Gravity Spells Returns- “Embrace the Vortex”

By Brian Darr

May 19, 2022

In 2014 John Davis produced a double-album entitled Gravity Spells: Bay Area New Music and Expanded Cinema Art, which presented sound recordings made by himself as well as Maggi Payne, Tashi Wada, Ashley Beloun and Ben Bracken, paired with accompanying DVDs featuring work by local moving image artists Lawrence Jordan, Craig Baldwin, Paul Clipson and Kerry Laitala. The release was accompanied by four weekend performances at the Kala Art institute in Berkeley, and the discs quickly sold out.

Now nearly eight years later there’s a sequel release, Gravity Spells II involving an entirely new slate of Bay Area sound artists and filmmakers. This time around the performances celebrating the release will all be held  May 19-22  at venerable Mission District venue The Lab. Only the artists know quite what to expect, but they’re sure to present a unique live cinema experiences.

For the full schedule, a trailer, and to buy tickets go to the San Francisco Cinematheque website.

For those unable to attend in person, the performances will also be livestreamed here.

Scott Stark’s new piece Night Out of Song will involve two 16mm projectors running simultaneously, in his words gathering “reflections, shadows and movements through the urban environment, assembling them into a kind of pulsing, breathing abstraction” accompanied by live music by Wobbly (a.k.a. John Leidecker) of the band Negativland. Other filmmakers performing include Alfonso Alvarez, Keith Evans, Zack Parrinella, Bill Basquin, Greta Snider, Mark Wilson, Anna Geyer, Alix Blevins, Janis Crystal Lipzin, Konrad Steiner and more. Sound artists performing include Laetitia Sonami, Suki O’Kane, Kevin Corcoran, Paul DeMarinis, Headboggle (a.k.a. Derek Gedalecia), Amma Ateria, Billy Gomberg, Zachary James Watkins,  Molly Fishman, and Joshua Churchill.

Keith Evans’ Utube video was a highlight of Shapeshifters Cinema’s pandemic-era online expanded cinema programming.

(Click on “Watch on You Tube” to view)

I was one of several writers asked by John to contribute an essay as part of the extensive liner notes package accompanying the album release. I decided to create a short history of the tension between sound and image in early and mid-twentieth century cinema, highlighting some of the varied approaches taken by filmmakers in the 1950s and 60s to reclaim moving image art as a “live” cinema form as it had been during the silent film era.

Both editions of Gravity Spells can be purchased at Bimodal Press.

Gone, Gone Beyond is another Immersive show is playing at the Gray Area through Friday, May 27, 2022.  Information and tickets for athis 10-screen-8 channel surround show can be found here. Watch for Steve Segal’s article about the experience.

Here’s an advance publication of a slightly expanded version of my essay.

“Embrace the Vortex”

I. Silent Movies and Beyond

Cinema has been in a state of transformation for well over a century, adapting to shifting conditions of technology, economics, culture and aesthetics. Perhaps its most profound transfigurations have revealed a tension between its two fundamental elements: sound and moving image. In the early decades of motion pictures, the two were technologically untethered. Images were unreeled from strips of plastic designed to pass in front of projected light. Sound was almost invariably performed live in the cinema space. The largest halls presenting big-budget extravaganzas would accommodate full orchestras playing sheet music timed to the images on the screen. Mid-sized venues hired an organist or a smaller ensemble, while the smallest nickelodeons found room for an upright piano and an improvising accompanist. Narration, sound effects and even actors improvising dialogue from behind the screen might all be part of the cinema experience supplied by performers local to each theatre.

1926 Vitaphone demonstration by E.B. Craft

Vitaphone, the first commercially viable technology for marrying motion pictures to recorded sound, was developed by Western Electric at Bell Laboratories, and then purchased by the fledgling Warner Brothers studio in 1925. Vitaphone discs were the first to present sound at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. These were distributed to theatres to accompany musical films like the loose screen adaptation of Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan starring John Barrymore, and most famously, The Jazz Singer starring Broadway superstar and former Oakland resident Al Jolson in his feature film debut. The combination of technological novelty, assimilationist immigrant narrative, and a streak of racial caricature (via Jolson’s use of blackface), made this 1927 film irresistible to many moviegoers. As more and more theatres installed cumbersome sound systems, ever greater demands were placed on their technical staff. Though only 89 minutes long, The Jazz Singer would require fifteen flawless reel and disc changes per showing. Meticulous instructions detailed the timings necessary for a smooth presentation, as well as how to replace individual film frames in case of print damage. Still, the film became a blockbuster. A silent version was even shown in theatres in Harlem and Chicago’s South Side that were not yet “wired for sound”, with black performers singing along to the film live.

 

Left: Movietone track with variable density. Right: Variable area track.

Soon every Hollywood studio was making its own “talking pictures”, releasing film prints using competing audio technologies like Movietone, RCA’s Photophone, and bay area inventor Lee de Forest‘s Phonofilm. These systems avoided synchronization issues associated with sound-on-disc presentation by embedding light responsive “optical” soundtracks directly onto filmstrips. As a result, orchestra pits were emptied at movie palaces, and legions of musicians thrust onto the unemployment line. Audiences that had been used to experiencing live sound performance at every film screening soon became unused to it. The tension between cinema sound and image seemed to have become permanently resolved through standardization of distribution technologies.

However, no commercial media technology dominates without rebellious creative spirits finding ways to subvert its supremacy. Between media archivists holding onto “outdated” but perfectly useful presentation systems and visionaries interested in traveling new pathways of expression, the dividing lines between technological periods have never been as perfectly neat as terms like “silent era” and “sound era” indicate. Although silent cinema became extinct as a profit center for large American companies soon after 1927, the form remained viable for nearly another decade in countries like Japan and the Soviet Union. Other examples of this persistence could be found in non-commercial settings: churches that hired organists to perform to prints of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, schools that kept Chaplin films on hand for rainy days, museums and cinematheques that revived classics by Murnau & Eisenstein, and screened new films made by independent practitioners who eschewed sound technology for aesthetic or budgetary reasons.

A terrific 2021 presentation on the history of narration for cinema and other arts in Asia (and beyond).

 

There’s nothing quite like experiencing a “live” cinema performance event that can never be replicated again in precisely the same way. It can feel like being present at a momentous historical occasion, or bearing witness to your own personal growth as a performance unfolds over time. Sometimes it’s like being at a party. Other times a solemn ritual, or even a séance. Sometimes it’s all of these and more all at once. The traditional cinema uses motion picture technology to reproduce precisely the same event over and over, delivering sound and images through mechanical systems innumerable times in countless spaces to untold audiences around the world. In contrast, artists and performers who work with ‘expanded’ or performance cinema are always fighting against the predictability of the static and the byproducts of motion picture technology. It is precisely that impulse that gives performance cinema its unpredictable magic: on a good night it feels like anything can happen. On a great night, anything does.

It may be a happenstance plot contrivance that Al Jolson’s industry-reshaping line “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” is uttered at one point in The Jazz Singer when his character is supposed to be performing in a San Francisco nightclub. Of course the scene was actually filmed in Southern California, but the nightclub was based on a real Frisco speakeasy called Coffee Dan’s at Powell and O’Farrell streets. Jolson’s character is in exile from his traditionally cloistered and devoutly Jewish New York family, drawn to a city that is about as geographically removed as possible from his hometown as any in the country.

That yawning distance from New York (and Los Angeles) has helped isolate the San Francisco area as a hub for both technological and artistic innovation. Philo T. Farnsworth invented television at the foot of Telegraph Hill in 1927. Would he have been as inspired to do so in view of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, where experts in existing methods of distributing images congregated? Forty years prior, Eadweard Muybridge staked a claim to inventing the motion picture itself with his Palo Alto photographs of horses in motion. Would he have pursued such experiments if his studio had been headquartered near Wall Street instead of on San Francisco’s Montgomery Street? Today, the Bay Area houses Dolby Labs, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Netflix, and a swath of gaming and social media companies. Arguably none of them would be as successful with their corporate innovations if they were more ensconced in traditional media power centers.

II. Sara Kathryn Arledge

But I’m most interested in drawing attention to innovators that could never be traded on any stock exchange, and whose cultural footprint in the Bay Area and beyond, if not necessarily evident to many observers, may still be massive. Sara Kathryn Arledge is one major figure whose work made enormous impacts on filmmaker artists such as Chick Strand, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Hammer, and Pat O’Neill, and who should be better known. She spent her early life in Southern California, beginning work on her first film Introspection in Pasadena in 1941, two years before Maya Deren’s landmark debut Meshes of the Afternoon was completed. Arledge was one of the first to show Deren’s film outside of New York, while she was teaching in Tucson, Arizona.

from Introspection

But it was not until she moved to the Bay Area in 1946 that she was inspired to complete Introspection, after being invited by SFMOMA film programmer Frank Stauffacher to debut it at one of his pioneering “Art In Cinema” presentations at the museum. She described the film, shot silently and joined to a Schubert piece for its soundtrack, as an attempt to “add time to painting”.

Riding on the inspiration of a successful premiere, Arledge produced a new set of works: hand-painted glass slides that she would project for her students in a class called Color and Design at Oakland’s College of Arts and Crafts, and for friends invited into her living room. (According to a timeline published in the catalog for a Pasadena exhibition Sara Kathryn Arledge: Serene For the Moment, she was part of an informal experimental film club also including Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, Curtis Harrington, and Sidney Peterson).

It’s probably impossible to know for sure, but it’s been suggested that this body of time-based art may have ultimately been the genesis for the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s and beyond. Despite being committed to the Napa State Hospital and given electroshock treatments for much of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Arledge continued to paint, to work on films, and even draw up plans for a special screening room with multiple projectors and translucent screens.

 

BAMPFA’s 2021 presentation on Sara Kathryn Arledge

III. The Embrace of Fate

In the 1950s and 1960s, live cinema was still the commercial norm in one film-producing nation. Thailand had made 16mm color reversal silent stock its standard technology for film production and distribution. This meant moviegoers were unfamiliar with the actual voices of superstars like Petchara Chaowarat & Mitr Chaibancha; their films were provided live soundtracks performed, sometimes even improvised off-script, in regional dialects by troupes of voice actors in every corner of the country.  While visiting Thailand, theatre operator Irving M. Levin saw one of these screenings/performances. In 1957 Levin had founded the San Francisco International Film Festival, the continent’s first annual showcase of films from around the world, He decided to debut the Thai cinema practice he’d seen abroad for American audiences in the 1962 edition of the event held at the Metro Theatre on Union Street. Two presentations of a film directed by Siri Sirichinda and starring Petchara and Mitr entitled Embrace of Fate impressed audiences, thanks to the live vocal and sound effects performance by acclaimed husband and wife team Rujira Israngura and Marasri Israngura, whom Levin had flown in from Bangkok along with the slender film reels. Though most in the San Francisco audience could not understand the words of dialogue the Isranguras performed in different voices for each character, they got the gist, and reviewers reported that the team delighted the audience by practicing their technique on a muted segment of a John Ford Western as well, making Walter Brennan appear to speak Thai through their live dubbing performance.

A screening in which reels of images unspooled alongside a live, perhaps improvised audio accompaniment was unusual, but not unheard of. While a live performance like the Isranguras’ was an anomaly to American audiences of the day, as an audio accompaniment to a film presentation it still had precedents in living memory. It is possible that some older visitors to Embrace of Fate’s Metro screening that night had attended previous presentations of films with live narration, like the animations that Winsor McCay toured on the vaudeville circuit in the 1900s and 1910s, or the travelogues Aloha Wanderwell lectured alongside in the 1920s & 1930s.

Winsor McCay’s vaudeville act with Gertie as recreated by Serge Bromberg.

IV. The Vortex Concerts

If Arledge experimented with presenting paintings as a time-based medium, and the Isranguras transformed a “static” cinema screening into performance by creating the soundtrack live before an audience, then a third example of the day explored other possibilities, by transforming “static” audio into performance by presenting admixtures of imagery live before an audience.

 

Between 1957 and 1959 at the Academy of Sciences in the heart of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, abstract animator Jordan Belson and sound artist Henry Jacobs collaborated to create “a new form of theatre based on the combination of electronics, optics and architecture. Its purpose is to reach an audience as a pure theatre appealing directly to the senses,” Belson wrote. Using a state-of-the-art planetarium built by engineers trained while the Academy had been contracted to repair optical instruments for the U.S. Navy during World War II, Belson and Jacobs created full programs of experimental music and imagery for eager attendees of their evening programs. Jacobs curated quarter-inch magnetic tape recordings from composers from around the globe, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Toru Takemitsu, and amplified them, along with his own tape music pieces, using the planetarium’s multidirectional sound system.

Meanwhile, Belson would augment the astronomical imagery of the black beetle-like star machine with his own projections of 16mm film, slides, strobes, and interference patterns onto the dome, all of which he would synchronize to the recordings in real time. Because these performances depended on low levels of light and intense ambient color, they were impossible to document using the technology of the time. But they survive in the remembrances of those who experienced them.

Filmmaker Lawrence Jordan, a Bay Area resident since 1955, recently described one of Belson’s presentations:

   “He was sitting at a central control booth in the center of the room, and he had projectors loaded with his material, and he was shooting them on the ceiling. Think of his films deconstructed and elements of them flying all around. The sound was very skillfully used to knit the whole thing together.”In an interview published in Scott MacDonald’s 1998 book A Critical Cinema 3, Belson described in some detail how the experience of creating these live presentations transformed his own filmmaking; no longer was he confined to frame-by-frame animation; he now had a whole new quiver of methods for creating “controlled abstract imagery” in his home studio, many of which he guarded closely. But the results still circulate in his post-Vortex films like Allures. We can also still see some of the films he projected onto that planetarium dome, both his own and those by allies Hy Hirsch, John Whitney and Jane Conger Belson Shimané.

And the Vortex spirit lives on through the work of those who iit directly influenced. Editor and sound designer Walter Murch credits it as the genesis for the now-ubiquitous “surround sound”. Others identify it, sometimes along with Arledge’s glass slides, as the predecessor to later three-dimensional audiovisual presentations such as the famous “San Francisco light shows” which wizards like Bill Ham and Ben Van Meter were hired to provide for psychedelic rock concerts, which in turn were supplanted by the more precisely automated lighting enhancements that have accompanied concert tours with continually increasing sophistication.

Bill Ham discussing his work creating light shows in the mid-1960s

In 2022, with the fate of commercial film exhibition increasingly in doubt, we might remain hopeful that present and future media freethinkers will create alternative methods of presenting time-based and performance-based moving image art to a public thirsty for challenging and novel aesthetic experiences that may continue to de-resolve that tension between cinema images and cinema sound.

Brian Darr has been a cinephile for twenty-five years, a vegetarian for over thirty-five, and a San Francisco native all his life. From 2005-2019 he documented his perceptions of the Bay Area film screening scene.on his blog Hell On Frisco Bay. He’s also written articles for Senses of Cinema , the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Canyon Cinemazine, EatDrinkFilms, etc.

 

Going Deeper

Read “The Encounter: A Movie in Your Head” on EatDrinkFilms. After a discussion of the in-person audio play, The Encounter, there is an overview of sound experiments and innovation, past and present, in the Bay Area.

Phonofilms documentary

Watch the filming of a Vitaphone.

Will Hays introduces the Vitaphone.

Antonella Bonfanti discusses Sara Kathryn Arledge’s films.

The Amazing Career and Tragic Death of Mitr Chaibancha- Bangkok History Podcast.

Watch Jordan Belson’s Allures (from a much used print). Restored versions of Belson’s films and other filmmakers’ works are available for purchase from Center for Visual Music.

Vortex 1957 Analog Tape Experiment and background article

Trailers for many Jordan Belson restorations can be viewed here.

Listen to Henry Jacobs interview of NPR’s “All Things Considered.

Louise Harvey’s VR film Ascendance is inspired by the work of Jordan Belson with Henry Jacobs  and other early experimentations mixing image and sound.

Insight into the motivations, processes, and software behind the making of the animated VR film Ascendance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s