Ben Russell and Psychedelic Ethnography

Tate Modern, Starr Cinema, Feb 7th

Ben Russell's latest film Good Luck [2017] is a deeply immersive audiovisual trip. A quasi-documentary on the horrors and environmental destruction of the mining process, this piece demands a big-screen experience to fully appreciate the totality of it's physical audiovisual force. Sensory overload for a distracted age.

Two stills from Good Luck [2017]. Source: www.tate.org

Two stills from Good Luck [2017]. Source: www.tate.org

The Psychedelic: An understanding of the self through a subjective experience.

The Ethnographic: An understanding of the self through an objective record of someone that is not the self.

My particular interest in Subject comes out of an interest in trance which I connect through noise music or experimental music but also Christian Ska bands and laying-on of hands or in different contexts we have something like the whirling dervishes, Indonesian self-flagellating rituals, the Yanomami Indians who use hallucinogenic snuff to produce shamanic rituals [...] this idea of the trance ritual is something we find across the world; its incarnation is specific to culture but its manifestation is universal.

- Ben Russell [Sonic Acts Feb 2017, Source here].

Systema Naturae [2017]

The year ends with the completion of my final collection of electronic music - Systema Naturae - comprising of tracks from the past few years since returning to the UK. The three-part eponymous piece builds on ideas drawn from the Otoplexus project that was originally conceived in Tokyo around 2011-2012. Lynch Suite emerges out of time at film school while the final track The Enframing is a nod to my continuing interest in the writings of Martin Heidegger.

This collection is dedicated to two giants of electronic sound: Iannis Xenakis & Bernard Parmengiani.

The Bergman Suite [2017]

Trädgårdsgatan, was the epitome of security and magic: the numerous clocks measuring the time, the sunlight wandering across the infinte green of the carpets, the fires fragrant in the tiled stoves, the chimney pipe roaring and the little stove-doors tinkling. Down in the street, a sleigh with its jingling bells sometimes passed, the cathedral bells rang for divine service or a fuuneral and, morning and evening, the delicate and distant Gunilla bell could be heard. [The Magic Latern, p.19]

2018 marks what would have been Ingmar Bergman's 100th Birthday. The Bergman Suite is a tribute to the great director. An insight into his life and work through sound. More information here.

Encounters with Noise in the Dark #1

Encounters with Noise in the Dark
#1 Peter Tscherkassky

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Commercial film production values seem to demand a kind of maximum closeness. Every image and sound sparkles with reassuring clarity and sharpness. In post-production dialogue editors surgically remove all undesirable elements from the production sound. Clicks, pops, lip-smacks, microphone bumps, passing planes, belly growls, all such extraneous sounds are suitably air-brushed out to create an intelligible, clean dialogue track. Careful balancing of levels and use of background fill tracks help to stitch together picture cuts, smoothly unifying the action in time and space. At every such stage throughout the post-production sound process, clarity and consistency is sought towards the creation of a coherent, unified soundtrack - a highly organised composition of sounds often serving a narrative arc.

Filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky presents an altogether different kind of audiovisual experience. A central figure in the Austrian avant-grade, Tscherkassky has been making films since the early 1980s. Often using found 35mm footage as his source material, he constructs densely layered textures through extensive editing, celluloid maltreatment and film processing from his dark studio in the remote Austrian countryside. Out of these long seasons of labour emerge films of incredible beauty, twisting, repeating and fragmenting found narratives into new and unusual compositions. From the outset he writes, “I wanted to unravel and dissolve the medium, “destroy” is not the right expression, but, yes, some type of “breaking”, and in breaking, allowing something else to become visible”.

While much of the final marrying and inter-editing of image and sound may lie with Tscherkassky, many of the soundtracks to his films are created in collaboration with others. Iranian composer Kiavasch Sahebnassagh offers a mysterious and eerie score for Dreamwork (2001), while Armin Schmickl is credited for the sound collages in the Parallel Space: Inter-view (1992). Where sound and music begin and end remains part of the mysterious fascination of the Tscherkassky experience, such is the dense intermingling of signal and noise, each undergoing seemingly endlessly iterations of maltreatment and processing. Berlin-based composer/sound designer Dirk Schaefer is responsible for the richly layered soundtracks of the more recent body of work - Instructions for a light and sound machine (2005), Coming Attractions (2010) and The Exquisite Corpus (2016). Frequently working with German filmmaker Matthias Muller, Schaefer has been composing sound for experimental films since the late 1980s. He writes to me saying: “Collaborating with artists who usually conceive their films in a purely visual form, I am used to work on films that are complete in any regard but one, and that’s the sound track worthy of the name, and to do it more or less on my own.”

Unravelling through the kaleidoscopic imagery I find myself drawn to the sound-world of Tscherkassky’s films. Soundtracks of volcanic surfaces; the delicious crackle and hiss of film, like the turntable escapades of Christian Marclay or Otomo Yoshihide. What we hear are the raw optical distortions of the medium itself, breaking up and contorting into new sonic shapes. From within these granular nettles emerge fragments of original soundtrack - grainy voices and snatches of music, footsteps, sounds of doors, broken glass and gunshots. These ghostly sounds of the past surface and resurface through a sea of optical clicks and pops, sometimes drifting into the foreground or repeating in time with the images. Elsewhere they erupt in violent bursts, building into chaotic layers of percussive noise. Like the extensive optical treatment, the soundtracks throughout retain and yet mysteriously expand the residue of the medium - a joyful cinema of noise.

More information: www.tscherkassky.at

Outer Space (1999) dir. Peter Tscherkassky

The Act of Listening #21

Hearing voices, seeing visions: Harriet Andersson in Bergman's alluring chamber piece 'Through the Glass Darkly' from 1961.

"Precise definitions of the word 'hallucination' still vary considerably, chiefly because it is not always easy to discern where the boundary lies between hallucination, misperception, and illusion." [Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations, 2012]