FILM AS SOUND ART [2018]

Overview of ideas on the potential for film as a sound art.
v.1.3 work-in-progress / Updated: Nov 2018: Some notes on filmsound studies, research and experiments 2013-2018

BACKGROUND

Deep Listening is a practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible […] Deep Listening comes from noticing my listening or listening to my listening and discerning the effects on my mind/body continuum, from listening to others, to art and to life. [Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice, 2005. Source link here.]

As a cinema-goer I'm keen to experience the medium in all its possible manifestations. Everything from straight ahead drama and linear storytelling through to video installation work, experimental and performative cinema. As a sound designer and filmmaker I'm specifically drawn to ways in which film is experienced through the soundtrack: the noise, sound and music. What interests me is film as the practice and experience of Deep Listening - film as a way to listen to the world as a form of acoustic or acousmatic art. For the past few years I've been exploring these ideas through a number of web-based projects. These are the Cinema of Noise series, the ongoing Encounters with Noise in the Dark notes, Earcake and the recently completed Act of Listening collection of images. 


TWO FUNDAMENTAL ASPECTS: Contrapuntal sound and Cinema as Listening Space

Only a contrapuntal use of sound in relation to the visual montage will afford a new potentiality of montage development and perfection.
[S. M. Eisenstein, V. I. Pudovkin, G. V. Alexandrov, A Statement , 1928]

I arrived at these ideas through my involvement in noise and electronic music together with my work as a sound designer for moving image. Film interested me as an acousmatic art, at the countrapuntal point where image and sound meet. To discover how an experience of what we see can be transformed through what we hear - it was a kind of magic; a synthesis unique to the medium. In the hands of a Bresson, Tarkovksy or Lynch, the position of the soundtrack is elevated further. Their work plays out in very particular ways so as to almost directly draw attention to the soundtrack, or at the very least use sound (or an ambiguous suggestion of music) as a prominent feature of the cinematic experience.

The recognition of the countrapuntal soundtrack was then given further importance when I began to consider the cinema space as a uniquely heightened place for listening. A controlled space that uses multi-channel loud speaker technology and carefully designed acoustic treatment to deliver both a private and shared auditory experience. The psycho-acoustic effect of sound being projected into a large space suddenly created a feeling of being very much involved in an embodied public performance. If nothing else this new visceral recognition of cinema felt novel and exciting, particularly in our age of headphones and private media consumption. Film for me suddenly felt performative. Sound was moving the air around us.


BEYOND STORYTELLING: Film as potential sound art inside and outside the cinema space

To identify film as a sound art or practice of Deep Listening, is to first arrive at the realisation that filmmaking doesn't have to concern itself exclusively with storytelling. In fact the art and craft of filmmaking will positively thrive I believe, if we continue to explore its wide-ranging scope for all manner of artistic expression. Expanded cinema, avant-garde film, experimental and video art are just a few of the ways in which we can describe an approach to filmmaking that is not primarily concerned with narrative storytelling. With story out of the picture, or demoted atleast to a less-than-central role, the art and craft of filmmaking allows itself to open up to new creative approaches and modes of expression that might otherwise be unavailable in a conventional narrative setting. Many of these practitioners come from a range of artistic backgrounds outside formal film school training or industry experience. From fine arts, animation, sculpture to photography, dance and music, the individuals that make up these independent filmmaking communities, often create work to be shown outside the cinema in alternative spaces - art galleries or performance venues. These spaces offer a different kind of screening context in which to present their work. 


THREE FILM SCENARIOS

•Film as screening

The classic cinema setting. A film has a scheduled screening that runs from beginning to end. People arrive at a specific time and silently attend to the film for its duration. Dedicated multimedia technology and architectural design create a highly controlled environment in which the optimal audiovisual experience, according to the filmmaker (in theory), is delivered to the audience. Immersion is the name of the game; a theatre of dreams, free from the interference and everyday chaos of the outside world. Good (meaning, high-end) cinemas however, are generally beyond the reach of the independent filmmaker, lest they interfere with the commerce of mainstream film programming and distribution.

•Film as installation, as contemplative artwork

Film in a gallery setting, perhaps in a separate space with dedicated sound system and projector. Or on smaller television screens with headphones in a larger exhibition room shared with others. The film works here, unlike in a scheduled cinema screening or performance event, commonly function without any set start and end time. Endlessly on loop, these films allow spectators to freely come and go as they please, attending to the work at their leisure, much like a regular gallery or museum experience. As with the cinema, silent contemplation is encouraged but the free roaming effect of the space permits polite chatter and movement between individual works. The flexibility of the gallery space means film works can be setup in all sort of configurations. Walls can be erected to create new viewing rooms, partitions used to delineate one artist's work from another. Territory is marked out. The classic gallery setup has the effect of maximum value in the most versatile way; it makes pragmatic, economic sense. Yet, the galleries emphasis on the film work as a predominantly visual mode of expression, means the auditory experience of the work often suffers. It suffers becomes sound desires to escape. It flees round corners, bounces off walls, is heard from beyond our peripheral vision. Gallery acoustics are notoriously bad. Things echo around. The rooms, as contemporary gallery visual aesthetics dictate, demand an emptiness, an impersonal aura so that the artwork can be afforded exclusive presence; nothing but the essentials. The sum effect of gallery acoustics, the potential audible interference from other nearby artworks, and the free-roaming effect of gallery visitors, creates the typical gallery noise-floor that always threatens to compromise the listening experience of a film work. Acoustically, the gallery is ill-equipped to provide precision and control. Film works will always be compromised. That's unless of course, the work incorporate these outside acoustic influences, perhaps even making them an integral part of how the soundtrack is experienced. But then maybe none of this matters.

•Film as performance 

Films might be performed on projectors or with live musicians, or through real-time treatment and manipulation of the film material. This offers the additional visual theatrics of the performers presence and their intervention in the space, which adds a element in how the work is experienced. I've always come to the idea of performance of any kind as essentially a theatrical ritual; we engage in it as a multi-sensory experience, phenomena we look at, listen to, even smell, touch or taste on occasion. A performance is a totality of relationships and gestures, even if one aspect is nominally weighted more than any other. Is music performance merely an experience of sound? I'm thinking here of Christopher Smalls notion of musicking and my own experiences in attending the night-long shadow puppet performances of Central Java in Indonesia.

All performances generally run according to set start and end times. They are also exposed to a variety of interferences - acoustic, optical, social, technological - some welcome, some less so. Film as performance in some measure feels like a combination of both the screening and installation settings, but grounded in the more traditional dynamics of performance practices found in music, dance and theatre. 

These three settings for the presentation of film work are a set of crude descriptions of the available playback scenarios. Definitely there is complex crossover between what may or may not be described as a performance, screening or installation. Does a projector "perform" a screening of a work? Is a video installation on loop not "screening" itself at set times, "performing" in the space to a mobile audience? Is a live, improvised soundtrack to a film in which audience members are encouraged to move about the space, a performance, a screening, an installation? There is no clear definition. And I'm not sure any definitions are important. Instead, my purpose in using them is to help draw attention to how factors of time and space influence the way we experience the work. How do we see, hear or understand a film work differently in a cinema, gallery or performance space? How do these factors influence the potential for a sound art in film?


A FEW CONSIDERATIONS

At certain points in A Man Escaped, Bresson even lets his sound technique dominate the image. Throughout the film we are compelled to listen. Indeed, Bresson is one of a handful of directors who created complete interplay between sound and image." [Criterion Commentary, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson]

Dealing with any issues, compromises or constraints presented in the three settings above, ultimately come down to the kind of work the filmmaker is wishing to create. Film is accepted as a predominantly visual medium. How it sounds may simply not be important. In fact, sound, music, language, all might actually harm the desired effect. Consider the films of Stan Brakhage, whose work one might argue is much more powerful silent. But if the soundtrack is an integral part of the work and if film can really become something we do deeply attend to with our ears, how then might this be achieved? 

An audiovisual conception from the outset

The ideas begin and end with the filmmaker-director-artist as chief author. For us to deeply listen the opportunity needs to be setup in the very conception of the film work. In the case of linear storytelling I think this begins at the script stage. In the film world Tarkovksy should be seen as the ultimate sound artist. He demonstrated an understanding and desire to precisely execute ideas with sound and music at the script stage. He then could design and shoot his film, with a pretty clear idea of how each moment is to sound. The direction of camera in production - the movement, composition - in relation to blocking and choreography, together with the subsequent picture edit, could be carefully considered as an audiovisual totality. Of course experimentation and chance during the editorial stage did, no doubt, produce fresh ideas and new directions the film could take. But, I believe in the case of Tarkovsky, the overall sonic language of the film being made had already been established in his head long before he rolled the cameras. Others like Bresson, Bergman, Lynch and Tatis belong to this small group of narrative filmmakers who possess a sharp artistic sensibility towards the soundtrack.

Realism

In 'freeing' the soundtrack from its traditional role of supporting narrative, sound and music may be brought forward to form an integral part of the overall work. How much familiar 'reality' now needs to be in the film is up for play. Does sound need to be synchronous with picture? Is dialogue essential for the expression of ideas? Is sound to support image, or image to support sound? Why should a door sound like a door? I'm often dismayed by the lack of willingness to explore the potential for new relationships between image and sound. Notions of a familiar reality that should look and sound like our everyday experience, are shackles that the truly imaginative filmmaker should dare to break.

Film for a space

Perhaps a consideration about how the work is to be experienced in actual public space (as installation, artwork, performance) could influence the core ideas of the film work. Different genres of music evolved out of very particular physical (performance space) and social (interaction of people) conditions, long before recording technology was available. These conditions clearly impacted the development of different musical styles, performance techniques and design of instruments. Film in the context of a gallery or installation space could consider the particular qualities of the playback space. Not the specific gallery in question (though that might also be useful), but rather the general reverberant quality of almost all gallery and exhibitions spaces. Dynamic, percussive or plosive sounds like speech are challenging to control in lively spaces. Will intelligibility be compromised? How important is it that we understand what’s being said?

•The efficacy of continuous sound

Can sound in film expand upon the acoustic qualities of such space? Soundtracks composed of constant sound (noise, drones, sustained tones) are perfectly suited to activate the resonances of a space, furthering a performative aspect of the work. Early experimental films like Donald Ritchie’s War Games [1962], Takahiko Iimura’s Love [1962] or Michael Snow’s famous Wavelength [1967] create an immersive sonic experience that seems to flatten the the image, revealing new visual forms and ideas in the mind of the spectator. Something similarly visceral emerges from Phil Niblock’s long-form video/drone work The Movement of People. All such approaches are worth exploring as potential ways to realign the film work with the available playback or performance setting.

At some point the noise-signal-sound-music may all collapse in, forming one singular indefinable aspect that constitutes what all film listening is directed towards. It need not be described as anything other than the film itself. Herein lies the film as a Deep Listening experience. Film as a way to listen to the work and the world as a form of expressive sonic art.