Friday 13 August 2021

Making Music Visible Part 1 - Norman McLaren - by Joan Lennon

I'm proud to be a History Girl.  But I'm also a Historical Girl, in so far as many things I grew up with are now considered History.  One of those things was the National Film Board of Canada,* home to all sorts of quiet revolutions in animation and film-making.  And from 1941, it was home to Norman McLaren. 

My dad was a film buff, though that term may be Historical now as well, and he shared his enthusiasm with me.**  Not everything we watched together way back then has stood up to the test of time, but Norman McLaren has. In spades.

One aspect of McLaren's work was the technique he pioneered of creating sound scores by scratching and gouging the physical film strip.  We can look more into that in Part 2. But he also collaborated with many of the prominent musicians of his time, making wonderfully abstract short films that both illustrated the music and made it visible. 

He was drawn to music of widely different sorts and styles.  Sometimes he was inspired by folk songs like the French Canadian sequence song in 1958, Le Merle (The Blackbird). In this film he worked with fellow animator Evelyn Lambart and the Trio Lyrique of Montreal.

Or Boogie-Doodle (1940) where African-American jazz pianist Albert Ammons provided the boogie, and McLaren created the doodle:

Eldon Rathburn's jazz ensemble piece came together with McLaren's images hand-scratched and hand-painted directly onto the film strip to become Short and Suite (1959):

But perhaps the most mesmerizing of all was Spheres (1969) where McLaren and Rene Jodoin collaborated with the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould:

(There is yet another layer of richness that you can hear if your ears are keen. One of Glenn Gould's quirks was to hum an improvised other line of music while playing Bach fugues.  Drove some people crazy but as a kid smitten by and grappling with the gorgeousness of Bach, Gould was my hero.)

People speak about 'passion pieces' and for me, the passion of these short collaborative films comes through as vividly today as it did way back then, in History. But perhaps that's enough for now, and Part 2 of Making Music Visible will appear in due course.

*Still going strong, the National Film Board of Canada champions new works and also has a wonderful archive of films and documentaries.  Have a look here.

** Back in 2014 I did a HG post on Norman McLaren's 1957 film A Chairy Tale.  The music was by Ravi Shankar and Chantur Lal.

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