by Dan Senn
Civil War Brass (see
video) duration 38:36
The First Brigade Band, Watertown, Wisconsin
|"The Exquisite Risk of Civil War Brass"
is an exploration of the relationship between a Union Army reenactment
band and its collection of vintage Civil War instruments. This piece
examines the conscience-raising influence that instruments, still at a
stage of experimentation in the 1850s and 1860s, have on the lives and
functioning of a contemporary community band from Watertown, Wisconsin.
Delves into gender and authenticity issues as well as the natural
inclination to anthropomorphize instruments which resist easy
performance. All this from a band of extraordinary originality,
leadership and musicianship.
In 1999, I took a day off a lecture tour to visit my folks in Watertown, Wisconsin, and while driving around and reminiscing I noticed that a new organization had moved into the nearby Congregational Church. Disappointed, because this church had played an important role in developing a social conscience in me during the 1960s, I recovered to learn that it was now the home of a Civil War reenactment band called the 1st Brigade Band, a volunteer organization known for its performances on vintage Civil War instruments. As a lapsed brass player and inventor of sculptural instruments, the focus of my lectures, I was curious and then fortunate to attend a rehearsal that very evening where I observed an ensemble of about 40 men and woman playing an odd collection of brass instruments, with bells pointing in every direction, producing a wonderfully resonant and mellow sound unlike anything I had heard before. After some discreet questioning, I learned that these instruments had been experimental in the 1860's and exhibited many of the same peculiar traits of my sculptural instruments, that is, an innate awkwardness which rendered them difficult to play by the standards of modern instruments. With my instruments, I had come to think of this built-in resistance as a kind of opaqueness which contrasted the transparency of more efficient and easy-to-play instruments, an awareness that originated in my experiences with raku pottery in the 1970's.
|Watertown native returns home to produce "The Exquisite Risk of Civil War Brass: The 1st Brigade Band" by Chuck Werth,
Watertown Daily Times, February 9, 2002
While the 1st Brigade Band has often supplied music for documentaries and other film projects, this is the first time it has been the focus of one. A new documentary has been produced about the 1st Brigade Band and its performance of original Civil War period music on original instruments. It is called The Exquisite Risk of Civil War Brass: The 1st Brigade Band. This past summer, Dan Senn, creator of the documentary, followed the band at performances, rehearsals and social events to gather material for the video. Interviews with band members and friends of the band are featured in the documentary. Much of the original footage for the documentary was shot in Watertown. On July 4, 2001, Senn filmed the band's every movement in Watertown from ladies getting into Civil War period costumes to walking in the midst of the band as they marched down Main Street. Watertown's Heritage Hall, 504 S. Fourth St., the home of the Heritage Military Music Foundation (HMMF) and the1st Brigade Band, is featured prominently in the documentary. Senn describes the film as exploring the relationship between a Union Army reenactment band and its collection of vintage Civil War instruments. Senn sets out to "examine the conscience-raising influence that instruments, still at a stage of experimentation, have on the lives and functioning of a band from Watertown." In that context the video "delves into gender and authenticity issues as well as the natural inclination to anthropomorphize instruments which resist easy performance," according to Senn.
The 1st Brigade Band is described by Senn as having extraordinary originality, leadership and musicianship. The 40-minute piece is entirely presented in the words of band members as derived from interviews. Like Senn's own experimental instruments, these Civil War period instruments had been experimental in the 1860s and, according to Senn, "exhibited many of the same peculiar traits of my sculptural instruments. He describes these traits as "an innate awkwardness which rendered them difficult to play by standards of modern instruments." Senn describes the experience not of "playing" one of these old horns but "negotiating" with the instruments. Senn's curiosity was piqued. "I was curious to learn the nature of imperfection in their instruments and how ongoing exposure was affecting band members as individuals and as an ensemble." The idea for the documentary was born, Senn comments, ì"I had to find out and The Exquisite Risk of Civil War Brass: The1st Brigade Band is the result of these inquiries, through interviews and recording the band in action."
Senn spoke about the creative process involved in producing a documentary film. "The direction a piece takes is, of course, impacted by what interests me up front," he commented, "but once I am on the ground shooting, I'm quite willing to throw all of that overboard and to just gather as much interesting footage as possible. Therefore, the message and direction of the piece doesn't really take hold until I'm back in my studio logging all the material into adatabase, in this case, all 29 hours of footage!"As with any video project, hours of film ended upbeing cut. All of the original footage will go into the band's archive.
When asked about the process he used for editing and producing the final product Senn said, "I decided to use a kind of non-linear approach to presenting the piece." For an example, in the video as individuals are talking about the characteristics of calf-headed snare drums on one level, "I present, through visual
example, the cooperative spirit of the band on another and then merge these on a common point later on."He said, "This multi-leveled, and almost nonlinear approach enables me to reveal far more content in just 40 minutes than if I were to stick with more traditional methods."
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).