Lee Ranaldo, DJ Olive, and Alan Licht create an experimental music performance
The space between film and sound
Text of Light illuminates under the radar movies
By David Todd
Its fitting that Text of Light perform with the avant-garde films of Stan Brakhage and Harry Smith as a backdrop, because the lineage among these experimental artists is so clear. In a sense, musicians like Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth) and Alan Lichtthe two constants in this otherwise-shifting ensemblewill always play with a series of scratches and blurs strobing across them from the heyday of the Anthology Film Archives. But it also makes sense that the group doesnt set out to score these films, which were mostly conceived of as silent, but rather respond to them in the interest of making some of their own freeform improv. Taking their name from the Brakhage film screened at their first concert in 2001, Text of Light shift in performance from guitar noise to fields of cinematic color, phasing in and out of harmony with the projection.
Text of Lights upcoming show at The Stone unites guitarists Ranaldo and Licht with one of their primary partners in the project, turntablist DJ Olive (other regulars not featured include Christian Marclay, Ulrich Krieger, and Tim Barnes). The Brooklyn-based Olive seems like a natural for this group, not only for his vocabulary as a club DJ (ambient, dancehall, dub, Latin) but also for the ease with which hes collaborated with artists ranging from Ikue Mori to Christian Fennesz.
I spoke with Olive (otherwise known as Gregor Asch) about the show at The Stone, where Text of Light will perform to a film that, not surprisingly, has yet to be determined.
What do you think is so lasting about Brakhage and musicians from that time like La Monte Young?
I think there was something about the time and place that can not be translated. In the 60s, with the preconceptions about what we thought sound and film should do and how they should behave, those guys were taking those assumptions and rearranging them. So instead of just using film in the normal way, Stan Brakhage would make prepared film or expose it in a way that wasnt really meant to be done. And I think La Monte Young was taking what were comfortable with, even in an avant-garde sense, and stretching that. And theres a kind of punk element, I would say, that Brakhage approached the technology with, like poking holes in the film, which was a very punk attitude toward the material. And thats how I think Text of Light approaches the sound.
In addition to punk, are there connections between Brakhage and electronic music you see as a DJ?
Definitely with an electronic-music sensibility you have different kinds of colliding information, almost like a fugue, where you have multiple voices happening simultaneously. I find that interesting in Stan Brakhages work and I think it ties into what a lot of electronic musicians now are doing, like in the sort of laptop world. Since like 1998, when the technology really changed, I think theres a way that the technology is affecting how we think of narrative, so there can be multiple narratives happening at once, in an abstract sense. I think Stan Brakhage and a lot of those guys were deconstructing that narrative.
Are Text of Light open to some of the basic structural devices Brakhage used?
Yeah, even though were improvising, there is an element of us trying to figure out how to have a beginning or a middle or some kind of landscape to the improvisation, some sort of shape. I hear a lot of improvisers talk about shape and I think that relates a lot to those early prepared-film guys. I can see a shape they were afterrather than narrative having an explanation, it has a shape, without a moralistic ending.
Do you feel like theres like a ghost member of this group, being these films?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think theres a sort of X-factor the film adds thats not really quantifiable but definitely has an effect. And if you took it out of the equation and just had us play by ourselves it would be a radically different experience. Its not really clear, but the film is having an effect.
Its like the motivation without necessarily dictating the action?
Yeah. Also, in terms of vibe, which is kind of a weird word, its setting a kind of vibe in the room. Because when you have a film, youre already transferring the vibe away from a stage with some musicians on it. Youve got this thing projected on the wall, so the audience has their mind split between, should I be looking at the film? and should I be looking at Lee Ranaldo tweaking his guitar? So I think that already works to loosen you from your preconceived idea of what you were going to get out the experience. And within a few minutes, whether its five or ten, a space opens up between the film and music, or between how youre supposed to consume an experimental film and how youre supposed to consume an experimental music performance. But then another space opens up, which is more about your own meditation. And I find that really interesting.