Re: [Frameworks] Christmas on Earth: Audio, Randomness, Cinema

From: Tony Conrad (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Jul 02 2010 - 19:33:02 PDT

Well, after I finished Flaming Creatures' second soundtrack in 1963, I was asked
by various makers if I could make sound for them. I provided the audio Joan of
Arc for Piero Heliczer, got Angus MacLise to play hammer dulcimer (cembalom) for
Chumlum, told Andy no (too formless and exploitative), jammed for Jerry Joffen.
Barbara asked me to make a tape for her film, and she wanted it specifically to
be a long compilation of Beatles songs. I still have a copy of that tape somewhere.

Two things need to be said that can throw light on why I have never mentioned
this Christmas on Earth "soundtrack" before now.

First and foremost, I had a pretty high regard for Barbara, so I was going to be
responsive to what she wanted, and I trusted her direction. Even at a certain
distance from her ... she was cutting a pretty remarkable figure across the scene
at this moment; she was close to Jonas (whom you have to ask about all of this
soundtrack stuff, because aside from certain habitues of the Coop -- maybe Amy
Taubin would know -- Jonas probably has the best recall of this scene) and then a
bit later also Bob Dylan and a wild crowd out there. So if you think about all
that's been said about Jack Smith rearranging his films during the screenings,
and that Joffen, among others, would screen stuff on top of other stuff, and
Piero was doing god knows what, while even Andy had the VU on stage with his
films, and all of this, then you may understand that Barbara was not alone, tho
she was perhaps even more stochastic and way more cool than most, in how she
mixed it up, changing it every time, having a screening at the Coop on a whim,
whatever -- and certainly wishing for this immediacy and hipness.

Too, there was quite a lot of stuff for various people to variously snort, smoke,
or shoot (or not) around; the times were euphoric to begin with; the Beatles were
new and rad; there was Scorpio Rising coming into view; I used to go to the
Brooklyn Fox shows to see Murray the K's Swinging Soiree shows, with an Elvis
movie --- I'd stay through two or three complete shows! The am radio was a
sideshow for our sideshow; the Beatles’ energy and hip vibe was blowing everybody
away. Still, that was never going to last, as we now know; but at the time, who
knew? Everybody was wondering if they were really going to keep it up; if any of
this would stick to the cultural wall….

So, giving Barbara due credit, I don’t think any answer is really “right” or
“final” about CoE’s soundtrack, but ONE was the big Beatles compilation, and if
you could erase the ennui of 3 zillion supermarket muzak repeats from yer head,
it would still do. But probably Christmas on Earth shouldn’t be wedded to
“oldies,” because that certainly wasn’t the idea, no, no.


On Fri 07/02/10 3:39 PM , David Tetzlaff email suppressed sent:
> Rummaging through the Google, I found this old Frameworks thread that
> I somehow missed at the time: an interesting discussion of sound to
> accompany screenings of 'Christmas on Earth' in which my name comes
> up. This topic is timeless for me, so I'm going to toss in my two
> cents, however belatedly.
> >>> In April 05, there was a short thread about Barbara Rubin's film
> >>> 'Christmas On Earth'. It seems that aside from having the film(s)
> >>> double-projected that the projectionist is also given
> instructions
> >>> to have radio playing into the theatre at the same time. I'm
> >>> curious about these instructions - to have the film scored to
> live
> >>> radio tuned to a so-called 'rock station'.
> >>>
> >>> Obviously, radio in the mid-sixties and radio today are a
> >>> completely different animal. Aside from shifts in musical style,
> >>> contemporary radio is owned by a few centralized corporations -
> >>> thus predictably managed to the listener's conditioned taste .
> So,
> >>> I would imagine that radio 40 years ago was much more eccentric
> >>> and was likely to enhance the tension of the viewing experience,
> >>> not knowing what sort of musical accompaniment or commercial was
> >>> likely to come next. I gather that Barbara was hoping to create
> an
> >>> experience that garnered a certain spontaneity.
> >>>
> >>> Is there anybody on this list who can share the experience of
> >>> seeing 'Christmas On Earth' as per the original exposition
> >>> instructions?
> >>>
> >>> Thanks for any insight.
> >>>
> >>> Alva
> I agree with Alva that corporate radio and contemporary niche
> formats have a level of predictability that is problematic for COE.
> (Note Rubin's reference to a 'cross section' below). I _was_
> listening to Top 40 radio in the early 1960s, and I don't know if I
> would call it 'eccentric', but it was far more eclectic stylistically
> than contemporary formats. This did not so much create tension as
> surprise, and of course was received differently by different
> listeners depending on how eclectic their own tastes were.
> Rubin's specific intent is not easy to discern, as she said
> different things about COE at different times, and there is at least
> one other set of instructions (see below) besides the one on the FMC
> site now. However, I think she was pretty consistent amount the
> general intent being 'psychic tumult,' and that in that regard the
> audio should be loud. (James Kreul makes a similar point below...)
> __
> > The instructions for projection and sound accompaniment are
> included
> > with the rental from Filmmakers coop. Someone at the coop made a
> tape
> > - which approximates what may have been heard on AM radio in the
> > early 60's - that is included with rentals. The film was made in
> > 1963. Live music was played at least once as accompaniment when
> the
> > Velvet Underground jammed with the film. Colored gels are included
> > with the film and are to be placed in front of the lenses while
> > projecting. Chance played a large roll in Rubin's aesthetic
> > sensibilities and thus I think one can play any damn thing one
> wants
> > to along with the film.
> >
> > Owen Plotkin
> I agree with Owen that one can and should play any damn thing they
> want that meets their interpretation of the 'psychic tumult' spec.
> The soundtrack cassette that circulated with the FMC print was made
> by Mark Webber as an OPTION for anyone who might feel, like Alva,
> that the radio broadcats available to them just don't fit -- and also
> because screening rooms where COE might be shown are often inside
> buildings that block radio reception.
> James Kruel then joined the discussion.
> The film now comes with a CD version of the tape mentioned below.
> (If my
> memory is correct David Tetzlaff assembled it, perhaps someone could
> confirm
> this.) You have a few options with the CDs, including a version
> that
> combines period songs with period radio commercials. That's the
> option I
> used when I screened it this past Fall, and it worked out well
> (although
> some of the song choices seemed a bit too perfect).I did indeed,
> create new soundtracks and put them on CDs. I did this because, when
> I had called FMC to rent the print, M.M. told me that Mark's tape had
> been lost (and apparently there was no back up). My original intent
> was only to provide a replacement for that lost option, not to create
> anything definitive. As Owen said, play whatever works for you.
> My idea was to simulate as best I could what one might have heard on
> AM radio when the film was screened 'back in the day'. Though it was
> shot in 1963, and Rubin screened the unedited camera original for
> awhile, the form now specified in the circulating instructions: Reel
> B projected inside Reel A, both heads out, apparently did not congeal
> until 1966.
> My thoughts were 1) at some point in the mid-sixties, the 'psychic
> tumult' in pop went from sub-text to text - in the form of
> psychedelia, various adventures in lyrics, and what not. 2) The
> taboo-denying nature of the work comes out more if the music is not
> overtly counter-cultural, if what is visible on-screen is only
> subtext in the audio. For example, Mark had used Foxy Lady on his
> cassette, and i thought Hendrix' connotations as a taboo breaking sex
> god were too music-video obvious. So, I got a list of the top chart
> hits from 1963-1965, crossed-off the stuff I couldn't find easily, or
> that I just didn't want to hear ever again, and also nixed a few that
> seemed too over the top in the context of lyrics intended in
> innocence juxtaposed against polymorphously perverse images. Then i
> picked from the rest more or less at random, and ordered them based
> on the kind of variety I imagined a DJ would use to pace a show. I
> did not refer to the image track at all.
> I wasn't totally satisfied with the result because it was just music.
> It didn't sound like radio because there were no ads, promos, deejay
> patter. Again, I was not so much trying for realism, but for the
> 'feel' of tumult. It struck me that listening to top 40 radio WAS
> more tumultuous than listening to any sequence of songs by themselves
> due to the loudness and speed of the ads and promos, and the quick
> juxtapositions between them. And I recalled how the commercial radio
> context is evoked on 'The Who Sell Out' and how listening to that
> album is different than hearing the same songs in the conventional
> context. So I bought two CDs from the _Crusin'_ series, which present
> representative hits of each year with DJ patter included. I got the
> volumes from 1963 and 1964. Since the DJs sometimes talked over the
> beginning and ending of songs, this limited my choices somewhat, and
> again, I thought I should structure the placing of the DJ bits in a
> manner that fit the pattern of the broadcast form as I remembered it,
> which also affected the placing of the songs. The resulting edit,
> while not random in and of itself, has almost nothing to do with COE,
> and if the choices seem 'too perfect' it's accidental. At no point did
> I pick something because I thought, "oh that would go so great with
> footage of Rubin moving the camera between her legs!" or anything
> like that. Except for those few way-too-much numbers (and I don't
> remember what they were) I didn't reject anything that came out of
> the process as described because it gained new subtext or became
> funny in relation to COE either. I'd guess screenings using live
> radio feeds probably have moments of 'too perfect' ness, as well.
> I did think though, that these accidental juxtapositions would be
> counter-productive to the way some people interpret COE. It's a very
> open text, so if folks want to take it more seriously, that's valid.
> The inadvertent comedy of word-image juxtapositions might deflate the
> particular sort of 'psychic tumult' that some programmers seek to
> offer their audiences. That's why I made a second track, consisting
> only of instrumental rock hits from the period. The more options the
> better, I figure.
> I had stuck a card explaining some of this into the CD when i sent
> the print back to FMC. I have no idea if the card or the CD are still
> with the print. If anyone wants copies of the tracks I made for any
> reason, just email me and I'll get you an .mp3.
> (Now that I've seen it once with the CD, I don't want to fix the
> experience to that one set of songs and ads.)Wouldn't the question be
> what works best for the audience seeing the piece for the first time?
> (Though again there's no one right answer.)
> The instructions are included in the film description in the Co-op
> Catalogue "...a radio must be hooked up to your P.A. System with a
> nice cross-section of psychic tumult, like an AM rock station turned
> on and played loud." The emphasis probably should be on "psychic
> tumult" and "played loud" rather than on "like an AM rock station."
> Regarding the 'cross section'... if you have any reception at all in
> the projection room, one approach might be to get a radio with
> programmable station select buttons, set them to an appropriate mix
> of different format stations, and let audience members change the
> channel when the whim moves them. I always incorporated participation
> when screening COE in class, having the students take turns putting
> the gels in front of the lens, and (subtly) encouraging them to play
> with different manipulations of the gels.
> It all depends on how you interpret the intent of the instructions
> in the first place. If you think the intent was to hear a particular
> kind of music and radio programming circa 1963, then the CDs are a
> good option. If you think the intent had more to do with generating
> an uncontrolled soundtrack that will be different each time you see
> the film (just as the color filters that you place in front of the
> lenses will transform the experience each
> time), then the radio option is the way to go. You could also
> interpret the instructions as a call to incorporate whatever was
> popular on the radio at the time (rather than "oldies") into the
> experience of the film, which would
> suggest the parallel experience now would be to tune into a
> contemporary rock station. (Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than
> me could say what the connotations of an AM rock station would have
> been in 1963--a pop rock
> station?) Rubin's intent being elusive, I'd reframe the question as
> depending on how the programmer interprets the work (rather than the
> instructions), and the purpose in programming it. It seems James,
> Owen, Alva and I all have similar interpretations. I'd frame my goal
> as offering something that seems uncontrolled and spontaneous to the
> audience, and I think the djmix CD track can do that as well as a
> current radio feed. It all depends on how it's framed. In either
> event, one might introduce the film with a mention of Rubin's request
> for a randomness within the larger tumultuous field and note that what
> the audience will hear on that day was taken / is being taken in that
> spirit and is not THE soundtrack.
> I don't think you need to worry too much about the structure of
> current corporate radio, because the film ends up bringing out the
> subtext to most of the mundane ads that dominate oldies stations.
> Sure, it's different than what you would have heard in 1963, but it
> raises awareness of things we've probably tuned out of our
> contemporary experience.
> It really depends on what kind of stations are available in each
> physical location. It's an excellent point that some contemporary
> broadcasts and COE will recontextualize each other in productive new
> ways. Writing about COE, W.W. Dixon references another (earlier?) set
> of instructions in which Rubin indicates it doesn't matter which reel
> is inner or outer, and that either real may be shown heads first or
> tails first. He then says: "The overt randomness of this projection
> scheme epitomizes the relaxed, free-form participatory nature of film
> performance/presentation in the 1960; Rubin here is quite willing to
> embrace the (unknown) projectionist as a fellow collaborator in the
> final public presentation of her work. Concomitantly, each projection
> of Christmas on Earth is thus unique and irreproducible." I'd
> interpret this embrace of unknown collaborators as extending through
> time, to include all sorts of uses of the work in screening series
> exploring queer themes, feminist themes, eroticism, porn, kitsch...
> whatever. Even separate screenings using the same fixed soundtrack,
> and without the performance element of gels, will be unique because
> the size, brightness and position relationships of the two frames
> will never be the same, nor will the timing of the changes in
> juxtaposition between the two reels.
> In this context it's useful, I think, to reflect on the ways in which
> we experience any cinematic art are never truly fixed. Screens are
> different sizes. Seats are more or less comfortable, and positioned
> differently to the screen. Different rooms have different degrees of
> light and sound distractions. Different audiences create different
> vibes. The condition of the print can vary a lot, as can the quality
> and condition of the projection and PA. Sometimes you hear the
> projector itself, sometimes not. It seems to me that most of us, as
> makers and viewers, have a kind of platonic ideal film inside our
> mind, and a desire to have screenings conform to that ideal.
> Certainly one encounters enough polemics to that effect. IMHO, most
> if not all of these arguments suffer from reducing a complex field of
> variables to one or two factors that are inappropriately
> essentialized. Thinking about Rubin reminds us that no matter how
> fixed we imagine a film text to be, the experience of actual
> watching, and thus of aesthetic effect, is amazingly fluid and
> context dependent. Perhaps it takes a kook/visionary like Rubin to
> embrace that indeterminacy.
> I'm struck by the apparent contradiction between the instructions
> Dixon quotes, and the command from Rubin that now appears on the FMC
> INSTRUCTIONS! --B.R." I wonder what accounts for the apparent change
> in attitude, or whether this P.S. is some kind of Duchampian joke.
> The note from Rubin begins, "What you will be renting now is just
> what was filmed, uncut, unedited." Yet Rubin was 'famously' quoted
> describing a Cage-ian method of random assembly: so i spent 3 months
> chopping the hours of film up into a basket and then toss and toss
> flip and toss and one by one Absently enchantedly Destined to splice
> it together and separate on to two different reels...then i showed it
> and someone tells me, ‘my what a good editing job that is
> indeed!’.
> Daniel Belasco notes,
> "Christmas on Earth’s randomness and pleasure is not as jarring as
> you would expect from [this] description, however. She must have
> snipped the original film at fairly long intervals because sequences
> progress without being cut off abruptly. Nevertheless, Rubin’s own
> flippancy was part of the esthetic strategy of this film. [Rosebud]
> Pettet recalled, “sometimes Barbara referred to it as a fucking
> joke.”
> And sometimes not.

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