Leah Singer on Michael Snow’s groundbreaking film and the Chinatown loft where it was made
Snow’s stature in the late 1960s was elevated by the success of the film, but his life as an artist didn’t start or end there. He had first found a calling in music. A high-school love of jazz eventually led to professional gigs and tours and a lifetime of playing— right up to the end—with his enduring improvisational ensemble CCMC. He studied design at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and later pursued painting, sculpture and bookmaking, producing an extensive body of work that made him one of the most celebrated artists of his generation and a major cultural figure in Canada.
The creation of Wavelength synthesized Snow's interests and crystallized his vision. In a 1968 letter to the film historian P. Adams Sitney and the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, Snow had this realization: “It was like a crisis of all the things that I’d been doing. A lot of things came together.… the effect the film had on other people [helped] me to realize myself as perhaps essentially [a] timelight- sound poet.” Time-light-soundpoet. That description seems apt—Snow navigated his life with full sensory awareness and maintained the commitment to express it in everything he did.
In the letter, Snow said that while he knew Wavelength was a great work, he also fully expected it to disappear. Instead, the film gained a visibility rarely achieved in avant-garde cinema. At the insistence of Mekas—who spearheaded an experimental film program called Film-Makers’ Cinematheque—the film was submitted to the fourth edition of EXPRMNTL, a legendary underground film and culture festival held in Knokke-le- Zoute, Belgium.
On the registration form, Snow responded to the question “In what sense is the film experimental?” by simply typing in bold caps, “IT IS NEW.” Wavelength ended up taking the top prize; in fact, it beat out a short student film, The Big Shave, by an emerging filmmaker named Martin Scorsese. Remembering the experience years later, Scorsese called Wavelength “great stuff.”
As a statement for EXPRMNTL, Snow used this defining explanation of the film:
Wavelength was shot in one week Dec. ’66 preceeded by a year of notes, thots, mutterings. It was edited and first print seen in May ’67. I wanted to make a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings, and aesthetic ideas. I was thinking of, planning for a time monument in which the beauty and sadness of equivalence would be celebrated, thinking of trying to make a definitive statement of pure Film space and time, a balancing of “illusion” and “fact”, all about seeing. The space starts at the camera’s (spectator’s) eye, is in the air, then is on the screen, then is within the screen (the mind). The film is a continuous zoom, which takes 45 minutes to go from its widest field to its smallest and final field. It was shot with a fixed camera from one end of an 80-foot loft, shooting the other end, a row of windows and the street. This, the setting, and the action which takes place there are cosmically equivalent. The room (and the zoom) are interrupted by 4 human events including a death. The sound on these occasions is sync sound, music and speech, occurring simultaneously with an electronic sound, a sine wave, which goes from its lowest (50 cycles per second) note to its highest (12000 c.p.s.) in 40 minutes. It is a total glissando while the film is a crescendo and a dispersed spectrum, which attempts to utilize the gifts of both prophecy and memory, which only film and music have to offer.
In her 1979 essay About Snow, the film scholar Annette Michelson wrote that Wavelength “broke upon the world with the force, [and] the power of conviction which define[s] a new level of enterprise, a threshold in the evolution of a medium.” Snow’s peers were equally exultant; Mekas called the film “electrifying.” But for all the praise the film received, it was also polarizing; it tested the patience of audiences and challenged expectations about cinema, especially around narrative structures and traditional storytelling conceits. Years earlier, Andy Warhol had made durational silent films like Sleep and Empire, which likewise dispensed with convention. But Wavelength seemed to hit a particular nerve. It also introduced sound as an integral part; the shrill sine wave plays out like a nagging hangnail.
At a packed screening in Amsterdam around the time of the film’s release, audience members were so outraged they tried to rip the screen down. Snow’s reaction was predictably insouciant: “It doesn’t really bother me, but obviously you can’t really groove on a film when people are trying to pull the screen down.”
Snow described the film as containing four “human events.” Each are fleeting and include in sequence: two men (Roswell Rudd and Naota Nakagawa) carry in a bookshelf and a woman (Joyce Wieland) gives instructions on where to put it; two women enter and one (Lynn Grossman) closes the window while the other (Joyce Wieland) turns on the radio; a man (Hollis Frampton) falls to the ground, dead, after the sound of breaking glass is heard; and finally a woman (Amy Taubin) enters and makes a phone call to announce the death.
In a way, Snow teases the audience by including these sparse dramatic scenes—their very existence creates tension and release, not unlike what happens over the course of a musical composition when the music intensifies, raising the expectation that it will resolve. Such tension propels music forward, and in Wavelength it advances with the slow-moving zoom, ceasing only when the film is over.
Snow moved to New York in 1962 with his then wife, the filmmaker and artist Joyce Wieland, because he believed “the neurotic basis of the evolution of man is much more apparent there than anywhere else in the world and I fit in.”
After being forced out of their first loft on Greenwich Street—the neighborhood was being demolished to make way for the construction of the World Trade Center— they relocated to nearby Chambers Street, a burgeoning mecca for experimental artists. In 1960, Yoko Ono was among the first arrivals, moving into a top-floor loft at 112 Chambers. From December 1960 to June 1961, she organized the Chambers Street Loft Series with the composer La Monte Young, presenting music from Henry Flynt and the first solo performance by the dancer Simone Forti, among others.
Snow and Wieland arrived at 123 Chambers in 1964 and were surrounded by likeminded artists. Rudd, the jazz trombonist, lived across the street and played with Albert Ayler on the free-jazz soundtrack to Snow’s 1964 film New York Ear and Eye Control. The filmmaker Ken Jacobs—who lent Snow the 16mm camera, Angenieux zoom lens and outdated film stock (Snow was curious about its unpredictability) for Wavelength— lived a block away with his wife, Flo. He is credited in the film as “aid.” The composer Steve Reich lived around the corner, as did the artist Richard Serra, an ardent fan of the film, as expressed in this comment from a 1979 interview with Michelson:
He had an interest in my sculpture and I became one of the in-the-neighborhood audience[s] for his films… When I went to Europe… I took Wavelength with me and showed it in various places… I showed it at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where it stopped the house … I showed Wavelength twelve times, not because I thought I was Michael Snow’s promoter, but because I really wanted to see the film again and again… I thought it was an important film… the most interesting thing that was happening.
In addition to his Chambers Street loft, Snow rented a studio on the second floor of a five-story building at 300 Canal Street a few blocks away, a building that still stands today. He kept the studio until 1972, by which time he and Wieland had moved back to Toronto. The studio had four northfacing double-sash windows; each sash had four rectangular window panes. The windows are, in a sense, the stars of Wavelength; their appearance changes frequently depending on the light and film stock used.
Snow was interested in dualities: interior/exterior; back/forth; still/ moving; silent/loud; and he reliably looked to windows and frames as structures to convey these polarities. This is evident in earlier works like Morningside Heights (1965), for which he constructed a stand-alone window to view his painting, positioned on an opposing wall. It’s impossible to look at his immense body of work after Wavelength and not to think about the framed windows in the artworks Blind (1968), Authorization (1969), 8 x 10 (1969), Glares (1973) and The Squerr (Ch’art) (1978), to name just a few, all echo the studio windows.
It’s amazing how windows are influential. They seem like metaphors for the eyes in the head; when you’re in the house you’re looking out the eyes and we are the brains. That was one thing I was thinking about in making Wavelength.
—Snow, from a 1978 interview with Pierre Théberge for Michael Snow, the catalogue for an exhibition of photographs and films organized by the Centre George Pompidou.
At the time of his move to New York, Snow was embarking on a wide-ranging series called Walking Woman, which revolved around a life-size silhouette of a female figure with hands, feet and head slightly cut off, as if once framed. The figure showed up in a variety of mediums: as paintings, ads in newspapers, drawings tucked into books, signs and rubber stamps and portable sculpture in the street. It notably appears as the protagonist in New York Eye and Ear Control (1964).
Snow ended the seven-year series with the fabrication of an eleven-figure stainless steel Walking Woman sculpture, made for Montreal’s “Expo 67.” But the last hurrah for these ubiquitous artworks can be seen in the final sequence of Wavelength. Snow tacked two photographs of the Walking Woman between the windows, above the penultimate image of ocean waves that overtakes Wavelength in its final scene. Snow enjoyed living near the water. In Toronto he was not far from Lake Ontario, and for decades he summered in Newfoundland in an isolated cabin he designed and built with Wieland that overlooked the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 1967, the year Wavelength was released, he completed Atlantic, a large wall sculpture composed of thirty gelatin silver prints of the ocean’s waves, fitted into reflective metal boxes stacked six across and five down. Each photograph was taken from the same spot at different times during a single day, allowing for slight variations in the wave patterns. One of the photographs taken that day is seen at the end of Wavelength.
When Reich needed artwork for his 1970 album release, Four Organs/Phase Patterns, he thought of Wavelength and asked if he could use the photograph. Shandar, a French music label, released the album with Snow’s photograph on the cover.
Just below the tacked photographs is a chair with bent chrome legs; Snow painted it yellow specifically for the film. No one sits on it during the film—it functions instead as a focal point or a distraction throughout the long zoom. Snow didn’t place any importance on the chair. As far as he was concerned, “The image of the yellow chair has as much ‘value’ in its own world as the girl closing the window.” In a letter to critic Thierry de Duve in 1994, Snow suggested that maybe there was no yellow chair or even a room for that matter—putting the cinematic experience deeper into the metaphysical. But he also called the yellow chair the film's hero.
Sitney told me that in Snow’s film Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974), it is Sitney's own maniacal laugh heard on the soundtrack, emanating from the same yellow chair seen in Wavelength.
Sitney coined the term “structural filmmaking” to describe a form “in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is the shape which is the primal impression of the film.” He further declared Snow the “dean of the structural filmmakers.” In an upcoming book, Sitney revisits the backlash the term provoked among critics and academics, and he takes the time to consider his concept as he understood it then and understands it now. The yellow chair is a witness.
[Snow] overlayed [the laugh] on an image of the microphone placed in front of the vinyl yellow chair in his studio, suggesting that the chair couldn’t stop laughing its ass off. That was an even more pointed jab at my critical folly; for that very chair stood prominently against the back wall in Snow’s Wavelength (1967). I had written of the film with gushing enthusiasm and even constructed around it my most notorious article, “Structural Film.” … I took Wavelength to be the emblematic instance of a sea-change in the aesthetics of the American avant-garde cinema … comparing it to films by Hollis Frampton, Joyce Wieland, Paul Sharits, Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopoulos, and George Landow. All hell broke loose (a tempest in a teapot). The filmmakers I included were all offended to be “lumped together.” Those I didn’t mention were even more annoyed. Academics decried my use of the adjective “structural” because of its potential (mis) association with French Structuralism, and film scholars complained I had misrepresented the collective phenomenon … From the filmmaker’s point of view, the chair, the last threedimensional object one sees in Wavelength, couldn’t stop laughing.
—Sitney, from Marvelous Names in Literature and Cinema, forthcoming from Crescent Moon Publishing
The chair turns up once again in 1956, A Videoprint (1974), where it serves as an experiment in distortion, as Snow transmits the chair on a CRT television monitor while manipulating its form by holding up a magnet to the screen. The chair appears bent and twisted by the electronic disruption. Sixteen different morphed states of the chair were photographed and presented as a 4x4 grid for a photolithographic print. The title of the work could easily be a reference to the first film Snow made in 1956—A to Z, an animation of two chairs fucking—created while he was working for George Dunning, best known for directing the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
Snow’s wife, the writer and critic Peggy Gale, pointed out that the print is tinted red, which may allude to the chair’s original color before Snow painted it yellow. The other red chairs from the set live on today around the kitchen table and in Snow’s office. The yellow chair from Wavelength remains in storage.
Snow considered a few possible names for the film—as evidenced by a note found in his archive —including the title 300 Canal Street. A fan of punning and wordplay, he eagerly pointed out the inherent pun of the film’s chosen title: A movie about a zoom that travels the length of a loft until it reaches a photograph of ocean waves, while the intensifying sound of a sine wave grows louder. He considered the sine wave’s glissando to be the aural equivalent of the camera’s zoom, suggesting that they shared a conical shape and moved in opposition to each other.
Snow’s original intention was to play a ¼-inch audio tape of the sine wave on a reel-to-reel tape deck live during the screening, assuming that he would be present on the rare occasion when the film was invited to play somewhere. He did this for some early screenings, but once the movie became a sensation, he had to marry the sine wave to the rest of the film's optical track.
Reich saw Wavelength in 1968 and was moved to write down his impressions, which he later included in his Writings on Music 1965-2000. He went through the film from start to finish, taking extra care to comment on the sound. According to interviews with Snow, Reich had originally mailed these thoughts to him and requested a meeting; they didn’t know each other at the time. Reich doesn’t recall how they met, suggesting that it may well have been in the neighborhood, out on the street, the two hitting it off right away, Reich pointing and saying, “Hey, you did Wavelength!” and Snow crying out, “You did Come Out!” They immediately liked each other and became friends.
For the seminal 1969 "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Reich and Snow were invited to participate in a companion film and performance series. Reich performed two pieces, Piano Phase and Pendulum Music, which featured Richard Serra, James Tenney, Bruce Nauman and Michael Snow as performers. Snow’s contribution to the series consisted of two film premieres: < - - - > [known as Back and Forth] (1969) and One Second in Montreal (1969). In a recent conversation with me, Reich spoke about Wavelength’s lasting impact on his work:
Snow wanted unplanned chaos in the midst of systematic thinking, even the film itself; it’s a zoom in a room but if it was just a zoom in a room it could have been kind of boring. The fact that a murder mystery is thrown in makes it a masterpiece and then “Strawberry Fields Forever” cuts in and there’s the glissando. That combination of factors really helped me to want to thicken the plot harmonically in my own music.
Although Snow was intent on using diegetic, or actual, sound he had to make an exception when the radio was turned on:
When I shot the film, I knew that as far as the sound and the images went, I had to accept what the traffic was going to do. So when these two women go in and one of them turns on the radio, I felt that I had to accept whatever sound came through in the same way that I accepted the sound from the street. But what came out was “Little Drummer Boy” by Joan Baez, which I really hated. I just couldn’t see that it had any place in the film. If she had turned on the radio and it was scrambled news, I would have used it because it was coming in from outside, but then I was faced with having to make a choice. “Strawberry Fields” had just come out and seemed appropriate
—Snow, from an interview with Border Crossings magazine, May 2007.
At the beginning of Wavelength, Rudd and Nakagawa are seen moving an empty bookshelf into the studio. The scene is quick, barely thirty seconds long. Nakagawa lived above Snow and Wieland on Chambers Street and ended up in the film totally by accident. Snow had called him very early one morning and asked him to come to Canal Street to be in a film he was shooting that day. Apparently, someone else hadn’t shown up, and Snow was desperate to find a replacement.
Nakagawa had been to the Canal Street studio before and remembers seeing Blind, a large walk-in sculpture of patterned metal fencing, which Frampton later commemorated in his film Snowblind. Snow didn’t entertain much at the studio, but he and Wieland were known to throw big parties on Chambers Street. A notable one, in 1969, honoring Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, featured a performance by the drummer Milford Graves and included celebrity guests like Gloria Steinem, Eli Wallach and Robert Lowell.
Just as the yellow chair was part of a family of objects Snow kept close at hand, so was the bookshelf. Snow suggested the empty bookshelf had a “metaphoric connection” with the studio windows, which also tended to look empty for most of the film.
In A Casing Shelved (1970) the same bookshelf seen in Wavelength comes to hold a willy-nilly mess of art materials, tools and other objects. Technically, A Casing Shelved is not a film but a projected 35mm slide, accompanied by a soundtrack played on a ¼-inch tape deck, from which we hear Snow’s voice giving a detailed accounting of the objects sitting on the shelves.
That particular thing, the bookshelf, I kept on thinking I’d had it for a long time and I’d just kept on enjoying it as if it were a painting, a work of art, and once I just snuck up on it and took the Instamatics that are actually in that slide. I didn’t know quite what to do about it… I finally took the slide and then that tied into the idea of the sound. What interested me also was that all the stuff that’s there is not art, but it’s art-related, because it has to do with the other stuff that I did that I called art.
—Snow, from a taped interview with John Du Cane in London, 1972. Published in Studio International 186, no. 960 (November 1973)
A Casing Shelved, like Wavelength, was made at 300 Canal Street. It was the last film work Snow made in the building before he gave up the studio. The contents of the bookshelf— as facets of a life—could serve as a symbolic portrait: paint cans, paper coffee cups, a hanger, a shovel, lightbulbs, something in a brown crumpled bag. Is that a photograph of the ocean? Are those flowers?
Leah Singer is an experimental artist and writer from Winnipeg. Based in New York, she works in film, print, words and jewelry.