2019 Louis Sudler Prize Winner: Evan Morgan

In this interview with Duke Arts, Sudler Prize-winner Evan Morgan tells us about his dual interest in music and film and shares his projects for Arts of the Moving Image (AMI) that combine these two forms of expression.

The Louis Sudler Prize is awarded annually to the graduating senior selected as the outstanding student in the creative and performing arts by arts department chairs.

“Evan is one of those rare students that excels in both the theory and practice of his craft.” —Josh Gibson, Director, Duke Arts of the Moving Image

Still from Morgan’s senior capstone project.

As part of his capstone project completing his AMI certificate, Morgan created How to Learn to Play the Banjo, a complex multimedia installation in the Undergraduate Art Showcase at the Ruby. The piece attempts to “visually transcribe” the banjo, an instrument with African roots that is a mainstay of old time and bluegrass music. A video screen located in front of this piece presents a separate work in which Morgan’s collaborator Courtney Werner plays the fiddle as projections unfold on her color-changing silhouette. Morgan explains that this is from an April 2019 Duke Coffeehouse performance during which he projected video and slides as Werner played. The music and visuals respond to one another—a theme throughout this piece. Two 16mm projectors with film strips that extend to the back wall “play” a beating rhythm.

“The film itself is making the sound,” said Morgan. “I opened and covered the lens for different lengths of time, and did a lot of tests to get the right rhythms.” Archival footage of the banjo is projected onto a drumhead, which is surrounded by a collage of diverse instructional materials. “My main interest is trying to complicate the idea of even studying the banjo as an instrument to be learned or in an academic sense, because really it is a rhythmic practice,” Morgan shared.

Evan Morgan, How to Learn to Play the Banjo, 2019. Digital and 16mm loops projected onto an instructional collage, evoking the rhythmic and mystical potential of the banjo as an instrument to be played, a sound to be studied, and a cultural object to be traced.

We sat down with Morgan to discuss his award-winning work and tips for Duke students seeking creative community.

Q: Tell us about your path at Duke regarding film and the arts.

audience in theater
The Arts Awards Ceremony was held at the Ruby’s von der Heyden Studio Theater. Image by Robert Zimmerman.

A: I didn’t have a proper background in filmmaking when I first came to Duke. I got really lucky because the kind of practice that’s taught by many of the professors here tends to have a much more personal or experimental work flow.

That’s not something I knew that I wanted coming in. I remember attending a workshop freshman year with the student film organization Freewater Productions. Freewater ended up being the type of cinema that was geared toward commercial productions, and I realized that wasn’t necessarily the kind of film practice that I wanted to be engaged in. I ended up deciding not to get involved with that group, but I didn’t know what that meant for me since I still enjoyed film.

Q: At what point did you begin studying film at Duke?

Evan Morgan ’19. Image courtesy of Duke AMI.

A: I first started to understand my film practice in a class taught by Alex Cunningham, who is a Duke MFA|EDA graduate. In the first class, he showed Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm by William Greaves. Meshes of the Afternoon is canonically considered as one of the first American experimental films, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is an early seventies experimental documentary about the making of a documentary in Central Park. The structure of the movie is crazy and you see the filmmaker throughout the entire process. It is a rough and believable approach to a film about making film.

Both of those movies were part of a lineage that I wasn’t aware of before that point. That was super exciting for me. We were given a lot of freedom in how we were supposed to approach class projects. The work that we were watching in class was totally new to me. At that point, I knew that I wanted to do Arts of the Moving Image, but I didn’t realize that it was going to end up being exactly what I was looking for.

“Through working with [Evan], I have found not only a talented young filmmaker and musician, but moreover, someone I look forward to calling a colleague.” —Anna Kipervaser, Duke Arts of the Moving Image

Q: What other forms of art do you work with?

A: I play guitar. Coming into school I wanted to play music with other people, but I got here and had a hard time connecting with other musicians. I eventually started playing solo guitar music. In a sense, it was a little sad, but eventually I did start playing with other people.

From there, I got interested in traditional music and I started playing with a fiddler that I now perform with regularly. Her name is Courtney [Werner]. She’s classically trained, so she was really excited about other traditions that are possible with that instrument, which is something we’ve both taken a lot of joy in finding.

We have a band together called the Magic Tuber Stringband, which is a project that incorporates a combination of traditional tunes and improvisation. I play open-tuned fingerstyle guitar, banjo, and slide guitar.

View Performance for Fiddle and Projectors by Morgan.

Q: How do you incorporate your musical interests with your filmmaking?

film strips in black and white.
Still from “Lost Child Reel” by Evan Morgan.

A: The camera has sometimes been thought about as more of an instrument, perhaps as a device that the individual filmmaker holds and then reacts to the world around them. The first film that I was really proud of incorporated sound as an important element. I began to think about experimental traditions of sound in film; for example, there’s a tradition that uses optical sound based on the pattern that is printed or recorded on the film itself to make the soundtrack.

I took up questions of musicological transcription and musical practice in what is commonly known as American traditional music in How to Learn to Play the Banjo.

View How to Play the Banjo in full.

Evan accepting the Sudler Prize at the Duke Arts Awards ceremony. Image by Robert Zimmerman.

Q: How did you find a creative community at Duke?

A: WXDU was incredibly important for me. It’s been eye opening for me to see how student groups and organizations like WXDU help people to find their kindred spirits early on at Duke. The Duke Coffeehouse is really great too, and this is the first year that we’ve had a lot of people interested in applying. It’s a fulfilling job if you’re really interested in listening to music and seeing shows.

On the whole, it feels like there are more and more classes being taught that are really exciting. Finding a group of friends that is interested—maybe not even  in the same kind of art that you’re into—is really important in building the creative community at Duke.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m going to be co-teaching an analog filmmaking class in upstate New York, as part of this New York State program called NYSSSA, which stands for New York State Summer School of the Arts.

In addition to that, Courtney and I are touring with a guitarist from Spain, Isasa, who does solo acoustic. We’re starting in Boston, going through the Northeast, then down through Baltimore, D.C., Virginia, and then to Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and ending here.