Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. You have spoken before of the musicians in the metro, many of whom are in your film. There are many musicians in the metro. With your musical compositions have you made a relationship between the great composers of music and the musicians inside the metro?

A. In “Metro Boulot Dodo,” there’s a black man who plays bongos with wooden spoons used as drum sticks as he sings, and the music that I composed based on the sounds of drums, marimba, violins and bass accompanies him.

Yes, my own composition is influenced by classical instruments and perhaps a mix of formal musical composing and something by far more loose and open. To what extent these musicians I have photographed, recorded and videotaped are to be taken seriously musically, or that my own compositions are, is one matter. Who knows whether if Mozart were alive today he would be performing for spare change inside of a metro. There is a beautiful painting by a French artist I once saw of Van Gogh sitting alone at the rear seat of an otherwise empty metro car in Paris. One might also consider the relationship between these mostly amateur buskers and pop/rock stars and MTV video clips. Such video clips are essentially advertisements for the musicians, singers and current pop music hits. My video clips toy in some ways with this formula, perhaps in one sense as a satire, but more directly my purpose is both documentary and artistic. Near the end of the film there is a scene of the camera panning over the gravestone of Frederic Chopin in Paris superimposed over a scene of riding inside of a train of the Warsaw Metro, the music I composed at that moment based on the instrumental sounds of an accordion.

I composed all of the music around Paquito based on classical guitar sounds and he becomes the singer. So, I make the relationship this way, but also as already briefly mentioned, I have always looked at music in terms of my own compositions as if I were a painter. This is also what technology gave me an opportunity to explore, something I never otherwise would have done because I’m not a trained composer. I do have musical skills that while basically self-taught have been developed over many years. My way of learning, by ear, is entirely intuitive and this is why composing for me has come quite naturally. Give me almost anything with a fairly predictable melody structure and I can improvise to it on guitar instantly. I cannot tell you to this day what are the notes on a keyboard or even of the middle four strings of a guitar. Thus, perhaps this opens me to a complete acceptance of all sources of music, be they metro musicians or highly educated professionals, at least to the extent that they serve an artistic purpose, and this is a very important distinction. I thought of this idea of the many influences of sound in the underground as an exploration of the idea of music, music in its every sense, not being restricted by definitions. It must be classical, it must be rock, it must be techno, it must be documentary, it must be minimalist, it must be abstract expressionist, electroacoustic, techno. I just wanted an open canvas, as a painter, to explore sound, to explore music, explore anything creative that I want.

Q. You have said that the music can be rock, classical, etc. etc. Are the sounds inside the metro also music?

A. For me the process was just to record sound then listen to it and edit it in my own way to include it with what I was composing to add a musical element. The screeching sounds of the rubber tires in the Paris Metro, for example, became in more than one of my compositions a part of the music.

“Mind the Gap” is based on sounds of trains entering and leaving a station in London, which for me became the base of the percussion. Then I added drum sounds from the synthesizer to that, blending the two together.

As I mentioned before, sometimes the buzzer or bell would be in the same melody as the composition. In the very first moment of my film, which is the title scene, you hear the sound of a pipe organ which is the same note as the buzzer of the Paris Metro. You hear them both at the same time, they both stop simultaneously and then you hear a train door close.

Q. When you had your live music show, how did you do it?

A. In the live performance this was quite difficult to achieve. The videotape which is projected has on it the sampled sounds from the underground as well as some of the instrumental sounds, most of them the electronic sounds, but not always. In two cases the digital piano sound from the synthesizer is recorded, for example. The musicians play the parts that are not recorded. Some of the live sound is quite different from the recordings that you hear on the finished film. Almost all of it in the film was done with one synthesizer. I tried to be as open as possible with the musicians so we could interpret it as we felt. Also when I composed some of the music I was thinking about how it could be interpreted as live music. I wanted this to be open to alter the feel of it according to the circumstances. In the live show there were ten musicians, about half rock musicians playing electric guitars, bass and drums and the others classical musicians.

What we had to do was watch TV monitors in front of us which showed the same video projected behind us that the audience would see. We had to learn to play in perfect rhythm to the video. Every scene in the video is cut precisely to the beat of the music. So, we had to learn to follow it in this way.

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