by Dan Warburton, The Wire
The Reach of Resonance
Steve Elkins (Director)
Candela Films 2010, 118 mins
Focusing its attention on four mavericks of New Music – Miya Masaoka, John Luther Adams, Jon Rose and Bob Ostertag – this entertaining and thought-provoking debut from Steve Elkins sets out to find music in the unlikeliest of places, from giant cockroaches to geomagnetic storms in the Alaskan night sky, from the Dingo Fence in the Australian desert to panes of glass shattered in the 1991 gay and lesbian riots in San Francisco.
Masaoka is featured not for her outstanding koto playing but for her work with low voltage emissions from plants – either transcribed into conventional musical notation or even, in a bizarre reconstruction of a real Cold War spy plot, used to derail a model train – and insects. In Ritual, she allows 13 Madagascan roaches to roam freely over her naked body, interrupting laser beams and triggering recordings of samples of their own hissing along the way. It’s breathtaking stuff.
“Art and Science have lots to say to one another,” says Adams (not to be confused with his Nixon in China namesake), who relocated to the wilds of Alaska in the mid-1970s. His sound and light environment at the University of Fairbanks, The Place Where You Go To Listen, translates data from the natural world – seismic measurements, solar wind activity and even the positions of the sun and moon in the sky – into a permanent installation that seeks to render the whole earth audible.
On the other side of the planet, Elkins follows violinist Jon Rose as he travels the length and breadth of Australia playing the thousands of miles of metal fences that cross the continent, and meeting plenty of colorful characters on the way, from gum leaf virtuoso Roseina Boston to The West Australian Chainsaw Orchestra, Dinky the singing dingo and Michael A Green, who can hum and whistle two different melodies simultaneously (I kid you not). Rose’s Heath Robinson-like bicycle-powered instruments, using everything including (literally) the kitchen sink, are hilarious, but things get serious when the Israeli Army shows up at Bil’in in Palestine and threatens him with stun grenades and tear gas when he tries to play the security fence there.
The political struggles of the real world are never far away, especially in Ostertag’s work, whether sampling the voice of a young boy burying his murdered father in El Salvador (Sooner or Later), manipulating actual footage of NATO bombing raids in Serbia (War Games) or transcribing pitched battles in San Franciso streets into the pitch battle of the string quartet All The Rage, played with customary panache by The Kronos Quartet.
To his credit, Elkins makes no attempt to tie up the stories of his featured musicians into one convenient meta-narrative (though footage of Kronos playing Music For 4 Fences links the Rose and Ostertag stands effectively), and leaves the jury out on whether art ought to get involved in politics or not. For Ostertag there is no doubt it should, while Adams cites the example of Claude Monet shuffling out into his garden at Giverny to paint waterlilies while the First World War raged barely a couple of hours away: “We’d all be so much poorer if he hadn’t.”