• Don_Levy_PRIMALFORCE_GI_Press_Digital_still_1967_web

Don Levy

A text written for the Don Levy exhibition Time Regained at SWG3 as part of Glasgow International 2016 – commissioned by curator Alexander Storey Gordon.

Music to my Eyes.


“The work has centered around the building of a complex VIDEO INSTRUMENT which can literally be played, just as can a musical instrument.”

                                                                                                                                                                              Don Levy (1979)[1]


If we want to understand Primal Force in this way, to hear it as an instrument without instruction or lessons from its luthier, then we need to try and work out for ourselves how Levy might have played it. What materials form its body? Where does it vibrate and how are these vibrations amplified? Which timbres resonate from it and what architecture has the acoustics to make it sing?

“Conceived and made simultaneously…created in real time with no rehearsals… true only to the feeling of the instant.”[2]

Despite working “to form another sense”[3], Primal Force creates the strange, conflicting experience of rendering[4] a whole whilst also making obvious its dual-modality.

A collection of ~25 shorter films and with no obvious delineation, it’s the improvised soundtrack, both musical and spoken, that orchestrates them. Ines Levy’s choreography however, is the pedal note that grounds the work. Her head and hands are the fundamental and their evolution and echoes the harmonics, asking us to consider which force is guiding the other? Is she moving to the music, or is it her movement that informs how we hear the music? Are these films different notes played on the same instrument? Or do they work together to make up the wood, gut and glue on which the soundtrack plays its tune?

It’s the constant progression of form and colour that feels closest to the absolute music Levy is striving for, though this visual music is challenged by the way the soundtrack starts and stops throughout. Like listening to two radios set to two different stations at once, for a time you relax into the rhythm of the dialogue between the two, only to be interrupted as the signal breaks, fades and spikes. It’s through these discords that we fully hear the harmony of the film, amplified through its absence.

Perpetually in motion, the imagery appears fixed in its repetition – a temporally static unfolding. A visual vectorised[5] by the soundtrack, with the sonic material dictating the temporal direction to the work.

However, the marathon amount of filmed material that plays out in Primal Force questions this dominance of the sound over the perceived chronology of the piece. Under the weight of the time it takes for the work to unfold, the distinct and fragmented soundtrack begins to coalesce, succumbing to a larger temporal (non)direction of the image.


If I was                                                                    to break this                  sentence

into                                                                                                                           smaller chunks of


would you still read                                                                                       from






Over time the left to right, the past to future becomes unimportant. Like a minimalist or moment form composition, the subjectivity of time becomes fore grounded. In this it is important to remember that the whole of Primal Force is an improvisation played by Levy. He is inventing through time, hearing reflections and echoes of meaning in the unfolding performance and repurposing them back into the work. The metre, harmony, volume and timbre ebb and flow and repeat. This is the hall in which the music is played.

Ultimately I’m not sure if what we have in front of us is a definitive recording of a performance, an exploration of the instruments mechanics, or a filtered echo of a music that only Levy could play. For me, the joy of this work comes from listening to its fluidity. It is at once a soloist, a chamber group and an orchestra, breathing in and out, embracing the conflicting vertical and horizontal relationships between the seen and heard, playing a familiar tune that sounds different each time you hear it.


[1] Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945 – 1980. Available at: http://alternativeprojections.com/data/filmDetail.php?film=primalforcedonlevy1979#descrip (Accessed: 20 March 2016).

[2] FILMVID TEXT: Artist notes for screening. Primal Force shown through Environmental Communications, Nov 13th 1977.

[3] FILMVID TEXT: Artist notes for screening. Primal Force shown through Environmental Communications, Nov 13th 1977.

[4] Chion, M., Gorbman, C. and Delogu, J.C. (2009) Film, a sound art. New York: Columbia University Press.

[5] Chion, M., Gorbman, C. and Delogu, J.C. (2009) Film, a sound art. New York: Columbia University Press.

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