John Bresland

Zero Station



This is actually the second time we’re featuring John Bresland. We were so pleased with his first featured video essay, titled “Watch My Feet,” that when he contacted us about adopting a new piece he was working on, we just couldn’t resist the opportunity.

Below, John writes about the unusual origins of “Zero Station” and his close collaboration with Deerhoof, the group whose music anchors the audio track.

I got a headache several years ago when, for the first time, I saw—and heard—Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi. Visually the film is stunning, but composer Philip Glass’s relentless ostinatos left me feeling like the guy in Full Metal Jacket who gets beaten with bars of soap. In the weeks and months afterward the film, rather than fading into memory, loomed larger over everyday experience. Moments of visual transcendence—shafts of red morning light stabbed through trees—were accompanied by Glass’s score, which I now hummed, or didn’t hum, depending on who was around, even though I hated it, and kept on hating it, until I no longer did, until I loved it, and loved Philip Glass. So it is with music, sometimes.

Of the many things going for Koyaanisqatsi its collaborative origin is right up there. During the film’s years-long production schedule, director Godfrey Reggio supplied Glass with edited sequences for which Glass roughed-out compositions. Inspired by the emerging score, Reggio re-cut sequences (or drew up new ones entirely) to match Glass’s score, which sometimes inspired Glass to re-compose, and so on. Koyaanisqatsi is the only contemporary feature film I know of to be written by music. Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian filmmaker whose house composer, conveniently enough, was Prokofiev, took a similar approach, sometimes; and Orson Welles is said to have played Bernard Herrmann’s score on the set of Citizen Kane. But I think it’s safe to say Koyaanisqatsi, in addition to being a deeply moving film, stands alone as a demonstration of what is possible when a composer shares authorship with the director.

Which brings me to Deerhoof. About a year ago I had an email conversation with Deerhoof’s genial and brilliant guitarist, John Dieterich. I told him about the essay I’d been working on, how I wanted to somehow continue the conversation Reggio began thirty years ago, hopefully adding something of my own—perhaps the idea that humans beings are not only speeding through life at unprecedented and largely destructive velocities, but doing so in a state of increasing diffusion. (Jeffrey Eugenides said as much, if more artfully, last week on All Things Considered, when he noted that by the grace of cell phones, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, we are effectively everywhere at once, and also nowhere.)

John and I talked about whether it was possible to make a video essay that played like a song, a short film or video that bore the visceral power of music, but posed questions like an essay, and put language at the fore, alternating the lead with music and images. Such a work wouldn’t treat music as a narrative galley slave, or as a means of lubricating transitions, or paving over rough spots. It would be written for the music, inspired by its rhythms and moods and evocations. John liked the idea, and offered up a recent Deerhoof recording entitled “Look Away” from their recent album Friend Opportunity. “Do as you wish with the music,” Dieterich wrote. “Use this material as if it simply were a toolbox—raw vegetables! Mix and match and use whatever you want at will.” Maybe this would be easy…

It wasn’t. “Look Away” may be a song, technically, but it’s a song from another planet, or some other species—it’s operatic, episodic, built upon sliding time signatures that I can’t even begin to decode. And, not that I’m any kind of musician, but the song doesn’t make use of a single musical phrase or convention I’ve ever encountered. Which is why, oddly enough, making “Zero Station” was such a pleasure. In a way, I didn’t have to write it at all. Much of the work was done for me. The difficulty was in not mucking up the work of another artist.