Man with a Movie Camera

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Last night, I had the absolute pleasure and privilege to screen the 1929 experimental Soviet silent documentary film, Man with a Movie Camera. I’d been aware of the film for some time but had never made it a point to view the picture. Directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova, the film presents urban life in various metropolitan cities including Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa. The film was novel in concept in that it has no characters and no direct plot. Instead, it is a cinematic portrait of A Day in the Life of the Soviet citizen. And interestingly, many parallels can be drawn between the visuals of the movie and the musique concrete qualities of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.

The film is universally acclaimed for its impressive use of a wide range of camera techniques invented and explored by Vertov, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop-motion animations and self-reflexive visuals. In 2012 film critics participating in The British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll voted it the eighth greatest film ever made and the best documentary of all time.

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The film is utterly captivating. There is a very natural energy to the picture which builds from the serene silence of dawn to the furious and industrious bustle of machinery and men. The film is partitioned into segments of thematic focus, from home life to business to sports and recreation, and with a brilliant fluidity of transition. It’s a fantastic snapshot of an entire world of culture in 1929, expertly framed by the titular man with a movie camera who appears throughout the film, equipment in hand. It is simultaneously engaging both emotionally and intellectually for the incredible vivacity and spirit of the imagery and the astonishing technological proficiency of the director’s presentation of cinéma vérité.

But the delightful surprise that really enhanced my experience was that the version I viewed was synced with a score written and performed by The Cinematic Orchestra, one of my favorite ensembles. I’d already owned a copy of their album, Man With a Movie Camera, but was completely blind to the fact that the album was constructed as an actual score, supporting and playfully interacting with all the exciting visuals of the film. This realization added a rich new dimension to the album and helped me see incredible beauty in its composition that I had not beheld in my previous listenings.

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To date, there have been twenty-three soundtracks composed for the film. But the most noteworthy are the ones by Cinematic Orchestra and the Alloy Orchestra of Cambridge. I’m also eager to sample additional scores composed by  Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere), minimalist composer Michael Nyman, and particularly Pierre Henry’s L’Homme À La Caméra.

Many of the scores have been synced with the film and uploaded in their entirety to YouTube and are widely available via BitTorrent with multiple audio channels to select the score of your choice. I highly recommend the Cinematic Orchestra version (below) for your next movie night!

A Bit of Desolation to Still the Mind

Things have been really crazy lately with all the wedding preparation, so I’ve found myself setting aside an hour at the end of each day to slow everything down, read or write, and to play some pulse-slowing field recordings and ambient music to steady my mind.

One album that I keep returning to, sometimes multiple times in a row is a collaboration between Biosphere and The Higher Intelligence Agency called Polar Sequences released on the highly sought-after Beyond label.

The album is an exceptional example of arctic ambient – with its cold and desolate air and a meditative, drone-like quality.

The liner notes reveal that the album is, in fact, a live recording capturing concert performances of the two artists together in Tromsø, Northern Norway from 1995.

‘Tromsø, 70 degrees north, in the Arctic region, in the middle of the most active northern lights zone. In summer time, land of the midnight sun. In winter, total darkness.

In October 1995, as part of the annual Polar Music Festival, Geir Jenssen of Biosphere and Bobby Bird of The Higher Intelligence Agency, were commissioned by Nor Concerts to collaborate together on a musical project to take place in Geir’s home town of Tromsø, Norway. The brief was for them to perform three concerts, using sounds sourced from the area as the basis of the music – the machinery of the local mountain cable lift, the snow, the ice etc…

The performances from which this recording is taken, took place on top of a mountain above Tromsø, in a cabin reached by the cable car, in which the audience were transported up the mountain in turn.’

The album was originally issued in a limited run of 5000 in 1996, and later reissued on Headphone Records in 2003.

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Give a listen to the opening segment, “Cimmerian Shaft”

and to the stark album closer, “Meltwater”

Arctic Ambient (or) Ambient House at 30,000 Ft

I’ve really been enjoying my copies of Gas’ Nah Und Fern vinyl set and the deluxe edition 9LP set of William Basinki’s epic Disintegration Loops. It seemed long-overdue that I retrace my musical steps to the summer of 2009 when I’d first crossed paths with a fellow music-lover and ambient guru who introduced me to Gas in the first place.

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He’d mentioned several similar artists which I briefly sampled but never fully-explored.  There’s no better time than the present to remedy that mistake.

This friend had a particular affinity for Nordic-based “arctic-ambient” music – frigid soundscapes of isolation and desolation. Still these recordings had a cerebral and meditative quality that really draws the listener in and that’s something I really need in my life at present.

So I began my re-visiting of 2009 with an artist whose name happened to surface in one of my online vinyl communities. (Call it a sign if you’d like.) Biosphere is Geir Jenssen – a Norwegian musician specializing in ambient electronic music. It was while researching him that I first-encountered the term, “arctic-ambient” and I just had to hear more. In 2001 users of the online rave community, Hyperreal voted his Substrata LP as the best all-time classic ambient album. It was this very album which surfaced in the vinyl community and inspired my rediscovery of the genre, and I was truly impressed by the transportive quality of the record.

Another artist I recalled as having worked with Biosphere was HIA. Higher Intelligence Agency is the music project of Bobby Bird of Birmingham, UK. I was instantly excited to learn that he had released two ambient glitch albums on Pete Namlook’s brilliant FAX +49-69/450464 label of which I make frequent mention.

HIA collaborated with Biosphere on two live recordings, namely the frigid Polar Sequences in 1996…

…and the more temperate Birmingham Frequencies in 1999.

These are wonderfully expansive, atmospheric recordings and make for excellent headphone listening.

But stripping things down to the very shell of ambient music I found the next half-forgotten memory of the summer long-passed.  Deathprod is Norwegian artist Helge Sten. (I envision Norway as being absolutely overrun with ambient laptop musicians.) If you only buy one Deathprod album, get the self-titled Deathprod box set. (Not cheating – box sets are okay in my book.) The 4-disc set comprises Morals and Dogma, Treetop Drive (a long-deleted album from 1994), Imaginary Songs From Tristan Da Cunha from 1996, and “Reference Frequencies” (a disc of previously unreleased, rare and deleted tracks). Better-still, Deathprod Collaborated with Biosphere in 1998 on the album, Nordheim Transformed.

Christian Fennesz (performing simply as “Fennesz”) of Vienna, Austria has produced a number of albums in the same stark, ambient-electronic vein. Highlights include his 2004 album Venice,

Endless Summer from 2001

and Black Sea released in 2008.

I also enjoyed his collaborations with ambient veteran, Ryuichi Sakamoto – Cendre (2007)

…and Flumina (2011).

Fennesz creates white-noise washes of modified guitar loops very much in the spirit of the Frippertronic tape works of Fripp and Eno and Sakamoto adds a refined touch of modern-classical solo piano.

Deaf Center is the last major piece of this dark ambient puzzle.  Norway’s Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland produce epic and theatrical minimal soundscapes.  To steal a beautifully-concise description from RYM user, Son_of_Northern_Darkness – Deaf Center is, “a nice soundtrack to the construction of your own snow-coffin.”

Neon City was an impressive first-outing for the duo, but their first full-length LP released the following year, Pale Ravine stands as their most cohesive work thus far.

Neon City

and the haunting, Pale Ravine

To close with something a bit more lively, Sweden’s own Carbon Based Lifeforms leans more in the direction of psybient music, with their heavy usage of melodic loops, echoes, and steady rhythms. This is ambient music with a vibrant pulse. Check out World of Sleepers

So thank you, my old friend for sharing such wonderful music with me.  I’m sorry it’s taken me all these years to really explore it, but better late than never!