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.

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

Some thoughts on sound, world and understanding

"Any understanding has its being in an act of understanding" (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, p.118-19)

Alan Lamb is a sound artist and scientist who for the past 30-years has been exploring the vibrating properties of long telegraph wires. I recently acquired a copy of his Primal Image release from 1995 that captures the beautifully evolving textures of long wires in Australia. His engagement with the physical world seems to me to nourish a fascination for the mystery of sound in nature, that invigorates his scientific and artistic activities with purpose and meaning. This spirit clearly comes across in this excerpt from a 2016 BBC Radio 4 documentary with sound recordist Christ Watson:

Primal Image is a stunning set of recordings that documents only a small portion of Lamb's ongoing sonic explorations. Aside from the sheer beauty of the listening experience, what greatly interests me with Lamb is how he encounters the world through sound. How the world is disclosed through his engagement with it in his particular practice.

Jerry Thompson worked as Walker Evans' principal assistant from 1973 to Evans' death in 1975. In 2016 he released a small book called Why Photography Matters. The following few extracts are striking in that they are applicable to sound and sound recording technology:

"Fox Talbot, and the cohort including Evans and Cartier-Bresson seven decades later, proposed a new kind of epistemology, a new, hitherto impossible way of learning about the world [...] The opposite of Mathema (a model projected to enable understanding), Pathema is an experience passively received: acquiescence to what is seen [...] When a pathema holds sway, the artist will no longer be Master of the Universe. He or she will be instead an attentive observer, a willing participant in, perhaps a servant of, a system larger than that artist's individual, personal, particular needs." (Jerry L. Thompson, Why Photography Matters, p.14-15)

Thompson goes on to speak about how photography is "at its best" when the inner world of the artist and the outer world of the material environment exists in balance, cooperating as in a dialectic: "one side presents a proposition, the other counters in a similar fashion, and on and on as a progressively refined result appears, something neither partner in the dialectic could have produced alone" (p.19).

 Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Sound is an expression of space, of the physical world we are thrown into. It remains, as Lamb's work demonstrates, an expression of mystery and reverence for all that surrounds us. Bringing together Thompson's description of photography and Lamb's deep sound activities, we remind ourselves of the kind of meaning and value in work that emerges through our engagement with and in the world. A world not only made from nature, but one populated by people and all their social and creative affairs.

Often physically isolated from others in our expanding global village it's easy to neglect the importance of our worldly engagements. While convenience makes economic sense, it can at the same time weaken the sacrifice and so diminish the meaning. Consider recorded sound as one example: Commercial sound libraries provide sound editors access to a vast array of high quality recordings from around the world. Together with computer software, these sounds can be selected, edited and arranged to create a working soundtrack, quickly. In our anxious haste, we demote sound to the status of mere fodder. Reduced to pure utility, all preciousness is gone. All worldly engagement removed and understanding denied. This couldn't be further from the deep practices of Alan Lamb.

As practitioners of sound, passionate about all its forms and modes of sonic and musical expression, we would do well to listen to what Lamb's work teaches us about the world and the potential for our involved engagement in it. If nothing else, a trip outside every once in a while is always a good thing.

Further information about Alan Lamb: http://www.abc.net.au/arts/adlib/stories/s873159.htm

Now Hear This [1963] - Treg Brown

Treg Brown was a sonic maverick. Born in 1899 he worked first as a musician and later music editor, before finding a home at Warner Brothers as a pioneering sound editor. Working in tandem with the electic music of composer Carl Stalling, Brown's unique sound effects helped create the rumbustious soundtracks of the Warner Brothers cartoons for over 50-years.

 Treg Brown [1899-1984] Image source: http://dangerousminds.net

Treg Brown [1899-1984] Image source: http://dangerousminds.net

Before winning an Oscar in 1966 for his sound effect work on The Great Race, Brown worked on a bizarre Chuck Jones short called Now Hear This [1963]. Well worth watching.

Earlier this year I created the first batch of Ear Cake audio pieces for moving images. The following slice was directly inspired by Treg Brown's wonderful universe of violence and noise.

Further reflections on the life and work of Treg Brown can be found here.

Walter Ruttmann: For your ears only

"Everything audible from all over the world becomes material" - Ruttmann, Film Kurier, 1929

 Weekend [1930] - extract of score • www.medienkunstnetz.de

Weekend [1930] - extract of score • www.medienkunstnetz.de

Walter Ruttmann [1897-1941] was a German filmmaker best known perhaps for his 1927 city symphony film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis. Three years later he created Weekend, an image-less experimental film using sounds he recorded around Berlin.