The c.d.; the film; the installation….

Rayon Hula live@ Swiss Institute in Rome.

White Shadows In The South Seas is the title of a book written by Frederick O’Brien in 1919; part of a trilogy he wrote based on his experiences living in the Pacific islands. His book was taken as the starting point for a film to be directed, initially, by Robert Flaherty with W.S.Van Dyke as his support.  The film, ultimately, apart from the title, had nothing to do with O’Brien’s book and Flaherty left the film after a few months leaving Van Dyke to finish it. 

Because of my on going fascination with all things Pacific, when I discovered this film I started to present it as part of my Live Music/Silent films repertoire. Tabu by Frederick Murnau, which coincidently also had Flaherty as co-director originally, was the first film I ever wrote/improvised and presented as a live performance.

Another of my eclectic and diverse artistic interests is in ‘Exotica’ and ‘Ambient’ music. I have produced several volumes of so called ‘Electronic, Ambient, Exotica’ on c.d. and vinyl. Kiribati, Globe Notes, Rayon Hula (both in vinyl, c.d. and digital format) and most recently New Globe Note on vinyl and White Shadows In The South Seas on c.d. which features some of my music presented in my live screenings of the film.   

In February 2014 “A White Shadow In The South Seas” was the title of an audio visual installation I made at the Teatro In Scatola in Rome, Italy, presented as part of a series of sound installations titled ‘Visitazioni’ produced by Proposte Sonore.   

White Shadows In The South Seas – from Room40 Records RM454

                           AUDIO sample track  – 08 A WHITE SHADOW PASSES

WHITECOVER-1004White Shadows In The South Seas – c.d. cover inner 


Mike Cooper – White Shadows in the South Seas: Exotica for the dawn of a new age. (music review)

by lisathatcher

When Arthur Lyman shouted those bird calls into the audience at the Shell Bar in 1951, he had no idea he was teetering drunk on the edge of a revolution. Not just a revolution in sound with the birth of Exotica, but a revolution with the discovery of Island Kitsch igniting a national mania for all things Hawaiian, including tiki idols, exotic drinks, aloha shirts, luaus, straw hats and Polynesian-themed restaurants. Despite the rest of the world moving on from faux-Islander music, Lyman’s combo was still playing to tourists in Honolulu in the 70’s, 80’s and of course had a new burst of popularity in the 1990’s with the lounge music revival. He was a prolific musician, dedicated to his music no matter what happened to the world out there. But somehow Islander tourists could always be depended upon to want the westernized version of Islander culture, even when on the Islands.

The mantle for Islander lounge was taken up seriously in the new millennium, but for all the passion for Exotica, its sound tends to remain firmly in its original, recently revived heart.  Bands like Tipsy would give it a new sort of polish and play around with the sound, but still it all remained a little too reverent to be true to the genuine history, and its place in time seen through our twenty-twenty hindsight.

AUDIO – 01-dr-derelict.mp3

Move forward in time to Mike Cooper, the master deconstructer, the man with an ironic passion for Islander kitsch, that is laced with a dedication to an implication of the kitsch as a cultural reference point. Particularly when we talk Polynesian or South Pacific style music.  So much of the Western cultures relationship with the Pacific is laced in a kind of cheap, easily accessed  and marketable product that it has become an important symbol of understanding the complex relationship between different cultures.

AUDIO 03-white-shadows.mp3

So Mike produces Rayon Hula, a thinking person’s version of Exotica for the new millenium. And then in a kind of follow up, we have the beautiful White Shadows in the South Seas, recently released through Room40 records.

Part of what makes a Mike Cooper album so special is his unique relationship with history and the way he is able to infuse his music with a translated version of his political insights. I Saw it first in his Radio Paradise album that I reviewed last year – an album that challenges the notion of Blues at its core, allowing for the history within a newly created history as it were. He does a similar thing with White Shadows in the South Seas, takes something that meant something at one point in history and somehow moves the politics of the sound. I’m not sure how he does it, but I am not the only one who hears it in the work.  After a concert where I heard Mike live recently, I chatted to a fellow attendee on the bus trip home and he compared Mike with GYBE – a connection that can only be explained through the political.

Mike has had a passion for the Pacific for some time now.  Commissioned to do several art works out of his research and immersion in the cultures, he’s well equipped to tell the sorry tale of Western invasion and the complexities of relationships between Islander people and those visitors who so freely and easily took the native sounds and formed chasms where connections should have been the priority. Mike isn’t one to judge history – after all, its happened. He incorporates it into the now, and he does this through the assimilation of sound.  On White Shadows in the South Seas, Mike includes sounds from the other Islander inhabitants – the animals – while still travelling back to those halcyon days of the spacy synth sounds with small odes to Esquivel doted throughout the thoroughly modern sound text.

In anyone else’s hands, this would morph into a safe sort of ambient stroll, but Mike Cooper knows too much about where he is taking the listener to accidently leave it there. Sound is constantly rescued from its history on this album, combined in unexpected ways and intended to behave against the grain. Grasping at the familiar of the exotica, Cooper shifts and slices his way trough the fourteen tracks, shutting of a melody suddenly, combining ocean sounds with his familiar bluesy slide, or mixing bird song with 60’s sounding keys.  The combinations are as welcoming as a Tahitian sunset and as surprising as the depth and complexity of the Islander people themselves.

This is an album to listen to closely, at the end of the day, in front of a sunset. Let it wash over you, reach you and teach you.

Mike Coopers White Shadows in the South Seas is available through Room40 Records here.



A silent film for screening with a live score written and performed by

Mike Cooper.

Featuring music from the c.d. of the same name 

Directed by W. S. Van Dyke and Robert Flaherty – 1928.
Scenario by Jack Cunningham, from the novel of the same title by Frederick J. O’Brien – 1919.
Titles and dialogue by John Colton Adaptation by Ray Doyle.
Cinematography by Clyde De Vinna, George Nagle and Bob Roberts
Edited by Ben Lewis.

Cast: Monte Blue (Dr. Matthew Lloyd), Raquel Torres (Fayaway), Robert Anderson (Sebastian)

The film, based on the 1919 novel of the same name by Frederick O’Brien began production in 1927 as a co-venture between documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty and MGM and was filmed in Tahiti despite the opening credits saying it was in the Marquesas islands. O’Brien’s original novel was set in the Marquesas.

The film is known for being the first MGM picture to be released with a pre-recorded soundtrack. The soundtrack consisted of a romantic score by William Axt and David Mendoza, with a few sound effects such as wind howling, a storm, trees ruffling and one faint word “Hello”. The Tahitian location was sumptuously captured by cameramen Clyde De Vinna and Bob Roberts. De Vinna picked up an Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1929.

The film features a supporting cast of almost all Tahitian islanders and/or actors with only the featured stars and a few heavies/villains coming from Hollywood. Flaherty, upon arriving in Tahiti, began shooting the film at a slow pace and after clashing with Van Dyke, left the production, leaving Van Dyke as sole director for the film. However, Flaherty did shoot some scenes before departing the production, and some footage of his may be seen in the existing print.

Story ..
Unscrupulous trader Sebastian has little trouble cheating the inhabitants of the South Seas paradise and leading the natives to adopt some of the more unfortunate habits of “civilized” men. He has little opposition save Dr. Matthew Lloyd, once an educated and prominent physician but now in the depths of alcoholic deterioration. When Lloyd goes too far in his attempts to thwart the success of the trader’s greedy plots, Sebastian sees to it that the doctor is framed for a crime and sentenced to be cast adrift tied to the wheel of a derelict ship.

His ship is caught in a typhoon and Lloyd is shipwrecked–freed from the ship’s wheel–and washed ashore on another island as yet untouched by the “White Shadows.” He is rejuvenated by the pristine environment and the innocent people, who embrace him as a god. But the corruption of civilization is too close and the world too small for paradise to be eternal.

An Audio / Visual Installation





This piece was first installed at Teatro In Scatola as part of a series of international sound installations organised by Proposte Sonore in Rome in 2014 titled Visitazioni .

The video clip was shot from behind one of three mosquito net ‘tents’ used in the piece with  an excerpt from my super eight film Planet Pacific-Pieces Of Heaven? projected onto it.

14-2-4 - Kupa Install 6

                                                                                    photo – Leila Buongiorno

The essay below, as well as our collection of Hawaiian shirts and Exotica and Hawaiian vinyl records, was an inspiration for this installation. 

‘..the transformation and reconstitution of the souvenir commodity as an indigenous ethnic art form and a scarce relic of Hawai’i’s romanticized past…’ from – Clothing and Textile Reasearch Journal – From Kitsch to Chic by Marcia A. Morgado.

14-2-4 - Kupa Install 9

                                                                               Photo – Leila Buongiorno

                                               Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory (1979)

‘ …a critical aspect of Western culture is the pre-disposition to see objects in terms of two overt categories: the transient and the durable. Objects identified as transient have finite life spans and lose value over time, whereas those identified as durable have infinite lives and over time increae in value….category assignments are arbitrary, but once assigned a category membership determines relative value. Fashion apparel-by defenition-is assigned to the transient category; paintings commonly are designated durables….how is it that transient objects.. ( e.g. Hawaiian shirts and vinyl records ) ..sometimes become durables.

14-2-4 - Kupa Install 5

                                                                                Photo – Leila Buongiorno.

         Thompson proposes that between the overt categories lies a covert category,

which he calls………………………………           


Objects assigned to the rubbish category are largely invisible, have no value and, ideally, no life span. Fashion for example, no longer worn and relegated to the back of the wardrobe has fallen into the covert rubbish category. But rubbish can be rescued and transformed. Thompson says ‘ What I believe happens is a transient object gradually declining in value and in expected life span may slide across into rubbish. Here it exists in a timeless and valueless limbo where it has a chance to be re-discovered and be successfully transformed to a durable. Such transferes are radical: objects gradually slide from transcience to rubbish, but the transformation from rubbish to durable involves an all-or-nothing leap across two boundaries, that separating the worthless from the valuable and that between the covert and the overt. Things drift into obscurity but they leap into prominence.

The delightful consequence of this hypothesis is that in order to study the social control of value we must study rubbish……..

           14-2-4 - Kupa Install 8

                                                                               photo – Leila Buongiorno.

The rubbish-to-durable transformation is accompanied by the development of highly specialized knowledge derived from the discovery of subtle variations and complex details that went unnoticed in the objects transient stage. The discoveries initiate renewed interest in the object and its market value begins to climb. As prices soar beyond the reach of ordinary people, the object becomes available only in high priced collectors’ markets. Furthermore, as market values rise, the aesthetic value of the object undergoes a reassessment as well, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the objects intrinsic beauty has been overlooked. Ultimately the object is re -assigned as a durable and becomes recognized as a timeless classic.

14-2-4 - Kupa Install 33

Photo – Leila Buongiorno.

Leila Buongiorno’s photographs are copyright.

Exotica, Ambience and Pacificism – A dialogue with Mike Cooper & Professor Philip Hayward Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor of Research Southern Cross University, Lismore,  Australia.

Switching Tracks: Improvising Music for the Screen – A Discussion with Mike Cooper – Prof. Philip Hayward