Inspired by having the tops of their heads blown off by Utah Valley University’s artist-in-residence Alex Caldiero, then-rookies Travis Low and Torben Bernhard took up cameras for the first time in 2007 in order to try to uncover the mystery of this outrageously singular Orem artist. In The Sonosopher: a Life in Sound, the filmmakers travel with Caldiero to his homeland in Sicily, to the home of his youth, New York City, and to his suburban “cookie-cutter” home in Orem, Utah, to which Caldiero migrated in 1980 after converting to Mormonsim and deciding it would be a more plausible place to raise a family of seven than New York City.
People seem bewildered first by what it is, exactly, one should call what Caldiero does, and second, by why on earth an experimental whatever-he-is would choose the culturally hegemonic Orem as a home. By the end of the film, our questions have not been so much answered as deemed irrelevant. Caldiero is an artist who works on the page and on the stage, following threads of da-daism, avant-garde poetry, and experimentalism as fomented by the likes of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg in ‘50s and ‘60’s New York. Cage and Rauschenberg were artists he at least crossed paths with in New York, and he had some correspondence with Cage, and one of his books is a series of koan-like question and answer with Cage. He reads, vocalizes, stutters, breathes, intones, and tuvan throat-sings on stage. He sometimes calls his poems and books “scores”. His vocalizations range from “reading” to virtuosic phonemic utterances carried on the breath that he says is at the heart of his work.
In footage shot at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, at an experimental poetry festival no less, the emcee titters nervously and tries to get the intractable Caldiero off the stage while saying, “I don’t believe you wrote that. You just made that up. I have to admit, I don’t get it.” Caldiero opens the book. She tries to usher him off. He points to one of the pages he read from. She looks at it. “I think you’re the weirdest one here.”
In a clip from Park City TV, a group of handsome and feckless young—who knows what they were—skiers? Frat boys?--interview Caldiero. “Will you read for us?” the host asks. “I’ll do more than read for you, I’ll sonosophize,” Caldiero says. He directs the camera, “Come slowly towards me.” The camera obeys, and the sonosopher launches into his thing, a riveting and fully present piece breaking down the phrase, “This is not it.” He finishes. The young man smiles the most inauthentic of grins, familiar as Donny Osmond’s soul-hiding smile, and, in that perfectly dismissive Utah back-slapping move says, “Well, what can I possibly add to that?” (fade on huge phony grin). And once again, Caldiero has done his job of fully destabilizing the cultural landscape of Park City TV.These brief clips perfectly spotlight, without comment by the filmmakers, the perfect dissonances between authenticity and inauthenticity that Caldiero makes apparent in the world—the discomfort of the middlemen, the explainers, the emcees, trying to mediate between Caldiero and his audience. But Caldiero is an artist whose work flouts mediation because of it’s almost too-raw immediacy and directness. Low and Bernhard show this best when they let show us Caldiero in the context of a live audience. And they brought some amazing illumination to the funny, uncomfortable, and fraught relationship Caldiero has with the world and his audiences.
The film, just released on dvd, slips between footage of Caldiero, who no one can deny is a rare presence on any stage, and concerned citizens, scholars, and friends ruminating about whether or not Caldiero is really a poet, about what category his work fits into, about how legit he actually is. One interviewee says: “About 50% of his work is life-altering. The other 50% is bullshit.”
After three years of gathering material, Low and Bernhard faced the Herculean task of editing 110 hours of raw footage. What they occasionally lack in finessed camera work, they make up for with smart editing. If some of their technical skills are a tad green, they compensate by making some creative choices in moving the narrative of the film in a slightly less straightforward track.We still might crave 10 or 15 more minutes of the nuts and bolts stuff, though if they had to choose between the sonosophy-esque film technique and straight narrative, they made the right choice.
Though we still might want to know: How does Caldiero support his family? What are his classes like at UVU?Can he really teach legit philosophy? Does his wife do all the laundry and the cooking? What drives him to this? What REALLY brought him to Orem?
I think the last two questions are pretty convincingly answered—what Caldiero does, he does so he can breathe. My favorite scene was near the end of the film, when he seems outraged by the question, “How do you find time to do all this?” (He is surrounded by what looks like thirty or forty of his big hand-written books.).
“Time? I don’t have time. I don’t find time.” He pinches his jugular, around his adam’s apple. He seems to choke, to dig in to his life force, blood force, and breath force. What he does, he claims, is what he has to do. What he does is what he is. His work is just an extension of his breath, the circulation of the blood of his body. And the audience will have to decide: bullshit? Authentic? Or are they one and the same?