a column by
Ross Sea, Antarctica Henry Kaiser©2009
In an interview with Jonathan Demme included among the extras in the DVD set of Werner Herzog’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Encounters at the End of the World (Discovery Films/Image Entertainment), the Bavarian filmmaker describes the much-discussed sequence in Aguirre, the Wrath of God – the tone-setting, uncomfortably time-consuming shot of the raging river that ultimately claims the Conquistadors, followed by a tighter, equally long shot of the violent waters – as a preparation for the incredible things to come. This image is emblematic of a theme that runs through Herzog’s other ‘70s films examining imperialism’s confrontations with the wild, which informs even seemingly benign shots of the riverboat rounding the big, sweeping bends in the calm river in Fitzcarraldo: Nature sets the terms – there are no terms.
Herzog opens Encounters with such a sequence. A diver illuminates an ice stalactite with a large flashlight underneath the ice sheet covering the Ross Sea in Antarctica, while a men’s chorus sings Russian liturgical music. The underwater equivalent of a floating Kubrick trucking shot follows: dappled sunlight penetrates the ice, revealing royal blue waters and a gray seabed; it is strangely reminiscent of early American landscape paintings, where distant clouds are made more portentous by the purples and yellows created by the sun’s angled rays as they move in over the pristine valleys and mountains. The disarming air of tranquility of this extreme environment is broken when Herzog suddenly cuts to a shot of the descending cargo plane carrying him and his crew. However, unlike the Conquistadors of Aguirre, the opera obsessed, would-be rubber magnate of Fitzcarraldo, and the slavers of Cobra Verde, Herzog’s expedition sought knowledge, not plunder.
Herzog’s Antarctic quest was inspired in large measure by Henry Kaiser’s work as an underwater videographer, and was brought to screens both big and small by Kaiser’s acumen as a film producer (as have two prior Herzog docs, Grizzly Man and The Wild Blue Yonder). Having spent two previous seasons in Antarctica, Kaiser knew the territory and mapped out Herzog’s itinerary for interviewing the vast spectrum of scientists working in Antarctica, including biologists testing seals’ milk and a volcanologist taking readings from a vent to the planet’s core. Subsequently, Kaiser’s underwater footage provided the strange beauty that is an essential ingredient to a Herzog film, while his advance work facilitated the avuncular curiosity permeating Herzog’s narration and on-camera interviews. Equally important in setting the film’s otherworldy tone is Kaiser and David Lindley’s original music. Improvised while the duo watched the footage, the music frequently is largely based on folk idioms, a surprising choice for someone as adept with abstraction as Kaiser. Spanning doleful dirges and spritely dances, the interludes have the requisite starkness for the film, due in part to their brevity and in part to the vinegary bite of the playing, particularly Lindley’s fiddle.
Despite how well both Kaiser’s underwater footage and the duo’s music work within the context of Herzog’s film, one is left wanting much more of both. Fortunately, Kaiser’s Below the Ice is included among the DVD extras, a 36-minute excursion through this largely unknown and wondrous biosphere that is more science fiction and Joshua Light Show than Nat Geo. Though there is some additional photography by Rob Robbins, this can be considered a solo work, as it is shot and edited by Kaiser, and the soundtrack features the guitarist improvising alone. Some films are entrancing and some are thought-provoking, but very few are both as intensely as Below the Ice. For some reason, an image of the opera company from the end of Fitzcarraldo came to mind while watching the film. Steaming upriver into the Amazon in a small armada of boats, the tuxedoed orchestra and the costumed cast performed the rousing climax to Bellini’s I Puritani, a serrated commentary about cultural imperialism built upon an earlier scene in which the protagonist plays 78s of Caruso as his boat glides deeper in the jungle. It suggests that art represents merely the most fanciful and loftiest values European imperialists imposed upon the rest of the world.
To date, only data has been extracted from Antarctica (just wait until they find oil). Scientists can only observe and analyze a Texas-sized iceberg floating northward or a disoriented penguin waddling towards the interior and its doom. Kaiser has taken an additional step. By coupling his images with improvised music, Kaiser creates a juxtaposition of two contexts of time that are – ahem – polar opposites; the biosystem chronicled by Kaiser was ages in the making, while the music required only the moment of its making. It articulates rather than measures, connecting an insular, presumably inaudible world with the rare hybrid of post-industrial aesthetics encoded into Kaiser’s improvisations. Just as it is hard for persons of a vintage not to hear “The Blue Danube” whenever they see moving or still images taken in space, so too will it be difficult for viewers of Beneath the Ice not to think of Kaiser’s iridescent sonic textures whenever they subsequently see pictures or footage of Medusa jellyfish, featherduster worms or dorid nudibranches.
Kaiser’s film is engaging even without the music. Still, the music provides an epistemological framework that deepens the experience of the environment for an unqualified audience. One reason that Kaiser’s music is affecting – thus making it part and parcel of the viewer’s discovery of this world – is that has none of the explicit cultural baggage that the Russian choral music brings to Encounters at the End of the World. Despite Herzog’s pointed critique of imperialism, he nevertheless has a Eurocentric perspective, albeit an ethical, socially responsible, politically correct one. Yet, he could have made a similar impact with a recording of throat-singing Buddhist monks. This speaks to the fundamental difference in the sensibilities driving the two films. Herzog’s is as much about the people studying and documenting Antarctica – and his reactions to them – as it is about the place itself; Kaiser’s is about the direct experience of an extreme environment and the subsequent processing of it through improvising.
At first, there’s an initial blaring cognitive dissonance to the idea that Kaiser is an expert under-ice diver, one sufficiently driven to forego the Oscars so that he could hone his chops under the frozen St. Lawrence River. His descriptions of the equipment, training and discipline the endeavor requires are riveting; his argument that the first biosphere formed under ice instead of warm waters is equally engaging. Yet, it is difficult to square this aspect of Kaiser with the maverick improviser, unabashed noisemaker and flame-keeper of both Miles’ electric legacy and Albert Ayler’s maligned last forays into R&B. The widely different pursuits do share an aspect of gestalt, an existential encounter, even though the respective consequences of failure are radically different. Unlike improvising, nothing can be left to chance under the ice; a lot can go wrong and most of it can kill you
Many musicians acknowledge the allure of risk, if not outright danger in free improvisation. Perhaps this factored into Kaiser’s thinking at some level when he titled first album Ice Death (1977; Parachute). Regardless, Kaiser dives into the unknown depths of the moment whenever he improvises; his discography is brimming with example on albums like Lemon Fish Tweezer (1992: Cuneiform) and his homage to Derek Bailey, Domo Arigato Derek-Sensei! (2006; Balance Point Acoustics). His music confirms a fundamental truth: Just as Nature sets the terms at the bottom of the Ross Sea, the moment sets the terms in improvisation – there are no terms.