If you’ve seen Poliça, Gayngs, or Marijuana Deathsquads perform, you may have noticed a shadowy character standing stage side, conducting the music with focused anger. Ryan Olson is this faceless figure, and on Thursday, August 17, he will debut his new commission with Marijuana Deathsquads for Walker’s Sound for Silents: Film & Music on the Walker Hillside—one that Olson promises will be “violently cacophonous, serene, and ambient.”1
For Olson’s new commission, Marijuana Deathsquads—an ever-changing Minneapolis based noise band consisting of drums, guitars, vocals, and electronics—will perform with avant-garde films from the 1920s by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and René Clair. These three artists created some of the first experiments in the abstract multidimensional capacity of moving image, playing with non-narrative structures, breaking the rules of cinema and art, and railing against the status quo. These enigmatic pioneers in early artist film were risk-takers—and often times controversial, which could explain what drew Olson to their work when selecting films for this new film and music commission.
Like Richter, Eggeling, and Clair, as well as other avant-gardists and Dadaists from early last century, Olson is anti-art. Not opposed to, but working against presumptions and what has gone before: questioning, challenging, and not following convention. Marijuana Deathsquads has origins in improvisational music, Olson explains, though he doesn’t fully embrace the improv strategy, comparing it to “a missed connections page in the newspaper.” Instead, he works within the sphere of improvisation, embracing loose open-endedness with the band formation and welcoming moments of spontaneity by the players. Yet, paradoxically, he constructs precise compositions that are woven into the performance. He explains, “The goal is to create an improvised music that isn’t ambling and that can be a pop song if it wants to be—a form of controlled improv.” Olson uses a set of gestures, signs, and codes to lead the band, and through a central computer system he controls the sound in order to “stay on track, take a right turn when needed, or stop on a dime,” always ensuring each performer is on the same page.
Olson’s precisely planned and formulaic approach is unmistakably similar to the early collaborative work of Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling, who for many years painstakingly researched, formulated, and mapped out how to solve the questions of representing the static nature of painting by the dynamic character of film. With an emphasis on objective analysis rather than expressiveness, both initially reduced art to simple elemental units of design, to rectangular surfaces (Richter) and linear notations (Eggeling), in order to rhythmically articulate the surfaces. Often referencing musical compositions directly in titles such as Rhythmus 21, Rhythmus 23, and Symphonie diagonal, Hans Richter further describes the relationship between visual and musical: “For both of us, music became the model. In musical counterpoint, we found a principle which fitted our philosophy: every action produces a corresponding reaction. This, in the contrapuntal fugue, we found the appropriate system, a dynamic and polar arrangement of opposing energies, and in this model we saw an image of life itself: one thing growing, another declining, in a creative marriage of contrast and analogy.”2 It was Richter’s first films, Rhythmus 21 (1921) and Rhythmus 23 (1923), which have a mechanical, almost metronomic tempo that initially piqued Olson’s interest. “What I really liked about these films were the hard on/off cuts and quick edits. Brutally shocking. I felt that we could sonically do the same thing: Jar people the same way the films did a long time ago.”
Following these early experimental films, Olson selected films from later in Richter’s career—Ghosts Before Breakfast (Vormittagsspuk) (1928), Inflation (1927–28), Race Symphony (Rennsymphonie) (1928–29), Two Pence Magic (Zweigroschenzauber) (1928–29), and Everything Turns, Everything Revolves (Alles drect sich, all bewegt sich) (1929)—that explore more lively rhythms of cinema and illogical worlds of imagination. While this later work initially seems like a visual paradox to the early minimal abstractions that intrigued Olson, the playful and absurd expressions relate to another core value of Marijuana Deathsquads: to have a community to share free original creative thought. “It’s so much about play and mischief, a disruption of stability,” explains Olson. Mostly the band members all have other major music projects, with players in popular groups such as Bon Iver, Hippo Campus, the Pines, and Poliça. Each major commitment perhaps makes the relevance for experimentation in Marijuana Deathsquads more appealing, fun, and unique.
It’s with this in mind that Olson’s final film choice, Entr’act, a 1924 French short film directed by René Clair and written by Francis Picabia, is a clear choice for the commission. The film consists of a series of humorous gags: Picabia “hosing down” Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray’s game of chess on a rooftop; a dancing ballerina filmed from underneath, only to be revealed as a bearded man; a huntsman shooting an ostrich egg, only to be shot himself; a funeral hearse drawn by a camel, concluding with a chase of a funeral procession after the hearse.3 As suggested by Picabia, who wrote about the film, “Entr’act does not believe in very much, in the pleasure of life perhaps; it believes in the pleasure of inventing, it respects nothing except the desire to burst out laughing.”4
René Clair playfully explores the full potential of cinema by using tricks and techniques and so does Olson with composition and improv, where he playfully exploits as much of the sonic spectrum as possible. Both manipulate the rules, pushing and pulling at what’s acceptable or even what’s sonically or rhythmically possible, in order to create new unorthodox works that hit the nerves of the audience. The avant-gardists and Marijuana Deathsquads create the unexpected, opening us all up to impactful and trailblazing creative expressions that are inspiring, revolutionary, as well as entertaining.
1 Interview with Ryan Olson and Trever Hagen, by Ruth Hodgins, Walker Art Center July 10, 2017.
2 The Cubist Cinema, volume 1 of Anthology Film Archives. Author Standish D. Lawder. New York University Press, 1975, p.43.
3 Dada and Surrealist Film. Ed. Rudolf E. Kuenzi. MIT Press, 1996, p.5.
4 Programmede Relâche,” in La Danse (November 1924); rpt. In Francis Picabia Ecrits. Paris: Belfond, 1978, II, 167.