Sometimes, it seems like the live musical accompaniment of silent films has been all but forgotten in contemporary cinema. We cannot imagine an on-screen car crash without the explosive collision or a shoot-out without deafening bursts of gunfire. But in the past few years, some video artists have revived the practice of accompanying films with live music as an essential aspect of their performances. Performing at Doc Films tonight, video artists and musicians the Lucky Dragons will offer a unique example of how live accompaniment has evolved as its own art form.
The L.A.-based Lucky Dragons began in 1998 as a musical collaboration between musicians Luke Fischbeck and Sara Rara. With 19 albums under their belt, the Lucky Dragons have branched out to explore a variety of artistic mediums in their performances. “Lucky Dragons has been kind of a tricky thing to categorize because we make records, and record music, and play concerts, and we also do something very visual and performative at the same time,” Rara said.
Make a Baby, which the Lucky Dragons have performed at multiple venues since 2005, exemplifies the Lucky Dragons’ interest in group performance and technologically innovative music-making. In the performance, a group of people sit in a circle around a square that looks like some kind of bizarre patchwork quilt—an eye-catching mix of multicolored spirals, squares, and flagella-like protrusions. A shy girl gently extends her hand across the mysterious quilt and lays her palm over the center of a spiral. Just as her hand touches the unknown material, a sonorous note rises into the air, then gently falls away when she lifts her fingers.
Following her lead, the others touch different sections of the quilt, creating a medley of somewhat discordant, yet distinctly beautiful sounds. As the people begin to touch one another, lightly holding hands or touching one another’s arms, the vibrating sounds begin to increase in tempo, change pitch, and bring even more tones into this dynamic din.
Make a Baby utilizes a computer program hooked up to digital and analog converters to interpret audio signals. By touching braided strips of tin within the quilt, individuals can “conduct” the frequency and “pass” it to others. The different interactions are recorded by specialized software, which controls the production of different sounds.
In addition to such inventive performances, much of Lucky Dragons’ work relies on a combination of music and video art. Their videos use a wide variety of techniques, creating both appealing and jarring images with a combination of animation and live action with unique editing. But the Lucky Dragons’ performance at Doc will not include any of the group’s own videos. Instead, they will accompany Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon and a collection of films by video artist Rose Lowder. The performance will present a new challenge for the Lucky Dragons because The Red Balloon will be the first narrative-based film they have accompanied.
Because the Lucky Dragons’ videos focus on an emotional presentation of images rather than a clear narrative, they have nearly unlimited freedom for improvisation in their performances. But The Red Balloon is very different. “It’s very difficult because it’s not just free improvisation,” Rara said.
At the same time, the structure of the narrative provides the Lucky Dragons with an opportunity to explore new techniques, such as creating musical motifs for different characters. “Each person or group of people who repeat or reappear in the movie has a sound signature that goes with them, kind of like their voice,” Rara explained. “It’s a different kind of attention than playing music or doing something interactive with the audience.”
In contrast to The Red Balloon, the Rose Lowder program includes videos that are very similar to the Lucky Dragons’ own work. Featuring many editing techniques also favored by the Lucky Dragons, such as rapid cuts and superimposed images, Rose Lowder’s work will allow the Lucky Dragons to return to their improvisational style during the performance. “There will be kind of an unraveling from extremely planned to extremely spontaneous and then we can end the night with total spontaneity,” Rara said.
The Lucky Dragons’ show also marks an effort by Doc Films to make their theater available for more diverse kinds of performances. Although experimental directors and artists have been featured at Doc in the past, Aaron Greenberg, one of the show’s organizers, sees many more opportunities to organize these unique performances. Many video artists like the Lucky Dragons perform in smaller theaters across the country and could help expand Doc’s audience if they were brought to campus. “I hope that it inaugurates lots of excitement about bringing new artists to Chicago,” Greenberg said. “We can support very small, independent artists, show rare films, and provide a great time for everyone.”