MLG Questions 01: Breath

When we started thinking about re-enacting Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1 a year ago, several questions popped up straight away.

These were mainly technical issues about the source material for the three colour projections, and how the audio is produced while the piece is being performed. Some of these questions were answered by Malcolm here – but it’s only now that we’ve spent several days hanging out with him that we begin to understand these answers.

Bit by bit, I’m going to flesh out some of the answers based on notes that Louise and I made while we were in Devon…


Our instinct was that the amplified breathing which provides the sonic undertone of the work would be produced live – a live feed from a lapel microphone, for example. This would seem to fit with the live-ness of the projected shadows produced by the body in front of the three projectors, and could operate as a kind of index of the performer’s own physiological state (calmness, exhaustion etc) during the performance.

However, Malcolm has confirmed that he does not use live sound. Instead, he works with a CD of his own recorded breathing (the CD is a transfer from an earlier audio-tape recording from the 1970s). From our discussion, it seems that the reason the taped breathing was used – from the earliest performances – was that unobtrusive audio equipment was not available at that time. A long dragging cable would have been a bit of an obstacle for Malcolm’s process of slowly moving backwards during the event (he has a rule for himself to never look back or down, but to stay focussed on the screen).

These days of course, with radio microphones, a live audio version could be trialled. However, Malcolm hasn’t changed the piece to adapt to this new technology. Interestingly, what he says is that the breathing-on-tape operates as a kind of “score” for his own live breathing. In other words, he adjusts his “live” breathing to get into step with the taped breathing. This slows him down and gets him into the work’s “mood”. He is also able to pace himself based on the breathing tape, so that he knows when the time might be right to take the next step backwards away from the screen and towards the projectors.

Other fun facts about Horror Film 1‘s breath-track, and breath in general:

  • Malcolm’s breathing tape is longer than it needs to be for the performance (it goes for about half an hour) – thus it will “outlast” the performance, and can be faded out at the end after the projectors are switched off and the audience is applauding.
  • Malcolm has given us a copy of the audio CD of himself breathing – ie, one of the raw materials for the creation of the live work. However, it seems fairly logical that when we perform the work ourselves, Louise and I will need to create our own audio recordings (and to experiment with the live amplification of our own breathing via a lapel mike).
  • There is a kind of ‘mindfulness’ operating at the core of this piece, which the amplified breath supports. I would be interested to know whether audience members for Horror Film 1 tend to synchronise their own breathing to the piece – and if so, how does this affect their experience? (As a counterpoint, I remember when I first saw Mike Parr’s 16mm film Hold Your Breath for as Long as Possible, 1972, in a cinema in 1993. I felt a direct transference between the tortured image of the artist’s convulsing face and my own breathing process. While watching, I had to keep reminding myself to breathe: it was not MY rule, but the on-screen action was normative, influential. The moment at the end of Hold Your Breath… when the screen goes black and Parr finally takes his enormous gasping breath is cathartic. Here’s a film still here).
  • Back in 2007, Louise and I worked on a re-enactment of William Raban’s film Breath, 1974. Although Raban’s piece was made on 16mm, we shot our version on Super 8 film down the south coast of NSW near north Era (our third camera/performer was Louise’s partner Peter Shaw). I mention this for two reason: it is also a piece from the early 1970s (roughly contemporary with Horror Film 1) which uses breathing as the basis for the work’s composition; and because Malcolm and William worked together regularly during this period (and are still in regular contact with each other). For some reason, Louise and I have never yet gotten around to writing up the notes from our version of Breath — a future project!
  • If you would like to listen to a clip from Malcolm’s soundtrack – here you go: Malcolm Le Grice – Horror Film 1 – Breathing Soundtrack – 2 Minute Extract – mp3 file

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