Feature Films Screening
World Premiere:
40 Days at Base Camp

Buy Now Box Office Packages Eric Harvie Theatre
$10 per program

Be among the first to see the world premiere of 40 Days at Base Camp by Canadian director Dianne Whelan. A feature-length documentary that delves into the heart of the Everest mystique, 40 Days at Base Camp tells stories of climbers interwoven with daily life at base camp. It also reveals the enormous effects of climate change and human intrusion on Everest’s ecology.  The mountain that was once a revered and sacred place has become a commercialized and overcrowded adventure destination accessible to anyone.

Original Music and Sound Design by Dennis Burke

Along with 40 Days at Base Camp, a selection of other films in competition will be screened – titles will be announced in October.


Dense Clarity – Clear Density

by dburke on July 29, 2011

by Walter Murch

Simple and Complex

One of the deepest impressions on someone who happens to wander into a film mixing studio is that there is no necessary connection between ends and means. Sometimes, to create the natural simplicity of an ordinary scene between two people, dozens and dozens of soundtracks have to be created and seamlessly blended into one. At other times an apparently complex ‘action’ soundtrack can be conveyed with just a few carefully selected elements. In other words, it is not always obvious what it took to get the final result: it can be simple to be complex, and complicated to be simple.

The general level of complexity, though, has been steadily increasing over the seven decades since film sound was invented. And starting with Dolby Stereo in the 1970’s, continuing with computerized mixing in the 1980’s and various digital formats in the 1990’s, that increase has accelerated even further. Sixty years ago, for instance, it would not be unusual for an entire film to need only fifteen to twenty sound effects. Today that number could be hundreds to thousands of times greater.

Well, the film business is not unique: compare the single-take, single-track 78rpm discs of the 1930’s to the multiple-take, multi-track surround-sound CDs of today. Or look at what has happened with visual effects: compare King Kong of the 1930’s to the Jurassic dinosaurs of the 1990’s. The general level of detail, fidelity, and what might be called the “hormonal level” of sound and image has been vastly increased, but at the price of much greater complexity in preparation.

The consequence of this, for sound, is that during the final recording of almost every film there are moments when the balance of dialogue, music, and sound effects will suddenly (and sometimes unpredictably) turn into a logjam so extreme that even the most experienced of directors, editors, and mixers can be overwhelmed by the choices they have to make

So what I’d like to focus on tonight are these ‘logjam’ moments: how they come about, and how to deal with them when they do. How to choose which sounds should predominate when they can’t all be included? Which sounds should play second fiddle? And which sounds – if any – should be eliminated? As difficult as these questions are, and as vulnerable as such choices are to the politics of the filmmaking process, I’d like to suggest some conceptual and practical guidelines for threading your way through, and perhaps even disentangling these logjams.

Or – better yet – not permitting them to occur in the first place.

read more:  pt. 2: Dense Clarity – Clear Density


Picture Start

by dburke on July 28, 2011

Picture Start
Harry Killas, Canada, 2010, 48 minutes

Dennis Burke – Original music and Sound design

In their studios, at galleries and while walking around the city, three Vancouver art stars (Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham) reflect back on the pioneering art they individually, and occasionally collectively, began producing in the 1970s. Their art — causing nothing short of a tremor within the art world — eventually came to be known as photo-conceptualism: a novel approach to photography involving stripping down the photographic image to pure information, pure idea. Exploring the movement, Picture Start offers an informative insider’s look at the personal motivations that drove these artists to create the art that they did. Along the way, we are treated to lesser-known and fascinating side tales: the brief visit of legendary artist Robert Smithson to Vancouver, and the earliest reception of Wall’s now canonized photograph, Destroyed Room (1978), which insured photo-conceptualism was here to stay and forever placed Vancouver on the art world map. —JM

Picture Start will play the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver on May 13, 2011 at 6:30 PM Vancity Theatre – Broadcast Premiere of Picture Start will be on BRAVO! on May 16, 2011 at 8 PM ET, 5PM PT.


by Charles Bernstein

Limitation! A worrisome word. We live in a world of limitations. Which of us has enough time? Enough money? Enough work? Enough leisure? (Enough love? Enough talent?) Limitation seems to hit us at every turn.

Creative people—especially those of us who work in commercial media—are constantly facing limits. Being told what, when and how to create is part of the job. Writers of words and music are up against deadlines, demands, market forces, budgets, bullies, you name it. I began to wonder if there might be anything good to say about this dilemma. Can limitation ever be a positive force? A blessing in disguise?

The truth is, art often thrives on limitation. All creative artists must begin by setting some kind of limits for themselves. Having too many choices and endless possibilities can actually inhibit the creative process. Songwriters, painters, authors, choreographers, begin by choosing a theme, a subject, a pallet of colors, the size of a canvas, a set of materials or movements. All these are essential limitations. A painting doesn’t utilize all the colors in the spectrum. A great chef doesn’t throw in all the spices on the rack. Ballets are fashioned from a limited number of steps and gestures. The most beautiful buildings are made from very few materials and shapes. The artist’s first and fundamental task is to set some limits, eliminating everything but the essentials.

In music, we composers begin with a conspicuous limitation. There are only seven notes in a scale. (Okay, twelve, if you throw in the skinny black ones). Microtonalists can squeeze in a few more tones, but that’s it. Chords are similarly finite in our tonal system. And yet, what a marvel of invention has resulted from this limited language. Our rich heritage of classical and popular music is testimony. The Baroque and Classical composers have showered us with masterpieces wrought form a truly modest vocabulary. The harmonic and contrapuntal rules that J. S. Bach imposed on his own music came to be studied as part of “the common practice,” and are still taught as the fundamentals of music today. On the folksier side, look at the Blues. Three chords and a hand full of notes, but no one seems to get tired of this music.

In movie music we have even more limitations to put up with. Aside from all the traditional musical constraints, a score is further bound by the restrictions imposed by the film itself. Film music can’t just wander off and fulfill it’s own agenda. There are timings to be met, precise transitions to be made, moods to be shifted, portentous happenings to be foretold. There are matters of concept, style, tone and period to be considered. On top of this, we have the taste of the director, producer and studio to contend with. A newer limitation derives from the temp track, which often restricts the nature and structure of a score before a composer is even hired. With all this, how does a film composer manage to be so consistently creative? This is truly the miracle of film scoring.

So many limitations, yet so much creativity. Is this a paradox? Could there be a link between limitation and liberation? Can freedom spring form restriction? Can exuberance derive from discipline? Consider the wild soprano sax solos of John Coltraine or the unbridled splatters of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Both of these American geniuses created works known for their freedom and abandon. Yet a closer look reveals something interesting. John Coltraine took a highly disciplined approach to his music. Far from being arbitrary in his choice of notes, Coltraine meticulously perfected his scale and modal passages, practicing day in and day out. His flights of fancy, screams of agony, swirls of chaotic bliss were carefully crafted and limited to fit his aesthetic framework. Similarly, the seemingly chaotic splashes of Jackson Pollock resulted from a highly conscious way of applying paint. His unrefined, random looking results were born of a tight control of colors, patterning and concept that preceded the pouring of the paint.

It seems clear that limitation can be a good thing, especially if it is the artist who sets the limits. Restrictions imposed by an employer, a client or by the state is quite another matter. French philosopher, Albert Camus once said that, “art lives only on the restraint it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.” That seems a bit harsh. (Hopefully, this sounds less pessimistic in French). The great Russian composer, Dimitri Shostokovitch was subjected to state imposed limitations throughout his long career under the Soviet system. Yet, even with Stalin as a repressive and often terrorizing force, Shostokovitch managed to be brilliant, powerful, and even original. His late works, like the 14th Symphony, show just how much more original he might have become if left to set his own limitations. Departures from socialist realism were, sadly, chastised and punished in his world.

While considering limitation, what about our own God-given limits? (Me? Limited?) Let’s admit that all of us have personal limitations as composers. We know, or should know, what these limitations are. (And we often take great care that others shouldn’t find out). For example, some composers flourish with high technology, while others can’t read a computer manual without twitching. One composer can write fugues in her sleep but can’t improvise to save her live, while another can orchestrate like an alchemist, but can’t write a melodic line worth remembering. Some pop/jazz composers feel limited in the classics, and some classical composers wish they had a better sense of chord extension and groove. Some orchestral composers can write wonderful songs, and others can’t. Some great songwriters can write wonderful orchestral compositions, and others can’t. (Anyone who says they are without personal limitations must have a limited view of themselves!) What we do with our personal limitations is crucial. It can spell the difference between ease and distress in our daily lives.

Lessons on creativity and limitation can be found in many places, especially in ancient texts. The Book of Genesis reveals creation to be a divine act of will, which involves dividing, organizing, defining and somehow limiting the limitless. In Genesis, the dividing of things into opposites would seem to be part of the creative process. This theme is echoed by the early Taoists. Lao Tsu wrote that “opposites give rise to each other. Without ‘beautiful,’ we wouldn’t know what ‘ugly’ was. We can’t define ‘good’ without knowing ‘evil.'” By the same token, creative freedom may only grow out of our grappling with its opposite, limitations. The most liberated and liberating sounds in all of music, whether from Bach, Beethoven, Coltraine, Ravi Shankar, or Bessie Smith, are somehow deeply rooted in their opposites—limitation, restriction and discipline. This can be a heartening thought for all of us, especially when the many limitations of our profession threaten our sanity.

Since limitation is always with us, perhaps the best we can do is learn to live with it. Even better, maybe we can come to embrace limits as blessings. The words of Beethoven’s contemporary, Goethe, might bring some comfort when constraints pile up. (What seemed true in 1802 holds up pretty well today).

“In limitations he first shows himself the master. And the law can only bring us freedom.” —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

© Charles Bernstein, 1998 & 2005


Womb Tone

by admin on July 29, 2010

by Walter Murch

Birth wakens those four sleepyhead senses and they scramble for the child’s attention—a race ultimately won by the darting and powerfully insistent Sight—but there is no circumventing the fact that Sound was there before any of the other senses, waiting in the womb’s darkness as consciousness emerged, and was its tender midwife.
So although our mature consciousness may be betrothed to sight, it was suckled by sound, and if we are looking for the source of sound’s ability—in all its forms—to move us more deeply than the other senses and occasionally give us a mysterious feeling of connectedness to the universe, this primal intimacy is a good place to begin.
One of the infant’s first discoveries about the outside world is silence, which was never experienced in the womb. In later life, the absence of sound may come to seem a blessed relief, but for the newly-born, silence must be intensely threatening, with its implications of cessation and death. In radio, accordingly, a gap longer than the distance between a few heartbeats is taboo. In film, however, silence can be a glowing and powerful force if, like any potentially dangerous substance, it is handled correctly.
Another of the infant’s momentous discoveries about the world is its synchronization: our mother speaks and we see her lips move, they close and she falls silent; a plate tumbles off the table and crashes to the floor; we clap our hands and hear (as well as feel) the smack of flesh against flesh. Sounds remembered from the womb are discovered to have an external point of origin. The consequent realization that there is a world “outside” separate from the self (which must therefore be somehow “inside”) is a profound and earth-shaking discovery, and it deserves more attention than we can give it here. Perhaps it is enough to say that this feeling of separation between the self and the world is a hallmark of human existence, and the source of equal amounts of joy when it is overcome and pain when it is not.
Synchronization of sight and sound, which naturally does not exist in radio, can be the glory or the curse of cinema. A curse, because if overused, a string of images relentlessly chained to literal sound has the tyrannical power to strangle the very things it is trying to represent, stifling the imagination of the audience in the bargain. Yet the accommodating technology of cinema gives us the ability to loosen those chains and to re-associate the film’s images with other, carefully-chosen sounds which at first hearing may be “wrong” in the literal sense, but which can offer instead richly descriptive sonic metaphors.
This metaphoric use of sound is one of the most flexible and productive means of opening up a conceptual gap into which the fertile imagination of the audience will reflexively rush, eager (even if unconsciously so) to complete circles that are only suggested, to answer questions that are only half-posed. What each person perceives on screen, then, will have entangled within it fragments of their own personal history, creating that paradoxical state of mass intimacy where—though the audience is being addressed as a whole—each individual feels the film is addressing things known only to him or her.
So the weakness of present-day cinema is paradoxically its strength of representation: it doesn’t automatically possess the built-in escape valves of ambiguity that painting, music, literature, black-and-white silent film, and radio have simply by virtue of their sensory incompleteness —an incompleteness that automatically engages the imagination of the viewer/listener as compensation for what can only be suggested by the artist. In film, therefore, we go to considerable lengths to achieve what comes naturally to radio and the other arts: the space to evoke and inspire, rather than to overwhelm and crush, the imagination of the audience.
What is multilayered density in sound: are there limits to the number and nature of different elements we can superimpose? Can the border between sparse clarity and obscure density be located in advance?

These questions are, at heart, about how many separate ideas the mind can handle at the same time, and on this topic there seems, surprisingly, to be a common thread linking many different realms of human experience—music, Chinese writing, and Dagwood sandwiches, to name a few—and so I hope some of the tentative answers presented here, even though derived from film, will find their fruitful equivalents in radio.

Feb.2 2005 from transom.org


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“Heartbreak, Greatness and Film Music”

by admin on July 28, 2010

by Charles Bernstein

We all have our hearts broken at some point in our lives. Heartbreak is necessary. It is a part of the human condition. That doesn’t make it any easier to bear. The only hearts that don’t break are either too hard to crack or too protected to be gotten to. Needless to say, we would rather experience heartbreak in music, movies or poetry than through real losses in our lives. Nashville songwriters know this. So do those who produce three-hanky movies.

My Nashville friend, Bruce Michael Miller wrote a song with Rand Bishop about heartbreak. It reminds us that love enters the heart through the cracks where its been broken before. “My heart’s been battered and cracked/It’s taken some bruises but keeps coming back/Right at those places it’s mostly worn thin/That’s where your love comes in.” Heartbreak and loss are never far from us in this life.

We in the film music community had our hearts broken during the summer of 2004. Some towering film music greats have left us. There will be no new scores from Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith or David Raksin. That’s a sad fact, but not the heartbreaking part. The heartbreaking part is not being able to see and speak to any of them ever again. Three beautiful human beings that we all loved and cherished are no longer among us to council, encourage, enlighten and enrich us. Jerry, David and Elmer were personal friends and mentors to most of us working in film music today. Not being able to look into their eyes and hear their voices leaves an unfillable void.

At such a moment, the idea of greatness in film music is unavoidable. What qualities made these men great? What made their contribution to our art so special and enduring?

Greatness is an illusive quality. Excellence is quite common in film scoring today. There is very little greatness. To be great, a film score must be more than excellent. It must rise above the others. How does this happen? As many times as we may have asked this question of our three recently departed colleagues, the best answer still lies in their work. There seem to be certain traits and values that show up again and again in all great scores. This might be the right time to look into the heart of greatness.

First of all, it is rare indeed to find a Goldsmith, Raksin or Bernstein score that lacks a powerful melodic theme. Why are great melodies so rare these days? Probably because melodies that really capture the heart of a film are hard to write. Most composers would probably prefer a root canal to writing coherent melody. We hear excuses from Composers about this. Some say that melodies are unfashionable in a era of minimalism and Hip Hop. This is, of course, demonstrably untrue, as Jerry, Elmer and David have repeatedly shown us. The second most common excuse is that the filmmakers are actually happy with some pad, texture, rhythm track or motif. So, why rock the boat? Jerry never fell for this sort of thinking (thank God) when he struggled with Paul Veerhoven to craft the wonderful melodic material for Basic Instinct or in his soaring elegies for Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears. Throughout their careers, Elmer, David and the other greats certainly needed no excuses to avoid melodic writing. They thrived on it.

Another quality of greatness is making a commitment. What does this mean? It means that the composer must decide in advance what themes will be developed in the course of the score. I’ve spoken to probably every great film composer in our lifetime, and all of them understood this principle. Making such a commitment is crucial. It’s like choosing a mate. It means that you will be living with this musical material, day in and day out, for the duration of the movie. You will, in effect, be married to it. A series of one night stands is so much easier. That means scoring the film one scene at a time, cue by cue, without regard to overall structure and thematic development. Committing to melodic material in advance is so painfully difficult that very few composers are consistently up to the challenge. Why is it so hard? First of all, because its just plain difficult to write a really good melody. Secondly, it is even harder to write one that is fresh, innovative and worth repeating for two hours. Furthermore, it isn’t easy to create a melody that acts as a vehicle for character, or that can enhance a given dramatic or comedic story. On top of that, it takes the skill of a symphonist to develop, adapt and vary a theme over the course of a film. No wonder so many composers approach a film one scene at a time. Scoring scenes is easy, scoring films is difficult. There are only a handful of composers who have been consistently up to that task, and three of them are now gone.

There are other attributes of greatness in film composing that are worth thinking about. As we have just noted, all of the film music greats have demonstrated commitment to melodic material and structural development. But so many of them have also been bold innovators. When Jerry gave us Planet of the Apes, he broke new ground in style and concept. Elmer’s great jazz scores of the 1950s sounded like nothing before them. David Raksin was one of the few composers working in film that could truly hold his own in the world of avant garde concert music. The same innovative spirit can be found in the works of many other true greats of film music. Ennio Morricone came up with unprecedented inventions in his collaboration with Sergio Leone. Henry Mancini, a true master of melodic writing, was also given to innovative experimentation in films like Wait Until Dark and Arrabesque, and his inventive addition of cool jazz to the TV world in Peter Gunn. John Williams, perhaps the greatest of the great living film composers, has been as experimental and unconventional as anyone working in the field. His 1972 score for Images is just one wonderful example of this.

Other aspects of greatness? Perhaps a composer’s “personal stamp” is an essential quality that all great film composers seem to bring to their work. There is a unique imprint that tells us that a score was written by a particular artist. When we hear a major Goldsmith, Bernstein, Raksin, (or Williams, Morricone, Mancini, Jarre, Herrmann, etc.) score, regardless of the genre or style, we feel the distinctive personality behind it. There is evidence of individual identity in the writing. We begin to understand the sense of taste, the special choices, the quirks and winks coming from a certain creative mind. This brings up an interesting question. What if a team of great film composers were to contribute cues to a film? Could those pieces add up to a “great” film score? It would certainly be well written. It would sound terrific. It would obviously work well to picture and, with a strong directorial hand, it could even make some sort of stylistic and cohesive sense. Would it achieve greatness? Seriously doubtful. The composers that we love are great because we marvel at what they can bring to a film, and we know exactly what that is. It is their unique personal vision, their special approach, not just their product, that makes them our heroes.

It is heartbreaking to think that our small community now has significantly fewer great film composers than we did at the beginning of the summer of 2004. But heartbreak, as we have noted, can be an opening, and not a closing. There are still some bona fide great composers among us. There are also a large number of talented, brilliant, successful “potential greats” working today. This is promising. We know exactly what qualities might be standing between the potential greats and our immortal greats: thematic brilliance, willingness to commit, ability to innovate, being courageous, consistent, sharing a very personal identity and vision, and of course, having the strength of character to stand up for these things when all the forces in the film universe are saying “give in or give up.”

It is possible to achieve the kind of greatness we have been talking about, and it is possible to elevate, evolve and preserve film music as a living art. Jerry, Elmer and David, who carried the tradition of other beloved composers before them, have taught us this. They have left this world now and we are forever heartbroken, and forever grateful.

© Charles Bernstein 2004, 2005



Malher Gustav – Adagietto Symphonie N°5

by admin on July 22, 2010


“Finding Farley” – Sounds good

by admin on May 15, 2010

Nominated for Best Musical Score
in a Documentary Program or Series

Dennis Burke – Finding Farley

Nominated for Best Overall Sound
in a Documentary Program or Series

Dennis Burke – Finding Farley

Nominated for Best Sound Editing
in a Documentary Program or Series

Dennis Burke, Raphael Choi – Finding Farley

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Ouest qu’on parle français?

by admin on March 1, 2010