On …à… & Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie”
—July 9, 2019
…à… (2019), a 35-min work for solo piccolo, fixed-media electronics (field recordings), video, and scent, is my first collaboration with Paris-based Taiwanese flutist Shao-Wei Chou and was created, poîetically speaking, for both her and myself. It was premiered in April, 2019 at the CNMAT of University of California Berkeley as well as the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles.
I started out the project with the idea of making a film. Or, to be precise, an image-and-sound-driven temporality. At the conception stage of the project I watched (after waiting for its DVD release for 5 years) Belgium director Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie – a full-length movie, her last, that was shot mostly with a phone and a hand-held camera. No Home Movie is visually strung together mostly by sceneries from Akerman’s mother’s home in Belgium and those from an anonymous, desolate desert landscape (possibly in Israel), occasionally seasoned with few scenes from hotel rooms where Akerman conversed with her mother on Skype and few from the flowing surface of a dusty green river. The general quality of the images is poor and the framework static, and often the composition of the frames is done by the positioning of the camera at an angle that takes in physical frames such as doors, windows, hallways, or the outline of a sofa. What fascinated and at the same time moved me greatly in this film is the melancholy. It’s a melancholy invoked not by a sad storytelling, or a dramatic arch, or devastating visual stimuli, but by a flux of stances at once self-absorbing and self-reflexive, which in turn projects the author and the subjects as both vulnerable and humanely egotistic.
While the critics often like to describe Akerman’s work as “hyperrealistic” or “hypersensitive”, what struck me the most is not the manneristic repetitions and presentations of the daily life across many of Akerman’s films and how these supposedly represent women’s identity in society, which everyone loves talking about, but the poetic yet meticulously thought-out formal arrangement in each film. It is poetic because the logics behind the sequences are not representational nor taken-for-granted; it is meticulous because how these sequences interact with the viewing eyes and with time is beyond cinematic – it is, if nothing else, highly figurative, highly psychotic, highly dialectical, and highly musical all at once. The formal ruptures and departs between the Belgium home scenes and the desert scenes are semantically ambiguous and narratively abstract, yet they invoke in the audience’s mind a discontinued yet associative experience centering around an emotional and meanwhile conscious awareness of the intersecting, doubling dichotomy of home and not-home.
I felt as if I found a resonance or an affinity in the film as I was working on my own project. …à… is a semi-collaborative work I created with and for Taiwanese flutist Shao-Wei Chou. Shao-Wei and I are both expatriates, having left our home country in the early 2000s and lived mainly in another for all these years (she lives in France and I in the US). What we both experienced is a sense of instant belonging and permanent alienation. In …à…, I wanted to formulate this hybrid condition of placement and displacement propelled by my experience of expatriation; in a sense the title of the piece “à” (in French) can mean “of”, “at”, “in”, and “to”, which expresses the multifurcation of my self-understanding from such life experience. In music, traditionally, placement and displacement are of course associated with immersion and discontinuity, narrative flow and contradiction, sound carpet with slow harmony and erratic, ephemeral, and self-referential episodes, and, more objectively and very generally speaking in “layman style”, atmosphere and abstraction or other disrupting devices that might be musical or -extra-musical. In …à… I didn’t want to constrict the construction of the experience purely based on a musico-logic. In fact, I wanted to create a choreographed, temporally contingent sequence of perceptions via various, interchanging sensory forms, procuring a self-contained experience (aesthetic only depending on each person’s definition of the word). My reasons for involving various sensory, perceptual forms are
It increases the multiplicity and complexity of the “meaning” or the “speculation of a meaning” of each moment, since the simultaneous arrangement of two or three medias offers the possibilities of semantic or gestural layering and dialogue (along with other potential relationships). This particularly heightened yet sometimes topically diffused state of perception (or perceptual demand) (perhaps here the word “hypersensitivity” would work well) is especially effective in part because of the imbalance of perceptual sensitivity we in the industrialized society today manifest in our many, various sense faculties. Most of us are generally a lot more sensitive and competent in visual perception but not so in aural perception, even less so in olfactory perception. For example, it is precisely this imbalance that prompts our “reading” of the various signals sent our way fraught with charming mistakes and subliminal truths. While most people can “read into” a visual stimulus or message with great confidence and often semantical interpretations, the “meaning” of such interpretation becomes faulty or mysterious while juxtaposed over by another signal of, say, an aural perception which on its own has another expression, either reinforcing the visual one or not, hence a multifarious and dialectical state of perceptual simultaneity.
It provides greater options for formal ruptures and departs since the switching to or addition/omission of one perceptual faculty or the other is in itself a rupture and depart. Formal ruptures and departs, especially at a meta level, are particularly important in my work in general since they break off not only a linear thought-process but also the linearity and narrative formation on a continuous conscious plane. The “placement” and “displacement” I could evoke in the arrangement of such formal ruptures and departs can be a lot more extreme. For example, it can resemble the effect of that when one is suddenly woken up from a dream in a REM state, or that when a woman’s personal agency is suddenly destroyed due to an event of physical assault, or that when the political and intellectual discourse is in one night disrupted when the current US president was elected in 2016. This kind of ruptures and departs at a meta level questions and exposes the vulnerability of the author, the subjects, and the audience.
Subsequently, it enables a dream-like logic with which the audience traverses both passively and actively through a minutely triggered topography of the senses. The distance between the work and the audience is constantly shifting, very much like how when one dreams, even if self-conscious, one observes oneself as a puppeteer or third person and at once or at times participates as the protagonist. This choreographed morphing of the acoustical and visual distances is to enable changes in the audience’s perception of space – for example, is the space operatic, theatrical, or cinematic? Is it in the 1st-person, 2nd-person, 3rd-person, or pedestrian bystander?
In …à…, I collected video footages shot from various locations in three continents, some I filmed myself during my travels throughout these recent years and at home, and some were filmed by my friends in different countries upon my request (credits : Shao-Wei Chou, Liwen Chen, Mai Morimoto, and Julien Malaussena). I also use some of the corresponding audio recordings and some other isolated recordings. The piece is in total 35 minutes long and is roughly divided into two parts in time. The first part resembles a film in format, and the flutist appears with live actions only very briefly few times, however, she appears, with her baby, in a home video largely in sound for an extended sequence, during which the audience can hear her practice an altered version of my written score of the second part of the piece, on a flute instead of a piccolo. The flute practicing, heard clearly in sound accompanying the visual sequence which mostly eludes the physical presence of mother and child, is exactly like how it is – practicing – and is often interrupted by the crying sounds of the baby which forces the performer to put down the flute and to switch her role into that of a mother’s.
In the first part, at two of the few instances when the performer actually does something onstage, she turns on a video call and the audience can see what she does both live onstage and in the live projection of the video call to another person.
Other sequences are visual, demanding the audience to focus mostly on the visual part of the film as film, and the audio part is largely fixed-media with occasional superimposed live performance. Like in je tu il-là elles (my 2017 electroacoustic work composed for Ensemble Adapter in Berlin after Akerman’s earlier film je tu il elle) the often mismatched or alternatively-combined audio-visual relationships are at play here. Also important is the spoken speeches and written text that are in languages (Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, and French) other than English, without subtitles. For those who understand one or more of these languages, the semantic reading of the video and/or the corresponding audio, if any, rightly or mischievously seduces the said audience to impose extra-musical meaning onto those perceived instances. On the other hand, for those who don’t understand any of those languages, the attempt of semantic guessing forces them to extract meaning from other visual hints on screen and from the sound, therefore misunderstanding or haphazard understanding occurs; in addition, this situation also resembles nomadic individual’s or new expatriate’s experience of being in a country in which an unfamiliar language is spoken/used.
The second part of the work consists of largely an extended sequence that combines the visual scenes from multiple bookstores in Taipei in the style of browsing or window-shopping with live piccolo performance of a score, recording of the score, recording of the practicing of the alternate score from the aforementioned home practice video, structured improvisations using materials from the score, and field recordings from the home practice video as well as others. (There’s a bell choir recording from Zurich and a thunder storm one from Los Angeles, for example.) This part is called “Wander.Lust”, and it has two main premises – the orgy of books and of otherworldly landscapes, and the musical narrative that is at times personal and at others object to repositioning, objectification, and interpretive transformation. Unlike the first part, the aim in the second part is to maintain both a visual and sonic continuity the formal ruptures and contradictions of which are more internal and subtle.
It might be of interest for some to mention that, between the first and the second part of the work there exists a distinct rupture in form, context, and perceptual demand. While the first part formally and expressively more or less resembles a montage, the second part is in no way similar to such approach despite the pasting-together of various footages. Instead, in the second part the visual sequences, more integrally corresponding to the sonic part which in itself is a much more through-composed and autonomous entity, are performing almost in the function of abstraction with occasional formal indicators. Interestingly, this part would (and should) appear in a completely different light to the audience who do not read the Chinese language which much of the visual images in the section inevitably capture and present. While I just pointed out the function of “abstraction” in these sequences of the second part, I also understood that it is exactly in this part the composition becomes “open” and I am facing (or risking?) the “unknown”. I am immensely curious to know how each of my audience (who does or does not read Chinese) responds to, or simply perceives, this part.