Robert Robertson: Composer and Filmmaker

Jaap Mees  interviews Robert Robertson
about his new music/film: Oserake and The River That Walks...
Talking Pictures alias






About Us


Robert Robertson is a composer and filmmaker. Before making films he composed operas in which he broke away from 19th century conventions to produce works which have a total unity of music, theatre and dance. The Kingdom, an opera about the Haitian Independence movement, was directed by Rufus Collins and Henk Tjon in Amsterdam in 1984. The DNA music, theatre and dance company was set up from the original cast of The Kingdom. An opera about the Albigensian Crusade, The Cathars, was performed in Brentwood, Cressing Temple and Glastonbury in 1995. Empedocles, a dance opera about the life and ideas of the Early Greek philosopher, was realised in collaboration with the artist filmmaker Dennis Dracup, and was premiered at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1995. The film was made on the pre-existing music, very much like choreography for a pre-existing score. This collaboration inspired Robertson to make his own films. He began work on Invisible City, a series of what he calls ‘music/films.’ In these, music and sound function on a level equal to the film, very much as music and theatre work on an overall basis of equality in an opera.

He made the music/film Oserake and The River That Walks while studying for an MFA at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Montreal, in 2000-2002. There he studied with the documentary filmmaker Marielle Nitoslawska, a graduate of the film school at Lodz.

Funded by a David Lean Foundation grant, Robertson is researching Eisenstein’s ideas on the interaction of music, sound and film at King’s College, London, and is teaching film. He is currently completing Invisible City and planning a new series of music/films. 

Oserake and The River That Walks is a truly unique short film, twenty minutes in black and white. The first part, Oserake, is a portrait of a city in snowstorms, the second, The River That Walks, is a mesmerising impression of a river with a choreography of ice flows, shot in a truly poetic way. With rhythmic editing, it was shot in barren circumstances (in temperatures down to 30 degrees below zero) with an iron determination. It's a very cinematic work too: full of movement, shadow and light and a magical sense of detail. The score, written for cellos and violins, then six church organs, is pretty haunting.

Jaap Mees: What influenced you in your music for Oserake and the River That Walks?

Robert Robertson: Whether it’s in the music for Oserake, or any music that I’ve composed previously, I have always aimed to combine two sets of musical influence. One of these is the revolution in Western Classical music which took place largely in the Fifties and Sixties. Composers like Edgard Varese, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Xenakis and John Cage exploded previously existing structures in this tradition. Their music astonished and excited me at a time I was practising scales and arpeggios for my piano teachers! However I did have one reservation: I felt that their music didn’t work well over longer time spans. There was something missing – I had a gut feeling that for longer works this music needed tonality, something their revolutionary approach had almost completely abandoned. However I have always believed that it is possible to create a new synthesis by combining their revolutionary methods with a completely new way of using tonality, one which is not related to how it was previously used. In this way I can adapt this musical revolution so that it can work in large-scale forms with big time spans, like operas, and series of music/films.

Is your background in music mostly classical?

It’s a strange background really, because aged around ten I started with painting and drawing. My mother is an artist, and she often took me to galleries and museums. At that time art teachers in schools didn’t teach the history of art. Later on I became interested in radio and television plays (there were some very good ones in the Sixties), and I started to write little plays and short stories. Then I started to hear things in my head, not voices (laughs) but music, and I taught myself music notation so that I could write it down. I don’t recall music being important in the family, so I entered a completely new world. My father didn’t allow me to have piano lessons, because he considered this to be something for young ladies. He was a real Victorian father, born in 1899. So I had to have piano lessons in secret. I also learned to play the trombone, the church organ, and the viola, which helped me to understand how to compose for strings, brass and various types of church organ. For some unknown reason, from my early teens I was drawn to Latin-American popular music. Later on, before composing the music for The Kingdom I studied and transcribed West African and Haitian polyrhythmic music. The way time is used in music from various African traditions has had a strong impact in the way my music is put together. 

And what about the music for The River That Walks section?

It is scored for six church organs. I wanted to create a sense of awe by using superimpositions of massive chords which become acoustically destabilised by the gradual addition of other chords from more church organs. I found the actual sound of flowing and colliding ice surprisingly quiet – I wanted to show the huge power of the forces involved, the scale of what I was seeing, the masses of ice on the river. The overlapping, the crushing between planes of sound is also what is happening with the flowing ice. Beneath our window at night we could hear the roar of the engines of the huge snowploughs working all night long to keep the roads clear. Their harmonies went into the music for this section.

How did you get the idea for Oserake?

I wanted to show Montreal in winter, a portrait of a modern city undergoing a severe winter, but my aim was to avoid the Canadian Film Board style – documentaries in the Grierson mode about ‘Man’ striving to survive in a Canadian winter. What interests me is the power of the wilderness that overtakes the city, which tries to return it to the time before the city existed. There is hardly anyone around in these conditions – it can be horrendously cold, down to minus thirty degrees and below, and everywhere there are massive snowdrifts and huge icicles and icefalls. The streets are totally transformed and the pavements disappear beneath layers of snow for nearly six months each year. Most citizens fear and loathe this vast force. They retreat from it and so few images of it exist.

Why did you shoot the film on Super 8?

RR I didn’t want a well-behaved high gloss image. This is something I find flat and static. I used super 8 film to get dynamic and fluctuating, flickering images, which directly relate to the conditions of extreme instability I was experiencing.

If you film by the rules you make sure that your exposure latitude encompasses the rapid changes of light in these extreme conditions: from the most glowing white of sunlight on snowfields to the occluded light of a dense snowstorm, and the deep black water of the river contrasting with the brilliant white of the ice floes. If you even all this out, what results is a dull image which in no way relates to your struggle to capture it.

I believe that the Super 8 format captures more closely the imprecise way we see things. We don’t see with the precision of 16mm and the all-encompassing detail of 35mm, 70mm and Omnimax. When we see in an everyday context, the seen is interwoven with images from the brain, which appear at the same time as what we see around us. Our perception is a combination of the outside going in and the inside going out. The imprecision of Super 8 captures these fleeting perceptions of our mobile roving eye. The eye is a thinking and dreaming camera, as the actual camera doesn’t think or dream.

The question of what is precise and imprecise in an image is fascinating. If you take a painting by Monet or Pissarro it’s not precise in a conventional sense: it’s not in focus. This is why people had such a problem with these painters at first – a critic ridiculed Monet by calling him an ‘Impressionist.’ But when it came to colour, the Impressionists were extraordinarily precise – their range of tones was phenomenal.

This is another reason why I use Super 8 film. Though the image may be conventionally imprecise, the film stock I use can capture over 16,000 discrete steps on the grey scale, as opposed to the paltry 256 steps offered by digital video today. The River That Walks features a particularly wide range of gradations, the subtleties of which just wouldn’t have been captured by digital technology. Analogical systems are more sensitive to tiny changes than digital systems, which are based on the replication of identically shaped units. 

If I’d used 16mm for The River That Walks, I’d have had to spend time changing reels, measuring the constantly changing light. Even with Super 8, when changing the cartridge I felt I was missing something, so much was happening with these tricks of the light, brief angles of reflection and other combinations of transient things that are unique and only happen at that very moment. You will never ever catch that moment again.

So you make music/films about things other people are too busy to observe?

I think you are right, this is one of the things artists can do. For example people hardly looked at the river in this way – they were too busy fighting the winter conditions in their cars. The few pedestrians that were around were walking fast to get to the nearest warm place as soon as possible! Only rarely would someone stop to look at the spectacle of the river, which is at some distance from the city. This is why I thought it was important to show this, both the city and the river in winter, and not just as a beautiful background for something else, but to place it at the centre of our attention. 

The film school in Montreal is attached to Concordia University, which has a wonderful library. I found I was looking at books about American painters like Marin, Stuart Davis, Fairfield Porter, Ellsworth Kelly and Jackson Pollock. And sculptors like Calder and David Smith. I started noticing things in the landscape which these artists had seen for the first time with an American eye, not the European eye of their predecessors. For the first time I could see what had been the trigger of their art. One of the images of the wilderness in Oserake is not unlike a painting by Pollock. These same natural elements must have driven the untamed nature of his work. These American pioneer artists were single-handedly creating the landscape in their paintings and sculptures. Like the American photographer Edward Weston, when he photographed Point Lobos in California – he created that part of the Pacific West Coast.

When you are walking around or go to work or whatever, you look but you don’t really see the things around you. Because you are full of your own thoughts about work etc., you have this continuously operating interior monologue.

What Zen Buddhists call ‘the chattering monkey in your head.’.

Yes, exactly. This chatter affects your sight. For example occasionally I enjoy putting up reproductions of paintings on the walls of my study, knowing full well that after a while they become invisible – because of your daily preoccupations you stop seeing them as you did when you put them up and they effectively become invisible.

The same happens to the landscapes we inhabit: habit destroys them. That’s a central part of my work at the moment. I shot the Invisible City music/film series in various cities like Moscow, St Petersburg, Athens, Los Angeles, New York. In all this work what I’m after is the ‘de-zombification’ of the sensibilities – not to walk through life like a zombie, but to revitalise your senses.

Oserake also looks like a study of the elements: wind, water, ice and sky.

Yes, and it’s a study of how the wilderness comes into the heart of a modern city. 

In Quebec province in the winter of 1998 there was a huge ice storm which lasted for days. The freezing rain caused massive build-ups of ice everywhere, bringing down trees and power lines over a huge area, including the north-east of the US. In Quebec a million households lost electrical power, and over 17,000 refugees had to go to hurriedly prepared shelters which were heated by generators. In cities people suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning because they lit camping stoves in their flats to keep warm. At one point the authorities were within 24 hours of evacuating the entire population of Montreal, as the water pressure for the city was threatening to collapse, and the fire services would have been rendered useless. 

Oserake and The River That Walks.Living in a city where each winter brings an average of three meters of snow, and the occasional ice storm, provokes a sense of insecurity which is largely absent from life in a temperate zone! In Oserake I wanted to express that sense of insecurity by a gradual move to a white-out, a blizzard situation where there is no sense of up or down or any sense of space. On the way to this total abstraction you are not always certain what you are watching – sometimes you wonder are you imagining it? The first part of Oserake is relatively clear in its imagery, but then the architecture starts to blend more and more with the wilderness. Then as the images become more abstract, your perception starts to work in a different way.

Where does the name Oserake come from?

Soon after arriving in Montreal I wanted to find out about its pre-European history. I found out that the First Nation name for the original settlement was Oserake. Apparently it means two things: where the beavers gather, and the place where you spend the winter.

The second meaning was the one I was interested in, though someone said he had seen a beaver in the river part of the work! My wife and I never found the original name of the St Lawrence River, but on the internet she found that the forgotten First Nation name translated as ‘the river that walks,’ which became the title of the second part of the film. 

You shot the film over a period of time?

Sometimes you couldn’t stay out too long, standing still. In minus 38 degrees with the windchill factor you feel pain in your fingers if you remove your gloves for too long, and you have to keep your face covered. 

I ended up with a shooting ratio of about two-to-one. My wife was the technical editor for the film part, and we got its duration down to twenty minutes. The mysterious sound which emerges from the darkness at the beginning was her idea – it really contributes to the unsettling atmosphere that is intended.

But silence also plays an important role, especially in the first part.

Absolutely. I deliberately arranged to have an increasing amount of silence as the film becomes more abstract and it moves from darkness to light. It goes lighter and lighter and becomes just snow. So the brain starts projecting, not just absorbing. At the same time I use synaesthesia.

What is synaesthesia?

It’s the capacity you have for experiencing a simultaneous and involuntary equivalence of one sense with another. It’s as if your different senses are somehow instantaneously connected in your perception. A famous example is the taste of a madeleine sponge cake dipped in tea which released in Proust a flood of memories which led to the writing of his mammoth novel A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Smell, like taste, is also a powerful synaesthetic agent. I remember turning into a street in Basel and smelling a type of baking with cinnamon and cloves which brought back lost memories of my childhood in Innsbruck.

But in Oserake it is the visual-to-sound type of synaesthesia I am working with mostly. This is the sense that you can hear something when you are watching images which move in complete silence. It’s as if your perception compensates for the lack of sound. So when you see the wind whirling the fine powdered snow about, you can almost hear it in your head. It’s an involuntary and simultaneous projection of sound on to the silence of the moving images.

The opposite type of synaesthesia, sound-to-visual, also occurs, especially at the beginning, when the presence of the huge orchestra of violins and ‘cellos almost overwhelms our perception of the images. In The River That Walks both types of synaesthesia function on a more equal level, in an audiovisual counterpoint. 

To do this I have found that you have to work beyond your imagination. I shot the film at the same time as I was composing the music for it. The film and the music were edited at the same time but completely separately. Right up to the point of combining the two equal elements, I had no certainty that they would work together. There is a tremendously nerve-wracking moment when you put the two together for the first time. Very quickly I found what I call the ‘zero point’. This is the exact point at which the music and the film fit together – a fraction of a second on either side of this point and the music and film drift disastrously apart from each other, the counterpoint between them just doesn’t work. I have no idea how you find the zero point – I can only explain that when you are finding it there are so many variables in action that you have to let go of your conscious mind and work beyond the capacity of your imagination. 

What fascinates me is the fact that there is hardly a human being in the film and it’s still mesmerising to look at. Normally a film without any people would bore me rather quickly.

If I had had actors in this film, your experience of it would have been mediated through the actors. I was after something different: the direct connection into the eye and into the ear and outwards. It’s the nearest experience to being there and seeing the ice-flows in the river. In the music you are hearing sounds which were never written down, they are there in the space between the screen and your ear, as well as inside you. 

I composed the music so that the interaction of the chords, and the notes, would produce aural interference patterns which vary with the acoustic of the space in which the music/film is projected. This idea produces a sort of acoustic turbulence which provides a direct link between the experience and the spectator.

It also means that the music exists beyond its normal frame, way beyond the notes in the score. This type of instability, this sense of the frame as being more or less of an extract snatched from a much bigger image, is often found in art from the bigger countries like Russia and the US. Eisenstein also noticed it in jazz, where you get the same sort of ‘all over’ space being used. Stuart Davis’ jazz inspired landscapes certainly have this quality too. And also you get it in the paintings of the American artist Ad Reinhardt. When composing the score for six church organs I became particularly interested in Reinhardt’s late black paintings. These don’t work in reproductions, as they just look black, but in the originals it’s possible to see that he has used various grades of black: orange black, green black, brown black, grey black, etc which overlap. This is like what happens with the overlapping chords of the six organs – you don’t know how many organs there are at any point, as your sense of accurate dimension or scale disappears. The musical surface becomes ambivalent, like the elusive surface of Reinhardt’s black paintings. This is also how I filmed and edited the shots of the river. All sense of scale disappears, what you are projecting on to the image is equal to what you are absorbing from it.

You get in a state of trance, it’s meditative and reflective.

And this is possible because there is a structural backbone which is common to both the visible and the audible structures. This sort of work has only become technically feasible fairly recently.
However I think that sometimes you have to be careful with new technology. The digital revolution, because of the way it functions, provides such a bewildering array of choices that there is a danger of getting lost in the machine. It can be like a labyrinth – you need to know your pathway into it and out of it before you enter. It can also separate you from living and breathing forms – I have always found that what is called ‘virtual reality’ has textures which are very plain, flat and dead, whatever digital sales people will have you believe.

New technologies can provide, but at the same time separate you from vital experiences in other ways. Many people travelling by ‘plane forget the marvel of flight. For them flying has become a habit like commuting. Hence you find them reading blockbusters and watching blockbusters, missing the sometimes marvellous show outside. One spring, on a flight from New York to London I looked out and saw what looked like a massive whitewashed wall lying down below. Gradually cobalt blue cracks appeared in it, then the cracks slowly became wider, until vast flowing swirls of ice floes appeared, which became more and more separated, until the ice diminished to millions of points of white light in a deep blue darkness, like stars on a very clear night.

I remember as a child the train trips south to the French Riviera for the summer holidays. Tarascon was the first stop where you knew you had arrived in the Midi. The light had noticeably become brighter, everyone pulled down the windows, the air was warm and you could hear the loud cicadas for the first time since the previous summer. The smell of pine trees and sunbaked herbs from the garrigue invaded the carriages: this was the true start of the summer vacation. Nowadays you cross Provence in high-speed air-conditioned trains where you can’t open the windows at all! Another example of

What’s the connection between Oserake and your other work?

I suppose that this film is an extension of the idea underlying Invisible City. Concordia University’s film school was intriguingly linked to an art school. This was an interesting experience for me, as I’ve always had strong links with art. Most of the artists were using various media, including film, to depict toys, the human body, and various objects. This is probably going on in art schools the world over.

They were taken aback at my choice of subject. The idea of filming winter appeared really strange to them, almost as if you’d proposed plein air painting to a medieval monk. 

This is another form of invisibility. Except it’s not just to do with the visual, it’s something which has become conceptually invisible too.
Search this site or the web        powered by FreeFind
Site searchWeb search

   Book Reviews | Features | Reviews
    News | About Us