25 de mayo de 2018

Listening to the Space #03: Mike Stoltz

Under the Atmosphere (2014)

Listening to the Space is the title of a new series of collaborations with different filmmakers, concerning the ideas and practices around the sound of theirs films. The header of this section makes reference to a film by Robert Beavers named Listening to the Space in My Room (2003) where the sound recording is entirely relevant. The third post is written by Mike Stoltz.

The North American artist works with film and video to "explore time, mythology, memory, and the medium itself". These are the concepts written by him when describing the ideas behind films like Under the Atmosphere (2014) and Half Human, Half Vapour (2015) where geographical investigations of environments related to human activities and artistic practices are depicted "to create images-within-images, or directly addressing the audience in the form of gesture and language". Short films created on 16 mm or HD like With Pluses and Minuses (2013), Ten Notes on a Summer's Day (2012) and In Between (2006) articulate different modes to approach architecture or the human body to reveal the possibilities of the moving camera, in camera editing process and analogue sonic procedures to elaborate rich experimental instances.

Mike Stoltz is a cooperative member at The Echo Park Film Center, where he programs films and teaches courses. Extracts of his films can be watched at his website, three of them can be rented as 16 mm copies through the distribution center Canyon Cinema. To read the ideas of Mike Stoltz and his procedures to produce films here's a precise interview done by the Canadian filmmaker and cinema writer Clint Enns for the excellent North American magazine Incite!. Both films analyzed here are going to be screened at the (S8) Mostra Internacional de Cinema Periférico at the end of May.

With Pulses and Minuses (2013)

Mike Stoltz: 

With Pluses and Minuses
(2013, 16mm, 5:00)

The image is made by photographing through a wall with many openings –like a piece of swiss cheese. These “privacy walls” are a staple of late twentieth century American suburban architecture. They are large structures that are designed to let light, sound and wind move through them but manage to keep people on one side or the other.

My technique for photographing this wall works like an inverse animation. Rather than a fixed camera shooting a moving subject a la traditional animation, the subject is an immovable wall, and behind it an immovable horizon. The image is filmed one frame at a time and in between each frame the camera is moved to a new position. When the film plays back at 24 frames per second this static wall begins to rotate and jump off the screen.

The wall's many openings become apertures to peer through as it gyrates. These circular openings begin to dance around, mimicking the movement of molecules (or even that of carbonation bubbles). It is ecstatic and visceral. In between sections of movement are stretches of darkness that act as visual rests –like the insertion of silence into a musical composition.

Because so much of the image consists of movement versus negative space, when I began to build the soundtrack I worked to translate this idea of darkness or emptiness as silence within the track. I wanted the soundtrack to move at the pace of the image. Using a tremolo effect (1)  allowed me to route the sound through a hard square wave path, effectively chopping it up in real time. By manipulating the rate of the tremolo I could subtly speed up and slow down the effect to approximate what I saw as changes in the image's velocity. The fast tremolo creates a percussive effect that not only do I find pleasant to listen to, but also relates to the film's strobing flicker. The fixed interval of the square wave on the soundtrack cutting in and out is an aural equivalent to the projector's shutter, blocking the illuminated image as the film advances to the next frame.

For the sound sources I wanted them to mirror the image in the sense that they needed to be familiar but not too specific. I hoped to draw the viewer's attention to how sound and image are moving through the space in which the film is viewed. Some of the sounds were generated on a small battery-powered keyboard, the other sounds came from a mystery unlabeled cassette of dramatic vocal music that had been kicking around for a while. The keyboard and the tape were routed into my 4-track cassette recorder with both signals sent through the tremolo.

I edited the image first, working silent, then had a low-tech transfer of the work print edit made. I played the footage and performed the sound live to it, manipulating the speed of the tremolo and occasionally overloading the signal for feedback and distortion. I recorded 3 or 4 takes and the one I was happiest with is the what can be heard in the film.

Ten Notes on a Summer's Day (2012)

Ten Notes on a Summer's Day
(2012, HD, 4:30)

This piece was part of an exchange with Sílvia Das Fadas in which we both set out to make portrait films of one another. Although they are quite different (Sílvia's Portrait of Mike is a black-and-white 16mm film in which I play and discuss some of my favorite albums), both are centered around sound, voice, and music.

Using the portrait prompt I began to think of depicting my friend in a way that was interactive and collaborative rather than purely observational. The HD video format offered an opportunity to play with sound and image in real time.

On a formal level I was thinking very much about the frame of the image. It was my hope that the locked-down static video frame would allow the viewer to notice subtle shifts in the on-screen performance and similar shifts in sound composition.

When I made this video I was beginning to work through strategies to incorporate my musical practice within the moving image, beyond simply creating sounds or music for the soundtrack. Playing with other people, performing in front of an audience, the attack of the pick against metal strings, pushing sound through the air with an amplifier, making mistakes then quickly figuring out how to recover from them...these were the things that were visceral and satisfying about playing music. How could these elements be present in a movie?

For Ten Notes on a Summer's Day we filmed in the backyard of my house. I set the video camera on a tripod between the performer (Sílvia) and myself. I was playing bass guitar from behind the camera. The camera was facing her, recording as she hummed along to the notes I was playing.

I arranged the microphone to prioritize picking up the sound of her voice. I made sure the bass amplifier was audible without overpowering the level of the voice. Through trial and error with several microphone positions I was able to capture the sound of birds, wind chimes, and trucks on the nearby road. It was a goal for the piece to have a complex sound composition that would act in contrast to the unchanging visual frame. Any sense of movement, drama, or inflection is provided by the audio track.

I devised a strategy to play notes (2) on the bass which Sílvia would hum along to, not knowing what would come next. Through this game-like structure, and because Silvia was singing without a monitor, headphones, or any way to hear herself, I hoped to make space for the voice to be free and go to unexpected places.


(1) For further examples of tremolo in practice listen to “Germ Free Adolescence” by X Ray Spex, “The Cruel Sister” by Amps For Christ, and “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and The Shondells.
(2) There are actually only 4 notes in this piece. The title is borrowed from the final Crass record and not meant to be taken literally.

With pulses and Minuses (2013)

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