Yara Lee

AS Bessa: The first film of yours that I saw was Modulations and I was really taken by how you addressed all the things related to concrete music—modules, sampling etc.—in a very engaging way. Then I heard about Caipirinha Records, which in a sense expands your work in the film. How did you begin this enterprise?
Yara Lee: Just like musique concrète, a lot of manifestations in art are kind of patchy. The idea of music made up of samples, by mixing different materials, this idea of collage, attracted me a lot. I started the record label to complement my film production company. Lately I’ve been learning about architecture and I feel it is the same thing, making the new complement the old. I was just in France and I saw a project by Bernard Tschumi where he builds around what already exists, he renovates but keeps the old too. It is a beautiful cultural center with crazy ramps and stairs . . .
ASB: Is this Parc de la Villette?
YL: No, this is a new cultural center called Fresnoy in the outskirts of Paris. This building made me think: “there is a pattern here.” Now I am preparing a CD which is the companion to the Modulations book, and people say, “Oh, this is insane, how are you going to put a CD together that illustrates the disparate genres of music, all in one CD? All of a sudden you’re going to have Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam mixed with minimal techno, house music, ambient and downtempo and jazz-funk—so, how can you go in all these directions and still make it flow?” I think that is the biggest challenge, to create works of art under the assumption that our minds don’t work in linear ways. And we shouldn’t feel self-conscious about it, we should explore and make it fun and assume that one can be an intellectual but still enjoy booty music, go dancing and enjoy body music. I think throughout history people always liked to separate the mind and the body and make this a big philosophical issue. I think we should get over this and celebrate that life is a contradiction, disparate elements make a . . .
ASB: . . .a big bundle.
YL: Yeah, and play around with it. Modulations was a bit of a similar process. I wanted to show that these old pioneers had a lot to do with the young musicians working out of their bedrooms; they were not two separate worlds. When I was editing the film most of my advisors, consultants, my music geeks, would be like, “No, you have to put Stockhausen and John Cage first, then start going down the line and end up with the ‘bedroom musicians’.” And I said: “No, let’s put Stockhausen and Prodigy together.”
ASB: Well, in a sense they were “bedroom musicians” when they began.
YL: Exactly. The issue is that everybody is using technology to express themselves and that is the theme, the re-occurring theme in all my different activities. Architecture is the same thing nowadays. The whole hand drawing is becoming rare and is all based on technology. Nowadays we have to assume that we are very dependent on our machines and we should use them as a complement to our human minds. Our mind should be reserved to creative activities, why would we want to use it to process tasks calculators do? Again, it’s not about separating humans and machines.
ASB: What came first, Caipirinha Records or filmmaking?
YL: Filmmaking is something that I’ve been doing since I was a teenager. When I finished high school I wanted to go to film school, but in Brazil film schools don’t really have equipment, it is not production geared. It is more about theory. When you go to film school in Brazil you just read books about filmmaking. So I realized that I would gain more experience if I worked. I started working in the production department at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, then moved to programming. I did that for five years. Then I came to the US, made a few short films, sometimes with poetry, sometimes experimental, sometimes narrative.
ASB: Were you in any school?
YL: I attended NYU. I would say that the good thing about school is that you have deadlines, so you have to deliver projects on time. I think this is the best thing about film school, otherwise, I would admit they still try to mystify and gear you towards becoming Hollywood filmmakers, and that was not anything I had interest in. But I made three shorts while there and when I was making my fourth it became my first full-length film: Synthetic Pleasures.
ASB: What year was that?
YL: That was ‘96. Actually, Synthetic Pleasures took me a long time to get together. It took me over three years because it was a little bit of a transition for me; going from short film to full length. It was a lot of back and forth learning all the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.
ASB: Synthetic Pleasures looks like it required a huge amount of research. It covers so much terrain and the whole idea of virtual reality is so complex with all the philosophical implications that come out of it.
YL: One should not underestimate what it takes to gather this research material and make it flow. My films tend to be like a pilot for a series. Once people see them they go, “Oh, let’s now make a full film just about plastic surgery, or about a controlled environment, or about just jungle music, or the pioneers of electronic music.” My personality is contrary to that, though. I like this overview kind of approach; to spark people’s interest. I am not a specialist in one thing and I think that is why I don’t work exclusively in the medium of film. I could just specialize in filmmaking, but I like to jump around, try different things. That is how I keep things energetic, fresh. Everyday is a new day with a new challenge.
ASB: What I think is really smart about Modulations is that it is not too long. You don’t drag the viewer into some very heavy discussion on the theory of concrete music or anything like that. The film is very beautiful to see and it just moves along very well through the history of recent music. I thought it was brilliant.
YL: Yes, and sometimes you get a little comic relief here and there, some irony, and sarcasm. That is important too.
ASB: And I think it pleases both the people who have been following the history of music in the last three or four decades as well as the people who know nothing about it.
YL: That was always my goal. I think it is very important to expose new people to new ideas, not only about music but also the behind the scenes of this music making process, where people don’t need to be formally trained, but can still express themselves musically; the idea of taking elements from the past and reorganizing, manipulating the sounds and editing is very important to me. I like to do it in a serious but not heavy-handed way. I think it is nice to be able to bring up some heavy-duty ideas in a playful way.
ASB: And that’s what is so wonderful about the electronic music being done now. Most people don’t realize that it has a very tight theoretical basis and they just dismiss it as dance music. It has taken a long time for a group such as Kraftwerk to be taken seriously.
YL: Cultural values shift as times go by. The same thing happened to disco. Many people regarded it as trash music, disposable music, but now you begin to see the historical relevance of disco music in house music, techno, and every genre of electronic music. So many things that came from that “disposable” music turned out to become very culturally and historically relevant. In architecture we find similar situations. One can say that the indoor beach in Japan is creepy, but there is something very powerful about the fact that so many people come to this dome to surf computer generated waves. That kind of architecture tells a lot about their society and their culture. It’s just impossible to judge it at face value. Brasilia also, is an ultimate example. For so long people couldn’t understand that pre-planned city and would disregard it as a failure. Look at Oscar Niemayer now. He’s still kicking, right? He just got an award in England, did this amazing Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, got commissioned to do a few more buildings there and he’s 93 years old.
ASB: He’s great.
YL: Yeah, he’s unbelievable. And that just shows that it is not about biological age. He can be 93 years old and young in spirit and kick ass.
ASB: Many aspects that you explored in Synthetic Pleasures had to do with our fear of nature. The indoor beach in Japan is a good example of that—how we embrace technology as a way to control nature. How did you come about this idea for Synthetic Pleasures?
YL: Our fear of nature and desire to control it is part of a big phenomenon. We’re increasingly getting more comfortable with our machines and unable to deal with real people. That might be because humans have their idiosyncrasies whereas machines don’t. This is something to be questioned—our desire for control and convenience. We have access to so much manipulation and control, that at some point one asks: how much should we control? If we can we inevitably will, but how far should we go with this? So this has been a very important philosophical question to me and I tried to explore it in Synthetic Pleasures. Nowadays, you’re not stuck with your body. If you are biologically born a woman but don’t feel like one, you can change and become a man through plastic surgery and so forth. So now you have the power to align your outside with your inside. In a way, I think it is wonderful because it liberates people.
ASB: Synthetic Pleasures is a much scarier film if you compare it to Modulations. Both films deal with technology, but I thought Synthetic Pleasures very disturbing and a bit apocalyptic.
YL: You could say that we amuse ourselves to death. We want to reach oblivion to a degree where we are totally alienated. Japanese people for example, live in a very pressured society and when they have a little bit of entertainment time, which is something that they don’t have a lot of, they want to do crazy things. They don’t want to deal with reality.
ASB: But also their search is for something very clean, very sanitized. The indoor beach is immaculate.
YL: Sure, sanitized experience. There is something to be questioned there because maybe the beauty of life is the imperfection of it. And here we are trying to have this sanitized experience, but if it is so sanitized, is it a full experience? I think sometimes people have to go through different phases to come to conclusions. It is a kind of a circle. I think, on a basic level, people are trying to reach a perfect state and don’t understand that the mixture of organic and digital together is better than just organic or just digital.
ASB: At a certain point in the film someone says that with virtual reality you never master the technique, you just feel the experience. That for me sums up the whole discussion.
YL: It was related to the indoor skiing where you have the sensation of going down the slope but in reality you’re just playing with your mouse or joystick. It is strange because we are going catatonic in front of our computers, totally neglecting the body. There is no physical effort, it is all a mental effort.
ASB: What I think redeems the whole thing is at the end when you interview some nerds and they discuss the nerd-shack. There you can see some kind of activism.
YL: Totally. These are punks, these are artists, these are nerds. When I was growing up I used to look up to older people for their wisdom and they were my teachers, and all of a sudden I realize that today, my teachers are the kids. They’re the ones who have the wisdom now.
ASB: It sounds a little like Larry Clark’s fascination for kids. Although he is interested for different reasons, obviously.
YL: Right, it is true that the power is now with the kids. And again this is another issue that we have to bring up, because kids may have this computer wisdom but ethically or morally how developed are they? There is something to be said about time and maturity, and experience. So all of a sudden you have these very powerful kids with no ethical or moral maturity.
ASB: Yes, but I appreciate that you didn’t have a preachy tone about it. There is something very positive about your films because so many people think that sampling is such a bad thing, and technology in general. People talk about the “cut and paste” culture in such derogatory terms. But your films show a very active, engaged group of people using these resources in a very creative way.
YL: Modulations is a very inclusive film, I think. I wanted to show that you don’t need access to a heavy duty studio and fancy equipment to be creative. You can get this cheap equipment and out of your bedroom create sounds that are sophisticated and intellectually stimulating. That was the hopeful part that I tried to bring up with the film. Anyone can do it, don’t create excuses.
ASB: I thought it was very interesting how you moved from let’s say the Detroit scene, to the bedroom musicians in London. There was this feeling of these kids empowering themselves with all these cultural detritus . . .
YL: Right. One can transcend through music, black kids in Detroit want to leave their ghettoes, leave their home, their country, leave their stifling societies. And they do it through music. I think all these technologies should be used in that direction. You transform what manufacturers consider a “failure”, and use the synthesizers to create a youth revolution; the garbage of someone can be gold to someone else. So these kids took these “failures”, twisted things around and created a new genre of music. It’s a nice story, there is hope, you know?
ASB; And it’s interesting how this whole story is so complex. I love the fact the Africa Bambaata had something to learn from Kraftwerk, for example, thus demystifying this racial stereotype that whites take from blacks, etc.
YL: Yeah, we really have to get over this thing of black and white, or the politically correct. Some people pointed out that there are no women in the film and I just say that I did not set myself to do a politically correct film, I wanted to portray that this is a boy’s club. When I’m editing I don’t think in terms or balancing black and white, or men and women, etc. We have to go beyond color, race, and gender. It’s about the music. Take Africa Bambaata and Kraftwerk, one was here, the other in Germany, but the connection happened. One is feeding off the other and exchanging. It’s really fun to be able to think that we are all interconnected somehow and all of a sudden you have the Bronx connected to Germany . . .
ASB: . . . as if you had tunnels connecting all these different neighborhoods.
YL: Yeah.

AS Bessa
Brooklyn, New York