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].

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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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.

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

Encounters with Noise in the Dark #3

Encounters with Noise in the Dark
#3 Robert Bresson

I'd rather people feel a film before understanding it [R. Bresson]
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Robert Bresson operated in a cinematographic world of his own making. He said in a 1960 interview: “I’m trying to speak cinema in a language all its own”. For over 30-years he occupied a unique place in world cinema, boldly defying the conventions of modern filmmaking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his widely-documented approach to working with actors, or rather ‘models’ as he later described them. Rejecting the standard style of dramatic, projected performance that he saw cinema had mistakenly inherited from the theatre world (“I refuse to get dragged into making filmed theatre”), Bresson favoured an approach to working with actors aimed at tapping into their own particular inner world. He cast non-professional actors (“less self-conscious, more naive, more straight-forward”) and, through controlled improvisation and repetitive takes, attempted to tease out a naturalism of performance that radically departed from the style common in mainstream film. Bresson’s oeuvre remains to this day utterly unique; a language spoken by him alone.

His work is the very definition of precision. You get the sense watching his films that every cut, every gesture, every sound is full of absolute intention. Each and every element of the audiovisual experience feels precisely placed - what he wants us to look at or listen to. We pour similar plaudits on other filmmakers who command their own particular language, but in Bresson this clarity of precision, this intention feels radically focused; a style of filmmaking concerned strictly with the essentials. Perhaps it’s this austere compactness of expression that leads even the most ardent cinephile to feel a certain discomfort with his work....

Read more here.

Image: Robert Bresson at Cannes, 1962 (Photo by Jaakko Tervasmäki/Courtesy of NYRB Classics)

Encounters with Noise in the Dark #2

Encounters with Noise in the Dark
#2 Ingmar Bergman

Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls. [The Magic Lantern, 1988]
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Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to revisit a number of Bergman films on the big screen. These have been included in the extensive Ingmar Bergman retrospective currently taking place at BFI Southbank in London, part of the worldwide centenary celebrations of the Swedish director. My cinema outings have including Persona [1966], Hour of the Wolf [1968], Cries and Whispers [1972], Fanny and Alexander [1982] as well as lesser known television works like Scenes from a Marriage [1973] and Face to Face [1976]. These experiences have confirmed to me Bergman’s status as one of the greatest artists of the last century. I consider the depth of his probing examination into human psychology to be on a par with some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the past 200-years; a hugely significant, timeless body of work that offers insight, hope and ultimately guidance in these divisive times.

In the realm of all things sound and music, it is Bergman's films of the 1960s and 1970s that most interest me. A period marked by an intriging absence of conventional score. Gone are the orchestral strings of the earlier period. In their place emerges a more fragmented, modernist sound. Dynamic and atmospheric, the music of this period shifts between a sense of quiet atmosphere and violent atonal drama. This change in musical language, its subtle hues of expression, for me makes sense given the increasing intensity of psychological drama developing in Bergman's work. While films like Persona [1966] and Hour of the Wolf [1968] employ a bold contemporary sound, works scattered throughout this period tend to make sparing use of musical accompaniment, if at all. Instead what we hear are soundtracks composed almost entirely of location sound and studio sound effects.

The effect of less music significantly alters the way we attend to the films. I believe it pulls us closer to the actuality of the drama, re-enforcing the tactile presence of the world. Bergman time and again demonstrates his mastery of the close-up, not only with what we see (the details of the human face) but also with what we hear (the sounds of the body). At the same time a new layer of environmental sound is free to be heard. A character in its own right, these worldly sounds strengthen the atmosphere and tone of the film helping to situate the story in a specific time and place. In this way a kind of Bergman-esque soundtrack emerges consisting of particular sounds and sonic ideas identifiable in a number of his films from this period. Owe Svensson, sound supervisor on much of Bergman's work of the 1970s and 80s, would later go on to achieve the apotheosis of this cinematic expression in Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice [1986]. A soundtrack of precisely orchestrated noises and diegetic music, lingering between different planes of reality.

For further information see The Bergman Suite page.
Film images: Face to Face [1976], Cries and Whispers [1972]. Hour of the Wolf [1968]

Ben Russell and Psychedelic Ethnography

Tate Modern, Starr Cinema, Feb 7th

Ben Russell's latest film Good Luck [2017] is a deeply immersive audiovisual trip. A quasi-documentary on the horrors and environmental destruction of the mining process, this piece demands a big-screen experience to fully appreciate the totality of it's physical audiovisual force. Sensory overload for a distracted age.

Two stills from  Good Luck  [2017]. Source: www.tate.org

Two stills from Good Luck [2017]. Source: www.tate.org

The Psychedelic: An understanding of the self through a subjective experience.

The Ethnographic: An understanding of the self through an objective record of someone that is not the self.

My particular interest in Subject comes out of an interest in trance which I connect through noise music or experimental music but also Christian Ska bands and laying-on of hands or in different contexts we have something like the whirling dervishes, Indonesian self-flagellating rituals, the Yanomami Indians who use hallucinogenic snuff to produce shamanic rituals [...] this idea of the trance ritual is something we find across the world; its incarnation is specific to culture but its manifestation is universal.

- Ben Russell [Sonic Acts Feb 2017, Source here].