Daily Distraction: Meet piano tuner JJJJJerome Ellis in short doc 'Perfect Fifths'

Courtney Stephens' experimental Super 8 documentary on the Afro Caribbean musician is screening at the Wexner Center and streaming online

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
A still from the experimental short documentary "Perfect Fifths," on view at the The Box in the Wexner Center.

"As someone who stutters, there’s intervals that I don’t have control over where I stop speaking, where I have an interval of silence. It’s just this thing that comes through me and then keeps going," says Afro Caribbean musician, performer and piano tuner JJJJJerome Ellis in Courtney Stephens' "Perfect Fifths," an eight-minute documentary shot on Super 8mm film. 

While ostensibly a film about the art of piano tuning, Stephens' doc is also a meditation on and exploration of time and the way it can seem to swell and shrink, creating gaps in between life's stops and starts. Amid shots of Ellis' hands working on, around and inside the piano, Stephens overlays and intercuts footage of a structure being built at a construction site and later a fire reducing a building to rubble. Trains come and go. A Canada goose appears to soar over the piano's black and white keys.

Throughout, Ellis shares his ideas on perfect fifth intervals and the temporal nature of stability. The strings of a piano, for instance, exert tons of pressure on the instrument's metal plate, holding the tension in balance. And yet it's all fragile, susceptible to changes in a room's humidity and temperature. 

According to the Wexner Center, "'Perfect Fifths' was made while Ellis and Stephens were artists in residence at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire along with filmmaker Joshua Gen Solondz, who served as an additional cameraperson on this project."

The short documentary is on view through the end of the year in The Box at the Wexner Center for the Arts. You can also stream the film directly from the Wex website the next time you have an eight-minute interval of silence in your day.