Controlled Chance – Claudio Caldini’s Gamelan

by Federico Windhausen

Fifth post by our Summer 2015 Writer in Residence Federico Windhausen

In my previous text, I stressed that music plays a key role in Horacio Vallereggio’s ¡UF!, paying particular attention to his use of fragments of lyrics. ¡UF! demonstrates the extent to which popular music had become an important object of affective investment for Argentina’s young, artistically-oriented subcultures, serving to represent and arouse varied emotional states, including deeply-felt responses to political turmoil and violent conflict. In this final blog entry, I consider music through the prism of a different set of concerns, far from the realm of linguistic expression and more typically associated with the cinematic avant-garde of spiritual aspirations. My main subject is the film Gamelan, made by Claudio Caldini in 1981.

Because Caldini’s narrative of his own development has been recounted in many interviews and texts (as in the case of Narcisa Hirsch), I offer here only an abbreviated outline of those biographical details with some relevance for a discussion of Gamelan. Caldini’s early filmmaking efforts, dating from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, were comprised mainly of animated and narrative shorts, although he also made a landscape film in homage to Henri Rousseau that was accompanied by the music of Alice Coltrane.[i] Notwithstanding his having seen very little experimental cinema during that period – Lapis (1966) by James Whitney and possibly Re-entry (1964) by Jordan Belson were among his early sightings – Caldini became actively involved in the few film clubs and organizations dedicated to screening innovative, small-gauge cinema in Buenos Aires. In 1974 he participated in the early screenings programmed by Hirsch and Marie Louise Alemann at Goethe-Institut Buenos Aires, where his now-lost Super 8 film Escalera (Staircase, 1972) was shown alongside another film that is no longer available, Alemann’s 16mm Mujersillamujer (Womanchairwoman, 1968). By October he had embarked upon a long overseas trip that took him to Spain and India, and in Barcelona he shot Ventana (Window, 1975), one of the earliest shorts exploring the cinematic aesthetic with which he is most closely identified.[ii]

Film still
Film still

 
That aesthetic tends to be characterized, directly and indirectly, as belonging to the lyrical tradition within experimental cinema, with Caldini sometimes being likened to figures such as Stan Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky. Such comparisons can illuminate aspects of Caldini’s dedication to a cinema of contemplation, perceptual intensity, and poetically-charged imagery, but they tend to omit or overlook a key feature of his major films, namely their musical dimensions. Caldini was already familiar with Hindustani classical music by the time he made Ventana, for example, on Fujifilm Single-8, accumulating multiple exposures (eight in all) in a manner that decades later he would compare to a musical chord.[iii] With each exposure of his footage, Caldini directed his camera at the line of light created in a dark space by a narrow window opening, slowly accelerating the tempo of his movements and varying with each pass of the camera its position in relation to his light source. In the resulting film, lines of light seem to enter the frame from an offscreen space, and as the superimpositions increase, they interact unpredictably and kinetically within a virtual space without fixed coordinates.[iv] On the soundtrack that Caldini created in 1989 using an analogue synthesizer and digital delay, first a chain of sustained tones offers a legato contrast to the speed of the film’s moving lines, and later they accumulate as if aurally “superimposed,” creating rich overtonal effects as the imagery becomes more frenetic.[v]
A much more explicit connection between Indian music and Caldini’s cinema was forged the following year when he made Vadi-Samvadi (initially shot in 1976, subsequently lost, and remade in 1981), the title of which refers to notes of a raga. On the soundtrack a sitarist and a tabla player, along with the filmmaker on tanpura, play a raga.[vi] In the film, Caldini is seen at a desk activating a miniature steam engine, an action which sparks an approximately four-minute montage sequence distinguished by its stroboscopic flicker effects, created by rapidly alternating between immobile-camera shots taken using different focal lengths. Shots of plant leaves, flower petals, a seated Caldini, and the covers of books from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram are transformed using the flicker technique, which bestows upon static objects a sense of ecstatic movement (possibly created within the film by the mind of the protagonist, if one interprets Vadi-Samvadi as a trance film). Speaking of his own sense of the relationship between music and cinematic montage, Caldini has put forward that in this film “the idea of microtonality is in that tiniest difference that exists between an image, the position of the focal distance, and the other [image],” a very small difference similar to “that which could exist between two moments in the raga melody separated by a micro-difference, almost imperceptible.”[vii]
 

(initially shot in 1976, subsequently lost, and remade in 1981)
(initially shot in 1976, subsequently lost, and remade in 1981)

Another film recognized for its exploration of the micro-relationships between units of sound and filmic shots is Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), in which two complementary effects are combined: on the soundtrack, layered loops of the word “destroy” create aural overtones and “emergent” words that vary from listener to listener, while onscreen, flickering monochromatic color frames and shots distinguished by bodily violence generate visual afterimages in the viewer’s eye. Notably, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G had already been screened at Goethe-Institut Buenos Aires in May 1975 (in a program that also included Beverly and Tony Conrad’s Straight and Narrow from 1970, which has a soundtrack by Terry Riley and John Cale), but Caldini was still abroad at that time. While Sharits’ film is a well-known case of experimental film demonstrating and working through the influence of minimalist music, for Caldini a more geographically and personally proximate example would have been Hirsch’s film Come Out (variously and unreliably dated as 1971 and 1974), which appropriates the original 1966 recording of Steve Reich’s tape composition Come Out.[viii] Yet Hirsch’s film is predicated on a slow zoom-out that is combined with a rack focus, not an intricate series of small-scale montage relationships.
Caldini would later describe Vadi-Samvadi as a “metric” film structured around carefully measured shot durations, and for him Gamelan represented a departure from that approach to filmmaking, a change he attributes to his participation in the Goethe-Institut-sponsored workshop conducted in 1980 by Werner Nekes.[ix] This is somewhat surprising, given that Nekes is a filmmaker commonly thought to be affiliated with pre-planned, procedural cinema, and yet it was Caldini’s witnessing of how Nekes filmed his material that allowed him to “pass from that cinema, very calculated frame by frame, to a freer one,” containing a greater degree of “controlled chance.”[x] In addition, by 1981 Caldini had extended his self-guided musical apprenticeship by studying in Brazil with another German, Rolf Gelewski, an acknowledged expert in Mary Wigman’s Ausdruckstanz who had transformed her version of modern dance into “a mystic discipline.” Gelewski’s dance pedagogy involved a “system of meditation by way of movement, slow movements,” according to Caldini, and a “system of perception and musical analysis applied to dance.”[xi] Caldini’s studies with Gelewski can be seen as an extension and deepening of his already-active interest in certain types of bodily and spiritual experiences, and in my view these have a special importance for our understanding of the altered states that Gamelan might be soliciting. I will say more about this later.
 

Film still
Film still

Despite marking for the filmmaker the commencement of a more liberated way of filming, the production of Gamelan was preceded by “months of observing the movement of small cameras,” as they followed the extension of his arm, were sent down a slide, and were made to rotate rapidly on different axes.[xii] Eventually Caldini decided to suspend his Super 8 camera by two ropes, each two meters long, and turn it counter-clockwise, later editing his footage to begin at a preferred velocity of rotation. Lasting nearly 12 minutes in its final version, Gamelan begins with a blurred image that can be readily identified as having been caused by the speed of the camera’s movement. Unlike a whip pan, however, which is oriented along the x-axis and thus contains horizontal streaks, the onscreen blurring in Caldini’s film looks like a downward, curving cascade. The film initially conveys rapid movement while rejecting stable figure-ground relations, creating an all-over visual composition that is comprised of deep blacks, white lines, and grey patches and which lacks distinguishable depth cues or sharply-depicted objects.
If Gamelan had been entirely made up of a high-velocity blur, it might be possible to regard it as an iconoclastic work, one that instantiates a wholesale rejection of illusionistic representation, perhaps in order to produce within the viewer a more meditative response to imagery that seems almost devoid of depictive content. But the film is actually full of nuanced shifts and unanticipated visual incidents, and because some of them were unplanned discoveries, they serve as examples of the generative consequences of the filmmaker’s then-novel approach to shooting footage: “The first surprise after the film was developed was the strobe effect perceived in some sections: when the camera gets closer to the ground, the direction of movement seems to be reversed….Also unexpected was the appearance of raindrops on the lens, which remain static while the landscape continues to pass behind, or the ray of light that penetrates through the reflex viewer, traversing the dark areas….The inclination of the plane determined by the circumference and the position of the camera are also gradual variables.”[xiii] Such events at times lead to canted-angle shots of sky and ground that briefly offer clues as to where the camera is oriented in the profilmic space. All of these visual elements include repetition and variation within them, but in general the film does not present any obvious markers of a predetermined structure.
 

Film still
Film still

Initially Caldini had conceived of Gamelan as a film that would use Steve Reich’s Octet (composed and released in 1979, later rescored as Eight Lines in 1983) for its soundtrack, “at once complementing [Hirsch’s Come Out] and compatible with Reich’s philosophy (Music as a Gradual Process, 1968).”[xiv] In “Music as a Gradual Process,” Reich famously declares, “I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.”[xv] For Reich, “detailed listening” is made possible by processes that occur at a very gradual rate, and one of his examples of performing and listening to a gradual process in music is “pulling back a swing, releasing it, and observing it gradually come to rest.” The affinity with Caldini’s process for shooting Gamelan lies in a shared reliance on the movement of a suspended object, but in contrast to Reich’s example, in the film we are never shown a gradual decrease in velocity. The composition that Caldini eventually used (in excerpted form) in the final version of Gamelan is Reich’s Six Pianos (1973), and as with his earlier selection of Octet, it is not a composition that seems to have been selected in order to align it with the macro- or micro-structure of the film in a rigidly exact or neatly symmetrical manner. Caldini has asserted, however, that the film’s occasional visual strobe and its accompanying motion reversal effect are “equivalent to acoustic phase shifting,” referring to the delayed-emulation process that is similar to a canon or round.[xvi] In addition, he has explained that he realized only after making the film that “what happens in the image as stroboscopic phenomenon is the same as what he [Reich] is doing acoustically.”[xvii] Since this came as a surprise to the filmmaker (“I arrived intuitively at that association”), it seems that one of his points of departure for the Gamelan project was the open question of whether any aspects of the film might be potentially “compatible” with Reich’s core idea of a discernible process gradually developing in time.
Where I locate audiovisual compatibility, as it were, in Gamelan is not precisely where the filmmaker finds it, but before offering my own view, a bit more needs to be said about Six Pianos. In the first minutes of Reich’s piece, one hears the accumulation of patterns played in parallel on pianos, with each one in a different pitch. That new patterns are being added in the early moments of the work is clear, but as one music scholar clarifies, “Six Pianos contains no phasing, not even sudden shift of phase…rather, rhythmic construction builds a canonic voice already out of phase, yet another step away from perceptible unfolding processes,” marking at that stage in Reich’s development a “trend towards greater complexity and structure which is not immediately perceptible.”[xviii] One obstacle to the discernment of the piece’s processes and structures is its multiplication of the tone quality of the piano (six times), adding timbral homogeneity to layers of patterns that are being successively doubled at different pitches.[xix] Situated within and around those rhythmic arrangements of piano voices, however, are the aural phenomena that I see as bringing Six Pianos into a productive and dynamic relationship with Gamelan‘s visuals.
 

Film still
Film still

Central to Six Pianos is the building up of rhythms, and according to musicologist John Roeder’s detailed formal analysis of the piece, we hear the piece’s patterns in relation to the perceived emphases that he calls “accentual distinctions” and “accentual subtleties.” These can include “intrastream accents” that “arise within each individual voice in a texture,” such as the “climax at [the] onset of [an] event with [the] pitch exceeding past and future events” and the “nadir” accent in which the pitch is “equal to or lower than the lowest pitch so far in the piece” and “lower than the immediately preceding and following events.”[xx] Partly because the work deploys repetition extensively, we can pick up on these differences of emphasis even if other aspects of its “unfolding” are more difficult to make out. Comparably, in Gamelan, the cascading (or streaming) image repeats enough downward movements, for example, to render small shifts in orientation (moving further to the right or to the left of the frame) noticeable. The film also displays a range of black, white, and grey visual phenomena with variable degrees of constancy and mutability. Moreover, one change will tend to occur in approximate conjunction with others such as the variation in planar inclinations mentioned by Caldini. Because these visual events are not always writ large onscreen, noticing them (along with the Reich piece’s aural textures and accents) might be a challenge to some viewers, of the sort that could bring them closer to the modes of responsiveness the filmmaker appears to value. Some may find that the film’s sounds and images call for a perceptually alert and disciplined mode of perception, while others may immerse themselves in ways that produce that loss of subjective and objective boundaries commonly termed dedifferentiation. Reich saw his gradual-process music as offering a point of entry into the latter state, via “a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual,” a “shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outward towards it.”[xxi] What happens in Gamelan is musically and visually distinct from works that elaborate an aesthetic of slow and readily-graspable processes of transformation, and yet the film shares with such work the aspiration toward a “liberating” effect, achieved by those who remain open to its many subtleties.
The analysis I have provided here touches on topics that branch off in various directions. One is the influence of Indian culture on the Buenos Aires underground of the 1970s, a subject certainly worthy of an in-depth study. Another is the longstanding dialogue, most often conducted across different works and not verbally by the practitioners themselves, between minimalist music and experimental cinema. And of course, there is also the rich topic of Caldini’s ongoing exploration of sound-image relationships, now most evident in his Super 8 performances. In HRZNT (2011), for example, three screens present stop-motion imagery of a stuttering camera pan across a landscape scene; the performance’s back-and-forth visuals are accompanied by a live soundtrack that is created by placing a contact microphone inside one of the projectors and distorting its rhythmic, repetitive sounds with a Korg synthesizer. HRZNT is the rare film that delves deeply into the phenomenon of oscillation, both visual and aural, and it is a work that demonstrates the continued vitality of Caldini’s practice.


 
Since this is my final entry for LUX, I will end by mentioning the contemporary scene here in Buenos Aires, which could easily have provided enough subject matter for my five blog texts. As many have observed by now,
younger experimental filmmakers in this city have begun to generate a seemingly unprecedented amount of new work, most of it in Super 8 (which can still be developed here). They frequently screen their films locally and internationally; many of them have participated in filmmaking workshops and courses that exist without the support of more orthodox cultural or pedagogical institutions. Sitting in on different practice-based classes and attending local screenings, I have noticed that Super 8 has come to embody some commonly shared values: the value of making images slowly (in contrast to video), of working with fewer images in general, of considering each visual effect and modification in a more patient and deliberate manner (as in courses on hand processing, for example), of working with and against the capacities and limitations of a given technology, and of making that technology more visible and accessible to audiences. Whether the associations currently being linked to filmic practices will persist beyond the contemporary moment remains to be seen, but irrespective of their lasting nature (or of the overall quality of the work being produced in Argentina, which varies as much here as anywhere else), one positive effect of this turn toward photochemical film has been a deeper investment in a formerly-neglected tradition of experimental cinema. Within this scene, the filmmakers associated with a key moment in the 1970s and 1980s are regarded as the local models for a renewed practice. Through this blog I have attempted to survey some of their work, with the aim of conveying not only the considerable diversity of the films themselves but also the multifaceted cultural contexts within which they can be better understood.
 


Footnotes

[i]    For more on Caldini’s early films, see Juan Carlos Kreimer, “Claudini, cine-poeta,” Algún Día vol. 1 (1975), p. 46. The number of the issue is either 6 or 7.
[ii]   On that trip Caldini heard the music of Sunil Bhattacharya at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, South India.

[iii]  Miguel Blanco Hortas and Félix García, “Número tres. Entrevista con Claudio Caldini,” Lumière 8 (January 2015), p. 112.
[iv]  Since the lines form patterns of movements, one could attempt to link their traversals to the creation of patterns within the musical form of the raga, but such an analogy seems to me a very broad one.
[v]   Despite his experiences producing such soundtracks, not to mention “analogue scores” and even a cassette of his compositions (released in Spain), Caldini does not view himself as a composer, stating that “What I do can be called ‘sound design'” (Blanco Hortas and García, “Número tres. Entrevista con Claudio Caldini,” p. 119). Caldini’s cassette is titled El devenir de las piedras (Hyadesarts, 1989) and is available at http://sonmarchive.es/.  For examples of the scores see Caldini’s blog: http://eldevenirdelaspiedras.blogspot.com.ar/2009/06/traves-de-las-ruinas-celebracion-el.html.
[vi]  The sitar player is Sergio Bulgakov; the tabla player is Ricardo Hambra.
[vii] Elena Duque, Una tarde con Caldini (A Coruña: (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico de A Coruña, 2013), p. 8
[viii] Hirsch’s Come Out was preceded by a little-known film by Richard Place, titled Come Out to Show (1968), which also made use of Reich’s recording.
[ix]  Duque, Una tarde con Caldini, p. 18.
[x]   Ibid. Nekes claims to have been less satisfied with the outcome of his workshop in Buenos Aires than earlier ones in other cities precisely because the Argentine project’s lack of an “overall structure.” (Interview with the author, Oberhausen, Germany, May 5, 2015.)
[xi]  Duque, Una tarde con Caldini, p. 27.
[xii] These experiments were incorporated into Caldini’s film Hay un enano en el jardín (There is a dwarf in the garden, 1981). See Claudio Caldini, “Proceso Creativo: Gamelan, por Claudio Caldini” (February 22, 2007), La Region Central web site, http://laregioncentral.blogspot.com.ar/2007/02/proceso-creativo-gamelan-por-claudio.html
[xiii]  Ibid.
[xiv]  Ibid.
[xv]  Steve Reich, Writings on Music, 1965–2000, ed. Paul Hillier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 34.
[xvi]  Caldini, “Proceso Creativo: Gamelan, por Claudio Caldini.”
[xvii] Duque, Una tarde con Caldini, pp. 30-31.
[xviii] Dean Paul Suzuki, Minimal music: its evolution as seen in the works of Glass, Reich, Riley, and Young, dissertation, University of Southern California, 1991, UMI: DP295556, pp. 494-495. Suzuki’s analysis is similar to the composer’s own. Writing of the piece’s “process of substituting beats for rests” in order to create new patterns, Reich explains that this “happens against another performer (or performers) already playing that pattern in another rhythmic position. The end result is that of a pattern played against itself but one or more beats out of phase. Though this result is similar to many earlier pieces of mine, the process of arriving at that result is new. Instead of slow shifts of phase, there is a percussive build-up of beats in place of rests. The use of the pianos here is truly more like a set of tuned drums.” Reich, Writings on Music, p. 73.
[xix] Keith Potter refers to the piece’s “deployment of resulting patterns in a work not itself based on phasing” as “a fresh perspective [brought] to an apparently well-worn technique,” but he also notes that “the detailed working out of these patterns is made more difficult to hear by his adherence to the use of identical instruments.” Keith Potter, Four Musical Minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 228.
[xx] John Roeder, “Beat-Class Modulation in Steve Reich’s Music,” Music Theory Spectrum 25:2 (2003), pp. 280, 284.
[xxi] Reich, Writings on Music, p. 36.

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