Jonestown “Home Movie” Footage Leads to Creating Audio Based on Death Tape

by Blake Edwards

I have been creating experimental music under the name Vertonen since 1991. Beginning in 2000 I began spending more time researching – and subsequently exploring audio interpretations of – extremes in the human experience. Recent work in this vein includes interpretations of the mental and emotional states of the Papin sisters during their murder trial in France in 1933, and a journey through a body breaking down due to High Altitude Cerebral Edema.

About a year ago I began taking advantage of the library at the University of Chicago to delve deeper into incidents of the 1970s of which I’d only previously scratched the surface: the SLA and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the Process Church of the Final Judgment, the Children of God, Baader-Meinhof, and Jim Jones and Jonestown.

While I was making my way through Tim Reiterman’s Raven I also saw Stanley Nelson’s documentary. One moment (of many) that stayed with me was the short silent “home movie” footage shot in the early months of Jonestown. I particularly liked how the film had aged (color saturation and deterioration around the perimeter) and especially how, out of context, those silent movies almost could have been viewed as travel or vacation footage.

At the same time I was also researching silent films to perform for an event at the University of Chicago. I decided to see if I could get access to the Jonestown footage and compose a soundtrack for it. I wanted to show a side of Jonestown most people may not associate with it. I envisioned running the film (or films, depending on the duration) with no introduction and a simple end-frame that stated the location, date, and a “thank you” to whoever was able to supply the footage.

Although this opportunity didn’t pan out, I realized there was a viable opportunity to permutate audio components related to Jonestown in a similar manner. Moreover, with the Jonestown death tape, I had a rare opportunity to generate my work from audio directly linked to the event. Similar to my ideas of performing to the “home movies,” my goal was to present the material in a manner contrary to the associations many people have regarding Jonestown. I wanted to offer a perspective that more closely reflected the original aims of the people who followed Jones to Guyana.

In April I began searching the tape for components that resonated with me and had the greatest modification potential. I ended up selecting four components; Jim Jones exhaling in exasperation, Christine Miller breathing, the spaces between questions and responses, and pieces from the last few minutes (often referred to as the “organ music”). I chose these sources because they capture different yet tangible representations of two themes – emptiness and frustration – that resonated with me throughout the recording. In addition, I wanted to continue my “revision / recontextualizing” idea by turning elements personifying those themes into aurally rich and potentially even calming material.

The starting point for almost every track involved severely processing the extracts. Processing usually included pitch-shifting (both speeding up and slowing down), reversing, creating false stereo fields, and other effects. For an example, with the piece based on the “organ music,” I selected a two second snippet and time-stretched it to 30 seconds. I then added some effects (chorus, reverb), put one version in a left channel and another version in a right channel, then multi-tracked and looped segments of the 30 second source piece. The end result is evolving into a surprisingly beautiful drone with a great deal of variance and structure.

After seven months of work, I am becoming more satisfied with how the pieces are finishing up. I aim to have the material released before year’s end, and would be glad to share the end result with anyone who is interested. Please feel free to contact me at vertonen@earthlink.net.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 3rd, 2014.
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