Michael Snow

This was originally published in the April 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

Reviewing, or even getting an overall picture of five highly productive decades of work by 72 year old Canadian film-maker, musician, writer, photographer, painter, sculptor and sound poet Michael Snow, is a daunting prospect. The recent release of a retrospective DVD-ROM devoted to cataloging and showcasing Snow’s work in just about every media known to man, comes as welcome relief to the novice approaching Snow’s work for the first time, and also provides an unusual example of a “multimedia” artefact, whose ability to skip and connect different media is actually warranted, and not just a gratuitous adding on of “interactive” bells and whistles. Digital Snow is built around a database of the Snow’s work that’s composed of 4,685 entries, including clips from his Albert Ayler sound-tracked 1964 experimental movie New York Eye and Ear Control to his recent feature length exploration of digital hyperspace Corpus Callosum. Put together by Montreal’s Daniel Langlois Foundation and media group Epoxy as a part of their Anarchive DVD series, there are recreations of sound, video and other kinds of installation work, as well as several hours of mp3s documenting everything from early youthful versions of Jelly Roll Morton tunes, to Snow’s work with pioneering Canadian improv unit CCMC, to a selection of his solo sound works. Everything can be accessed from a table of contents that consists of a film clip from a Snow film that features – guess what – an actual wooden table, whose “contents”, when clicked on, open pathways through Snow’s oeuvre, organized by theme, or medium. Snow started out as a jazz musician in the late 1940s, playing piano in Toronto based Dixieland and Swing groups. In the 1950s, he began exploring the visual arts, made his first film, and in 1962, moved to New York City with film-maker and companion, the late Joyce Wieland. A chance meeting with free-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, and a commission from a Canadian arts agency to make a film that mixed genres, led to Snow’s landmark 1964 film, New York Eye and Ear Control, with a soundtrack (later issued on ESP) by a stellar group including Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Rudd, Garry Peacock and Sunny Murray. The film marks a bold departure from other experimental jazz movies, such as John Cassavetes Shadows or Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, in which the film-makers produce a “Beat” visual experience that matches or imitates the jazz sound. Snow, in what was to become one of his signature styles, places the raw churning sound of Ayler et al against static landscape sequences filmed by the sea, or in New York City, lingering portraits of the musicians, and whirling camera pans. Snow’s work consistently questions the way in which sound and image are associated with each other on film. He says that he “wanted to make a simultaneity of two different classes of things – the image is built around the filming of a static figure placed into live settings.

I thought of that as being something classical. Against that, I put freely improvised, very expressive, romantic music. I put together what I thought of as the best band imaginable – the only instruction I gave was that I wanted it to be all ensemble playing and I didn’t want any tunes.” The follow-up, Wavelength (1967), one of the most celebrated experimental movies ever made, comes as a shock after the ecstatic sound and classical imagery of its predecessor. Wavelength is essentially a single 45 minute shot taken in Snow’s downtown loft, in which the camera slows zooms in on a photograph pinned to one of the walls (the photo, of the sea, can be found on the cover of Steve Reich’s stunning 1970 LP Four Organs, and a euphoric letter from Reich to Snow regarding Wavelength is included in Digital Snow). A sine-wave generator produces a drone-like tone that moves slowly up the scales in a glissando that matches the zoom’s slow focusing, while color tints turn the film into a slow-motion psychedelic experience akin to visiting La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House. Wavelength demonstrates the strange affinity that film and music have, as media that by definition investigate time. “In film,” observes Snow”, “you have a control over duration – which is something that never existed before. It’s like a clock – 24 frames a second. It should be natural to think the medium involves composing with duration.”

By the early 1970s, Snow was back in Toronto, having made several more important films, all excerpted as Quicktime movies in Digital Snow, along with a variety of art projects. At the same time, he pursued musical activities with a group of Toronto improv musicians including extraordinary sound artist Nobuo Kubota and percussionist, with whom, in 1974, he formed CCMC. The group which currently includes sound poet Paul Dutton and plunderphonics master John Oswald, has been a solid fixture on the Toronto scene ever since, organizing the city’s still functioning premiere avant-music space The Music Gallery as a performance place for themselves, and performing with a who’s who of the avant garde including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Misha Mengelberg and the excellent Toronto sound poetry ensemble the Four Horsemen. A recent collaboration with Christian Marclay is captured on a playful recently released double CD put out by TO label art metropole. Fine as CCMC are, Snow’s solo soundworks, which show more directly the influence of his film soundtrack explorations, are perhaps of greater interest. Much of Snow’s work is concerned with investigating the way different artistic media frame perception, through exposing and amplifying particular mechanisms of perception. His 1974 Music for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder, with its speeded up and slowed down piano loops uses recording technology as an instrument, while the excellent The Last LP, a series of recording studio produced fake ethnographic “tribal recordings” sounds like the Sun City Girls minus the guitars. German art label suppose has recently put out Hearing Aid an audio catalog to a recent Berlin retrospective of Snow’s sound installation work, while, Quebec’s Ohm editions has released a 3 CD set of Snow’s solo piano work Snow Solo Piano Solo Snow [3 Phases]. Who – aside from Snow, who in conversation, gracefully and precisely describes each project that he has been involved in – can keep up with all of this? Recently, Snow has begun working with digital media. His 2002 feature length film Corpus Callosum (the title refers to the central region of the human brain which passes “messages” between the two hemispheres) takes a long slow journey around a wired office space as a jumping point for a voyage into a world of mutant digital effects and distortions where bodies and rooms can at any moment melt or disappear. During the private screening of the film that I attended, I became worried that the film was out of focus. Working with the projectionist, we tried to refocus, using a mirror on the wall in one of the movie’s more virtual scenes. At the very moment that we believed we had established a proper focus, the mirror suddenly caught fire and disappeared, leaving us adrift. So it goes – all to a queasy, humming soundtrack of amplified room sound that sounds like a hundred hard drives humming. Corpus Callosum is one of the first artworks that actually evokes what the parameters of the digital world, and its effects on perception are.

“Video in a sense is not optical,” explains Snow. “Video has an inherent instability, alterability, malleability. With digital animation and imagery one can changes shapes pixel by pixel. Film and photochemical photography recapitulate the way we see, especially film. It’s more organic than electronic imagery. We see by light falling on surfaces and they come back to the eye, and film projection is exactly that. Photographing, you’re filming for an eye, and it stays natural, even though it’s natural, because it still obeys the principles of vision, optics, going back to Descartes. Whereas electronic imagery is historically related to radar, in that it makes a reading, a molding of a surface. It’s more like making a casting of something rather than seeing something, the bounce of light. It’s more internally alterable than film ever was, because in a sense it’s constantly in flux and only stays in place long enough to represent this.” It’s this reflecting back to us of the ways in which media impose or call upon very specific conditions and structures of perception that makes Snow’s work so provocative. “Any form of recording alters what it is recording,” notes Snow. “You photograph something, print it and look at it. Well, what was 3D is now 2D. That’s a drastic change, but we’re so used t reading such things that we read right into the realism of it, so we stop seeing the photo and see … people at the beach or whatever. That’s fine. But one thing the arts can do is to bring to the listener or spectator the transformations that have been made. That this is something new – it does represent what you see, but it also has its own character as an invention. I’m interested in drawing ones attention to that as opposed to something more documentary.”

The Digital Snow DVD-ROM is available from www.digitalsnow.org. CCMC + Christian Marclay is out now on Art Metropole. Hearing Aid is out now on suppose.