NOTES ON THE MUSIC OF ZERO STATION
Originally appeared in Ninth Letter (2009)
I got a headache when, for the first time, I saw and maybe more notably heard Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece. Visually the film was stunning, but composer Philip Glass’s relentless ostinatos left me feeling like the guy in Full Metal Jacket who gets beaten with bars of soap. But gradually the film, rather than fade into memory in the weeks and months afterward, began to loom over everyday experience. Moments of visual transcendence—shafts of red morning light stabbed through trees—were now accompanied by Glass’s score, which I now hummed, or didn’t hum, depending on who was around, even though I hated the score, and kept hating it, until I no longer did, until I loved it, and loved Philip Glass. So it is with music, sometimes. It changes your mind.
Of the many things going for Koyaanisqatsi its collaborative origin is right up there. During the film’s years-long production schedule, director Godfrey Reggio supplied Glass with edited sequences for which Glass roughed-out compositions. Inspired by the emerging score, Reggio re-cut sequences (or drew up new ones entirely) to match Glass’s score, which sometimes inspired Glass to re-compose, and so on. Koyaanisqatsi is the only contemporary feature film I know of to be written by music. Alex Ross wrote that Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian filmmaker whose house composer (conveniently enough) was Prokofiev, took a similar approach, occasionally; and Orson Welles is said to have played Bernard Herrmann’s score on the set of Citizen Kane. But I think it’s safe to say Koyaanisqatsi, in addition to being a deeply moving film, stands alone as a demonstration of what is possible when a composer shares authorship with the director.
Which brings me to Deerhoof. About a year ago I had an email conversation with Deerhoof’s genial and brilliant guitarist, John Dieterich. I told him about the essay I’d been working on, how I wanted to somehow continue the conversation Reggio began thirty years ago, hopefully adding something of my own—perhaps the idea that human beings are not only speeding through life at unprecedented and largely destructive velocities, but doing so in a state of increasing diffusion. Jeffrey Eugenides said as much, if more artfully, around this same time on NPR, when he noted that by the grace of cell phones, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, we are effectively everywhere at once, and also nowhere.
Dieterich and I talked about whether it was possible to make a digital essay that played like a song, a short film or video that bore the visceral power of music, but posed questions like an essay, and put language at the fore, alternating the lead with music and images. Such a work wouldn’t treat music as a narrative galley slave, or as a means of lubricating transitions, or paving over rough spots. Rather, it would be written for the music, inspired by its rhythms and moods and evocations. John seemed to like the idea, and very generously offered up a recent Deerhoof recording entitled “Look Away” from their recent album Friend Opportunity. “Do as you wish with the music,” Dieterich wrote. “Use this material as if it simply were a toolbox—raw vegetables! Mix and match and use whatever you want at will.”
Maybe this would be easy.
It wasn’t. “Look Away” may be a song, technically, in that it occupies space on a collection of audio recordings produced in a studio by a gifted, unpredictable band, but it’s a song from another planet, or some other species—operatic, episodic, built upon sliding time signatures I can’t even begin to decode. The song doesn’t make use of a single musical phrase or convention I’ve ever encountered. Which is why making “Zero Station” was an unexpected pleasure. In one very real sense, I didn’t have to write it at all. Much of the work was done for me. All I had to do was pursue the sounds Deerhoof had already made, then figure out how they looked. The more difficult thing was not mucking up Deerhoof’s already sublime work.
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