Though distinguished by native tongue and nationality—not to mention nearly a century—filmmaker Dziga Vertov and musician Spencer Wirth-Davis have a lot more in common than might be immediately apparent. One is a legend of his craft, a technical pioneer whose kinetic stylized montage influenced the course of cinema, while the other boasts a comparatively modest resume, as one of the more prolific and sought after beatmakers in the Twin Cities. Yet their equally innovative methodologies demonstrate a shared spirit of formal experimentation, a patient willingness to seek out the most elemental, potent iteration of their chosen craft. A veteran of the Twin Cities hip-hop scene who makes instrumentals under the name Big Cats, Wirth-Davis will perform his original score to Vertov’s silent ode to city living Man with a Movie Camera on August 22, in the final installment of the Walker’s Summer Music & Movies 2016: Living on Video series (local punk favorites Bruise Violet will open the outdoor event in Loring Park). Although the two artists work in different media, their output is more than complementary. Rather, their pairing marks a strange sort of cosmic collision, a meeting of two artists whose practices speak in eerie parallel and attest to the enduring questions confronted by one making art in an increasingly technologized world.
Born Denis Kaufman in the city of Bialystok in the Russian Empire (located in modern day Poland), Dziga Vertov adopted his professional name (the surname derived from the Ukrainian verb “to spin” and the given name an onomatopoeia referring to the noise of a camera crank turning) shortly before becoming a filmmaker. As Vertov described it in remarks to the Association of Workers in Revolutionary Cinematography in 1934, his first encounter with filmmaking came not as a director, but as an actor. In a short clip shot outside of a Moscow summer home, Vertov jumped one-and-a-half stories from the top of a grotto to the ground below. He described his amazement, upon later watching the footage, at how the scene, shot in relative close-up, provided a hyper-detailed study of the moment’s emotional minutiae: in turn revealing fear, indecision, resolution, and, finally, surprised self-satisfaction, as the actor prepared for and successfully completed his leap. Seduced by this quality of representational precision, Vertov embraced a seemingly paradoxical approach to art-making in which effect and technical manipulation were treated as tools to be used in the service of realism, the mode in which Vertov believed the cinema enjoyed a particularly privileged position.
Accordingly, Man with a Movie Camera delivers a bounty of special effects, which although no longer novel, still stir up an easy feeling of wonder when paired with Vertov’s images—unstaged, everyday vignettes, in settings ranging from the city street to the movie house. Split screen and double exposure create kaleidoscopic cityscapes and action-filled visual collages; slow motion grants athletic feats awe-inspiring clarity; stop motion animates a movie camera, extending its legs to totter around the screen before settling down to the ground like a dog to sleep.
Yet the defining stance of Vertov’s career—and equally the conceptual impulse that brings it into dialogue with Wirth-Davis’s work—was his antipathy to cinematic narrative conventions. Part of the core cohort associated with the seminal period of Soviet cinema—alongside the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin—Vertov’s first filmmaking experience came producing newsreel propaganda in support of the Red forces during the Russian Civil War, a practice that continued following the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. In ’22 and ’23, Vertov published a series of manifestos, calling for a revolutionary cinema to match the nation’s new social order: one purged of “foreign matter—of music, literature, and theater.” This fundamentally socialist project advocated a specific model of documentary filmmaking, termed “Kino-eye” by Vertov and the other members of the “Council of Three” (Vertov’s wife, the film editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman). Rejecting the narrative and psychological forms inherited from literary precedent, with Kino-eye Vertov sought to create a more perfect record of real life—a goal he considered only possible through the medium of film, with its capacity for capturing the lived moments of regular citizens from across the Soviet state.
“Kino-eye plunges into the seeming chaos of life to find in life itself the response to an assigned theme,” Vertov wrote in the 1929 essay “From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye.” “To find the resultant force amongst the million phenomena related to the given theme. To edit; to wrest, through the camera, whatever is most typical, most useful, from life; to organize the film pieces wrested from life into a meaningful rhythmic visual order, a meaningful visual phrase, an essence of ‘I see.’” In the wide-eyed early years of cinema, this goal was more than symbolic. In “WE: Variant of a Manifesto,” published in 1922, the “kinoks”—as Kino-eye’s acolytes referred to themselves—stated a lofty intention: finding a “film scale” by which to “organiz[e] the necessary movements of objects in space as a rhythmical artistic whole.”
While the kinoks arguably never realized such a scale, Man with a Movie Camera’s metered approach to montage is surely as close as they came. Vertov’s last silent feature, the film did not use the intertitles that were typical of the era, fully committing itself to a steady visual rhythm that suggests nearly beat-by-beat tracking for a would-be accompanist (indeed, live accompaniment was entirely the norm in this era of silent film). Funded by the state-sponsored Ukrainian film studio VUFKO and shot in various cities throughout the Soviet republics, the film depicts a day in the life of the proletariat denizens of the newly created state, Vertov’s fast-paced editing careening from setting to setting according to free-associative symbolic or visual links. Thus, a scene of a shampoo bath in a hair salon abruptly cuts to a woman washing laundry outdoors in a tub. This transitions to a shot of the lathered neck of a barbershop patron before the barber’s straight razor is replaced by an axe-blade being sharpened in close-up on a stone wheel. The images are deliberately quotidian, dated by their time and place, but striking in their naturalism (the kinoks placed a premium on realism in their filmed images, employing techniques ranging from a hidden camera to subject distraction to catch their “players” unawares). Athletes in action, crowds milling about in the street, bathers lazing casually along the seashore. Even as his subjects approach more existentially weighty territory—with stops in marriage and divorce courts; footage of a young man being loaded into an ambulance, seemingly mortally injured; even an onscreen birth—Vertov’s evasion of narrative and his and Svilova’s dynamic approach in the editing room retain the flesh-and-blood realism of the lives depicted on screen, the clumsy novelty and indelible hopefulness of a swiftly modernizing world.
If Dziga Vertov imagined a cinema for the future, that future is assuredly Spencer Wirth-Davis’s present. Though the political promise of the Soviet Union slowly devolved, leading to its dissolution in 1991, Vertov’s radical aesthetic vision proved prescient of contemporary trends in art and technology—particularly in Big Cats’s chosen field of hip-hop.
Hip-hop has always been a technology-driven musical genre. One finds its origins in the manual vinyl effects of dance party DJs in 1970s Bronx, New York, who employed twin turntables to blend and extend the drum breaks in funk, R&B, and disco records. With the introduction of samplers, drum machines, and increasingly sophisticated scratching and mixing techniques, hip-hop production quickly evolved from this party scene into a coherent genre in its own right, characterized by its complexly layered sonic collages. More recently, popular access to the internet, coupled with the widespread availability of laptop production software, have made it increasingly easy for artists to make and release music, letting seemingly niche acts like Odd Future and Lil B (among so many others) gain a toehold in the musical mainstream.
Big Cats’s transformation from hip-hop fan to working producer follows a similar trajectory. Though he had studied music from a young age—playing the bass in youth orchestras and jazz bands from age nine through high school—Wirth-Davis’s interests began to shift when he discovered hip-hop in his early teens, initially through the Bay Area turntablist group Invisibl Skratch Piklz, which he found on the internet. Piqued by the group’s sound, he began to explore the hip-hop community that had quietly started to gestate in the Twin Cities during the ’90s and early 2000s, centered on the Rhymesayers Entertainment record label. Immediately interested in the craft of turntablism, Wirth-Davis found inspiration in locals like DJ Abilities and his various emcee affiliates (Eyedea, Slug, et al). It was out of this creative community that Wirth-Davis’s first major hip-hop project, The Tribe & Big Cats!, took shape. Having graduated from the turntable set to the MPC, Wirth-Davis teamed up with local rapper TruthBe Told to put out a series of releases in 2010 and ’11 that coupled lush samples with nimble, biographical raps.
Throughout his affiliation with The Tribe & Big Cats!, Wirth-Davis maintained a traditional approach to production, in which short clips of music are lifted from other artists’ records and looped to create a repeating musical pattern, complemented by drum tracks and instrumentals. But when he was named the recipient of a sizable McKnight Artist Fellowship in 2011, he chose a different technique for the resulting record, For My Mother, released the following year. Tapping into his background in classical music and jazz, Wirth-Davis wrote a series of original compositions, which were then recorded in studio sessions involving more than a dozen musicians on live instruments. Approaching the resulting masters as he would another artist’s record, Wirth-Davis assembled the final album from samples extracted from these studio sessions. The final work inhabited a space of conceptual tension, with its deliberate composition and instrumentation process yielding a mass of material that was immediately put under the blade, becoming the raw ingredients of software-assembled electronic loops. It’s a process he has since repeated, both for solo projects and collaborations with rappers Toki Wright and Homeless, with an increasing emphasis on organic, improvised instrumentation, rather than the more structured—and more expensive—studio sessions of For My Mother.
“This process, once I did it, made a lot more sense for me. Having a background as a musician, knowing and working with a lot of musicians, this actually ended up giving me a lot more freedom than sampling other people’s work,” Big Cats said before a recent gig at First Avenue’s 7th St. Entry, opening for D.C.-based rapper Oddisee.
“If I have 30 minutes of sample material to pull from that’s all in the same vein or around the same idea, that gives me a lot more to work with than if I have these three seconds that I’m going to pull from a record,” he added.
Out of these sessions, featuring a fairly stable roster of musicians, including Eric Mayson, Lydia Liza, Nelson Devereaux, and Miguel Hurtado, Big Cats builds instrumentals that are both atmospheric and percussive, naturally suited to scoring a film (especially one as saturated with the mechanical rhythms of industry and transportation as Man with a Movie Camera). Today, Wirth-Davis’s sound is as indebted to the classical, jazz, and rock music he studied and played growing up as it is to the hip-hop culture he discovered as a teenager. Noting the repetitive quality inherent to classically sampled hip-hop production, Wirth-Davis aspires to make sampled music of a greater tonal range than is typical of the genre, creating soundscapes that match the sonic peaks and valleys of a film score. Samples drop in and out of the mix with regularity, and his music is stretched temporally, relative to most hip-hop production: its emotional peaks and valleys arriving minutes apart, rather than landing repeatedly within a sample that stretches for only a few seconds before it is looped.
“It’s okay to have quieter moments and it’s okay to have moments where there’s not necessarily a lot going on. But then to couple that with really loud, in your face, bass-heavy, energetic moments,” Wirth-Davis said. “Watching a film, you’re going to have moments where the music is barely there, and it’s just a bed under whatever’s happening. And then you’re going to have moments where the music really needs to accent whatever’s happening in that scene.”
While for Wirth-Davis, this method has more to do with function than theory, his experimentation with sampling processes provides an interesting contemporary counterpart to Vertov’s Kino-eye, a conceptual stance that championed authenticity in an art medium built upon a foundation of illusion. Vertov’s film craft strategy was rooted in the voracious documentation of “unstaged” life, an amassing of exhibits for eventual deployment in the examination of an “assigned theme,” a topic to be approached through direct examples—a sort of visual sampling—which, when strategically compiled through effect and editing, create a rhythmic approximation of a thing with its own visual logic. Big Cats’s plan for his Man with a Movie Camera score is strikingly similar: acclimate to the mood and rhythm of the film, assemble his team of studio improvisers, and, finally, write and experiment his way to a trove of raw musical footage to be whittled down into a series of perfect loops.
What’s striking about these two artists is their peculiar, even paradoxical, commitment to the “real” in their art—the lengths to which each is willing to travel in the interest of capturing his version of truth, even as their very methods seem to undermine such a pursuit. Vertov decries the illusive conventions of narrative, but peppers his films with indulgent visual spectacle. In the sound films that he made during the latter part of his career, he advocated an “unstaged sound” to match his “unstaged cinema,” lugging audio recording equipment into the field along with his cameras to capture the true sounds of his socialist subjects. Yet he made no argument as to coupling that sound with the onscreen image, allowing for both synchronous and asynchronous audiovisual pairings—the latter a jarring interruption to cinema’s seemingly objective eye. Meanwhile, Big Cats places a premium on improvisation and instrumentation in a genre built on the artificial repetition of extant material, building electronic tracks out of live improvisation, only to take them apart again in largely unrehearsed concerts featuring a set of musicians endlessly reimagining their own sampled selves. He chooses the total freedom of composition, yet remains loyal to the stylistic and sonic tropes of vinyl sampling (preferring, for example, to sample full band mixes, rather than single instruments, to retain the accidental “artifacts” that arrive as passengers of a sampled melody or drum part—a traditional, but now unnecessary, textural quality of classic hip-hop production).
These may seem like impossible positions to assimilate, and perhaps they are. Yet, in a cultural landscape where musical pitch-correction technology serves to distort vocals rather than polish them and the source of record of our contemporary social lives comes with a built-in set of artificial photo filters, their work strikes a transcendent tone. In a world where parole officers play drug lords on wax and our children’s most vivid coming of age narratives play out in picturebook tableaux, one finds terms like “real” and “artificial” to be equally apt descriptors of the same phenomena.
On August 22, Big Cats and company will improvise their way through an unrepeatable series of repeated loops, one of an infinite set of variations on a composed score that will only ever exist live. An unstaged event—as Vertov would have it.