Steve Roden on Hans Richter

As part of our Artist’s Respond series, and in conjunction with the exhibition Hans Richter: Encounters, Steve Roden is creating a series of sountracks for the Richter film “Ghosts Before Breakfast” (the original soundtrack was destroyed by the Nazis). Steve describes the project this way:

Steve Roden: In 1927, Hans Richter was asked by the Gessellschaft Fur Neu Musik in Berlin to make a film together with Paul Hindemith for their annual festival of music in Baden-Baden. Hindemith suggested that the film be bucolic. Because time was short, Richter, for the most part, used objects as actors, and in his own words,  “started to apply a method I had used before: improvisation.”

The resulting film was titled “Vormittagsspuk”, which Richter titled in english “Ghosts Before Breakfast” and “Ghosts Before Noon” (a literal translation would be closer to “To Spook Before Noon” or “Morning Spook”). One of the things that stands out in the film’s history is the loss of the original soundtrack.

While it would be presumptuous to attempt to create a definitive new score, the absence of the original offers an interesting situation, allowing one to explore Richter’s ideas in relation to film and sound in the context of one of his own films, now rendered incomplete.

The accompanying soundtracks should be seen and heard as a kind of sketchbook, exploring various approaches – both logical and confused. Cues come from Richter’s words, and the film’s history.

One technical note: these soundtracks were not created for “ear buds” or tiny built-in laptop speakers. If possible, I recommend listening to these soundtracks with a good pair of headphones or a nice set of stereo speakers.

Steve is keeping a diary of each week’s process whereby he comes up with a new soundtrack. The first soundtrack, which you can experience here, is described below.

Steve Roden: A couple of months ago a friend sent me some info on a free iPhone app called Tunetrace, which makes music from images. 

An excerpt on the app from evolver.fm: “Once you input a drawing by taking a photograph of it within the app, Tunetrace analyzes each skeletal line and configuration in your drawing and turns it into code. Afterwards, twinkling lights fill the screen as they move along each pathway in the drawing, interpreting the code and playing corresponding music as they go.”

After spending some time making drawings and music with the app, the results were underwhelming, so I decided to use photographs instead of drawings – hoping that if I confused the app it might lead to more interesting music. 

Since the app arrived right around the time I was beginning to work with “Ghosts Before Breakfast,” I decided to try capturing screen shots from Richter’s film off my laptop. While the sound wasn’t really any more exciting, the process offered a kind of integrity in that the sound was truly being generating from the film. In a way, the app became a vehicle of alchemy – where a soundless image was transformed into sound, offering a relevant new voice where one had been lost.

Screen capture from "Ghosts Before Breakfast" in the Tunetrace app.

Screen capture from “Ghosts Before Breakfast” in the Tunetrace app.

After listening to the loops generated by the app, I decided to manipulate the results through fragmentation, playing them backwards and shifting their pitch. The hope is that while the sounds have been altered, the integrity of the app’s results remain somewhat intact…and I view this approach more as an example of creative editing than digital processing.

This soundtrack was not created while watching the film, nor were the sound files necessarily matched with the images that generated them. Instead, I worked on the composition as an audio work, later nipping and tucking the soundtrack to fit within certain film sequences. All of the emotional resonance between the sound and image is a matter of happenstance.

I also decided that that in every iteration of the score, the stop motion scene of the plant will remain silent.

Thanks to Stephen Biller for steering me to the tunetrace app.

To view future iterations of Ghosts Before Breakfast with new soundtracks by Roden, follow lacma.org/Richter/Roden.

Amy Heibel

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