Kubelka Makes `Music for the Eye'
NEW YORK — SOME of this season's most delightful music has come from a former Vienna Choir boy who's celebrated not only as a musician but as a filmmaker and a cook. His name is Peter Kubelka, and he says common principles run through all three of his favorite arts. ``I have realized the importance of not being a specialist,'' Mr. Kubelka told me during a recent New York visit. ``I have also realized the importance of first being a human being in order to be a good specialist - and the importance of using our senses as completely as possible to experience our existence here in the cosmos.''
Music, filmmaking, and cooking are vital arts, in Kubelka's view, because they share an immediacy and spontaneity that are profoundly human. In addition, their histories shed light on human nature in different periods.
Speaking specifically of the kitchen, Kubelka says he's not interested in ``elevated cooking'' on the master-chef level. Rather, he considers tried-and-tested recipes to be ``historical testimony of world-views that humanity has left us'' from earlier times. ``It is an important side of our past!'' he exclaims. ``People and cultures have written their character in the way they cook!''
In his filmmaking, Kubelka is so concerned with precision that he has completed only six works in the past 35 years. But other activities keep him busy. He is co-director of the Vienna Film Museum in his native Austria and teaches cinema at a university art school in Frankfurt, West Germany. He still works at filmmaking - his current project, ``Monument for the Old World,'' is well under way - and he writes on art-related subjects. He also presents lecture-recitals with Spatium Musicum, his music ensemble. Its latest appearances in New York, where audiences were thoroughly charmed by it, were at Anthology Film Archives and Carnegie Hall's intimate Weill Recital Hall.
Kubelka creates film and music to give artistic pleasure, of course, but also to make artistic points. In his filmmaking, he asserts the importance of exactness - especially in matters of editing and rhythm - and the ability of film to speak a new, nonverbal language that can reveal hidden truths about humanity. In music, his favorite crusade is against what he calls ``electrophonic'' sound, generated by amplifiers and loudspeakers.
``Today's music denies the space in which it's heard,'' he says emphatically. ``If you close your eyes, as we sit and talk, you know the size of the space - because of the reverberation that comes back. My voice is colored, and even determined, by the space in which it is created. I think that's an essential ingredient to music....
``But many people know music through records,'' he continues. ``And music - which is body-made, and immediate, and exists in relation to space - loses its life in being electronically preserved. Meeting a piece of music electronically is like meeting a person from a photograph. Therefore the music is misunderstood and undervalued, and it will fade away. It won't be able to exercise the nourishing power that music has on human beings.''
This doesn't mean Kubelka disapproves of music created specifically for phonographs and other machines, such as musique concr`ete and electronic music. He might well enjoy such a work as ``I Am Sitting in a Room,'' by Alvin Lucier, which the composer created by re-recording a voice over and over, allowing the acoustical qualities of the recording space to alter the original sound in drastic ways.
While he makes allowances for specifically technological music, however, Kubelka is firm in his opinion that traditional music is too important and valuable to be frozen on recordings. ``Art is a nutrient for humanity,'' he insists. ``It is not something you can have or not have. It is an essential ingredient - not just the art of today, but everything we have inherited. The musical heritage is now threatened by the fact that it's only available electronically. My ensemble and I can do very little to prevent this. But I have learned to function like Don Quixote, who rides against the windmills. So we make concerts that we don't record, and we play with the spaces where we appear!''
Kubelka grew up in a musical family, studying violin as a child. He discovered cinema during his school years, and eventually gave up music and literature to concentrate on filmmaking. He returned to music as an adult because he missed its immediacy and ``body created'' quality. His instrument of choice is the recorder, which he likes for its ``simplicity'' and its lack of mechanical parts. ``You actually feel the length of air-stream with your fingers,'' he says with enthusiasm, ``and you shape the sounds directly with your mouth. It's the nearest thing to the human voice. Also, it's technically unchanged since its inception in prehistoric times!''
Kubelka sees no contradiction between his love for cinema - a highly technological art form - and his dislike for recordings and other ``electrophonic'' music.
``Cinema seemed the most unsensual of the arts when I took it up,'' he recalls. ``But now video is demonstrating that cinema is [by comparison] a very sensual art. You have [in moviegoing] this wonderful situation of being in a room that's completely silent and dark - a unique situation, especially in our time. Then the articulation of the author comes clear and undisturbed to you. This is felt even by the broad public and by business, because, if it weren't so, cinema would be out of business today.
``Also, the creative process of cinema is much closer to the body than creating electronic images, where you just press buttons. In film ... your way of composing is much more precise, and is related to your body. Cinema is the most simple instrument ... for making eye music!''
In his public appearances, Kubelka likes to present cinema and music that were created in a spirit of independence - free of studio control, in the case of film, and free of interfering patronage, in the case of music. Filmmakers, he says, are too often in bondage to producers and studios, and thus ``represent a historical situation that lies centuries back in other arts.''
The only alternative to this situation is in the experimental or avant-garde film community, where Kubelka sees great vitality. ``Americans don't really understand this,'' he says, ``but they have here one of the major artistic movements of the 20th century: the American independent cinema, which has defined the filmmaker as an independent artist who, as in other arts, chooses what he will say about the world!''
Kubelka has traced a similar pattern of activity in music, where someone like J.S. Bach worked partly on projects for aristocratic or churchly employers, and partly on his own freely imagined and independently created music. The independent works are what you'll hear in a Kubelka recital.
Kubelka's films don't tell conventional stories. He has nothing against stories.
``The need for narrative,'' he says, ``is universal.'' But he feels cinema can have a higher role.
``For the first time in the development of mankind,'' he says, ``we now have something capable of making music for the eye, playing new melodies we have not yet experienced. ... Cinema can carry new thoughts and create new thoughts which were not possible to think before its invention. You can like or dislike my films, but there is no way of describing them through language or any other medium - or of thinking the thoughts you have while seeing them.''
The essence of these ``new cinematic thoughts'' is their nonverbal quality. Film, says Kubelka, is a means of making images that ``speak for the eye'' in a way humanity has never known before. ``And that,'' he adds with a delighted smile, ``for the first time since the Stone Age, is a new language that's come to mankind!''