14 Aug 2020
Lens on Lye: Guest Spotlight on the pioneering artist and experimental filmmaker
Artists, experts, scholars, specialists and Len Lye film fans share their insights on the artist and filmmaker in this fortnightly series, Lens on Lye, inspired by the current exhibition The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid (6 Jun — 1 Nov 2020).
For our latest spotlight on Len Lye, jazz and visual media scholar Dr Nicolas Pillai, discusses Lye's synchronisation of music to the burst and swirls of colour in his direct films.
The Joyful Jazz Microbe.
Wriggling and wiggling, joyful jazz microbes are in all of us. Microscopic and pulsating. Infinitesimally small yet wide as the universe. Hearts drum, veins pulse, lungs bellow and blow.
Len Lye’s films returned to jazz again and again, circling back to a primordial bubbling centre, a stylus working its way inward. I think he knew more about jazz than most jazz historians – not the Scriptures (junk like ‘bebop began in spring 1945’) or the Messianic genealogies (baloney such as ‘Hawk begat Bean, Bean begat Pres, Pres begat Bird’) – but the welcoming smile and the courageous eye of the music.
In a sceptical review of my first book, broadcaster Alyn Shipton ventured Lye was ‘somewhat tangential to jazz’ and that the music of Emilio ‘Don’ Barreto, which structures the Lye film A Colour Box, ‘might not exactly be regarded as jazz.’ I was dismayed but not surprised. Shipton summons an old history of jazz, of critics retrospectively applying criteria of authenticity to exclude and define.
While purporting to lift jazz up, these exclusionary impulses ultimately contain the music’s potential. In one effortless step, its popular appeal is diminished: from flowers in bloom to a row of trophied heads somewhere in a Home Counties hallway. And so the histories we tell become ever straighter and narrower, authorized by familiar soothing voices.
Lye knew. Purity, order, transcendence – these are all convenient lies. Conjugation, transformation, transduction – this is really how the world works.
Jazz deserves new histories that are messier and queerer, histories which reject monolithic constructions of ‘blackness.’ Even now the same tired theories of genius persist (usually untroubled by the sub-text of eugenics); dance cultures are routinely suppressed by listening cultures; conservatoire teaching grows ever more conservative.
Lye’s appropriation of black art has been read (not least by me) as problematic. But it is also undeniable that underlying his creativity was a belief in connection rather than boundary, of a jazz that greedily devoured Cuban rhythm and was changed by it.
We still have a lot to learn from Len Lye.
Stay tuned for further exploration into Len Lye's work in the weeks to come.
You can follow Dr Nicolas Pillai on Instagram: @nicolas.pillai
Dr Nicolas Pillai is a writer, academic and co-editor of Jazz Research Journal. He is currently working on the collection Rethinking Miles Davis for Oxford University Press. Jazz 625 Live (BBC Four), based on his research, won Best Music Programme at the Broadcast Awards 2020.
Len Lye, A Colour Box, 1935.
Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation and the British Postal Museum and Archive.
From material preserved by the BFI National Archive and made available by Nga Taonga Sound & Vision.