Intended as a triptych installation consisting of three short films screened simultaneously with a single soundtrack

"What is foreignness and how do we question the “alien” or “exotic,” and how over time what is foreign comes to be assimilated and made “natural.”



XENOS was originally intended as a triptych installation consisting of three short films screened simultaneously with a single soundtrack. The piece explores various themes of foreignness and invites the question of time across geographical spaces to consider the “alien” or “exotic,” and how over time what is foreign comes to be assimilated and made “natural.” In the version adapted for this journal the three films can be streamed separately in any order, and the musical score has been reworked from the original.

  • 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.

Launch Project


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 Mistry, director
Fred Nordström, cinematographer
Chris Letcher, composer