Brashear, Bernheimer and Sonbert at Small Press Traffic

On Sunday September 16th SPT had its first Fall 2011 event in our new space at ATA on Valencia. We are so thrilled to be collaborating with these folks. Many events will happen at ATA on Sundays at 5pm though we will continue to have some events at CCA’s Timken Hall.
Jim Brashear with art from ATA
photo by Camille Roy

Our opening day couldn’t have happened in a more vibrant way. ATA’s theater was nearly full. Jim Brashear inaugurated the season with a sound piece. He stood at the front of the room and began talking into a microphone as if by way of introduction. But soon, audience members became aware that other sounds were emerging from elsewhere. Music from other spaces in the building contributed an aleatory element to the performance. At first, I wasn’t sure what was Jim’s work and what was ambient sound from busy Valencia Street outside.

This “not knowing” actually activated some panic for me. I worried about the unfolding of the piece, how it related to all the sound around it. But then, it became clear that Jim’s in-person improvisation was in conversation with that emergent and increasingly audible timeline of sound, and I was relieved. Of course, it isn’t uncommon for certain performance pieces to begin without the performer marking the beginning. The audience understands retrospectively that the piece has begun and so in some strange way there is no beginning or there is indeed a very clear commencement but it is lost to us since we didn’t know to look or listen for it until later. I found the piece engaging. Jim’s rich, sonorous voice, accompanied by the timeline of sound filled ATA. I was conscious of my body immersed in the space and sound and of the fact there were other bodies in the room. Invisible to us, sound waves moved around us, bounced off us, made a sonic network of us all.

I asked Jim if he wanted to include some information about his piece here on the blog as a number of people were interested and how he did what he did. Here it is, ever so graciously provided:

I've done a couple of versions of this elsewhere, and each time the looks of surprise make it worth the effort. When you're using technology for performance (particularly for sound, I think), everyone seems poised for the beginning, for the ON button to be pressed, for the needle to drop. My particular program (Kyma) allows me to circumvent that convention so that the seemingly impromptu (or rather, improvised) speech at the beginning is pulled forward into the performance and blurs the boundaries between, so that you're always looking back, or listening back, over your shoulder in time, wondering
how you arrived inside the field of sound. This does include a familiar performance art intention of emphasizing the everyday, pedestrian quality of performance, but also an attempt to activate the musical qualities of even the most seemingly non-musical speech (and could that be a potential definition of "sound poetry?). The structure of the program gives me the option (among many) of fading in the effects very slowly, because the whole project exists on a timeline, the same software metaphor found in most audio and video programs, in which the user arranges events that a cursor passes over in real time and activates them. My particular arrangement of them focuses as much control and modulation as possible on the voice, so that every vocal gesture is amplified to more dramatic levels. Speaking might already be musical, but why not bring out as much of its music as possible?
--Jim Brashear

Montage from Sonbert films
photo from Bright Lights Film Journal

By way of introduction to the showing of Warren Sonbert’s 1983 film A Woman’s Touch, Alan Bernheimer gave a brief and wholly interesting talk about Sonbert and his films. Alan said that Sonbert was an artist who, to an enviable degree, integrated his daily life and artistic practice. In fact his daily life provided the materials for his art. Sonbert’s films have been shown around the world and were included in 6 Whitney Biennial events. Wherever he showed his films, he also shot footage. Born in New York, Sonbert studied film at NYU and was very much influenced by Warhol, Rene Ricard, and Gerard Malanga. He came to San Francisco some time in the 1970s. Sonbert was prolific, making many films and writing extensively on film and other matters. A Woman’s Touch is a silent black and white visual pleasure; Alan told us it is an homage to Hitchcock’s Marnie. Oddly, some years ago, I read Sonbert’s piece “Narrative Concerns” in the Poetics Journal special issue on narrative before I had ever seen any of his films. They are hard to come by and have not been digitized. Alan generously provided copies of Sonbert’s Poetics Journal piece for the audience members. Here’s a few excerpts:

Alan Bernheimer
photo by Camille Roy
“The strengths of narrative as well entail its limitations. On one level narrative could be defined as the eventual resolution of all elements introduced. This classical balance is always satisfying: when the various strands are climactically tied together. But this also implies a grounding that may often enough be deadening”

“At this moment when anything can happen, narrative is at its most fascinatinog. (In my own films I generally try to include an image of a forward motin on train tracks in which several lines converge but cut before any actual track or direction is taken—it’s a metaphor for possibilities open.)"

“In my last completed work, A Woman’s Touch (1983), which lasts 23 minutes, there is a given and then a series of qualifications, almost like a Theme and Variations. The initial set is a number of images of women involved in solitary action. All is presented positively, benignly, almost too complacently: women at work, at play, constructing, striving, succeeding—a paean to their independence.”

Sonbert goes on to explain that in the end, the film closes this way: “The lines of the driveway converge in a path that leads to the door. The lines of the driveway converge in a path that leads to the house: but it is a cul-de-sac, a dead end. The man does have the last word. All the independence that the women in the film have throughout evinced, and as well the straining towards home and domesticity, here both converge in a narrative summation of tying together the threads within a devastating conclusive context.”

It is interesting to me that it is not the conclusion of the film that I recall. What remains for me is some of those images of the many women, among them, Johanna Drucker, Carla Harryman, Anne Waldman, Melissa Reilley. In some of the shots, their faces and bodies are radiant with pleasure and a kind of joy.

Melissa Reilley
photo by Camille Roy
 Here are some links to things online about Sonbert and his films.
Warren Sonbert's Films by Jon Gartenberg
Brief Candles: The Films of Warren Sonbert

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