Hypnosis Display is a dreamlike 16mm film and sound collaboration by Bay Area filmmaker Paul Clipson and Oregon-based artist and musician Liz Harris, also known as Grouper. The mesmerizing feature-length work, exploring themes of the American landscape, is performed live on Friday, April 10, as part of the Crossroads Film Festival at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco.
How did you two first meet? How did you end up collaborating?
Paul Clipson: We knew each other through mutual friends in music. I was doing a lot of shows in the past several years with different musicians. So there was a shared environment. [The musician] Jefre Cantu-Ledesma was one person I did a lot of film screenings with, and Liz knows him as well. There were a couple opportunities where we worked together, Liz and I, on single shows… the few times that we worked together on certain performances, they seemed kind of inspired and magical.
She had a chance to do a commission in Britain; she was invited to score a silent film. She said, “Instead of playing to a famous film, how about playing to a new piece? How about commissioning something original?”
Liz Harris (Grouper): They were down for me to write my own proposal, and very interested in the idea of me working with Paul. We pitched it and they went for it, to this company in the UK called Leeds Opera North. This is the first time we’ve worked on something so comprehensive — we’ve only done live music shows in the past, and this project was a bit more involved.
Can you talk about the themes in the work? What were you trying to explore?
Liz: The length was interesting — it was set by the commission. They wanted a 75-minute film. Paul prefers to work in these short rushes, these 10-20 minute films. But the subject matter is kind of endlessly resonant. We were asked to make a film about the American landscape — whatever that meant to us. It’s not like we were short of inspiration. One of the ways we went about tackling this larger project while maintaining what was most interesting of how we work together, the magical unplanned synchronization between the image and sound, was making a loose structure that we both agreed to follow, different subjects. But beyond that we didn’t talk about how either of us were interpreting. It was really open. We like this idea of working together but not in a way where we were constantly showing each other what we were working on. We just set a few of the same parameters we were working from, but made the interpretation kind of open… we had a great day where we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge recording sound and footage together; other than that we mostly left each other alone.
Paul: We both started with the idea of environment — not necessarily on the idea of America, but we both have perspectives on our past and our experiences living in the U.S., so we started with that, this kind of basic response. As people who study and take things in visually, we started on a metabolic level in a way on the rhythm of the experience of spaces. We thought: let’s try that, let’s try recording things and collecting things, based on memories and dreams and projections of our criticisms and reactions of things and our memories of experiences in the past, and even echoes of things in the culture of the country, the problematic history. Even in a more distant way, in echoes of things, making a very clear statement, wanting to create an environment of the experience of the space, to occupy that presentation in a very strange way.
I’m drawn to Liz’s work because it has an incredible emotional register. I think it’s the reason a lot of people find meaning in her work. There’s a lot of beauty and sense of experience — even if it’s disturbing, there’s this kind of generosity in her music.
Talk a bit about the process of creating Hypnosis Display.
Paul: We just started sharing ideas in a non-temporal, a non-structured way. We didn’t say when and where. I have a full-time job, but I had the chance to travel along the coast, go to New York, to L.A. a few times. I would just tell Liz, and she would tell me things like, “I want to field record this, I want to go out on the river and record a ship going by.” We were just talking about what was exciting us or inspiring us. We would talk about films or about music, things that seemed to relate to this, things that we were attracted to, and we would tell the other one what it was about it.
One of my favorite films is Zabriskie Point. It was a major flop and it has some problems, but what’s interesting is that it’s a collage. The film is this collage of experiences of America. It’s really experimental… I think of an artist like a painter or sculptor or a musician, someone working in different forms and using all kinds of approaches, trying to put it all together.
I shoot a lot in terms of size too — spaces in a macro perspective and a micro perspective. Vast spaces that could be a mile away, and juxtaposing those senses. I also tried to structure the film through that sort of prism, so there would be times where there would almost be a Swiftian, Gulliver’s Travels thing, so that sound could create a perspective. The quietude of the sound. An immense sound that dwarfs you. Because Liz can do that too — she uses very simple means to do incredible things. She’s working with different instruments for different projects; in this case she’s using cassette tapes. What’s cool and relates in our work is that limitation — I’ve used 16mm and Super 8. I’m very drawn to forms that have certain limitations but in the rigidity of the form, you suddenly have this freedom. Sometimes that relates to the thematics of what you’re doing, I often find that shooting in film inspires me to go out and record space like a field recording — going out and doing research.
There’s a sense that [Hypnosis Display] is a bit of a weird shared dream. So it has uncertainty of where it’s going, that’s something we wanted to preserve, Liz and I. There’s something different about it than the rest of our work…I was a bit more organized doing this because of the length of it. I wanted to have a dynamic, feel good about it, and there was a concern to make sure there was a spring, a coil to it, so it would continue and have some dynamism, some energy.
Liz: In the past I’ve been interested in these meditative sound landscapes. Here I was really thinking more about distinct punctuation, and really distinctly separate rooms within this larger topic.
I wanted to use a lot of industrial machine noise, so I went out and took a lot of source recordings, and I listened back to all these recordings of trains and bridges and machine noises. I heard melodies kind of within that. It’s not a very traditional song structure. I hear songs, but it’s lots of static, lots of space hum, someone going up and down a stairwell. I hear a really distinct structure in it, but they’re not traditional songs. There are melodic parts in it, but it’s mostly these field recordings, put together the way you might put elements in a song…
I am really drawn to sounds that make the motion of repeating but don’t exactly repeat. I use a lot of these recordings of cars driving over the same metal grate on the Golden Gate Bridge over and over. I’ve done a little bit of minimal processing, and there’s live processing. I’ll pitch down the tapes, bring down the bass. I was attracted to a lot of lower frequency sound, a lot of menacing sound. Not for the sake of being menacing, [but] it is resonant source material with regards to relating back to some of the themes. I don’t think I was overtly thinking of America the whole time when I was working on this, to be honest, but… this idea of industry and city landscapes, and a moving landscape and a westward landscape, whether it’s referenced in cars or trains, grittier machine sounds found their way in. They’re counterbalanced by a lot of the West Coast sounds. There are a lot of ocean recordings in there, though they sound a whole lot like some of the car and freeway recordings in the end.
It’s important for Paul and I to make the film open to the viewers, to make the connection they want to make, as a flexible fabric. My music does come from an emotional place, it’s going to be coming from that foundation. It’s not an intentional thing; it’s just how I operate, the language that I work in… people can take whatever they want from it.
Paul: Some of it seems so composed, the images and the sound, it’s completely not connected, these wonderful things that happen every time. She has this score; she’s not improvising. She’s created a sonic fabric and she has a score that she follows… She has these plates of sound that she’s made, they flow together. I have these sections of film, when the two go together, it’s kind of this shaking earthquake… it was a very exciting project to do.