Genre: Music Documentary
Year Released: 2017
Running Time: 9 minutes; extended version 14 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: G
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: The Piano in a Factory, Presence: 5 Haikus for 5 Boros
-This mini-documentary is streaming on Vimeo.
-The extended version can be seen here.
-The review is based on the original 9 minute version.
–Joshua Stamper is an experimental composer who has also been a sideman and arranger for bands such as Soul-Junk, Danielson, Twin Sister, Bifrost Arts, mewithoutYou, and Ben + Vesper.
-Speaking of Ben + Vesper, Ben Stamper himself directed this mini documentary.
-The chamber group that performed the title piece is The Crossing (not to be confused with the Chicago Celtic Folk band of the same name), who have been Grammy-nominated.
I needed to stretch myself out my exploring more short films of various kinds. Luckily, Vimeo has been a wonderful site to discover hidden gems. This one happens to involve a musician that I have seen live years ago.
‘Mid the Steep Sky’s Commotion is both the name of this mini-documentary and the piece that Philadelphia-based composer Joshua Stamper wrote while the group The Crossing sings and performs the instrumentation for it. This particular composition is based on randoms words found with trashed things in Philly while making a cohesive narrative using these assemblages of discarded things as cultural artifacts of the city of Brotherly Love itself. These jumbled up and otherwise unrelated words make up the libretto of this experimental vocal chamber movements. Not only are the singers told to sing these lyrics, but there are video installations and a screen containing all these coalesced words.
This was my first time seeing a video production by Ben Stamper who’s also one-half of indie rock husband/wife duo Ben + Vesper and I was really impressed with the cinematography of it. There were some creative shots and b-roll footage with natural scenes and the rehearsal footage. The latter of which has a masterful usage of cool hues and low lighting to heighten the ambience of this intimate singing performance. I also liked the shots of the people moving around behind the lyric screens that enveloped a wall. The music itself was quite a treat. I own multiple albums from Joshua Stamper and he’s a very talented musician and composer. The vocals are operatic, yet atypical in this modern setting with experimental chamber music. I really want to hear the entire piece and I hope it gets recorded in some way. One could argue that this could work as an album teaser of sorts should this be transferred to CDs, MP3s, and vinyl, but it still felt like a documentary which was good. There’s no commercial pretenses here.
I do wish that ‘Mid the Steep Sky’s Commotion would have been longer despite being a mini-documentary. While it was a pleasant nine minute watch, I would have liked to have seen more content in it’s short time period. It would be nice if they showed the designers making the lyrics screen or the video installations. Maybe you can have Joshua scoring by writing music notes on a rough draft or playing one of the parts of the piece on piano or singing. There was also a lack of drama. Maybe it’s because I’m biased towards docudramas, but some tension could have elevated the mini-documentary. I wanted to learn more while also wanting to hear the piece entirely outside of this movie.
‘Mid the Steep Sky’s Commotion is a solid mini-documentary that you should check out from this great composer. The musical elements are just spot on as they whet your appetite for hearing the title composition played. There’s a unique concept to the movements at large which I found to be fascinating despite not being from Philly let alone visiting that city in particular. I do wish that a few more minutes could’ve been added, but the content that was already there certainly suffices.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you like experimental and avant-garde music
Subtract 2-3 points if you prefer more straightforward music
-Excellent video production
-Masterful composition work
-Unique concept for a musical piece
-Lack of drama
-Not enough behind-the-scenes work with The Crossing or the set design
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: There is nothing objectionable shown or spoken in ‘Mid the Steep Sky’s Commotion although I could see younger audiences being bored since the music doesn’t involve catchy choruses, trap beats, or top 40 aesthetics. However, this can be a good excuse to get people of any age into artier forms of music though.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.