Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Erwin Blumenfeld and Bill Evans - Superimposition and Overdubbing [From the Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Even when he pursued more mainstream efforts, [Lennie] Tristano seemed doomed to get caught up in controversy and partisan jazz debates. His 1955 recordings of Line Up and Turkish Mambo for the Atlantic label employed overdubbing and tape manipulation. Critics complained that Tristano "sped up" the tape of Line Up, and the resulting brouhaha prevented many from hearing the riveting brilliance of the improvisation. Played at any speed, it stands out as one of the finest jazz piano performances of the era.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, p. 252.

Conversations with Myself has aroused sometimes fierce views both for and against its approach, but in an age when overdubbing is more or less the norm in record-making, its musicality is more important.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz On CD

“Evans used the overdubbing concept as a creative force, the three "voices" operating at different dynamic levels, initiated by his touch, and closely controlled by Creed Taylor's chosen engineer, Ray Hall. Often, a harmonic track functioned like a watercolorists background plane, a subdued level upon which lead voices could "perform" in highlighted tone. These might be improvised melodic lines, or fragmentary comments etched in crystal octaves. Sometimes a walking bass took over a chorus or two. The roles were also exchanged, the harmonic layer, perhaps, turning up in a different voice later on. In this regard, Evans achieved a feat of memory that took in the overall view. He even managed to breathe in unison with himself, as in the uncanny, threefold-synchronized phrasing of “A Sleepin' Bee.” …

“This monumental venture was a feat of endurance from the ailing pianist. He began to suffer from heroin withdrawal during the sessions, but he insisted on completing the job. Helen Keane and Gene Lees, deferring to his resolve, turned the lights down low and lent their heartfelt encouragement.

Although some listeners resist what they consider to be overkill, preferring Evans to communicate directly with them rather than with himself, it remains a work of staggering resource and beauty, appreciated especially (but not only) by professional pianists. Early the following year, the album brought Evans his first Grammy Award, and Britain's Melody Maker voted it jazz record of the year for 1964.”
- Peter Pettinger, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings [pp. 143-144]

To take just two examples from the World of Art: when does Jazz or photography become less an artistic endeavor and more a gimmick? When do they lose their pure form and become a contrivance, a ploy, a publicity stunt? When do they reach a point of losing intrinsic merit in order to attract attention, arguably for commercial benefit?

For most of us, I think the answer to these questions becomes something along the lines of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Some of us have more tolerance of things that entertain us such as Jazz or photography being presented in other than a “pure” form. For others, any alteration is sacrilegious

Overdubbing in music, especially in Jazz, and superimposition, particularly in photography, are two examples of altering the purity of a form of art that generally evoke outcries of deception, trickery and manipulation, especially if the artists involved reap a financial gain through such means.

I always thought that such protests were lame in the extreme and that the answer lay in the results that are achieved by the overdubbing, in the case of recorded Jazz, and via the superimposition, as relates to the finished photographs.

I prefer to view the end results of overdubbing and superimposition as the creation of a new texture: in the case of Jazz, a new sonority; in the case of photography, a new finish or feel or tone.

My line of inquiry in search of an answer to these questions was prompted by my recent discovery of the photographs of Erwin Blumenfeld and my rediscovery of two albums by pianist Bill Evans Conversations with Myself [Verve 821-984-2] and Further Conversations with Myself [Verve 314 559 832-2].

Both Blumenfeld and Evans received severed criticism for their supposed alterations of the sacrosanct processes of making Jazz and photography.

So I thought it would be great fun to compound the matter even further by putting Bill’s overdubbed piano and Erwin’s superimposed photographs together in the video that you will find at the end of this feature.

Bill Evans may be more widely known to the Jazz fans who visit this site, so here’s some background information on Erwin Blumenfeld from Lori Cole which she wrote for the Modernism Inc exhibit of his work in San Francisco, CA which ran from
November 4/2010 - February 26/2011.

“A Dadaist collagist–turned-photographer, Erwin Blumenfeld began publishing his fashion shoots in magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan in the late 1930s. Working with print solarization and superimposition, and using mirrors and gauzy fabrics to divide photographic space, Blumenfeld transformed both the models and their clothes into collage-like elements. In Fashion Collage, ca. 1950 — which depicts a woman laden with boxes, her head covered by a blank white spot, standing against a backdrop of New York City — he flaunts each fragment that makes up the work. In Nude in Stockings, New York, 1945, he isolates a model’s fishnet-clad legs from her torso, defamiliarizing the body as he emphasizes the product’s texture.

Blumenfeld creatively manipulated available technology to produce these images, posing a woman in black gloves and a dainty hat behind a chain-link fence to fracture her in Model with Black Gloves and Hat (for Vogue), Paris, 1939. In his works, the disjointed facets of collage are most often staged using mirrors. The model in Dayton Ad, New York, 1955, looks at her multiple reflections in the mirror, mimicking and returning the gaze of the viewer. This replication culminates in Kaleidoscope, 1961, in which a pinwheel of mirrors splinters the figure, recasting her as a design motif.

Spanning the artist’s commercial photography career through the 1960s, these vintage gelatin silver prints are rounded out with a few color images reissued by the artist’s heirs for the exhibition. In Red Cross (cover for Vogue), 1945, the model’s shadowy body melts into the cross that segments the space, with only the green of her hat distinguishable from the red lines that structure her. Sleek, off-kilter, and provocative, Blumenfeld’s fashion photographs showcase the artist’s fluency with Dadaist vernacular as much as the clothes he helped to promote.”

And, following the 2013 exhibition of his work at Jeu de Paume in Paris [which travel to Moscow in February, 2014], Blumenfeld was also the subject of this feature article in The Economist Magazine [November 9th-15th 2013].

The photographs of Erwin Blumenfeld
Tres glam
A self-taught, self-made genius

“ErWIN BLUMENFELD arrived in New fork in 1941 with a suitcase, little English and no professional training as a photographer. Aged 44 and undaunted, he went on to reinvent both himself and fashion photography. He created over a hundred startlingly original magazine covers and countless fashion shots for the slick pages of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. His images mirrored the energy and excitement of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s.

For a Vogue cover from January 1950, Blumenfeld used fierce light to erase a model's features, leaving only an eye, a mouth and a beauty spot. Another cover, this time to raise money for the Red Cross after the second world war, superimposed a translucent red cross over the blurred figure of a model in a turquoise hat (pictured).

"His images are sometimes so complex, it's hard to figure out how he did it," says Ute Eskildsen, curator of a retrospective of over 300 of his works at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. The show will then travel to the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow in February 2014.

Blumenfeld's inventive images earned him fame as "the best-paid photographer in the world". Yet he chose only four fashion photographs for his book, My One Hundred Best Photos, published in 1981 (he died in 1969). He yearned to be taken seriously as an artist, and began experimenting with the medium during his pre-war years in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. On view are hitherto unseen drawings influenced by his friend George Grosz, a leader of the Berlin Dada movement, as well as collages made from his own photographs and magazine cut-outs. Blumenfeld's surrealist image of Adolf Hitler, his face distorted by a skull, covered millions of American propaganda leaflets dropped over Germany in 1942.

A series of nudes illustrates his fascination with the female form. Often headless, these naked women appear remote and mysterious, owing to Blumenfeld's use of mirrors, diaphanous fabrics and solarisation (a darkroom technique that inverts the lights and darks of an image). They reveal the influence of avant-garde photographers such as Man Ray, whose work he saw in Paris in the 19305. Blumenfeld's 1937 masterpiece, "Nude Under Wet Silk", earned him some art-world notoriety when it was published in Verve magazine.

Born in 1897 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Berlin, he got a camera for his tenth birthday. Aged 14, he shot a playful self-portrait dressed as the sad clown Pierrot, holding a mirror to his face to create a double image. "I wanted to be a photographer, pure and simple," he later wrote.

His aspirations turned practical after his father's death in 1913. Blumenfeld worked first for a Berlin garment manufacturer, then drove an ambulance in the first world war, yet he floundered in any job that did not involve film. After getting married in 1921, he set up a handbag shop in Amsterdam, and struggled to get by. He took advantage of a disused darkroom to experiment with portraits and nudes. "Blumenfeld was entirely self-taught, which is why his images have this unique, free-thinking quality," observes Ms Eskildsen.

Upon moving to Paris in 1936 he set up a studio with the help of an art dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt. A magazine cover for Votre Beaute’ and an exhibition at the Galerie Billiet prompted a studio visit from Cecil Beaton, an English photographer, who swiftly secured Blumenfeld a contract with French Vogue. "His merit as an artist lies in the fact he is incapable of compromise," Beaton noted. One of Blumenfeld's best-known black-and-white spreads, published in Vogue in 1939, features a model perched on the edge of the Eiffel Tower, her flimsy dress fluttering in the breeze.

When war broke out in September that year, Blumenfeld was interned in a series of camps, including Le Vernet. He finally escaped with his family to New York two years later. Studios replete with staff and equipment awaited him, along with a contract with Harper's Bazaar.

This comprehensive exhibition traces a lifetime of creativity. Yet the visitor is ineluctably drawn to the self-confident glamour and colour of Blumenfeld's New York years devoted to fashion and advertising. This is where his true genius is visible. Blumenfeld helped define the way America saw itself-a remarkable feat for a man who described himself as "un-American for ever".

On the subject of the role and relevance of overdubbing in Jazz, Bill Evans felt so strongly in support of this technique that he wrote these liner notes to Conversations with Myself:

A STATEMENT... There is a viewpoint which holds that any recorded music which cannot also be produced in natural live performance is a "gimmick" and therefore should not be considered as a pure musical effort.

Because the performance and recording procedure used in this recording might stimulate this issue to a question in some minds, I requested the opportunity to state my firm belief in the integrity of the idea upon which this album was conceived and some supporting reasons.

To the person who uses music as a medium for the expression of ideas, feelings, images, or what have you; anything which facilitates this expression is properly his instrument. Though one can argue that sirens, airplane motors, ratchets, whistles, etc. are justified more on dramatic than musical grounds, no such question is raised here. In my opinion the only solid and interesting question that the music making here presents is that of whether this should be regarded as a group or solo musical performance.

Until the evolution of jazz group improvisation the history of Western music or music as we know it outside of jazz represents the reflection of one psyche. For the first time in a music of Western origin, jazz group improvisation represents the very provocative revelation of two, three, four, or five minds responding simultaneously to each other in a unified coherent performance.

I remember that in recording the selections, as 1 listened to the first track while playing the second, and the first two while playing the third, the process involved was an artificial duplication of simultaneous performance in that each track represented a musical mind responding to another musical mind or minds.

The argument that the same mind was involved in all three performances could be advanced, but I feel that this is not quite true. The functions of each track are
different, and as one in speech feels a different state of mind making statements than in responding to statements or commenting on the exchange involved in the first two; so I feel that the music here has more the quality of a "trio" than a solo effort.

Another condition to be considered is the fact that I know my musical techniques more thoroughly than any other person, so that, it seems to me, I am equipped to respond to my previous musician statements with the most accuracy and clarity.
Yet, I hesitate to state this recorded result is identical to trio performance or more valuable aesthetically or in depth or intensity of emotion. It is in the end still the product of one subject.

Looking at this album in reference to the preceding paragraphs, it would be difficult or impossible to place it solidly in either the group or solo category. For me, the unique and enjoyable experience of recording it was answer enough, and as is always so the music contained therein is or is not the positive evidence of its genuine quality.

I must extend my heartfelt gratitude to Creed Taylor and the expert engineers who worked and waited patiently through so many hours of unanticipated mechanical and musical problems until they were solved and we could proceed to get down to music and recording.

If you are now about to listen, I hope that you will forget any extra-musical questions, though they are often quite entertaining, and allow what I sincerely hope to be an enjoyable and, perhaps, in some ways, unique musical experience to take place.


Recorded in January & February, 1963 Recording Engineer: Ray Hall Director of Engineering: Val Valentin Produced by: Creed Taylor.

In his award-winning book, Meet Me At Jim and Andy’s, Gene Lees offers this anecdotal background on Bill’s recording of Conversations with Myself:

“It was during that winter of 1962-63 that Bill got an idea for an overdubbed album in which he would play three pianos. Overdubbing was by now a widely used technique. It had been pioneered by Les Paul and Mary Ford, then used as a commercial gimmick by many singers, Patti Page among them. But it had rarely been used to serious artistic purpose. Neither Creed Taylor [in charge of Jazz artists and repertoire at MGM/Verve] nor Helen [Keane, Bill’s manager] nor I had any idea what Bill had in mind, but we took it on faith that he knew what he was doing. In January and February of 1963, the album was made in a series of remarkable sessions that made us all intensely aware of the clarity of Bill's musical thinking.

The album was recorded with the tape running at thirty inches per second. The industry standard was fifteen i.p.s., but the higher speed would more accurately capture Bill's tone. The album was made at Webster Hall, and the engineer was Ray Hall. Bill was playing Glenn Gould's Steinway.

Ray would tape Bill's first track. Bill was particularly fussy about the first one. He said that if that wasn't right, the other two couldn't be. Then, listening in headphones to what he had played before, he would add the second track, and finally a third.The four of us in the control booth—Ray, Creed, Helen, and I—were constantly open-mouthed at what was going on. On the second track, Bill would play some strangely appropriate echo of something he'd done on the first. Or there would be some flawless pause in which all three pianists were perfectly together; or some deft run fitted effortlessly into a space left for it. I began to think of Bill as three Bills: Bill Left Channel, Bill Right, and Bill Center.

Bill Left would lay down the first track, stating the melody and launching into an improvisation for a couple of choruses, after which he would move into an accompanist's role, playing a background over which Bill Center would later play his solo. His mind obviously was working in three dimensions of time simultaneously, because each Bill was anticipating and responding to what the other two were doing. Bill Left was hearing in his head what Bill Center and Bill Right were going to play a half hour or so from now, while Bill Center and Bill Right were in constant communication with a Bill Left who had vanished into the past a half hour or an hour before. The sessions took on a feeling of science-fiction eeriness.

In the acclaim for his tone and his lyricism, it is easy to overlook Bill's time. By this point in his life, it had become extremely subtle. But it was there. Bill made several basic tracks on Alex North's Love Theme from "Spartacus." Bill had seen the film with Scott LaFaro, liked the theme, began performing it, and added it to the jazz repertoire. He somewhat altered the release of the tune. After he'd made about six passes at it, Creed Taylor pushed the log sheet along the console to Helen, silently pointing to the times he had marked. Though there were retards and pauses in the music, the time on the first take was, say, five minutes and four seconds. The rest of the takes were 5:06, 5:04, 5:05, 5:06—never a variation of more than a second or two. The final take was 5:05.

Warren Bernhardt had said that Bill always played the essence of a melody. But on "Spartacus," he was playing more than the essence of a love theme, he was playing the essence of love itself, the essence of all tenderness. You love a woman with this feeling, or the autumn or a sunrise or a child.”

Many of the photographs discussed in the two essays on Erwin Blumenfeld are combined in the following video montage of his work and set to Bill Evans’ strikingly beautiful interpretation of composer Alex North’s Love Theme from the motion picture Spartacus.

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