French film director and ethnographer Vincent Moon roams the world exploring different music traditions and cultures, bringing them to a wider audience via his signature, guerrilla-style DIY filmmaking. In addition to providing EE with unreleased footage of Georgian Doukhobors to premier in our inaugural issue, he also spoke with musicologist Ben Wheeler about “spiritual anarchism”, the role of music in building communities, and questions of authenticity.
BEN WHEELER: In your long career, it could be said that one of the defining characteristics of your craft is an engagement with both private and public space. How does place and space affect your process?
VINCENT MOON:I never really thought about private and public space in such a clear way, especially not in the beginning. When I started to film music, my desire was fueled by a very strong, anarchist concept: the hope that we would be able to create a nonhierarchical society. So, bringing musicians out in the streets and away from stages and basically having them perform for anyone who happened to be around, any passersby, any children running in the street, was kind of a statement, a little political, poetic statement. It was an attempt to see what other forms of society we could possibly imagine. I’ve always been interested in how you change the rules of social space, even if it’s for a very short time. In my early twenties, these ontologies and anarchist ideas were very much at the center of my preoccupation; those very gonzo forms of performance: how do you change the world of a social space even for a very short time and how might this influence people later on. You have to create a blueprint of an experience and then, unconsciously, that experience starts to unfold little by little. I hope this serves as a response to your question because, in a certain sense, any space affects my thinking process, any moment affects my thinking process, anything affects everything, so, objectivity does not exist at all; it’s a subjective process of how we make this reality a much more poetic one.
BW:You’ve traveled extensively and made many places around the world your home for periods both short and long—how important is home to you and what does it mean for your creative process?
VM:The need to have a home has never been that important to me—even though I’m in a different period of my life right now and I do enjoy having a place. I’m in Paris with Priscilla, my wife, and we hope to have a home somewhere out in nature pretty soon. I’ve been enjoying living with very little. I guess my detachment from any home has also been related to my detachment from material belongings. For many years, I’ve been travelling with only a backpack and a few objects, just a camera, microphones, and a computer. I really enjoy that everything is moving all the time, nothing is stuck, every element of reality is constantly shifting, expanding, folding, being eaten, pulling, and there is a constant cycle of everything in reality. My method of recording is not really related to anthropological research. My relationship with recording the reality around me is very much based on the present moment, on what's happening right now, and my ability to respond. I do think that it's about having a kind of availability, being available to reality is how I might define freedom on some level. I’ve been trained to make myself very available to reality and that’s allowed me to arrive in Georgia, in Chile, in Indonesia without having any idea of what will happen, just letting the reality unfold and being able to respond—I just had to take my camera out and prepare my microphones—and ding-ding-ding.
BW:In all your experiences recording folk musicians, how often have you been invited into a private space as a result of your work, that is, a family home and/or gathering? What is it like to capture these moments? Do you find them in some way more “genuine” than a staged performance? Or is it simply a different form of performance?
VM:I think you’ve given me a very good clue in your question with that last sentence. I think that everything is real, there is nothing fake, everything exists: it just vibrates on different levels. You might say there are different levels of intensity that may appear more “genuine” or “honest” but everything “is,” so there is no clear demarcation. I don’t think anything is fake. I don’t believe in fake shamans, or fake performance, or fake musicians and so on, that’s just a concept that in some way emerges from the Judeo-Christian tradition. I’ve always enjoyed mixing and merging and I’ve never really felt guilty for recording some more pop/hybrid performances. For example, look at the Nur-Zhovkhar choir from Chechnya, one of the most famous recordings I made with our mutual friend Bulat from Ored Recordings. It was really incredible, that video and those voices were stunning. The thing is, in a funny way, it’s not really traditional, and it’s also not really how they usually perform—they asked us to come record them on that specific day because they were already gathering all the girls together to shoot a music video. You can see this at the beginning of the film actually. It’s quite funny: they were obviously lip-syncing with their music in the background, and you hear their “real” music playing and it was, well, pretty terrible, badly produced in my opinion but, of course, it fits a certain market, a certain genre. We had a really difficult time asking them to perform for “real,” without any production behind them, and just go to the countryside.
I don’t see any clear difference between private and public performance, you can’t say that, it’s like saying there is sacred and profane music—of course not, everything is sacred
That’s also something I’ve felt in other parts of the Caucasus and other parts of the ex-Soviet Union. Sometimes you see musicians rehearsing the most extraordinary music and then they would go onstage and perform a lip-synced song or you would hear their recorded work and it would sound horribly produced. I always had a desire to go back to the simplicity of who they were as musicians but I wouldn't say that is to illustrate the true vs. the fake. I think it's important to go back to a simple approach to music in order to get something that, in my opinion, vibrates differently, in a colorful way. But I don’t see any clear difference between private and public performance, same as I don’t really think in terms of sacred and profane music—of course, as everything is sacred in the approach we tend to develop with our work on Petites Planètes.
BW:In my own experiences with ethnography, many of the most memorable recordings have been with members of a community that did not consider themselves “musicians,” those who when asked said “Oh, I’m not a musician, I don’t play concerts, I just sing/play at home.” Have you experienced this response and what do you think of it? Where might it come from and what might it say about the role of music in domestic life?
VM:It’s always variable in my experience, it just depends on the extent to which music has been commodified in that particular culture or social space, but I would definitely say some people are in a more humble relationship with it and do not say that it's a job. I would say I got really interested in so-called “sacred” music and rituals around the world because there you may see the entire community participate and sing together. Even though a few people may have specific roles, there is this feeling of an experience that is shared by everybody. That brings me back to what I was saying about anarchism at first, or basically it’s sacred aspect. I don’t want to use the word “religious”, but in the spiritual relationship with music you find something that is very much akin to an anarchistic form or version of reality—I mean, I didn’t have any of those ideas in mind before I started recording and researching rituals but that’s how I felt in the end. I was looking for anarchist structures within society and I think it’s there in the spiritual form of performing music and getting entranced together. That’s what we might call “spiritual anarchism” because in such a relationship with reality you find a much more nonhierarchical form of being together, celebrating towards transcendence and a union with the divine.
An independent filmmaker, photographer, and sound artist from Paris known for his work as the main director of Blogotheque's Take Away Shows and for his label Collection Petites Planètes. More information can be found on the label's site, as well as on Bandcamp and on Instagram.
Music Features and News Editor at EastEast. Experimental musician, сomposer and musicologist, co-founder of Mountains of Tongues organization. He performs regularly at venues and festivals around the Caucasus and has contributed to the soundtrack and sound design for multiple independent films. He also organizes the annual Caucasus All Frequency Festival, and hosts and produces the podcast Caucasus All Frequency.