In the fall of 1968 Cunningham had the opportunity to create a more extended work for television in collaboration with the filmmaker Richard Moore. Done for the KQED television station in San Francisco, Assemblage was made on location in Ghirardelli Square in that city. It represented the amalgamation of two distinct ideas; one, a film about the place itself, and the other, a film about the dance company. Ghirardelli Square was one of the first of those urban environments that now exist in many large cities, where a sometimes run-down market or manufacturing area has been restored, prettified, and made into a mall-like precinct with restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and promenades. (Other examples are Covent Garden Market in London and the South Street Seaport in New York.)
The film would show the dancers disporting themselves in this environment, as a kind of fanciful extension of the relationship between it and the people who normally visited it. Cunningham had gone out in February to look the place over. He and the company then spent three weeks there in late October and early November, rehearsing and shooting. The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Ford Foundation.
In an interview, Cunningham told the San Francisco critic Robert Commanday that his idea was that “the finished film will deal not so much with dance in the narrow sense, but with various motions – boats moving, people walking, and, of course, groups dancing.” Meanwhile Moore, himself a former dancer, told an interviewer that Cunningham and his dancers were to make a number of “movement modules,” and the he (Moore) would “arrange the sequences and edit the final . . . product.”
All the dances were to be shot in Ghirardelli Square or “in a special effects studio established in an industrial loft, nearby.” Moore planned to use “extensive optical illusion and process photography,” such as “the filming of the dancers as silhouettes (‘travelling mats’) which can be superimposed on other backgrounds.” Cunningham’s notes for the film not only include ideas for movements (“Yoga on roof-top,” “Dancer doing complicated fall/unable to get up/pedestrian lifts him”) but indicate his desire to explore the possibilities of the medium (“MC: segmented fall – 5 different angles,” “Possibility of same shot in dance clothes and in street clothes”). He also wrote out in some detail his ideas for the “modules” mentioned by Moore: Module #6 C[arolyn] B[rown] doing slow (slow motion) promenade [or CB and others (interchange)]. Camera in & out. Scene [area] could change in panorama view are people – dancers (can pedestrians enter this?) – there is no attention paid to CB (or who?) – dancers like static figures on cages (or near her) who face different ways (chance) in different positions – sometimes alone, sometimes grouped (chance) – a single dancer is seen in the space at different points (or same point in scene is caught with different dancer)
Commanday also visited the company musicians, Cage, Tudor, and Gordon Mumma, who were working, independently of course, on the sound score that would accompany the final 59-minute film, which was to be edited from some six hours of footage: Specifically, they were assembling a sound track on tape of concrete sounds recorded by Mumma, mostly around San Francisco . . . Cage had originally suggested the work’s structural format based on a topographical map of the U.S., which they were to cross, keying different sounds to the changing colors of the map. They were using six sound categories, sounds near sea level, at high altitude (transformed through Tudor’s Rainforest equipment that literally passes the sound through other substances, sheets of metal, wood, etc., changing its quality accordingly), animal life (“untransformed because they are poetic by themselves”), any sound materials modulated electronically to pulse and sound percussive, speech, Cage’s thunder recording.