In the 1950s and '60s, American filmmaker Stan Brakhage stripped away every popular notion of "movie" and wrote poetry that danced. He deleted stories, characters, and even sound in nearly 300 of his films, leaving the viewer with only disjointed imagery. He treated the actual reels as art: leaving scratches, tears, and smears on negatives; taping twigs, leaves, and moths to film strips; and painting colors directly onto the film.
"He was a real maverick who had an uncompromising vision," says Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. "He wanted to take film away from just being this Hollywood illustration of a story, and to make something more poetic with it."
Brakhage's raw, hypnotic imagery has driven Ranaldo and a predominately New York City-based crew of veteran improvisers to perform music that taps into his spirit. The ensuing band, named Text of Light (after Brakhage's 1974 film), plays in front of a screen showing Brakhage's films, but the band members turn their backs to avoid watching the film–leaving the audience to connect the sound with the sights.
"I've looked up and seen the drummer's arm movements mimic a movement in one of the Brakhage films," says guitarist Alan Licht. "The drummer's not even facing the screen." Emitting from the band are electrolyte-bleeding drum hits, guitars and saxophones that drone and wail out of amps, fragments, and the hisses and scratches of lost records. The band only ceases when the film stops.
Ranaldo and Licht formed Text of Light in 2001, after a live performance (that accompanied a Brakhage film) with German electronic-saxophonist Ulrich Krieger. The band debuted at NYC's avant-garde venue Tonic with free-jazz drummer William Hooker and turntable artist Christian Marclay joining the trio. The success of that night kept Text going, and they later recruited electronic experimentalist DJ Olive and percussionist Tim Barnes.
The band recently released a three-disc set, packaged in a metal film canister in homage to Public Image Limited's post-punk classic, Metal Box. The box lacks any Brakhage visuals, but Ranaldo believes the music stands on its own. Both he and Licht compare Text of Light's riot of images and music to the '60s "art happenings," like those at Andy Warhol's Factory studio, where people danced while projected images played and rock bands jammed for hours on end.
Christian Marclay likens the group's work to pieces by modern dance luminary Merce Cunningham, who had dancers perform choreography to music they had never heard before. Marclay also sees a personal connection between Brakhage's technique and his own scratching and scarring of vinyl records. "Both film and vinyl are types of plastics," he says. "They both record something, and are both very fragile. I like that connection."