Filmmaker Shannon Kelly was getting his commission to make a film for display at Denver International Airport around the time he first and last saw a band whose music seemed to fit his cinematic vision: Pteranodon. Kelly had been a film student at CU and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, stars in the world of experimental film. That was in the year 2000, and Kelly witnessed what might have been, at that point, Pteranodon's final live show, at the Pinebox Construction Company near the current location of the Walnut Room. The event was called Space Race 2000, and it featured some of the best space rock and like-minded bands of that period, including Antelope, Orbit Service, Pinkku and Space Team Electra.
Pteranodon had only ever played a small handful of shows, including a performance at the original Monkey Mania, largely because guitarist Jeff Suthers and keyboard player Shannon Stein realized that the performance itself — ambient music made for connoisseurs of that style — was not the most dynamic thing to witness. Pteranodon's music was powerful stuff because it wasn't tentative. It may have been incredibly minimalistic, but it carried a meditative intensity and strong emotional coloring. Stein and Suthers had been in the space-rock band Volplane prior to Pteranodon and would later form influential space-rock/shoegaze band Bright Channel, then the band Moonspeed. Suthers currently performs in Pale Sun.
Before those endeavors, Stein and Suthers explored in earnest a kind of music that almost went in the opposite direction. Even when Pteranodon didn't perform live, Suthers and Stein released two albums with a third in the works. Kelly got ahold of those albums and listened to them as he edited TRANS-, the film commissioned for display at DIA. Pteranodon's sound perfectly fit his vision, and he applied it. The film installation still sits in DIA's concourse A, but Kelly says he doubts the equipment is still functioning.
Using Super 8 film, Kelly made a short film set in contemporary times during visits to New York and Europe, combined with footage shot in Denver. The footage's grainy quality and the way the image blows out or goes to black as the light source changes suggests a time long ago. That quality is coupled with a post-apocalyptic starkness to each set of images — a sleeping child, a dense cityscape contrasted with a dense graveyard, train travel or seemingly industrial everyday objects in close-up, smokestacks. One can imagine all of the images coming from an unusual scrapbook if Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr were somehow involved: a perfect melding of Tarr's finely sculpted realism and Tarkovsky's masterful use of a monochromatic aesthetic to suggest a dreamlike quality in his visual storytelling. Of course, Kelly's film is far shorter than anything for which the aforementioned directors are most well known.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
TRANS- debuted in 2004 and enjoyed a few screenings over the years. For the soundtrack, Kelly chose two tracks from the first Pteranodon album and one from the second, then massaged the audio to stitch together and suit his own film. He had approached Stein and Suthers about perhaps live-soundtracking the film in the past, but the opportunity to do so never fully materialized until Kelly's current month-long video installations of TRANS- and Forgotten Landscape at Pirate: Contemporary Art.
In preparing for the performance, Suthers and Stein decided not to try to re-create the original music per se, but did pull out some older equipment that they had used as Pteranodon. Interestingly enough, they were vaguely aware of Brian Eno's ambient albums, were made aware of their similarity to Stars of the Lid when people first saw Pteranodon, and didn't really listen to Aphex Twin's own visionary ambient work. Paired with TRANS-, however, Stein and Suthers captured the collage-y and impressionistic quality of the film as well as the haunting, affecting atmosphere of Kelly's images. In the small room, the gentle and then irresistible flow of sound drifted and cycled as the film played in its entirety on a loop. For the second set, the same film loop ran, but Pteranodon changed up its subtle dynamics in order to not bore itself or the audience.
While this performance won't be repeated during the month-long run of Kelly's video installation at Pirate, it doesn't seem out of the question that the combination event of screening and soundtracking could happen again sooner than the more than fifteen years since Pteranodon last played live — especially now that ambient music has become a more prominent and accepted part of even the local music world.