Notes from Underground: Coltrane, Brakhage and the American Avant-Garde

by Brett Kashmere Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 24 minutes (5948 words)

I think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or of the human being itself, does express just what is happening. I feel it expresses the whole thing – the whole of human experience at the particular time that it is expressed. (John Coltrane)

I do deeply believe that music is not abstract, that it’s just another way of thinking. And that there are patterns which are expressed through music, which do reflect directly whatever most blunt political troubles or world crises we’re either trying to survive or are perhaps trapped in. (Stan Brakhage)

Preface: The following essay is an abridged and revised version of the introduction to my M.A. thesis, a comparative formal and sociocultural analysis of two key architects of America’s postwar avant-garde, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and filmmaker Stan Brakhage, focusing on the work they produced between 1957 and 1967. However, this text remains a work-in-progress, and therefore remains open to further additions, subtractions and revisions. I intend to attach a postscript to the article shortly, following the Stan Brakhage Memorial Benefit Concert featuring Sonic Youth, to be held at Anthology Film Archives on April 12th, 2003.

Several factors invite a comparative analysis of John Coltrane’s music and Stan Brakhage’s films. Perhaps the most transparent is Brakhage’s passionate love of music, which inspired both his “photographic aesthetics” and his “actual editing orders,” even as his “creative philosophies” were becoming “silently-orientated.” 1 Although early films like Interim (1952, soundtrack by James Tenney) and In-Between (1955, including music by John Cage) confirm Brakhage’s interest in experimental music and sound, 2 most of his films since 1955 have been rendered silent. However, despite his eschewal of sound Brakhage has written and lectured at length about the relationship between music, cinema and his own aesthetics, stressing, “Of all the arts, music is closest to film.” 3

Film and music are continuity arts; they appeal each to one sense, very related, the shifting tones of sound harmonies in music is similar to coloration in film which I very early on regarded as intrinsically melodic, and ought to be answerable to each other in some kind of melodic schema. The bottom line, I would say, is that both arts are dependent upon rhythm. One reason, for example, that film does not translate well to video from my viewpoint is that video is like a gel. In a video transcription of a film the rhythmic aspect is deadened. It’s like asking a jazz drummer to riff on a bag of jello. It has no cohesion. 4

Although he rarely commented on the genre directly, Brakhage’s ideas about rhythm bring his film work and jazz into a closer association. For in addition to being time-based, (primarily) non-literary modes of expression, both jazz and experimental film share a common dependence on rhythm for their unity, development and coherence. 5 This mutual ambition towards rhythmic invention and experimentation has long united filmmakers and jazz musicians. Many avant-garde films, including Len Lye’s N. or N.W. (1937, music by Fats Waller, Benny Goodman and others), Harry Smith’s Films No. 1 and No. 3 (1948 and 1949, music by Dizzy Gillespie), Hy Hirsh’s Chasse des Touches (1959, music by Thelonious Monk) and John Whitney’s Catalog (1961, music by Ornette Coleman) were patterned on individual compositions, thereby taking their rhythmic cues directly from jazz. As Michael Friend acknowledges, “These films demonstrate a great affinity with the experimentalism of the modern jazz that was so frequently recruited to serve as a score.” 5 Smith, who spent much of the fifties in the company of bebop musicians Gillespie, Monk and Charlie Parker, 7 was known to project his films onto the walls of San Francisco jazz clubs “as a kind of ‘light show’” while bands performed. William Moritz reports that using a multi-speed projector “Smith could modulate the images to fit the jazz improvisations.” 8 Films such as Begone Dull Care (1949), featuring collaboration between the animators Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren and the pianist Oscar Peterson, and Michael Snow’s New York Eye and Ear Control (1964), with an improvised jazz soundtrack featuring Albert Ayler (tenor saxophone), Don Cherry (trumpet), John Tchicai (alto saxophone), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Gary Peacock (bass) and Sonny Murray (drums), meanwhile, display more fluid interaction between film and jazz artists, reflecting a process of mutual rhythmic exploration and development.

Since the emergence of an international avant-garde cinema in the 1920s artists have continually stressed the importance of film’s rhythmic potential. The French filmmaker and critic Germaine Dulac emphasizes this aspect in her polemic, “The Avant-Garde Cinema” (1932), stating “the expression of a [cinematic] movement depends on its rhythm,” and that “rhythm in itself and the development of a movement constitute the two perceptual and emotional elements which are the bases of the dramaturgy of the screen.” 9 “By film I mean visual rhythm, realized photographically,” maintains the German-American artist and filmmaker Hans Richter, writing in 1924. And: “At the mercy of ‘feeling,’ reduced to going with the rhythm according to the successive rise and fall of the breath and the heartbeat, we are given a sense of what feeling and perceiving really is: a process – movement.” 10 Richter’s conflation of internal bodily rhythms with cinema’s inherent pulse also permeates Brakhage’s thinking, though he claims an even more literal correlation between the film apparatus and the human body. “Over the years, I have come to believe that every machine people invent is nothing more than an extension of their innards. The base rhythm of film – 24 frames per second – is sort of centered in its pulse to our brain waves.” 11 The Austrian experimentalist Peter Kubelka avers: “I think very few filmmakers… have departed making films from this feeling of the basic rhythm, these twenty-four impulses on the screen.” 12

Rhythm is likewise considered an irreducible basis of jazz. “In all the stylistic developments of jazz a capacity for rhythmic growth has been fundamental,” writes the jazz critic Martin Williams. 13 LeRoi Jones, a prominent African-American playwright and poet, notes how “The very name bebop comes from an attempt to reproduce the new rhythms that had engendered the music,” concluding that “Rhythmic diversity and freedom were really the valuable legacies [of bebop].” 14 Writing on improvisation, the ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner notes that, “Perhaps the most fundamental approach to improvisation emphasizes rhythm, commonly known in the jazz community as time or time-feel.” In the course of his research, which included interviews with over a hundred practicing musicians, Berliner finds that “effective improvisers,” commonly “display strong rhythmic momentum, ‘rhythmic elasticity, bounce and vitality.” 15

The following comments made by Coltrane, published in 1960 in Down Beat magazine, demonstrate his primary concerns with rhythm. Admitting to a fairly conservative approach, he writes:

I want to broaden my outlook in order to come out with a fuller means of expression. I want to be more flexible where rhythm is concerned. I feel I have to study rhythm some more. I haven’t experimented too much with time; most of my experimenting has been in a harmonic form. I put time and rhythms to one side, in the past. But I’ve got to keep experimenting. I feel that I’m just beginning. 16

Here rhythmic experimentation and musical innovation are implicitly linked. But despite his modest opinion Coltrane was expressing very complex rhythmic ideas prior to 1960. As the jazz scholar Lewis Porter notes, in the late fifties Coltrane was already beginning to “experiment dramatically with fractured and irregular rhythms,” and with polyrhythms, the use of two or more rhythms simultaneously:

Coltrane looked for ways to thicken the rhythmic texture of his work… The growing rhythmic complexity of his music, his adaptation of African rhythms, and his encouragement of Elvin Jones’ polyrhythms, led by late 1965 to the elimination of strict time-keeping in his groups. In doing so, Coltrane helped create a new rhythmic basis for jazz. 17

A similar rhythmic virtuosity shows through in Brakhage’s oscillation between closely-knit, symmetrical rhythms, and unbalanced, broken rhythms in films such as Loving (1957), Sirius Remembered (1959) and Window Water Baby Moving (1959). At times Brakhage even combines the two simultaneously (usually through the use of superimposition, such as in Dog Star Man [1961-64]) in an approximation of Coltrane’s polyrhythmic approach.

The Beats: In-Between

Similarly concerned with corporeality and the expression of rhythm were the Beat writers. As a subculture in-between and overlapping the jazz and film avant-gardes, the Beats provide a useful model for delineating artistic parallels between a broad spectrum of American art from the 1950s and 1960s. As Lisa Phillips states “The Beats played a greater role than is generally acknowledged in the shifting cultural paradigm of this watershed period.” 18 Recent publications such as Lewis MacAdams’ Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde (2001), David Sterritt’s Mad to Be Saved: The Beats, the ’50s, and Film (1998), Jack Sargeant’s Naked Lens: Beat Cinema (1997), and Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965 (1995), an exhibition catalog edited by Phillips, examine the Beat influence on, and intersection with, other modes of artistic practice. Using the Beat writers as their central pivot, each of these books include some discussion of jazz music, the representation of jazz music and musicians in film, and/or the incorporation of jazz-like forms into the cinematic vocabulary. Daniel Belgrad’s The Culture of Spontaneity (1998) discusses improvisation in a variety of postwar activities, including Beat poetry, bebop jazz, experimental dance and Action Painting (avant-garde film is notably absent from his study).

A number of writers, however, have made significant connections between avant-garde filmmakers and the Beat literati. As David Sterritt writes, “Aims similar to those of the Beats, approached with a similarly audacious range of methods and techniques, have animated avant-garde filmmakers who echo key aspects of the Beat sensibility in their work.” 19 Sterritt considers Brakhage’s work to be particularly representative of the Beat aesthetic, noting,

Brakhage and some other film experimentalists delved into similar territory during the years of Beat ascendancy, seeking the flash of satori and the glow of synchronic ecstasy in works that wandered far from mainstream priorities. In much of this activity, spontaneity was a key value. 20

Ray Carney points out that Brakhage “represents an artistic strain within the Beat movement that aspires to give us new eyes and ears, to free us from cultural accretions and conventions, even of the most basic sort.” 21 The filmmaker and theorist Bruce Elder, meanwhile, makes a specific association between the poetics of Allen Ginsberg and Brakhage, writing:

Like [William Carlos] Williams, [Charles] Olson, and Brakhage, Ginsberg believes that the intensity proper to a work of art is a matter of dynamics, and like [these three], Ginsberg contends that the dynamic force that impels creativity is a push that originates within the artist’s and is directed outwards, at the world. 22

It has been claimed that Ginsberg, following Kerouac’s example, modeled “Howl” (1956) after the long, flowing saxophone lines of jazz legend Lester Young, who was also a minor character/hero in Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). 23 Among the Beats, Kerouac was especially inspired by jazz music and culture, a point highlighted by his 1958 poetry album Blues and Haikus featuring the bebop saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Along similar lines the poet Kenneth Patchen organized several readings with jazz accompaniment, including a 1959 Living Theatre engagement led by the bassist and composer Charles Mingus. As well, many black Beat poets including LeRoi Jones, A.B. Spellman, Bob Kaufman (who co-founded the Beat literary journal Beatitude with Ginsberg, John Kelly, and William Margolis in 1959), Ted Joans (also a visual artist), and Calvin Hernton, used jazz as both a structural model and a source of creative and spiritual inspiration. 24 By way of their multidirectional, multidisciplinary reach, the Beat writers – both black and white – occupied the in/visible center of the American avant-garde, uniting poets, jazz musicians, visual artists and filmmakers together.

Although Brakhage never publicly cited jazz as an artistic influence, the impact of Beat poetry on his aesthetics is significant in this context. Throughout the fifties and sixties Brakhage forged relationships with poets such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg and many others. Their ideas, techniques and encouragement had a significant impact on Brakhage’s development as a filmmaker. His appreciation of contemporary poetry was equally matched, conversely, if not surpassed, by the Beat poets’ fascination with improvised jazz. McClure identifies Creeley’s interest in jazz as a potential source of Brakhage’s use of improvisation. As McClure states, “I don’t think Stan follows jazz and Creeley has followed jazz, and through Creeley, Stan is inheriting a sense of jazz improvisation which neatly accompanies his sense of Pollock-like improvisation.” 25 Creeley’s long prose work, Island was actually written while listening to Bud Powell, John Coltrane (whose music Creeley admired for its “dissonance and fragmentation”) and Billie Holiday, 26 thus forming a neat associational pivot between Brakhage and Coltrane.

Other Factors

Several chronological factors also invite closer scrutiny. Born less than seven years apart, 27 Brakhage and Coltrane’s careers developed along a parallel trajectory. Both men became active participants in their respective milieus during the mid 1950s, achieving moderate success before the age of thirty. By the age of twenty-two Brakhage had already completed a handful of remarkable films, including Desistfilm (1954), The Way to Shadow Garden (1954), Reflections on Black (1955) and The Wonder Ring (1955). During this time he became a regular fixture and emerging star of New York’s lively underground film scene. Before his thirtieth birthday Coltrane had already toured with jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie (1949-51), Johnny Hodges (1954), and Miles Davis (1955-57). By the mid fifties Coltrane was gaining national recognition thanks to his work with the Davis quintet, centered in New York City. Coltrane recorded Giant Steps, his first album as leader of his own band in 1959; around the same time Brakhage was reaching artistic maturation with films like Anticipation of the Night (1958) and Window Water Baby Moving. Both artists completed major works in 1964; Coltrane recorded his best-selling and best-known album, A Love Supreme in December, while Brakhage finished the five-part Dog Star Man, his most recognized film, earlier that same year. While these coincidences may seem trivial I believe they are significant and not accidental. They indicate that both artists were making similar breakthroughs almost in tandem, achieving artistic maturation at nearly the same time while living thousands of miles apart, 28 and with few, if any, tangible links. These parallels demonstrate how innovation and creativity function within the shape and contours of culture.

A less demonstrable though no less mitigating comparative factor is the important role spirituality played in the formation of Brakhage and Coltrane’s emotional and corporeal energies, as well as their aesthetics. As the musician and scholar David Such notes, “the powerful physical energy with which Coltrane infused his performances… is congruent with his mutual interest in developing inner strength.” 29 Coltrane’s spiritual resurgence that took place in 1957, documented in his liner notes for A Love Supreme, 30 is considered the major turning point in his career. Like many avant-garde practitioners of the postwar era Coltrane expressed a strong interest in Eastern religion and philosophy. His spiritual inclinations are fully displayed in song and album titles such as “The Blessing” (1957), “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” (1965) “Dear Lord” (1965), Meditations (1965), Ascension (1965) and Om (1965). As these titles, taken together, imply, Coltrane’s music embodied the struggle to articulate a universal spiritual message. 31

Brakhage’s work also has a foundation in religious belief, a fact recently crystallized in his statement “Having declared a belief in God” (1995) and film titles such as The Jesus Trilogy (2001) and Panels for the Walls of Heaven (2002). The seeds of Brakhage’s spiritual outlook, however, can be traced further back. In his aesthetic credo Metaphors on Vision he surmised that as an artist, “birth, sex, death, and the search for God” should be his main concerns. 32 Like Coltrane, who claimed a belief in all religions, Brakhage did not restrict his spiritual affiliation, stating:

My god is existence. My god is manifest in everything; not through power but through being, through a willingness to dance with life and existence. All religions, however different, grant preeminently to man the power of the will. So that is my idea of ‘the powers that be’ – the will of the dancer, open and willing, the will of the dancer. 33

The Romantic character of their work, rooted in a combination of skilful execution, formal inventiveness, unhindered imagination and endless experimentation, reveals, finally, a common creative approach/artistic drive. As Coltrane wrote in 1960, “I’ve got to keep experimenting. I feel that I’m just beginning. I have part of what I’m looking for in my grasp, but not all.” 34 During his tenure with Miles Davis in the late fifties, Coltrane developed his signature “sheets-of-sound” technique, a three-on-one chord approach, before helping to initiate a modal (or scalar) style of improvisation on albums such as Milestones (1958) and Kind of Blue (1959). Meanwhile as a bandleader he was moving in an opposite direction almost simultaneously, developing a complex system of chord substitutions with his landmark album, Giant Steps. In the sixties, Coltrane, following the lead of free jazz innovators such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, broke apart the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic constraints imposed by bebop. Throughout the mid sixties Coltrane’s music became increasingly atonal, dissonant and polyrhythmic, beginning with his large group improvisation project Ascension, and continuing into albums like Om, Meditations, and Interstellar Space (1967), a series of duets with the drummer Rashied Ali. Coltrane was also renowned for his fascination with all types of instruments; fluent on alto, tenor and soprano saxophones, at home he experimented with the harp, the flute, and even the bagpipes! Throughout his life he studied music from all over the world, transposing non-European instruments and exotic scales into a jazz context.

Brakhage, following the lead of avant-garde film pioneers such as Maya Deren, Marie Menken and Willard Maas, had a correlative impact on the film medium. By introducing abstract imagery, jerky, handheld camera movements and rapid, inconsistent rhythms into their cinematic vocabulary, Brakhage and his colleagues disconnected American cinema from its industrial ties by conceptualizing the filmmaker as an individual artist. Like Coltrane, Brakhage has also displayed an extensive technical virtuosity. Besides photographing with various 16mm, 8mm and Super 8 film cameras, he has also been a leading contributor to the development of direct, or camera-less filmmaking. In addition to hand-painting on 16mm, 35mm and 70mm film stocks, he has “scratched, dyed, baked, and otherwise directly intervened on the ‘sovereignty’ of the photographic.” 35 In Mothlight (1963) he attached moth wings, leaves and crystals to strips of clear film, thereby effacing the frame’s threshold entirely. Subsequent films such as The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) and the entire body of his hand-painted work have extended this line of approach in numerous directions. Throughout his career Brakhage also developed an impressive array of strategies and techniques for affecting a personal cinema. Foremost among his innovations was the development of the first person camera, illustrated in films such as Daybreak and Whiteye (1957), Anticipation of the Night and Window Water Baby Moving; in contrast to the psycho-dramatic mode that dominated the early period of American avant-garde cinema, this technique posited the filmmaker as a conscious subjective presence. The individual expression of the jazz solo thus finds an equivalent in the personal independent films of the late 1950s.

Although seldom given much attention, jazz and film experimentalists such as Coltrane and Brakhage were working in a number of similar directions throughout the fifties and sixties. There is, for example, an interesting conceptual parallel between modal jazz and the poetic first person film. Both of these modes sought to free themselves of the “horizontal” structures that dominated jazz and cinema, respectively. In the case of jazz, the term horizontal refers to an improvisational structure built upon the functional harmony of a given tune. In the case of cinema, horizontal refers to the narrative arrangement of shots and sequences. By substituting the horizontal with a “vertical” structure musicians and filmmakers alike were freed from the restraints of linear development. 36 This is one of several points along which one can trace a line of shared intention between improvised jazz and avant-garde cinema. 37

Despite the overlaps in chronology, approach and technique, Brakhage and Coltrane never met, nor were they familiar with one another’s work. They came from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, had different interests and were exposed to different influences. Except for a brief interlude in his early twenties when he lived in New York City, Brakhage spent the majority of his life in Colorado. Coltrane, on the other hand, spent most of his career in New York while maintaining a rigorous tour schedule. This geographical difference may be less essential than it would seem, however. Although he lived in semi-isolation, three thousand miles above sea level in a log cabin, Brakhage also traveled and lectured extensively, maintained a strong public presence, and established deep connections with artists all over North America and Europe. And although removed from the dailiness of city living Brakhage’s work has intermittently displayed an engagement with the urban experience and social architectures. The Wonder Ring, a six-minute study of New York’s now demolished Third Avenue elevated railway, reveals a wondrous, ecstatic vision of the city, while the Pittsburgh trilogy, including Eyes (1971), Deus Ex (1971), and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), displays a cold, surgical view that magnifies the fissures of 1960s urban development.

The Comparative Analysis of Jazz and Cinema

Although American avant-garde jazz and cinema matured during the same period (the early-1960s) and in many of the same urban centres (notably New York, San Francisco and Chicago), these parallels have been underdeveloped by jazz and film scholarship alike. Krin Gabbard’s recent book Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (1996) is the first full-length publication to critically explore overlaps and intersections between jazz and cinema in American culture; unfortunately Gabbard limits his study to a select corpus of narrative films, ignoring numerous important experimental and documentary films in the process. And although several independent filmmakers (including Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Shirley Clarke and Ron Mann) have addressed, incorporated or represented jazz improvisation in their work, a gap remains in the comparative literature. It is this discontinuity that I wish to address.

In his introduction to Jammin’ at the Margins, Gabbard suggests, “the myth of jazz’s autonomy has served its purpose and new myths ought to be proposed. The old myths – as well as the new ones – ought to be seen as products of particular cultural moments and ideologies.” 38 This statement echoes throughout recent jazz scholarship. Arguing for a dialogical approach to jazz studies the musicologist Gary Tomlinson asks, “Instead of repeating such Western myths of the noncontingency of artworks, why not search for jazz meanings behind the music, in the life-shapes that gave rise to it and that continue to sustain it?” 39 The jazz historian Scott DeVeaux, meanwhile, advocates for “an approach that is less invested in the ideology of jazz as an aesthetic object and more responsive to the issues of historical particularity.” 40 Following recent lines of inquiry taken in jazz studies over the past decade, my intention is to open up a “dialogue” between the postwar jazz and cinema avant-gardes, using Coltrane’s music and Brakhage’s films as a historically specific case study. Unlike several of his fellow jazz musicians 41 it’s improbable that Coltrane ever had any contact with filmmakers during his lifetime. Conversely, a review of the literature reveals that Brakhage had minimal interest in, and little, if any, contact with jazz directly. As his radio program, “The Test of Time” reveals, Brakhage’s musical interests lean heavily towards the classical-modernist tradition (Varése, Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen and Charles Ives are among his favorite composers). 42 However, examining each artist through the lens of the other may well allow new meanings to emerge, as Tomlinson might say, beyond notes and images.

Some Methodological Problems

One reason for the lack of interdisciplinary crossover between the fields of jazz and film studies may have to do with the difference of signification between sound and image. A number of critics, including Roland Barthes, Alan Williams, and Jacques Attali have attempted to resolve problems of musical signification. 43 In the discipline of jazz studies, this dilemma has been addressed most recently by the theory of “Signifyin(g),” first introduced in Henry Louis Gates’ book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988). Signifyin(g) is, variously and/or at once, a theme in certain African-American literature, an “indigenous black metaphor for intertextuality” and a set of rhetorical strategies for mediating between or among texts and languages, regardless of type. 44 Robert Walser, in a detailed analysis of Miles Davis’ 1964 recording of “My Funny Valentine” demonstrates how the concept of Signifyin(g) can be applied to musical analysis. Walser also points out that Gates’ theory is useful “precisely because his goal was to create the means to deal with cultural difference on its own terms, as an antidote to theoretical assimilation by more prestigious projects.” 45 Gates was careful not to delimit the usefulness of his theory to literary criticism, admitting, “the implicit premise of this study is that all texts Signify upon other texts.” 46 The strength of Gates’ theory rests in its versatility and adaptability, making it a useful tool for counteracting the problems of signification a cross-disciplinary, interracial study such as this poses.

Also complicating a comparative analysis of jazz and cinema is the common assumption that jazz improvisation is an automatic process. The apparent opposition between the live, open, spontaneous potential of jazz music and the mediated, closed form of a finished film (as filmmaking is seldom a spectator event) makes for a problematic comparison. However, as the historian Peter Steinberger points out, contrary to popular opinion “modern jazz is a rule-governed enterprise, based upon strict formal principles that govern virtually everything that happens in performance.” 47 And as the bebop traditionalist Wynton Marsalis puts it: “Jazz is not just, ‘Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.’ It’s a very structured thing that requires a lot of thought and study.” 48 Like filmmaking, jazz is a discipline that requires a great deal of technical understanding; before acquiring the skills necessary to improvise, an intimate knowledge of the camera/instrument and the rules of composition are essential.

A final question perhaps needs answering: How does one discuss improvisation with respect to Brakhage’s filmmaking? Improvisation, when applied to the study of cinema, is most often used in reference to the actors’ performances. David Sterritt, however, uses the term “improvised camera dances” to invoke the spirited physical impulse of Brakhage’s shooting technique in the late fifties. In this sense, Brakhage’s filmmaking can be thought of as a performative art subject to coincidence and chance. 49 But this notion also takes for granted the discipline and precision of Brakhage’s shooting style (in part determined by financial necessity). A statement made by Brakhage in the early sixties may help to clarify his thoughts on a spontaneous working method:

I remember my first lecture at the New School [in New York City] when I spoke of creating a film ‘spontaneously.’ My perhaps misuse of that word communicated the inappropriate idea that I, without mind or feeling, arbitrarily blundered my way with a constantly running camera through whatever scenes presented themselves. No one seemed to understand that which I had taken most for granted, that all my histories both passive and active, with strongest release of feeling I was capable of possessing such feeling in the given moment, were the motivation for the gesture, the as spontaneous as possible gesture, of the film. 50

Brakhage’s conception of a spontaneous approach, as expressed above, seems analogous to jazz improvisation in the sense that what he’s describing is an impromptu spontaneous “performance” by the filmmaker in which he or she is both agent of production and site of interpretation. Brakhage, like other avant-garde practitioners including the Beat poets, the Action Painters, and the bop improvisers, concentrates meaning in the primacy of the individual creative act, free from logistical constraints and rational consciousness.

Plus a Postscript: By Brett Kashmere and Astria Suparak following the Stan Brakhage Benefit Concert featuring Sonic Youth, Anthology Film Archives, NYC April 12, 2003:

Beyond Notes: On Music, Improvisation and FIlm, and Writing.


  1. Stan Brakhage, “Stan Brakhage on Music, Sound, Color and Film,” Film Culture 67-69 (1979): 130.
  2. For two brief periods in 1954 Brakhage and Tenney studied together with the experimental composers John Cage and Edgar Varése, respectively.
  3. Suranjan Ganguly, “All That is Light: Brakhage at 60,” Sight & Sound 3 (1993): 22.
  4. Stan Brakhage quoted in Gary Higgins, Rodrigo Garcia Lopes and Thomas Connick, “Grisled Roots: An Interview with Stan Brakhage," Millennium Film Journal 26 (1992): 58. My emphasis.
  5. Although difficult to characterize Daniel Belgrad usefully describes rhythm as “time… experienced through the body.” See his book, The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 192.
  6. Although difficult to characterize Daniel Belgrad usefully describes rhythm as “time… experienced through the body.” See his book, The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 192.
  7. This according to the biography posted on the Harry Smith Archives website, available at "Bio".
  8. Moritz, 6.
  9. Germaine Dulac, “The Avant-Garde Cinema,” The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: New York University Press), 47.
  10. Hans Richter, “The Badly Trained Sensibility,” The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: New York University Press), 22.
  11. Stan Brakhage quoted in Ganguly, 21.
  12. Peter Kubelka quoted in Jonas Mekas, “Interview with Peter Kubelka,” Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: Praeger, 1970; rpt. Cooper Square Press, 2000): 291.
  13. Martin T. Williams, The Jazz Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 7.
  14. LeRoi Jones, Black Music (New York: Pathfinder, 1967; rpt. De Capo 1998), 74-75.
  15. Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 147.
  16. John Coltrane with Don De Michael, “Coltrane on Coltrane,” Downbeat (Sept. 29, 1960; rpt. July 2, 1976): 17. Comment is from the reprinted version.
  17. Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Work (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 214.
  18. Lisa Phillips, “Beat Culture: America Revisioned,” Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965, ed. Lisa Phillips (New York: The Whitney Museum of Art and Flammarion, 1995), 33.
  19. David Sterritt, Mad to Be Saved: The Beats, the ’50s and Film (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998), 42.
  20. Ibid., 193.
  21. Ray Carney, “Escape Velocity: Notes on Beat Film,” Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965, ed. Lisa Phillips (New York: The Whitney Museum of Art and Flammarion, 1995), 198.
  22. R. Bruce Elder, The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1998), 435. For more formal and stylistic parallels between Ginsberg and Brakhage see Elder, “Allen Ginsberg: The Breath, the Voice, and the Poem,” 432-442.
  23. Like Kerouac and Ginsberg, Coltrane was also a fan of Young. “Pres was my first real influence,” Coltrane wrote. “The reason I liked Lester was that I could feel that line, that simplicity.” See Coltrane with De Michael, 17.
  24. See The Jazz Poetry Anthology, eds. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
  25. Michael McClure and Steve Anker, “Stan Brakhage: Realm Buster,” Stan Brakhage: Correspondences, Chicago Review 47.4/48.1 (2002): 173.
  26. See Belgrad, 217, 307n.
  27. John Coltrane was born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina; he died July 17, 1967 in Huntington, Long Island. Stan Brakhage was born January 14, 1933 in Kansas City, Missouri; he died March 9, 2003 in Victoria, British Columbia.
  28. Brakhage settled in the mountains above Denver in 1959, where he lived until 1986.
  29. David Such, Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians: Performing “Out There” (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 123.
  30. See John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Impulse GRD-155, liner notes. Coltrane writes: “During the year 1957, I experienced by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”
  31. See Porter, 259.
  32. Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision (New York: Film Culture, 1963), n.p.
  33. Stan Brakhage quoted in Stan Brakhage et al., Cinema Now (Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati Press 1968), 28.
  34. Coltrane with De Michael, 53.
  35. Paul Arthur, “Qualities of Light: Stan Brakhage and the Continuing Pursuit of Vision,” Film Comment 31.5 (1995): 70.
  36. For more on the cinematic distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical” development see “Poetry and the Film: A Symposium with Maya Deren, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler,” Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: Film Culture, 1970; rpt. Cooper Square Press, 2000), 178-179. Reference is to the reprinted version. For more on modal jazz, see Barry Dean Kernfeld, “Adderley, Coltrane and Davis at the Twilight of Bebop: The Search for Melodic Coherence,” Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1981; John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (New York: Da Capo, 1984): 105-28.
  37. I am not alone in making such a connection. Describing experimental jazz pianist Carla Bley’s album Escalator Over the Hill, Richard Cook and Brian Morton conclude “it is more closely related to the non-linear, associative cinema of avant-garde film-makers Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas (at whose Cinematheque some of the sessions were recorded) than to any musical parallel.” See Cook and Morton, eds., The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 3rd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 142.
  38. Krin Gabbard, Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1.
  39. Gary Tomlinson, “Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian Signifies,” Black Music Research Journal 11.2 (1991): 246. Emphasis his.
  40. Scott DeVeaux, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography,” Black American Literature Forum 25 (1991): 553.
  41. Examples abound: Charles Mingus, for instance, wrote and performed the score for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). Don Cherry composed the trumpet solo that punctuates the first section of Michael Snow’s New York Eye and Ear Control (1964). Two of Joyce Wieland’s films also feature music by avant-garde jazz musicians: Watersark (1964-65) includes a soundtrack by Carla Bley, Mike Mantler and Ray Jessel, while Peggy’s Blue Skylight (1964-66) features a piano score by Paul Bley.
  42. “The Test of Time,” a 20-part radio program hosted by Brakhage was originally broadcast in 1982 on the University of Colorado’s campus radio station, K.A.I.R. I have made transcriptions of the entire program, which are available online at: "The Test of Time" . Thanks to Richard Kerr for the audiotapes.
  43. See, for example, Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice,” Image, Music, Text, trans. and ed. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1982): 179-89; Alan Williams, “Is Sound Recording Like a Language?” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 51-66; Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1985), especially pp. 24-33.
  44. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59.
  45. Robert Walser, “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis,” Musical Quarterly 77.2 (1993): 172.
  46. 46. Gates, xxiv.
  47. Peter Steinberger, “Culture and Freedom in the Fifties: The Case of Jazz,” Virginia Quarterly Review 74 (1998): 130.
  48. Wynton Marsalis quoted in Berliner, 63.
  49. In my discussions of improvised performance I prefer to use the term performance as Dick Hebdige does, to describe “the execution of an artwork in any given medium.” See Hebdige, “Even unto Death: Improvisation, Edging, and Enframement,” Critical Inquiry 27, no.2 (Winter 2001): 342. Hebdige writes, “Everything assembled here under the rubric of performance is directly, not just metaphorically, applicable to the creation, for instance, of a visual art work [including films and photographs] or a written composition” (343).
  50. Stan Brakhage, “Notes,” Film Culture 25 (1962): 72. These notes were written in response to criticism of Anticipation of the Night. I assume this is the film Brakhage refers to here.

Notes from Underground: Coltrane, Brakhage and the American Avant-Garde

Brett Kashmere is a Canadian-born, US-based filmmaker, writer and curator. His writing on experimental film and video has appeared in journals, anthologies, and magazines such as Millennium Film Journal, Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ), The Films of Jack Chambers, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Senses of Cinema, Esse, Take One, and more. Kashmere is currently co-editing a book on the films of Arthur Lipsett and is also the founding editor of INCITE of Experimental Media.

Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 Essays   avant-garde   cinematheque quebecois   experimental   film theory   sound   stan brakhage