Images 2009 Blog #3

The 2009 Images Festival's opening gala event was titled Notes on Composing: 5 Collaborations in Film and Music. This was a collaboration between the Images Festival and Continuum Contemporary Music, and this collaboration was spawned through Continuum's Artistic Director's (Jennifer Waring) residency at the Gaudeamus Foundation in Amsterdam. This residency led to SHIFT, an interdisciplinary arts festival involving 40 Dutch and 40 Canadian artists. The Images gala at Toronto's Isabel Bader theatre featured film projected behind a small musical ensemble seated in front of the audience as in the symphony - not to the side as on Broadway.

I believe it was Phil Spector (of all damn people!) who once pontificated that live music was like theatre and recorded music like film. If so, the megalomaniacal Wagnerian record-producer was merely reiterating the obvious. Live music does tend to emphasis performance and/or presentation, while recorded music is primarily concerned with sound and aural textures.

However, there have of course been time-honoured traditions of live music in combination with projected film. One need only reflect on the Glorious Silent Cinema, with its diligent pianists and commissioned orchestral compositions. Also, theatrical and cinematic are not necessarily exclusive adjectives, simply because cameras so often require motion and/or performance to complete equations. But... mixing live music and projected cinema often draws attention to the fact that these two components of an intended experience are based in different planes, or spaces. That is, they frequently do not become integrated - assuming that integration is an intention. Often, they do tend to compete.

I found myself mulling these conundrums during the Images' opening night gala event. Perhaps the fact that the musicians were almost as visible as the films initially threw me. During the first collaboration - 2 Cameras @ Sea by Clive Holden and Oscar van Dillen - I sometimes found the live music overpowering the film's voice-over text. This was unfortunate because the text seemed as thoughtful as the dual projection, in which two cameras were in dialogue with one another parallel to father and son. The text itself was referring to ideas about music in relation to image, and I wanted to hear it more clearly. To be fair to the artists, there were people sitting in other sections of the theatre who did not have this problem.

The second presentation - Behind the Shadows, with images by Christina Battle and musical composition by Martin Arnold - worked differently. To begin with, it was non-verbal. Secondly, although Battle was deploying recognizable shapes and figures, she was also admitting abstraction to her palette. And Arnold's composition seemed to be in the same space or zone as Battle's images - it was complementary without being literal. Arnold's composition was much sparser than van Dillen's, and this suited Battle's film.

I had seen an earlier version of Vera Frenkel's ONCE NEAR WATER: Notes from the Scaffolding Archives - at Toronto's Akau Gallery. At first I found myself resenting the imposition of live music onto what already existed, but then I began to appreciate the live musicians' (composition by Rick Sacks) dialogue with the initial audio. Frenkel's voice-over, prevalent with the original installation, had now been mixed to an omnipresent but incomprehensible level - it was an important background instrument. Subtitles worked with the picture editing to supply narrative trajectory, and then the music really locked in. For at least the last half of this piece, I felt the live musicians were making the piece bigger and more emphatic and that was the desired effect. The musicians' performativity made the film become performative.

The collaboration between filmmaker Daichi Saito and violinist Malcolm Goldstein - Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis - was the evening's high point for me, possibly because it seemed the most directly hands-on of the five. Saito's film was as much about light and colour as it was his familiar landscape imagery, and Goldstein was the sole musical performer. Goldstein used structural improvisation - locking into the film's editing rhythms (occasionally entering flicker territory) without having to be literal. The film itself was reminiscent of minimalist musical composition, which suited Goldstein who was working with a system of overtones.

And then there was Guy Maddin's Glorious collaboration with composer Richard Ayres. This is familiar Maddin territory with aging family patriarchs, dead father's ghosts, and a row of... um... glory holes. Repression leads to exaltation - one can't have one without the other. And Ayres's composition is as frenetic as Maddin's editing. Parallel to the Frenkel/Sacks collaboration, the film became performative in tandem with the music's viscerality. And Maddin's films are already seriously performative.

This gala presentation is indicative of directions the Images festival has been developing over the past few years and is further exploring this year. It is the Live Images component of this multi-plex festival that has grown the most this year. During the festival's opening weekend, the emphasis will be on Live Images. Not that the movies are being neglected ... anything but.