My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Tarkovsky, aural illusions, and cultivating transcendent spaces.
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“The Zone” from Tarkovsky’s 1979 masterpiece Stalker remains one of the most compelling physical and mental spaces in cinema. Its strength may lie in its vagueness—a meteorite, or perhaps something else, landed there decades ago, and the Zone is now abandoned and forbidden. Strange things tend to happen there, and it’d be extremely dangerous to go in without a Stalker, who cautiously guides seekers of the Zone through its reaches toward The Room, where one’s deepest desires may be granted. Whatever the Zone is, it seems to have a strong effect on anybody who encounters it, though nobody seems to fully understand its power.
Peter Burr’s Special Effect takes direct inspiration from Stalker, with Burr commissioning a group of contemporary animators and video artists—including Brandon Blommaert, Jacob Ciocci, Billy Grant, Brenna Murphy, Yoshi Sodeoka, and Ola Vasiljeva—to create short pieces exploring the Zone. The project took the form of a live show in which Peter acted as the host, guiding the audience through the Zone, punctuated by commissioned animations, as well as that of a single channel film, composed primarily of Peter’s own work plus a few of the commissions. Peter asked me to compose music for his portion of the project, in which three warped digital characters wander through a lush landscape of overgrown, abandoned locations shot in upstate New York. I was already started on my own journey through the Zone when Peter approached me, so naturally I was thrilled to be given a reason to delve further. Lucky Dragons also composed a portion of the music, which ended up being used exclusively in the live show portion of Special Effect.
Years later, we’ve finally released the complete soundtrack to Special Effect as a split LP between Seabat and Lucky Dragons. I got together with Peter Burr, Luke Fischbeck of Lucky Dragons, and my Seabat collaborator Forest Christenson to talk about Special Effect and what it was like composing music exploring our own interpretations of the Zone.
John Also Bennett Peter, I believe you and Luke had already started working together before I came into the picture, or at least you had already been in contact. Had Luke already composed the music used in Special Effect, or did you commission that specifically for this project?
Peter Burr From what I recall, when I reached out to Luke I had the kernel of Special Effect in place. I was doing a crowdfunding campaign, getting money to pay animators, and structuring exactly what this thing should look like. Around that time, I was also first discovering Robert Wilson’s work. Einstein on the Beach was in New York and I went and saw that a couple of times. I was thinking a lot about this way of interpreting Stalker, this really psychological and almost kind of impenetrable film that begs to be read but doesn’t give much information. It forces you to look inward, and I was muddling that—or crossing that—with thinking about Einstein on the Beach and the way that, musically, the repetitive and durational quality of that piece plays with the divisions between external and internal. You kind of go through this rhythm of going inside yourself and then coming back out and paying attention to the show.
Luke, is it right that around that time you were already experimenting with that binaural vocal stuff?
Luke Fischbeck Yeah, it was a good coincidence, because Sarah [Rara] and I, with Lucky Dragons, were investigating these aural illusions that the psychologist Diana Deutsch has researched. It does relate to minimalist music in terms of creating sound objects that you can step into and out of, understanding them as concrete or abstract or full of meaning …
PB And while I was working on this script for Special Effect, I was thinking a lot about language and it seemed like an interesting way to use language as a musical instrument. In a way, it could potentially be performed—not necessarily singing things, so much as dealing with language.
LF Sorry, I just walked into my neighbor’s house! (laughter)
JAB You’re in his zone! (laughter)
LF Could you tell us more about the Zone? I mean, it’s the Tarkovsky “Zone.” But how does it relate to our lives?
PB That’s a good question, I feel like that’s something we can each answer. With Special Effect, part of the reason that it came together was that there were these nice coincidences. You were exploring those auditory illusions, while I was getting interested in this and talking to a lot of other animators. I realized there was this wave-length I was riding that other people were riding too. I started to explore that more and I realized it was an extension of Cartune Xprez, a video label that at the time, I was still deeply touring with. It seemed like an interesting way to think about collaboration, and about community and collectivity, as a way to rally around a fixed project, as a way to be able to commission work but also to share spirits and see what emerges.
Specifically, the idea of the Zone is really interesting to me because, in a way, it’s almost this benign space that’s pregnant with potential. It’s an implicit labyrinth of sorts that you go into and Stalker is this person who is there to function as the maze walker, the thread to be able to get you where you want to go. But the space itself is really benign. Thinking specifically about the Tarkovsky film, I started looking around upstate New York and where I live to try to find these spaces that couldn’t be interpreted as spaces within the circle of my immediate life, which could be equally pregnant with potential and also resonate with Tarkovsky’s Zone. An abandoned water tower or paper factory could be translated as an empty space. There are remnants of something that used to exist but no longer does and so there are these other forces at play.
JAB When we re-watched Special Effect, it was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen since the premiere two years ago, and it really struck me—I’ve been watching it on these little computer screens which obscure the subtlety of the animation. Right at the beginning, these characters are taking the train journey, and you have this big landscape and it pans down and zooms in on what are essentially the pixels that make up the Zone. And you can see the smallest fragment of this digital zone.
PB Like digging in Minecraft.
JAB Yeah. (laughter) It made me think of playing videogames as a kid, and finding some weird little glitch hidden in the game that exposes the reality that it’s a simulation.
PB Totally. In general, I thought it would be interesting to take a bunch of different technologies and to spend time with them and play with them until they break in an interesting way, and then to try to harness that. Going to essentially a minimal or base quality of each of these pieces of software I was working with and going into that boundary, or that nothingness, where you start to see the threshold.
JAB I think that comes across in Luke’s music. You have these little fragments of speech that are repeated until they lose meaning.
PB I don’t know if I talked to you about this Luke, but there were definitely a handful of shows when a person or people would come up to me after and talk about how those vocal illusions actually put them on a bad trip. At the very last show I did someone came up to me afterwards and was like, “What were you up there saying? I kept hearing my dad saying my name.” (laughter) It got really deep.
LF It was actually his dad saying his name, that was the original sample. (laughter)
For both inside and outside of the zone, you have this way of treating it like a labyrinth. That’s the word that you used, Peter. I’m interested in hearing if that was something Seabat was mindful of in the sound that you made, being contemplative and circling the labyrinth. Was that something you were thinking about at all?
JAB Well, I can start with where I was when I was composing this music. I had just returned from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, where I did a lot of exploring of abandoned spaces. I went into an old Soviet hydro-electric plant, I was up in the mountains where there were ancient castles, and I went to some old abandoned hospitals. It was very much like exploring the areas in Stalker, a lot of decrepit infrastructure and dripping water. I was right in that mindset when I got back.
PB When you listen to the record, I think it really reflects clearly that there are two different qualities that are being explored. My sense of the Lucky Dragons side of the record is that it’s very cerebral and minimal, a meditative penetration of the topic. It’s dealing with that larger theme that Tarkovsky is exploring in the film. But Seabat was looking really clearly at Eduard Artemyev’s original score and at the larger cultural touchstones—looking at the actual landscape in which the film takes place—as opposed to penetrating and dealing with the larger topics the director was dealing with.
JAB Yeah, I certainly I took a lot of inspiration from the footage you shot. I think that was some of the first imagery you showed me when working on this project. You said, “Hey, I’ve been upstate at this abandoned resort,” and it was just gorgeous. I was looking at this footage of damp, dripping landscapes strewn with trash, and having just come back from Georgia where I was playing with Soviet synthesizers, I just went right into the Zone.
LF It’s interesting to put it into terms of actuality: thinking about the location that’s in front of a lens, and the other, fictional location that’s in the film. That’s kind of a logic problem that you get into as you start constructing it. I like that. (laughter)
JAB I guess the Zone, for me, is just this transcendent space that doesn’t necessarily exist physically. It could be anywhere.
PB Also, in Stalker, nothing actually really happens. Even in the introduction, it’s never made explicit what really happened there or what’s going on there. There’s talk of this room that has the power to maybe fulfill your deepest desires, but then you don’t actually see anything that magical happen.
JAB They don’t even go into the room. They get to the threshold and decide not to go in there. There is one moment at the very end of the film where the Stalker’s daughter magically moves a glass of water with her mind. That’s the only moment of mysticism that actually happens and it doesn’t even happen in the Zone. That’s just like, “Oh shit, the daughter’s been exposed to some radiation and developed telekinesis.”
Peter, it’s interesting how you curated different animators into this project. They pop up like little commercials during the experience of watching. I think it brings the spirit of the Zone into contemporary life because you’re sitting there just zoning out—for lack of a better term—the music is lulling you into this trance and these characters are in this dense psychological space, and then suddenly you’re blasted with this Monster energy drink commercial. (laughter)
FC During the live show that effect is even more pronounced because there’s so much more contrast and those additional interludes.
PB Yeah. When I listen to the album, I wish I could listen to a whole record of just Seabat or just Lucky Dragons. But the limitations, the framing devices of the piece, were a lot about having a short attention span. What you have in the end are these two twenty-minute sides. You’re getting these samples that then get fractured. In a way, side A and Side B almost compete against each other because they’re these really contrasting compositions.
FC They’re very different musically.
JAB Our side is pretty atmospheric; it’s very literal and it’s definitely a soundtrack. There are crickets in the background.
FC There are definitely some elements of sound design on the record.
JAB There’s wind blowing. I think it ends with somebody walking through a room—
PB There’s a closing door.
JAB Whereas the Lucky Dragons side is very inward and cerebral. It’s an artificial space. Our side transports you to a physical space, their side is more of a mental space.
LF It’s discursive, because you process it like language more than you process it like a material, or like thinking about a soundscape. It’s not like you’re listening through a window; it’s that you’re listening to a message.
PB I love listening to that on headphones when I’m working and just getting dizzy. (laughter)
JAB It definitely assaults you and gets right in there if you’re listening to it with good speakers or headphones. It injects itself into your consciousness.
FC Some of the repetitiveness and the musical choices I feel are pretty aggressive in a good way.
JAB I have written down in my notes, “McDonalds bathroom.” Peter, I remember you telling me after the fact that initially the Zone was actually going to be in the inside of a McDonalds bathroom.
LF That’s the reverb preset that I was using: “McDonalds Bathroom.” (laughter).
PB Is that really a reverb preset?
LF Yeah, there’s different sized bathroom reverbs! Like airplane bathroom …
PB Personal bathroom …
LF Shaq’s bathroom. (laughter)
PB Somewhere in the back of my mind, I do have this irreverent McDonald’s project bubbling. At the very end, the main character leaves the shrink’s office and walks through a space that was modeled after this McDonald’s dining area in a heavily abstracted way. Thinking about how to translate this ’70s-era Soviet narrative relic from that time into today, I was reminded of exploring these abandoned areas and pregnant zones, areas that had high status because you weren’t supposed to be there. Actually, one of the first places I went to in upstate New York was this enormous sprawling complex. It used to be a hospital compound but a lot of it burned down. You could access it behind a strip mall, a Home Depot. That was the threshold into this autonomous zone.
JAB I had quite a few experiences like that growing up in Ohio. They were pretty formative for me; skipping class in high school to go check out these massive abandoned factories. I remember one place called “the gates of hell,” which was an old sewer opening accessed through the back of a Rally’s fast food restaurant. There’s something about the experience of wandering around these forbidden spaces. They had a lot of mystery to them, and there was kind of this uncertain danger there or mystique. You might find something amazing or something that could kill you, depending on which path you take. There are ladders everywhere, holes in the floor, dark basements, and it’s very much like a labyrinth, with a lot of hidden traps.
PB Totally. They’re ripe for mythology.
JAB I think something in those experiences was definitely part of my attraction to Stalkerwhen I first saw it which, strangely enough, I think was through a YouTube clip, maybe a minute long clip, of one of those long panning shots. I saw that long before I ever actually sat through the three hours of the whole film.
LF I think where I kind of got most interested in the idea of the Zone as a labyrinth was thinking about it as a four-dimensional labyrinth in which you don’t know whether you’re moving backwards or forwards in time, something that seems to be completely collapsing at the same time while developing into something else.
FC The Zone has this inverted potential in its decay, and I guess that’s related to time. It decays through time, but it has this aesthetic potential, just like the abandoned space that you’re exploring. You can see the effects of time in that decay and that really does add a sense of a fourth dimension when you’re in a space like that.
JAB You see this past that used to be and you see the dreams faded and forgotten about, and the potential lost, and of course the future potential of doing something amazing in a big abandoned space.
PB Do you guys know this story about early Burning Man trippers? One of the origin myths of Burning Man is that the group of people who ended up creating this enormous entity were doing these “zone trips” in the Bay Area. A massive group of people and would go out into the city with this shift of perspective. The idea was to approach everything as if they were on an alien planet. It’s about displacing your associations with all of these artifacts of our civilization and identifying with their alien nature.
JAB That’s pretty interesting. I’ve never been to Burning Man but I’ve definitely been on a zone trip. (laughter)
LF That sounds like the Situationists too, just always being in the territory of the enemy, drifting around.
FC There are these point-of-view moments in Stalker and Special Effect when the viewer thinks they are seeing a character’s POV, but then that character walks into frame. That’s a similar sense of dissociation.
LF That brings up an interesting point: first there was a collection of animations with a soundtrack, then there was live performance, then there was a record—what’s the ideal listener or audience, and how are they supposed to take this in?
PB That’s a good question. When I was setting up the scaffolding for the project, it seemed really important for it to function in divergent ways. A good performance can be so powerful and amazing, yet at the same time there are severe restrictions and serious limitations, especially for this show, which is performed in a movie theatre. It has to be a specific kind of movie theatre that can have a fog machine and where I can shoot lasers, and can set up all these props at the front of the room. So when I was first commissioning those animations, I knew that some of this series would exist as these transmissions from the Zone—as these commercial interruptions—but at the end of the project, when all is said and done, there would be this collection of animations that would exist on the Internet.
The record is interesting. John, I think you should talk about that, because that was not something my mind was even wrapped up in at all, the artifact of this audio disc.
JAB Re-watching Special Effect today, I noticed that it does feel like a relic. The object that is the record feels like it was ripped straight out of the animation. The main character is wearing this smock and essentially, that’s the record cover, this black and white pattern with this big green blob in the center. You’re getting these eye-popping moire patterns, which came out with the design of the record sleeve. So you have this little object that can help bring you into a different mental space.
PB That smock is a cloak that the artist wears in the show after it’s been squirted with green screen juice by the professor. (laughter)
JAB One of my favorite parts of the piece is that slime moment. It looks beautiful and sounds great.
PB Yeah, it was good Foley work.
JAB That’s a real slime sound, believe it or not.
I like that there’s not very much information in the record. You kind of have to have seen the show to really know what it is. Without seeing it, it’s really up to interpretation, which I think is great—people can have their own experience.
PB When I first listened to the record, I was at Eric Carlson’s house and he doesn’t have his speakers set to stereo pan. It was a completely different situation from when I’m listening to the Lucky Dragons side on my headphones. It needs to be listened to in a really precise way for it to function in the way it is intended to. (laughter)
JAB I think that’s okay. It’s very much like your live show. There are a few different versions of it, but to get the “full” experience you need a fog machine and lasers.
PB With the live performance, as an audience member you are making a certain commitment, you are putting energy into actively viewing this experience. And I think listening to that side of the record asks for an active style of listening.
JAB It’s not like the act of listening to a rock record, where you can just kind of nod your head and jam along. You really have to tune in and think about it, I suppose. You could also throw it on in the background, though.
LF It brings up the question about whether artifacts are something that are produced by experience, or whether the artifacts themselves generate new experiences. And if you invest one kind of energy into being present with live performance, maybe the artifact should demand that kind of investment. If you give it that attention, then it will produce a third experience.
FC That’s what I love about soundtracks. After having seen Special Effect, either live or the film, you can take this soundtrack record and you can put in on in any context. You can put it on in the background or put it on and listen deeply and intently. You can invoke the feeling of the entirety just from the sound track. That, to me, is why I love sound tracks in general.
LF You try to rebuild the image.
FC It brings that feeling, or in this case brings that feeling of being in the Zone, or of meditating on what the Zone is.
LF Postcards from the Zone. (laughter)
JAB That’s what this kind of is, a little postcard from the Zone.
John Also Bennett is an artist and musician based in Brooklyn, New York. He has been releasing music as Seabat with Forest Christenson since 2010 and is a member of the synth trio FORMA. He has collaborated with numerous artists internationally and recently launched the Vestibule record label. He is currently preparing new releases from Seabat and Forma, as well as new collaborations with Peter Burr, and the ambient composer Christina Vantzou.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.