Synaesthetic Cinema:
Minimalist Music and Film

In his book Expanded Cinema—a landmark of psychedelic cinema studies—Gene Youngblood writes that synaesthesis is “the harmony of different or opposing influences produced by a work of art,” and that synaesthetic cinema is “the only aesthetic language suited to contemporary life.” For Youngblood, synaesthetic cinema meant the end of narrative: a time when film becomes purely a language of light, space and sound. Watching some of the films that influenced his utopian pronouncements, one can understand his outlook. With few exceptions, the films in this program are not only without narrative, they are also without dialogue. All of them use what is now called minimalist music, combined with lush visuals, in an attempt to guide viewers toward hypnotic states. In Youngblood’s taxonomy, “synaesthesia” and “psychedelic” are synonymous.

Like many art forms that originated in the avant-garde, minimalist music has come to seem almost hackneyed, the sonic background to Hollywood blockbusters and television advertisements. But the early years of minimalist composition saw quite a different reality, with current cultural icons like Philip Glass and Steve Reich being vilified in print and even attacked onstage. In fact, the music of Glass and Reich, as well as their counterparts La Monte Young and Terry Riley, originated in a heady mix of underground activity in the cinema, music, painting and sculpture in California and New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Young, the least known of the four major minimalist composers, is now generally thought to have launched the movement with his long tone compositions while a graduate student in Berkeley. Riley and Reich worked with Young at Berkeley and later, after Young had decamped to New York, with composers Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros at the San Francisco Tape Center. Influenced by the drone tones they heard in Indian and North African music, as well as reacting to the teleological bent of western classical music, Young, Riley and Reich, each in their different ways, built the foundations of musical minimalism. Glass arrived at a similar place through different means. He was at Juilliard when Young, Reich, and Riley’s early performances were happening in New York, before leaving to study in Paris for the last years of the Sixties. There he encountered Indian music through Ravi Shankar and other non-Western music during an epic journey on foot from Istanbul to India.

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