Bernard Wilets (1928-2007)
Discovering Electronic Music: Revised (1970/1983)

Director: Bernard Wilets
Year: 1970/1983
Time: 22 mins
Music: Jean-Claude Risset, Douglas Leedy, F.R. Moore, Stephan Soomil, Rory Kaplan, Geral Strang

Arriviste documentaries and manifestoes on "new" forms of art (or knowledge) run the danger of quickly losing the aura of novelty and, by virtue of their overstressed temporality (inherent in their claims to freshness), of soon becoming objects of mere historical curiosity, scorn or simple antiquarian pillaging. When such forms are related to technology, the source for all our illusions of progress, the danger is even stronger since, in the context of modernity's own myths of techno-humanistic evolutionism, yesterday's revolution is inevitably today's conservatism. Wilets' Discovering Electronic Music is a strangely perverse example of these self-constructed traps in that it talks and acts as if describing an impeding revolution while sounding - for its own time - tremendously outdated and, even stranger, hugely conservative in its scope and intent. Granted, this is an overtly educational film, aiming to "instruct" an audience allegedly weary of electronic possibilities in aural construction. But one may ask if such efforts didn't work in the opposite direction, reinforcing fears and resistances by its chosen strategies. The fact that Gerald Strang, one of the most tedious and uninteresting composers to have ever touched a synthesiser, was chosen as the "advisor" for the film may explain part of this conservatism. Throughout the documentary, we are slowly shown the basic tools and functions of the synth - such as oscillators, wave forms, envelopes, filters, etc. We see the fairly novel Fairlight CMI synth and the already outdated Moog modular. The purpose of these, however, is never to create new musical possibilities: what we see instead is several synth-renditions (or shall we say asphyxiations?) of Bach's beautiful "little" Fugue in G minor and many examples of the fortunately forsaken dream of making those huge and expensive machines sound like traditional instruments (such as the Japanese koto or the trumpet). The year was 1983. Many seminal works in academic electronic music had already been produced, pushing aural abstraction and depth to new levels; popular music had already been irrevocably taken by the electronic virus; and, consequently, avant-garde and fringe artists had been working with the medium for a long time. It is thus very difficult to understand the place and strategies of this inadvertidly retro approach to the electronic soundscape, even if we consider that this is a "revised" version of a 1970 homonymous documentary. The joint efforts of Wilets, known for his moron-paced educational docs, and Strang, (un)known for his generally uninspired compositions, have produced a film whose main interest lies in its strange juggling of different pasts, and in which the presence of such luminaries as Jean-Claude Risset and Douglas Leedy does not take the viewer beyond the museologist's pleasure of gazing at the future ruins of these historical monuments: giant synthesisers, ugly knobs and oversized diskettes.