Before becoming involved in the movie business, I had preconceived notions of what “avant-garde” films were. I didn’t really know much about them and had only seen one in a film class during my first years of college. Little did I know, avant-garde films would become some of the most important creative work that I would do.
Avant-garde cinema explores alternatives to traditional methods of filmmaking as well as forgoing traditional narratives. Examples of this can be experimenting with the editing of visuals or audio, filming techniques, and of course having a narrative that is bizarre or surreal. The same can be said about avant-garde or experimental music itself. Avant-garde music explores alternative ways of making music, blending characteristics of genres, using instruments you wouldn’t normally use for a certain genre or style of music, and may even go as far as using various elements to complete a musical piece.
Using Genres Outside of the Norm
One of my earlier films, Kairos Dirt & the Errant Vacuum, is a perfect example of an experimental film using music in an unconventional way to create a multi-dimensional world. Kairos Dirt is an avant-garde/fantasy film about a group of misfits that come in contact with an otherworldly apparition through extraordinary dreamscapes. If you had a chance to see the film, you would have expected us to use more score than pre-existing music. But the director decided he wanted to create a soundtrack with a mixer of music from the 1920s and music from the 1960s, along with a sprinkle of contemporary bluegrass and folk music. Because of these musical choices, we were able to create a soundtrack that contributed to the multi-dimensional world that was created. The music helped us create a feeling that time travel was possible. It also helped to tell the story of the main characters and how they were regular people who each felt out of place in their worlds (as we all do from time to time).
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Experimental or avant-garde music isn’t about being creative with instrumentation, sound design, and music production. It’s very much about the creative process itself. This type of music calls for someone who can release their inhibitions while creating and allowing oneself to try anything.
An avant-garde feature film that I’ve been working on for a few years now is a perfect example of how experimental music can be as much about the creative process as it is about the musical elements themselves. It’s a silent film about a lovelorn man with an extraordinary inner life who experienced a life-changing event after two tumultuous days. Being a silent film, the music is, of course, more crucial and more of a character itself than it would be under regular circumstances.
What’s interesting about this film (even more than the fact that it’s a silent film) is what we’ve done creatively on the project. The director’s approach to creating the soundtrack to the film has been totally unique from anyone that I’ve worked with so far. He’s encouraged the music team to check their conventional ways of creating at the door and to embrace experimentation. One example of this was a track we produced that was derivative of something in the temp track. Then we took that derivative, took out certain chunks and edited them into different places, added some sound design elements as well as extra instrumental elements and created something that told the story of someone going on a journey. This was exactly what the scene needed since the main character was doing the same thing in the scene where the track is playing over, sharing an experience with someone that he has admired from afar and who he would have never thought he would get to share an experience with, let alone one like the one they’re having in this scene.
I highly encourage people to contribute to an avant-garde project at least one time in their careers. I believe any project, good or bad, can make you better at what you do. Avant-garde films allow you to work that creative muscle and let you enjoy getting lost in the creative process.