Car Ax

by Dan Senn
Sonata (see video) Headphones recommended.
Video with Improvisation in Sonata Form

duration 11:00

Car Ax Sonata was filmed on February 27, 2017 at the corner of Fifth and Main Streets in Watertown, Wisconsin. The video was edited with sound added in December of 2020 at Waterhouse Studio. The sound tracks were improvised by wrinkling vellum in 2013 in the hallway leading to what was once Dan's parent's bedroom. These details matter.

“On a warm winter day, I went out with my Canon still camera to test its video capabilities. I have a Sony camcorder for video with a brilliant sound recording feature and had never thought to use my still camera as such. Off a tripod, it is unstable by comparison to the Sony.

As I walked, the sun shining, taking photos and video of the world I grew up in, only six blocks from home, moving north, approaching Main Street, I heard the screech-bang of two cars colliding. I had been taping a police car, the occupants perfectly positioned to see the accident that was out of my sight. I quickly moved into position to record the event.

For many years I filmed and photographed my growing family mostly on the west coast where, without much thought, I created narratives that went beyond simple family reportage. This has made for a splendid visual record, an extraordinary learning process for me but, in a strange sense, one that has acted to confuse my categorizing of film taken of documentation events. Were these videos simple reportage or something more. Or did they cross over into something more meaningful, perhaps, ethnographic, a dubiety that emerges whenever one broadly contextualizes, and re-contextualizes artifacts of any sort. In 1995 I documented a country dance in north eastern Iowa for use in my Catacombs of Yucatan Installation where, at the time, the accompanying sound track was left in place. Recently I re-edited the dance film, after 25 years, and while the music is imprinted visually in the dance rhythms, by turning the volume down, or recontextualizing the visual action with unrelated sound, the original Hi-8 tape leaps onto another level, one far more powerful than the original. We have long known that visual art lifted out of the fabrication site into the bare surroundings of the gallery have enhanced power. That
cluttered environments instill uneasiness even if our two cats seem to feel otherwise.
Take this chance recording of the moments immediately following a car accident. Filming the obvious is reportage but as soon as you prolong a shot, move in for some detail, include those who are co-viewing the event, shoot the surrounding buildings and the mundane actions of those drawn to assist fixing the problem, etc., the film is lifted from a snap shot to a story, and from a story with incidental profiles to a short story of broader ethnographic and historical implications. Then, by displacing or extracting sound, maybe adding it anew, the captivating power of the mundane is revealed where nothing was simple, shallow or wraith to begin with.

Car Ax Sonata transends simple reporting to ethnography to experimental art. I am not just recording a “news” item, but the circumstantial drama of a car accident, the pedestrian dance of the characters, their visual rhythms, the professional gestures of uniformed gentry, the breaking of this character at unexpected points, the chance participants walking a dog, humoring the fireman, school children oblivious to the situation... all accidental actors tolerant of my camera as if they are in Hollywoood and not the home of America's First Kindergarden. In this way, the work becomes a revelatory period piece, a pastiche of societal tics shrouding the car crash itself. A break, an eruption, in the flow of unconscious life.

Upon finding this footage four years after shooting it, paring it to the essentials, my immediate response was to dump the sound track and look for sound composed without an associated meaning. [When I improvise, my emotions are distant with expressiveness a response to the physicality of the sound alone.] The car crash, caused by someone misusing their cellphone, or a runaway dog, or bad brakes, who knows, ironically informs the least.

In the title Car Ax Sonata, "sonata" translates to "sounding” but also to its four movements. These were taken from about 20 improvisations, all rhythmically dense and further intensified here by simple file alterations. Signaling the start of each section is a flanging effect, a rocket-like sound caused by two “identical” files being played simultaneously with a frequency offsets of 1-4 cents*. Simpler still are settings for stereo placement and depth position, the same for each track/section., The pitch offset also causes one of the two "simultaneous" sound files to be elongated increasing the overall textural richness and density. These very basic manipulations result in a unified, if clamorous, effect meant used to lift, focus and frame the visual action.” DS, December 3, 2020
* 1 cent = 1/100 of a semi-tone (half step).


Dan Senn (Prague-Watertown) is an intermedia artist working in music composition and production, kinetic sound sculpture, experimental and documentary film. He has been a professor of music and art in the United States and Australia and travels internationally as a lecturer, performer and installation artist. He lives in Prague where he directs the Echofluxx festivals, and Watertown, Wisconsin, the USA, with his partner-collaborator, Caroline Senn. Dan's work moves freely between expressive extremes and languages depending upon the aesthetic joust at hand. Dan is cofounder of Roulette Intermedium in New York City, Cascadia Composers of Portland Oregon, and the Echofluxx media festivals in Prague. (read more).

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