Then the viewer starts to appreciate the meticulous musical mastery that artist Christian Marclay has employed in assembling this Hollywood collage. All the snippets taken from more than 700 films depict people making music and sound: with instruments, with their voices and feet, by smashing and knocking and breaking and blowing things up. Marclay has woven them together with the insight and intensity of an experimental composer.
Pairs of hands skip across piano keyboards on the four screens. Kirk Douglas in "Young Man With a Horn" is juxtaposed with a weeping trumpeter playing "Taps." The violinist in "Fiddler on the Roof" laments atop his house; Jimmy Stewart toots on the harmonica; Sinatra whistles. Drums and gongs give way to the screech of a car chase.
Throughout this 14-minute video mashup, Marclay creates harmonies and dissonances by blending the films, creating combinations of pitch that the movie directors never intended. He comes up with something entirely new that is part hectic, part gentle, part stirring and part funny. At Wednesday's preview of the work at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, the audience kept tittering at one clip of the young Jane Fonda crooning with a feather in bed.
The piece ebbs and flows, as loud as a cacophony of marching bands and bagpipes — and a symphony of cinematic screams — and as soft as Audrey Hepburn singing "Moon River," which is melded smoothly with Julie Andrews' "so la ti do."
"Marclay is magical in how he thinks about sound, how he thinks about the visual," Cantor director Connie Wolf said at the preview. The work is the museum's first major video installation, and Wolf promised that it won't be the last.
The bank of four screens is hung in a darkened room on the museum's ground floor, with "Video Quartet" continually playing. Visitors are urged to watch the piece more than once to fully appreciate it.
"Incredible synchronization," Cantor docent Carol Toppel said after her visit to the installation.
The 2002 work is on loan through Feb. 10 from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which commissioned it with the Musee d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg.
Marclay, 57, a Swiss-American artist, has been creating video collages and musical works for years. His 2010 video work "The Clock" drew curiosity and long lines to galleries on several continents, with many visitors coming prepared to watch the 24-hour creation in its entirety. Marclay had created that immense montage of film clips of timepieces to run in real time throughout a full day. "The Clock" went on to win the Gold Lion at the Venice Biennale.
Marclay also has a background as a DJ and was a "pioneering turntablist" in the 1970s, one of the first to "cross the lines between gallery and performance space," according to a press release from SFMOMA. "Constructing a musical composition as well as a visual narrative (with music as a theme or purpose) out of found objects, images or sounds is at the core of Marclay's creative process."
He created "Video Quartet" on a home computer in 2001, sifting through thousands of Hollywood films before choosing the 700 to utilize in the work, according to a Cantor center release.
Wolf said she's watched the piece dozens of times, continually seeing something new. She also recommends that visitors sit in the gallery with their eyes closed, to hear the collage's soundtrack on its own. "He's made a new work of music."
What: "Video Quartet," a 14-minute video collage of music-themed clips of 700-plus movies, by artist Christian Marclay
Where: Cantor Arts Center, Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford University
When: The installation is on display through Feb. 10, open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m.
Info: Go to http://museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.