[Music Review] FAR EAST NETWORK (live scoring to Charles Lim’s shorts) @ Playfreely 2015


Amazing ‘improvised’ music by the Far East Network. Yuen Chee Wai, Yan Jun and Sachiko M created a tonal quilt of varying qualities within the background, as Ryu Hankil provided an understated trail of unusual percussion with his typewriter and motorised objects on drum kit. In the foreground, we have Otomo Yoshihide and DJ Sniff assaulting us with a barrage of fragmented squeaks and tears with their ‘bastardised’ turntabalism. At times, all sounds seem to cascade together into a swirling wall of noise, as each single and minute variation from either player dramatically changes the quality of their joint attack. Their set reaches a highpoint at its tail-end when Otomo Yoshihide brings on his trusty noise guitar onslaught – a series of releases and restrains which let out bouts of hair-standing ecstasy. However, music aside, we have to address the elephant in the room – the interplay between the music and the projected short films by Charles Lim.

I’m a big fan of Charles’ All the Lines Flow Out, which was such an immersive cinematic experience when I first viewed it, a very interesting nautical approach taken to explore the landscape of Singapore. In Beaches, which I believed was screened for the first time, Charles’ camera floats a distance away from several shorelines as we observe the land and the human figures loitering on the beaches. As the footage is slowed down, the frantic movement of water is made tolerable and a little calmer, but at the same time, human movement becomes much slower as the figures move in a way akin to stuttery stop motion footage, at times coming to a total standstill. There are some creepy images which really linger… Such as when a figure crouches down at the beach, seen in almost a fixed shade of black, becoming a mere stain in the landscape. Or when a still figure awkwardly hangs its arms on a tree… When obscured by distance and splashes of sea water on screen, these figures become so uncanny and ghostly.

However, within the first few minutes, it struck me how the tempo of sound seemed a bit too fast for the meditative pace of Charles’ films. As the set went on, it seemed that the musicians hardly even looked at the screen… just some glances here and there, and very far from the attentiveness of live scoring performances i’ve seen in the past. My recollections of Charles’ films from this event was not affected or tainted by the music, and I remember them purely visually. During the performance, I also found it hard to really immerse myself in the music, that’s until I closed my eyes at the start of All the Lines Flow Out (reluctantly, and with the excuse that i’ve seen it before).

During the Q&A, Ryu Hankil revealed that he had not seen the film before. So was the same for Yan Jun who was given a vimeo link which only loaded some still images due to the cranky internet in China – all he knew was that the film was about ‘water’, deciding not to watch the film during the performance, as starting from zero is better if one does not have the time to fully study the film. With total frankness, Otomo Yoshihide revealed that he deliberately avoided watching the film with his back to the screen, and his only stimuli from the film was the colours and flicker which reached his peripheral vision. His rationale being that he does not want the film to dictate the way he plays, as it would not be an equal exchange between filmmaker and musician, and that he would prefer any connections between sound and image to happen spontaneously.

If anything, beyond the separate pleasures of FEN’s set and Charles’ films, this show was a success in the way it revealed the ‘politics’ of live-music accompaniment/scoring for cinema. Perhaps in this instance, it can’t be considered accompaniment at all. I kinda hold the belief that live-music accompaniment should always ‘serve’ the film. It can be seen as a support to help illustrate the film, as a composed soundtrack would. In the silent era, improvisational talent would translate into a pianist’s ability to follow the movement of the film without much practice, or even on the fly. When we commission musicians for live-accompaniment, we are aware of their specific style and character, which might be a good fit for the film, or could lend it a different quality. In either case, there should be some form of discipline, and a basic understanding of the filmmaker’s work, or could we say.. certain affinities with the film to begin with.

Within the improvisational framework of Playfreely, we can of course do away with that. But it becomes problematic when a finished film is a crucial element within the picture. The fact that it’s creative process is completed in advance and entombed in its fixed form makes it surprisingly oppressive towards the improv musicians (It would be a different matter with live video mixing). Perhaps the film can be seen, not in the foreground, but as a visual trigger for musical improvisation, but this would then devalue the presence of the film.

Otomo’s contribution to the performance was most indicative of the power relations between sound and image. His (almost) complete rejection of the film is a strategic form of resistance, an insistence on following his own rhythm, which of course, works well within the musical context, but pretty invasive towards the film. Nevertheless, his strategy is appreciated in its upmost insistence on keeping the performance dynamics as egalitarian as possible – with film and sound moving together, but existing singularly apart. As with egalitarianism… the idea is beautiful but in reality can be quite odd. In this case, much like a well-oiled fraternity sitting beside a stranger on screen.

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