Writing music inspired by a film is fairly common; making a film to inspire music is much less so. Christian Marclay's Screen Play is subtitled "To be interpreted by a small group of musicians" and the Vooruit brought lined up three different groups to do so, one after the other (yes, that means we watched the half-hour film three times in a row).
The film itself was an assemblage of old stock and movie footage upon which bright, solid-coloured lines, dots and squares were drawn (see photos). Sometimes they interacted with the images, as when a wavy blue line was laid over ocean scenes or the characters' eyes followed the drawings' movements. Marclay didn't shy away from laughs or sentimentality and constantly set up sequences that tricked you into thinking there was a narrative. A favourite moment was when a conductor's hand left an elegant, curvy white scribble that ended up drifting away when someone blew out a candle. To underscore its role, the film ends with a woman closing a piano's keyboard lid.
Tetuzi Akiyama, Stef Irritant, Ignatz
The three guitarists (acoustic, electric and slide) played a restful accompaniment that remained totally detached from the frenetic pace of the on-screen action. They started with a rustic, almost countrified feel and later slipped in some Indian tampura-style drones, but kept a slow-moving, ambient feel throughout. For the first half of the film, simple melodies with a trembling, evanescent charm emerged. When they shifted to a less focused form of improvisation, things seemed to wander and lose inspiration.
Jason Lescalleet, Greg Kelley, Bhob Rainey
This set interacted slightly more with the film: Rainey went so far as to mirror Marclay's humour by playing a circular pattern as a ballerina spun. Rainey and Greg Kelley belong to some of the most exploratory reaches of improvisation, but their contributions were somewhat overwhelmed by the power of Jason Lescalleet's set-up, so I'd like to hear them in a duo context. He produced rumbles, static, partial beats and samples of voices and even of a symphony. The latter demonstrated the organising power of Classical music over movies in general, as the disparate images immediately took on a new sense of order. In terms of trio balance, it was only when Lescalleet abandoned most of his gear and swung an object of some sort around on a cord in front of a microphone that everyone felt on the same plane.
Steve Beresford, John Butcher, Paul Lovens
This was the most free-jazz-like set, becayse of the reaction time, variable dynamics and drama, and therefore the one that most interacted with the film. Paul Lovens was actually the only musician to look at the projection screen at the back of the stage rather than the TV set up at the front. It was also a little more old-school, as Steve Beresford operated as an electronic musician, producing sci-fi buzzes and tones, as opposed to Lescalleet's more deejaying approach. Lovens's sense of humour found plenty of occasions to express itself: he was like an old-fashioned sound effects man, mimicking galloping horses and rolling cars.
I was happy to see John Butcher at some length for the first time (I had to leave a concert of his with Phil Minton a few years ago because I was with friends unappreciative of that kind of music). Like Kelley and Rainey, he has developed a sonic language that pushes back the boundaries of his instrument's soundworld. Of late, I've been wondering about what avant-garde jazz could mean today. This might not be it, but it reassured me that there was plenty of Crazy Experimental Freedom happening, just like thirty years ago.
Given that I had just come from the Jimmy Cobb concert, I couldn't help but think about how many degrees separated Lovens, Butcher, Kelley and Rainey from Cobb. Lovens is quite clearly a jazz drummer, or at least he has been when I've seen him with Aki Takase and Alexander Von Schlippenbach, directly descended from those of the 50s and 60s, with perhaps, like Han Bennink, a lingering fondness for the exuberance of the Swing era drummers.
I tend to think of sound-based improvisers such as the other three as expanding on what I call the "in-between" sounds inherent in jazz: slurs, attacks, flourishes and exclamations expanded from transitions to destinations. It seems to me that all this is at least partially germinated from, for example, Don Cherry, in the way his lines struggle against all these parasitic sounds. This sound orientation is not per se an avant-garde thing: 50s Miles Davis, Lester Young's false fingerings as he honked on one note, or more blues-based players from Stanley Turrentine to Archie Shepp all developed this in-between vocabulary that had more to do with texture and vocalisation - pure sound - than harmony, or whatever. It's not a narrowing, either: the exploration of the in-between creates its own new space that expands into its own vocabulary and ends up recombining with other things. So I kind of want to believe that they are no more than three to four degrees away from Cobb, through his association with Coltrane, for example.