A Conversation with Iara Lee, Director of "Modulations"
by Tim LaTorre
Scene from Iara Lee’s “Modulations.”
Photo Credit: Caipirinha Productions
In the world of documentary features, Iara Lee’s films stand out for
their vibrant and timely subjects, focusing mainly on the influence of
technology on present and future lifestyles. Her 1996 debut, “Synthetic
Pleasures“, uncovered our growing fascination with everything artificial
– from giant indoor beaches to the development of artificial
intelligence. Her new film, “Modulations” follows the evolution of
electronic music in the 20th century, using today’s dance scene as a
springboard to delve into the origins of the art form with musicians,
theorists, technicians, and scientists as diverse as John Cage and
Karlheinz Stockhausen to modern media personalities like Prodigy, Moby
Lee’s films transcend the celluloid experience, using it as the focal
point for a new type of independent film product, the brand. Like
“Synthetic Pleasures” which was accompanied by several soundtracks and
even a fashion line, “Modulations” is scheduled to become a multimedia
experience: a book, a web site, who knows how many soundtracks, and
possibly another fashion line. Having debuted in the documentary
competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Modulations”
continued its ambassadorship of ‘electronica’ with a recent stop at last month’s Berlin Film Festival.
indieWIRE: Comparing this film with your last work “Synthetic
Pleasures”, these two films seem to be companion pieces. How did you
originally get started with that film? What was the initial impetus?
Lee: It’s shocking to see how technology can do crazy things. “Synthetic
Pleasures” started when I was in Japan. I saw the indoor beach and
indoor skiing resorts and started thinking “Wow, we can really create
reality and manipulate nature.” And this new film is about the same,
it’s about manipulating sounds. There is nothing that goes straight. It
all goes though filters and manipulations, you speed it up and slow it
down, you chop it up.
iW: What was your starting point?
Lee: The starting point was supposed to be Kraftwerk. But electronic
music didn’t start with Kraftwerk, it started with John Cage in the
twenties, Stockhausen and even the futurists in the 1930’s. Luigi
Russolo wrote this book called “The Art of Noises” and was like ‘Let’s
open our minds’, you know, let’s incorporate every single sound you can
imagine. Music does not necessarily need to be a melody. It can be
sounds from nature, manipulated sounds, and that was the beginning. So,
I’m very proud to be paying homage to these pioneers of the 30s, 40s,
iW: You had so much to cover with regards to the history of the music,
how do you also approach the cultural aspect? There’s a real
relationship between the drug culture and this music, when you were
making the film did you feel like you were immersed in this culture or
did you feel like you were standing away from the culture and focusing
more on the music?
Lee: I actually think that music and the drug culture walk parallel to
each other and we do mention in the film that jungle music came from the
mutation of mixing ecstasy with speed, you know. Mixmaster Morris also
points out that in the sixties and the eighties all the cultural
revolutions were precipitated with help of triptimenes and molecules,
basically drugs. A lot of times you think its a music revolution, but it
is actually a drug revolution. It depends on the consumption of the drug
– like rave music mutated to jungle when things got darker, when people
took to much ecstasy. They started looking at the sinister side of
iW: Did you encounter a lot of strange, crazy characters while you were
Lee: Yeah. And it’s actually is a very closed culture. If they don’t
accept you, you can’t penetrate, because it’s a very underground
protected culture. You really have to conquer the musicians, and once
you conquer the first twenty, the others say “Ha! Dxt, he did the
scratching for “Rocket” and Herbie Hancock. “Wow! He’s in the film!” And
then Prodigy is like ‘Oh, my heroes, Meat Beat Manifesto'”. Everybody
gets involved and it gets the ball rolling. We interviewed over 300
musicians. I think a lot of people are going to get hurt because I just
couldn’t get them in. It’s not really about their egos or about their
personalities, really they are the narrators of this electronic music
history. They realize it is not just about their personal experiences,
but how they see the thing evolving.
iW: How did you approach technically putting the music into your film?
Lee: Actually, my sound editor is a DJ. When we were editing my
assistant was like ‘Iara, I don’t think we could have any other sound
editor for this film’. My sound editor is a DJ and he is actually very
knowledgeable about music. There is no music in the film that was not
there by design. You may think “Oh, sounds cool. Let’s put it there”,
but really a lot of thought was put into choosing the tracks. The
anthems of house or techno, those prominent figures of the whole genre
and a lot of times the music is edited together in a very smooth way.
Sometimes we had hard cuts, but if he was just a regular sound editor it
probably would have been much more difficult.
iW: Did your sound editing have a lot of influence on the picture
Lee: Oh, yeah. The picture editor had to cut to the music a lot of
times. And it was a nightmare because we had to substitute some tracks
and the picture was cut to the music in such a tight way that we had to
find substitute tracks that would not destroy the picture editing. It’s
been a logistical nightmare, we have many tracks we are still clearing.
It is the reality of the entertainment world that artists don’t have the
rights to their own material. We have all these incredible artists who
supported the film, but it comes down to MCA, EMI, Polygram, Warner
Special Products . . .
iW: . . . Everybody wants a big cut.
Lee: Yeah, and I really thought this was an underground culture, but now
they all belong to conglomerates. But we’re trying to keep the film