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].

The Bergman Suite [2017]

Trädgårdsgatan, was the epitome of security and magic: the numerous clocks measuring the time, the sunlight wandering across the infinte green of the carpets, the fires fragrant in the tiled stoves, the chimney pipe roaring and the little stove-doors tinkling. Down in the street, a sleigh with its jingling bells sometimes passed, the cathedral bells rang for divine service or a fuuneral and, morning and evening, the delicate and distant Gunilla bell could be heard. [The Magic Latern, p.19]

2018 marks what would have been Ingmar Bergman's 100th Birthday. The Bergman Suite is a tribute to the great director. An insight into his life and work through sound. More information here.

Encounters with Noise in the Dark #1

Encounters with Noise in the Dark
#1 Peter Tscherkassky

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Commercial film production values seem to demand a kind of maximum closeness. Every image and sound sparkles with reassuring clarity and sharpness. In post-production dialogue editors surgically remove all undesirable elements from the production sound. Clicks, pops, lip-smacks, microphone bumps, passing planes, belly growls, all such extraneous sounds are suitably air-brushed out to create an intelligible, clean dialogue track. Careful balancing of levels and use of background fill tracks help to stitch together picture cuts, smoothly unifying the action in time and space. At every such stage throughout the post-production sound process, clarity and consistency is sought towards the creation of a coherent, unified soundtrack - a highly organised composition of sounds often serving a narrative arc.

Filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky presents an altogether different kind of audiovisual experience. A central figure in the Austrian avant-grade, Tscherkassky has been making films since the early 1980s. Often using found 35mm footage as his source material, he constructs densely layered textures through extensive editing, celluloid maltreatment and film processing from his dark studio in the remote Austrian countryside. Out of these long seasons of labour emerge films of incredible beauty, twisting, repeating and fragmenting found narratives into new and unusual compositions. From the outset he writes, “I wanted to unravel and dissolve the medium, “destroy” is not the right expression, but, yes, some type of “breaking”, and in breaking, allowing something else to become visible”.

While much of the final marrying and inter-editing of image and sound may lie with Tscherkassky, many of the soundtracks to his films are created in collaboration with others. Iranian composer Kiavasch Sahebnassagh offers a mysterious and eerie score for Dreamwork (2001), while Armin Schmickl is credited for the sound collages in the Parallel Space: Inter-view (1992). Where sound and music begin and end remains part of the mysterious fascination of the Tscherkassky experience, such is the dense intermingling of signal and noise, each undergoing seemingly endlessly iterations of maltreatment and processing. Berlin-based composer/sound designer Dirk Schaefer is responsible for the richly layered soundtracks of the more recent body of work - Instructions for a light and sound machine (2005), Coming Attractions (2010) and The Exquisite Corpus (2016). Frequently working with German filmmaker Matthias Muller, Schaefer has been composing sound for experimental films since the late 1980s. He writes to me saying: “Collaborating with artists who usually conceive their films in a purely visual form, I am used to work on films that are complete in any regard but one, and that’s the sound track worthy of the name, and to do it more or less on my own.”

Unravelling through the kaleidoscopic imagery I find myself drawn to the sound-world of Tscherkassky’s films. Soundtracks of volcanic surfaces; the delicious crackle and hiss of film, like the turntable escapades of Christian Marclay or Otomo Yoshihide. What we hear are the raw optical distortions of the medium itself, breaking up and contorting into new sonic shapes. From within these granular nettles emerge fragments of original soundtrack - grainy voices and snatches of music, footsteps, sounds of doors, broken glass and gunshots. These ghostly sounds of the past surface and resurface through a sea of optical clicks and pops, sometimes drifting into the foreground or repeating in time with the images. Elsewhere they erupt in violent bursts, building into chaotic layers of percussive noise. Like the extensive optical treatment, the soundtracks throughout retain and yet mysteriously expand the residue of the medium - a joyful cinema of noise.

More information: www.tscherkassky.at

Outer Space (1999) dir. Peter Tscherkassky

The Grid

"We see the grid in all sorts of guises. In the map of the city, in the facade of a skyscraper, the grid of the printed page, in the grid of an abstract painting..." [BBC Radio 3 documentary: Grid]

The timeline is a great grid. An anti-natural, rational device structuring what we see and hear across time.

  Friendship  [1963], Agnes Martin

Friendship [1963], Agnes Martin

The grid: a particular system for organising sound into musical expression: