) to intrude upon their intimacy. The sympathy which we do have for Nick is in no small part due to Falk’s nuanced performance, and suggests that A Woman Under the Influence isn’t quite the feminist picture which have some claimed it to be. We are invited to see things from his perspective as well as from Mabel’s, even though this is a man who strikes his wife and shouts her into submission on several occasions. Cassavetes couples are often combative, each tending to give as good as they get. The final scene finds Nick and Mabel alone together at last, working together to clear the mess of the party which Nick has just dismissed, their quiet comfort in each other’s presence as they prepare to go upstairs to bed a sign of hope for the future. Nick has realised his mistake, and pleaded for the old ‘mad’ Mabel to come back to him, for her to ‘just be herself’ again. The film, in the end, is as much about his development, his rejection of convention and conformity, and embrace of individuality. In the end, he realises, it is Nick and Mabel (and the children), and nothing else matters.

Cassavetes tailored films for his friends, giving them the starring roles which allowed them room to express themselves to their fullest. A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night were Gena’s films, Minnie and Moskowitz was partly Seymour Cassel’s, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was Ben Gazzara’s. Falk never got such a film, perhaps because he wouldn’t have been entirely happy with being at the centre of one of Cassavetes’ directorial efforts. But he did take centre stage in Knives, the last of Cassavetes’ Three Plays of Love and Hate, co-written with Ted Allan and staged in 1981. Knives was the only one scripted solely by Cassavetes, who obviously wanted to write something specifically for Falk. This was part intense psychodrama, part comedy and part absurdist ‘what’s it all about’ fable. Falk was on stage throughout, necessarily so since much of the action may be emanating from within his character’s head. It was an intense and rewarding role and was a huge success during its limited run. There was an offer of a transfer to New York, but neither Cassavetes nor Falk really had the time nor inclination to pursue it further. They had done it for love rather than money.

Peter and John - Mikey and Nicky
Falk worked with Cassavetes one more time on the 1986 film titled, with grimly appropriate irony, Big Trouble. The writer and director had walked off and abandoned the project, and Falk had suggested that Cassavetes could come in and complete it. He did so, partly as a favour to his friend, but certainly with no great enthusiasm for the strained comedy material. He fulfilled his duties and the film was finally taken off his hands at the editing stage. Some said that his initial cut was a lot funnier. It didn’t really matter; he effectively washed his hands of it, and it’s not generally considered as part of his oeuvre. As he said to his friend and long-term producer Al Ruban, ‘God, I don’t want this to be my last picture so I’ll be known for this piece of shit’. He was obviously aware of his mortality, his deteriorating health, and sadly, it was indeed to be his last picture. He died a couple of years after it made a desultory appearance in a few cinemas and was almost instantly forgotten. Falk, alongside Ben Gazzara, remained a staunch advocate of Cassavetes’ work throughout, never failing to talk about it with admiration tempered with the honesty of true friendship. They both brought out the best in each other.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Eliane Radigue: Trilogie de la Mort at St Stephen's Walbrook

Eliane Radigue has recently been honoured with a two week festival of her music under the banner Triptych (the title of a 1978 piece not actually included in the programme). Recent compositions for acoustic instruments, including a world premiere of the solo harp piece Occam 1 performed by Rhodri Davies, and collaborative efforts with laptop group The Lappetites (Kaffe Matthews, Antye Greie and Ryoko Ahama) were performed beneath the imposing spire of Hawksmoor’s Spitalfields church. The bulk of Radigue’s music, stretching from the late 60s up until the early years of the 21st century has been electronic in nature, however. Dense, slowly shifting drone pieces painstakingly constructed from accreted tones and frequencies, mainly emanating from her beloved ARP 2500 synthesiser. Radigue ditched the keyboard which came with this instrument and worked directly with the waveforms produced by the machine, adjusting and filtering them from the sound board. She worked with sound rather than harmony or melody as the basis for musical development. Her pieces, by their very nature, take their own time. The listener has to enter into the fundamental grain and texture of the sound, and allow her or himself to be carried along by its tidal ebb and flow. Like the late works of Morton Feldman, the necessity for extended concentration, or even for simply setting aside sufficient time to experience the music as a whole (because there’s little point in just sampling it) runs counter to the prevailing culture of instant access, attention-diverting ephemera and the bombardment of the senses with overloading stimuli.

The electronic works were played in the church of St Stephen’s Walbrook, situated in one of the roads radiating from the busy hub arranged around the focal point of the Bank of England. It was one of the City churches designed and built by Christopher Wren after the fire of London, and its interior has long been considered a masterpiece of baroque architecture. We went to the first three concerts in the series in which the separate sections of the Trilogie de la Mort (composed between 1988 and 1993) were played on successive nights. This triptych (an appropriate descriptive term for such sacred music) reflects Radigue’s immersion in Tibetan Buddhism. This religious faith could be said to have grown out of the music rather than vice versa; sound showing the path to enlightenment (or perhaps being the path in itself, the fundamental vibration). Looking around the church before the first night’s performance, I noticed a memorial plaque set on one of the pillars for one Johannes Lilburn. The inscription read Ciyis et Grocer Loninensis, Qui ex Isabella, Uxore. My knowledge of Latin is microscopic, but I understand that uxore means wife. Above the inscription is a small memento mori carving, a skeletal death leading a young woman in a danse macabre. It acts as an appropriate motif for this trilogy, which has moments of great darkness but also reaches transcendent and luminous heights. The seats in the church are set in a circle around the space beneath Wren’s overarching dome (a model for St Paul’s grander example, constructed shortly thereafter), the point to which the geometry of the building leads. Placed in the middle of this circle is the marble mass of Henry Moore’s smoothly rounded altar. Its shallow, hollowed-out declivities look like the thumbprints of some mighty, moulding hand for which this huge chunk of marble is as malleable as clay. It provides a good object of contemplation for the duration of the music, the church’s architecture offering many more. Having said which, I spent almost the entirety of the first night’s performance with eyes closed.

The first piece of the trilogy is entitled Kyema, and subtitled Intermediate States. It draws from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, representing the six states which it outlines: Kyene (birth), Milam (dream), Samtem (contemplation, meditation), Chikai (death), Chonye (clear light) and Sippai (crossing and return). I can’t pretend to have distinguished these states in my listening experience. But as with the polyphonic choral music of the Renaissance, it’s not necessary to have an extensive grounding in the particular religious faith which inspired the music. As we were approaching the church, we passed gathered TV cameras pointed at immaculately attired men and women entering Mansion House, situated adjacent. I later discovered that this was the evening that Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were giving major speeches on the state of and prospects for the economy. I like to think that the soundwaves of Kyema somehow passed through the stones joining the buildings and made a subconscious sonic impact, introducing a more fundamental sense of reality to the occasion, creating a nagging sense that such financial concerns were mere transient phantoms.

Kyema is a dark piece, beginning with throbbing bass pulsations whose waveforms interact to form expanding and contracting ‘beats’, which create a driving, insistent sense of forward motion. The listener is carried along with this motion, as if drawn through some immaterial void by a heavy, irresistible gravitic force. Higher pitches splinter off to hint at hovering overtone phrases (fellow spirits on the journey?) In the middle of the piece, a swarm of sound gradually builds up, with hints of a swelling chorus of voices and traces of orchestral music heard as if from a distance; a memory or presentiment of the material world. It sounds like it might be a loop of Ravel’s Bolero, which would be an appropriate choice, symbolic of the repetitive round of rebirth. The actual material world provided its own occasional extraneous intrusions throughout this and consequent concerts, with the explosive tumble and smash of a bottle bank being emptied, the dopplered shift of sirens passing, and the repetitive sampled voice mechanically warning ‘this vehicle is reversing’ all adding their distinctive sounds. In the context of Kyema, with its distanced intimations of the world left behind (and approached once more) these seemed strangely appropriate. Such everpresent urban noise brought to mind Steve Reich’s City Life, with its samples of car alarms and aggressive, hectoring voices deliberately incorporated into the composition.

The swarm of sound expands and gains in mass. It’s not so much that it gets louder, more that it increases in density. This reaches a state where it begins to seem threatening in an almost bodily sense. It’s as if it could overwhelm and subsume your being in a forceful and destructive rather than blissfully transcendent manner. It reminds me of a sequence from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Syndromes and A Century, which is also informed by a Buddhist sensibility. The camera, having roamed through a depopulated hospital basement, slowly approaches the mouth of an extractor fan at the end of a snaking tube, which, as we are drawn nearer, comes more and more to resemble a sucking gaping maw. It appears as the dark entrance to a devouring void, emitting a low, throbbing thrum of menacing noise. Just as the swarm of sound reaches a frightening crescendo, it begins to subside once more, as if we are travelling away from a powerful locus which has almost drawn us in. Once the noise has diminished entirely, we are left with the underlying tones of the drone, the base sound, the eternal ground. The piece begins to build up again as singular, spaced out molecules of sound are dropped into this ground. Their tone resembles that of a marimba. It’s rather akin to the beginning of the second section of Steve Reich’s Drumming, but much more stretched out. It’s a woody, organic sound, and its slow, regular drip reminded me of the drum steadily marking out the years in Arvo Part’s Sarah Was 90 Years Old until the miraculous annunciation of an ‘impossible’ birth. Here, too, the growth of sound from such simple, singular beginnings suggests rebirth, the ‘cross and return’ of the final Sippai section.

The piece fades away incrementally and the audience was left sitting in silence at the end, straining to hear sounds which has ceased being broadcast through the speakers some moments before, but which perhaps continued to resonate around the dome, either of the church or the individual’s skull. I believe it was the man behind the mixing desk who initiated the applause. He was probably the only one who could know for sure that it was all over. Eliane herself emerged to acknowledge the audience’s warm appreciation, and circled around to make sure that everyone received her thanks. She also dragged out the reluctant sound man to receive his due, and as she was retreating, playfully peeked out (from the perspective of where we were sitting) from behind Moore’s altar and gave a final cheerful wave. The composer of the intensely serious piece we’d just heard, she exuded a delightfully informal and approachable air, entirely at odds with the aloof formality of the classical world.

Eliane Radigue at home with her ARP
The next evening’s concert, the second part of the Trilogie, was Kailasha, which is described in the accompanying programme notes as depicting ‘an imaginary journey around the most sacred of the Himalayan mountains – Mount Kailasha – considered as a path to other spheres of existence’. I hadn’t read this before listening to the performance, but as the overtones began to spark off and ascend as if drifting on slowly spiralling updrafts, I found my gaze drawn upward to the dome, where it ended up focussed on a plaster relief of a rose within a rectangular border. This piece is far more pacific that Kyema. It begins with slow swells of deep sound, as opposed to Kyema’s insisting, pulsating throb. There is no great variance in pitch; as the wavelength remains fairly static, so does the frequency. There is a steady progression skyward, however, and the singing harmonics and overtones breathe of a rarefied air, pure and clear, in which the spirit can effortlessly soar. The fellow who introduced the concerts told us that the nature of the sounds in this piece were such that our perception of them would alter as we made slight changes to the direction of our hearing, moving our heads from side to side. This was indeed the case , and this spatial element to the sound approximated to the sense of travelling around a central object. The Moore altar perhaps stood in for a scaled down analogue of Mount Kailasha in this instance. This is music of heavenly calm and sublime order – the music of the spheres. It really surprised me to read in an interview with Radigue published in the October 2005 issue of The Wire magazine that she experienced it in an entirely antithetical way. She felt it was ‘heavy, brutal and very difficult’, and ‘not something I can listen to for long’. I could certainly understand if it was Kyema she was talking about, which does indeed have that heavy and brutal feeling. Nevertheless, Eliane was once more in attendance to hear the piece.

Focus for contemplation - Wren's dome
She wasn’t there for the final part of the Trilogie, unfortunately, having caught a slight cold and no doubt considered it unwise to venture out into the teeming rain. Koume, as the third piece is called, seems to blend elements of its two predecessors. The drones are drawn out and calm, but like Kyema, they have a central section in which sound accumulates and builds up a considerable mass. The sound of horns, is introduced and they appear to multiply, expanding and gradually filling the space. There is no sense of menace on this occasion however. The sound resembles that of the long alpine horns of Tibetan ritual. The joyfully cacophonous noise which they make reminded me of the ecstatic free jazz communions of John Coltrane’s Ascension, Sun Ra’s The Magic City, or ensemble passages from Albert Ayler or Pharoah Sanders LPs. The connection between free jazz and Tibetan sacred music has indeed been explicitly made in recordings by trumpeter Jim Dvorak with his group the Bardo State Orchestra. Indeed, he collaborated with monks from a Tibetan monastery on the 1995 LP Wheels Within Wheels.

Earlier in the piece, during the drone section, a scratch of static had sounded. I feared this might be an indication that the speakers were beginning to give up the ghost. But this static ‘scratch’ was reintroduced and repeated during the ‘horn’ section, and seemed to act as an aural tear in the sonic fabric, allowing a swelling chorus of low chanting voices to come through and make their contribution to the multiform melismatic blare. This really was the sound of thousands of monks chanting on a mountaintop which John Lennon had envisaged as the backing for Tomorrow Never Knows (originally known as The Void). Ian Macdonald is very good on the misapprehension of Tibetan Buddhism and The Book of the Dead in particular at the time in his analysis of the song in Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties. Eventually, this sound too dies away, leaving us with the humming, slowly shifting drone once more. This plays out until the end, elements being subtracted and filtered out until we are left with just one pure tone. Again, late 60s and early 70s rock, with its mystical inclinations, springs to mind. Pete Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse project left a driftwood scatter of songs which washed up on various Who LPs. One of them was Pure and Easy, which attempted to articulate the notion, central to Lifehouse, of the ‘one note’. As the first verse puts it, ‘there once was a note, pure and easy/Playing so free, like a breath rippling by./The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me/Forever we blend and forever we die’. Where Lennon and Townshend were ultimately unable wholly to realise their visions, which they had tentatively intuited and instinctively worked towards (Townshend sometimes incorporating an ARP synthesiser into his explorations), Radigue’s more intensive and focussed (although no less intuitive and improvisatory) approach gave such nebulous concepts apprehensible form. She managed to make the ineffable audible.

And in the form of the sonic bed installations which are also part of the Triptych festival, physically tangible, too. There are two such beds available for the weary sonic explorer to rest the bones on, both of them created by Kaffe Matthews, Radigue’s collaborator in the Lappetites laptop quartet. One is a little off the beaten track in Brentford, and plays the 1973 piece Transamorem – Transmortem. The one which we experienced was installed in the Rich Mix Gallery in Shoreditch (just across the road from the Shoreditch High Street Overground station). The bed is housed in an elevated wooden box-like stucture reached by two steps. Once you have climbed up and laid down, you hear the music wafting around you through speakers spaced around your prone form. You can also feel it moving through speakers embedded beneath. The Rich Mix bed was playing Radigue’s early tape loop and feedback piece Omnht from 1970. Waves of low bass tones periodically pulsed beneath, rising from the foot of the bed to its head and sending vibrations up the spine and through the fingers (I’d layed my hands flat on the bed’s surface). It was a strangely addictive experience; luckily no-one else turned up whilst we were there, or I might have been reluctant to make way. The installation was unfortunately situated in an open basement beneath an arts centre café, so, as with the concerts, extraneous sounds did intrude. In this case, Radigue’s washes of sound were mixed in with coffee machine clutter and amplified crisp packet rustle. But it didn’t really matter. We both came out refreshed from our sonic bath. It’s an idea which deserves a permanent home, perhaps an ensuite room attached to the Civic Recovery Centre (another contemplative sonic environment) proposed by Brian Eno and included as part of the 2000 Sonic Boom sound art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. It’s just the sort of thing which Sound and Music, the organisation behind the Radigue festival, might come up with. Sadly, it’s Arts Council grant has just been significantly cut. It looks like we’ll have to make the most of these imaginative and exploratory events whilst we may. The festival continues at St Stephen’s until the 25th June, when it all ends with the shimmeringly beautiful L’Ile Re-Sonante.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Gunnar Fischer

Gunnar Fischer, who died on 11th June at the age of 101, was the first of Ingmar Bergman’s great cinematographic collaborators, and was instrumental in creating the beautiful black and white photography which distinguishes the best films from the first half of his career. He made 12 pictures with the Swedish director, beginning in atypical style with Port of Call in 1948. This was Bergman’s attempt at a film in the neo-realist style of Rossellini and de Sica, although his interest in the interior worlds of his characters and preference for shooting in the studio meant that the result showed more affinity with the poetical realism of Marcel Carne’s collaborations with Jacques Prevert and Jean Gabin, Le Jour se Leve and Quai des Brumes. Fischer assisted Bergman during the fairly lengthy period in which he searched for a distinctive style. Port of Call wasn’t a film which in any way went towards defining it, but it is an interesting side-step. The scenes shot on the docks of Gothenberg allowed Fischer to demonstrate his ability to depict a realistic milieu with a clear-eyed sense of the character and atmosphere of place.

The iconic scene - The Dance with Death from The Seventh Seal
Bergman had in fact wanted Fischer as his cameraman right from the start. He had begun shooting on the aptly named Crisis, Bergman’s debut film, in 1946, but after initial test reels had been shot, the studio had him replaced with a more well-established cinematographer. The two had met at the Svensk Filmindustri Studios, at which Bergman had just arrived. As Bergman put it in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, ‘we were contemporaries, enthusiastic, and we got on well together’. Bergman’s slow developmental progress as a film-maker continued, with Fischer adapting to his needs, with Three Strange Loves in 1949, and To Joy and This Can’t Happen Here in 1950. The latter was a relatively big budget studio affair which Bergman reluctantly took on. It was a spy thriller, very uncharacteristic material for him, and he felt no connection with it whatsoever. He describes the experience of making it with typically melodramatic language in Images: My Life in Film as being ‘complete torture from beginning to end’. It is one of only two of his many films which he claimed to view with shame. The other is the film he made in America in 1971, The Touch. Perhaps it is significant that both of these were films shot in English (at least It Can’t Happen Here was shot in separate Swedish and English versions) and thus designed to reach a wider audience. Bergman was always more comfortable on home territory. Fischer too only made the occasional foray into foreign filming. Fischer’s professionalism helped see him through the traumatic making of This Can’t Happen Here, and was also valuable in shooting the five commercials which Bergman made for Unilever. He seems to have been more cheerful about these ads for the new ‘Bris’ (or breeze) deodorant soap, for which he was able to insist on complete creative control. This included the power to choose his own crew, and Fischer was unhesitatingly appointed cameraman. Bergman described the ads as being ‘miniature films in the spirit of Georges Melies’, and they gave Fischer further scope for expanding his technical range and indulging in pastiches of earlier styles.

Pagan sensuality - Harriet Andersson in Summer With Monika
The film which really marked a breakthrough, and which can perhaps be seen as the first wholly characteristic Bergman film was Summer Interlude, made in 1951. As Bergman himself put it, it was ‘my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all my own, with a particular appearance of its own, which no one could ape’. Of course, Fischer contributed enormously to the creation of this ‘particular appearance’. He depicts a dualistic world composed of shadows and light and divided both in terms of geography and time (the time of life and the time of the season). These were dualities which would be further explored in Summer With Monika in 1953, another of the key films of Bergman’s early period. In both, Fischer captures the evanescent quality of the light as it plays on the clear waters surrounding the islets and isthmuses of the Stockholm Archipelago; the summer glint and dazzle on the waves and the rippled reflections they cast on dreamy interiors, giving them an enchanted subaquatic feel. In Summer With Monika, Monika wakes on the first morning moored in the archipelago to gaze up at the wavering water shadows on the roof of the boat, which are in turn cast down onto her face, illuminating a moment of pure happiness. Fischer was a master at painting such impressionistic cinematic pictures, and there are many to be found in the summer scenes of nature in Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika. He manages to bring a heightened intensity to his depictions of the brief Swedish Summer, lending it the power to embody the transitory nature of youth, love, happiness and life with which Bergman symbolically invests it. This is beautifully expressed in the scene in which Harriet Andersson’s Monika tiptoes nakedly across smooth rocks towards a rock pool, her outline blurred against the sun-flecked glaze of the ocean. It’s a moment of almost pagan sensuality, water, light, rock and flesh all indelibly felt, and it’s one to which Lars Ekborg’s hapless non-hero Harry will return in memory when things take a sour turn later on.

Enchanted summer nights - Summer With Monika
Fischer’s camerawork in the archipelago scenes of Summer With Monika serve to demonstrate his versatility and ability to adapt to unpredictable circumstances and the limitations imposed by available equipment. The budget was minimal and he only had a silent camera to work with. This may have been partly to his advantage, as it allowed him to be more mobile and flexible as to where he could go to shoot. Filming around the changing moods of the Swedish weather, a large degree of improvisation was required. The rather neurasthenic Bergman would normally be driven to despair by such lack of control, but Fischer was able to provide the supportive assurance of his reliable and steadfast professionalism and improvisatory nous, which allowed the moment to be calmly seized as required. As a result, Bergman was able to declare that ‘making Summer With Monika was a lot of fun’, and he didn’t even mind when they had to return to reshoot some of the archipelago footage. He voiced similarly pleasant memories of his time making Summer Interlude.

Meeting death on the road - Summer Interlude
The sun-filled scenes of watery, oceanic bliss are contrasted with the dark and oppressive atmosphere with which Fischer imbues the Stockholm scenes. In Summer With Monika, these seem to draw on film noir in the intensity and extent of the shadows in the alleyways, stairwells and streets. The city is made to seem dark and forbidding, the interiors ill-lit and claustrophobic. There is something of an air of the late 50s and early 60s English kitchen-sink dramas about these poor urban settings. Summer Interlude, with its theatrical backdrop, is rather more expressionistic in style, anticipating a significant aspect of the visual look of Bergman’s work. This is particularly evident in the dressing room scenes, with the exaggerated features of ballet make-up seen close-to giving a rationale for such an overemphasised look. The ballet setting inevitably brings to mind Powell and Pressburger and The Red Shoes. Fischer doesn’t give us a performer’s eye view of the performance, with expressionist projections of psychological interiority, as Powell does. He holds back, viewing the choreography as a whole from low or slightly elevated angles. The ballerinas themselves seem to be lit from within, glowing with the illumination of artistic dedication, hard work and passion. The sinister, lurking presence in the dressing room of the raptor-nosed, arch-eyebrowed man in black brings the evil sorceror of Swan Lake, von Rothbart, backstage, seemingly still in character. He is one of the death-like figures which haunt Bergman’s work (the archetype reaching its apogee in The Seventh Seal, of course, in which the death-like figure actually is death). Another manifestation is the old crone who crosses in front of the ballerina Marie (played by Maj-Britt Nilsson, an actress who never quite made into Bergman’s regular repertory company) as she makes her way along the old summer path to the chalet where she spent an idyllic, youthful season. Fischer frames this stooped, black-clad figure making her inexorable way across the island past the stark traceries of dead winter trees. Her brief glance back at Marie suggests a chilling sense of recognition, and a promise of a future meeting. This scene shows that Fischer was as adept at depicting the cold landscapes of winter as he was the sun-kissed shores of summer.

The illuminated face - Harriet Andersson in Summer With Monika
In the dressing-room, Fischer shoots numerous shots in which the characters are caught in reflections, whether in bulb-edged mirrors or arched, rain-speckled windows. Such reflections recur throughout his films with Bergman. In the final scene of Summer With Monika, for example, in which Harry gazes at himself holding the baby in the mirrored door of the café, and slips into a reverie of his life with Monika. Or in Smiles of a Summer Night, in which Gunnar Bjornstrand’s pompous lawyer’s vainglorious strut alongside the relaxed saunter of Eva Dahlbeck’s worldly actress is shot as reflected in a gutter puddle. Fischer manages these tricky set-ups perfectly. The close-up on Monika (towards the end of Summer With Monika) in the café where she has retreated to escape from Harry and the baby is one of a series of Fischer’s illuminated faces. He moves slowly in on her, shooting her looking directly into the camera. The background fades to a deep black, leaving just her face, holding our gaze for several moments, daring us to disapprove of her actions, her need. Similar illuminated faces can be found throughout Bergman’s work, particularly from this period. At the end of The Seventh Seal, for example, the face of Gunnel Lindblom’s mute character is illuminated with a look of rapturous expectation at the approach of death, whose shadow momentarily brushes across her upturned features. At the end of Wild Strawberries we see Isak Borg’s face looking up with beatific calm from his pillow, his dream self having found reconciliation and acceptance in the paradise of childhood memory.

The illuminated face - Gunnel Lindblom in The Seventh Seal
The three films which Fischer made with Bergman in the mid-50s (Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) remain the director’s best-known works, and are also the most unabashedly enjoyable and beautiful to look at. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) was a bawdy, farcical comedy whose tone Fischer set by creating light and airy interiors in which witty exchanges, comical misapprehensions and self-delusions could be played out. He had some previous experience with such comedy, the story from Waiting Women in which the husband and wife played Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Bjornstrand get stuck in a lift being a choice slice of witty byplay in the manner of the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn movies. For the climactic midsummer night’s gathering at the country house, he conjured an enchanted twilight of suspended time in which evening never quite progresses to the darkness of night.

Prayers on the terminal beach - Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal
The Seventh Seal is undoubtedly Bergman’s best-known work (it even finds its way into a Scott Walker song) and Fischer’s photography is absolutely central to its evocation of a medieval world filled with fear, darkness and intimations of imminent apocalypse. The opening shot of ominous clouds beneath which the silhouette of a hovering falcon is etched once more shows his skill at capturing meteorological atmospheres and imbuing them with resonant symbolic weight. Fischer seems to have been particularly fond of clouds, and caught their transient formations in several shots in his work with Bergman. They certainly feature in Summer Interlude, Summer With Monika and Wild Strawberries. The scenes on the shoreline which act as the film’s prologue are masterful examples of setting mood through dramatic, non-realistic lighting. The sun sinks beneath the oceanic horizon, and cliffs seem to radiate a baleful darkness. Faces stand out as luminous beacons against this pervasive gloom, whether Max von Sydow’s knight, Gunnar Bjornstrand’s squire, or the gaunt, chalky clown-face of Death, who appears suddenly and without ceremony. The white chess pieces which the knight uses in his game with Death (Death, naturally, ends up with the black pieces, commenting, with bone-dry humour, ‘very appropriate, don’t you think?’) also shine out against the backdrop of the abyssal sea, glowing with the fierce radiance of life. This really does feel like a terminal beach, the knight and his squire washed up on its shore to witness the end of all things.

Dark contrasts - Death and the knight in church
The duality between the bright natural world and the shadowed city which Fischer’s camerawork had realised in Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika is intensified in The Seventh Seal, in which exteriors and interiors are presented as distinctly different environments. The sunlit exteriors of the open coastal landscape are the domain of the company of players who represent, particularly in the form of Bibi Andersson’s Mia and Nils Poppe’s Jof, the simple joys of life. These landscapes and the light in which they are bathed are obscured by the choking clouds of incense swung from the censers of the self-flagellating penitents who groan and wail their way past the players’ performance, and by the dark forest through which they must travel to rejoin the coast road, both of which Fischer atmospherically evokes with particular lighting effects. A harsh, unforgiving glare burning through the penitent’s smoke, and a weave of shadow and dimly penetrating light for the forest. The interiors are the domain of death and are marked by the extreme contrast of blacks and whites. The church in which the knight unwittingly confesses to a duplicitous Death is full of inky shadow, with isolated details (the illuminated faces of Death and the knight, and the grille which separates them) standing out against the black void. The plague house in which the thief robs the dying and the inn at which he later turns up to torment Jof, forcing him to dance like a bear, his shadow cast by the hellish firelight in grotesque pantomimic form upon the wall, are also places in which deep darkness and depravations of the human spirit prevail. Finally, in the knight’s castle, the sputtering flames in their sconces do little to hold back the night’s shadows, and serve to outline Death’s dark silhouette, which seems to emerge or form itself from them.

Formed from shadow - Death outlined
The iconic shot from The Seventh Seal is the one which depicts the train of characters led along the ridge of a hill by Death in a final danse macabre. This once more demonstrated Fischer’s ability to improvise and swiftly adapt to circumstances. According to Bergman, they had already called it a day because of an approaching storm, and most of the actors had gone ahead and returned to their accommodation. He then spotted a dark cloud which had the perfect glowering mass for what he had in mind. Fischer’s love of filming clouds found its ultimate expression, and he quickly set up the camera to catch this one whilst it was still in place. Instead of the actors, ‘a few grips and a couple of tourists danced in their place, having no idea what it was all about. The image that later became famous of the Dance of Death beneath the dark cloud was improvised in only a few minutes’.

Flocking thoughts - Isak dreams
The third of the great Bergman films on which Fischer worked was Wild Strawberries, in which he got to work with silent film master Victor Sjostrom, who plays the protagonist, elderly professor Isak Borg. Sjostrom’s expressionist masterpieces The Wind and The Phantom Carriage certainly exerted an influence on both Bergman and Fischer. In Wild Strawberries, Fischer employs expressionistic distortion in the dream sequences which punctuate the realistic flow of the narrative. In the example which opens the film, he eschews the characteristic expressionist use of shadows and jagged angles in favour of a harsh, over-exposed mid-day glare, in which contrasts become hazy and objects lose their defining edges. A later sequence contains an effective transition from waking to dream states in which Fischer once more employs the technique whereby the background fades out behind a character’s face, this time in the superimposed form of a dissolve. Borg is resting his head on the car window, the landscape passing by outside. As he drifts into sleep, this fades away, shading into darkness, and is replaced by the image of a night tree, its stark branches etched darkly against the sky, towards which birds noisily flock. It’s an effective image of the restless state of Borg’s mind. The jagged outlines of bare trees provide the requisite expressionist angles, as they do in a later scene, in which Fischer places such a bare branch in the foreground, slashing across the screen. Such branches and bleak, denuded trees feature in others of his films with Bergman, providing an externalised representation of souls in winter.

Summer meadows of memory - Wild Strawberries
The journey across Sweden which provides the film’s form allows Fischer to frame more Nordic landscapes, with summer forests, lakes and meadows (and clouds, of course). The sun-dappled glades of childhood memory are beautifully evoked with a slightly unreal light suggesting a certain amount of editing for Edenic perfection in Borg’s mind. The recollected interiors of his childhood summer home are bright and sun-filled, composed of various shades of white (as are the costumes which the members of his family wear). In these scenes, Fischer successfully recreates the idyllic depictions of Swedish home life painted by Carl Larsson at the turn of the century. Borg’s final dream of reconciliation and human connection leaves us with another of Fischer’s illuminated faces, as mentioned above. Sjostrom’s beatific expression as he looks across the bay of his remembered childhood is a wonderfully understated piece of acting perfectly captured by Fischer’s camera. Nothing needs to be said, the image articulates the moment in a manner beyond words.

Expressionist angles - The Magician
The Magician (1958) emphasised the gothic strain in Bergman’s work which had been so evident in The Seventh Seal (and which would again come to the fore in Hour of the Wolf). Max von Sydow’s travelling 19th century illusionist Albert Vogler (Vogler being a mane used repeatedly by Bergman for his artist characters) and his wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin) both dress in black, Manda initially disguised as a young man. Von Sydow even died his hair and beard black for the role, completing the goth look. Fischer got to use the whole range of expressionist horror techniques in the climactic scene in the attic. Here, the aggressively sceptical Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand) prepares to carry out an autopsy on the body of Vogler, who appears to have been murdered. The attic is a jumble of expressionistic clutter, an unruly assemblage of off-kilter angles, oversized clocks and tilted mirrors. Fischer uses the suggestive shadows to summon spectres, with hands reaching out from the between wooden slats (as in Night of the Living Dead and Bedlam) and Vogler’s pale, deathly face manifesting in shafts of moonlight. Reflections appear and disappear in the fly-specked, rust-veiled mirrors and objects are imbued with a pregnant sense of imminent animation. It’s a miniature distillation of the essence of early horror film, channelling the spirits of Murnau, Leni, Wiene and Whale.

Larsson summers - Wild Strawberries
Fischer’s last film with Bergman was The Devil’s Eye, another bawdy and farcical comedy with a fantastical edge, which hopped between modern-day Sweden and a rather well-appointed Hell. It’s reasonably enjoyable, but fails to hit the high spots of Smiles of a Summer Night. It was a minor note on which to part. Bergman had given Fischer a public dressing down early on in the production, criticising him for what he perceived as a minor lighting fault during a view of the day’s rushes. Fischer was hurt by such discourteous treatment after all this time, and Bergman subsequently apologised, but it was a sign that their partnership was nearing its end. Bergman had worked with Sven Nykvist as his cameraman on The Virgin Spring prior to making The Devil’s Eye, Fischer having been unavailable. Jerry Vermilye, in his book on Bergman, claims that he had made a commitment to work on a film for Disney, although I can’t find any indication as to which it might have been. Bergman and Nykvist had worked together some years before on Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), but they really hit it off on The Virgin Spring, and a strong artistic bond was formed. Bergman further soured his relationship with Fischer by telling him that he had been spoiled by working with Nykvist. Such remarks as these and the criticisms mentioned above seemed designed to promote a rift and force the relationship towards a swift end. Bergman is hardly generous in his acknowledgement of Fischer’s contribution to his development as a film maker and his instrumental role in creating some of his greatest films and most memorable images. He barely gets a mention either in his autobiography The Magic Lantern or in his survey of his own oeuvre Images: My Life in Film. Nykvist, on the other hand, is singled out for fulsome praise and portrayed as an artistic soul mate. Nykvist was a brilliant cinematographer, but he built on and added to a reputation which Bergman had already established alongside Fischer. Bergman could have done with giving this a little more acknowledgement.

Midsummer night's games - Harriet Andersson and Ake Fridell in Smiles of a Summer Night
Bergman’s split with Fischer marked a turning point in his development. With Nyvist, he would turn increasingly inward, focussing on the spiritual and emotional crises of individuals (often artists) in the modern world. After The Devil’s Eye he embarked on his ‘faith’ trilogy: Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, stripped down in terms of sets, cast, plot and, in the end, language. This is the point at which the stereotyped image of Bergman’s films as being relentlessly bleak and hopeless begins to set in. There was less of a focus on nature, which was increasingly reduced to an elementary and stark representational form (as with the jagged outline of the tree seen through the window in Winter Light). Bergman eventually found his ideal setting in what others might consider the rather bleak surrounds of the island of Faro, on which he eventually set up home. Interiors were predominant in the films of this new period, and Nykvist’s camera focussed closely on the faces of Bergman’s regular cast of actors, observing their every nuance and reaction (a stylistic preoccupation acknowledged in the title of the 1976 film Face to Face).

Beatific visage - Isak finds contentment
Nevertheless, Fischer was the cameraman who established the look of the first half of Bergman’s career, helping him when he was struggling to find an identity, and guiding him towards his worldwide success. Happily, there seems to have been no lingering ill-feeling between Bergman and Fischer. In the year following The Devil’s Eye, Fischer was filming another light-hearted Bergman script, The Pleasure Garden, under a different director. He also returned to work with Bergman himself one more time, shooting the title of the 1971 film The Touch. Fischer may be gone, but the torch has been passed on. His sons Jens and Peter, the children of his 67 year marriage to Gull Soderblom, are both now established cinematographers.