Still is an experimental music-cinema project composed, written and directed by Kyle Johnson. Developed in collaboration with the Qualcomm Institute, the 75-minute work weaves together three dramatic and documentary threads, each focused on its own area of metaphorical implication.
The first thread, Peril, blends actor Mary Glen Frederick's performance with the music of a microtonal brass choir to tell the story of a woman preoccupied.
The second, Transition, juxtaposes a cinema verite portrait of the director’s grandparents with surrealist diversions addressing the tensions they experience deciding when to leave their home of 50 years for an assisted living facility.
The third, Consequence, is a collection of songs which tightly integrate the performance of a speak-singer with densely written percussion music exploring the philosophical and practical implications of commonly held beliefs.
To create Still, I developed the concepts, composed and notated scores to guide the instrumental recording sessions, composed the electronic music, performed the role of the nightclub singer, directed actors, lit and shot the narrative and documentary scenes, mixed and edited the audio, and edited and color graded the film.
Included below are three example scenes from Still, remastered for the web. A written synopsis of the entire piece follows, so that the reader can put those three examples into a broader context.
Example Scene #1:
Meant to Be
Previously in the Peril thread, our main character had tried to address her concern that she might suddenly be unwell by taking a small vacation to nearby mountains. In this scene we find her alone in her hotel room, breathing deeply while listening to passing traffic. Suddenly, a powerful connection is made and she feels intense, powerful calm. The sounds of passing cars are transformed and merge into a microtonal brass choir.
Example Scene #2:
The Ballad of Jackson Greene
The middle song of the Consequence thread, The Ballad of Jackson Greene proposes that we grow tired even of those we love the most. The text, performed with great intensity, is accompanied by a tightly integrated percussion part composed for drum set and auxiliary percussion which frequently synchronizes each vocalized syllable with a percussion gesture.
Example Scene #3:
The final scene of the Transition thread (and the final scene of the work) is Hard Life, named for my grandfather’s joke that “Being a musician’s a hard life.” The scene opens with documentary footage of my grandfather discussing what big band music and ballroom dancing has meant to him throughout his life. Next, he plays a bit of the big band standard “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” for us. Then, as he ends the first phrase, we suddenly hear a bizarrely extended version of the original recording and see footage of a dance my grandparents recently attended. In both the audio and video, small, subtle details are brought forward via digital manipulations creating a surreal distance between what we experience and the original material.
In order for viewers to have a better idea of the context which surrounds the example scenes, a written synopsis of the entire work is provided below.
1 - Peril: Am I Ok?
The piece opens with a scene of dialogue. Our main character absentmindedly makes her breakfast while wondering if she’s ok, and whether she would know if she wasn’t.
2 - Transition: I’m Neil
We meet Neil Madden, my grandfather, as he stands outside of the house he’s lived in since he built it fifty years ago.
3 - Transition: Neil and Sally On Their Porch, Winter
We go inside to find Neil and his wife Sally sitting on their porch. We hear that they’ve carefully collected and arranged all of the items in their house over the course of their lives together. As the scene concludes, we notice that Neil repeatedly shows us the same book, and we see Sally slightly annoyed that she has to put up with his failing memory.
4 - Peril: To be in trouble. Actual Crisis. Danger. Really could go either way.
We find our main character alone in a hotel room. She sits at the edge of the hotel bed, noticeably tense, trying not to move. A tense music of electrical buzzes ebbs and flows around her until she starts to rise. She makes it to her feet, pauses, then suddenly lurches forward.
5 - Transition: Interior
We return to Neil and Sally’s house and their immaculately kept collections. A spacious music of chirping birds swirls around us as we see detailed shots of Neil in his living room.
6 - Peril: Up Into The Mountains
Our main character tells us why she decided to travel into the mountains, and what she found when she arrived.
7 - Transition: Still
We see Neil, now at night, as he opens the wrapper of a small candy. The sounds of the crinkly plastic is, at first, heard faintly as Sally says that she hopes her daughter will take one of their paintings when Neil and Sally move out of their house. As we hear the microwave door close, we are suddenly transported much closer to Neil, and by now the crinkling plastic sounds have been much stronger and more rhythmic. The screen fades to black, as an impressively large wave of crinkles breaks, then recedes, then returns one last time before the scene ends.
8 - Consequence: Baghdad, Spring of 2003
At a recording studio in a Baghdad suburb, the speak-singer Carl and the drummer Fifi perform a song about the nature of belief and what information we can really reliably trust.
9 - Transition: Pills
Sally tells us about all of the different pills she’s taken.
10 - Peril: Again
We return to our main character in her hotel room. She now sits at the table, having a conversation that we can barely make out because the intense music of electrical buzzing has returned. She again rises, steadies herself, and then suddenly lunges.
11 - Consequence: The Ballad of Jackson Greene
Now in a studio in New York City, Carl and Fifi perform their song dedicated to a man who was able to hold his wife’s hand forever.
12 - Transition: Lunch
Briefly, we see Neil chewing his lunch in extreme slow motion. The music of birds, heard previously in his living room, again swirls around us.
13 - Peril: I Felt Like I Was Falling Yesterday
We return to the hotel room, this time in natural light, to hear from our main character as she explores what it is that troubles her.
14 - Transition: The Creek
We follow Neil out to the Creek as he tells us how his small town has changed over the years. Again we hear birds, but where their sounds were incredibly dense before, they are no simple and natural.
15 - Peril: Meant to Be
Again in the hotel room, but things are different. There are no sudden lurches, only a sudden, powerful connection and unfurling of an amazingly powerful microtonal brass choir..
16 - Transition: Dance
Sally has taken us down to their basement to show us around. Quickly though, the topic of conversation turns to their dance club, and then to whether it’s time for them to move to an assisted living facility.
17 - Transition: Deland at Dusk
The final bird chorus arrives as the camera gently moves around Neil and Sally’s town, Deland, at dusk. There’s not a soul in sight.
18 - Transition: Capitol
We say goodbye to Sally as she sits in her porch in the morning, yelling at the TV about whether improvements to the United States Capitol building really need to take so long.
19 - Consequence: Hardee’s
Carl and Fifi perform their final song, this time about the realization that maybe it’s better that we don’t follow our beliefs to their logical conclusions.
20 - Peril: Desert
Our main character delivers a benediction, launching us into a completely new setting: the desert. The music of the desert, whipping and whistling winds assaults us, then sings to us.
21 - Transition: Hard Life
Neil tells us what music and dancing has meant to him throughout his life, then the piece closes with a surreal digital manipulation of a big band standard and iphone footage of a recent dance that Neil and Sally attended.