ENCOUNTERS WITH NOISE IN THE DARK
Brief thoughts on sound in the cinema. [Last updated: Oct 13th 2018]
Encounters with Noise in the Dark: #5 Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War [October 2018]
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.
Set in Cold War Europe, the drama of the film's central love story is framed around a number of memorable performance sequences, often shot in one continuous take. The film opens with beautifully abrasive sonic energy; two village men, one with bagpipes and the other armed with a violin, play out a raw, thunderous tune of the country. Wiktor, our central male character, is shown visiting rural communities to record and transcribe their local music traditions. The film progresses through a series of energetic song and dance performance routines.
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. The director denies us the close proximity that sets up an obvious mood of pathos, so typical in mainstream filmmaking. Instead there is a certain dettachment, a feeling of distance from the two main characters. This is achieved, like in his previous film Ida , by often positioning the two main characters low and off-centre in the frame. This kind of composition has the interesting effect of flattening the image, helping to present the individual within their environment. The overall effect of this style together with the film’s rapid movement of time and character development suggests a wider story at play: Wiktor and Zula's struggles are one among many. Theirs is the challenge of migration, identity and cultural assimilation that so many people like them experienced in the post-war era.
In one of the film's most memorable sequences Wiktor and Zula are shown performing together in a Paris jazz club. The scene opens on a close-up of the saxophone player. The camera then gradually manoeuvres around the stage, slowly introducing other members of the jazz band before revealing Wiktor at the piano, Zula singing in the foreground and beyond her the late-night listeners of 'L'eclipse' - the Parisian club featured throughout the film. There is an incredible intimacy presented in this scene (felt in fact throughout the film), between stage and audience, performer and listener - unique and special I think to music and its performance. This I think is Pawlikowski's greatest contribution; the magic of musical performance rendered as poetic cinema.
Encounters with Noise in the Dark: #4 Michelangelo Antonioni [July 2018]
I have always opposed the traditional musical commentary, the soporific function ordinarily assigned to it. It's this idea of 'setting images to music', as if it were a question of an opera libretto, that I don't like. 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. Originally translated in L’avventura. A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969]
Strikingly innovative and challenging for their time, 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 , La Notte , L'Eclisse , Il Deserto Rosso  and The Passenger  - to briefly explore how he used sound in his work.
It is tempting to consider these films as naturalistic in style. Everything seemingly looks and sounds as something familiar to our everyday experience of reality. But film is artifice. These are heavily constructed images and sounds. Each element has been carefully selected and edited to form a sequence expressing a uniquely cinematic world of the directors making. Like Bresson and later Tarkovsky, Antonioni was fully aware of the need to control all the filmic elements; sound as much as picture. Reality is a cacophony and must be tamed, to paraphrase Bresson. While at the time modern developments in magnetic tape technology and portable Nagra recorders facilitated a greater use of location sound (e.g. sound effects sourced on location), it still was the task of the post-production sound engineers working closely with the director to shape this material into a cohesive, highly organised soundtrack.
At all times we hear what the director intends us to hear. And what the director intends us to hear or even nudge us forward to listen to (consider Pauline Oliveros' concept of Deep Listening in the context of film), is provoked by the camera. This is achieved through careful visual composition, framing, mise-en-scène, the rhythm and pace of picture edits and perhaps most strikingly, through the long-take (see comments on The Passenger below). Ultimately, in the form of the finished work, the sonic domain is not abstracted from the visual domain. The two work in tandem to form a synthesis of sound and image - Antonioni's audiovisual poetics.
I believe that many great sounding films are made first on paper and then brought into being by a great director. Someone who understands the multisensory dimension of human perception, cognition and emotion. Film in their hands is a constructed lie, no doubt (a seemingly familiar everyday reality and yet something wholly unnaturalistic) but a poetic lie towards truth. Therein lies the magic.
Ever enlightening on all matters of film and sound, Michel Chion describes Antonioni as "one of the directors most skilled in allowing us to hear the sound of life itself". I very much like this quote and often apply it to aspects of the audiovisual experience that I most enjoy in film: namely, that a cinematic work may compel us to listen to the world of the film, and beyond. There are many examples in Antonioni's work where one feels drawn in this way towards the sound of the world. Vittoria's night time encounter with the flag poles in L'Eclisse  is perhaps one of the strangest moments, while the 7-minute long tracking shot at the end of The Passenger  feels like one of the most immersive experiences of sound to be found in Antonioni's oeuvre.
It's interesting to consider this particular sequence in relation to Andrei Tarkovsky's own use of the long-take in works like The Mirror , Stalker  and The Sacrifice . How much was Tarkovsky influenced by Antonioni and to what extent did this slow, carefully choreographed visual style inform how he used sound and music in his own films? Without cutting into time or space the long-take gradually reveals the field of activity, both onscreen and offscreen, which the camera inhabits. The field in which the ecology of sound is granted audibility, expressed as the 'symphony of the sound of life' (Chion).
There are moments in Antonioni's films where one feels forced rather than gently invited or drawn in as a listener into a field of sonic activity. A cacophony that feels oppressively present, assaulting the inhabitants of a place and confusing all spatial orientation. A noise pollution, if you like, flattening the potential for hi-fidelity in the soundscape (See R.Murray Schaefer). We find this in the incessant chatter and background party banter of La Notte , acting as an impersonal, all-enveloping force that amplifies Lidia's (Jeanne Moreau) growing sense of alienation. We find a stronger variety of this in the chaotic scenes of the Rome stock exchange in L'Eclisse . Here the air is filled with the incessant noise of the economy; cartoon gestures and voices cry out in a theatre of absurd spectacle as the stock market crashes. Elsewhere in Il Deserto Rosso  the otherwordly sounds of Vittorio Gelmetti's opening electronic score give way to a chorus of industrial noises. Generators, hums, hissing steam, electrical devices and all manner of man-made noises screech out across the landscape. A new industrial soundtrack to the malaise of modernity and the individual.
Addressing the concerns of the modern world, Michelangelo Antonioni was a poet and painter of sound and image. He helped forge a new cinematic language that was later taken up by the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr. These directors prove that cinema need not pander to those seeking easy answers to the perplexing questions of life.
For a more detailed examination of Antonioni's soundworld, check out Roberto Calabretto's excellent article: The Soundscape in Michelangelo Antonioni's Cinema
Michel Chion quotes: Le sonorità del visibile. Immagini, suoni e musica nel cinema di Michelangelo Antonioni, M. Chion, 1999
Encounters with Noise in the Dark: #3 Robert Bresson [April 2018]
I'd rather people feel a film before understanding it [R. Bresson]
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.
Bresson uses music sparingly, in what he described as moments of transformation, “adding a value and significance to the images that they do not have on their own”. Yet even this selective approach gradually changed over time as his sonic language evolved into one consisting entirely of noises. More than the emotive effect of music, what concerned Bresson was the relationship formed between sound and image to produce the rhythm of a scene and the form of the film. Re-recorded foley elements (notably footsteps) together with post-synchronised dubbing replaced much of the cacophony of location sound, affording him greater focus and control in post-production.
Offscreen sound effects are used to achieve a convincing sense of time and space that characters inhabi: the sound of passing traffic heard from within Michel’s apartment in Pickpocket  or the distant footsteps and doors famously in A Man Escaped . More interesting however is the use of sound in place of the image: “If it’s possible to replace an image by one of more sounds, you should do it without hesitation. In essence: aim for the audience’s ear more than for its eye. The ear is far more creative than the eye.” In Pickpocket  our eyes remain fixed on Michel, closely watching him as he carries out the theft. But somewhere beyond in his field of vision we hear the sound of a race track; the swelling of running horses and crowd noises. Through the relationship he establishes between sound and image Bresson eloquently tells us where we are, what’s happening and crucially what we the audience are to attend to. Throughout Mouchette  we hear the noise of passing trucks, marking off the passing of time as cases of alcohol are delivered to the provincial towns of France. There are also curious passages in which Bresson uses sound to heighten the emotional atmosphere. In the sublime Au Hasard Balthazar  the death of Arnold, collapsing alone on a country road at the dead of night, is solemnly marked by the sound of a distant car engine. Or in Pickpocket , where busy crowd scenes - metro stations, city walkways, bars - possess a strange stillness; a noticeable absence of background chatter and ambient noise that we might expect. Instead our ears are drawn to the sound of footsteps, doors, the steady rhythms of passing traffic. The experience is unusual but no less compelling.
And what of the use of voice-over in the films Diary of a Country Priest , A Man Escaped  and Pickpocket , why so detached? Why in general does the voice in Bresson’s films so lack emotional projection? “My characters borrow a tone that is neither of the theatre, nor of ordinary films, nor exactly of life, although it is very close. I surprised myself one day by saying to one of my performers: Speak as if you’re talking to yourself. The point of this was only to emphasise the movement from the exterior toward the interior that I understand to be the central movement of cinematography, an inverse movement from that of theatre (from interior to exterior).”
In Bresson we encounter a world of precisely executed, poetic gestures that, when strung together form an emotional atmosphere. Like Andrei Tarkovsky his audiovisual language is uniquely his own; a direct influence, among many, on Michel Haneke who some 30-years later echoes Bresson: “…with an image, you cut the imagination short. With an image, you see what you see and its ‘reality’. With sound, just like words, you incite the imagination. And that’s why for me it’s always more efficient, if I want to touch someone emotionally, to use sound rather than image.” The Bresson experience is like no other. It returns me to the world with a strange hypersensitivity to sound and gesture. Every footstep, every door handle, every gentle contact radiates with a profound sense of hidden meaning. For a short time I feel like one of Bresson’s models, absentmindedly being in the world of all things.
All interview quotes from: Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983
Encounters with Noise in the Dark: #2 Ingmar Bergman [January 2018]
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]
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 , Hour of the Wolf , Cries and Whispers , Fanny and Alexander  as well as lesser known television works like Scenes from a Marriage  and Face to Face . 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  and Hour of the Wolf  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 . A soundtrack of precisely orchestrated noises and diegetic music, lingering between different planes of reality.
For further information see The Bergman Suite page.
Encounters with Noise in the Dark: #1 Peter Tscherkassky [2016-2017]
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