"Bog Bodies": Portfolio of Artistic Research
Robert Stillman, REF 2021

Table of Contents:

  1. Project overview and summary of research objectives and findings
  2. The role and influence of 16mm film in live improvisation.
  3. The influence of projectors on staging of live performance
  4. The role of 16mm film in recording and producing improvisation-based
  5. Impact on subsequent work.
  6. List of associated outputs, and links.

1. Project Overview

Bog Bodies is a project focusing on the use of 16mm sound film in music performance, composition, and studio production. The research objectives for this project were: to test the viability of the 16mm film projector as a musical resource; to establish this resource’s role in and influence on performed and recorded improvisation, and; to examine how this resource impacted the ensemble’s musical approach in subsequent projects. The work was created by the ensemble Bog Bodies (Sean Carpio, Robert Stillman, and Anders Holst) in collaboration with filmmaker Benjamin Rowley, and is presented as a practice portolio comprised of documented rehearsals and public performances, as well as the recording/film gallery Sligo (Migro Records, 2017). The work was initiated by commissions from the Model and Niland Arts in Sligo, and Galway Jazz Festival, and created in residencies at at The Model (Sligo, IR), PRAH Foundation (Margate, UK) and Radio Margate (UK), with the support of the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council of England.

The initial stage of this work focused on developing uses of the 16mm technology for a multi-media performance context, drawing upon the precedent of experimental audio-visual composers (Oram, Fishinger, and MacLaren). The techniques developed in this first stage were tested and adapted in a series of rehearsals, and presented in public performances. The final stage of work focused on the use of 16mm films in the production of studio recordings.

The findings of the project are: (1) in the context of improvisation, the use of 16mm sound films encouraged an expansion of the instrumentalists musical language to include a wider variety of non pitch-derrived resources; (2), used in performance, the projected 16mm images could serve a dual role as visible/visual scores, and scenographic objects that reposition the performers’ bodies as ‘screens’, and (3) the 16mm films could effectively function as both sound sources and ‘audio scores’ in the creation of recorded improvisations.

2. The role and influence of 16mm film in live improvisation

  • How can 16mm film be developed for application in a musical context?
  • What is the role and influence of this resource in live improvisation?

Summary of work

The first phase of research for this project consisted of technical development and tests of 16mm film to establish its viability and potential use as a ‘musical instrument’. This work drew upon the practice of experimental audio-visual composers like Daphne Oram, Oskar Fishinger, and Norman MacLaren; however, whereas these artists’ work used 16mm sound film technology for the composition of music and image for playback, Bog Bodies’ work focused on the use of this technology for real-time performance. To best achieve this application, the film was composed as short loop fragments, allowing a projectionist to freely change sound and image materials responsively as part of a collective improvisation.

The loops were created by Benjamin Rowley, primarily using black Lettraset transfers onto clear film leader. The text and abstract patterns occupied both the visual and audio tracks of the film, and therefore simultaneously generated both sound and image when fed through the projector.

The shape and density of the material applied to the film determined the sound content of the loops, thus creating a great variety of sonic materials ranging from percussive/noisy to melodic/harmonic.


Example of a loop with melodic/harmonic characteristics:
Example of a loop with textural and harmonic characteristics:

First improvisation workshops with Bog Bodies and 16mm film projectors:

In these workshops, the audio output of each projector was fed into chains of FX pedals controlled by the members of Bog Bodies. These sessions resulted in long improvisations (50-60 minutes, excerpted below) which combined live sound manipulation and instrumental performance.

Below is a compilation of audio and film documentation from workshops on 11 January 2015. It was edited to highlight the influence of 16mm loop playback on the sound language and structure of the improvisation.

Analysis and findings:

  • Due to the slow change-over time of 16mm loops, their macro-level influence the music was to slow the pace of the music’s development into gradually evolving, episodic structures, with each loop initiating a new ‘area’ of the improvisation that took musical direction from the character of the loop. In this way, the 16mm resource acted more as an organising resource (i.e. score) than an interactive ‘instrument’.
  • However, as a novel sound source in the improvisation, the use of 16mm sound films encouraged an expansion of the instrumentalists musical language to include a wider variety of textural (i.e. non pitch-derived resources).

3.The influence of 16mm projection on staging of live performance

  • What is the influence of 16mm film projection on the staging of live multi-media performance?

Summary of work:

In July 2015, work with Bog Bodies and Ben Rowley continued as part of a two-week residency at the Model Arts and Niland Gallery in Sligo, Ireland.

Through a series of workshops, we continued to develop approaches to instrumental/electronic improvisation in conjunction with the three 16mm film projectors and loops. We also co-composed a series of musical fragments which would serve as points of reference during improvisation.

The bulk of this work was located within another ‘black-box’ theatre, but we also staged a series of small-scale ‘intervention’-style performances in different parts of the gallery.

During the residency, Rowley also created a series of site-specific long-form films which would be incorporated into a final performance at the Model.

The design of the performance comprised three large screens in back of the ensemble for 16mm projections from three separate projectors. Opposite the ensemble, a larger screen showed Rowley’s long-form films. The amplified sound was played back through a quadraphonic PA system. Audience members were invited to sit anywhere within the space and move freely during the performance.


Image of final theatre performance at the Model:

Film documentation of final theatre performance at Model:
An ‘intervention’ in the Model gallery space in which Bog Bodies performs behind a back-projected white screen.

Analysis and findings:

  • The projected 16mm film images served multiple roles in performance: projected onto screens and surfaces in the venue, the images functioned as dynamic graphic score resources visible to both performer and audience. Projected directly onto the musicians, the images served as aestheticised scenographic objects that reposition the performers’ bodies as ‘screens’.
  • The use of multiple projectors and projection surfaces and in performance disrupted the traditional binary audience-performer staging scheme, influencing a more fluid set-up in which image and sound is dispersed throughout a space through which the audience can freely move and position themselves.

4. The use of 16mm film in studio production.

  • What role can the 16mm film resource play in the creation of recorded/edited improvisations?

Summary of work:

In December 2015, Bog Bodies and Rowley made recordings for the album ‘Sligo’. The three day session, held at Arco Barco, Ramsgate, UK, was devoted to two kinds of recordings: extended group improvisations, and three solo improvisations with 16mm film loops.

The solo improvisations built upon previous experiments using a 16mm film loop as an audible ‘score’ for structuring improvisation. In each of these recordings, the instrumentalist improvised while listening to a 16mm film loop in headphones. Each soloist ‘used’ the 16mm content in different ways to shape their improvisation, and these subjective interpretations informed the approach taken when ‘composing’ the recordings into electronic pieces.


Example 1: In the saxophone improvisation ‘Doubling’, a short 16mm loop was used as the basis for, and as a feature of, recorded improvisation in the piece “Residence”.

This is the looped 16mm fragment that acted as ‘Audio score’ in headphones of during recording:

This is the final mix of ‘Residence’. The saxophone improvisation references the melodic, gestural, and textural/dynamic content of the loop that was playing back in the headphones during the improvisation. The loop itself is revealed in the mix at 5:30.

Example 2: in the piece ‘Doubling’ for 16mm loop and solo drums, the 16mm fragment is featured as an audible sound object in the mix (a static frequency triggered by the drum recording using a series of noise gates).

The following mix demonstration video illustrates how, through the use of noise gates, various layers of the 16mm loop (each transposed to a different octave) are triggered by different drum strokes. The selection of the 16mm layer is determined by the velocity of each drum stroke.

(Purple tracks are drums; blue tracks are 16mm loop layers).

This is an excerpt from the final mix of ‘Doubling’. At this point in the mix, the drum recording has been ‘muted’ in the mix, leaving only the triggered 16mm loop audio. The result is the rhythmic profile and dynamics of the drum improvisation, but with 16mm noise replacing the drum sounds.

Analysis and findings:

  • Used as references audible to musicians during recorded improvisation, the 16mm fragments can function as ‘audio scores’, exerting a substantial influence over the gestural structure and timbral/harmonic/melodic language employed by the soloist.
  • The 16mm fragments can function as viable objects within a mix, both as sound-generators, and as organising structures (for example, triggered by gates and filters).

5. Impact on Subsequent work

This section will present examples of how the above research impacted work carried out by Bog Bodies subsequent to the 16mm collaboration with Rowley.

Example 1: Bog Bodies live at Lo and Behold, London, June 2016 (Excerpt).

This performance shows how Bog Bodies incorporated sound resources (recorded and performed) and staging techniques into their trio improvisations. The 16mm fragments are played back on looping ‘endless cassettes’ controlled by the musicians.

Example 2: ‘Cave Painting 2019’ (excerpt) from live broadcast (Radio Margate, 1 March 2019)/ forthcoming ‘Bog Bodies’ LP (MIC Records).

This piece uses pre-recorded close-mic’d cymbal gesture as an ‘audio score’ to guide the recorded improvisation, drawing upon approaches developed with 16mm loops.

5. Selected outputs

Record Release ‘Sligo’ (Migro Recordings, 2017)

Release page:

MP3 download:

Online film gallery: ‘Sligo’ studio recordings from ‘Sligo’ release and long-form 16mm films created during Model Arts residency, 2015

List of selected performances and residencies: 

5th October 2019- Bog Bodies and Sharon Phelan (festival commission), Galway Jazz Festival, Galway, Ireland.

25th February-3rd March- Residency Radio Margate, Margate, UK

18th-24th February 2018- Residency PRAH Foundation, Margate, UK

19th February 2018- Bog Bodies X Thor Magnusson’s ‘Threnoscope’, Emute Lab 2, The Rose Hill,  Brighton, UK

3rd June 2017 Oscillate Festival of Experimental Music and Sound, Turner Contemporary Art Museum, Margate, UK

24th October 2016  “Reproduction on film” (Programme of music and silent films curated by Wellcome Trust/Cambridge University), Canterbury Festival, St Mary’s Hall Studio Theatre, Canterbury, UK

21st October 2016 Musical response to Exhibition: “One Day, Something Happens” Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, UK

14th December 2015‘Glitch 2015’ Conference, Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, UK

18 July 2015 Arts Technology Research Lab (ATRL), Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

5-16 July 2015 Residency and performances, The Model Arts and Niland Gallery-Sligo, Ireland

© Robert Stillman 2024