Interview: On Stan Brakhage and Visual Music – Rick Raxlen in conversation with Marilyn Brakhage

In the following interview, Rick Raxlen talks with Marilyn Brakhage about her article, On Stan Brakhage and Visual Music.

Rick Raxlen: First off, you mentioned when we last spoke that Criterion is bringing a second volume of Stan’s films. Will any of the later films be on it–the ones he made from 1989 to his death in 2003?
You say he made 143 films in this last period…

Marilyn Brakhage: Yes. Criterion doesn’t want me to announce titles yet — but without giving any specifics, I can say that this project will have a greater diversity of work, and some real surprises, I think. The first set combined a few formative, aesthetically groundbreaking early pieces (some of Stan’s most famous titles from the late 50’s and early 60’s) with a number of beautiful short works from his later periods. This time around, I’m trying to present a more balanced collection of significant films that will touch on all the different periods of his career and many of his different aesthetic concerns. There will be films from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

R.R.: You also mention Stan’s poor eyesight as a contributing factor in his interest in “closed-eye” vision.
Can you elaborate? How bad was it?

M.B.: He apparently wore thick glasses as a child — and then “threw them away” for a time, as a young man. He had a ‘wandering eye’ and was very shortsighted, I think . . . said he would recognize people on the street by the way they moved. He claimed to be ‘constructing’ sights with rapid eye movements. This conscious awareness of struggling to see may have heightened his visual sensitivities — as he would often say (quoting Gertrude Stein, I think) that at the centre of your greatest strength you will find your greatest weakness. In later years, when he had cataracts removed and a lens implant, his sight was much improved for a time.

R.R: Do you think it possible for someone who we might term an outsider artist/filmmaker to make a piece of ” visual music” by accident–by that I mean, without consciously setting out to make a work that was in that mode?

M.B.: Yes, I suppose it happens all the time — depending, of course, on how one chooses to define “visual music.” In the sense that Stan used the term, the visual rhythms of the work would elicit inner responses akin to those we experience when listening to aural music. He often used this term to describe works by others who didn’t necessarily use the term themselves. . . On the other hand, there are groups of people — for example those at the Center for Visual Music in LA — who seem to have a more restricted definition of what falls under this rubric, referring, I think, to something that often has more to do with visual ‘illustrations’ of, or accompaniments to, music (at least from my perspective).

R.R.: You use the word “synaesthetic” in your writing. Can you give some rough boundaries to that word? (I don’t mean a dictionary definition here)

M.B.: Well, scientists seem to talk of synaesthesia as something abnormal, or as a special ‘gift,’ whereas I think it is something we all have, at least to some degree. I use the term to refer to the crossover of sensory experience. The most common example, perhaps, is when a smell stimulates a ‘taste.’ For me, subtle scents often evoke distant memories of place — mostly visual. But if you consider our language — a “loud” color, a “blue” mood, a “dark” passage of music, and so on — I think these metaphors are actually based in physical reality. Our sensory experiences and memories overlap internally. . . For some people it can apparently get very detailed and specific, and they claim to ‘see’ specific hues that correspond to specific tones of sound, in precise gradations. In reference to film, I was referring to how the rhythms of the visual movements within shots, and of the cuts between shots, might stir some deep biological response, that “physiological relationship between seeing and hearing” that Stan spoke of. For him, it was deeply a matter of rhythm — bodily felt and mentally perceived rhythms . . . writing also of seeking to “hear color,” and of how shape affects reception of tone, and tone of tone, as the mind absorbs these shifts and variations in the progressions of time/film.

R.R.: I think to have a true piece of “visual music” work on the eye and ear in synaesthetic response, one would have to forego a musical and audio track to accompany the visuals on the screen. Do you agree?
It seems it would be cheating in a way to provide external audio clues, if one were striving for maximum individual nervous system response.

M.B.: I agree there can be a diminishment of visual potential if it is combined with “external audio clues.” We know this, for example, by the simple experiences we have of closing our eyes to ‘hear better,’ or asking someone to be quiet because we’re trying to see something. One form of sensory input can distract from or dominate over another. And usually, sound will dominate over vision. For example, as we sit in a car listening to the radio, people walking by appear to walk in time to the music. Our vision, then, is seemingly being directed or interpreted by the sounds. Filmmakers can obviously use this phenomenon to direct viewers’ interpretation of what is seen. But often that ends up, in my view, as work that is visually lazy — or, at least, unremarkable. On the other hand, if a filmmaker is constructing subtle and complex visual rhythms, those could very easily become confused or overwhelmed by the addition of sound. Stan was often working with ‘micro-rhythms’ of vision, and felt that a sound track would inevitably dominate over those. So he made mostly silent films. On the other hand, he also made silent films because he didn’t feel that his abilities with sound were advancing to the same levels as his abilities with vision. But then, on occasion, when he came across a particular piece of music that inspired him, he would make another sound film. In those cases, the challenge was always to allow each aesthetic — the aural and the visual — to exist independently, and to ‘speak’ to one another, without one directing or limiting the other. I think he succeeded with this aesthetic, but he did so through very precise frame-by-frame editing, sometimes incorporating spaces of black and spaces of silence. In that way, the films became more like visual-aural ‘conversations,’ and in cases such as these, then, there might be a complex, multi-layered, synaesthetic crossover happening in a viewer’s responses. But in general, I certainly think you’re right, that it’s not true (or pure) “visual music” if the experience is being cued by the sound.

R.R.: You quote William C Wees describing Jordan Belson’s work as producing a state “more psychological than physiological”
Can you attribute clear boundaries between these states–I mean, what would one feel differently in a film that triggered psychological states as opposed to films that triggered physiological responses?

M.B.: There are no clear boundaries of course — between thinking and feeling, or between the physiological and the psychological. But I think in the case of Belson’s films, he was often presenting filmic equivalents of mental imagery achieved through meditation — cosmic projections . . . which is to say, that we are being presented with his own interpretations of some previous “psychological” event or events. Perhaps in this sense it just feels a little less ‘immediate,’ or at a somewhat greater remove, seeming to play less on sensory experience and more on concept or symbolism. My own experience is that if a work is felt in a more visceral way (which, arguably, his could be also), eliciting sensory memory and synaesthetic cross-over within the viewer, that serves as a ground for whatever levels of thought and ideas might evolve from it. I don’t know if you really can “trigger physiological states” without triggering psychological ones, or vice versa. But in my essay on Visual Music I was mainly trying to draw a distinction between that which arises from visual rhythms that stir biological responses at source, and that which illustrates an idea and depends more upon musical accompaniment to be seen or felt rhythmically.

R.R.: You were very intent on getting some of Stan’s hand-drawn frames displayed, probably for the first time.
Did you have any luck when you approached the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria?
Did they commit to putting up a show around his hand painted frames of 35mm?

M.B.: Yes, they are interested in doing that. They spoke of late 2008.

R.R.: In your added question you referred to Milton saying “. . . night brings back my day; I am not blind in my dreams.” Milton, of course, was not always blind, but I’ve often wondered what dreaming would be like for someone who had never “seen” (in the ways that we ordinarily do). Then I recently saw a (TV) show about a blind painter who did these incredible landscapes, with perspective — apparently all based upon his tactile experiences of three-dimensional objects and his movements through space. (Not sure how he managed the colours though.) But the human mind is a great mystery. . . Why was Stan so deeply involved in subverting the most common uses of the cine camera?

M.B.: I think Stan was deeply immersed in modernist aesthetics, first of all, and when he began to identify himself as a filmmaker, found it necessary to discover what was most essential to film, what were its strengths and limitations that could be worked with. He certainly would have been influenced by his early musical training, and by his involvement with poetry. So, although he loved and appreciated the art of acting, and went to all kinds of movies (and the theatre), he felt that using film to essentially record dramas was an extreme limitation of its possibilities. Drawing on analogies to poetry and music, then, he began to develop ideas of film as an exteriorizing of internal experience, and eventually, of what he called “moving visual thinking.” He realized that “vision” was more than just pictures of the external world; that it included dreams, memories, hallucinations, peripheral vision, optic feedback, and so on. He thought the full range of human visual experience could and should be explored through film — that more than sharing pictures, we could share our inner lives, our actual thought processes, and bring into conscious awareness many levels of perception that influence us deeply but often go unrecognized. His films often included more standard, ‘recognizable’ imagery of course — but were never limited to that. And when he was unable to use the photographic apparatus to achieve the visions he wanted, he would scratch, paint, collage or whatever he could to create equivalents of a full range of visual experience.

One Response so far.

  1. CVM says:

    We have no idea why Marilyn thinks Center for Visual Music has this “restricted” definition of visual music, nor has she discussed this with any of us. Numerous definitions and theories of visual music are presented on our website, from historical to contempoary; we do not use the limited definition she’s given above.

    CVM tried to include a Brakhage film in the 2005 Visual Music exhibition at MOCA LA/Hirshhorn along with all the other films we provided for the show, but they were not available digitally thus it was not possible at that time.