Jyoti Mistry, director
Fred Nordström, cinematographer; Chris Letcher, composer
- Xenos 1 explores the idea of botanical histories and looks at the introduction of Jacaranda Trees to South Africa from Brazil. Over the last 100 years these trees have been “naturalized” to the arid South African high-veld and are considered part of the geography of the landscape. They form an indelible part of South African identity.
- Xenos 2 reflects on the bionic evolution of human form with references to cyborg theory as a way of exploring human possibilities for the future.
- Xenos 3 considers the relationship between language and the ability for humans to create modes of expression that signify a desire to mark their existence. This sequence, filmed at the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, is an expression of various languages and its significance in describing human experience.
In a bid to reveal aspects of the production processes in the creation of the work we include a link to a discussion by cinematographer Fred Nordström who reflects on his collaboration with director Jyoti Mistry on the project. And below is a conversation between Mistry and composer Chris Letcher on the composition of music for XENOS.
Jyoti Mistry: In very general terms, music and score; it may be described as the emotive driver or emotional compass in narrative film. From a director’s point of view it serves to provide the anchor for the emotional life of a scene or the engine of a sequence where there is a clear intention for the interpretation of the scene. Working on XENOS, a video-art triptych with abstract and disparate elements, how did you approach this project that may perhaps be different from the approach with a narrative film score?
Christopher Letcher: When you presented me with an almost completed edit of each of the three screens (combined into a single QuickTime file), my first thoughts were how music in its own terms could engage the viewer/listener in contemplation of concepts of foreignness, and the idea that the alien and the different become assimilated with time. There were clearly ways in which music could communicate a sense of this: an unusual instrument or chord progression in an otherwise “unmarked” texture, or a “foreign” note in a particular tonal area, a musical object that might at first seem jarring in a piece or section of music, with repetition the strangeness recedes and the unfamiliar becomes familiar; what might have felt wrong then becomes one of the music’s distinctive characteristics.
JM: This idea [foreign or an unmarked texture] is really evocative and one that I can relate to immediately in film terms through the idea of how an edit (or cut) might work. It feels like conceptually, the music might approach something that is counter-intuitive. A way of exposing the construction of something (like a jumpcut in film) which produces quite a stark, visceral experience and awareness of the apparatus of the camera and the edit. I only have a sense of this from avant-garde or contemporary experimental music. Might this be a similar approach?
CL: Yes, I’d say so. And of course it’s not at all uncommon even in very mainstream cinema for music to play that kind of role – in The Ice Storm (1997; dir. Ang Lee) for example, a film about middle class white American morality in the 1970s, Mychael Danna’s score includes prominent use of solo Native American flute music – it doesn’t fit the surface of the film and seems designed to stick out, to snag the listener, to encourage contemplation of a subtext in the film. Similarly, the Robben Island-set film Proteus (2003; dir. John Greyson and Jack Lewis) contains one of the most unusual sounds in cinema: a kelp horn, a dried piece of seaweed played like a natural horn: you use lip tension to produce an array of notes in the harmonic series. At first it sounds completely wrong, like a mistake on the soundtrack: a jarring, foreign body, strongly heard in a way we don’t usually expect film music to be. But it draws attention to important themes in the film – buried histories, particular kinds of indigenous forms of knowledge. And with repetition, as the film progresses, it loses its strangeness; by the end it provides a lament for the two condemned prisoners that is far more moving than the most emotive of Hollywood symphony orchestras could ever be. From my initial train of thought I assembled a somewhat unusual palette of sound (Indonesian gamelan, a kora-like melodic pattern, scratchy violin and viola harmonics, pulsing rhythmic tubas and violas in different tempos), as well as an idea for how perceptions of musical time could be approached in different ways, a 5/8 rhythm in the gamelan:
overlaid on a kind of tuba oom-pah:
There are a number of different pulses coming in and out of phase with each other – including two different viola pulses – dividing up time, dividing a steady pulse, playing with our perceptions of passing time. Then, also reversing time – this tuba and bass trombone motif starts in reverse before turning inside-out and progressing forwards:
But merely having music mirror what you were doing conceptually risked overthinking music’s role, and creating something too austere and forbidding. I didn’t want music to just work as metaphor, it also had to attempt to work as engaging screen music, to work with your images as abstract movement, to see how music might draw the eye/mind to particular screens at different times as well as to moments of synergy between the screens.The film itself looked so unusual and fresh, not just in having three focal points, but in the strange chimings on screen between different kinds of movement, the way one’s thoughts on one screen get interrupted, caught by something happening on the other. So rather than act too much as a signifier in itself, music lays out a path of pulses and melodic fragments to aid contemplation. In terms of being an emotive driver, if anything, the aim was for the music to be somewhat blank, deliberately steering away from bullying the viewer/listener into taking up any particular position in relation to the piece; really just to aid contemplation. That said, the music does have a somewhat melancholic feel, but it doesn’t sound like it comes from anywhere in particular – it’s not representational in the way narrative film music often needs to be.
JM: I like this idea of the melancholic – a feeling of “object-loss” that is about the longing for something. The images of seasonal change and preoccupation with time in each of the sequences across the three screen-channels are about loss. But it also invites and reminds the viewer simultaneously that the construction of time works outside of the cinematic frame. The music brings this together in a way that is emotionally intelligent and intuitive. The success of the melancholy in the music is that it allows the viewer to really feel the experience of three distinctive images rather than to immediately grasp the experience in a cognitive or empirical manner as a singular experience (to have a choice about where to look rather than to be directed by the score).
CL: Absolutely – and it complicates a potentially more cheery assimilation metaphor.
JM: Music and film score is a vital and powerful vehicle for shaping and framing how images are read. In many respects, as a director, I feel that it is vital for guiding the interpretative intention of the images that a filmmaker is working with. As a composer, how do you approach the challenges of working with a director who brings quite a specific input or interpretation to a sequence or scene? How does one compose to accommodate one’s vision or interpretation as a composer and the needs or intentions of a director?
CL: I would take issue with your conception of music acting merely to frame the image, as some kind of authorizing agent of image. That certainly has been the bias in film studies and maybe also in wider culture – “seeing is believing,” “enlightenment” – but for me, and this is probably no surprise, audio is never a subservient, supporting, poor relation of the image, even in the most narrative of films, but actively affects what the image is, as well as our perception of time in the image, etc. Your initial comment about music as an “emotional compass” in a film may well be correct but there are many other meaning-generating functions that even the most banal music has in relation to image, that we are often deaf to.
JM: That is a really productive disagreement, since it seems to have a lot to do with the significant evolutions in the treatment and use of sound in cinema particularly in the relationship between diegetic sounds and images. Diegetic sounds seem to be the central preoccupation with capturing realism. Seeing a train assumes the need to hear the chugging of the train, showing a bird on a tree warrants the obligatory chirping… This was certainly not the literal sonic connection of early cinema. What we have termed extra-diegetic: the live orchestration of early cinema or the numerous scores experimented with in early sound films (Eisenstein and Vertov are the most immediate references), all without diegetic sound, suggest that the images and sounds are perhaps considered on their own terms. More like they exist alongside each other, rather than in relation to each other. I guess it returns us to the exploration at hand: regarding the conceptual underpinnings of a video-art project that belies a linear narrative – where images function differently – it demands an examination of what sound does in relation (or not) to the image. In this sense there is a purity of the sound (score) that is enabled by a desire for the purity in the image… a search, a desire for the ontology of cinema as “light in a dark space.” How would this work in music?
CL: Exactly, though why not “light and sound in a dark space!” It’s clear that even the earliest films were never actually silent – those filmmakers realized from the beginning that music (and other sounds) were crucial aspects of the experience. From a technological perspective, not being able accurately to synchronize a sound track to an image track created a particular kind of distinction – live music/sound breathing life into the ghostly images. Whenever I teach students about Eisenstein’s early sound films I feel a lot of sympathy for his argument against an overemphatic, prosaic, realistic relationship between sound and image – “birdie sings, music sings” was Adorno’s mocking put-down of that approach. And the privilege of working on XENOS for me was being able to engage with film at that kind of essential, pure, poetic level. Music had more freedom than in a narrative film to be an equal partner with image. That said, and having been able to work with you on two very different projects within a fairly close period of time – the other being Impunity (2014) – I can say as a director you have an unusually trusting relationship with the composer – you trusted that I would know what was best for the film as a whole, even when I didn’t!
JM: How would you conceptually and musically describe the differences between the two versions of the score for XENOS?
CL: Coming back to the project after some months I found I was unhappy primarily with the mix, which felt rough around the edges. I was glad to have a bit more time to improve the balance of musical elements. But also, because we were separating out the screens into three separate videos, I though I would adjust the music for each one so the music is to some extent tailor-made for each individual film whilst also working as a whole. I did compose a new score for the second screen – based on similar compositional ideas – pulses, tempo manipulations. It feels like it gives the piece more depth – a kind of A-B-A musical structure, though the order of screens/scores is not particularly important. I was also keen to see how the piece would work without the additional layer of sound design that was added to the musical soundtrack for the installation edition.
JM: I had a thought about this idea of sound design (even though XENOS was not about matching to realism, which is primarily the function of foley sounds and filling in ambient sounds of the environment/location) that authenticates the visuals (diegetic sound). I wonder if the purity that music as score offers (exclusive of the sound design) enables a more ephemeral experience… yet one that makes the emotional experience feel more present or immediate. I think of the swell of violins in the final romantic-clinch in a romantic comedy or in melodrama and at that moment all ambient sounds are faded out. Perhaps in an installation piece like this, there is less need for this. Unlike a narrative film, which needs the additional sound that “fills” the location, a piece like XENOS can be liberated from such narrative cinematic conventions.
CL: Yes – exactly – that sound-driven cinematic convention we’ve learned to read as a journey from outside to inside (of character and us, the audience), the world of feeling presented as the binary opposite of the rational, observable/audible external world. By taking the sound design away in XENOS, that distinction doesn’t exist – and the soundtrack too isn’t divided into sound/music. It’s another way of keeping the meaning of the piece open. With the second screen in particular, the music deliberately resists providing authentication of the image, as you put it – it follows its own musical logic and as spectators/auditors we must readjust. Not letting sound “validate” the image or vice versa also seems to chime with the ideas of authenticity thrown up by the piece – what’s genuine, true, rooted? Michel Chion’s use of the word “anchorage” is often used in film music studies to describe the process whereby sound secures an image with meaning; to resist that kind of security offers a far more open-ended engagement, and allows music to be a far more equal partner.
JM: I enjoyed the feeling of being able to hand over the images to you. There was also an extraordinary liberation in knowing that I would learn, grasp a new meaning or discover an interpretation of the images that I did not intend.
CL: The comparison between music in Impunity, a narrative film, and XENOS is interesting to me. Music certainly plays a very different function in each. After my initial, fairly conceptual thoughts for XENOS I deliberately pushed those to the back of my mind as I worked on the piece and tried to respond to the images as moving shapes, colours, textures, and to see how music might function in that kind of conversation with your screens, rather than as another carrier of the foreignness metaphor. Not having a script as such, or characters, or really even place to characterize, was really freeing – it felt like a very pure kind of cinema – musical sound, visual shape, colour, texture, unspooling over time. Any sound you put up against an image has some effect and without really trying in this project I found musical sounds easily resonated with one or other of the images – almost at times as if the image was producing the sound (or vice versa!) – fluttery violin harmonics a kind of synesthetic byproduct of the tiny, rapid movements in the jacaranda branches, or scrolling text in the film also actually being a swelling brass chord.
JM: With this kind of work, there is an altered sense of intention and interpretation. The more I have seen this work, and shown it in different contexts after making it – the more I feel that I moved away from the initial impetus of its intention or inquiry and to a deeper recognition or awareness of not fully grasping it. This is a very “freeing” feeling with this kind of project.
Jyoti MistryJyoti Mistry has taught at New York University, University of Vienna and Arcada University of Applied Science Polytechnic in Helsinki. Jyoti Mistry’s filmography includes films, documentaries and film installations. Her research areas include cultural policy, questions of identity and multiculturalism. Mistry has also worked as a photography and film curator.
Her recent film Le Boeuf sur le Toit (2010/80min/HDv) premiered at the Durban International Film Festival and forms part of a new installation project that comprises of 4 separate installations that explore various facets of urban and city life. 09:21:25 (2011/10min/HDv) is currently part of WELTRAUM: Die Kunst und ein Traum; an exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Wien (April –August 2011) commemorating man’s fiftieth anniversary of space travel. The installation of ITCHY CITY from her highly acclaimed film I Mike What I Like (2006/50min/Dv) was part of the exhibition AFROPOLIS, Cologne (November 2010- April 2011).
Selected Publications: “Seeing Communities out of Context: Notes on a Photographic Exhibition” In: Images and Communities: The Visual Construction of the Social (2007); “Johannesburg: Vocabularies of the Visceral and Expressions of Multiple Practices” In : African Cities Reader (2009); “The Eighth Muse: Sport and Film, Sport on Film” in Sport versus Art (2010).
Fred Nordström (cinematographer), Chris Letcher (composer) Xenos is described by the artist(s) as “a triptych installation consisting of three short films screened simultaneously with a single soundtrack.” The cinematographer, Nordström, explains the origins of the project in a working paper about their collaboration, published in Arcada and linked to within their submission to […]. Originating from Mistry’s fascination with Nordström’s representations of his own surgically healed leg, Xenos is about re-presenting the foreignness, of objects, of organisms, of origins, which become assimilated into human experience, even necessary for human existence, despite their otherness. As I see it, Xenos uses a combination of filmic technique and musical orchestration to defamiliarize, estrange the taken-for-granted, to dramatize the constitutive difference around and within us.
On the […] platform, the films that were combined in the original installation can only be watched separately, one at a time. Though one is encouraged to do so “in any order” the numerical succession of their titles (Xenos 1, Xenos 2 and Xenos 3) implies a predetermined and preferred viewing order. I, for one, watched them in the order suggested by the titles, before I had read the accompanying text that indicated this was an optional approach. Nevertheless, the separation of the original installation into three interrelated segments leaves the viewer relatively free to piece together the originally intended audiovisual experience. This is an interesting exercise because one can, rather like a detective, focus all attention on one film and search for clues to it in the next. In the original assemblage this might not have been possible, depending on the arrangement of the installation. Or at least for me, an inveterate channel-surfer, I would not have been able to help myself from jumping between the films, if all were present in my visual field at the same time, thereby not seeing or appreciating any individual film in its totality.
In the working paper published in Arcada, Nordström writes in revealing detail about the productive discomfort he experienced yielding his creative talents to someone else’s vision for Xenos, and especially to the multichannel installation arrangement with which he was unfamiliar. It would be interesting to know for what reason deviating from this original vision was thought valuable or necessary, whether it suited the creators intentions to reformat the project or whether it was required to make Xenos fit with the formatting demands of […] or of the need to display web content on multiple platforms (phones, tablets, laptops…). Neither the description provided below the films, nor the dialogue between creators below that, answer this question. It is a question worth knowing because, as Nordström convincingly argues in his meditations on Xenos, content and technology are inseparable.
This is especially true, arguably, for a project that meditates on foreignness as such. The content of the films cannot be depicted simply and immediately (were such a thing even possible), or they would risk evoking the familiar, losing their grasp of constitutive difference.
Most successful, in this regard, is the short film that was the starting point for the project, according to Nordström, Xenos 2, which provocatively and continuously reorients the viewer’s focus, making it hard to differentiate between inside and outside, organic and inorganic. Boundaries—essential for anything to appear ‘foreign’ vanish only to reappear suddenly. Clever superimpositions and edits make the X-rayed skeleton and its artificial supports appear like a tree inside of us, while a tree we glimpse outside seems as a skeleton, intentionally revealing itself to the sun’s rays to grow, just as we expose our bodies to rays of shorter wavelengths to reveal native and foreign bodies within. Similarly, a window frame comes to resemble the eye-sockets of a skull we peer through (perhaps with the cybernetic assistance of glasses); the fleshy body, an encasing and concealing room of one’s own. Other analogies are subtler in Xenos 2, like an X-ray that appears for a moment like a beam of sunlight, then like a shadow.
In fact, Xenos emerges out of at least three different series of differences:
- Like Xenos 2, each film experiments with auidio-visual technique to present not simply trees, X-rays and caves, but shifting intensities that constantly disturb one’s sense of the familiar and the strange.
- These differences are then juxtaposed with each other as quasi-independent films; in some order of succession and repetition we are presented with three different series of images: plants and landscapes (Xenos 1), interiors and skeletal traces (Xenos 2), and cave dwelling and symbols (Xenos 3).
- These differences, in turn, add up to a unity, that of the Xenos project, but one that is itself divided between the originally simultaneous, multi-channel installation and the virtual and successional viewing experience on […].
The last unity-in-difference, that of Xenos itself, is united first by the haunting musical composition, about which I can say very little but would refer any viewer to the excellent dialogue that follows the description of the films at the bottom of the page. Interestingly, the films are also linked, at a shared moment, with a sudden break from their independent set of differences. In all three, a few minutes in, the screen goes dark and is suddenly illuminated in a flash by a streak of lightning across a dark sky. Fittingly, a lightning bolt was Gille Deleuze paradigmatic example to characterize actual individuations (i.e., the familiar objects and events of naïve empiricism) that arise from a field of purely virtual multiplicity.
“A lightning bolt flashes between different intensities, but it is preceded by an obscure precursor, invisible, imperceptible, which determines in advance the inverted path as in negative relief, because this path is first the agent of communication between series of differences.” Difference and Repetition
For Deleuze, the dark precursor that determines in advance the flash of a lightning bolt is what brings the actual into being. And all actuality actually is is the result of communication across a series of differences. It is a difference that makes a difference, to quote the famous cybernetic maxim.
If the lightning flash formally unites them, the three films are further shaped by viewing them one after another and in repetition. Xenos 2 may play with intensities of the familiar and strange, inside and outside, more obviously, but this is what makes it even more interesting to examine, detective-like, how surfaces and forms are depicted in the other films and in what sequence. After thinking with Xenos 2, the cave in Xenos 3 feels like a room, a construct or projection screen and not just a formation of rock. It calls to mind Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and his analogy between cave painting and movie projection, where the material environment and its nonhuman inhabitants become the first stage and the first actors in the formative dramas of the human imagination. After thinking with the enclosed spaces of Xenos 2 and 3, Xenos 1 becomes even stranger, shots of open vistas, landscapes with no trace of human invention or imagination, that is, until one is informed in the accompanying text that this tree is an invasive species introduced into South Africa during colonization. After Xenos 3, moreover, Xenos 1 makes one think of the Fibonacci numbers that can be identified in the formation of tree branches. Watching Xenos 3 yet again, one is invited to imagine the flash of lightning that allowed the immanent numbers of nature to become the abstract symbols of human calculation, leading eventually to the rapid and transformative colonization of South Africa and Johannesburg itself, which would bring the specific species of tree in Xenos 1.
Repeated viewing of Xenos is recommended, as it may yield new unities, new syntheses of Xenos that render more connections, new flashes of insight. Foreign objects help heal the leg, the foreign tree helps create South African identity, the imposition of symbolic language make humankind the talking ape and the world they inhabit phantasmagorias of creative possibility.
I am neither filmmaker nor installation artist. I cannot really call myself a ‘peer’ to this project and its artists, anymore than I can ‘review’ what they’ve done as one might normally expect. What I have done is produce something like a peer revue (where ‘peer’ is meant as the verb ‘to look’ not as the noun ‘an equal’). I will define this homophonic expression (which, like Derrida’s différance, reveals the trace of constitutive difference that infects verbal expression) as a light entertainment, a series of related acts, associated with watching what others have done (as in peering). So I am different from the person who was asked to peer review something from […] (and who promised to do so within 1000 words). I am different because I peered into Xenos and what came out was the bolt of lightning that is this peer review revue.
When looking at Jyoti Mistry’s XENOS for the first time, this immediately reminded me of an exhibition project I was closely involved in as an assistant, that is Bice Curiger’s exhibition The Expanded Eye that took place at Kunsthaus Zurich in 2006. The title of the show is referring to William Seitz’s seminal exhibition The Responsive Eye (MoMA 1965), and to Gene Youngblood’s book Expanded Cinema, the first of its kind to analyze this new cinematic genre that rose in the 1960s. It is much telling to observe that the expanded cinema was developed in a time where television started to make serious concurrence to the conventional cinema: the theatre had to reinvent itself in order to involve instead of losing the audience and rip the rigidity and planarity of the screen.
In expanded cinema, the frontality and narrative linearity of cinema was replaced by an immersive environment, where the moving images had become more sensual, more palpable, literally more material. For a while forgotten, a lot of filmmakers reappeared at the surface and became particularly cherished by the art (in contrast to the film) scene. For myself and many others, filmmakers such as Bruce Conner, Martin Arnold, Stan Brakhage, Peter Tscherkassky or Hollis Frampton (to mention only a few) opened a whole new world. XENOS is a particular strong example where both images and score are integral to the project as a whole. It is hard to say if the one would work without the other, but what is sure is that they nest within one another in a way that enhances their singular aesthetic qualities.
In his conversation with Jyoti Mistry, the musician and composer Christopher Letcher describes this as follows: “[…] the privilege of working on XENOS for me was being able to engage with film at that kind of essential, pure, poetic level. Music had more freedom than in a narrative film to be an equal partner with image.” On a formal level, I am particularly attracted to the respective use of visual as well as sonic means of repetition, superimposition, (dis)harmony and substantiality. Considering that of XENOS is to engage the listening viewer and viewing listener in a sensual examination of the notion of the foreign and its assimilation into a broader context, and its acculturation in a narrower sense, this makes the larger visionary program of it particularly prevailing for European reception. Writing at this moment in 2015, migration and integration are the politically, socially, culturally and economically most discussed issues on this continent. Never since WWII did they so much touch sensibilities, hopes and fears as they do now – except maybe during the Balkan war in the early 1990s. What we need in order to engage in a constructive dialogue that covers the whole scope of heterogeneity when thinking about migration is to provide a common sensual ground that opens up our minds. XENOS is such an attempt, and a successful one. It makes clear that many things cannot be understood nor classified at first glance, but first of all need openness in order to allow constructive exploration. In psychological terms though, fear often appears to be the first reaction to the unknown and ultimately provokes alienation and delimitation. XENOS plays in a joyful way with these “reflexes” against the “abject” (Julia Kristeva), and simultaneously embraces us with recognizable traces of the familiar. All the unfamiliar is always only defined per negation with the familiar, and therein lies the whole secret of this work in showing that these two notions are interdependent.
Formal examples of repetition, superimposition, (dis)harmony and substantiality that particularly struck me in XENOS are, on the one hand, the monochrome shadow plays in an clear domestic room, and on the other hand, the colorful letters and ciphers on the humid, uneven and seemingly anthropomorphic walls of a prehistoric cavern. Dialectic pairs such as these are recurrent formal elements in Mistry’s work that obviously go beyond the surface. As for transparency which both Mistry and Letcher consciously deploy, it has a long but not unproblematic genealogy in the history of art and architecture. It has become clear in the history of modernism that not necessarily the most transparent is the most democratic, because transparency allows control, whereas hermetism allows privacy. But this open space of mystery and confidentiality that merges towards what we would call privacy allows us to be autonomous, independent thinkers. And only with this authentic intimacy will solidarity become possible, but this would be the subject matter of another review.
Nishlyn Ramanna offers some opening comments that serve as an immediate reaction to the sound and images in XENOS. His responses are intuitive as they are revealing and provide a basis for a lengthier deliberation that will follow from this more concise and instinctual response.
“This is fascinating stuff. I have an “idea” – I think I know what’s going on: Mistry and Nordström have musicalised their images; the images have rhythm; the images are explicitly about temporality. And I think Letcher has resisted what music wants to do, which is express the unfolding of time. Instead he’s [Letcher] gone for a soundscape – music primarily as space rather than music as the linear unfolding of time (though obviously there’s always space in music).
I think I’ve found an interesting way to represent this process in my review, one which will operate textually – in words – but also I want to do something a bit different and present the unfolding processes as a simultaneity (using different colour fonts).”