Working With Time

Fred FrithRivers and Tides (Winter & Winter, 2003)

Technically, I haven’t listened to this album, but I’ve heard the music, after finally seeing the Thomas Riedelscheimer film, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time.

Frith’s music is the aspect that got me to know about this film in the first place. For such a gentle, quiet setting, he applies an appropriately minimal touch — small bursts of tone or sound, surrounded by blank space. Influences from Chinese and Japanese music are evident.

Like Goldsworthy’s art, the music is thought out, chosen to blend with the surface. It’s not ambient, and there’s a variety of sounds, produced mostly by Frith on guitars, violin, berimbao (Brazilian stringed instrument that he infuses with a zen Asian touch), and samples. He’s also got a band of bass, sax, and drums at his disposal, producing atmospheric sounds, not trio jazz.

The movie’s not about Frith, obviously, but his music gets its moments, particularly at one point near the end. It has to do with a large-scale installation Goldsworthy did in New York, a commission that, unlike most of the art in the film, is built to withstand time and the elements. What makes this segment so effective is that you see the work up-close, in progress, and it seems unremarkable. Then they show you what he was really doing, and — well, I won’t spoil it (and you can’t miss it). Frith’s faster-paced, chiming theme quickens the pulse of the movie at this point, rightly so.

If you don’t know Andy Goldsworthy, his art uses materials found in nature, and it’s often ephemeral, meant to be destroyed over time. The opening sequence has him breaking up icicles, melting the ends of fragments to form his trademark switchback shape, positioned as if weaving in and out of a rock. The serpentine icicle is made possible by the pieces refreezing into place, and it shines (literally) as the sun strikes it. The sunlight “makes” the piece, and eventually unmakes it.

For Goldsworthy, it’s all mostly about making a deeper contact with his materials. But there’s something being said as well about the strength and indifference of nature as it pushes forward, going around or through Goldsworthy’s pieces.

It’s not necessarily about destruction. Some pieces aren’t complete until being overwhelmed by the elements. Consider the dome of driftwood in the photo above. When the tide comes in, the edges drift away, but the structure stays intact — and gets carried off into the current, down an estuary. “You feel as if you’ve touched the heart of the place,” Goldsworthy says — one  of the many small, profound sound bites set against placid backdrops of nature.

The film also demonstrates the risk that I suspect is present in all art but doesn’t get discussed much, especially in the visual arts. There must be sculptures that crack incorrectly, paintings that go astray because of an incorrect line.

So, here, we get to see Goldsworthy painstakingly build a bowl shape out of rings and rings of flat stones, only to have the whole thing split apart, collapsing downwards like children’s blocks. The film then goes on to show what he was trying to build: an egg shape, standing on its fatter end (so this “bowl” was just the beginning). There’s one in an airport. One on the side of a mountain road. One made of ice, sitting in a river. And finally — the one Goldsworthy was trying to build, completed this time.

He puts the final pebbles on the top. Then the camera dissolves forward to the tide rising, turning the egg into a small hill. That’s juxtaposed with another egg, built of brick, in a field — where it’s the overgrowth of plants, rather than the tide, that buries the “cone,” as Goldsworthy calls it. As he points out, the shape is gone, but still there.