Chris Meigh-Andrews: I’m interested to learn more about your perspective on the relationship between video art and music, especially with respect to your collaboration with the composer Steve Reich on the two video operas The Cave (1993) and Three Tales (2002). There are many interesting aspects to this- a collaboration between accomplished and experienced artists in their respective fields, but creating something which was distinctly new and clearly a product of a very successful collaborative partnership.
There are two basic areas I’d like to talk about. The first is related to your approach to video as an art form and how that may (or may not) have previously connected to music in some way, perhaps musical structures or forms. So, firstly I’d like to ask you about your practice and how it connects to the time-based structuring that it shares with music. The second area is about the collaboration itself, how that works, how it evolved, how it may have influenced your approach to working with video and whether the collaboration has had an effect on the way you think about video, or the way you work with it.
So, to start, do you feel that there is a fundamental relationship between video and music?
Beryl Korot: Well, very early on- I guess my first video work was in the early nineteen seventies, and it came in the context of Radical Software. This was a publication I was co-editing at the time about the information environment we were living in, about the one way transmission system from broadcaster to home, and about how portable video impacted that environment because it was able to be accessed by so many people. I was very much into the equipment and the technology and how it worked. There was of course separate audio and video heads and so from the start audio seemed to me as important as the video in making my works, though for some at the time the audio was just coming along for the ride. I was doing my own 1/2” editing with stopwatch and grease pencil in hand. And then, within a very short period of time in the early seventies- between Radical Software and my first video experiments, and in conversation with a very good friend who was a weaver, I learned to weave. It was working in all three media at the same time- the loom, print and video, that I realized that they were all encrypted in lines: the loom was a more ancient technology and video much more contemporary, but the information in all was scanned in lines though at very different speeds. This fascinated me.
I also was interested very early on, in multiple channel work. Being an editor at Radical Software, one of the interests at the time was to change the information environment we were living in and one of the ways to do that was to get the viewer out of the living room and into a public space. Working with multiple channels was a way of accomplishing that. As soon as you start working in multiples you begin to start thinking about the relationship between the multiples image-wise and sound-wise. When I came back from recording my first multiple channel piece which became Dachau 1974, the images I brought back were very static- mostly all shot using a tripod. I wanted to find a way to bring life to these images. I had been very much influenced by people working with video like Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette with whom I had close relationships and they were working with multiple screens and real time delays.
The loom is the most ancient tool that we have that’s based on multiples- specifically multiple threads, so when I started to look back at the material I had shot in Germany, I began to think about how information, or pattern is composed on a loom. I began to think about the numbers involved in pattern making – ones and threes and twos and fours to make the most basic thread structure for woven cloth. So that’s where it began. There is a notational system that you are working with on a loom. It gives you instructions as to what your hands and your feet are doing. I played piano as a kid, which was aside from learning to read, my first abstract notational system. Channels (1 and 3) and (2 and 4) had identical images, but each channel had a different rhythm throughout the work. In that way the images had a more “live” quality to them when you viewed let’s say the image on channels 1 and 3 slightly out of synch with one another. It was taking the live feedback and time delay and making it more compositional. More like a composer would work with different voices in a composition, and it brought life to the mainly static images. In Dachau 1974, there were feet shuffling against gravel and murmuring voices and even laughter as the tourists moved through the space. These sounds were very crucial to the piece. These were played back on 4 different audio tracks on each videotape in the installation of the work.
CM-A: So did the sound that you had recorded have an impact on the way you decided to structure the work, or did your decisions about the structuring come as a result of the relationship with weaving and the loom?
B.K: The structure of the work came from the visual, the organization of threads on the loom. But the time delays I mentioned earlier were also a crucial influence. It was a 4 separate channel work even though the visual imagery on (1 and 3) and (2 and 4) were identical with one another, but as I mentioned before appeared simultaneously in a different rhythmic relationship.
CM-A: I think the multi-channel aspect of your approach is important to this musical relationship. Video seems to lend itself to experimenting with the physical and architectural space in relation to the image. Although “expanded cinema” was influential at that time in the early seventies, there was something about the challenge of arranging TV screens within a space, and then having to think about how to orchestrate the work- how the screens were placed, and how long an image remained on one screen before it moved to another screen. As you said, you were interested to take people out of their living rooms and into a public space. The minute you do that you have posed yourself a new artistic challenge.
B.K: Although I admired a lot of the real-time work by other artists, that wasn’t my approach- it was more structured. The relationship to the loom was always there. Once I had made that connection to the multiples that has pretty much stayed with me my whole life, in terms of patterning and in terms of the loom as a thinking tool. That abstract pattern has a numerical base was very exciting to me.
The multiples were also for me a way of saying, this is a new medium; we are moving away from cinema. Dachau 1974 was presented with the monitors cut into a free-standing wall that was built each time the work was installed. The wall had a 4:3 aspect ratio and now instead of a single image it embodied 4 or in a later work, Text and Commentary, 5 separate screens. In The Cave opera I created with Steve the 5 screens of video create the mise-en-scene or the set for the entire work. In a sense installation art was brought into a theatrical context for the first time. The onscreen images had a direct relationship to the lighting and costumes and movement of the onstage musicians and singers.
CM-A: So did you work with other media before taking up video?
B.K: I wrote poetry as a kid. When I finished college, I pretty much fell into working in print, as an editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books. At the very beginning I just fell into a lot of things- I knew a lot about what I didn’t want to do. I wrote poetry my entire childhood, which one could say was musical- it was very related. What I wrote was oral, it was to be read out loud. I grew up with people who loved to read poetry out loud.
CM-A: So to take up the theme of collaboration, which I think is at the heart of the video/music theme, did you ever collaborate with any other musicians or composers before working with Steve?
B.K: No, I hadn’t. I think the Radical Software period was so collaborative in a way; I was looking for a way to speak for myself at that point. And video was the way- I was surrounded by people thinking about it. I had lots of ideas and thought that I’d better pick up the camera. That’s how it started.
CMA: I’m aware that you met Steve at “The Kitchen”, which at the time was a kind of melting pot for new music and video.
B.K: Time-Based Media- Music, Video and Dance.
CM-A: So when did you and Steve first decide to work together? What prompted it? Was it connected to the kind of approach you were using with your video work, related to the kinds of structures you were using?
B.K: Well, it was a process that evolved over time. I think that Steve got the premiere of the Dachau piece. I had been doing the editing over at Howard Wise’s office on 5th Ave and 13th Street in NYC, which he set up for a small group of artists to do their own editing. I brought 4 small monitors to the editing room and I remember inviting him over to take a look and he said to me: “That’s a very musical work”. We didn’t talk about it much after that, but he said that it was then that he began to think that maybe we would work together. It came in a sense more from his side than from mine. But it was the blank pauses that first appeared in that work to make the rhythms that got him to thinking that the works had a musical base structurally.
We always talked about work a lot, and we were living during a period in the mid-nineteen eighties when many composers were beginning to do operas- John Adams, Phillip Glass et al. Steve and I would go to the operas. Some of them were about relatively contemporary people- Einstein, Nixon, etc. We thought that if we were going to do something like that, we would look for recordings of the people who were the subject of the operas. We both thought of recording devices as the folk tools of our time. Around this time Steve had a commission from the Kronos Quartet. Although he was not particularly keen to write a quartet at that moment, he admired Kronos and very much wanted to write something for them. I knew he was interested in the sampler which had recently come out and so suggested he consider working with one for the Kronos work. Since he was already thinking about the sampler that thought was immediately appealing and the resulting work was Different Trains (1988), which in a sense became a study for the talking heads section for both The Cave and Three Tales, using the speech patterns or melodies of people’s voices.
CM-A: I know that Steve had worked with speech patterns before in early pieces like It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966 and) which were made using audio tape loops. After all, the sampler is a kind of recording device.
B.K: With the sampler you can figure out exact pitches, determine tempo- it was really meant for him. It was a great tool!
CM-A: And of course it was the precursor to what could eventually be done with video.
B.K: Yes, early on when I was making those pieces I was working with such primitive equipment. In terms of incorporating any kind of effect, even trying to grab a still image from a frame of video in 1990 was not a simple matter. I’m sure it could have been done in a commercial video studio, but I was working at home. Those operas were both made sitting at home.
CM-A: I wondered about that. So what kind of equipment were you working with? Did you have a frame store?
B.K: Well, there was a company based in California called Advanced Remote Technology Inc. They provided the equipment for elaborate music performances with live video and music on multiple screens. Ben Rubin, who was our technical advisor contacted them to inquire about the costs and other details involved with using their technology. I acquired a setup at home with software on my Mac Plus to interface between five video playback decks, five small Arti black boxes we purchased, and the edit decision lists I was making on my Mac Plus! (1.) And the video itself which everyone assumed was Beta was actually created with an industrial Panasonic S-VHS camera. Given our budget I did get great advice about what to buy. Also, I felt I needed more than just talking heads to deal with. At the time “Photoshop” was just beginning, but I was advised to try some software that a computer graphics developer, Ron Scott, based in Texas was creating for a Dos platform called Hi-Res QFX. (It was the only time I worked on that platform.) At that time I thought it was better than Photoshop in terms of being able to grab images. During the course of the work, between Acts 1 and Act 3, the software developed so it was possible to move the images around a little and to do what I call “work arounds.” For example, at the end of The Cave, where it appears that the stills are animated, I made a large still image that had lots of smaller windows, then used the keyboard to zoom in on the windows and pressed the scroll keys while recording the results onto a video deck. It looked as if the images were being animated, but it was just the scroll key moving the image up and down or back and forth.
CM-A: But you found creative solutions to the problems with the technology when it was still very embryonic.
B.K: It was very embryonic. It made me do certain things that I would otherwise not have done. Working in a studio scared me. I’m a very private person in terms of how I think and work so I needed to be by myself.
CM-A: As a video artist, did you have any input on the musical elements of either of these collaborative works? Did Steve have any input into the visuals? Was there any cross-fertilizing going on between the visual elements and the musical elements of the work?
B.K: Well, I went through and eliminated a lot of material before giving it to Steve. It was from this material that his ear would select the melodies for the voices. But we were always in dialogue when creating each of the works. We story-boarded as we went along. We had a list of questions for each of the interviewees, in each of the works. For The Cave it was “who for you is Abraham? Who for you is Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac?” In Three Tales the material organized around 3 different events from the 20th century, Hindenburg as zeppelin, Bikini, as atoll island, Dolly as cloned Sheep. Steve would be working on let’s say, the Abraham section in The Cave. Since I knew the individuals we’d be working with in that section I’d work on creating 5 screen tableaux selecting details from their clothing or the setting in which were recorded. Each time a person appears in the course of The Cave they are always in an aural and visual portrait of themselves. The music always preceded the visuals a tiny bit, because I had to cut the talking heads to a specific timecode while at the same time decide the placement of the other images I’d selected. I’d ask Steve to print me the score and mark certain places with time code where I wanted to introduce the stills I was creating. We were glued by SMPTE. (2.) Steve’s studio was in a different part of the house but we were connected by lots of wires. I would start my deck with the time coded tape and it would trigger the corresponding timecode in his score with the music he had just written which would get recorded on my playback deck. The given throughout both works was the music for the talking heads, and the rest visually was up to me, except that we had decided early on that we wanted to stick to the documentary material as a source for both the video and audio portions of the work. So that was also a limitation for both of us. I know he felt liberated when we finally did “Three Tales”, because he’d decided not to be so tied to the tempo and pitches of the recorded voices but determined the tempo and pitches himself using the sampler. It was also a relief for me because by the late 1990’s the visual complexity could finally be achieved in After Effects by combining photos, film and video all within a single frame
There was one thing, I guess it was in Three Tales, where he was working on what he called his Wagner section, Niebelung Zeppelin. The visual footage was of the building of the Hindenburg. While Steve was working on the music for that I was looking at the footage that I had collected at the National Archive in College Park, Maryland of the workers themselves building the Hindenburg. What was amazing to me was how graceful the workers were as they walked across the scaffolding and I began to think about the Judson Dance Theater. So in that particular section we brought together Wagner and the Judson Dance Theater, the most unlikely companions.
CM-A: Do you think that you developed a different working methodology as a result of working within such a completely collaborative process?
B.K: We went through a long collaborative period from 1990 until 2002, and it was great, but it was super intense. It became our life, and I think we were very happy to get back to our own separate work and having a life together. I continued working in After Effects though between 2002 and 2010 to create a series of video paintings with their own sense of time.
CM-A: So given that experience, do you have any future plans to make any further collaborative works- either with Steve or any other musician or composer?
B.K: No, never! And in fact I’m creating a new body of work that has no video or music at all!
(1.)”I recall I used a very early version of After Effects called Cosa After Effects that was developed by some students out of Brown university to create my 5 separate EDL lists (later sold to Adobe). From these I edited 5 separate videotapes that played back on 5 separate decks that were synchronized by 5 ARTI boxes or arms. This was what I used to create the work and to playback the work to people who came to my studio during that time. When we went into performance of the work the videotapes were transferred to laser disks and the small ARTI boxes were replaced by road worthy ARTI ‘refrigerator’ size boxes . Each of the 5 channels had a backup laser disk and all 10 laser playback decks were synchronized in performance through the ARTI system which traveled all over the world faultlessly. Ben Rubin who had gone to Brown (and later the Media Lab at MIT) organized this playback system for us.” (BK, 24/08/21)
(2.)SMPTE: A set of cooperating standards to label individual frames of video or film with a timecode. The system is defined by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers in the SMPTE 12M specification. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMPTE_timecode, consulted 09/08/21.)