The Art of Visual Improvisation

The Art of Visual Improvisation

January 13, 2011 Off By The Jazz Messenger

While I was working with Brian Blade for his release Mama Rosa a few years back, I was introduced to a visual artist named Adam CK Vollick. Adam filmed Brian while he was recording segments of his album and the raw footage that I saw was just amazing. It was unlike anything I had seen before or even shot myself. Adam’s footage consisted of these long continuous shots which just followed Brian and the music. Not only did I find myself mesmerized by the combination of this audio/visual choreography, but there was this overriding spirit of jazz and improvisation in the entire experience. For me, I see and feel jazz in more than just music and Adam’s work illustrated that point perfectly. I later came to learn that Adam visually documents all of the projects of famed artist/producer Daniel Lanois. And in this case, Daniel was producing Brian’s album Mama Rosa, hence his involvement. I was recently reminded of Adam’s stellar work via a film featuring the group Black Dub which consists of Daniel Lanois, Trixie Whitley, Daryl Johnson and Brian Blade. Once again, Adam takes us on this nuance filled, free spirited and intoxicating journey through a live performance of the song “I Believe In You.” And after watching this video, I was completely inspired and just had to contact Adam and find out what makes him tick. While he was on tour with Black Dub he graciously answered a handful of questions confirming his improvisational approach to his art. – JV

Tell us about yourself and how you came to work with Daniel Lanois?

I was practically born a photographer. I got my first camera at six and didn’t talk much as a kid. I was a constant observer. I am dyslexic and as a kid it helped my composition but not my spelling. I see life as one long evolving composition, and I think that started as a kid staring out the school bus window for hours every morning growing up in rural Canada. I started with Daniel after a publicity photo shoot we did together circa Belladonna (2005). A one hour shoot turned into an eight hour hang at his studio in Toronto, philosophizing and creating pictures. A few weeks later I got an invitation to come to LA and develop some stage visuals for the Belladonna tour. That developed into a full-time relationship whereby I facilitate all things visual for Daniel. I’ve since shot, edited and co-directed two artful music films with him: Here Is What Is and Le Noise and a third, Hallelujah Train, is stuck in post production right now. I also designed the packaging for Here Is What Is and provided legendary album cover designer Gary Burden with the imagery for Neil Young’s Le Noise (CD, LP, DVD and Blu-ray).

Tell us about your collaborative work with Daniel?

My part of the process is very instinctual, selfless kind of an out-of-body experience – emotional at its core. Daniel’s is musical at its core; emotional too and strangely forensic while shamanistic. He is a great collaborator. We both trust where the wind blows us in the course of a workday. I’m a one man film crew. Growing up on a farm in southern Ontario, I inherited a very pioneering kind of self sufficiency that is very unimposing and very efficient. It gives the artists the ability to focus on their art, while I remain invisible. After a take or two is done, I disappear to my portable editing rig and load the footage, make notes. The engineer brings me a mix and I do a quickie sync and look on the piece, and then we can all watch it back while it’s fresh. Instant gratification. My visions become quite directly a reality – from a performance comes a reaction, and then an honest account of what happened is born. I think there is a special power in that true, simple form.

Who are your main creative influences in visual art and film?

As few as possible, I try to avoid contemporary rubbish as much as humanly possible. For me, photographer Ansel Adams is a big inspiration. His lifelong dedication to hiking through national parks into his ripe old age, carrying 100+lbs of large format gear and sitting and waiting for days on end for the perfect light, not to mention his sole contribution to the densitometric roadmap of the medium, the man is a role model in all departments: patience, grace, dedication, understanding, excellence, and intuition. Another photographic hero as well is Henri Cartier Bresson, a purely instinctual operator who was a conduit to the seemingly impossible frames he made. I also just read a book called In The Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, an amazing fim editor, and analyst of the human experience. I’ve also seen some pretty interesting Jacques Brelles films. Some part of my shooting lives like the paint that dropped from Jackson Pollock’s stick, initiated in a gesture and momentarily guided by chance before being cemented on the canvas. I’m not great at remembering the names, dates and historical relevance of my media experiences but I believe subconsciously that they all become a part of the palette one works from. You have to protect yourself from poor influences.

What is your general approach to visually capturing musical performance?

When I pickup a camera my body becomes a servant to the lens, the subjects, the space and the moment – what happens is beyond me. It is an all encompassing alchemy full of the love and devotion in the room, between all the people who are creating. I often watch things back astounded that it even happened or that I was the one who did it. I’m not a religious man, but for me creating in that way is where I find spirituality, ever present, available to all. I quite simply try to convey honestly what it was to be there with them.

How much of your musical performance work is planned and how much is improvisation when you are shooting with Daniel?

You’d be surprised how little planning goes into it. We have an ongoing operational philosophy with two important parts: first, be prepared – plug shit in and turn shit on. A light and mic in the closet is no good to you. And secondly, record everything – magic happens when you aren’t expecting it.

One of the signatures in your work is the use of one long continuous shot when capturing live performance. How did you develop this style and technique?

It’s about emotional hyperrealism. Living beings with eyes see things uninterrupted by edits. Most people appreciate live performance or at least feel more connected to live shows. I believe that has to do with parallel sensory stimulation so I try to use my lens to put people in the sweetest spot I can manage. That way they can feel what it was like to be there as honestly as possible. I like to let a take evolve on its own to let the scene reveal itself. It’s always best as a reaction to what is happening. That feeling of immediacy and discovery is always present in the recording and filming.

What was the concept behind Daniel’s solo guitar film The Birth of Bellavista Nights?

We had been testing different recording set ups around Daniel’s LA studio in preparation for the Neil Young (Le Noise) sessions, but we hadn’t tried anything at night. As usual, one thing led to another and after about a half hour of turning on projectors, a light, a few amps and microphones, we found ourselves with a take that had a really great feel. The stars aligned that night.

Adam Vollick
Daniel Lanois
Black Dub

Photo credit: Brian O’Brien