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Soundtrack aweigh!

By Dave Chamberlain

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Every so often in music, you hear a composition or movement so profoundly interesting or challenging, it takes a year to fully appreciate the nuances of its appeal. In 1997 this space covered the release of a film by Braden King and Laura Moya, "Dutch Harbor," and the subsequent soundtrack that accompanied it. The film, a largely voyeuristic documentary about the Dutch Harbor fishing village on the Aleutian island Unalaska, uses black-and-white images to starkly portray life, both human and otherwise.

The soundtrack, released on Atavistic Records, merited attention because of the line-up that contributed largely improvised music under the nom de plume the Boxhead Ensemble: Joseph Ferguson (AFL), David Grubbs, Charles Kim (Pinetop Seven), Michael Krassner (ex-Pinetop Seven, AFL; also the soundtrack compiler), Ken Vandermark, Jim O'Rourke, Doug McCombs (Eleventh Dream Day, Tortoise), Rick Rizzo (Eleventh Dream Day), Will Oldham (Palace). The soundtrack was spare, haunting to a degree of melancholy.

Last year, a version of the Boxhead Ensemble toured Europe, providing musical accompaniment to screenings of the film. The tour included Kim, Krassner, Oldham, Vandermark, Edith Frost, Ryan Hembry (Pinetop Seven), Fred Lonberg-Holm, Julie Pommerleau, Scott Tuma, Mick Turner and Jim White. Last month, Atavistic released "The Last Place to Go," recordings from various venues on last year's screening tour. In some ways, "The Last Place to Go" surpasses the "Dutch Harbor" soundtrack. Although both are largely improvised works, the live recordings have a greater spontaneous sensation. Though neither work is by any means a mainstream musical experience, "The Last Place To Go" requires less concentration to enjoy - though, ironically, it is no less complex than the soundtrack.

Contributing to the success of "The Last Place to Go," no doubt, is the sound quality produced by the various venues. "Dust and Rain," a guitar-heavy number, billows with an almost psychedelic quality, thanks to an insignificant - but audible - echo that sifts off from the single notes reverberating off the walls at L'Olympic in Nantes, France. At the same venue, Julie Pommerleau's violin debates with Ken Vandermark's clarinet with an almost arching, chamber sound. One is reminded that the music is accompanying the film only on the title track, in which the subtle hum of the movie projector becomes an instrument integral to the song.

For the first time in Chicago, there will be a screening of "Dutch Harbor" with musical accompaniment (the movie has screened here before, though without live music).

The line-up will consist of Krassner, Tuma, Hembry, Grubbs, Lonberg-Holm and Boxhead newcomer Jim Becker. According to King, the screening will not specifically attempt to recreate the European tour. "This will actually be a much more controlled, and, in many ways, refined version of what happened in Europe," says King, responding via e-mail from Amsterdam. "Michael [Krassner] is working to construct a situation where, while still quite improvisational, more care and forethought is put into the planning of the shows. There will be a greater deal of interaction between the live musicians and the film's actual soundtrack, and, ideally, a more controlled situation all around, built upon our experiences in Europe."

On one hand, it's incredible that this represents the first "total" screening of "Dutch Harbor" and its music in the city that is home to the filmmakers and the record and home video labels. On the other hand, it's even more incredible that a project as eccentric and away from the well-funded mainstream as "Dutch Harbor" still continues to breath and grow. It's a surprise Krassner recognizes, too.

"We never imagined, at the outset, the release of the initial soundtrack CD - let alone the touring, screenings, new CD and video release that have followed," Krassner says. "The film, CDs and the project as a whole, have taken us to places we never could have dreamt of when we started."

After a year-and-a-half that included the Boxhead Ensemble tour and countless screenings, has Krassner grown tired of seeing the film? "I rarely watch it on its own anymore, though I am constantly amazed by the ways in which it continues to grow and change in conjunction with the ensemble performances. Those shows still keep my eyes glued to the screen."

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