Director Martine Syms in conversation with composer Colin Self: Music and Dialogue
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A lifetime of crossed paths, musical collaborations and shared creative values recently culminated in director Martine Syms inviting musician Colin Self to score her latest film, The African Desperate.
One of the most important – and nerve-racking – parts of being in art school is the crit. In an early scene of The African Desperate, MFA student Palace (played by the magnetic Diamond Stingily) sits down with four white professors to defend her work. It’s a scene that will resonate with any art student, as Palace’s work is interpreted, invaded and torn apart while she tries to keep a level head. The scene takes an especially uncomfortable turn when the professors begin focusing more on Palace’s race, rather than her art. “There are lots of female artists your age and race making the same stuff you’re doing,” says one faculty member. “How are you going to differentiate yourself?”
The African Desperate takes a scalpel to the art school experience, carving out a visceral, coming-of-age satire that unravels as a drug-fuelled odyssey over the course of a single night. As the only Black woman in the film – and perhaps the only one at the school – Palace’s journey embodies the struggles of being a creative within an institution that systemically excludes people like her.
The film’s director, Martine Syms, a renowned artist and musician, is transparent about The African Desperate being based on her personal experiences as an MFA student at Bard College in upstate New York: “I was one of a handful of students of colour. [The] film recounts my first hilariously abject 24 hours as a master of fine arts.” Syms sought to reflect her experience from that formative time on film – and she needed trusted collaborators from her creative community to join her.
The musician Colin Self, who is best known for their futuristic, queer music, attended the same grad school as Syms. The two have been on each other’s radar for over a decade; before attending Bard College, they both ran in the same art and music circles in Chicago. Syms and Self formed their creative practices within traditional academies, but have both broken free from the constraints of working within discriminatory art and music industries. So when it came to inviting a musician to create a soundtrack for The African Desperate, Syms immediately thought of Self. “We have so much history and trust with each other,” she explains.
The resulting original soundtrack – a collaboration between Self and musicians Ben Babbitt and Aunt Sister – is experimental and delightfully egregious: a musical landscape for Palace’s feelings of joy, alienation and confusion. It’s impossible to imagine The African Desperate without its music, and Syms and Self’s personal history shines through their first film collaboration. Recently, the pair caught up over the phone – Syms dialling in from New York City, Self from Berlin – and their conversation traverses their shared past, previous musical collaborations, and finding each other as creative “research siblings”.
Crack: How did the two of you meet?
Martine Syms: Colin was someone I had been familiar with since forever within my circles of friends. I don’t have a great initial first story; it’s more like I’ve just always known this person or felt like I’ve known them.
Colin Self: It’s the same for me. The name Martine Syms has always been familiar; whether connected to a zine or the music world, I would hear Martine’s name. We really met in Chicago, though. We were both living there at the time. The first conversation, or connection, we had was at Golden Age – a shop Martine co-ran in Chicago. It was a really special space that represented what Chicago was like around 2010.
MS: Were we at the Art Institute [of Chicago] at the same time? I know we were both in Chicago around then, in 2005…
CS: We were one year off from each other! I only went for a year and a half.
MS: We were both studying performance. We had our own interests but had some overlap. Later we started making music together at grad school in New York.
CS: You reached out to ask if you should apply!
MS: When I thought about applying to the programme [in New York] in 2017, Colin had already been in it for one year. Colin used to do, and still does, a group vocal project called XOIR, and when it started, I was one of the singers. That’s when we started creating together. I love music – I’ve been doing it since I was young – but before I started singing with Colin, I hadn’t been making music for a long time. Working with you brought me back to my voice.
CS: Even before we started creating together, I felt like we’d known each other for years. A part of our friendship has always been a dialogue about things that we’re curious about or interested in, all the way back to Golden Age. Martine is on my 2018 record Siblings. That record is very much about non-biological family and forging relationships through what I would call a ‘research sibling’: you take care of each other and let each other know about art.
Crack: The African Desperate is about the tensions that exist in making art within the confines of an institution. What are your own experiences of that? Is it something you discussed during the collaboration?
CS: My experiences within art institutions have been so varied; some wonderful, some incredibly bad. There are so many bad actors in the game that I feel fortunate enough to rarely encounter them, but when it happens, it always comes as a shock. As an artist and educator, I encounter the gamut of good and bad across industries, so I feel weirdly indebted to build new systems and prevent as much inherited violence as possible. I believe in the vitality of building new institutions together in the face of ones that are broken.
Over the years, Martine and I have had many moments of laughter and bonding through our shared stories of working with these institutions. It wasn’t something we discussed explicitly when working on the score, but it’s really just a part of how we’ve survived in those spaces together over the years.
Crack: To create new possibilities means finding and exploring your own voice. It sounds like you both have a history of collaborating to, literally, find your voice through music.
MS: I remember in grad school our studios were a couple of hundred feet away from each other. I would find myself going to Colin’s studio and recording all sorts of funny voices and vocals. One summer, Diamond Stingily was around because we were shooting together, and we went into Colin’s studio and all made a song together. Diamond and I did the vocals and that ended up being the opening sequence to Siblings.
CS: The studio has always been a place of play for me. I don’t make any rules – we just go in and see where the voices take us.
MS: I’m an audiophile. The subtleties of sound, voice and resonance are all important to me. When I tell a story, I make little sound effects, [impersonating] someone’s voice or accent. I’m very attuned to sound and so is The African Desperate’s editor, Nicole Otero, as well as our music supervisor, Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura. We talked about music and sound from the start of the project. I wanted the art school community reflected in the film, but also the score. I wanted the idea of discourse and voice to inform the film’s texture, so there’s a lot of talking. There’s more dialogue in The African Desperate than other films, and we mixed the sound so that it’s very pronounced in order to convey the effect of being in that space.
CS: Even back in grad school, Martine and I were both doing stuff with voice. When we worked together in the studio, what resulted was a natural, loving playfulness between friends just having fun, being silly and enjoying our own company. Those kinds of relationships are important. For me, those connections make my creative practice meaningful. It was cool seeing them reflected in the film. Ben Babbitt got involved with the music for the film in a similar way, right?
MS: With the film’s music, I really should have planned to do it myself from the beginning – but I didn’t! I called Colin in a panic because they were someone I’ve collaborated with a lot and we had shared language and trust. I was trying to figure out how to convince you to fly out from Berlin to LA to work on the soundtrack and panicking, like, “Oh my god, what if I couldn’t get Colin!”
CS: I was already on my way!
MS: Yes, it was so perfect. You told me on the phone that you were already coming to work in LA and had a studio booked with Ben Babbitt. Ben is another name that I’ve been hearing for a long time, but we only met recently, just after finishing the film last August.
CS: Ben also lived in Chicago. He also went to the Art Institute.
MS: Yes! At a different time, though, so we didn’t overlap. But two people from the film and tech department had made this video game called Kentucky Route Zero, and Ben worked with them on the music for that. I don’t play video games but I’m really into video game music. So, even though I actually met Ben through Colin on The African Desperate, we had been in the same networks and community since Chicago. So much of the film’s theme is reflected in the collaborations that brought it to life – all these Art Institute and grad school connections. I wanted to work within my community, and I knew I had to do it with Colin. We have so much history – it just felt right.
Crack: The film feels like a fever dream odyssey at times, and the music functions to elevate Palace’s emotional state – how did you find the right music for the right moments of her journey?
CS: For me, part of it had to do with our shared emotional experiences in various institutional spaces over the years. Martine did such a great job of capturing the minutiae of those parasocial dynamics; the moments of accumulation and relief, or how it feels to truly be spiralling among it all. The party sequence, in its illusory fever dream, feels so eerily accurate. Working on the score with Ben and Martine was easy. Although we had known each other for years prior to our time in school, our relationship of singing and making music together really deepened during those years. It felt easy to connect to the spirit of the film from day one.