Monday, March 16, 2009
Films I Love #23: Balance Beams (Jonas Leddington, 2002)
Balance Beams is a documentary about the 2002 AMPLIFY music festival in Tokyo, Japan, curated by experimental music label Erstwhile Records, who later released the film as part of a box set commemorating the fest. This will probably seem like an obscure choice to anyone not already well-versed in the kind of music favored by Erstwhile, and it's not a film that got much notice outside of the insular community of electroacoustic improvisation. It certainly deserved more attention, though: there is no film that does a better job of capturing the unique philosophy and approach to music that characterizes the group of musicians documented here, who represent the best that this community has to offer. It is difficult to encapsulate this diverse body of musicians under a single rubric, but they are all improvising in a post-jazz context, often using either customized electronic devices or traditional instruments which are played in non-traditional ways. There is a strong emphasis on communication between collaborators, and throughout the course of this festival, all the players rotated through various ad-hoc groupings to allow them to respond to a number of different contexts. It is resolutely abstract and difficult music, free from melody, rhythm, and any other traditional markers of musical vocabulary.
In contrast to the difficulty of this music, the film is relatively straightforward in its aesthetics, and is at its best whenever it focuses exclusively on the musicians. It is not always the most artfully made film, though its aesthetic merits become clear during the long, very welcome stretches where Leddington's camera probes into the working methods of the musicians as they play. This is a very process-oriented film, fittingly for a genre of music where the process of creating sounds is of central importance. All of these musicians think carefully before making a sound, a fact that Leddington establishes early by opening the film with a snippet of Taku Sugimoto's infamously silent Guitar Quartet, which mostly consists of four guitarists sitting quietly on stage, hands poised above their guitars, waiting for someone to touch a string.
The rest of these musicians are not nearly as extreme as Sugimoto, but they do share his thoughtfulness and deliberation. It is therefore a rare pleasure to see guitarist Keith Rowe at work in revealing closeups that put the emphasis squarely on the techniques he uses to produce his sounds. Rowe places his instrument flat on a tabletop, surrounded by effect pedals, springs, handheld fans, radios, and assorted metal objects, all of which are used to excite the guitar's strings in interesting ways, creating textured sound fields. Throughout the film, Leddington explores the various means of sound production these musicians deploy: the alien squeaks and cries of vocalist Ami Yoshida, the sine wave samples of Sachiko M, the relatively traditional guitar of Burkhard Stangl, the eccentric percussive array of Günter Müller, the bare turntables and gadgets of Otomo Yoshihide. Balance Beams provides a perspective better even than the average audience member at one of these shows, creating an experience that is not just a document of a particular festival, but a summary of this movement's philosophy of sound and music.