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Soundscaping: The Art of Snow

Quintessential artist Michael Snow

Michael Snow, solo piano concert at J. Paul Getty Foundation, Los Angeles, April 20, 2005.

Michael Snow is what you might call a quintessential artist. That’s not just because he fits the definition of the word: the pure and concentrated essence, or the most perfect embodiment of something, but also because Snow is essentially an artist and he creates art in at least five (quinte) different media: film, music, sculpture, photography, painting. He also writes, edits, does holography.

One thing he doesn’t do is mix media. He does, however, make films, and he does compose, and he is very interested in the sound-image relationship. “The music is the music, and I don’t really care what it looks like, and I haven’t really gotten involved in doing any visual things that complement it, hardly at all.” In 2006, Snow produced a concert DVD called Reverberlin, admitting, “I have finally made a film/dvd that uses some of the music that the CCMC [The Canadian Creative Music Collective] uses…. It’s the only specific use of my music that I’ve used in my films.” Even though he doesn’t write the soundtracks for his films, he does base the soundtracks on some form of sound improvisation. Snow reveals that “each one of my films involves some kind of concentration on some possibility of sound and music situations.”

Snow’s musical works can be categorized in two areas: his improvisational jazz, and his compositions. The former harkens to his teen years and early adulthood, his period as a “traditional jazz pianist from 1946 to 1958,” and later to his numerous performances and recordings with CCMC—the free jazz ensemble that Snow founded in the 60’s and has been an active member of for the better part of the last three decades. Snow has over twenty jazz albums to his name, and that many again exist as un-issued recordings. In terms of his own work, the solo albums, Musics for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder, Sinons and The Last LP may be counted in the realm of compositions. Snow’s work as a composer grew out of his work in film, where the visual syntax and its structure led him to transpose some of his filmic ideas to unadulterated music.

The Last LP was reissued in 1994 as The Last LP/CD. The album purports to be “unique last recordings of the music of ancient cultures, assembled by Michael Snow.” The notes are detailed and convincing, and according to Snow, the research is authentic, yet on the inside back cover, he gives away the game: the album is 100% pure studio construct. Tibetan monks are not chanting ceremoniously using traditional drones made of human bones; rather Snow is blowing through bits and pieces of copper and plastic tubing, using mouthpieces from trumpets and tubas. “It’s a mock ethnographic recording, but it also honours ethnographic recording for bringing to me and to thousands of other people musics that I otherwise would never have heard.”

Two nights before I interviewed Michael Snow I went to hear him perform a couple of free jazz electronica pieces with Aki Onda and Alan Licht at the Music Gallery in Toronto. Snow turns eighty this year. The man I experienced onstage performed with the formidable energy and physicality of someone literally half his age. Snow seemed lost inside of the art that he was creating. It was not melodious; in fact it seemed rather random, and at times cacophonous, yet it was compelling and a near capacity audience of all ages sat on the edge of their seats for an hour at a time, caught in the same sense of creativity and chaos that Snow describes as “a totally of the moment thing.”

When Snow was in public school, his mother, a highly accomplished amateur pianist herself, signed her son up for piano lessons. “She would say that she was going to come and get me at 3:30 and take me to lessons. I used to hide and tell the other guys not to tell her where I was, so I finally didn’t do it—I wouldn’t do anything really—I was very obstinate, it was ridiculous.” But by the time Snow was in high school, he had what he calls a “revelation experience”: he heard the early Dixieland jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“It just bowled me over, and I really wanted to play like that. So I learned to play the 12-bar blues. I learned about how chords were constructed and harmony, and I learned by means of one of the booklets that was hidden in the piano bench that was left behind by one of the teachers that my mother had tried to get me to take lessons from.” Self-taught, Snow used to practice surreptitiously on the upright in the family’s basement rec room. Snow recounts the time when he was first discovered: “Once I was playing and apparently she [his mother] was there for quite a while listening—and all of sudden she made her presence known and said ‘you’re playing the piano’—and I said ‘yes.’ By that time I was playing in all kinds of bands and stuff, and she didn’t even know.”

I wanted to explore how one creative medium might inform the other, particularly if the jazz improv had an impact on influence over Snow’s visual work. Apparently not. “Except that it’s very stimulating insofar that you encounter different musical formal situations, and in a few minutes the whole thing could get changed by someone deciding the whole thing was becoming a certain type of chord… it’s like you’re in a process of thought which keeps on having surprising openings. I think that’s just stimulating in general. I can’t think of any particular way that it’s affected my visual stuff.”

Snow still carries a humility that borders on naivety with respect to his own abundant artistic talents. He garnered the prestigious art prize from Upper Canada College. “That surprised me, and on the basis of it, I decided to study art. I didn’t know what they were talking about really, but I had to trust their expertise, and apparently I was interested in art—whatever that was….” Snow encountered a mentor while at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), a teacher named John Martin, who encouraged his sense of originality, and fuelled his passion to create outside of the “prescribed assignments.” Martin ultimately facilitated Snow’s exhibiting two paintings with the Ontario Society of Artists, a coup for the times, as no student had ever been accepted before.

After OCA, Snow worked for a year in advertising. “I was very terrible at it, and I was very depressed.” Like many other rebellious spirited young people at the time, Snow pulled his savings together—$300—and hitchhiked around Europe, playing in various pickup bands and sketching scenes wherever he went. Upon returning to Toronto, Snow mounted a show of his European drawings, and again, much to his surprise, an outside expert spotted his innate talent.

“I got a phone call from someone that I didn’t know who said that he was very impressed by the drawings. He thought that whoever had done them must be someone who is interested in the movies—and I said, that’s not true.” At the time, television was hardly prevalent, and Snow didn’t really go to the movies. The man who spotted Snow’s drawing ability was animator George Dunning, who later directed the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. He set Snow up in his animation studio—where he met his first wife, Joyce Wieland—and gave him access to the equipment during downtimes.

“That’s when I made my first film. I was able to make something that didn’t have anything to do with the work that we were doing—cut-out animation, moving parts of a drawing in each shot. What got to me was coming to it from the inside—this is how they are made, one picture after another. So that’s how I got involved in film. My historical knowledge is pretty limited. I got interested in it from the inside out.”

Snow described to me the various areas for exploration that compelled him to create his series of “camera motion” films. “It’s some special aspect of the medium that I wanted to foreground.” Compounded with Snow’s aesthetic rigour is an almost scientific framework that sets out a specific thesis of inquiry for each film.

Wavelength explores a zoom over 45 minutes; Seated Figures is a shot with a camera placed at the back of his truck pointing to the ground, studying different surfaces and textures; Presents is an hour of hand-held pans where Snow followed the movement or a shape with the camera, a series of responses to something moving in the world; La Region Centrale is a 3-hour landscape film, where Snow wanted to use the camera in circular and elliptical movements simultaneously, which caused him to have a camera designed and created for that specific purpose. In each of these film studies, Snow’s carefully conceived curiosity drove him “just to find out what happens, and to try and do something that really comes from a consideration of the means that are making it.”

Although Snow resists the notion that one art form informs the other, he does admit to holding a guiding principle across all art forms: “I do tend to concentrate on some particular principle in each thing that I do—so they do have a certain purity.”

Michael Snow, Chords, 1973, offset lithograph, 61 × 61 cm

I asked Snow if he’d ever made a “normal film.” Snow quickly caught onto the subtext of there being a film with a narrative that tells a story, with a beginning, middle and end. “Some people say that there is some kind of narrative aspect in my films, even though it’s largely inadvertent. So I thought, well I never have tried telling a story in my films, maybe I should try.” Snow’s most recent film, SSHTOORRTY is the superimposition of Short and Story. It’s a 3-minute loop that tells the story of a love triangle fraught with intrigue, in Farsi, with English subtitles. The film is constructed from two pans. Snow orchestrated the colours and the images so that pieces of the film were superimposed on each other. So much for “normal.”

On the flip side, Snow’s photographic work did spring from his visual art. Film—his first, at Dunning’s studio was in 1956—came before photography, which started in 1962. His iconic Walking Woman and the myriad spin-offs and experimentation with the same basic cut-out figure, led Snow to stage and photograph the life-size, two-dimensional sculptures in various settings in early ’60s New York. This photographic work spurred Snow onto what has become his largest body of work, easily numbering in the double digit thousands.

Snow’s public art sculpture and installations famously include Toronto Eaton Centre’s longtime feathered friends in Flight Stop —a set of Canada geese that, for decades, have hovered with nationalist zeal above capitalist-crazed shoppers. Those geese were my introduction to Michael Snow when I came to Toronto in 1987. Earlier, in 1982, Snow had taken on the corporate monster, and won. He successfully argued in court that Eaton Centre was in violation of his moral rights when they adorned the geese’s necks with Christmas ribbons.

Snow still carries his disgruntlement over a less successful run-in with a different corporate animal. This time the incident involved the recently deceased Ted Rogers. Snow had been commissioned by the City of Toronto to create a sculpture for the corner of Mount Pleasant, Bloor Street East, and Jarvis. Installed in 1992, Red Orange and Green was based on the idea that “driving by would be an interesting view because it would be like a flip book, and you’d see a page as you drive by—three planes intersecting.” After Confederation Life went under and Rogers took over the building in 1994, Snow was informed that the piece had been moved. Undaunted, Snow met face to face with Ted Rogers in an effort to explain to him the subtleties of his art in context. “I said, ‘you know it was made for that corner; it has references to the building behind it—it’s not something that you can put anywhere’—and he said, ‘Isn’t that interesting? I didn’t know that. But a lot of people like it where it is.’—I didn’t get anywhere.” Red Orange and Green’s new home is in the Rogers courtyard, and you can just see the top of it as you come down Mount Pleasant.

In 1989, Snow’s commissioned sculpture, The Audience, was installed at two of the corners of the then Skydome in Toronto. Humour intact, Snow’s comment was, “Then the next thing I heard was that Rogers had bought the Skydome, and I thought—there goes The Audience. My nemesis.”

Snow is currently working on a commission for Toronto’s fabled Trump Tower. It’s a joint initiative with Scottish lighting designer Jonathan Speirs. They are creating a light installation that will “snake” 280 metres of the skyscraper.

When I asked Snow how he defines his art, he really couldn’t say. In fact he really couldn’t say what art is. Snow is nearing his 80th birthday, and after spending an afternoon chatting with him in his Annex home, I left thinking that Michael Snow IS art, and that the two are really one and the same. So, one might say Michael Snow “embodies” art, in a quintessential manner.

When asked if there is anything else left that he’d like to try, he paused and responded that that was kind of an odd question and he’d have to think about it. Then Michael Snow chuckled and quickly added, “I guess if I think of that, I’ll probably just do it.”