The News is Next
“The times they are aaaa-chaaangin’.” But Bob Dylan never really said whether the changes were for better or for worse. Then again, when the song was written it was hard to tell, probably because it was neither or both. The sixties, chronologically near at hand but just distant enough to qualify as a chapter in history, have become the subject of both critical assessment and rampant nostalgia. Take as examples the wealth of Vietnam films produced a few years ago, Oliver Stone’s The Doors, and JFK, the Public Broadcasting System’s sober miniseries analyzing Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential term, the recently released Forrest Gump, and the soon to be released Panther. These are all proof that the first media-saturated era is being resurrected. The sixties however, already understood itself largely through the televised image, and it is through these images, whether re-broadcast or incorporated into film, that the era is being re-presented. In short, the sixties is the first era whose historical events are able to be mediated almost entirely through television. But our historical perch is a privileged position. Footage used to revive the past is curated with historical and statistical hindsight. Events as reported at the time, particularly by way of nightly news broadcasts, lack a relationship to one another or a sense of causality to give them a broader context. As a series of media milestones, the sixties presented a genuine challenge to the nightly news broadcasts. The myriad sensational events required a style of reporting, which could comfortably modulate information regardless of content. Evening, a work by Stan Douglas, explores the development of Happy Talk, a broadcast news format introduced in the late sixties. As the artist explains in his project description: “Happy Talk: No matter how bad the news is, present it with a happy face. This is what the format suggests on the most simple level, but it also meant the inclusion of ‘human interest stories,’ banter between co-anchors, and new techniques of vocal delivery (narcotic rhythms and peculiar descending inflections) that were a radical departure from the bone-dry style of recitation passed on from radio announcing.” Commissioned by The Society to produce a new work, Douglas chose to focus on an aspect of local television and learned that Chicago was a pioneer of the Happy Talk format. As a series of six reconstructed Chicago news broadcasts, three from January 1, 1969, and three from January 1, 1970, Evening examines a strategic moment in the evolution of television journalism.
Television was born with an instinct for the sensational and it seems prophetic that television journalism’s coming of age would coincide with a tumultuous decade whose highlights include several assassinations, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Although many of television’s earliest broadcast journalists are still with us, the news as we know it has changed greatly. Formal developments in the sets, number of anchors, camera placement, and the use of live and pre-taped footage have come a long way since the late fifties. Changes within the broadcast news medium, however, are introduced gradually, making the evolution of conventions difficult to trace. Furthermore, news broadcasts are rarely saved, making episodes with coverage of less spectacular events almost impossible to find. Evening fills an important gap in Chicago’s media history by reconstructing broadcasts from a period in which television’s role as a major force in shaping public opinion was beyond dispute.
On one level, the title Evening is obvious. This is the time of day the news is broadcast. But of greater interest is the title’s symbolic function. Evening is set before a darker, less certain, more cynical and dystopian era in United States history. By 1969 and 1970, the euphoric veneer of a post-war United States had been worn to a very dull finish. “Happy Days” had given way to events and statistics which forecast a very restless night. The economic and social reality of widespread poverty, unemployment, and racial strife had gained enough momentum to become a permanent fixture beyond the reach of The Great Society, The War on Poverty, and even the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement. Of the twenty-three stories reported, seven can be traced to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism, and three are tangentially linked. Featured prominently are stories relating to the Black Panther Party whose Chicago chapter members Fred Hampton and Michael Clark were killed by Chicago Police December 4, 1969; a synopsis of J. Edgar Hoover’s annual report which focuses on the threat to national security posed by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), particularly its Black Caucus; and controversies involving the misappropriation of funds by Adam Clayton Powell and Theodore A. Jones, both high-ranking black elected officials and civil rights activists. As the artist notes, “It should be remembered that Evening addresses the same medium that aided the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s by making local conflicts national and, later, international issues but, within a decade, had begun to represent precipitates of the Movement as unreasoned or fragmented ‘special interests’ lacking historical continuity.”
Evening, however, is less about the subject matter of the broadcast than the way in which the subject matter is handled. The three fictionalized stations, WAMQ, WBMB, and WCSL, are each in different stages of adopting the Happy Talk format, with WBMB and WCSL offering the greatest contrast. Whereas WBMB is the most conservative, “maintaining its paternal conventions” throughout both its broadcasts, WCSL is the most entrenched in the Happy Talk format, having adopted the slogan “The Good New Station.” The tone and style of reporting, the discrepancy in the anchors’ ages, the camera placement, and set design define the extent to which Happy Talk was a departure from the traditional format. WBMB’s cumbersome edits are the result of a lone anchor captured in a perpendicular two-camera format. This square presentation has been abandoned by WCSL in favor of dual anchors, filmed on a set designed to accommodate conversation. Situated between these two networks is WAMQ, which makes the transition toward Happy Talk between its 1969 and 1970 broadcasts. Although the distinctions are often subtle, the opening remark of WAMQ’s 1970 broadcast, “It sure feels good to be out of the sixties,” stands out not as a declaration on the passing of a decade as much as it announces a more laissez-faire style of reporting.
Fragmentation or “atomization,” as the artist calls it, is a key feature of Evening. As a series of three simultaneous news broadcasts on three adjacent screens, the first encounter with the work proves a challenge to following the deluge of names, places, and acronyms. The artist produced the audio track to approximate a musical score in which “polyphony is used to underline repetitions and differences in editorial treatment.” The cacophony of woven words resulting from the simultaneous chatter of three broadcasters keeps the information from ever being grounded in context. No story ever achieves monumental proportion even when one listens to the track from a single broadcast. In fact, reports such as the first successful heart transplant, a shortage at the blood bank, and an inquest into an assassination are equalized. Events as they are digested by this more theatrical format supersede the call for objective coverage by having their content rendered neutral. As a story achieves closure, meaning and significance are assumed rather than given, and disruptive inquiries which may arise in the viewers mind are quickly laid to rest.
Both Evening and Hors-champs could easily be mistaken for television productions of twenty-five years ago, making them genuine anachronisms. They carefully reconstruct that which is overlooked or altogether forgotten and force a more careful examination of the past, particularly as it is inherited through television. They are not recreations, revisions or fictions, but hover in the realm of the “could have been.” Hors-champs is an addendum to the past which focuses on the cultural exchange between Europeans and African Americans during the mid-sixties. The work features a quartet—George Lewis (trombone), Douglas Ewart (saxophone), Kent Carter (bass), and Oliver Johnson (drums)—as they perform Albert Ayler’s 1965 composition Spirits Rejoice. Using a video format derived from the mid-sixties French television music productions of Jean-Christophe Averty, Hors-champs recalls the relationship between European audiences and expatriate jazz musicians in the 1960s. Like Ayler, the four musicians performing the piece either have been or are current expatriates. As it turns out, two of the musicians, Lewis and Ewart, are former Chicagoans and early progenies of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), an organization whose members gained recognition in Europe in the late sixties and early seventies.
Albert Ayler (1936-71), a tenor saxophonist and composer, is considered among the most ambitious of the sixties avant-garde free jazz musicians. His contributions to music stand among those of his immediate peers John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Ayler not only left behind a body of strikingly original and profound compositions, but he greatly expanded the range and technique of the tenor saxophone to include sounds far above and below the standard register of the instrument. Whereas Coltrane and Coleman made breakthroughs with respect to the arrangement of notes and, in Coleman’s case, the relationship between musicians, Ayler’s music incorporated the saxophone’s squeaks, pops, honks, smears, and blurs as mandatory elements of the composition. But Ayler’s true ambition lies in his efforts to rebuild jazz to incorporate any form of music. His assault on the jazz tradition was more of a destructively loving embrace than a rejection. Ayler, like Coltrane in his later years, was deeply spiritual and believed his music to reflect a universal yearning for a better world. As he stated in an interview, “It’s late now for the world. And if I can help raise people to new plateaus of peace and understanding, I’ll feel my life has been worth living as a spiritual artist.” Unlike Coltrane, whose spiritual leanings can best be summed up as an Afro-cosmic eastern amalgam; Ayler’s transcendentalism is much closer to that of a visionary folk artist. Ayler’s compositions and recordings, which have titles such as Witches & Devils, Ghosts, Spirits, Bells, Wizards, and Prophecy, incorporate every form of music including folk songs, nursery rhymes, hymns, anthems, marches, and circus themes. Spirits Rejoice, the piece performed in Hors-champs, contains snatches of La Marseilles, Maryland, My Maryland and Amazing Grace. But Ayler went beyond incorporating folk music into his compositions; he wanted to be a folk musician whose message was one of universal spirituality. In fact, one of his earliest recordings is entitled Spiritual Unity. Ecstatic, angry, sad, beautiful, and otherworldly, Ayler’s music was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the true anthems of black America.
Ayler’s journeys to Europe followed a migratory pattern established by black musicians two generations prior to him. However, by the time of Ayler’s 1961-62 visit, during which he made his first two recordings, the Civil Rights Movement had gained international exposure. In many cases, the music of Ayler and his peers could not help but reflect the hostile environment from which they had all come. No longer a popular dance hall music, as Dixieland, Swing, and Bebop were, the Free Jazz of Ayler’s time, through its social and political overtones, was welcomed by a generation of European students and intellectuals who shared many of the musicians’ sentiments.
Like Evening, Hors-Champs concerns itself with the way the video format is used to convey its subject matter. Hors-Champs is a French cinematography term meaning off-camera. Filmed with two cameras and projected on recto and verso sides of a suspended screen, one side shows a completed or smoothly montaged version of the performance, while the other displays the remaining footage. The “abstract placelessness” of the stark black and white set is a fitting context for expatriate blacks plucked from a radically polarized situation at home. The minimal, neo-modernist set design may at first seem contrary to the highly subjective and spiritual nature of the music, but the utopian visionary qualities of Ayler’s music, particularly its objective of achieving universal spirituality, share an interesting affinity with the transcendental ideals of early modernist movements such as Suprematism. As Douglas has noted, this period in jazz’s history, in which there was a dialogue between a European high modernism and a music from the margins of this county “is partially obscured by the revisionism and revivalism that had been so overwhelmingly prominent throughout the 1980s.”
The day Douglas began filming Hors-Champs in April of 1992, the first verdict regarding the police beating of Rodney King was delivered and the riots in South Central Los Angeles began. Given that Spirits Rejoice was composed in 1965, the year of the riots in Watts, the prophecy surrounding Ayler’s work seemed to have been fulfilled a second time. This uncanny coincidence led Douglas to dedicate Hors-Champs to the residents of South Central Los Angeles. The cyclical nature of such events leads one to wonder exactly how much the times are changing. An appearance by H. Ross Perot and mention of Ronald Reagan in one of Evening’s broadcasts make a clean break with the past seem impossible. The same characters keep cropping up like resyndicated television shows. But reruns never quite cure our televisual amnesia, making the need for works such as Evening and Hors-Champs all the more obvious. If Evening and Hors-Champs were to be aired between reruns which have never gone out of syndication, it might jeopardize the works’ status as genuine anachronisms. Alongside reruns which survive from generation to generation, the works would appear right at home. But instead of moving senselessly to the next doomed sitcom, television would be fortified with its absent past, returning to events it somehow forgot.