Top Ten Possible Stan Brakhage Soundtracks
tan Brakhage was not only one of the best American experimental filmmakers, he was also one of the most prolific. His three hundred-something films range from several seconds to several hours in length, but almost always play with the film medium itself, either by scratching or painting directly on the surface of a film reel. With his hand-painted films especially, Brakhage attempted to re-structure vision itself, to teach the eye to see the world anew.
Needless to say, teaching the eye to see differently is not an easy process. His editing style left many audiences with headaches. It has often been described as the precedent for the exagg-o-flash style found in today’s over-stimulating commercials and music videos. In his hand-painted films, images could change as quickly as 24 flickers a second. The result is uncanny, and coupled with the fact that Brakhage intentionally chose to make them silent only adds to the awkwardness of the viewing experience.
Even though Brakhage wanted to make silent movies, it’s worth noting that even silent films were never “silent.” They might not have had synchronized sound, but they were screened either with live accompaniment or recorded scores that would loosely align with early feature-length movies. Having sound alongside movies has always helped maintain an engagement with what’s being shown. Sound has always helped lesson the blow of violent editing. So, with Brakhage’s rollercoaster of hand-painted images, here are ten songs to provide a (sound)track for the ride.
10. Gas, “Untitled”
09. Basic Channel, “Radiance II”
Both Gas and Basic Channel underpin their ghostly synths with a layer of distortion. Like peach fuzz, it gives the music a tactile weight that matches Brakhage’s heavy swabs of paint. Brakhage once described his work as visual music, and underneath both songs are shimmering tones that serve as a trampoline to the rhythmic drive in his movies like Untitled (For Marilyn) and Black Ice. Basic Channel’s “Radiance II”‘s bassline actualizes the trampoline—it bounces along, but never overly determines the rhythm of the movies.
08. Ricardo Villalobos - “Fools Garden (Black Conga)”
While I’ve always tried to steer clear of music that could dilute Brakhage’s visual rhythms, Ricardo Villalobos’ “Fools Garden (Black Conga)” is my lone concession to techno. The song’s congas drip around half-gulps as the gentle sway of the rhythm gives Brakhage’s splattered light a touch of resigned resilience. The tinkling melody only deepens the sentiment and gives Brakhage’s assault on the eyes a very real smattering of melancholy.
07. Nobukazu Takemura - “Mattino Davanti Alla Torre Dell’orologio”
06. Terry Riley - “A Rainbow in Curved Air”
Using tightly-wound arpeggiated synthesizers (“Rainbow”) and chimes (“Mattino”), both Riley and Takemura create a twinkling backdrop akin to a blurring of the eyes; bright lights flicker alongside Brakhage while darkness fades into black. Both songs also give Brakhage’s films warmth, changing violent flashes into sparkles of kindling.
05. Boredoms – “(Star)”
With its complete surrender into psych-rock, “(Star)” could be the closest this list comes to seeing the Dark Side of the Moon. Like a sensory lubricant, the Boredoms scream, pound and phase their way around Brakhage’s flurry of colored lights, making the arch-Abstract Expressionist (a man who quoted Ezra Pound at will) a hippie for a brief and shining moment.
04. Mouse on Mars - “Catching Butterflies with Hand”
“Catching Butterflies with Hand” joins Brakhage’s hand-painted films with the same irreverent dance trope as one of the earliest hand-painted films, Len Lye’s A Colour Box. When Brakhage’s light transforms into a breezy stream, Mouse on Mars’ song provides enough unexpected bubbles to cause hiccups. Though difficult to achieve the synchronicity between image and sound found in “A Colour Box,” Mouse on Mars’ song still works because of that fact. It sputters and limps along, always prodding Brakhage’s images to do the same.
03. Animal Collective - “Two Sails on a Sound”
With gentle wheezing lost somewhere between an aging robot and thicket of flapping moths, Animal Collective’s song blossoms around a reverberating piano drone. “Two Sails on a Sound” is a slow burn, letting Brakhage’s films to flutter in the song’s slow expanse.
02. Bernard Parmegiani - “Accidents Harmoniques”
If Brakhage was searching for new ways of seeing, then Parmegiani was his sonic equivalent. The electro-acoustic pioneer used a series of unexpected clouds of steel wool, timbre changes, and sudden silences to punctuate every moment of “Accidents Harmoniques.” Blasted in a dark room alongside Brakhage, it can cause one of the scariest fusions of audiovisual abstraction. Just make sure to shave the hair on the back of your neck beforehand.
01. Fennesz - “Perlon für Euch”
Heard from the opening delicate notes, “Perlon für Euch” returns again and again to its processed core to stabilize its gentle taps outward. Less a leitmotif than foundation, the melody builds like a Katamari ball, eventually engulfing cities in its path. Fennesz’s momentum transfers to works like Brakhage’s Dante’s Quartet, making the film’s peaks stronger and troughs deeper and far more brittle.
By: Nate De Young
Published on: 2006-07-07