Sacred Ground

Mount Rushmore is an icon of the United States, attracting millions of visitors each year. The Wounded Knee Massacre site, only a two-hour drive away, receives just a handful of visitors each day. The feature documentary “Sacred Ground”, currently in production, aims to explore the relationship between these two monuments that between them embody a key turning point in American history, as well as that history’s ongoing legacy. Following the launch of a crowdfunding campaign to see the film through to completion, Pascal Savy spoke to Stephan Mathieu, an electroacoustic musician with a long discography of excellent releases on labels such as 12k, LINE, and Baskaru, who is composing the film’s score.

When and how did you get approached by Tim Gruenewald to work with him on this film and why did you decide to take part in this project?

Tim Gruenewald, Professor of American Studies at Hong Kong University, and Ludwig Schmidtpeter, independent media artist, contacted me three years ago, in the summer of 2011. They have written and filmed “Sacred Ground” out of their own pockets, without any funding, a real matter of the heart to them. Marc Misman has a background in commercials and took care of cataloguing and editing all the material. While I’m interested in working for documentary features in general, it was the film’s plot and the producer’s enormous enthusiasm that made me accept to join what has to be seen as a very low budget production. We all think this story has to be told and we are giving our very best to finalise and make “Sacred Ground” available to the public soon. Apart from trying to gain back some of the financial investments and to avoid even more expenditures, this project is strictly non-commercial, so any future profits will be donated to institutions in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where Wounded Knee is located.

Have the film-makers given you a lot of guidance before starting work on the project or did you have complete freedom?

During our first meeting back in 2011, I gave Tim and Ludwig copies of all my releases and they replied with a selection of pieces they liked as a reference soon after, mainly tracks from Radioland and The Sad Mac, so I had an idea of what direction they had in mind. From there on I worked freely. We had several more meetings, bouncing ideas back and forth, and some weeks ago I received a rough cut of the final movie where I added new pieces as a proposal. A long list of detailed annotations followed, and I’m looking into them right now. In the end all will come down to mutual respect, nobody involved wants to compromise a good thing.

How have you worked with them throughout the project?

The shoot for the over 50 hours of material was completed by Tim and Ludwig during their trip to South Dakota in the summer of 2009, so when I got involved, the material was already catalogued and the selection of the interviews to be used was done. I started to work on a pool of audio right away, boiled it down in the meantime, and made a final selection of tracks after receiving a rough cut. Right now I’m refining those pieces to match the scenes and carry the moods of the footage.

How have you approached the creative process? In particular, did you travel to the two sites before or during the composition of the original score to get inspired by their respective atmospheres?

Unfortunately, I was not able to visit South Dakota myself, but traveling the States ranges high on my to-do list, not only because of this specific work. I guess I’ve had this plan since I first saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Zabriskie Point” in my teens. While it was a rather romantic thought back then, nowadays I’m simply curious to experience this amazing country from within and meet people outside of my contacts as a musician.

The film’s footage gives a deep impression of both sites — Wounded Knee, the Pine Ridge Reservation, versus the Black Hills where Mount Rushmore is located. Their surroundings, people, as well as the history that connects them all. I have a copy of the complete footage, so I was able dive into the subject even deeper. In the end, the story is quickly told — extreme poverty and misery on one side, wealth and massive patriotism on the other. The massacre of the Lakota people, which took place at Wounded Knee in the winter of 1890, was the last major episode in a long and cruel history of the slaughtering of the Native people. Their land was taken by the Whites even before that. Reservations were established, and many people who were used to living and roaming freely throughout their long history were forced there even at gunpoint. Gold was involved. The Black Hills, chosen by the US Government in the mid-1920s to erect Mount Rushmore, the Shrine of Democracy, has been sacred property to the Native Indians for millennia. This monument is an extremely powerful allegory, to say the least.

Did you do any historical research before embarking on the project?

I did, research is the way I learn about things I probably had no clue about. Since I believe that every conflict has two sides, I wanted to know as much as possible about the history behind Wounded Knee and Mount Rushmore.

What challenges have you encountered throughout the project?

I think the main challenge for Sacred Ground is to retain a neutral, non-judgmental position as a film maker. We let the images and people portrayed speak for themselves. From there on, everything sadly becomes very obvious. While the documentary refrains from reproach, we aim to contribute to raising an awareness that to a large degree is neglected or simply missing among the majority of US-Americans.

I know you’ve worked for the theatre before and composed music for the play “Un Cœur Simple” a few years ago. As far as I know it’s the first time you’ve been working on a full feature film. Do you find that composing for such projects changes the way you approach music making?

It certainly does, even more with work for film than for theatre. For one year I’ve had a 90% finished version of the documentary to work with; in a film things will end up completely fixed, while theatre is performed live and has room to be played. My music is improvised and based on processes containing self-evolving sounds and movements. While I still have about 5 hours of rough material right now, the final selection has to be edited a lot in order to carry the images in an appropriate way. I usually don’t edit my music but rather select scenes from longer recordings that work for me as is. I fade them in, and then out again once the part I like is over. Changing them feels wrong to me, because I want to keep the sound’s integrity. I cherish them for what they are, their specific personalities. In my releases, the music has to serve no other purpose than to be there as what it is, I don’t want to create moods or images — this is up to the listener. Putting my sound in the context of a story as strong as that of “Sacred Ground” basically changes everything for me and I can say I’m enjoying the challenge this holds. I’m using my recordings as a pool of material to compose with, even though most people who are familiar with my work may probably not notice this after all. To me it’s a whole different way of working.

You’re an avid collector of obsolete instruments and very old records from the 20s’ and 30s’ era. I wanted to know if in the process of composing the music for the film you found yourself using specific instruments or using certain type of records?

For Sacred Ground I’ve used the Phonoharp, that’s an American tabletop zither from the late 19th century, radio, electronic organs, a parlor guitar and two large gongs. My initial idea was to find recordings of the Lakota people, going back as close to 1890 as possible. So I’ve been in touch with many kind and very helpful people from the Berlin Phonogramm Archiv, Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress as well as with several Native Indian institutions, but the very few early recordings in existence (made by Frances Densmore onto wax cylinders around 1907) were very hard to get hold of and after a while my approach took a different direction. I may work with a selection of 78’s from the 1920-40s for a specific scene, still have to get my head around this though and see whether it makes sense. The soundtrack is still a work in progress, all I know is that I have to finish this around mid-September, quite soon.

In the short trailer promoting the documentary, the music seems to haunt the space between the words and the image and give an additional depth to the story. I wanted to ask you how you managed to carve out your own narrative within this film?

Initially, the movie was supposed to be much longer than the 90 minutes it runs now. There was the idea to include long, silent passages of environmental footage between the interviews, which would have given space to use a dedicated score more extensively. In the end we’ve decided to focus more on the spoken content, actually for a couple of reasons, and I like the result, the focus it has now. So the main challenge for me right now is to find essential parts in my longer recordings that help carry the story, a matter of bringing excerpts more to the point.

Would you agree that Sacred Ground exposes and confronts a form of repressed and recomposed collective memory found within the American psyche? Is it something that resonates with you and with the way you’ve worked on this project?

I agree with this. However, it doesn’t affect my approach to this soundtrack since my aim is not to illustrate, but rather to add an additional layer for the audience to reflect on. It’s interesting to imagine how this would sound if I focused on the stark contrasts instead.

Thank you Stephan!


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