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September 11 – September 30, 2017

Synaesthetic Cinema: Minimalist Music and Film

In his book Expanded Cinema—a landmark of psychedelic cinema studies—Gene Youngblood writes that synaesthesis is “the harmony of different or opposing influences produced by a work of art,” and that synaesthetic cinema is “the only aesthetic language suited to contemporary life.” For Youngblood, synaesthetic cinema meant the end of narrative: a time when film becomes purely a language of light, space and sound. Watching some of the films that influenced his utopian pronouncements, one can understand his outlook. With few exceptions, the films in this program are not only without narrative, they are also without dialogue. All of them use what is now called minimalist music, combined with lush visuals, in an attempt to guide viewers toward hypnotic states. In Youngblood’s taxonomy, “synaesthesia” and “psychedelic” are synonymous.

Like many art forms that originated in the avant-garde, minimalist music has come to seem almost hackneyed, the sonic background to Hollywood blockbusters and television advertisements. But the early years of minimalist composition saw quite a different reality, with current cultural icons like Philip Glass and Steve Reich being vilified in print and even attacked onstage. In fact, the music of Glass and Reich, as well as their counterparts La Monte Young and Terry Riley, originated in a heady mix of underground activity in the cinema, music, painting and sculpture in California and New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Young, the least known of the four major minimalist composers, is now generally thought to have launched the movement with his long tone compositions while a graduate student in Berkeley. Riley and Reich worked with Young at Berkeley and later, after Young had decamped to New York, with composers Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros at the San Francisco Tape Center. Influenced by the drone tones they heard in Indian and North African music, as well as reacting to the teleological bent of western classical music, Young, Riley and Reich, each in their different ways, built the foundations of musical minimalism. Glass arrived at a similar place through different means. He was at Juilliard when Young, Reich, and Riley’s early performances were happening in New York, before leaving to study in Paris for the last years of the Sixties. There he encountered Indian music through Ravi Shankar and other non-Western music during an epic journey on foot from Istanbul to India.

Minimalist composition can be roughly divided into composers that work with long-held tones and stasis—the drone—and composers that use repeating patterns of a small number of notes and limited dynamics. Young is the foremost composer of the drone. After moving to New York, he teamed up with his life partner Marian Zazeela, a Welsh violist named John Cale, the somewhat mysterious poet and drummer Angus MacLise, and musician and filmmaker Tony Conrad (Harvard College ‘62) to form the Theatre of Eternal Music. This group specialized in long drone-based performances. Those familiar with The Velvet Underground will recognize the sounds, as both Cale and MacLise were original members of that band. Riley’s music had a lighter touch, and while it stayed aligned to the drone, it developed more cyclical patterns on top, where a small set of notes were repeated for a great length of time. (Reich did drone-based soundtrack work in the sixties for Robert Nelson, whose films were shown at the HFA this past spring.)

Both the drone-based and heavily repetitive styles melded well with the experimental cinema being produced in the US underground at the time. The non-narrative, exuberant swirl of bodies and colors in Chumlum and The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda is heightened by the incessant droning repetition of the MacLise and Conrad soundtracks. Likewise, the slowed-down action of the three Bruce Conner films harmonizes with the cyclical repetitions of Riley’s music.

The film that brought minimalist scoring to a wider audience is Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, a surprise art house hit in 1983. Glass’ exuberant score brought in many of the same elements heard in the underground films, although the increased texture and variety of the score sometimes feel more maximal than minimal. The film points both backward—Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Jonas Mekas are all thanked in the credits—and forward toward a future where a minimalist toolkit would be applied by all manner of composers to all manner of film and video.

Some of the rich veins of experimental music are still being explored. Scottish artist Luke Fowler brings the series into the present with his subjective documentary on the lesser-known composer Martin Bartlett, who, though he studied with Riley, Pran Nath, and Oliveros, left behind few commercial recordings prior to his death in 1993. Fowler’s work collages footage of Bartlett performances, along with letters and other material from his archive to create a dreamlike portrait of an artist worth (re)discovery. – Reed Lowrie, Manager, Reference and Information Services, Cabot Lamont and Widener Libraries

Curated by Reed Lowrie.

Special thanks: Michelle Silva.

Monday September 11 at 7pm

Godfrey Reggio spent his teenage years and much of his twenties in a monastery in Louisiana. When he made Koyaanisqatsi,not only had he never made a film, he had seen very few films. He sought out Philip Glass to score the film despite Glass only having done film music for an obscure documentary in the seventies. From this meeting a long partnership was born. While the music in Koyaanisqatsi is more varied than that in the previous programs, the repetition and drive of Riley, and the drone of Young, can both be heard at various points in the film. The combination of sped-up footage of assembly lines and city crowds with the propulsive Glass music reaches again toward the hypnotic.

In Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio is acutely concerned with technology and its effect on human relations to the natural world. Technology, in fact the dissemination of moving images themselves, is the subject of the short film Evidence, which captures children watching television in a hypnotized state, as the film’s audience is similarly hypnotized by Glass’ score.


Directed by Godfrey Reggio
US 1995, 35mm, color, 8 min



Directed by Godfrey Reggio
US 1982, 35mm, color, 87 min


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Sunday September 24 at 7pm

Chumlum and The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda are two of the more purely psychedelic films of the sixties. Chumlum was filmed during breaks in the production of Jack Smith’s Normal Love and captures a who’s who of the downtown underground, including Smith, Francis Francine, Beverly Grant (later married to Tony Conrad), and Warhol associates Gerard Malanga and Mario Montez. Smith appears again in Invasion, where the swirling colors, shapes and textures of Chumlum are sent into overdrive, blasting toward a psychedelic and synaesthetic space; MacLise’s soundtracks work with the overpowering visuals to drive the viewer toward an hypnotic state.

Conrad attempts a similar experience using film itself as the medium. Straight and Narrow is an example of the minimalism of the art and music worlds being taken into the cinema. A gentler strobe film than his infamous The Flicker, the percussive soundtrack and alternating bars of light push the receptive viewer toward a trancelike state.

In Between the Notes is a short documentary on the Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath, who was heavily influential on both Young and Riley. The roots of MacLise’s music, and many other minimalist composers, can be found in Pran Nath’s work.


Directed by Ron Rice. Soundtrack by Angus MacLise and Tony Conrad
US 1964, 16mm, color, 23 min

Print courtesy Film-Maker's Coop.

Straight and Narrow

Directed by Tony and Beverly Conrad. Soundtrack by John Cale and Terry Riley
US 1970, 16mm, b/w, 10 min

Print courtesy Film-Maker's Coop.

The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda

Directed by Ira Cohen. Soundtrack by Angus MacLise
US 1968, video, color, 22 min


In Between the Notes

Directed by William Farley
US 1986, digital video, color, 28 min


$12 Special Event Tickets
Musical Performance by Ernst Karel

Monday September 25 at 7pm

Electro-Pythagoras is a meditation on Martin Bartlett, a lesser-known composer who studied with both Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath. Using footage and papers from Bartlett’s archive—Bartlett died of AIDS in 1993—Luke Fowler’s film plays with sound and image to create a dreamlike portrait of Bartlett’s final years. This special preview screening will be followed by a live performance of sound artist Ernst Karel performing Glyphs,a piece based on tapes from Bartlett’s archive.

Electro-Pythagoras (a portrait of Martin Bartlett)

Directed by Luke Fowler
UK 2016, 35mm, color, 45 min

*Preview Screening* Print courtesy LUX.


Live performance by Ernst Karel, 45 min


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Saturday September 30 at 7pm

While both La Monte Young and Terry Riley were originally from the American west, Young’s move to New York and work with the Theatre of Eternal Music found him in contact with some of the darker strains of the Sixties counterculture. Riley’s music, while only marginally less rigorous than Young’s (no one is more rigorous than La Monte Young), maintained a lightness that can be seen in all the works here. Bruce Conner was a Californian and spent most of his life in the Golden State. One of his sojourns outside of it was to Mexico, where, in 1963, he searched the countryside with Timothy Leary for psychedelic mushrooms. This experience in captured in Looking for Mushrooms, with the soundtrack Riley’s “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band” (an earlier version used The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”). Easter Morning is accompanied by the epic “In C”, often errantly described as the first minimalist composition. “In C” is a circular score that can be played by any number of performers on any number of instruments; in this case, the music is played on traditional Chinese instruments.

We end with one of Gene Youngblood’s favorites, Music with Balls, a “fabulously rich mantra of color, sound and motion…. The composition builds from placid serenity to chaotic cacophony to bubbly melodiousness with a mad yet purposive grace.”

Photos courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust.

Looking for Mushrooms

Directed by Bruce Conner
US 1967/1996, 16mm, color, 14 min



Directed by Bruce Conner
US 1976, 16mm, b/w, 36 min


Easter Morning

Directed by Bruce Conner
US 1966/2008, DCP, color, 10 min

DCP courtesy Conner Family Trust.

Music With Balls

Directed by Terry Riley
US 1968, video, color, 24 min


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