“The dialectical synthesis of tradition and anti-tradition is the structure of true creativeness.” – Kenzo Tange

spiral_poster_smallWhen I think about true interdisciplinary art, Gene Coleman always comes to mind first. Gene Coleman is a Philly-based internationally active composer / filmmaker. His practice puts him in frequent collaboration with musicians from Japan through his Ensemble n_jp. Most recently Gene received the American Academy’s Berlin Music Prize for composers and spent five months there working on and presenting several new works. Two of these new works have made there way to Philadelphia, and were presented this month in West Philly venues.

Coleman’s new film Spiral Network (with cinematography and editing by his frequent collaborator Nick Lerman) made its US premier at the International House. Featuring live accompaniment by n_jp (Toshimaru Nakamura, Ko Ishikawa, Gene Coleman, Tom Buckner, Naoko Kikuchi, Nick Milevoi, Alexander Waterman, and Jowoon Park), the score uses traditional Japanese instruments Koto (floor based stringed instrument) and Sho (mouth organ), the modern instrument called a no input mixing board (a board literally plugged into itself), Bass Clarinet, Cello, Laptop, Electric Guitar, and Voice. Spiral Network is a work related to Gene’s previous films 9 Chains (concerning architect/theorist Buckminster Fuller’s time in Philadelphia) and Kyoto Naigai (concerning the Kyoto Station Complex), both experimental / visual documentary films. More than that, they are visual/musical compositions whereby the score and filmmaking reflect each other’s modes and themes.

“In Spiral Network I take two projects that Fuller developed while in Philadelphia as the basis for the work, these are: a) His sho_smalllecture series Everything I Know and b) the so-called World Game. I take these projects as metaphors and as structures for my work – Everything I Know suggests a vast vortex of thoughts, and vortex and spiral forms predominate in Part 1, while in Part 2 the World Game concept is the basis for cellular growth and multiplication of visual and auditory material and forms.” (Coleman) Imagery of modern and highly geometric architecture in Japan (a connection to Fuller who devised the geodesic dome) fades in and out like waves, sometimes interrupted by blinks or flares of white or gray. The main actions of the film are these soft fade ins and outs and abrupt cuts or flashes. Such a concise means of cinema to express the chaos of ideation and the tactility of physical reality, the spark of thought and the glide of static structures. Coleman juxtaposes line and curve, shape and form over and over. Japanese and English text is used for its meaning and for its shape, just as words vocalized in the score abstractly are used for their meaning as well as for vehicles of sound. This is but one of many ways in which Coleman mirrors his language visually and aurally.

koto_smallThe score is familiar territory for Coleman, but the thing about his music is that even the same piece performed multiple times will never be exactly the same, nor can you predict from one second to the next what you will be hearing. There is no capacity upon which to expect anything and so you must surrender to the spontaneity, just as you must while watching his films. One cannot absorb Coleman’s creations the way you can a pop song, or even classical music because there is no melody to safely nestle into. That danger, that unknown, that suspense is what creates a thrilling anxiety within me whenever I am audience to his artworks. And why I continue to endeavor!

A week later, as part of the program Month Of Moderns presented by a 24 piece chior known as The Crossing, Coleman presented a work called Water Of The Last Moment. My personal feeling, having experienced much of the artist’s output over the past five years marks a pinnacle of Coleman’s craft and ambition. It is the absolute measure of synthesis and interdisciplinary creation, combining a 24 piece choir, Sho, no-input mixing board, and digital sampling. This piece unfolds in five movements across which Coleman unifies – even in their opposition – shrill hisses, static textures, clapping that sounds of water dripping on rock, whispers, chatter, electronic sampling, breath, word and history into a solution rather than a mixture. The fact that this piece was performed in the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in University City, with its spacious and smooth stone interior seemed the perfect additional juxtaposition of modern and ancient.

Water Of The Last Moment is a reaction to two major world events, the Gulf Oil Spill and the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushimamusic_small Power Plant. Both events highlight man’s overconfidence in technology and resound our discontinuity with nature, which is well on its way towards irrevocable calamity.The sections of the choir sing notes and bend them in smooth arcs that overlap and undulate in opposite directions. The Crossing’s voices are profound and immaculate. Used to the effect that they were, these clean paths of voice foreground a frightful emotion when their practiced but natural beauty is warped and misshaped into minor keys, when it bursts forth after silence, or when it reaches notes of great height. Coleman uses the full breadth of the scale, going as low and as high as the voice will allow, weaving the ethereal and ancient Sho, the obscure but current no-input mixing board, and the new instrument of our day-and-age….the laptop. Traditional and modern, present and past, technology and biology, breath and electricity, Water Of The Last Moment embodies this quality of polarity, as well as continuing Coleman’s explorations of spiral formations.

gene_smallFilm is often described in terms of music, or as being musical. Not because it contains music but because music is temporal just as cinema is. Just recently I was reading Donald Richie’s own comparison of Ozu’s regular and repeated scene and shot structures to the terms of musical tempo; largo, moderato assai, allegro, allegretto, poco a poco larghetto. The other way around, I find music is able to be highly cinematic. In part its ability to evoke the imagination to be its own camera, but also for the reason that cinema is perhaps the only language as composited and complex as music can be in structure, references, layering and emotion. This and temporality make it cinematic, just as cinema is musical. Because of the spontaneity of Coleman’s composition, Water Of The Last Moment – though not visually accompanied – feels as though it is the incidental music to a film you are not seeing.

You can watch a clip from SPIRAL NETWORK here!

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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