Colin McPhee and the Music of Bali

In 1929 the Canadian-born composer Colin McPhee [1900-1964] chanced upon a set of rare gramophone recordings of Balinese gamelan music. This music, with a “mystery that was quite overpowering” sent McPhee on a quest to the island of Bali where he lived for much of the 1930s.

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Settling into the community and hungry to learn about this otherworldly music, the composer-ethnomusicologist immersed himself in the islands rich cultural heritage, its alluring sensuous charm. In 1947 he published an account of his time there in the book A House in Bali. I recently reread my copy and discovered a beautifully evocative passage. Though much has undoubtedly transformed over the years, the description here stirs in me my own memories of the island, as well as other personal encounters with music and sound during my time in Indonesia.

During the day there was the incessant clang of bells from the pony carts that filled the streets, and the asthmatic honk of buses and cars forever driving in and out of town. The crowing of a thousand cocks, the barking of a thousand dogs formed a rich, sonorous background against which the melancholy call of a passing food vendor stood out like an oboe in a symphony.

But at night, when the shops had closed and half the town was already asleep, the sounds died so completely that you could hear every leaf that stirred, every palm frond that dryly rustled. From all directions there now floated soft, mysterious music, humming, vibrating above the gentle, hollow sound of drums. The sounds came from different distances and gave infinite perspective to the night. As it grew late the music stopped. Now the silence was complete, only at long intervals pierced by a solitary voice, high, nasal, nostalgic, singing an endless tune; or else broken by the sudden hysteria of the dogs that began in a thin, single wail, rose quickly to a clamour of tormented voices and died once more into silence.

In 2006 I had the chance to visit Bali for myself to study the gamelan tradition at Flower Mountain in Payangan. Flower Mountain was the private home of American Ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown, now used by the Center for World Music for arts and education workshops.

The short recording above comes from a gamelan performance that took place during my time there. Though I’m no gamelan expert, the combination of pulsing rhythms punctuated by violent bursts of drums and cymbals, feels to me to be a wonderful example of the exciting energy unique to the Balinese tradition.

Image: Gamelan Pelegongan of Kapal village by Colin McPhee. Source: here

Encounters with Noise in the Dark #6

Christian Marclay and Bill Viola: Two approaches to the concept of time [February 2019]

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all” - John Cage

From September through to January 2019, the Tate Modern gallery was home to Christian Marclay’s acclaimed installation piece The Clock [2010]. Consisting of thousands of film and television clips of clocks, this epic 24-hour video montage runs on a continuous loop synchronised with real time.

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Though missing out on the opportunity to gorge at one of the gallery’s selected 24-hour screenings, I did manage to make two trips to see the piece, taking in the hours 10:30 though to 14:30. At the end of January this year as The Clock drew to a close, across the river at the Royal Academy preparations were nearing completion on a new show titled Life Death Rebirth. An exhibition bringing together the video work of Bill Viola and the drawings of Michelangelo. Though working centuries apart, these two artists express a fascination for a similar set of grand, universal themes - the human condition, the body, soul, death and the afterlife. The exhibition opened in late-January and runs till the end of March.

The first thing that struck me with Marclay’s piece was the surreal playback space. A huge room donned with sofa seats arranged at periodic intervals, orderly, grid-like…

[Read more here]

The Act of Listening #45-50

The remaining set of images from The Act of Listening series.

#50 Double Indemnity [1944] dir. Billy Wilder

Probing the recorded past: Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) listening to the ear piece in the film noir classic  Double Indemnity  [1944].

Probing the recorded past: Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) listening to the ear piece in the film noir classic Double Indemnity [1944].

#49 Late Spring [1949] dir. Yasujiro Ozu

Three perspectives of a listener: Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara attending the Noh performance.

Three perspectives of a listener: Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara attending the Noh performance.

#48 The Sword of Doom [1966] dir. Kihachi Okamoto

"I didn't see anything, but I distinctly heard sounds. Mountain winds. They rise up from deep in the valleys, blowing up the young green leaves. Beyond all you see, are endless mountain ranges that fade far away into the clouds."

Fear eats the soul: Sounds from out of the past and into the present as Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) wrestles with his own being.

Fear eats the soul: Sounds from out of the past and into the present as Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) wrestles with his own being.

#47 Ugetsu [1953] dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Voices from beyond the grave: Noh chanting in Mizoguchi's masterpiece  Ugetsu  [1953].

Voices from beyond the grave: Noh chanting in Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu [1953].

#46 Samurai Rebellion [1964] dir. Masaki Kobayashi

Toshiro Mifune as the retired master swordsman Isaburo Sasahara.

Toshiro Mifune as the retired master swordsman Isaburo Sasahara.

#45 The Lives of Others [2006] dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

“You know what Lenin said about Beethoven's Appassionata? - If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution. Can anyone who has listened to this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?”

Listening man captivated by the power of Beethoven.

Listening man captivated by the power of Beethoven.

The Opening Sequence: Touch of Evil [1958]

I recently revisited one of my favourite 1950s pictures, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil [1958] currently showing on Netflix. It was the first time I’d seen the studio’s original opening sequence with the placement of title cards and the continuous Henry Mancini music.

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Great as that Mancini score is (and it really is something, check out the chunky horn and percussion work on the opening number), I do feel that the updated 1998 version - the one remade as close to Welles’ original ideas as possible - is filled with greater tension, greater mystery. Here is the soundtrack to the newly remade opening sequence:

And here is an extract from Welles’ 1957 memo to the studio, outlining how diegetic music is to be used with the carefully choreographed camera work:

I assume that the music now backing the opening sequence of the picture is temporary...

As the camera roves through the streets of the Mexican bordertown, the plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin American musical numbers - the effect, that is, of our passing one cabaret orchestra after another. In honky-tonk districts on the border, loudspeakers are over the entrance of every joint, large or small, each blasting out it's own tune by way of a "come-on" or "pitch" for the tourists. The fact that the streets are invariably loud with this music was planned as a basic device throughout the entire picture. [Source: Little White Lies]

Walter Murch who supervised the 1998 re-edit comments on this sequence in the following video. Some 25-years earlier Murch employed a similar technique of ‘worldizing’ and mixing together various recordings of music in George Luas’s coming-of-age film American Graffiti [1973].

The Act of Listening #43-44

A Michelangelo Antonioni Triptych: L'Avventura [1960], La Notte [1961] and L'Eclisse [1962] and the later masterpiece The Passenger [1975].

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Monica Vitti performing in Antoninoi's "trilogy on modernity and its discontents", followed by Jack Nicholson listening to Robertson's tape recorded voice in The Passenger [1975]. Sound piece - Antonioni: Anixety part of The Malaise of Modernity suite [2018].

Sep-Nov 2018 Projects

A selection of recent projects [Sep-Nov 2018]:

Sir John Lubbock's Pet Wasp [2018] dir. Ossie Parker & Laurie Hill • Animation
Sound Design: Rob Szeliga
More information here

Listen to My Song [2018] dir. Danny Mitchell • Documentary
Sound Design: John Cohen, Rob Szeliga
More information here

High Passes [2018] dir. Cosima Barzini • Documentary
Sound Design: Rob Szeliga
More information here

Hong Kong West Kowloon Station [2018] / [edit] • Promotional Video
Architect Andrew Bromberg at Aedas
Music and Sound: Rob Szeliga
More information here

Encounters with Noise in the Dark #5

Some brief comments on one of my favourite films this year:

I think it's a mistake to consider Oscar-winning Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's 2018 film Cold War merely a love story. For me it is a story about love and history and Poland and cultural identity, but more than that I think it's a film about music. The act of listening and performing.

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Hard picture cuts, often led through sound or music, throw the film forward into new performance sequences teeming with energy and life. We move through time rapidly, jumping to different locations, never sticking around in one place to long. Conversations are brief, transitions between places fleeting. The experience is like watching a series of separate episodes rather than a story with a continuous narrative arch. The film also lacks a certain conventional psychological perspective…

Continue reading here.

BFI London Film Festival 2018

Fifteen (Quince) is one of three projects (the others being Isha and Naptha) that I’ve been recently involved in playing at this year’s festival. Shot by director / cinematographer Peiman Zekavat, the film unfolds as one continuous 10-minute take. This kind of choreographed camera work lends itself well to a soundscape that changes in direct relation to time and space. See Pascal Aubier’s film here for further ideas in this direction, referenced in Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time.

The Act of Listening #41

Survival of the fittest: Kaneto Shinoda’s New Wave masterpiece Onibaba [1964]. Special mention to the brilliant atmospheric score provided by Hikaru Hayashi, who also worked on Shinoda’s Kuroneko [1968] and Naked Island [1960]. An overlooked Japanese director well worth checking out.

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The Act of Listening #35-40

Further updates to the Act of Listening project:

#35 Stalker [1979] - dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

#35 Stalker [1979] - dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

#36 Nostalghia [1983] - dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

#36 Nostalghia [1983] - dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

#37 Ivan's Childhood [1962] - dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

#37 Ivan's Childhood [1962] - dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

#38 A Robert Bresson Triptych:  Diary of a Country Priest  [1951],  Pickpocket  [1958] and  A Man Escaped  [1956]

#38 A Robert Bresson Triptych: Diary of a Country Priest [1951], Pickpocket [1958] and A Man Escaped [1956]

#39 Dial M for Murder [1954] - dir. Alfred Hitchcock

#39 Dial M for Murder [1954] - dir. Alfred Hitchcock

#40 Hiroshima Mon Amour [1959] - dir. Alain Resnais

#40 Hiroshima Mon Amour [1959] - dir. Alain Resnais

Brave [2018]

Recent sound and music work for Osbert Parker's animation short Brave [2018].

More information here.

Encounters with Noise in the Dark #4

What I reject is this refusal to let silence have its place, this needs to fill supposed voids.
— M. Antonioni, Cinema 65 100, November 1965
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Strikingly innovative and challenging for their time, Michelangelo Antonioni's films of the 1960s and 1970s favour a poetics of atmosphere and place over conventional narrative. While much has been written about the directors bold visual style, a brief look at the literature would suggest much less space has been dedicated to an examination of his work with sound and music. I recently revisited a number of Antonioni films of this period - L'Avventura [1960], La Notte [1961], L'Eclisse [1962], Il Deserto Rosso [1964] and The Passenger [1975] - to briefly explore how he used sound in his work.

Continue reading here.

The Act of Listening #34

A distant voice from across the airwaves: Meg Ryan moved to tears in this Bergman-esque sequence from Sleepless in Seattle [1993]. Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman's longtime collaborator, worked as cinematographer on this picture.

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Photochemical Soundmaking: Optical Soundtrack Tests

My past experience was not to "meddle" with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. "I don't push the sounds around." Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: "Not even a little bit?" [M. Feldman, 'Crippled Symmetry', 1981]

Post-production sound work I think is a business of pushing sounds around in the context of moving image. The pushing often has to happen at speed to meet the demands of shrinking budgets and shifting schedules. For this we have available to us a vast range of commercial sound libraries from which sound files are taken and placed on the timeline. Is there time, or any reason, for one to stop and consider these sounds beyond their pure utility? The physical place of a sound in the world, its inner sonic properties, its potential sacredness?

James Holcombe's Auricon 100 camera, amp and chunky mic.

James Holcombe's Auricon 100 camera, amp and chunky mic.

Time slows down when the technology stubbornly refuses to keep up. Through these unfamiliar temporal gaps emerges new creative possibilities, new perceptions and meanings. This is how I felt recently when attending an immersive 1-day introductory workshop on 16mm optical sound with filmmaker and artist James Holcombe who I first met at no.w.here in late 2017.

Over the last few years I’ve been developing an interest in 16mm film and have wanted to learn more about the recording, manipulation and playing back of optical sound. Aside from the actual creative possibilities as an audiovisual medium, photochemical filmmaking strikes me as an incredibly ‘deep’ artistic practice involving patient skill, direct engagement with technology, chance, high value risk-taking (money and time), and a generous spirit of shared knowledge and resources through its community. While I can also identify these attributes in the digital realm, what particularly attracts me to this way of working is the difference in how one engages and interacts with the material over time.

Hanging out to dry before projector test.

Hanging out to dry before projector test.

The embodied, tactile process of photochemical filmmaking involves a radically different perspective on how one engages with the material in time and space. An experience, a way of encountering the world, that feels far removed from the digital environment I regularly operate in as a sound designer. The efficient, precise and total control of the computer is replaced by a sense of experimentation (in the truest sense of the word) and adventure, through an interplay of human skill, technology and chance.

Before me a magical process of energy transference unfolded: acoustic energy into optical, kinetic, chemical and back again to re-produce an audible sound signal. It felt like all aspects of the audio chain - recording, developing, editing, treating and playback - were suddenly resonating with a renewed sense of meaning and mystery. In moments like these our private feelings of awe and wonder are stirred as we rediscover the magic inside phenomena we think we are familiar with.

Special thanks to James Holcombe