NN6T: Your first movie is about music and musicians, how did you come up with that idea?
ELKINS: I have been very active as a musician my entire life and have always been intrigued by music's mysterious power to change peoples lives. I have known so many people, including myself, whose lives have evolved completely differently because of a single musical moment they experienced. I personally found that listening to various forms of extreme "noise" music and free improvisation as a teenager noticeably changed my thinking patterns, my decision making processes, my capacity to observe possibilities in life, and my empathy for other people.
Knowing that I was trying to understand this mystery in my own life, a friend at the UC Berkeley law library mailed me an essay he came across by William Day who was exploring the idea that engagement with improvisation in music may cultivate a knowledge that is of a moral nature, in both the improviser and the listener. By "moral," he did not mean a set of axioms or principles, but that improvisation, in its nature as lived activity, causes us to stand in relation to our uncompleted selves and react to it. This article really resonated with me, as it was able to articulate something I had observed in my unconscious reaction to music.
Soon after, I stumbled upon an interview with a German improviser I like very much, Olaf Rupp, who explained his tendency toward high speed, complex guitar playing as a way of examining how ideas are formed in his brain. He described how, through the extreme speed of his playing, he is writing a program into his body in which his movements become automatic, and he has no time to think about what he's doing. He felt that in this state, he could more easily keep his music from being determined by either will or chance, which allowed him to observe, from a particular perspective, how his brain unconsciously forms ideas and develops them. The interviewer asked him what his music is determined by, if it is not determined by will or chance, and his response was: "There is no word for that in German."
You could say that music is almost as mysterious as consciousness, in the sense that they are both a part of our everyday lives, and our lives are deeply affected by them all the time, but still no one can accurately define or describe what music or consciousness are. And they both have a relationship to each other. I find it a mystery how invisible sound waves moving through the air can have such a profound effects on brains, bodies and culture.
So I became interested in investigating why music has such a profound power. At first, I did this by spending about five years interviewing musicians about making music through free improvisation. To me, free improvisation (in which musicians get up on stage making sure they have no idea what they're going to do, and then begin to "dialogue" with each other by engaging with their unpredictably evolving fields of sound) seemed to be the closest musical form to having a live conversation. I thought it would provide a unique perspective into certain internal meanings of music by breaking it down into a form of language. I also felt that free improvisation provided a unique perspective on how people locate meaning in the complex phenomena they find themselves surrounded by...in other words, how they think and shape themselves.
However, after interviewing so many musicians, I began to feel that some of their other musical projects provided an equally interesting way to investigate deeper meanings in music in ways that would be easier to capture through the language of cinema. For example, Miya Masoaka's music with plants and insects were as interesting as her thoughts on free improvisation, but were more exciting to capture on film. So I began to focus more on musicians who were using music as a tool to study another discipline, such as science, social behavior, ecology, etc. I felt this allowed another unique perspective into the mysteries of music's ability to communicate.
NN6T: What part of the movie was most demanding and troublesome? Alaska, Australian desert or something else?
ELKINS: Alaska and Australia presented the greatest challenges for filming. My first trip to Alaska was in January, so I was filming in average temperatures of -50 degrees fahrenheit with ice fog in the air. That meant I had to wrap my camera in blankets and sweaters that were lined with activated emergency heat packets, the kind that hikers normally carry in survival kits, but it was still cold enough to cause the camera and audio to malfunction in unpredictable ways. The cold also made my tripod freeze, so that its legs would snap and break if I ever had to extend or retract them. Somehow I shot the rest of the film on that same tripod with the broken legs.
That kind of weather made it difficult to get to John Luther Adams house in the first place, since he lives in the mountains on the outskirts of Fairbanks. At first I tried to rent a car at the airport, but all four rental companies housed there had representatives who were actually being paid to tell me they could not rent me a car because all their cars had been destroyed from either frozen engines or car accidents on hazardous roads. I wound up taking a taxi, but while heading up into the mountains, the taxi lost traction with the road and began to slide backward down the mountain. The driver yelled at me to grab my film gear and jump out of the taxi, which I did. There was a horrifying moment in which I waited for the car and driver to flip over the side of the mountain, but he hit a snow pile which stopped the car from sliding. He told me he had to abandon our route for both of our safety, so I had to walk the rest of the way to John's myself with all my filming equipment on my back. All of which was a magical introduction to Alaska.
Australia on the other hand is simply a place where basically everything is remote and nothing wants you to survive. Jon Rose's fence music partner, Hollis Taylor, put it best when she said: "Nature in America attests to God's presence, while here it's more often an indication of God's absence." I had to film in lots of extremely remote locations in central Australia filled with at least four of the world's deadliest snakes. The outback was experiencing the most deadly spree of bush fires in over a hundred years, killing people, taking out homes, and causing the sap in gum trees to explode. Jon and Hollis got caught in floods and boggings, and had to deal with crocodiles and giant biting flies that always try to land on your open eyeballs. But it was the most incredible experience traveling back and forth between such different parts of the world as Australia and Alaska throughout that year, and face all their challenges.
NN6T: If it was Werner Herzog's movie, he would definitely ridicule his protagonists. and it wouldn't be that hard to ridicule them. what was your idea to present them as creative individuals but not making them looking funny while playing the fence or talking about strange cockroaches' antics?
ELKINS: I think that one of the important functions of an artist is to make people stop and observe something they might otherwise be inclined to dismiss. Each of these artists have certainly had that effect on me...they have changed my perception and sensitivity to different aspects of my surroundings. I set out to reflect that as much as possible in my portrayals of them.
But also, one of my major motivations to make this film was to set a new tone for how to discuss their work. I feel that these artists tend to be unjustly marginalized under meaningless cliche descriptions such as "avant-garde," "weird," or "experimental" music, implying some kind of default antagonism toward general audiences that should be pushed to the periphery of our attention as listeners. Whereas I feel, on the contrary, that these artists should be recognized for caring enough to forge larger vocabularies and new grammar to the language of sound so that we can talk about things more deeply. To me that is an act of compassion, not of defiance.
I do hope that viewers find some humor in each of the artists work. Evoking music from a barbed wire fence with a violin bow is funny. So is the idea of turning cockroaches into musicians. But my intention was to evoke laughter only as a vehicle toward a new perception of the thing they are laughing at. I think it would be beautiful if viewers could learn from going through the process of laughing at something, then becoming sincerely interested in it, then deeply moved by it. As renowned neuroscientist Gary Lynch remarked after seeing the film, the work of these artists illuminate "a deep, profound pre-cognitive stream that goes unrecognized. These aren't eccentrics but people acting on something that most can't."
NN6T: The Alaskan part seems to be more reflective, quiet and meditational then others. It somehow doesn't fit with the other parts in some way, but at the same time it's a perfect completion of the whole movie. Any comment about that?
ELKINS: I'm glad to hear you reacted this way. I wanted the audience to go through the experience of feeling like the film is about a lot of things that don't seem related to each other, only to realize later in the film that they are all intimately connected at some deeper level, whether they realize it consciously or not. The producer of "The Reach Of Resonance," David G. Marks, once insightfully described the film as having a spiral structure. The film starts by drawing broad lines that don't seem to touch, but then get closer and closer together as the film spirals forward until it finally reaches its center and you realize that it was one line all along. It only appeared to be separate lines that didn't connect. I've found that no two audience members can agree on which parts of the film fit together best. I like that each viewer can complete this puzzle of a film in their own unique way by bringing their own experiences to it.
NN6T: Did you have other candidates to be main characters but they dropped out in the process?
ELKINS: There are countless other musicians I interviewed over the years who unfortunately had to be cut from the final film, even though they are all just as interesting as the artists who appear in "The Reach Of Resonance." Other artists I filmed include: Nels Cline, Pauline Oliveros, Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori, Norton Wisdom, DJ Olive, Z'EV, Raz Mesinai, Elliott Sharp, Okkyung Lee, Kaffe Matthews, Shelley Hirsch, Derek Bailey, Anthony Coleman, Leroy Jenkins, Marilyn Crispell, William Winant, John Oswald, Miguel Frasconi, David Cope, and many others.
There were also attempted interviews with Jim O' Rourke, Yasunao Tone, Frances-Marie Uitti, Wadada Leo Smith, Olaf Rupp, Annie Gosfield, Anthony Braxton, Mike Patton, several of whom I got to spend some time with, even though we didn't get around to filming. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.
I am slowly posting unused footage I shot of these artists on my website: http://www.steveelkins.net
NN6T: What is the initial feedback you received after your film's first screenings?
ELKINS: The film received a standing ovation at its first public screening (at the Angel City Jazz Festival in Los Angeles in October 2010). Then it went on to win the award for "Best Film Essay" at it's official premiere at Montreal's International Festival of Films On Art. This response was quite a relief considering that I had shown the film to a private test audience before those screenings, who were generally quite antagonistic to the film. For one thing, the test audience had a hard time accepting that any of the music in the film was music at all. On top of that, they were agitated by the film's unexpected and unpredictable structure. My unusual presentation of my subject matter was generally perceived by the audience as me simply not knowing what I was doing, since this was the first time I had made a film.
At first, this made me worried that the film did not succeed in communicating what I hoped to communicate, even though I was very deliberate about how the film was put together. But no more than ten minutes after the audience began giving me feedback, they erupted in a heated debate about how their lives related to questions raised in the film. No one was talking about the film anymore, nor were they talking to me. They were talking amongst themselves about their own lives. That's when I felt that I had achieved something I set out to achieve. The film spurred them to pick up pieces of their own lives and rethink them. This reflected some of the central questions raised in the film about the degree to which art can change the way we relate to the people and circumstances in our lives. So it was more rewarding to see the film had that effect on this audience, than to know that they simply liked the film.
The feedback from the early screenings in Los Angeles and Montreal indicated that the film really made people engage with questions they didn't realize they should be asking themselves. It gave me confidence that the film does communicate and that there is an audience for it.
NN6T: What are your future plans as a film maker? Are you currently working on something you can tell something about?
ELKINS: I have several more documentaries and also some narrative feature films I intend to make. My next film begins production on October 1st. It will involve the largest astronomy project in human history, Tuvan throat singers, a neuroscientist's quest to actually photograph memories being formed in the brain, CERN's Large Hadron Collider, and the Kalacakra sand mandala ceremony overseen by the Dalai Lama in India, all told through the true story of a man running alone across Death Valley in average temperatures of 130 degrees fahrenheit.
The film will be about questions, and the diverse routes to ask them. It will be about the struggles to lift the seemingly impenetrable veils of mystery from the intangible and transcendent, whether through bodies, machines, brains, or stars.
NN6T: You have a diplomma in film production, but you first start off as a successful photographer and visual artist. How did that happen and why have you finally decided to jump back into film making?
ELKINS: Film school made me not want to work in film. Most students I shared classes with had wanted to be filmmakers their entire lives and came to film school with an extensive background knowledge about the craft that I didn't have. I came to film school with a background primarily in music, literature, and visual art, harboring childhood ambitions to become a paleontologist, professional magician or novelist, and parents who I think secretly wanted me to be a professional tennis player. So I felt far behind the rest of the students who were already busy racing up social ladders and forging careers. I came into film school wanting to learn a medium I knew almost nothing about in order to explore ideas I didn't know or understand. At the time, I was primarily interested in the unconscious and surrealism, which the school did not support unless I could describe in one sentence what I was doing. And I thought it was insane to try to convince myself I knew what I wanted to say or reflect about the world as a teenager, especially through a medium as cumbersome and complex as film.
So as soon as I got my bachelor's degree, I promptly did nothing with it. I developed a deep interest in cultural diversity, and spent the next seven years traveling extensively around the world to study it. I spent a lot of time photographing and writing about my travels. Before I knew it, I was lucky enough to have gallery exhibitions of my photography in the US and Europe, and my writings about being asked to lead a riot in the slums of Bombay, India were published. Through it all, I remained pretty active as a musician and composer, touring the US, Europe and South America as a drummer, primarily with The Autumns.
What I didn't expect is that working in all these different mediums would eventually lead me back to filmmaking. I began to see filmmaking as a way to integrate diverse aspects of my life I had been exploring separately: travel, photography, music, research, etc. And I became interested in exploring the language of film as someone who is used to navigating other artistic mediums instead. So I decided to lay my feelings of inadequacy in film aside and teach myself how to do it. And "The Reach Of Resonance" is my first film.
[An additional interview with Steve Elkins on the making of "The Reach Of Resonance" was published in FIXE Magazine, and can be read here: http://fixemag.org/post/31351730934/steveelkins]