UNIVERSAL GROOVES: ED KUEPPER SHAKES UP CLASSIC AVANT GARDE FILMS
When I was a kid, a lot of disturbing things happened round me. But… happiness became my whole theory of life. Not hedonism but happiness of a lasting kind, like art. Art replaced God for me very early on. I ducked anxiety, but it was still there, it had to be there somewhere. The 'Tusalava' octopus-spider was a kind of death figure.
Len Lye (1901 - 1980)
Len Lye's dazzling handmade films have stood the test of time and continue, over 20 years after his death, to provide uninhibited joy and inspiration to audiences and artists worldwide. Now with the support and blessing of the Len Lye Foundation, Ed Kuepper has awoken latent artistic potentials within Lye's high-speed abstract paintings and drawings on film. The visual-music fusion that results achieves moments of genuine awe and unfamiliar beauty. Kuepper recently previewed his new set of instrumental pieces in the lounge of David Pestorius' suburban Brisbane home, prior to a giving a giant-screen performance in Melbourne as part of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image's Live@ACMI series.
On a magical, mild, mid-Summer's night on Australia Day weekend, about 100 assorted Kuepper connoisseurs gathered in the small garden courtyard of a late-1960s house on a hill above the glittering city.
Originator, organiser and host of the event, art impresario David Pestorius, appeared and disappeared, Puck-like, among the well-behaved crowd of latter-day Saints-lovers, never at a loss for words. For there was a lot to be excited about. This was, after all, "the world premier" of Ed Kuepper's latest set of six instrumental soundtracks composed for avant-garde art films by the great Len Lye. Pestorius explains:
It is somehow fitting that Ed Kuepper's initial foray into the world of film should take place in the lounge room of a Brisbane house. Those familiar with rock 'n' roll history will recall that many of the early performances by Kuepper's first group, The Saints, took place not in the customary pub or suburban dance hall, but in an old house up on Petrie Terrace…
I knew that Ed had done instrumental albums in the past, and even some of his more popular songs have extended instrumental grooves with strong rhythmic contrasts. These were important considerations as I felt they bore a certain affinity with the jazz-inflected music that Len Lye was interested in. Then there was the subject matter of 'Tusalava' - being a creation ritual about the beginning of organic life, it made sense on a conceptual level to go with Ed Kuepper as he more than anyone else in this country, is identified with that most liberating of moments in popular music, the so-called "punk" era, when everything unnecessary was stripped back and it was like starting afresh.
By and by, after party talk and tequila had run dry, Monsieur Kuepper quietly entered the lounge room, accompanied by his percussionist, sound designer and a video projectionist cleverly disguised as David Pestorius. Live-performances don't get much more intimate than this, with the small audience literally sitting at the musician's feet. In a brief, off-the-cuff statement, Kuepper outlined the experimental nature of the night's audiovisual entertainment. Playing 'live' to motion-pictures is a new adventure for the seasoned guitarist with over 30 years of musical exploration behind him. The idea, it seems, was not to deliberately synchronise with Lye's freehand motion-paintings, but transfuse them with fresh musical energy.
To give the audience a quick taste of Len Lye at his unadulterated best, Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1940) was screened complete with its original soundtrack. Then it was Ed's turn.
The bracket of film scores commenced with Kuepper's interpretation of one of the strangest animated films ever created. Made on a minute budget in the late-1920's, Tusalava, (Samoan for it's all the same, i.e. why worry?) was originally intended to be accompanied by an eccentric score for two pianos by expatriate Australian composer, Jack Ellitt, Lye's best friend and close collaborator in London.
By 1929 films were using the new talkie apparatus to synchronise their music, but Lye could not raise the money needed to obtain a print with a soundtrack. Then budget forced them to reduce the two pianos in the cinema to one. Ellitt, a passionate perfectionist, was deeply troubled by these compromises. He withdrew from playing at the premier himself and one of the (London Film) Society's other pianists was left to make what he could of this avant-garde score. ( Roger Horrocks, Len Lye, a biography, Auckland University Press, 2001)
So, for almost three-quarters of a century, wherever it has been screened, Tusalava has remained mute, stripped of its original music. The effect of silence on Lye's mysterious imagery has been to distance the viewer from the film's sustained rhythmic development that builds relentlessly towards an orgasmic crescendo. Soundlessness produces a more analytical, detached form of attention like looking through a microscope.
Kuepper's Tusalava disregards the original rhythms and expressive nuances of the film's hand-drawn imagery. Lye's painstaking work could be seen to operate here merely as a spectacular visual accompaniment to one of the great grooves of all time. If this is all there was to the experiment, the film-performance in question could be simply dismissed as an extreme case of artistic licence - but there's something much deeper going on here. Kuepper's solo guitar above the relentless, driving rhythm immediately makes the epic scale of Lye's shamanic vision apparent.
In terms of visual style, 'Tusalava' was influenced by both Maori and Aboriginal art, and as he went along (it took 2 years and over 4,000 drawings to make) Lye often considered 'how it would look if an Australian Aboriginal was doing it'. (Horrocks)
From the first frame, an archetypal rhythm is established that doesn't let up for the film's 9-minute duration. Digitally multiplied and orchestrated, the raw and incisive solo guitar burned deep into the motion-pictures and came roaring back out into our gaping senses. Rarely does a moviexperience awaken our naked inner selves to the universal Flow.
Existing Ed Kuepper admirers will be elated by the ferocity and assurance of the new film music. Just as he can rip and tear, Kuepper strokes and caresses the strings like a talented lover. Len Lye's art is equally erotically charged. Maybe that's where they click. Art house film buffs might be initially shocked by the composer riding roughshod over the intricacies of Lye's semi-abstract imagery, but once Kuepper's pulse-like beat and Miles-like groove get into your body, you become mesmerised by Lye's vision of life as an eternal cycle of creation and destruction.
>From this point of view, Tusalava, stood out from Ed Kuepper's different interpretations of five other 'kinesthetic' films by Len Lye. Screened in the following order were: Colour Flight (1938), Particles in Space (1980), Colour Cry (1953), Tal Farlow (1980), Free Radicles (1979). Judging by the sustained applause, the audience's favourite was Colour Cry, the loudest and fastest in a set of refined grooves that test the metal of these archival masterpieces, as much as they re-present them for 21st centruy consumption.
Kuepper's concert closed with a reprisal of Tusalava - much to the audience's pleasure - followed by one blast of Swinging the Lambeth Walk so we could all go home with a smile and a reinvigorated sense of wonder. "Thanks Ed", we said as we went to bed, "for bringing back to life a film that breaks every rule of cinema to free us from the mundane for a while"