Elizabeth Lindau: According to John Richardson, some wild, weird, and wonderful things have been happening at the intersection of popular music and visual media lately. The Gorillaz appear in video and concert as animated avatars–a kind of Sgt. Pepper’s for the digital age. Cultish groups of fans convene online to discuss the merits of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as replacement soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz. Lady Gaga sings pop ballads while playing a piano whose elongated 20-foot legs make it look like a creature from a Salvador Dalí painting. Sally Potter’s film Yes (2004) combines dialogue in Shakespearean iambic pentameter with MTV-style camerawork and an eclectic soundtrack of blues, minimalism, and “world” music. Theories of postmodernism don’t fully account for the complexity of such audio-visual collages. In An Eye for Music, Richardson presents these examples and others as updates of an older idea: surrealism. John and I discussed his brilliant new book over Skype this July.
Elizabeth Lindau: Without oversimplifying your excellent second chapter, which acknowledges the complexity of surrealism and reviews many definitions of that term, could you give readers a definition of “audiovisual surrealism”? I’m specifically interested in how it’s distinct from the colloquial way we tend to use the word “surreal” (say, when we experience something outside its familiar context and say “that was surreal”), and also from the historical avant-garde movement that many people are familiar with through figures like Salvador Dalí. How is audiovisual surrealism different from these two more widely-known conceptions of surrealism?
John Richardson: Some get impatient when people describe something out of the ordinary as “surreal.” I get impatient with people myself about that. But it’s really not so different from some of the definitions of surrealism I’ve come across, which basically means estrangement from the everyday, something that takes place in an everyday context but which is somehow decontextualized and recontextualized. So its meaning changes through contextualization. And I suppose that there are many things that surrealism could mean; that’s why I listed so many definitions, and I wanted to go through all of them before I arrived at a definition of what neo-surrealism is in the present day because I think that it’s something different today than what it used to be in the interwar years, in historical surrealism. It’s inflected by digital culture, by network society, by all of our present-day material circumstances.
There are also psychological definitions of surrealism as dream consciousness, a kind of stream or flowing consciousness that emerges through random associations, through suspending everyday assumptions about how things are connected. So that works for me, certainly, but it works differently for different artists. Michael Gondry would fit very well into that definition—a lot of his films are about dream consciousness. Richard Linklater as well. (You can watch the first eight minutes of Waking Life here).
Another aspect that I’m very interested in is the deconstructive aspect. That surrealism takes something conventional and strips it of its mystique. One way of doing this is by blurring or undermining the barriers between art and life. And that’s something that the historical surrealists appreciated. When Breton and his gang went to movie theaters, they would leave the cinema after ten minutes and go to another cinema. So it becomes more about what they bring to the experience than what’s encoded in the experience.
The other thing is cultural memory. That’s another aspect that I consider very important. The fact that there’s something—some essence, I hesitate to say, that is encoded within the materiality of an object that has been displaced, something that resonates. I refer to this resonance as ghostly, and I’m thinking along similar lines to Derrida’s idea of “hauntology.” The idea that it carries some residue of its former intensity and the moments of production that brought it into existence.
And it’s related to camp aesthetics as well and ideas about the outmoded and outmoded objects. You take something that’s a little bit old, it’s a little bit passé, and then you re-contextualize and reinvigorate it. And that reflects back onto the present day. It tells us something about present day modes of production, and it sort of undermines the mystique and the aura that objects carry as a result of their present day functionality. That functionality can always be changed. And that goes back to remix culture and mash-ups and all that. You take some existing way of working, some distant object, and you do something different with it.
It’s interesting that you talk about undermining the aura of an object through re-contextualization. It’s doing away with the object’s current, familiar use value, but it also makes the object seem more significant, or like a fetish object. Going to a flea market, finding a discarded item, and then incorporating that item into a photograph or an artwork and imbuing the item with a new kind of aura. It works both ways, it seems to me.
Absolutely. You could discover something. Something that might have been present in the object, but which has been lost through its conventional uses, the uses that it has been put to in our way of understanding it historically. There might have been something that was present in it originally that reveals something about how it existed formerly that we can recover. So I don’t think it’s all about disingenuous appropriation. It’s about discovering something that might have been there in the first place. And also, it’s about the materiality of the object, and the object as part of our sensory world, so that it can be brought into a sensory sphere.
I didn’t mean to distract you from talking about remix culture, which would be a similar action with sonic objects, with recordings.
Definitely, and I think that metamusicals are very similar to remix culture. Metamusicals take an existing sonic object and they displace it. They put an original recording in the new context of a completely different genre, which is very similar to what happens in remix culture going back to turntablism and sampling. Of course there are many ends to which that can be put. One of them is straightforward homage, which is what a lot of hip-hop artists have done. They invoke a tradition, a kind of lost tradition of African-Americanism: old soul records, James Brown, and so on. Of course, something can get lost in translation, which has often happened in cases where musicians in the West took field recordings of original artists and simply incorporated them in their pop songs and ended up making a lot of money. There are significant ethical problems surrounding those practices. And then there are more nuanced negotiations to do with location and the politics of identity. I was very interested in how Tsai Ming-Liang used Chinese Mandarin adaptations of Western songs, which turned them into part of Chinese popular culture. But he’s approaching it from a postcolonial perspective that reflects back not only on Chinese culture, including the aims of the Communist party and the relationship between mainland China and his native Taiwan, but also what the West means in that context.
What is the relationship between surrealism, neo-surrealism, and postmodernism?
I’d say that context matters. It matters where you take something from, what tradition you take it from, where you put it, and the kind of mediation that’s involved. I was quite heavily invested in theories of postmodernism—I wrote about it in the nineties. And I still think the idea of constructionism, which was integral to some definitions of postmodernism is a good thing. You see a lot of that in surrealism. And many of the theories of postmodernism draw on surrealist theory without even realizing it. Jameson speaks about “surrealism without the unconscious,” which I quoted several times in the book—I like that quotation. What I would argue with is his idea that surrealism is entirely flattened, decontextualized and divested of affect. In citational practices, substance and context play a far greater role than has generally been assumed. But the theory on postmodernism got it right in some ways in the 70s and 80s. In the early days of digital culture akind of thinning out or reductionism was prevalent. You can hear this in the sort of straightforward pastiche or the reductive techniques of incorporation that were commonplace at the time. There was a tendency towards simplification that I think has changed in recent digital culture, where the experiences are far richer, more complex and more narratively connected than they used to be. So for me something like a post-postmodernism comes closer to what’s happening in neo-surrealism.
One of your strengths as an analyst is your attention to the visual as well as sonic properties of the performances or “works” that you discuss. (Your book’s title, An Eye for Music, suggests this.) It even comes across in the NuFolk examples, which purport to be more about “the music” than visual spectacle. Even then, you show us how what we see is an integral part of our listening experience. I love this quality of your work. At the same time, your intense focus on the visual makes me wonder whether you’re indirectly confirming historical surrealist dismissals of music as a lesser art form, or as incompatible with quintessential surrealist techniques of automatism and collage. So here’s my question (or perhaps it’s a thought experiment): is there such a thing as audio surrealism? Can there be “pure music,” for lack of a better phrase, that we experience as surrealist? Or is the visual going to be a part of the surreal experience, whether that’s images that we mentally picture as we listen or things that we see as we experience the music?
Good question. I think I should have anticipated that argument in the book. For starters, I don’t think that there’s such a thing as pure sonic experience or pure visual experience or pure anything. I think everything is much more cross-modal than we’ve assumed in the past. But I would sympathize with those who resist the audiovisuality of contemporary culture as a marketing ploy—that everything has to be spectacular, everything has to be cross-artistic. At the same time, even music on its own comes with context. Even if it’s purely sonic, there’s a negative context that becomes difficult to ignore simply because it’s being shut out in “absolute music.” In acousmatic music the missing context becomes the content, in a way. And I’ve seen this in theory on acousmatic music and new electronic music, where people like Denis Smalley are writing about how we perceive sound in terms of source bonding. Even if the sound is completely decontextualized—there’s no visual source, there’s no performative source, no source in real instruments—we imagine sources on the basis of sensory experience and project onto it. Which doesn’t necessarily mean visual sources: it could be tactile sources, it could be anything we bring to our experiences of soundmaking in the world because the world is a messy, complex place, and our experiences feed into our listening experience. But what I deliberately didn’t tackle in the book (which I regret because there are always going to be people that might think that I didn’t know anything about it) was historical surrealism. I just concentrated on new stuff. I would have liked to have gone into more detail about some of the historical precursors that I mentioned only in passing in the book. Like Satie’s music. Cocteau’s audiovisual—he weaseled his way into the book somehow. Then there’s Hans Eisler, Kurt Weill, Stravinsky, and even Ives. All of these collage-type techniques that modernist art composers employed—I think that they’re very closely related to surrealism. I think musique concrète is very closely related. The relationship to everyday life, the aestheticization of everyday life—that’s a very surrealist kind of project. Soundscape studies, where we go for soundwalks, collect the sounds and consider them as aesthetic objects—I think that’s really surrealist. Similar to the Arcades Project that Benjamin did, which was related to Breton’s and Aragon’s work and surrealism.
The point that I like is that when you look at the old surrealist films, The Age of an Eye, for example—in those, any music can be surrealist music. Adorno writes about the ultimate surrealist music being “use music.” It’s precisely the kind of music that he disdained in his writing otherwise. But when used by the surrealist artists, when mediated through the hands of the surrealist artist, it can be transformed into a re-enchanted object. And that’s what happens in metamusicals. Even in something like Moulin Rouge—you take an existing popular song and you mess around with it, you recontextualize it. The original music material becomes a kind of stock music. It has its own value, which arises out of what people do with it more than the expressive value of the original performance.
And it goes back to camp aesthetics as well. When I talk about camp aesthetics, I prefer Sedgwick’s ideas to Butler’s: camp has a playfulness, an exuberance. We enjoy the aesthetic qualities of an object without viewing it with the modernist contempt or disdain of someone like T.S. Eliot, and maybe Ives as well. It’s the same contempt that Adorno viewed popular music with. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be projected onto the object. It can just be something that’s in circulation, and which we view more neutrally or empathetically. So I should have written more about that. I should have written more about historical surrealism.
I like the idea in the chapter on the Nu Folk of surrealism as something that happens in the imagination. The KT Tunstall example in that chapter was a use of a kind of collage. She took existing musical fragments that are actually quite stereotyped and looped them in real time, and at the same time deconstructed the performance situation.
The Sigur Rós example is about a performance outdoors that asked questions about framing which are very similar to the questions that are asked in surrealist photography.
What was the other one? Paul Buchanan—
The Blue Nile.
I suppose the idea of imaging is very important to his work, his composition. But this attention to how the sonic works in visual contexts is just the way I framed the book. I could have framed it differently, but I framed it around audiovisuality. I could have written a different book that was more sonically oriented. It doesn’t mean that the only music I value is music that has an implied or a real visual context. That wasn’t the point I was trying to make.
No, and I didn’t mean the question as a criticism of your work at all. I guess this is sort of my selfish—it’s a question I’ve been thinking about. Historical surrealism is such an important movement within visual art and literature, but there isn’t an obvious “composer” example of a surrealist. Same thing for Dada—
The Cabaret Voltaire had music, but it was the banal classical music of the time. You say that anything can become surrealist if it’s paired with the right image. That’s kind of a similar situation. Within the cacophony of multimedia performance space, Saint-Saëns or Rachmaninoff suddenly becomes Dadaist music. A related question is whether familiarity—a quality of much popular music—is a precondition for creating surrealist art, aural or otherwise. Do we need music that is familiar? You just brought up Moulin Rouge—do we need familiar songs recontextualized rather than a newly composed work in order to experience something as surrealist sonically?
Yeah . . . that’s a difficult question. Surrealism does imply familiarity, and it does imply a very strong reflective relation to the popular. And you can see this in surrealist literature and art. They were playing with realist representations: Dalí, Magritte, and so on.
To what extent might a surrealist musical aesthetic depend not only on the inclusion of popular music as raw material, but on the recording studio techniques it continues to pioneer? You discuss recording studio collage techniques in your chapter on the Gorillaz. Have those facilitated a kind of aural surrealism? Perhaps one of the reasons Breton and De Chirico denounced music was because true sound collages weren’t technically possible. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we don’t talk about surrealism and music in the same way that we do visual art and literature?
You’re asking whether the technologies of popular music offer a path into surrealism that wasn’t available to historical musicians. If you look at Stravinsky and Weill, for example, even they used a form of citation. But I suppose the danger with those techniques was that they were easily perceived as merely imitating some earlier compositional logic. They were open to accusations of catering to the culture industry, selling out, invoking a language that is bourgeois and easily consumable and all of that. I suppose the act of mediation wasn’t obvious enough for critics. I’m thinking of the Adornian line in particular. The view of surrealism that I put forward in the book is one in which the surreal isn’t opposed to realism, but is an extension of realism. So I think those forms in which the incorporation is very direct, such as photography: Man Ray’s rayograms, where you take a photograph and you do something with it, or you take a video and you draw onto the film like Stan Brakhage did, or you use found objects as materials like Jan Švankmajer does in his stop-animation films. Those kind of techniques all depend on realism combined with collage techniques. Even though surrealism itself actually originated in literature, Breton and Aragon used photographs and extracts of existing texts, so it was a collage form in a more direct way than music was. So I think that’s the key here.
Digital culture fits in very well with that because the object can be incorporated without any change whatsoever. Obviously, there’s the act of framing that the incorporation brings with the sound. But it’s reproducible. So, surrealism in the first place is a symptom of reproducibility, and I think it comes out of the Benjaminian argument in that respect. Even historical surrealism was about reproducibility and all of these factory-produced objects that somehow resonated in a way that spoke to those critics and those artists. So reproducibility and technology is part of it in the first place. In the digital age, those techniques of reproduction fall into the hands of consumers as well as producers, and I think that’s the ultimate difference between then and now. The original surrealists’ critique was based on the Marxist idea of a gap between production and consumption. Digital culture implies a form of democratization, although I’m cautious about going too far in that direction. But these technologies of prosumption, of consuming at the same time producing—they become much more important today. That’s why I included Gorillaz. I thought the kinds of technologies they were using in digital audio had an affinity with what the surrealists did. But I wouldn’t take the technologically determinist line that it’s the technologies that make people work in that way. When Damon Albarn and his studio engineers were working on songs like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.”, they deliberately referenced analogue technologies from dub reggae and so on.
A kind of realism is implied in popular recordings—the temporal realism of a performance that’s constructed authentically in time and place, even though studio recording isn’t like that at all. Recordings magically make musicians appear to be performing in the same place and time as part of a unified performance. Techniques like those found in dub reggae, turntablism and new digital remix techniques call all of that into question. Actually, many people use those technologies without reflecting at all on what they’re doing. You could ask, “to what extent is intention a part of how we decode things?” Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the intentionalist fallacy that people have to know what they’re doing in order to communicate a meaning. But there needs to be a discursive context to support interpretations and intention is part of that package.
I think a more intriguing, but more difficult to defend example is that of Lady Gaga, who ended up as a footnote in the book. But I actually think that what Gaga is doing is more directly surreal. I gave a presentation on this extending from my book in which I showed a video of her at the Royal Variety Performance, where all the imagery is taken from Dalí.
Someone asked me after that presentation, “okay, that’s all very well, but is the music surreal?” And my answer for Gaga would be that it is insofar as there’s a very generic quality to the music. It’s almost like she takes extracts of melody and hooks from existing popular songs and her music sounds quite derivative in a way. She’s being criticized for that, but I suppose there’s a kind self-consciousness in the same way that there is in a band like the Pet Shop Boys. It comes through more obviously with irony in their music, whereas Lady Gaga is much more physically involved in the performance. So it comes across as “authentic” and convincing. But at the same time, she’s playing with signifiers that circulate within popular culture, not only in her videos, but also her music. So this creates tensions between what is knowingly fake and what is expressively absorbing in her performances. It could be that I’m overreading—I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure that we need to really say whether it’s surrealism for sure. The fact that it’s on the boundary is interesting as such. And that we can debate it. And that’s something that I wanted to do in the book—just to offer a new way of looking at these things. You can understand a lot of those things in terms of digital culture or postmodernism or the current economic situation. But I think by introducing surrealism, it complicates things in some quite productive ways.
A phrase of yours I especially like is “accidental surrealism.” Synchronizing The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon would be an example of it: things that weren’t designed to go together, but which produce moments of music commenting on the onscreen action when combined. I like that idea. It brings me to a couple of more specific questions about your case studies. I loved the chapter about the Phillip Glass opera La Belle et la Bête. Glass removes the original Georges Auric soundtrack from Cocteau’s film and replaces it with an opera. You contextualize this example with the discussion of the recent phenomenon of restored silent films being screened in art houses, often with new soundtracks. That made me think of the long tradition within popular music of “arty” rock bands accompanying experimental film: The Velvet Underground started out doing that. I do some work on Sonic Youth, and they’ve performed with Harry Smith or Stan Brakhage films projected behind them. I recently saw a premiere of a Jem Cohen film accompanied by a live supergroup featuring members of Fugazi and Godspeed You! Black Emperor performing an original score. I’m wondering if that might be an additional context for your Glass example. Have you thought at all about the connection between popular music and experimental film, specifically in the kind of live intermedial contexts that you discuss in Chapter 3?
Absolutely. I think all of those are examples of the same phenomenon. I was interested that you brought up the Velvet Underground, because Pop art is a real precursor. I think I discuss briefly the idea of the neo-avant-garde, which Peter Bürger was quite skeptical toward. But those are the very ideas that we’re embracing these days. There’s a real attraction in the idea of random combinations, or combinations that aren’t fully fixed or anchored. This is unlike Hollywood film where images and sound are very closely married together. Image and music can be disparate and related. I’ve had several experiences myself of going to discos where they just had films on in the background, and the accidental convergences are fascinating when you do that. Or when you’re at home and you have the radio on and you just leave the television on. But certainly there’s a lot going on. Did you mention Sonic Youth? I’ve been to concerts like that as well. There are different ways of approaching that. You can do it very seamlessly and try to make it very convincing or you can leave gaps. And I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I like it when you leave gaps. The problem is that it goes back to the intentional fallacy. Are the gaps left there on purpose, or aren’t they? And one of the criticisms of Glass was founded on the idea that he’s tried to marry these things to one another. It doesn’t quite work, and it doesn’t quite matter.
Watching the opera, I was amazed at how much the singing did synch up with what was going on onscreen. But like you, I also enjoyed the moments where it “didn’t quite work.” While we’re on the subject of synchronism . . . you draw on such a rich bibliography of theoretical resources throughout this whole book: literature about postmodernism, camp, and affect theory to name a few. One concept from film theory that I learned from reading your book was synchresis. Could you explain that term and its origins? Could you describe its importance for these audiovisual surrealist texts?
Certainly. I think when considering audiovisuality, synchresis is fundamental. Actually, it’s a principle that works against surrealism in a funny way. The idea that you can see a fight in a Western movie and when the hero gets punched in the face it sounds like a gunshot or a dog barking or something, but then it’s naturalized. The surrealists did this in their films as well—there are one or two that have those unrealistic sound effects. I suppose it’s how much you’re made aware of the gap between an original and its metaphorical substitution. That’s what Roland Barthes talks about in his analysis of the Bataille novel Age of an Eye. Was it Age of an Eye? I’m mixing up my surrealists. [laughter]
Story of the Eye?
Right, Age of an Eye was the Buñuel film. For Barthes, it was all about the imaginative free play that results when you come across a whole chain of metaphors or paradigmatic substitutions which stand in for an object that those things resemble.
A lot of recent films have been obsessed with lip synching as well. And some intentionally mis-synch the lip-syncing. Of course, in certain countries they’re used to this all the time. Their experience of film is very different because they’re all overdubbed. But in Europe and the Anglophone world we’re not accustomed to that. The Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns are not quite synched correctly. And David Lynch’s films—there was originally going to be a chapter on David Lynch in my book, but I’ll do something else with it. A lot of his films feature lip-syncing and mis-syncing and the syncing not working out.
And reverse speech.
Yeah, in Twin Peaks there’s that sequence at the end at the Black Lodge where the little midget guy speaks backwards. And of course, it has a kind of otherworldly effect to it. It unsettles everything. And he did that by actually speaking his lines backwards, then the recording was reversed in postproduction so his speech became comprehensible yet strange.
Are there musical or filmic gestures that might once have registered as surreal, but that now seem familiar? You mention alterations in film speed. I’m thinking of things like montage sequences, in which chronologically disjunct images are smoothed over with accompanying music. Are there other techniques that could be seen as disorienting, but are so common that audiences are used to them?
It doesn’t remain constant. I think what we perceive as surreal is changing all the time. And it’s based on our familiarity with genre conventions and what is perceived to challenge or expose them. Techniques can easily become perceived as hackneyed and conventional, as lacking the destabilizing shock that the surrealists, rightly or wrongly, valued. Montage is one example. I don’t think montage is anywhere near as radical as Eisenstein perceived it to be. In music video there’s a lot of talk about how montage techniques are surrealistic. But then we look at those radical montage techniques (David Bordwell uses the term “intensified continuity”) which have become part of mainstream filmmaking. Rapid edits can have a very disjunctive, defamiliarizing effect, but they’re just the way films are made these days. Even if you look at cooking programs, they have what would have been considered very radical techniques in the 1980s: extreme close-ups, moving hand-held cameras, rapid zooms, and very up-front, close-miked and heavily compressed audio. A few decades ago those techniques would have belonged in video art or art house cinema, but now they’re in cooking programs eroticizing both the food and the chef. And then you have techniques like bullet time, which you might first have seen in a film like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers, where the bullet suddenly stops mid-flight and then it progresses and people move in unnatural ways. Except that these days you see it in every other film. The new Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes (A Game of Shadows) is full of it. But the audience that goes to see those films doesn’t necessarily register them as being reflective or experimental. I think reflectivity is what surrealism is about—it’s about challenging our ideas about genres and modes of representation. I don’t think that these new forms necessarily do that. I suppose the same applies to remix culture and scratching. All of those disjunctive collage and DJ-ing techniques become really conventional in a way. The ground is shifting all the time.
One theme that seems to run through your book—and through this conversation—isthe historical avant-garde concern with the relationship between art and the everyday. But unlike the historical avant-garde, the subjects you deal with are not out to shock people into a new relationship with their everyday environment, or into new ideas about art. It’s not about shock, but a shift in perception, which I guess is a neo-avant-garde thing. I think Hal Foster might agree with that. This is something I think you address in all of your chapters. The films in Chapter Three encourage us to question whether we’re dreaming or awake, whether an experience is reality or our imagination. Rather than serving as escapist fantasies, the musicals in Chapter Four point out the musicality of mundane experience. The synchronized texts in Chapter Five, as we discussed, draw our attention to moments of accidental surrealism, an idea we might carry into our perceptions of our own everyday reality. In Chapter Six you talk about how virtual reality is most interesting when it’s not just a copy of a “real” experience, but a heightened version of it. Does this seem like an accurate summary of your argument? If so, is this confirmed by any ethnographic evidence (it could be anecdotal, something you wouldn’t be comfortable publishing)? Do “audio-viewers,” as you call them, interact with their surroundings or with other works in a different way as a result of any of these examples?
I think you put it very well. You’ve read it remarkably closely and understood everything I was trying to say on the basis of what you just said. And I think that that is the big difference. It’s not about shocking anymore. I think that’s a very old-fashioned modernist way of looking at things. I think uncertainty can be a quite unnerving thing, but it’s also a liberating thing. Sally Potter’s Yes does it remarkably well. I watched it for ten minutes without realizing that they’re speaking in verse. And it suddenly just clicked. And that moment of realization was really enjoyable. There’s such a pleasure there. And it was the same pleasure when the synchronization broke down in the Philip Glass screen opera and then it kicked back in again. I was at a live performance and you’d get cheers and handclaps when the synchronization suddenly worked. Now opera doesn’t usually work that way, it isn’t participatory. But by activating audiences in that way, you can make something that’s quite conventional, stifled, and set in its ways mean something again. That kind of shaking out isn’t about shocking, outright grotesqueness, or confrontational theater. It’s the moment of realization that I think is important.
I’m thinking of going in a more ethnographic way in my work in the future, actually, and really trying to back up some of these assertions, which are critical and analytical with observations of how people deal with this in everyday life. It’s another equally valid approach to the subject. Michael Bull works on portable music players and iPods. He talks about the cinematic experiences people have when they take their iPod on a train and listen to music completely recontextualized by the environment. He interprets it in a quite Adornian way, but I would approach it very differently. I’m actually editing a chapter of his for a collected edition that I’m working on at the moment, and I disagree with the conclusions he comes to. [laughter] He stuck to his own line. But my view is that those kinds of experiences can be really eye-opening. You can see the world around you in a new way, in a way that invigorates the imagination and helps you to not only romanticize your own role in the world as something cinematic and larger than life, but really helps you to reassess your assumptions about the world.
I did include some stuff off Rotten Tomatoes. There’s some reception there. I think it’s important to follow those net discussions. And a number of my students are working on digital sampling and they do interviews with practitioners and they follow net discussions. I use some of that sort of material in my teaching as well.
But I think the audience for independent film is a niche audience. So we’re not dealing with the mainstream audience. And I suppose that’s the crux issue really. Can these films make any difference when they’re preaching to the converted in a way; to people who already know the message? I suppose the answer to that is taking a genre like independent film and making it more mainstream, which is what David Lynch did with Twin Peaks. Take something quite experimental and reach out to a wider audience. Make people sit up and think about what’s happening in soap operas and how mushy and stereotyped the conventions are and how we’re all being manipulated. I think that was the remarkable thing about Twin Peaks. Of course, that was followed by Ally McBeal and Six Feet Under, which were experimental but not in such an obvious way. A lot of people think that those HBO television series have challenged the way that we think about things, but I wonder whether they don’t make the conventions more transparent (the argument that you made earlier on). Do they simply become the way films and music are made today? I suppose you always have to go a little bit further, you have to combine genres in a new way, you have to do something a little bit new or different in order to make people think. So there isn’t any definitive answer, but I think that walking that tightrope between doing something that will reach a wide audience and something more arcane and dangerous is something several of the artists discussed in my book were able to achieve. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not that invested in very obscure experimentalist film. I could have written about installation art, I could have written about stuff that happens in galleries, but I wanted to spend more time thinking about those things that intersect more directly with popular culture. Does that make any sense?
It makes a lot of sense.
John Richardson is Professor of Musicology at the University of Turku in Finland. He is the author of An Eye for Music: Popular Music and the Audiovisual Surreal (Oxford University Press 2011) and Singing Archaeology: Philip Glass’s Akhnaten (Wesleyan University Press 1999). He is the co-editor of two forthcoming collected editions, The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman and Carol Vernallis, 2013) and The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media (Carol Vernallis, Amy Herzog and John Richardson, 2013). He is additionally Chair of the Finnish Musicological Society and the IIPC (International Institute for Popular Culture). Richardson has published widely on popular music, new classical music, musical multimedia, and cultural musicology.
Elizabeth Lindau is a Visiting Assistant Professor of musicology at Gettysburg College. She earned her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2012. Her research explores intersections between avant-gardism and rock music. Her essay “Goodbye 20th Century! Sonic Youth Records John Cage’s ‘Number Pieces’ ” will appear next year in a volume of essays on experimental music.