Peter Greenaway - 4 American Composers: Cage, Glass, Monk, Ashley (1983)

Based on London performances under the aegis of the New York/Almeida Festival, this set of four one-hour documentaries, originally produced in 1983, introduced these avant-garde composers and their music to general British audiences. It is a tribute to the filmmakers' accomplishment (and a sorry comment on how we honor our own prophets) that the set provides no less valuable an introduction for American audiences a full decade later.

These videos merit viewing not simply for exporting the avant-garde to a general public, but for explaining it-or, rather, for letting the composers explain themselves. Compared to Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley, John Cage and Philip Glass are household names, yet their relative fame frequently turns on the persistence of misconceptions. All too often, even scholars who might be expected to know better portray Cage as either charlatan or nihilist. Critics in the 1980s tagged Glass's music as "classical music for people who don't like classical music," suggesting his shrewd exploitation of the yuppie market. Director Peter Greenaway and producer Revel Guest weave representative musical excerpts with interviews to present the personalities more accurately, and, in so doing, establishes a broader context for listening. Perhaps the most striking revelation of these documentaries is that such notorious iconoclasts are so soft-spoken in person (compared to the shy, halting Ashley, the loquacious Monk seems downright assertive).

Fans of Peter Greenaway will be disappointed (and his detractors relieved) that here, whether from documentary restraint or simple budgetary restrictions, he largely subordinates idiosyncrasies found in his other film work to the rhythms and forms of the live performances. A Music Circus, a seventieth-birthday celebration, features twelve Cage works performed within two hours, often overlapping, and thus motivates a kaleidoscopic assortment of brief snippets; the Philip Glass Ensemble's visually static performance inspires more prolonged swaths of uninterrupted music. Monk's cinematic approach to staging and choreography ("all the cinema language is how I think in terms of theater") and Ashley's video conception of his opera Perfect Lives more directly shape approaches to the filming of their work.

Of course, Greenaway is never the entirely invisible observer; he occasionally finds opportunities to assert his own style. These range from rapid, rhythmic intercutting images of the sound sources used in Cage's works, such as "27 sounds manufactured in a kitchen," to the slow-motion close-ups of Glass nodding cues to his ensemble. Most openly individualistic are the interviews with Ashley and his collaborators, in which they appear simultaneously in one or more on-screen video monitors, filmed from different angles and at different magnifications, and intercut with typescript title cards to underscore selected words and phrases. Though clearly modeled on a technique used in Ashley's opera, the result is unmistakably Greenaway.

At its best, the interplay of sound and image strikingly illuminates each composer's philosophy. Puzzling over the quirky, even bizarre choreography in Monk's Turtle Dreams (1983), which expresses the "pre-World War III anxiety" of contemporary urban life, we hear her explain: "It's like little templates or something, like little evocative nuggets, little psychic triggers. And it's all these little moments of explosion within this very formal, very abstract form that, in a way, you could look at and you could say it doesn't have any idea or content." Likewise, as we see musicians intently performing Cage's indeterminacies, we hear his account of orchestral shenanigans during 1958 performances, and his realization that he had to "find a way to let people be free without becoming foolish, so that their freedom will make them noble."

Occasionally, key information almost slips by unnoticed, as when Glass observes that "the whole development of popular music over the last ten years has been very helpful to us." One longs here for a narrator to emphasize that, thanks to commercial pop music's trends in the 1970s toward static harmonies and ubiquitous synthesizers, minimalism's popular appeal was neither a birthright nor an achievement, but genuinely thrust upon it (as Glass notes dryly, "It's not music with clearly populist intentions."). Of course, some contexts were unknowable at the time: although some of the images in Ashley's video opera strongly resemble rock video clichés, 1990s viewers must recall that the 1983 Perfect Lives immediately predates the rise of MTV.

Inevitably, the contexts provided in a one-hour format are tightly circumscribed. With Cage and Monk, we do acquire some sense of stylistic development. A Music Circus incorporates works from 1940 to 1979, and rather than follow a chance arrangement in performance, Greenaway and Guest present them chronologically. Although Monk's musical and stage works are presented in a more flexible ordering, her film works 16mm Earrings (1966), Quarry (1976), and Ellis Island (1981) do appear in sequence. But other than a quick excerpt from Music in similar motion (1969), the Glass segment includes only his work from about 1983, and the Ashley segment presents only Perfect Lives. Therefore, viewers for whom any of these documentaries provide a first encounter will have to turn to other media to build a fuller sense of the composers' outputs, especially in relation to contemporaneous developments in music and the visual arts. Nevertheless, the filmmakers' skillful integration of image, music, and text, especially in some of Greenaway's more subtle visual puns and symbols, as when the Cage segment begins with what appears to be the slow-motion demolition of a church-which, in fact, turns out to be its renovation, will reward viewers of all backgrounds.

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