Over the past decade, Luke Fowler has made a series of beguiling films that combine the structural and material concerns of experimental cinema with documentary and archival practices. Many of his films offer portraits of maverick artists, intellectuals, and ordinary people: radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing (What You See Is Where You’re At, 2001), elusive post-punk musician Xentos Jones (The Way Out, 2003), experimental composer Cornelius Cardew (Pilgrimmage from Scattered Points, 2006), environmentalist recluse Bogman Palmjaguar (Bogman Palmjaguar, 2008), and others. Fowler’s deep interest in music and sound (he runs the record label Shadazz and plays in the bands Rude Pravo and Lied Music) has always been evident in his films; but it came to the fore in A Grammar for Listening, 2009, a film in three parts, each part made in collaboration with a different sound artist: Lee Patterson, Eric LaCasa, and Toshiya Tsunoda. Upon the release of this film cycle, I conducted a pair of interviews with Fowler, the first for a publication by X Initiative (a year-long exhibition project that took place in New York City during 2009-10), the second for a volume published by the English film distribution agency LUX. The X Initiative interview was significantly abridged for publication. What follows is the complete interview with a short section of the LUX interview spliced in as well.
Christoph Cox: A number of your earlier films – The Way Out (2003) and Pilgrimage from Scattered Points (2006), for example – are concerned with music and musicians. But the films you’ve been making over the past few years – I’m thinking of An Abbeyview Film (2008), Draw A Straight Line And Follow It (2008— ), and A Grammar for Listening (2009) – show an increased concern with sound and its relationship to image.
Luke Fowler: The concern with sound has been there right from the start. As someone who messed around with primitive computer music, 4-track tape, and playing in bands, sound has always been paramount for me. I think the problem was that, when I was in art school, it was very unusual to actually incorporate sound or music into your work and make it a central part of your practice. When I was at college, there was no sound art. It existed, of course, but not in Dundee, where I went to school. It wasn’t being exhibited in Scottish galleries.
CC: What can film contribute to a consideration of sound?
LF: That’s really one of the central questions that A Grammar for Listening is concerned with. I was being exposed to a lot of amazing and fascinating sonic art, concerts by people like Lee Patterson and Eric La Casa. And festivals such as “Kill Your Timid Notion” were also sort of trying to reconcile these two poles, the visual and the sonic, to unite them and to prevent them from being these two isolated strands in culture. It seemed to me that there was something happening in the culture, a kind of nascent concern with sound that wasn’t purely musical. Being exposed to these sounds and these concerns started to make me think: well, how could I reflect that in film in a way that wasn’t just illustrating these processes, that wasn’t didactic. I wasn’t interested in just explaining how certain physical phenomena occur. The question was: how could we make a meaningful synergy between filming and field recording? One way of doing that is thinking through the problem of the acousmatic, which [in Pierre Schaeffer’s formulation] was to remove references to the sound’s source. And so I was confronted with this dilemma: do you reduce the impact of a sound event when you start to show the landscape that it was taken from?
CC: It seems to me that you avoid two historical solutions to this problem. One of these goes back to Ernst Chladni’s experiments in the 18th century and then turns up in Alvin Lucier’s The Queen of the South (1972), much of Carsten Nicolai’s work, and a lot of other sound installations today that involve a direct physical relationship between sound and image. The other solution is the idea associated with Pierre Schaeffer and Francisco Lopez: that the visual ought to be completely eliminated. You don’t take either of these routes. You make films that are about sound in crucial ways, but that aren’t simply illustrative and don’t exploit the directly physical relationship between the image track and sound track in the way that Guy Sherwin’s films often do. For me, your position becomes clear in the quotations from Toshiya Tsunoda that show up in third part of Grammar, where you connect procedures of audio field recording and filmmaking, the capture of sound via tape recorder and the capture of image or landscape by the camera. These are similar processes, though they don’t have to do with the same sensory modality or technology.
LF: I’m very reluctant to ever say that this work is about this or about that. I think sound is important in several of my films. But there’s also so much more to it. One essential thing is the relationship between me and my collaborators, the social and artistic relationship with a person, and building up this relationship into a collaboration. So, in a way, the three parts of Grammar could also be seen as meta-portraits of these people both as individuals and artists. In that sense, they are not really so different from my earlier portraits of [Cornelius] Cardew [in Pilgrimage from Scattered Points (2006)] and Xentos [Jones, in The Way Out (2003)], for example.
It just so happened that, at this point, I was becoming disillusioned with always having to rely on the interview to provide the meat and bones, the meaning, and the dialectic within the work. I’m more and more uneasy about having to rely on this kind of strategy, this formula even – I take these shots, do this interview, and then combine it with this archival material . . . . I think it really came to a head with Grammar. I started out doing interviews with Lee and Toshiya, and it just became very apparent that it wasn’t turning into the kind of film I wanted to make. I also came to this critique through conversations with filmmakers from different generations, in particular Robert Beavers, who rarely used the voice as a central element in his films. A lot of earlier experimental filmmakers avoided this use of the voice, because it becomes so enmeshed in conveying a certain reading. It ties it down to a particular reading . . .
CC: . . . and ties it documentary . . .
LF: . . . yeah, or other genres. And so, for that pre-video generation, it seemed to be concerned with the image, structure, apparatus, and creating a new language for film. Hollis Frampton talks a lot about this, re-making film over again; that the film project has basically been polluted over the years by mediocre Hollywood and television genres, and that what we need to do is to strip things back to the basics and make film over again afresh. As I was making Grammar, I was conscious of those struggles and those arguments, thinking how would I do that with this piece? In what way am I relying on the voice to convey an argument?
I also wondered what gets lost when you remove the voice from the equation. Is it the social content that gets lost? the political dimension? Because I really see the three parts of Grammar as political. I think that, apart from sound, they’re also concerned with the politics of listening and what’s at stake when we as a society neglect listening, one of our essential senses.
CC: One of the key sources for thinking about the politics – or maybe its more of an ethics – of listening is R. Murray Schafer, whose work was really groundbreaking, but also very didactic and prescriptive in its distinction between good and bad sounds, good and bad soundscapes.
LF: It’s impossible not to connect the field recordist’s interest in the sonic world to the natural world and to noise pollution. But I’d be a fool if I were to propose a kind of sonic purity, a kind of cleansing of the man-made world and a return to nature, to the bucolic landscape and a kind of pre-industrial world. I think that’s somewhat idealistic.
CC: Grammar takes plenty of interest in pastoral landscapes and soundscapes; but it also shows how fascinating urban landscapes and soundscapes can be. One often can’t determine the source of the sound in any case. So you stop trying and just listen. I hear something Schaefferian in this; but I also hear the influence of Luigi Russolo: an interest in sound regardless of its source or origin, it’s emanation from “nature,” “culture,” “technology,” or whatever.
LF: Yeah, we are not making the value judgments of Schafer and the acoustic ecologists. But I also think that their approach, the World Soundscape approach, is incredibly important. And it’s a shame that it hasn’t had more of a policy influence. Chris Watson did an excellent program on noise pollution for Radio 4, where he talked about the effects of noise not only on people but on wildlife. For example, birds can’t reproduce if they can’t sing. Their voices have been steadily drowned out by what’s going on around them. Watson also discussed how noise can have profound effects on human psychology. Living next to mass communication receivers and aerials, in close proximity to transport systems, planes going overhead, trains, cars, and things like that – it ends up having real psychological and physiological effects, effects which haven’t been clearly studied yet.
CC: Watson is such an interesting figure – a guy who started out playing experimental music with the industrial bands Cabaret Voltaire and the Hafler Trio, but who has since become the England’s pre-eminent wildlife sound recordist and an amazing soundscape artist as well.
LF: He’s such a key figure, not only, as you say, in the experimental world but also his work with Bill Oddie and Richard Attenborough. You can’t get more diverse than that!
To change the subject a little, I’m interested to know what got you started on thinking about sound, because you’re one of the few scholars in this area. You approach the philosophy of sound from a Nietzschean perspective, right?
CC: Partly. Nietzsche has a lot to say about sound and music; but my scholarly work on Nietzsche didn’t have much to do with that until recently. I’ve come back to Nietzsche as a way of offering a materialist conception of sound, to think of sound not in terms of signification, representation – all those terms that have dominated the study of the visual and the textual over the past few decades – but in terms of a flux or becoming that precedes and exceeds representation and signification. I’m trying to use this conception of sound as a way to rethink the arts in general, from a kind of materialist basis. The art world – and the academic world, too – has a hard time talking about non-musical sound, because sound doesn’t represent or signify in any direct or obvious way. So I’m trying to find a different way of thinking the relationships among the arts and sensory modalities; and I think the materiality of sound can give us a good starting point for that.
LF: Was there a catalyst for you that began your interest in sound art and experimental music?
CC: It was a combination of things, really. I initially came to sound and sound art through experimental music. But I always had an interest in the visual arts as well, partly from my mother, who was an art historian. In the mid- to late-90s, sound became increasingly prominent in galleries and museums, which got me thinking about relationships between the sonic and the visual arts. I was shocked that there was so little work on this — or, at least, so little work that I found philosophically substantial. So I thought I could contribute something there.
LF: What galleries started to show that work? I know that Dia always supported both sonic and visual art: Max Neuhaus, for example.
Yeah, Dia, of course. But also the Whitney in New York, California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Singuhr and the Akademie der Künste in Berlin . . .
LF: So you think that, in the past decade or so, sound has really come to the fore?
CC: If you make that claim, someone will immediately point out how this stuff has been going on for decades. But, even if there have been isolated exhibitions since the 70s, I do think that, in the past 10 or 15 years, sound and sound art has become increasingly prominent in culture – not only in the art world but in the academy, with the emergence of auditory history and anthropology, and the whole field of “auditory culture” parallel with “visual culture.”
LF: What do you think of the term “sound art”?
CC: It’s amazing to me how much the term is rejected or disavowed by artists, and even by critics and scholars. For me, the term is really useful, because it provides a way to group together forms of artistic practice that pay special attention to the sonic and that consider the sonic aesthetically – your films, for example. You might not describe your work as “sound art.” But I find it important and fruitful to consider your films alongside work Christina Kubisch, Steve Roden, Stephen Vitiello, and other sound artists. For me, the term “sound art” draws together a cross-section of artistic work in a range of media: film, video, sound installation, sculpture, drawing, recorded work on CD, etc.
LF: I think there’s a danger in this as well, that sound art will start to develop a predominant aesthetic, to become synonymous with anything that has sound or that places significance on sound, as you said. That worries me because I think that aesthetic is kind of cold, scientific, and at times quite aesthetically conservative. Maybe there’s a whole load of artists working with sound that are just being ignored and not given recognition due to a lack of education on the curator’s part. It probably also has to do with the market. It’s so much more difficult to sell that sort of work, and so the galleries that influence the museums aren’t interested in it.
CC: But that should apply to video and film, and especially to performance, which can’t be sold but has become incredibly prominent in the art world.
LF: You’re totally right. And that anti-commercial attitude can engender a kind of pious, self-satisfied streak in artists working in those fields.
CC: I think you’re right about the potential narrowness that might come from institutionalizing the term and practice. One of the things about video, film, and performance, for example, is that they’re very open fields. At Performa, for example, the recent performance biennial in New York, a huge variety of things was admitted under the tent of “performance.” I’d really like sound art to have that openness.
LF: So, what can we do? [laughs]
CC: I think your work is really important in this regard, because it asks: “As a filmmaker, what do I do with sound? How do I think about it and use it?” And this provokes one to think about the whole history of cinema, experimental cinema in particular, and its relationship to sound. Those questions really enrich both film as a medium and sound art as a practice; and this helps to broaden the idea of sound art beyond simply drone-filled rooms.
LF: Right, for me, that’s what was so important about having a sustained dialogue with Lee, Toshiya, and Eric. Just getting out of this functional and hierarchical relationship that film classically has to sound, where the filmmaker is the creator, the sole director, and sound or music is just the icing on the cake, a sort of afterthought. A lot of these ideas were ping-ponged around the table when we were discussing this project [Grammar] – for example, the idea that field recording has so many different functions, from sound design to wildlife recording to a kind of collagist art of its own. It became really fundamental for me not to force the structure of the work, not to force the hand of the people I was working with to provide something in particular. The structure was very much developed organically and collaboratively. And that’s the way you learn, not by just commissioning a piece to serve the visual material.
When I showed the piece as a trilogy in Rotterdam, a few people said to me: “It seems to me that these three pieces have separate identities. They look and function in very different ways.” After the first section, they were expecting to see subtitles or intertitles throughout. But they don’t. In the second section, there’s a lack of commentary, which returns in the final section through quotations from Toshiya. So people noticed these three very different modes and styles, different ways of editing and using the camera. Those differences are a direct reflection of the relationships I developed with the people I was working with and discussions with them about what was appropriate.
CC: I want to go back to talking about the relationship between image and sound in the Grammar. The image track gives the sound track a sort of concreteness, a sort of focus for the sounds, the sources of which are often hard to place. Yet your images rarely deliver or match the sonic sources. In what ways did working with these sound artists affect your decisions about what to film and how to edit your footage?
LF: Well, that’s a two-fold point. Firstly, these works were collaborative, so all the main decisions – from the concept to location and final edit – were generally agreed upon together. In each pairing we would take turns to host the other in our home city, taking the other to places that each felt would be rewarding for him. So with Lee, I recall him getting very excited about the hydrophone recordings he made in Greenock; and Eric seemed to get some fantastic results from the winds that picked up and excited the steel barriers at the top of Loch Sloy. I would rarely, as you point out, want to film the sound’s source – like, say, those steel barriers – partly because we didn’t want to have constant hard syncs, but also because it seemed quite futile. Sound recording and filming often work with phenomena that are quite distinct – the camera being limited to documenting light across surfaces, whilst a microphone could record something that was miles away or a contact mic could transduce the vibrations deep within a surface or object, sounds that would often be imperceptible to the senses.
So, though we collaborated, we also trusted one another to find something of equivalent importance . . . which at times was very difficult. But it was also in those times that I found that I was really struggling to “see” something, that my interaction with the camera, the place, and the situation would just seem to coalesce; and the rushes from those moments would completely surpass my expectations.
CC: I’m intrigued by the notion of a grammar for listening.
LF: The title is a nod to a few things. One is a book by [radical psychiatrist] David Cooper called A Grammar for Living. (Cooper was great with inventing neologisms, like the “anti-psychiatry” label, which R.D. Laing tried to get rid of for the rest of his life.) We needed a title for this project and I thought: what is it doing? what am I proposing? I think, in a way, it’s a treatise, or three treatises on listening. At the heart of the work and of the experience was a different way of listening, a more engaged way of listening to the world and to our surroundings. I felt that the three people I collaborated with for the Grammar have an engagement with the world through sound that I’d never come across before and that I find absolutely astonishing and fascinating. They enrich your experience of the everyday. It’s like walking around with an encyclopedia or with someone who’s a great storyteller. This experience suddenly opens up a whole new way of looking at the world and of experiencing the world. That’s what I wanted to convey in the films, though I’m sure if you asked my collaborators they’d have their own opinions on the works.
The problem with film is that it can’t convey the continual nature of these (recorded) events. We just went in and filmed or recorded for an hour or so; but, after we left, those sonic events, for the most part, remained and were continually changing. It’s not as if we were waiting patiently for some incredible acoustic phenomena to happen. A lot of wildlife recording is, as Toshiya says, like a hunter stalking his prey. It’s about patience, sitting there at 4 o’clock in the morning in some garden in rural England waiting to discover some rare species of frogs will call. I’m not disparaging that approach, but we were after something different: to show that the sonic events we were capturing are happening all the time. They’re not special. I mean of course they are special to us. They’re exciting and sonically interesting; but they’re also very quotidian experiences.
CC: When you are out in the field with Lee or Eric, how are you thinking about what to do with your camera?
LF: [laughs] Exactly! This is why Lee really wanted to call it A Grammar for Looking and Listening. I thought that’s a little long-winded; but I took his point, because the title does seem to privilege the sonic aspect of the film and doesn’t make reference to the fact that it’s trying to find a visual language that’s an “objective correlative” for some of the acoustic phenomena or the sound phenomena that are being recorded. And so I’d say that the visual aspect of the film is, at once, attending to the sound and to the approaches and the methodologies of recording the sound, while also trying to be as open as possible to reacting to the environment and its own unraveling events. I suppose that may sound quite whimsical; but I was really just trying to respond to the landscape and to the possibilities of how to frame that with the Bolex. I do a lot of in-camera editing and try to do as much as possible within the camera. So the fades, double exposures, speed changes and things like that are all done manually. When I’m doing that, I’m thinking about the length of the shot and, in a way, trying to compose little stanzas, little statements that are observations and states of mind. I’m doing that directly at that time, rather than shooting for half an hour and just letting what will be be, letting the events unfold. There’s a lot of consideration given to montage within the camera, within the brevity of the 100-foot film roll.
CC: That’s, what, 2 1/2 minutes of film?
LF: Yeah, it’s like 2 minutes 45 when projected at 24 frames/second. So that’s your parameter. That’s what you’re working with. And, to me, that’s what’s so irreplaceable about film and one of its great charms: that you have to become incredibly thoughtful and disciplined about what you’re committing to film – in effect, two and a half minutes suddenly feels like a very long time.
Christoph Cox is a philosopher, critic, and curator. The author of Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation (California, 1999) and co-editor of Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (Continuum, 2004), Cox contributes regularly to Artforum, Cabinet, The Wire, and other publications. He has curated exhibitions at The Kitchen, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, New Langton Arts and other venues. Cox is currently completing a philosophical and historical book on sound art and experimental music.