At the first Chicago Ear and Eye Control six years ago, Ken Vandermark and several musicians substituted their own improvised music for the original sound track of Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo. Shortly afterward a woman wrote Vandermark what he calls “my first hate letter.”

“Her perspective was that Yojimbo was a classic, a great piece of art, and to take the sound track off is to alter that. She thought doing so was an insult to Kurosawa–among other things.”

Now Vandermark has resurrected Chicago Ear and Eye Control (the title refers to a 1964 Michael Snow film with a sound track of improvised music). This time he wants to be clear about his intentions: “The musicians will not accompany the film literally, but they won’t be acting independently either. What we’re trying to do is kind of like what John Cage and Merce Cunningham were doing, running things parallel to each other, with each not really aware of the other’s work until the moment of performance. People in the audience will make connections between visual and sonic elements that weren’t intended to be there. And that’s interesting to me.”

For tonight’s program, the first of three in the series, Vandermark (on reeds) will be part of a “traditional jazz lineup” improvising to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic, Breathless. “I wanted to use something foreign, so that if somebody wanted to follow the narrative they could,” Vandermark says, referring to the film’s subtitles. He also expects “coincidental things” to occur between the music and the narrative: “I haven’t seen Breathless for 15 years, so I don’t remember it well enough to plan something specific.”

Vandermark was introduced to avant-garde film as a student at Montreal’s McGill University in the 1980s. He remembers Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer, a film consisting entirely of images of solid black or white and a sound track of either white noise or silence, as “leaving an indelible mark. My awareness of what you could do with minimal elements was different after that picture.” He also loved the collage films of Bruce Conner: “There’s not one story being told, or one view, but all these different things–he’s playing on viewer expectations. In a lot of ways this is what improvised music is about. A lot of it is about surprise, the sound of surprise.”

The series arose out of discussions between Vandermark and filmmaker and Columbia College film professor Paula Froehle. An installation artist in the 80s, Froehle often used film and video projections in her pieces, trying in part to re-create the sense of being “enveloped by picture and sound,” which she remembers experiencing as one of nine children crammed into a car when her family went to the drive-in. She’s now a partner in Atavistic, an independent label that has released some of Vandermark’s CDs.

“To me part of the impetus behind Chicago Eye and Ear Control is a kind of willingness to be enveloped,” she says. “But I’m also interested in seeing the kind of collision that occurs. I’m looking for that kind of creative spark that I hope culminates in the last evening,” which will consist of about 30 short films, made or supplied specifically for the event. The 30 filmmakers were chosen by Froehle and Chicago Filmmakers programmer Patrick Friel.

Froehle is working on a film of found footage for the final program that’s also “a kind of farewell to my optical printer,” a high-quality 1,000-pound behemoth that she recently sold. She’s planning to include “abrupt changes,” to parallel what she expects to be “the ebb and flow” of the music.

“One thing that interests me about Ken’s music is that there’s an immediacy and sense of chance, a spark. I think I’ve been feeling a bit stagnated and restricted in working with film because of how long the process takes for me. I see this as a chance to bring back spontaneity.”

Chicago Ear and Eye Control begins tonight with Breathless, continues with a program of animation from 1917 to 1975 on January 28, and concludes with the new films on February 11. All programs start at 8 in Columbia College’s Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan. Admission is $6; call 773-293-1447 for more information.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.