New Sounds In Music: Continuing Conversations With Filmmaker Pieter Van Deusen

In the course of working with one of the world’s largest educational film and video collections, archives staff at IULMIA inevitably come across some extraordinary works that transcend the genre boundaries typical of classroom and educational films. Just a few recent examples turned up by  programmers combing through the collection for this semester’s Social Guidance Sundays screening series include the unforgettable 1962 scare film H-Bomb Over U.S., with its felt cutouts and burning doll’s heads, and two early 1970s 16mm prints of Lillian Schwartz’s films UFOs and Pixillation,

While we do love the reliable formulas of narration, diagrams, and demonstrations found in classics from Coronet and Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the cinephile within us is drawn to those classroom films where the creative, individual touch of the filmmaker manages to shine through.  There may be no place and time better than California in the late 60s where the spirit of creative personal filmmaking crossed over into educational productions, and the output of Churchill Films is exemplary is this respect.

Pieter Van Deusen working on String Sounds
Pieter Van Deusen at work on String Sounds

IULMIA’s previous blog post discussed the series of music films that Les Blank worked on for director Pieter Van Deusen and Churchill Films – a series that exemplifies the surprisingly adventurous and original filmmaking sometimes found in 16mm cans with seemingly undistinguished titles like String Sounds. These music films were a series created for the primary school classroom by a gifted group of filmmakers loosely connected through the USC School of Cinematic Arts, all working at in the overlapping worlds of industrial and independent filmmaking in southern California. Since our last post we’ve continued corresponding with filmmaker Pieter Van Deusen, who has generously shared his memories and photographs from his work on the music series. As promised, we’re featuring excerpts from another outstanding title in the series – New Sounds In Music – with some rare performances from the West Coast experimental music scene circa 1968.

New Sounds In Music, along with the other 4 titles in the Music series, were written, directed, and produced by Pieter Van Deusen for Churchill Films, the educational film company founded by Robert Churchill in Los Angeles.

Churchill Films Music Series promotion courtesy Pieter Van Deusen
Churchill Films Music Series promotion courtesy Pieter Van Deusen

Each of the films in the series takes an expanded view of “sound,” musical and non-musical, with special emphasis on children producing sounds with commonplace objects and homemade instruments (Percussion Sounds even features a performance by a Santa Monica children’s gamelan ensemble!). However New Sounds departs from the others in the series as it introduces young audiences to then-current varieties of “serious” avant-garde music, including chance composition, prepared piano, electronic synthesizers, tape music, and the invented instruments of composer Harry Partch.

The opening sequence of the film (shown in the clip above) features musician Christoper Tree, known for a few sought-after records and the subject of a 1967 short film by Les Blank and Van Deusen, in footage shot by Blank (whether it same performance and footage appearing in both films is still unknown). Pieter Van Deusen writes:

I’m not sure who knew knew about Chris Tree, but he was a natural for the series. And Les Blank was a natural to capture his performance on film. We chose to shoot it outdoors where Chris looked and acted as natural as a musician was allowed to look and act in those days…

At the time the music series was produced, Van Deusen had only been working for Churchill Films briefly, since writing and directing In A Medical Laboratory in 1966, a sponsored film “designed to get college students interested in that particular work environment,” according to Pieter. Shortly after this, Churchill produced three films on the Bill of Rights, Speech and Protest, Interrogation and Council, Search and Privacy, all written and directed by Van Deusen in 1967.

Pieter’s own varied background and accomplishments in music performance and composition likely contributed to Robert Churchill’s confidence in giving the young filmmaker nearly complete control over the production of the series of five music films that commenced in 1968. Pieter writes of the moderate success of his own early tape and musique concrete compositions, written after a mid-50s army stint and before entering USC film school:

I had also experimented with “electronic music” (more exactly–“musique concrete”) of my own in 1958, when I composed two pieces of tape music for Anna Halperin’s modern dance group in Marin County, CA.

The works were performed at venues around San Francisco, and eventually the Experimental Music Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair. During this time Pieter also describes visiting Harry Partch’s Sausalito studio to study his invented instruments. Pieter goes on to mention his role in no less a project than the Cinerama film To The Moon and Beyond alongside visual effects specialists John Whitney Sr. and Douglas Trumbull:

Then, in 1963, I wound up composing a sequence of music concrete for an amazing double sized (square) 70mm film projected on a giant dome (like at a planetarium) at the [1964-65] World’s Fair in New York…

His own tape compositions make appearances in two of his films for Churchill: Drugs and the Nervous System, and in the concluding sequence of New Sounds In Music. A portion of a performance event with musicians and students involved in the Mills Tape Music Center at Mills College in Oakland, CA, engaged in a spontaneous and participatory composition using gigantic analog synthesizers, begins this final section of New Sounds In Music:

New Sounds In Music,  lp issued by Churchill Films
New Sounds In Music, lp issued by Churchill Films

As noted in Churchill’s promotional flyer, above, several of the films in the series were released with an accompanying long playing record. While IULMIA isn’t fortunate enough to have a copy of any these records, evidence exists that copies of a New Sounds In Music record can be found. Among the tracks listed on the New Sounds record is a composition by Michael Tilson Thomas, which is conducted by the then-24-year-old composer in the film as well. Pieter writes:

At the time [Michael Tilson Thomas] was already conducting the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (…) He also took [assistant director] Kent and I to his converted garage in Studio City, where he kept his piano. There, he performed some Liszt for us as well as some ‘prepared piano’ improvisations. We decided that the best thing Michael could do for us was to get hold of a percussionist friend of his with whom he could improvise an original piano/percussion duet for New Sounds In Music

Along with this original work, New Sounds shows Tilson Thomas executing a performance of the chance composition, “The Knight’s Tour” by Fredrick Lesemann, requiring a chessboard and an invented form of abstract-geometric musical notation. Rounding out this 23-minute survey of the late 60s Californian avant-garde are a number of performances using invented instruments, such as Harry Partch’s Chromelodeon and Diamond Marimba.

The number of memorable and historically significant performances included in the 5 titles of the music series are enough to merit broader appreciation for these nearly 50-year-old films. Through Pieter Van Deusen’s graciousness and generosity in telling the stories of their making and adding to our understanding of these films, it’s our hope here at IULMIA that greater awareness and interest in these films will soon follow.

The body of work that Pieter Van Deusen went on to produce with Churchill over the next 20 years is no less remarkable than the films of the music series. Some highlights include A Kite Story, made with Roberto Chavez (whose animation in What Is Music? was featured in our earlier post), and The Voyage of Odysseus, a 1980 adaptation of Homer narrated by actress Julie Harris, and laboriously animated in three dimensions on the sides of vases, in the style of ancient Athenian vase painting.

Pieter and his partner Leah Miller continue to work on films, recently completing a long awaited independent project Netherby Naps, written by Pieter and shot entirely with a handheld 35mm Bell & Howell eyemo camera.

Pieter Van Deusen and Leah Miller at work on Netherby Naps
Pieter Van Deusen and Leah Miller at work on Netherby Naps

~Seth Mitter