Textures of Collaboration: Pop Music Culture and the Experimental Films of Abigail Child and Bill Morrison

By Elerding, Carolyn | CineAction, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Textures of Collaboration: Pop Music Culture and the Experimental Films of Abigail Child and Bill Morrison


Elerding, Carolyn, CineAction


Cinema possesses a rich history of collaboration between artists of sound, narrative, and image. However, traditional tendencies to perceive music as a strictly supportive background or accompaniment have been subjected to in-depth critique only recently. Abigail Child's interactions with musicians in Is This What You Were Born For? (1981-89) and Bill Morrison's partnership with composer Michael Gordon in Decasia (2001) exemplify (but by no means exhaust the possibilities of) the broader range of collaborative textures that cinema has always suggested. Not coincidentally, these works represent the influence on cinema of two popular music practices: the ubiquitous re-mixing that has emerged from hip-hop culture and the group composition typical of many rock bands.

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Abigail Child (also a poet, critic, and scholar) has had an influential career as an experimental filmmaker since the mid-1970s when she turned from professional documentary work to the creation of independent films focusing on gender, sexuality, class, and the critical possibilities of montage. Recycling found footage from a wide variety of sources, such as porn, industrial films, and home movies, and progressing cinematic techniques often associated primarily with the historical avant-garde of the early twentieth century, Child has created an oeuvre of incredible beauty and continuing social relevance. Her films are shown at major art museums and in experimental cinema venues and can be obtained through a variety of distribution channels. Is This What You Were Born For?, the series of short films Child created in the 1980s, underscores her exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and these endeavors have had on her work.

Michael Gordon's award-winning career as a composer has resulted in a variety of notable intermedia collaborations, including for example operas with diegetic film components progressing beyond the more familiar application of projection as scenery and non-narrative music performances incorporating video. Gordon is a founding member of the highly regarded new music organization Bang on a Can, a group dedicated to facilitating the composition and performance of new music, often with an interdisciplinary dimension and independently of conservative academic contexts. Decasia, Gordon's internationally celebrated collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison, is a symphony for full orchestra paired with a montage of archival nitrate footage in various states of intriguing and evocative decomposition. The final version of the film, edited to fit the live recording of the symphony performance, was featured in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Decasia synaesthetically elucidates subtleties inherent to myriad generative tensions: progress/tradition, memory/time, darkness/illumination, and mini-malism/totalism.

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The styles of interaction under discussion here owe much to the downtown New York arts scene of the 1980s, by many accounts the heyday of pre-academic postmodernism in the United States. Prefacing Abigail Child's book, Tom Gunning provides a helpful overview of the context giving rise to this community of Ivy League expatriates:

  The crashing of the romantic and idealist aspiration of the sixties
  counter-culture led many American avant-garde artists to look for a
  rigor of analysis to replace the highly individualistic and
  'personalized' aspects of the Beats and of the youth culture the
  Beats in part inspired. Painting, as it moved into Minimalism,
  provided one alternative model. Just as important was a rediscovery
  of the art and theory of the Soviet literary avant-garde of the
  twenties, the constructivist ethos which proclaimed the importance of
  the revolutionary political context of artistic practice, and
  proposed a scientific analysis of the laws of art... (1)

The music group Bang on a Can was formed in New York in 1987 by Michael Gordon and some fellow recent graduates from the Yale School of Music, because their own musical experiences and needs were not reflected in the culture of "new music"--that is, contemporary composition in the academic conservatory tradition, what some might term "post-classical. …

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