Malcolm Le Grice

No one – or certainly, almost no one – sees avant-garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theatres and on television, and their sense of what a movie is has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds […] (1)

In the two sentences above, Scott MacDonald sets up for us the realistic situation we are faced with when contemplating an analysis of films outside of mainstream classical cinema. The fact that this type of film-making remains the “most marginal and least understood” (2) means that we must resort to Hollywood and its commercial films as a critical yardstick for analysing avant-garde film. The role of music and soundtrack in avant-garde films is significantly in contrast with the place of music in Hollywood films. MacDonald remarks that we can only experience the manipulation of images and sound in avant-garde films as “alternative” to commercial cinema because of the conventionalized context we viewers have already developed. (3) The manipulation and function of sound in avant-garde film has undergone little analytical study whereas much critical readings have been undertaken regarding the conventional use of music in Hollywood cinema. By using the readings of such theorists as Claudia Gorbman and Caryl Flinn on the role of music in Hollywood film, we can see the extent to which music has been elevated in non-Hollywood, avant-garde film – even to the point of breaking traditional boundaries and limits. Such comparative studies lead us to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the unlimited role that music can have in film when it is allowed to break free from the constraints of tradition in classical narrative cinema. The work of many avant-garde film directors has been analysed on the grounds of image and form. However, there are few studies concentrating on the role of music and sound in avant-garde film. One director whose films have had little analysis in the area of their soundtrack is the British avant-garde filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice.

Le Grice has been described in reviews as being one of the most remarkable alternative filmmakers of the second half of the 20th century and rightly so. (4) He is an artist with a filmography listing almost fifty works produced between 1965 and 2004, as well as being an academic and an active theorist, particularly in the area of structural film. One of the primary reasons I chose Le Grice’s films as a basis for my analysis was because of his experience and background in the artistic mediums of painting and music. Like the majority of avant-garde filmmakers, Le Grice began his career as a painter and then moved on to work in film. However, what I found interesting is that he claims his early influences came, not from cinema, but from other arts and primarily from music. (5) Le Grice has said that he started to make films in the same way he approached both painting and improvisational music. In his essay entitled ‘Improvising a Way From Here to Where’, the role of music in Le Grice’s life is indeed shown as imperative and definitely influential on his work. His parents provided a musical backdrop in the home and he tells us he had piano lessons from an early age but admits to having no patience where reading music was concerned. He soon discovered Rock n’ Roll through such figures as Bill Haley and he tells us how the musical path quickly led to New Orleans Jazz and Louis Armstrong. However, it is Jazz, rooted in improvisation, which he is steadfastly committed to as being the single most important influence on his concept of artistic form and certainly on the way he approached making films. (6) With this knowledge of Le Grice’s musical background firmly fixed in our minds, we can now venture into analysing the use of music in his films over the last forty years. I would like to begin by analysing a few of his earlier works from China Tea (1965) to After Lumiere (1974) with a detailed analysis of the music in Berlin Horse (1970). Following this discussion of his films, I will then concentrate on a truly avant-garde form of film – the art of video installation. Le Grice’s most recent work, Cyclops Cycle (2004), is an excellent example of avant-garde cinema in the digital age. An analysis of the music he uses in this three-screen video projection is both enriching and worthwhile for avant-garde film enthusiasts.

Michael O’Pray includes Malcolm Le Grice among a list of filmmakers whom he feels have borrowed an avant-garde attitude, subject-matter or desire from the more established visual avant-gardes of painting, sculpture and music. (7) O’Pray views Le Grice as sharing the clarity of ambition and visual look of such avant-garde filmmakers as Hans Richter and Walter Ruttman. Musical influences such as that of Dizzy Gillespie and Ornette Coleman as well as the more radical art music of John Cage can undoubtedly be identified in Le Grice’s early works. One of his very first film experiments is a still life piece called China Tea and is exemplary of Le Grice’s unwavering desire to use experimental music in a collaborative fashion with the experimental nature of the film. Shot in extreme close-up with two cameras, the aggressive contrast of the black Chinese cups on the white table cloth is accompanied in projection by a music tape Le Grice made by plucking thin sticks jammed into piano strings – a process which he says he would have called “prepared piano” had he known of the term then. (8) Even in this premature work, it is evident that Le Grice is keen to use music in a way that is clearly foreign to commercial cinema’s conventional use of music as secondary and solely functional. The “prepared piano” music is clearly audible throughout China Tea, which gives the music an intensely central role in the film. This concept clashes completely with what Gorbman refers to as the “subordination” of film music in classical narrative sound film. (9) The fact that Le Grice never uses a script when making his films reiterates the close connection of his approach to filmmaking with the improvisation that is fundamental to jazz music, rather than to traditional approaches to filmmaking. He works without preconception in a manner that emulates the improvisational ways of jazz music. An excellent example of his avant-garde use of music in the editing process is seen in such films as Castle 1, from 1967. For this film, Le Grice made diagrams similar to the graphic scores developed by Cardew or Cage, in order to guide the editing. The result of this process is that the viewer is highly aware of the music as being the dominant factor in controlling the editing of the shots. The responsibility of music in determining the images projected is in complete opposition to classical narrative cinema’s subordination of film music. Instead of putting music to the finished film, as is practiced in Hollywood, the structure of Castle 1 evolved from the actual process of making the film by improvising with music, in a direct parallel to contemporary jazz or other freeform music. (10) Le Grice’s reliance on the soundtrack as the guiding principle in the films production is a sure sign that his work is definitely of an avant-garde and experimental nature because it shows a direct opposition to the conventionality of Hollywood films.

After Lumiere

Another characteristic of the avant-garde nature of his work is Le Grice’s play on the split between the diegetic and non-diegetic world of the film screen. His awareness of this division is apparent in his film After Lumiere where he highlights the dichotomy between music and image by playing with the conventions of diegetic and non-diegetic music. In classical Hollywood film, there is a definite distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music. Soundtracks are utilized as implements for sustaining the narrative and absorbing the spectator in an illusory state of realism. Non-diegetic music is degraded to the position of merely mickey-mousing the images through the technique of synchronisation. Likewise, diegetic sound is given the functionary role of making the film seem more realistic and giving the impression of “cinematic verisimilitude”, thus adding a human touch to classical narrative cinema. (11) The avant-garde film After Lumiere rejects the illusion of realism perpetuated in Hollywood films by setting up the scene with what we viewers expect is non-diegetic music and then overturning our expectations by unveiling the music as being real to the diegesis of the film. Our discovery of the true nature of the music is achieved by a process of repetition and a change of camera perspective. The repeated shots of the Vaudevillian style prank, played on the gardener with the hose, seem to be accompanied by a recorded piece of music that is welded to the film and thus unheard by the actors. However, our interpretations are completely dashed by the fifth rendition of the scene, in which the camera angle has moved from outside the house to within where we realise the music is actually being played on a piano in the real time of the film. This discovery is indeed unexpected and shows the power and resonance that can be achieved by playing with conventions. Kathryn Kalinak has made an in depth study of the music in David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks (1990-1) and she addresses this act of playing with conventions. Kalinak feels that the reason why the music is so powerful is because it activates powerful conventions, such as supposed non-diegetic music, and then boldly transgresses and reconstructs such conventions. (12) In both After Lumiere and Twin Peaks, we viewers are repeatedly made aware of the line between diegetic and non-diegetic music and between illusion and artifice. We are forced to question the trustworthiness of our ears to distinguish between real music and recorded music and also the functions of each in the films we are viewing. Le Grice’s obvious focus on the music in After Lumiere shows us how he wishes to play with conventions and in doing so, he effectively disturbs our expectations, keeping well in line with the avant-garde desire to question and subvert traditional uses of music in film.

Berlin Horse

Malcolm Le Grice’s multi-projection film Berlin Horse (1970) is a perfect illustration of an artist’s film that goes beyond the convention of music as illustrative of action and as secondary to image or narrative. By working in collaboration with the musician Brian Eno, Le Grice produced a film in which the actual filmmaking process is mirrored in the musical landscape. Unlike conventional film, the music in Berlin Horse has the upper hand with two looped images choreographed expertly to Eno’s looped score. The visual loops thus parallel the musical loops with the result of a film, which “explores how the eye works and how the mind builds up a perceptual rhythmic structure” (13). The repetitive soundtrack of experimental loops does not have a mickey-mousing effect on the image but on the contrary, the continuous movements of the horse’s long leash and its continuous lunging out of the burning barn are determined by the musical loops. Eno’s sound structures are therefore effective in supporting the inner consistency of the piece as a whole. The completely anti-narrative structure of the film is accentuated by the soundtrack’s imposing presence. Talking about his experience in making Berlin Horse, Le Grice makes very clear how important the concept of time and temporal space are in cinema compared to in painting. He goes on to refer to the “consistent thread in the conceptual approach to abstraction in film” as being an attempt to “establish an analogy with music”. This has been both the attempt to apply musical compositional concepts to film structure and to seek a parallel between colours and musical notes. Le Grice cites examples of filmmakers who relate colour to music in abstract cinema and concludes with alluding to his film Berlin Horse as contributing to the artistic tradition of “chromatic music” (14). The fact that the filmmaker himself is placing such great value on the role of music in film, and particularly on its structural basis for film, really stresses the importance of music in avant-garde film.

Le Grice’s most recent film Cyclops Cycle (2004) exists as a three-screen video installation. Cyclops Cycle is described by Helsinki’s Avanto Media Art Festival as a “psychedelic new fantasy” and by Cork Arts Film Festival as a work that “moves from the mythic to the domain of the domestic, stabbing at the personal for fragments of experience” (15). From the hypnotic colours of Joseph’s New Coat to the improvisational, musically-edited Jazzy Jazzy Jazzy, the seven short screenings that make up the Cyclops Cycle installation provide an interesting basis for critical writings on untouched studies of soundtracks to recent avant-garde film. The first film of the cycle entitled Still Life and Lunch in Little Italy portrays a truly avant-garde quality whereby the soundtrack is totally disinterested in the image. Le Grice and his daughter are heard, along with the sounds of the natural surroundings, as they videotape their day out together for Malcolm’s wife. Instead of the images showing us what we are told we should be viewing, we are confronted with images of fruit bowls and other forms of still life. The soundtrack is effectively undercutting the image by allowing a disparity between what we hear and should see, and what we are actually seeing on screen. This explicit discrepancy between image and sound is a key factor in the avant-garde desire to break down the tradition of sound as being dependent on image in classical Hollywood cinema. The use of timeless noise as part of a soundtrack is seen in the third film entitled Neither Here Nor There, where we are again posed with the question of what qualifies as music or soundtrack in a film. The soundtrack is made up of the voices of news reporters and the sounds of the news report itself. The avant-garde act of manipulating the soundtrack to undercut the image is once again at the forefront of this film, in which Le Grice makes it explicitly clear that he, as the filmmaker, is in complete control of what we will see and hear on screen. He manipulates the words of the news report so that we hear only what he wants us to hear. The fact that he deliberately allows the lip-synching of voice and image to be unbalanced, and sometimes totally incongruent, is an effective tactic used to rebel against the realism that is constantly strived for in classical narrative cinema. By allowing disparity between image and sound to be the result of obvious manipulation by the director, Le Grice is betraying the power of cinema to manipulate the viewer.

Cyclops Cycle

Joseph’s New Coat is one of the films in the cycle, which I found most effective in showing how music in avant-garde film has the ability to be more important than image if it is allowed to be. The psychedelic colours and their constant changing and blurring seem controlled by the addictive piece of music called ‘Psalm 7’ composed by LOW 948, which makes up the soundtrack. The sound of television transmissions, voices and the tuning of a radio are juxtaposed with electronic musical sounds and tribal drum music to produce a mesmerizing soundtrack that seems to lead and control the image, rather than have a functionary role like music scores in Hollywood films. The distorted sounds of the television transmissions cause the images on screen to change their colour and pace of movement accordingly and thus, we witness music as being the principal controlling effect in the film. The soundtrack performs an anticipatory role in the film and so acts as a substitute for narrative. As the music builds up momentum, we reach a fulfilling climax when the thundering drum beats kick in and we become immersed in a tribal-like rhythm of sounds which are not controlled but only enhanced by the vibrant neon colours we see on the screen. The fact that the film feels more like a live performance or concert rather than something we should sit down and watch, emphasises the place of avant-garde film in the 21st century. The soundtrack is no longer confined to a flat surface and is consequently prominent for its own sake. This highlights how avant-garde film has broken out of its own boundaries and has reached a 3-dimensional form of existence in installation art. The images and music are seen in this film as separate entities because they are not made together but are made to be together in a performance space. It is interesting that even as the images of Joseph’s New Coat fade to black at the end of the film, the soundtrack continues on and proves that it is not dependent on the image, as is the case in Hollywood, but is there to be heard and appreciated. The audibility of music in avant-garde film is witnessed in the film Even A Cyclops Pays The Ferryman in which the experimental music made up of chimes, synthesizers and rainmakers are clearly heard from the very outset. Unlike the music of Hollywood films, the music in this film does not mimic the images in its speed or movement but instead remains interested in its own development rather than in any linear narrative that the image may wish to portray. Similar to After Lumiere, Le Grice plays with the conventions of the split between diegetic and non-diegetic music in this film by juxtaposing recorded music with real piano music being played in the diegetic world of one of the numerous, ever-changing images. We hear real, everyday sounds of a man coughing and laughing mixed with sounds of looped, recorded electronic music. By amalgamating the two extremes, Le Grice distorts our perceptions of what is real to the images and what is not. Music is vitally important to this film evidenced by the fact that Le Grice goes to the trouble of including many varieties of sounds, from the live performance of a rock concert to recorded Chinese operatic music to the soft tinkling of piano keys. Dispersed through the soundtrack are noises of everyday sounds such as the sound of footsteps on leaves and the rushing of water and the chirping of birds. Similarly, the use of such everyday, timeless noise is effectively used in Jazzy Jazzy Jazzy where Le Grice makes clear the importance of music in his approach to filmmaking by editing the images in the improvisational manner of jazz music. The images of the tide coming in at the shoreline are edited in sync with the soundtrack, which in turn is edited in the form of improvisational jazz. The result is a clearly avant-garde feeling of the intrusion and audibility of sound in film whereby it really makes clear that it is there, not as secondary to image, but as primary and necessary. It is needless to say that the use of music in the Cyclops Cycle video installation is extremely interesting to observe and undoubtedly worthy of critical analysis and attention.

Malcolm Le Grice has proven in his amazing abundance of diverse films that soundtrack is essential to film and must not be confined to the limits of second place that Hollywood has eschewed it to. His avant-garde work has allowed the liberation of music in film and has thus promoted it to its rightful position as equal to image and not merely functional. As a musician and painter, Le Grice allows his films to offer rich visual, sensual and aural pleasures because they seem to flow towards the desires of the senses as well as the processes of the mind. He successfully frees up sound from its traditional use and questions how sound works, how sound can be an end in itself – questions that serve to engage us in a rich filmic and deeply musical experience.


  1. Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 1.
  2. Edward S. Small, www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n50small.
  3. MacDonald, p. 1.
  4. Mathijs, www.nottingham.ac.uk/film/journal/bookrev/bookreviews_nov04.htm.
  5. Malcolm Le Grice, “Improvising a Way From Here To Where”, in Filmwaves, No. 14, 1-2001, pp. 14-9, ISSN 1460 4051.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Michael O’ Pray, Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions (London: Wallflower Press, 2003), p. 3.
  8. Le Grice, pp. 14-9.
  9. Claudia Gorbman, “Why Music? From Silents To Sound”, in Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 31-52.
  10. Malcolm Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age (London: BFI Publishing, 2001), p. 301.
  11. Caryl Flinn, Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia and Hollywood Film Music (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 45.
  12. Kathryn Kalinak, “‘Disturbing the Guests with This Racket’: Music and Twin Peaks”, in David Lavery (Ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1995), p. 83.
  13. Cork Film Festival 2004, www.corkfilmfest.org/2004/programme04/malcolm.html.
  14. Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, pp. 265-6.
  15. Cork Film Festival 2004, Avanto: Helsinki Media Art Festival 2004 – www.avantofestival.com/2004/film_en.php?pg=malcolmlegrice.

About The Author

Denice McMahon is a student, writer, and musician, currently undertaking a Masters in Film Studies at University College Cork, Ireland.

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