Johanna Billing, Pulheim Jam Session (2015)


To be fair, all years have some groundbreaking music to recommend them. But 1975 was a good year for both jazz and urban planning in Germany. Who knew the two could go together?

In Köln, Keith Jarrett played an improvised concert, the recording of which was to become the best-selling solo piano album of all time. Note the quibbling over genre, which can be found elsewhere.

Meanwhile to the North West of the city, a communal reform pronounced 12 nearby villages to have become a single municipal entity. Pulheim was born and in 1981 became a city.

Now, thanks to a new 23 minute film by Swedish artist Billing, improvisation and infrastructure have been married up again: a pianist plays in a barn, while 50 cars stage a tailback on a one-lane road.

Applying herself to the baby grand is artist and musician Edda Magnason. She offers a soundtrack to the traffic situation which begins with some tentative vamping and builds to an insistent riff.

The camera loves her instrument, the workings of which are juxtaposed with the engines of the cars, as, when the queue gets moving again, one driver helps another with a jump start.

But this is one jam you might not want to end, even if it takes place in a landscape as monotonous as it is continental, with fields of sleeping corn and power lines hung like staves from pylons.

It is only once the cars grind to a halt that their occupants come to life. Passengers play with dice. A father reads to his children. Dogs are let out to chase sticks. It’s all action in a major key.

Back in the barn, we encounter film crew, lighting rig and the impossible sight of men loading the Bechstein onto a removal truck belonging to ‘Piano Express’. Easy on the ears, the music plays on.

Plenty more sounds find their way in; the road users provide ambient noise. And Magnason takes regular breaks, allowing you to think about what you see just as much as what you hear.

But ultimately, if you give it time, this film will sweep you away. It is at once totally mundane and yet life-affirming. Billing finds music in every visual detail, from smokestacks to litter in the kerb.

Pulheim Jam Session enjoys its premiere at Hollybush Gardens, London, until 25 April. Read my 2009 interview with the artist here.

2 thoughts on “Johanna Billing, Pulheim Jam Session (2015)

  1. It sounds fascinating and at 23 minutes, it’s not demanding on people’s time and attention the way many film/installation art projects are. I also like that it focuses on such a relatively small cultural moment. It reminds me (the concept) of Wim Wenders of course, who was making road movies in the 1970s in West Germany, and who loved jazz and rock’n’roll. Also, for some reason I was reminded of that scene in the Bob Rafelson film “Five Easy Pieces” (1971) where Jack Nicholson, fed up of being stuck in traffic tailback, leaps out of the truck his co-worker is driving home and leaps into the back of a flat-bed truck with an upright piano in it, and starts playing…

    1. Jay, many thanks for reading and broadening the discussion. That scene in Five Easy Pieces is a very relevant call. As is Wenders, since as you point out, this is a road movie of sorts.

      The piano has an interesting cultural life, which you’ve got me thinking about now. Korean video art pioneer Nam June Paik also had a few run ins with pianos in the earlier years.

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