Tonight, the IFC Center screens Where Is the Black Beast?, an “interpretation” of Ted Hughes‘s poetry collection Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. The film by the Brooklyn-based artist Simon Lee and the musician Algis Kizys (Swans, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Glenn Branca, etc.) pairs readers’ recitations of the text with new music and an assemblage of hundreds of found photographs. Lee and Kiyzys will be on hand for a Q&A following the film tonight, and answered some questions for us in the meantime.
What drew you to the Ted Hughes poetry that makes up the backbone of the film?
Algis: Crow was recommended to me by a friend. Since my first time through the first poem I knew it would be a long acquaintance.
Simon: I first read Crow: The Life and Songs of the Crow in my mid-teens. The visceral darkness of the imagery set in a familiar landscape jived with my own youthfully dark view of the world. I saw Crow as a story of civilization, with an impending apocalypse, mythologised with mid 20th century imagery.
Cinematic metaphors proliferate in the poetry and the mechanics of the rhythm of images suggest making a film:
And when the seamonster surfaced and stared at the rowboat
Somehow his eyes failed to click
Leonard Baskin’s drawings, that accompany the first edition, are fantastic depictions of an obdurate crow fixed solidly to the ground, part overgrown chick waiting to be fed, part malevolent muscled bird brain—hubris reigns. These drawings were part of Hughes’s inspiration for Crow and are iconic images associated with the work. I wanted to take the poetry and metamorphise it back into visual language. Film seemed both obvious and challenging and as far as I know an untried media.
In 1980 a colleague and I made a first attempt—it was a horrible failure and the project crashed and burned within a year. In 2008 Algis and I discovered that we shared a mutual interest in Crow and the plan to make a film re-surfaced.
How did you find the photographs that accompany the poetry? What were you looking for content-wise, and what principles guided their assemblage?
Simon: I collect them everywhere I can. They come from junk shops, flea markets, yard sales etc. I like snapshots, a quick light-on-paper document that is snapped, shown, touched, cherished (perhaps) and discarded. To make them into a film was always a reason to collect them—one that coalesced around Where is the Black Beast? Making this film from these photographs was a “collaboration” with the hundreds of photographers who snapped the shots—their focus, exposure and viewpoint. I was an unsolicited “second camera” roving around their scenes.
As Black Beast grew and its form began to emerge, the content of the photographs became more important. “Crow Blacker than Ever” is set to a series of photos taken by someone driving through a defeated Germany—the people along the road are down-trodden and drab for good reason, but somewhere in their demeanor and in the landscape is a glimmer of possibility —crow counters, “flying the black flag of himself.” Another piece is set to a photograph of a group of men looking intently at the camera—the duress of their stare providing the doorway that crow will find in the poem.
The music, I’m told, complements not just Hughes’s words and the photographic images, but also each of the half-dozen or so voice-over readers. How was the text divided and assigned, and how do you write music for the distinct qualities of a human voice?
Algis: Well, each case is an individual would be the answer to both parts of your question. In the decisions of what poem(s) would be read by which person, some Simon and I chose for the reader, some the reader chose from a group Simon and I chose, and some were chosen by the reader. In some cases the same poem(s) would be read by multiple people, and then vetted as to which performance we felt most happy with and which had a certain singularity. As to the music, I found that I would write backgrounds for the poems read to myself in my head first, then to the particular read performances second. Third would be to hear the reader, then pick a backdrop suitable to that performance from a collection of possibilities I had recorded earlier. The third option would also tend to put the reader in an atmosphere that often would enhance their interpretation by taking the nakedness of voice out of their mind. Also, this works as a vector to mood and cadence. Sometimes I would re-background them if the feel or rhythm wasn’t right, etc…