THE BERGMAN SUITE: Ingmar Bergman's Cinema of Noise [2017]

A tribute to the film director Ingmar Bergman [1908-2007]

The year 2018 marks what would have been Ingmar Bergman’s 100th Birthday. As part of the worldwide events celebrating the man’s life and work I have decided to put together this collection of sound as a personal tribute.

The Bergman Suite consists of 7 sound pieces. All material has been directly lifted from the original film soundtracks and edited together to form individual montages. Basic techniques - editing, layering and mixing have been performed on the material - with no additional processing or sonic manipulation. Each of the 7 piece are based around a sound character or broader theme that I feel is present in many of his films. These are particularly evident in Bergman’s chamber dramas of the early 1960s - Through the Glass Darkly [1961], The Silence [1963] and Winter Light [1963] - and through films emerging in the late-1960s and 1970s period.

My fascination with these films is not simply about sound. Above all else the work of Ingmar Bergman has always touched me on a deeply personal level. Each film is an endless source of creative inspiration; a profoundly moving and insightful account of the human condition. Bergman is a giant and a true artist of the age.

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]

Music and Sound

There is a noticeable absence of music in Bergman's films of the 1960s and 1970s. Gone are the orchestral strings of the earlier period and 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, 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 - Bergman's own Cinema of Noise. 

The effect of less music significantly alters the way we attend to the films, pulling us I think closer to the rawness of the drama and re-enforcing the tactile presence of the world. At the same time a new layer of environmental sound is free to be heard. A character in its own right, these 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 ideas identifiable in a number of his films from the 1960-1970 period. What I've tried to do with this Bergman Suite of sound pieces is present these sounds in a kind of super condensed form. A celebration of the man's life in film through sound.

Sound mixer Owe Svensson (left) worked on many of Ingmar Bergman's (right) later films. Image source:

Sound mixer Owe Svensson (left) worked on many of Ingmar Bergman's (right) later films. Image source:

The Clocks: Clocks are everywhere. They occupy a strange place in Bergman's films, somewhere between the mundane and mystical. In many ways they are simple sounds that function as background fillers for interior spaces. But elsewhere in films like The Passion of Anna (1969)  and Face to Face (1976) they act as a kind of score, creating mood and heightening psychological tension. There is I think this strong subjective element to the clocks that somehow underlines the sense of angst. In Cries and Whispers (1972) and Fanny and Alexander (1982), the tick-tocks and chimes operate in yet another way. Closer again to musical score, they seem to express a more mysterious quality; marking out fleeting encounters with the supernatural world as if performing in a ritual. 

The Church: The crisis of religious faith is felt throughout Bergman's entire body of work. Nowhere is this more evident than in Winter Light (1963), from which the pastor's opening prayer has been used in this piece. As the bells of Bergman's world ring out, we're not only reminded of the omnipotent power and presence of The Church but also feel a sense of the land and the fragile cultural and religious ties that attempt to bond its inhabitants together.

The Voices: What are the whispering voices we hear in Bergman's films? The device is used in extensively in Cries and Whispers (1972), Face to Face (1976) and also in Through a Glass Darkly (1961). The camera close-up, an intense portrait, suggests these are the internal sounds of the subject - the overwhelming chatter of the mind. We might think such a voice, whether it be representing an inner voice or that of God, to exist alone in private dialogue with the individual. The singular nature of this often heightens the subjective perspective. And yet in Bergman's films we hear the presence of a several whispering voices chattering away together. It's as if they're in on something, party to some secret that Bergman's subject is aware of and yet powerless to do anything about. In moments like this, there is a sense of these characters not truly feeling part of the world; removed from reality, an alien to their own existence.

The Bells: From the tiny tintinnabulations of clocks and passing livestock to the tolling of distant church bells marking out the hour, the metallic resonance of such objects is a common element in the Bergman soundtrack. Two films in particular, Cries and Whispers (1972) and The Passion of Anna (1969) begin in their opening credit sequences with a strange minimal arrangement of bells and metallic chimes. We fail to locate these sounds within the film and instead experience them as a musical score. The sounds from these two sequences form the core of this piece.

The Sea: The sound of water trickling, running, crashing against rocks and lapping along beaches, distant foghorns and boat engines, the characters in many Bergman films inhabit places never too far away from the open water. No surprise really when we consider how many of his films from the 1960s were made on the small island of Fårö in the Baltic Sea. A place where Bergman later lived until his death in 2007. In films like Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Shame (1968) sequences of intense drama unfold on the island. A location that feels deserted, isolated, as if bound by laws far removed from normal reality. Through it all we hear the lapping waves and the lonely foghorns, re-enforcing this sense of disconnection with the rest of the world.

The Fear: Bergman confronts us with the naked truth of our fragile human condition. His characters are seeking something; a thing to hold on to in their uncontrollable sea of passion and inner turmoil. I've tried to present this atmosphere of fear in this final piece, extracting sound from particularly unsettling moments in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963), The Rite (1969) and Face to Face (1976).

There exists however one final, as yet unmade piece, that belongs to The Bergman Suite. The title of this piece would be 'The Love' and would attempt to present the incredible beauty, love and transcendence that shines through in films like Summer Interlude (1951), Wild Strawberries (1957) and perhaps for me most powerfully in Fanny and Alexander (1982), whose famous lines remind us to take pleasure, while we can, in our moments of joy:

The world is a den of thieves, and night is falling. Evil breaks its chains and runs through the world like a mad dog. The poison affects us all. No one escapes. Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.