PETER WHITEHEAD: REVOLUTION, REVELATION – PINK FLOYD LONDON 1966-1967

This entry was posted on July 11th, 2014

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« Only action liberates. It unravels everything »1.
Blaise Cendrars, A night in the forest

 

By LU Jiejing

“ So, what now? ”

While we were eating fish and chips together in his kitchen, Peter asked me when I dropped my Master thesis at his place during my last visit to Kettering, England. Although I’m currently working on a dissertation that does not pursue the subject of my Master’s essay about him, I’m glad this visit does not sound like a farewell goodbye. Our friendship, which is grown from the intense exchanges  over those two years of, is now extending to other areas that we have in common.

Music, for example.

And just talking about music, we must go back to the first time I saw one of Peter’s films : Pink Floyd 66′-67′. This is THE movie that made me decide to devote my Master’s thesis to the works of Peter Whitehead. It is such a fascinating film. No doubt that is because of my admiration for Pink Floyd, but also, in its own abrupt and dynamic geometry, the film becomes in itself « a high idea of cinematography ». (Robert Bresson)

Peter Whitehead, without mentioning all of his creations and life commitments, is a film-maker, novelist, falconer, translator and editor of, among many others, Godard’s scenarios. Moreover, through a rhizome plastic presence, his website « NOHZone », a spatial manifestation of a « NOH », annter-world (« emptiness » according to Whitehead) which is on its own a work in perpetual progress of a figuring figure.

Whitehead is especially renowned as an eccentric reporter of the Swinging London at his time, who recorded the important events of the counterculture, whether artistic or political, while playing a subversive role of chronicler, and most importantly, contradicting the notion of English “Swinging London” itself. Through the camera, Whitehead exchanges with artists, whatever their artistic fields are: the Beat poets in Wholly Communion (1965), the Rolling Stones in Charlie is My Darling (1965), Peter Brook and his actors of his play of the intervention in Benefits of the Doubt (1967), the psychedelic culture in Pink Floyd 66/67, or the legends of the moment from different backgrounds in the film Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967). Instead of filming to merely get a simple observation through the camera lens, Whitehead moves into a position to dialogue and share with these individuals, and letting out the voices and shimmering the potentialities of the history of these men and this world. He tries to capture all of these fleeting moments, to generate images that may contain poetic in historic, to draw eternal from transitional.

After Charlie is My Darling – his movie on the Irish tour of the Rolling Stones at the beginning of their career, Whitehead acquires a reputation for his 60’s and 70’s pop-films. In addition of the Rolling Stones, he also shoot The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Nico, Eric Burdon, Small Faces etc. Whitehead probably gives little importance to these films of the sixties , as he considers them a lot less personal. However, as a pioneer of MTV, his unique way of working images and sound in these films, already distinguishes him, even then, from those of his contemporaries.

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Knowing that music has always been an important role in his creations, Whitehead was the organist in his secondary school, and during that time, he already enjoyed improvisations more than repetitions of classical pieces by Bach. In Daddy (1976), a film produced in collaboration with Niki de Saint Phalle, and in his latest film Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts (2009), he composed himself the music. His musical creation certainly deserves an entire and serious study set apart. Recently, as he just ended his mythological autobiography Fool That I am …: the Meritaten Involute and the publishing of his latest novel Girl on the Train, Whitehead gets occasionally back to music improvisation for fun. After he once saw a documentary about Arnold Schoenberg on the BBC and his theory of the emancipation of dissonance, he began to take this amusement more seriously. Sometime later, Whitehead found several cassettes recordings of his solo piano musical improvisations from the 70’s, he then reworked on them and developed them into a series of “whiteheadian” emancipation of dissonance (which he named as the spirit of plagiarism – a critical gesture par excellence). In this series, there is a piece – entitled ‘Between the Wars – which is indeed very interesting to discover. It is actually a piece of music improvised on a piano, while Whitehead was working on the editing of  Niki’s film Camellia and the Dragon (1975) in her home in Switzerland.

Although Whitehead always had a great taste for classical music, however, he greatly respects creative minds such as Jimmy Page, Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan (although it is mostly the lyrics of Dylan’s music he likes the most) . He also dedicates his novel The Risen to Syd Barrett, a friend he met with Anthony Stern at the University of Cambridge when they all were students at the same time and having a penchant for arts. Stern later became Whitehead’s film assistant, and the director of the fascinating film San Francisco (1968), which also explores the fusion between imaging and music. Besides their friendship, Whitehead dedicated the holographic novel The Risen to Syd Barrett, also because of the link with the inherent pulse to the musical creation of Pink Floyd.

Colour of Time: the sixties.

Talking of this link, Whitehead told me about the album The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, and particularly its cover, designed by Hipgnosis 5 and George Hardie. It represents a dispersive prism, where light is refracted through a diopter prism and from which emanates a polychromatic radiation standing out on the other side. For Whitehead, the psychological dynamics of chromatic dispersion whose spectrums refracted through the prism perfectly matches both to the immanent intensity of the music of Pink Floyd6 , including acoustic diffraction of improvisation during the long instrumental parts; and more directly to the interests of Whitehead for crystallography (its rectangular shape, inter-reticular network or its octahedral morphology); specifically at the improvising moment during which appears the burst of the interference of the prism, in particular of the hexagonal one in this time interval, this trans-substance that cannot be reducted to an unique point of time and space, its spatiality only can be formed on its own vibratory motion, , from where a thin eclipse of determinable identity yet radiates an infinity of the space-time in a constant state of becoming.

In the 1960’s, the London scene was marked by the counterculture. Aiming to challenge a “technologised” vision consistent with the rational system of society, the youth at that time looks for all the possibilities of freedom. In his book The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak discusses a dialectic of different theories of freedom, including the ones of Herbert Marcuse and Norman Brown, and the roots of the evil: “psychic reality” and “social reality” 7. However, which one is ultimately the main driving force of our life? And what kind of revolution, a social revolution or a psychic revolution, can really set us free?

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The psychedelic revolution of the late 1960’s stated as such: « Change the prevailing mode of consciousness and you change the world »8. The evocation of the psychedelic revolution mainly claims its experimentation of an “abnormal” or “trans-normal” vision which imbalance the formula of the usual sensory coordination and multiplies the productivity of all our senses. Considering the cult of hallucinogens (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, etc.), which questions the official area of our visual perception ways and offers the experience of spiritual ecstasy in order to find the “glassy essence” (Aldous Huxley) of the human-being. To do this, pioneers such as Timothy Leary develops a new faith in the psychedelic experience called “a visionary religion.” Leary even says it is essential to incorporate the “neurological politics” to the youth revolution. As for Huxley, he lends itself to experimentation by ingestion of mescaline and active alkaloid of peyote (an Indian cactus ). In his book The Doors of Perception, he describes with a nutmost precision about the effects these drugs induce, such as a “colored vision” for example, “a slow dance of golden lights with sumptuous increasing red surfaces, etc.” or also various psychological phenomenas, including indifference to space and time, where “mind was essentially overwhelmed, not by actions and situations, but of being and meaning” and where time becomes “infinite duration, or the one of a perpetual present made up of a unique revelation and constantly changing” . Aiming to an explosion of Being, these experiments provide us a way to free ourselves from the noise of our colonized unconscious.

At the same time, this claim to achieve the fullness of the human senses is also developing in the field of art. Inherited the tradition of total art work and through technical enlargement device (mostly intermediate), the “expanded cinema” as the term was proposed by Gene Youngblood in 1970, tries to achieve the perceptual enlargement of qualitative representation and access to new psychic experiences that become an aim in itself of representation. For example, the psychedelic lightshows offers a whole show involving all the senses, and bloom all around the world: “14 Hour Technicolor Dream” in London in 1966 (filmed by Whitehead), or “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” by Andy Warhol in New York (which is also the title of an outstanding film by Ronald Nameth), to name just a few. The event Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) from Warhol, featuring the Velvet Underground, Nico and Gerard Malanga, is the blend of dance performance, singing, music, slide projection and parasite music. EPI becomes the emblem of the multimedia performance of the moment. This liberating function of the self evoked in the “expanded cinema” by the merging of different art forms, , it also has a political dimension: the artwork must contain the spirit of free humanity and must exceed the purely artistic dimension to move toward the society.

Initially led by guitarist Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd is one of the most popular bands of the London underground psychedelic scene. It is famous for being one of those first to use the psychedelic strobelight screened during their concerts. The dramatization of their performances combines spectacular visual effects and music during the entire performance. They often play live at the UFO Club, which is the most prestigious club of the moment at the musical scene in London. They are also invited to “The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream” in 1967 at the Alexandra Palace of London, with many other artists (such as Yoko Ono, Mick Horovitz, Alex Trocchi, the dancer David Medalla and his band The Exploding Galaxy Dance Troupe, etc.), as well as many other psychedelic shows.

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However, in those days, they have never recorded their music in the studio. One day, Jenny Spires, Syd Barrett’s girlfriend at the moment introduces Pink Floyd’s music to Whitehead and he immediately liked it. Whitehead therefore intends to use them for his film Tonite, in particular two pieces, “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Nick’s Boogie“. He rents the Sound Techniques Studio in London and pays the group for recording. As usual, he brings his camera and filmed the whole scene in the studio. Subsequently, many years after, around 1991, two producers Colin Miles and Mark Rye, asked Whitehead to make a film on Pink Floyd from the footages of this recording.

These materials, which lasted about eleven minutes, are converted by Whitehead in a masterpiece in the cinema history: Pink Floyd London, 1966 – 1967.

Regarding the processing of these raw materials (both visual and sound), Whitehead works strictly on an emancipated dialectic structure between images and music, as arbitrary as it might be. Through his experimentation of the movement, especially by editing and the effects of the variation of the speed, Whitehead sends cinema back to the “pre-logical material thought” (Eisenstein). In this invention of movement, he restores the dynamic of the body: the body of the people in the scenes filmed, a body colonized by the society; but also of the body of the film itself. By the emancipation and an overflow which are both within the shot and between the shots, a morpho-creation comes to explore and develop the properties and virtues of the cinematographic image. Whitehead records and describes the counterculture in these images, and evokes on these images a performative energy, which, opposition to the current fake melancholy about the sixties, reaffirms the utopian way and the protesting potential of the characters of this historical period.

Fraction, definition and emancipation

We won’t see here an exhibition film that demonstrates on its images the stylistic concepts of psychedelic music of Pink Floyd. Whitehead certainly doesn’t want to create some pretentious thoughts about the psychedelic movement. Quite the reverse, the music organically integrates with the overall craft of the film. This is not anymore an analogy arrangement between image and music, but is to find an “expressive consonance in itself” (Adorno) allowing the confrontation of these two energies, which makes us  see the living and active essence of an inner movement “where its vision becomes action” 11.

From the sensory parameters inherent to the range of music that fits in turns in  Whitehead’s internal fabric, with this moment of “interlacing vision and movement”12, he creates in this film the psychedelic germ of the society transmutation.

While summoning the eleven-minute audio and video recording in “a simple matrix,” Whitehead invents plastics parameters in his dialectical organization deployed in a rhythmic complexity. Firstly, a varied opposition between the dynamic content inside the shots:

1/ Variation between slow and fast motion: by involving a very discreet speed variation within the shots, such as those of the crowd dancing in the club UFO and those in Alexandra Palace. Or, there is a succession of shots of the Pink Floyd at UFO Club, inside each is played a nuanced temporal variation.

2/ Variation between the different shot sizes, especially the images that filmed in the recording studio. There is sometimes an American shot on a character with his musical instrument from different angles: in profile or from front; sometimes a close up of the instrumental details: on the frets of Syd Barrett’s guitar, on the drums, or on the fingers of Roger Waters tapping on the strings of his bass guitar; sometimes the camera pulls back to fit in several people: Syd Barrett in the background, the face of Roger Waters in the foreground and the one of the drummer Nick Manson in front.

3/ While also adding the change in framing a variation between out of focus and into focus: for example, Syd Barrett on the left of the frame is very clear as Roger Waters in the background is blurred, or vice versa.

Those heterophonic variations create a rhythm of movements that bend, divide up and multiply by themselves. A deepening of the conflict – of lines, of scenes or spaces, or even of the spatiality and temporality of events – happens. An accentuation of the movement, split up by the breaking force of the shot and the  frameworks, come transpierce the space and time.

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Moreover, the dynamic contradiction is also performed between the scenes :

1/ With the modulation of the light tonality, Whitehead notably introduces a succession of shots of the UFO Club, each shot is tainted with different lights due to the strobelight , which generates an effect of plastic glare.

2/ Also by the chromatic field through the association of black and white and colored pictures. For example, with the alternating color/black and white in the « Nick’s Boogie » part, which is also conditioned by another alternating with the images shot in different places : inside the recording studio and the live performance at the UFO Club are in color, whereas the images of the events that are outside of the studio, like « 14 Hour Technicolor Dream » at the Alexandra Palace are in black and white. It is the music of « Nick’s Boogie » that creates a little continuum of intensive spatiality that finally connects those contrasted pictures.

3/ With shots using the same framing, took again during the editing under different point of view: the pictures of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and Nick Manson, together in the studio, are shown in different shots, rewriting simultaneously the existence of a space in its plastic multiplicity.

4/ With the rerun of same scenes at different times of the film, but in a contrapuntal way. The same plan is used with different speeds: for example, the one in which a dancing girl is put in slow motion then speeded-up in the resumption; or the movement of a same image put in different directions: the many resumptions of the same strobe light sequence at the Alexandra Palace pass backward-forward or forward-backward, or slip from left to right or right to left, by adding a change of the angle of the axis. Each shot, nevertheless already seen, becomes one quite another in this new situation composed with other images.

No analysis, I think, can be sufficiently effective on this film. Because Whitehead imbalance the raw images and rebalances them in his editing to completely break their adhesions to the total harmony. Discontinuities are multiplied; all the shots are set in motion one with another and the ones with the others. Everything is under construction, editing is not to see, nor even to conceive or imagine. It is to feel in this constant process of fragmentation of the future visuals and sounds. In a dialectical breathing, images are made, unmade and remade in the infinite and transfinite of a continuous movement of the divergence and convergence. This reminiscent of the “polyphonic montage” dear to Eisenstein, beats in an aesthetic tension of opposition in musical diversity. However, the “polyphonic” in The Pink Floyd 66/67 is not just an articulation around the dialectical oppositions of continuity and discontinuity. Whitehead even works in the heart of the “objective contradiction” (Adorno) from these visual and audio materials, as Schönberg works, in his way, his music with “dissonance”, and whose work does not maintain anymore “the principle of the polyphony as heteronomous to the released harmony, or as a principle that we must first reconcile each time with this harmony; it reveals the polyphony as the essence of the emancipated harmony itself “.

Repetition and “derivation” of the original materials are entered in its free atonality outside of the representation and related to its dynamic power whose “infinity consists, altogether, in the disappearance of any heteronomy that does not fit to its continuum “. While looking deeper into the penetrative and repetitive music of Pink Floyd, Whitehead doesn’t, however, intend to impose an extra-logic by interposing their music as a regulating order. He rather tries to reveal the material from which the music is made and to propose an articulation in his film where “images and sound are strengthened while transplanting”.

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yet truer for its futility…”16

To revolutionize a political life under control, you don’t even have to refer anymore to the different preset theoretical constructions, but to fill it from oneself, as Nietzsche says « to feel hunger and thirst of oneself » and, like Prometheus, « to create light while yearning for it »

In the film script of Night Trip  that Whitehead sketches in 1969, he asserts again the importance of the internal experience: « The truth of the center is that it cannot be looked at… it must be experienced from within… he must become the center himself… and from this center he himself will spread out in spontaneous genesis.”

This strength is the « own individuation » of spiritual creation that Adorno offers as a method to solve the social enigma, which means that” we do not aim at a social justification, but a social theory in virtue of an explanation that is searching for  what is aesthetically fair or unfair  in the heart of objects ». From this point of view, the terms of politic and creation are changed, and somehow are redefined from inside, of a real necessity, where creation needs aesthetic and ethic exigencies to create a relation between the world and oneself.

The psychedelic movement is often criticized by traditional revolutionist for its lack of political activism. However, by experimenting the increase of our sensory vectors against the dullness of the ruling logic of our stiff world, by calling on the fertility of our intuitive thoughts, we question the standards of the principles according to which we measure the reality and the non-reality. Thus, this movement has in this way an eminently revolutionary reach. The aesthetic of the sensitive that contains the psychedelic revolution, towards this state of freedom, shows strongly its own activism in the emancipation of the repressed personality.

Facing an antagonist which always justifies the improvement of its repressive equipment, whether being political, economic or cultural, and their strength susceptible to stop any revolutionary movement, the film-maker replies to it by proposing the cinema as the source of formal inventiveness and political efficiency, with the densification and the articulation of a movement which, ceaselessly, makes us look at a world where everything is to be changed, and everything is to be invented.

Somehow, it’s not by chance that Whitehead puts some excerpts of Pink Floyd 66/67 in Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London while considering them as being the trailer of the latter. Because on this occasion, Pink Floyd London 66/67 becomes itself a dialectical motive which denounces the destructive tendencies of our time whose ” order proclaims itself  nothing else but the masks of chaos “. What Whitehead makes reappear in these recycled images are not the pre-problematic solutions, he highlights the social essence in its own antagonistic dynamic which always sends us back to the same problems. Thus, “revolution is just a beginning, let the battle continue »…

Notes :

1 CENDRARS Blaise, Une nuit dans la forêt, Lausanne, L’Âge d’Homme, p.88

2 I wish to point out that Charlie is My Darling had been re-edited and appeared again in 2012 on a large scale by ABKCO Industries. But this version without ever equalling the one made by Whitehead in 1965. Even if Charlue 2012 have been reedited from the pictures of the Whitehead’s original Charlie 1965, it deeply changes in regard of what made the essence of the original movie.

3 “Mythological autobiography” or “a shamanistic dream, as Perter use to say about his autobiography, which is absolutely not a conventional autobiography. According to him, creation (->creative act ?) have to be made only to create its own « mythology » inside which it is possible to live an experience of total existence.

4 « Plagiarism Inc. » is the name of the YouTube account we can find three video clips of his music : “Emancipating Dissonance” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfYrIbxYOyw), “Between the Wars” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wv34jhhneOw) et “Schadenfreude – the War Returns” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exSeI7Dq6Dg).

Whitehead plays with the idea of « plagia » nevertheless in the first two ones where he uses images of Maurice Béjart dance (The Rite of Spring and Mozart-Tango) while changing the music with his owns. The idea from whom also came the term of « Schadenfreude » for the third piece, indicates the enjoyment of misappropriation of the work of another.

5« Hipgnosis » is the name of a britanic graphist collective started in 1968. They worked in graphic design. The group quickly acquired an international notoriety, especially because of the inovative album cover designs for 1970’s bands, as Pink Floyd, Genesis and led Zeppelin. Hipgnosos is originaly composed of Storm Thorerson and Audrey Powell, joined in 1974 by Peter Christopherson. ( http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hipgnosis, consulted jully 2013, 20th)

6 We are obviously speaking about the Pink Floyd area before Syd Barrett’s gone, in 1968, considering the music style of the band will change during the years following this event.

7 ROSZAK Theodore, Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (originally quoted from the french translation by Claude Elsen «Vers une contreculture, réflexions sur la société technocratique et l’opposition de la jeunesse », Paris, Stock, 1980, p.168.)

8 Quoted in ROSZAK Theodore, The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, New York, Anchor Books, 1969, p.168.

9 HUXLEY Aldous, The Doors of Perception  (Originally quoted from french translation by Jules Castier : Les portes de la perception, Paris, éd. du Rocher, 2010 (1954), p.19.)

10 Ibid., pp.22-23.

11 Ibid., p.60.

12 MERLEAU-PONTY Maurice, L’œil et l’esprit, Paris, Gallimard, 1997,p.16. (english name : Eye and Mind)

13 ADORNO Theodor W., Philosophy of New Music (1949)  (originally quoted from the german to french translation by Hans Hildenbrand et Alex Lindenberg : Philosophie de la nouvelle musique, Paris, Gallimard, 1979,p.68.)

14 Ibid., p.75.

15 BRESSON Robert, Notes on Cinematography (Originally quoted in Notes sur le cinématographe, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, p.107.)

16 Poem ofCORSO Gregory “Mutation of the Spirit” in WHITEHEAD Peter, Tonite Let’s All Make love in London, Kettering, Hathor Publishing, 1999, p.126.

17 NIETZSCHE, The gay science (originally quoted from german to french translation by Patrick Wolting : Le gai savoir, Paris, Flammarion, p.245.)

18 Night Trip is finally not made as a movie because of financial problems. However, Whitehead use it as the genesis of his idea of holographic novel wrote ten years later, The Risen. The scenario is available for consultation in the Framework journal : The Journal of Cinema and Media, N°52, automne, 2011, p.898.

19 ADORNO Theodor W., op.cit., p.35.

20 Ibid., p.8.

21 With this statement, Pierre Clémenti triggers an utopic energy in his movie The Revolution is Only a Beginning. Let’s Continue Fighting… (1968)