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Real Time Arts, July 2005 [www.realtimearts.net]

Review by Danni Zuvela

Though the lives of the artists span generations and continents, comparisons between Ed Kuepper and Len Lye abound. Both extraordinarily gifted artists, they have earned their notable place in history as much for their creative contributions as their refusal, or inability, to be ruthlessly commercially minded. In their rejection of the tools of the establishment, both anticipated and performed key ideas of avant garde art. Lye, one of the first to experiment with direct painting onto celluloid, is heralded with birthing the music video. Kuepper’s seminal role in vanguard Brisbane band The Saints drove the development of the intense, defiant sounds of punk music. Continued experimentation characterises both careers.

With the MFLL (Music For Len Lye) show, the connections between these two pioneers of oppositional art reach a rewarding fruition. Brisbane-based curator David Pestorius is well placed to bring these two autodidacts together. A long-time follower and scribe of alternative/independent music, and an art lover and scholar, Pestorius mobilised his awareness of both Kuepper’s and Lye’s art (and status) in the realisation of MFLL.

Tusalava, Lye’s first, extraordinary film from 1928 (a black and white semi-abstract film featuring wriggling microbe-like shapes, laboriously cel-animated over 2 penurious years), is now silent. Originally performed with two pianos, the score, produced by Lye’s long-time friend, Australian Jack Ellitt, has long been lost to history. According to Pestorius, the combination of Lye’s interest in “the relation between the moving image and the movement of their accompanying music” and appreciation of the “very cinematic” dimensions of Ed Kuepper’s important solo work prompted Pestorius to approach Kuepper with a concept to add music to the films, not as a pre-recorded soundtrack, but live. Kuepper came to the project with little to no knowledge of Lye’s formidable legacy, but with his manifold connections to the visual art world and his musician’s meter, he instantly appreciated Lye’s remarkably kinetic work.

Kuepper says he was “inspired by the abstract rhythms” to create the music for Tusalava, and several other famous Lye animations. Rather than try to replicate the original soundtracks, which were deeply, generatively intertwined (a result of Lye’s obsession with synchronicity), Kuepper’s interpretation resulted in freer flowing, rock-inspired pieces for guitar and drums. The Lye Foundation granted permission to use Lye’s films and Music for Films was born.

Success in Brisbane, Melbourne and a show in Sydney at the Opera House brought numerous accolades for Music for Films in 2003. While some purists may prefer the original soundtracks, the adventurous Lye would probably have approved given the energy and spirit of the Kuepper collaborations, especially in the light of Stan Brakhage’s notion of the contemporary sound/avant-garde film performance as an entirely discrete form.

MFLL sees Kuepper continuing to develop music to accompany moving images but this time for specially commissioned short video art pieces by high profile international artists. When, in 2004, the Lye Foundation chose to withdraw permission to screen the films, both Pestorius and Kuepper wanted to continue the project, and so a number of artists were contacted to produce video works. Each artist was provided with examples of Kuepper’s more cinematic music (including those pieces devised for Music For Films) and invited to produce imagery in response. Kuepper was then presented with the videos, from which he devised the final music for the program. MFLL features drumming by long term collaborator Jeffrey Wegener, with whom Kuepper played in 80s experimental “jazz-punk” band The Laughing Clowns. They were joined by cellist Jane Elliot for the most recent performance at the Queensland Music Festival.

The international video artists’ work is brilliant, contributing to the show’s appeal to European audiences (it toured to Berlin, Vienna and Paris to widespread acclaim). French artist Dominique Gonzales-Foerster is as highly sought after as she is selective—her very presence is a coup. Her video piece, After Len Lye’s Free Radicals, is an exceptional digital work, mastering subtle organic forms in 3D animation. One of only a few works to refer directly to Lye, its sparing visual quotation of Free Radicals’ white-on-black scratches teams beautifully with Wegener’s tribal tom drums, echoing the African drums of Lye’s original and creating a sublime, referential—even reverential—artwork. Liam Gillick’s anarchic theme-park work, Public Information Film, is also delightful; a colourful, ironic statement (given that Disney is widely acknowledged to have appropriated Lye’s work for Fantasia) scored with jaunty verve by Kuepper’s fast paced playing and Wegener’s merry rhythms.

The Australian work is also of very high calibre. Eugene Carchesio’s video piece continues the organic minimalism for which he is feted in his visual art and experimental music. For Ian Burn is composed of a single fixed take of a window from which can be seen gently swaying trees. The contrast between the unyielding horizontals of the blinds and the shimmering leaf and bark shapes beyond creates a meditative experience of opposites, enhanced by subdued but resonant music.

Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s video, Pangaea, also stands out for its conceptual clarity. Multiple layers of lapping waters and map outlines converge and dissolve; we see a ship sliding past, some quick night-vision shots, and bands of intersecting colours appear and disappear. As Kuepper’s jubilant guitar soars, accompanied by itself (thanks to a synthesiser device enabling multiple tracks) and Wegener’s throbbing drums, text appears: ‘Manus Island.’ In an instant, an array of associations strikes, about boats, water, Australia, the Pacific and ‘solutions’; with the musical crescendo, contemplation is inevitable, fittingly reflective of the music that was initially created for Tusalava, right at the beginning of the project.

Music For Len Lye is both a homage and a dedication to Len Lye (the music is ‘for’ Len), and also a description (the music began as scores for Lye films). Cleverly, it also conjures up MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer’s “LLMF’ (“Live Like A Motherfucker”). When asked about the process of making music Kuepper described it as “fairly intuitive initially, then (with) an element of intellectual appraisal later to see if my intuition was correct.” Judging by the success of the shows, it undoubtably was.

Ed Kuepper’s Music for Len Lye, Queensland Music Festival, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 16-17

Danni Zuvela

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