How Sound Floats on Land

The Suppression and Release of Folk & Indigenous Musics in the Cinematic Terrain

Published in CINESONIC: Cinema & the Sound of Music - AFTRS Publishing, Sydney, 1999
Excerpt reprinted in BEYOND THE SOUNDTRACK: Representing Music In Cinema, University of California Press, 2007

... in the theatre

You sit in a cinema, facing one way. A large rectangle of light is suspended above your eye-line, formed by a screen onto which are projected moving images. Your peripheral vision — integral to your everyday act of focussing in a three dimensional reality — has been dislocated. The screen psycho-optically suggests not only a window onto the world but also — and more pertinently — the feeling of being trapped in a black box. You are deprived of even the base power of sight you have when you choose to idly look out a window; your view is controlled, changed, designed beyond your will. All muscular activity, save for the sensation of a certain gravitational pull on an anally-oriented posture, has similarly been suspended. Sitting there in isolation, you are subjected to an array of sounds, many of which have no direct relation to that which appears on the screen. Not only do various types of sounds appear gratuitously, illogically, irrationally, they also shift through the black space which engulfs you. They flit at your side, hover at the rear, dart over your head; sometimes they rumble through your bones, sometimes they sear your temples. You are excited and terrified by that which is beyond the perimeters of the screen; that which is yet to come; that which sounds behind you.

This is the phenomenological meat of the cinematic experience. It is an active removal and suppression of many of our optical and ocular actions combined with a heightening in acoustic and aural activity. When perceived in this way, the cinematic soundtrack is not a slave in service to the image: film sound/music moulds a key for realigning our consciousness to form a state of being governed by a non-hierarchical order of the senses. While we have been conditioned to think that sight is our primary sense for navigating our real world (itself a species notion considering how even acoustic reflections from left and right perspectives registered by our ears aid in our brain maintaining equilibrium of stature as we walk whilst looking), the cinema is a sensorial machine which by design and default antagonizes how we presume our senses cognitively operate.

Take this further. Accept — at least for the duration of this paper — that sound never matches anything on the visual screen, and that by ontologically disruptive yet sensationally enticing ways, sounds were never meant to synthesize or synergize an amalgam parallel to the screen visuals. Imagine the opposite: sound and silence merely happen during the appearance and disappearance of visuals. They each can do anything they wish in either accordance with or ignorance of what the other does. They neither accompany nor accommodate the other: they simply co-exist. If one accepts this, one can feel the absolute index of coincidences which uniquely define the soundtrack to any single movie. One can forget the conventions, formulas, rules and all the professional fundamentalist standards which film industries worldwide proudly and dumbly promote and celebrate.

There is much to be uncovered by observing how sound and music do not fit the cinematic screen — not by rejecting already limiting synaesthetic ideals, but by realizing the absolute rupture which gapes and throbs at the audiovisual core of cinematic experience. The cinematic experience as outlined above is often at odds with what much critical orthodoxy and methodology has used to describe the effects of the cinema. Numerous faults, flaws and fictions which have persisted over the preceding two decades of ill-perceived film sound commentary strongly suggest that not only might our critical methodologies be severely lacking, but also every categorical breakdown we perform on the soundtrack should be regarded with suspicion. Indeed, the very act of employing categorizaton as a discursive means of defining events, sensations, auras and dimensions which arise from the simultaneity of sound-in-space with image-in-motion is a tactic ill-equipped for assessing the hybrid and polysemic nature of the film soundtrack.

To wit: common and unquestioned binaries like onscreen/offscreen, synchronous/disynchronous, compatible/incompatible, realistic/unrealistic, natural/unnatural are rooted in the physicality of theatre, and as such are determined by how time, space and event are conjoined in a physical location. That is, the palpable physicality of everything that appears within the proscenium is the base from which these binaries sprout. For example, someone clapping their hands in melodramatic frieze to the timed sound of a metal sheet clanging offstage suggests a degree of unrealism due to our knowledge of a mere handclap not causing such a dynamic sonic event in everyday life. The theatrical body is always ‘our’ body — defined by physical limitations we know and share. The cinematic body is only ‘our’ body through acts of supposition, identification, empathy, desire, dread, and as such has no stable physical plane to ground and orient those binaries which function within theatre. Much critical orthodoxy and methodology in the history of film theory has lackadaisically imported theatrical precepts without giving attention to the phenomenological nature of compound experiences resulting from the fused crafts, languages, technologies and senses which follow the assignation of the soundtrack to the film strip. This means that a persistent problem with analyzing film sound and film music is the lack of differentiation made between, for example, thunder, the sound of thunder, the recording of the sound of thunder, and the sound effect we call “thunder”. Each are perceptually different within the act of listening, yet that very difference is what tends to dissolve once one attempts to address ‘thunder’ in a movie scene by placing it as a marker, sign, icon or convention in strict relation to the film screen’s placement of the scene.

Now, rather than postulate a laborious and taxonomical blueprint for how we can recategorize the film soundtrack into a new myriad of linguistic types and syntactical forms, I opt to not be doomed by the spectre of grammar, and suggest a contra-cinematic stratagem. Let us orient our consideration of film sound/music from being aware of the advanced state of contemporary music and audio art (embracing hip subcultures and academic pursuits). There, issues of how the performative, the technological, the interactive, the compositional and the psycho-acoustic network to produce dense and complex comments on how we perceive our own acts of listening are derived from a richly braided flow of modern and postmodern histories of sound and music. Despite a dearth of critical writing to explicate this, our everyday listening experiences have been radically altered over the past half century in terms of distortion, density, grain, spatialization, processing, distillation, transformation, multiplicity, rendering, dispersion, immersion, virtuality, modulation and appropriation. One should be able to realistically ask: where are the soundtrack equivalents of the studio recordings produced by Bohannon, The Breeders, Wendy Carlos, DNA, Duke Ellington, Esquival, Pierre Henri, Led Zepplin, Sergio Mendez, Jeff Mills, Neu, Pauline Oliveros, Optical, Oval, Lee Perry, PIL, Shellac, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sun Ra, The Velvet Underground, Brian Wilson, Link Wray? If we can theoretically and musically accept the roles of non-musicians, studio producers, electronic realizers and track remixers, could not the film soundtrack critically and sonically support similarly decategorized modules like ‘uncomposers’, ‘redesigners’ and ‘soundscapers’? In this paper, my ears will angle towards film soundtracks which do exactly that.

So there you are: still sitting in a cinema, facing one way, looking at the screen. Soon enough you hear something. You presume it somehow comes ‘from’ the screen — yet how do you define the space of that 'sonic'? Would it be through the characteristics of its original location source or is there something in the encoding and rendering of that recording which defines its space? Just as the snare crack on Bill Haley’s "Rock Around The Clock" is neither that on Martha & The Vandella’s "Dancing In The Streets", The Eagles’ "Take It Easy", Billy Idol’s "Rebel Yell" nor Technohead’s "I Wanna Be A Hippy", so must the space of the sound you hear in the dark of the cinema be as distinctly a product of the processing which creates that ‘sonic’. Following this line of perceptual inquiry, questions more relevant to the conundrum of audiovisuality arise. Is that space imported as an acoustic dome over the screen’s visuals? Or is that space a terrain visited by the image? Simple enough queries, yet ones that effectively bypass the critical orthodoxy which suggests we comprehend soundtrack events via their evaluation through degrees of being onscreen/offscreen, synchronous/disynchronous, compatible/incompatible, realistic/unrealistic, natural/unnatural. In short, questioning the location and space of a ‘sonic’ is the primary means by which we can accept that (a) the soundtrack is never in service to the visuals, and (b) sound never matches anything on the visual screen.

... in an English coffee shop

Mix Me A Person (1962)

In Leslie Norman’s Mix Me A Person (1962, UK) a throng of typically British movie-youths (over-Brylcreemed, over-Cockneyed, over-delinquented) are gathered in the Paloma Coffee Bar. In its cramped and smoky quarters, they surround Harry Jooks (Adam Faith) whose blonde handsomeness and radiant face is contrasted against the gaggle of gaunt, darkened youths. But something sets him further apart from the others: his voice. Harry — or more precisely, Adam Faith — is singing "La Bamba". In fact, many factors truncate this vocalizing figure not only from his surroundings but also from the cinematic proscenia.

Firstly, Adam Faith is injected into the cinematic narrative because he is a recording star. His value, his presence, his status are all conferred by his life beyond the cinematic frame (eleven UK Top Ten hits between 1959 and 1963). More than simply ‘starring’ in the film, he is jettisoned from a musical stratosphere, shooting through the film’s troposphere but never residing within its narrative terrain. Secondly, his voice on the soundtrack is similarly stratospheric: when he sings, he imports the other-worldly sound of the recorded song into the film soundtrack. As soon as he parts his lips, what preceded as the microphonic capture of the coffee shop location is transfigured into a reverberant dome for his transmission, featuring that quintessentially British spring-verbed tone which colours the singer in echoic isolation away from his musical accompaniment. Thirdly, the voice of Adam Faith co-opts the soundtrack into abiding by the acoustic physical laws of his recording. Other sounds are suppressed, muted and silenced so as to replace the veracity and verisimility of that which we see on the screen with an aural logic which breaks the conventions we accept to be operating. Natural background atmosphere and the distinct sounds of body movement outrightly disappear in the wake of Adam Faith’s exoteric presence.

This may seem obvious enough. We are all familiar with that fake ‘Elvis-effect’ of both the performance of a song and the uncinematic texture of its studio grain continually, gratuitously and repeatedly rupturing the audio-visual mise-en-scene of a film. We have been psycho-acoustically primed to phenomenally know and accept this shift between aural states on the soundtrack, to move between the texture of the film soundtrack to the tone of recorded song. The question to be begged, then, is why are certain laws of naturalism and realism in sound design allowed to be flagrantly ignored in some instances and rigidly adhered to in others? The answer may lie in comprehending the interzonal embrace of the soundtrack and its ability to sonorize music and musicalize sound. For it is on the soundtrack that all activity is positioned through the act of orchestration and rendered through the act of mixing. All sounds occur at points for reasons of linear placement, and they appear courtesy of the privilege given them in their vertical integration within the mix. A symphony orchestra can be diffused as background atmosphere while a creaking door can be highlighted as a key dramatic event. Our collective cinematic listening has constituted an impressive data bank of all these variables, interchanges, modulations and exchanges. In fact, it is the ceaseless shifting, slipping and sliding between that which is perceived musically and that which is oriented aurally that nullifies any categorical separation of the musical from the non-musical, the realistic from the unrealistic. Furthermore, the ongoing history of film sound is one of expanding the range between these supposedly fixed poles and illuminating the micro-density of nuance and detail which grows between those poles as they shift further apart.

Let us return to Adam Faith singing "La Bamba" and consider closely the musicological sheen and technological aura of the scene. When Faith sings "La Bamba", he may as well be mouthing Caruso singing La Traviata. It is not controversial to declare that the cinema has virtually never got Rock’n’Roll right, and Mix Me A Person is no exception. Yet Faith sits comfortably with the askew iconography of the film. The coffee shop scene attempts to fetishize the subcultural coding of this clique (their dress, posture, argot, dance, etc.) in a peculiarly British televisual mode established by the saturated TV coverage of youth styles and happenings since the late ’50s. No subculture in Britain has escaped the glare of a TV camera crew’s lights, and the fictionalization of musical trends in British cinema and television is usually a restaging of actions lamely mimicked from documentary footage. Yet such ‘research’ has never guaranteed accuracy or appropriateness. The image of ‘wild rockin’ youth’ which Mix Me A Person desperately tries to project is decidedly inept. This is not to flippantly denigrate the value of the scene, because it serves well as a document of the cinema’s inability to embrace, incorporate and accommodate transmissions from the realms of rock/pop/folk musics. As we watch a group of English youths drinking Italian espresso while dancing to a Mexican Rock’n’Roll song, this pale British facade fades into a group of actors badly miming, cornily dancing to vapid Pommy Pop and drinking watery chicory muck.

The awkward charm of Adam Faith singing "La Bamba" in Mix Me A Person lies in the way the staging of the scene proceeds with dramatic conviction despite the hollow ring of the song ungainly privileged on the soundtrack. Unconvincingly, the un-syncopated, de-Latinized, non-rockin’ recording of "La Bamba" [1] galvanizes the coffee shop crowd into implausibly unrestrained gyrations. And here lies the most fascinating aspect of the scene.

It is largely comprised of a four quite long single-take camera tracks (from 20 seconds to 50 seconds), each of which move between a visual framing of Faith lip-syncing the song to close-ups of dancing feet and smiling faces, roving past dancing bodies scattered throughout the pokey divisions of the coffee shop interior. In each of these somewhat cramped shots, the audience is clearly shown clapping their hands in time to the song. Now, as the song is pre-recorded, the scene would have been shot with Faith miming his own recording. However while the song would have been played back on tape on-set, it is unlikely that accurate synchronization between tape playback and camera speed would have been maintained throughout the duration of such long single-take shots. This means that while a shot starts with Faith perfectly syncronizing the lyrics, the camera shortly moves away from that framing so as to hide his lips going out of sync; swaying and dancing bodies do not elicit the same demand for tight synchronization as lip movement does. All well and good — except that throughout all the shots, the captive crowd is seen clapping in time with each other to the song. Because the clapping movement is so prominent in each shot, the scene would have been deemed ‘unnatural’ if we did not hear the sound of such action, so the hand claps have been post-dubbed. But while the post-dubbed hand claps are in sync with their onscreen counterpart, they are clearly out-of-sync with the recorded song. The end result is an image of a gang of kids who possess what possibly is the most severely impaired sense of rhythm ever captured on film, giving us a cinematic incredulity created by a collision between of musicological product and technological process.

While not intended to portray such an audiovisual quandary, this scene from Mix Me A Person confirms the cinema’s failure to deliver sound to match an image. Identical camera tracks timed to the performance of songs were common in live television pop shows of the era, but motion picture technology could not recreate such real-time synchronism due to the ‘double system’ entailed by (i) shooting film in a camera while recording sound onto tape; (ii) the spatio-temporal fracturing inherent in the editing process; and (iii) the post-dubbing often needed to smooth over a stable relationship between sound and image. While sound movies right up to ’80s battled with imperfections and contingencies in synchronization [2], it is mainly in musicals that the problem of filming action which has to be edited to a pre-existing soundtrack (the recorded song) reveals this otherwise invisible dilemma.

Exacerbating this modus operandi fraught with technological improprieties, pop/rock/folk musics infected the film soundtrack in a way which stands in contradistinction to previous ways in which forms of song/sonata/operetta had migrated to the film soundtrack: pop/rock/folk musics smuggled in the sound of the audience. Pick any film musical up to the mid-50s and the audience is most likely depicted visually (within the frame or through edits) as a silent witness to the music being performed, the song being sung or the dance being danced. The sound of the audience is its applause, and the lineage of sonic etiquette established through the live radio broadcast and the post-produced movie soundtrack was to nominally switch between the acoustic expression of the singer/performer/dancer and the receptive sonorum of the audience. That pink noise ocean of fleshy hands being clapped would well up apres the musical number’s cadence, signifying not only a positive response but an aural frame which posited the musical number’s primacy through the silence in which it was performed. But once Rock’n’Roll (and the folk and so-called ‘race’ musics from which it grew) gained radiophonic power and stood to pose threats to all facets of the entertainment industries in the USA (incorporating radio, recordings, publishing, the cinema [3]), the film soundtrack was profoundly altered in desperate response to the sound of the crowd. It had to merge the recorded song and its post-dubbed reception so as to create a synarchy to govern the soundtrack. And just as the trend of ‘live’ album recordings gained momentum throughout the 60s, crowd noise — whoops, whistles, screams, stomps, clicks and claps — was deemed a requisite sonic foam for the film soundtrack. Allowed to seep into the final mix, it transformed the soundtrack from a Wagnerian tomb of intimidating hush to a Cagean spectacle of rowdy consumption. In the process, the agitated and activated noise of the audience engineered a crucial collapse between sound and music in the realm of the cinematic whereby scenes — through their attempt to be natural, real, compatible and synchronous — would self-destruct in the manifestation of their audiovisuality.

... on a Russian barge

An Independent Life (1991)

Europe. WWII. Childhood. Folk music. Cinema. What images come to mind? What memorable films do you fondly and warmly embrace? Maybe you have in mind something along the lines of a particularly uplifting cinema — something between Ettore Scola’s Le Bal (1983), Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1989) and Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom (1993). Discard those pretty postcards and their swelling melodiousness. I give you Vitali Kanevski's An Independent Life (1991, Russia): the second autobiographical instalment of his tremulous telling of childhood (as Vasiliev, played by Pavel Nazarov), set in an unforgiving, cursed world ruled by the existentialist chasm opened by Stalinist bureaucracy and the amoral survivalism which typified the harsh existence in Northern Russia.

I introduce Kanevski's film this way so as to clear the air of the oppressively humanist musicalization that has smeared and marred European folk music in the cinema. For many years now one has only had to throw the sound of a distant accordion over a sun-drenched wide shot of fields to evoke the resilience of the peasant, the strength of the expanded family, the beauty of the land, the whimsy of life. While such dumbed-down, faux-humbled patronizing has proved popular in bourgeois arthouse cinema, it is time this mouldy sack of countrified cliches be thrown down a well. Relevant to our discussion here, An Independent Life employs folk music in an entirely radical way. Kanevski does not slop folk music over his images the way restaurants blare The Gypsy Kings through their speakers or television cooking shows plaster Stephan Grapelli over their credits. Instead, Kanevski follows folk music. He does not place it anywhere: it pre-exists in an ever-changing musical landscape, charted only by shifts in wind, temperature and pressure, and captured as a series of topographical occurrences on top of which his story is told. His music track (a mix of sourced folk performances/recordings and a folk-derived score by Boris Rytchkov) is never in the service of his images: his images are the cartographical sheet music to his soundtrack.

The accordion — that gilded musical crown of the arthouse movie — is beautifully posited as a strange socio-cultural machine in An Independent Life. Early in the film it wafts onto the soundtrack, unlocatable in source, recalling a melancholic solitary waltz, mixed in with buffets of wind. Set against bleak vistas and icy landscapes, it carries an alien almost extra-terrestrial tone, impossible as it is to imagine how the hearty warmth of dancing music could either survive or take hold in such a harsh environment. But music — instrumentally, for dancing, and as song — is both the trigger for memory and its recall to pleasure. When accordion refrains waft across the barren snow, it is thus both the desire for that warmth and the melancholic cherishing of better times. An earthy erotic device, the accordion literally breathes like a living machine, and sways like the slow-motion twirl of a skirt caught in the embrace of its single player. The rich, reedy tonality of the accordion is also important in respect of it being a solo instrument: it mimics orchestral surges, yet is produced by a single player. Conversely, bands — especially in An Independent Life — generate an orchestral multiplicity, but are tainted by the social mandate given them by the military. Their sound is designed to bring the individual into line, to regiment his being in metronomic pulse to scored and conducted control. Band leaders in this socio-cultural domain are Stalinist in the worst sense.

In one scene set in the school, Vasiliev and Valya (Dimara Droukarova) enter a hall. A band is on stage, heaving and wheezing a gasping waltz. Apart from this dirge, the only sounds heard are the feet scuffing the floorboards as kids dance in pairs like automatons dancing in morbid entrancement to the life-draining, expressionless music. Vasiliev and Valya cut through the crowd and meet some friends. Vasiliev urges one of them to do a gypsy dance. Suddenly a man with an accordion appears from nowhere to accompany the dancer. All other dancers stop, as does the band. Everyone gathers around as the dancer enthrals and excites them with his energy, creating a miniature theatre for a celebration of music born of nomadic freedom. The climax reached, the band resumes its lethargic recital; the dancers return to their zombie state and circle lifelessly and aimlessly in pairs. Much later in the film, another accordion player appears, this time in a tiny radio shack on a wharf. He stops relaying directives from the barge traffic at the port to play his accordion ‘live’ on the air. (“I have a concert to perform” he says.) The accordion again is not merely a part of life: it is a means of transcending that life, of shifting from social control to a state of liberation. A solo instrument which sings the sound of a group, it is thus the spirit of the ‘independent life’ of Kanevski, battling against the societal forces committed to exorcising that spirit.

True to the figure of the nomadic urchin Vitali employs to portray his youth, An Independent Life is a carefully composed series of folds — more narrated movements in a musical sense than structured parts in a narrative sense — which at once create a tapestry of remembered events criss-crossing each other, and outlay an undulating landscape of nomadic incidents. The narrative is organized loosely in chronological order, but more aptly it behaves in the manner of oral history. Like a story being told ‘in person’, the numerous gaps, breaks, ellipses and asides are smoothed together through the performative act of narration. The film in fact opens with an extremely wide shot of pure white over which an unaccompanied voice is heard singing robustly. The voice stops mid-song as a figure approaches in the distance, and yells at the figure to stay back. The film then fast-rewinds until the figure exits the frame, ready to start the scene again. The voice then resumes singing and the scene unfolds. That voice is suspiciously the voice of Kanevski himself [4] and quite unabashedly sets up the director as a narrator in control not only of the telling but of the staging of the telling. Less a godly power and more a rambunctious yarn-spinner, Kanevski constantly has characters converse in cryptic quotations from bawdy folk song verse. People also continually break out into unmotivated singing — not because of a stylistic narrative conceit, but because folk music and the energy of singing are undoubtedly integral to their social exchange. Yet An Independent Life opts not to speciously ‘document’ this musicological milieu and filter it through a softened folksy soundtrack, but to posit folk music in its fundamental sense as the breath of a community’s being and the space of their sound. Essentially, folk music in Kanevski’s autobiographical texts is never consumed but always produced, and he illuminates and celebrates its stratification within the socio-geographical depiction of his life so as to produce a series of ‘memory maps’: tales based on fond remembrances and forgotten moments which are recalled as if hearing a song one has not heard for many years, floating across land on gusts of wind.

The concept of land is deepened by the psychological resonance it holds for those who traverse it. Vasiliev’s yearning for independence — to, as he puts it, “be my own man” — is so strong it actually prevents him from championing any ideals or causes in the name of independence. Instead, he is a psychological nomad: restless, transient, disconnected, unstable. While this could easily have degenerated into a pithy chauvinistic portrait typical of the ‘road’ mentality which drives many American ‘wandering minstrel’ scenarios, An Independent Life is the result of considered reflection on a life spent. Kanevski thus captures a precise relationship between his portrayed childhood self (Vasiliev) and the spaces he inhabits (a progressive move toward the remote North of Russia). Many images notably enforce this through the visual presence of fog, smoke and steam. All are natural manifestations of barometric conditions, and as such project the inhabitable environment as a realm in flux: the fog which sweeps across ice to diffuse sunlight into a glaring and blinding brilliance; the smoke of industry’s generation of heat and combustion to forge a sustainable existence in freezing conditions; and the steam which periodically engulfs gatherings as trains leave for isolated zones to either ferry Japanese prisoners to remote compounds or break apart families as relatives depart for what they hope to be a better life in another state. In fact fog, smoke and steam often obliterate the visual screen, leaving music, song and voice to emanate from its visual opacity. Kanevski allows this to occur deliberately. Land is never regarded as something which contain roots, and just as Vasiliev continually slips on the ice he must walk upon, Kanevski ’s sensibility repels ‘roots’ and the romantic ideologies which govern their settlement in cinema. In place, Kanevski represents land as a temporal passage with which his being made contact. When he shows long wide shots of flat ice, he is showing his itch to leave. As a grounding for his ‘memory maps’, land is always transitional: the stoking of coals in the metallic cave of a ship’s engine room; the skipping with a thick anchor rope on rustic wooden decking of a barge floating on water; the trailing of black smoke across a night sea; the vaporous mist which rolls onto stony inclines at the ocean’s edge. Land is never still.

Apart from ways discussed earlier in which Kanevski allows folk music to live on his film, his most radical approach to the soundtrack lies in the way he frames the landscape for the staging of his oral biography. At first, the cinematography of An Independent Life appears archetypal of European arthouse cinema: lots of long shots with little camera movement where nothing much seems to be happening except the ethnographic capture of nature’s beauty. But once one notices the way fragments of music waft into the scene, it becomes apparent that music operates as flotsam which floats into a scene, thereby determining its placement. Once we are placed ‘in’ the scene, the camera operates more like an omni-directional microphone, mostly moving in response to sounds occurring beyond the frame. A ‘cinephone’ is thereby created whose captured visuals are only ever part of the total picture, merely a perspectival articulation of the scene courtesy of the angle of the filmic torpedo: the microphone. In place of a ‘window on the world’, this roaming ‘cinephone’ is a statement on the recording of sound rather than a conventionally cinematic construct, and in doing so successfully inverts the paradigmatic sound-image relations we presume so often of the act of ‘filming’.

... in a Japanese mindscape

Kwaidan (1964)

The opening title/credit sequence to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1963, Japan) instantly throws you into a state of disequilibirum. Delicately, elegantly, sublimely, shots of ink dropping into a swirling expanse of clear water are intercut with full-screen images of written credits. This oscillation between legible, stable inscription (kanji lettering) and a liquefaction of the act of inscription (calligraphic brushwork) is of considerable importance. It signifies not simply a collapse or detonation of coded meaning, but a dynamic transformation as contained within the action of slipping between potential meanings. In a perverse play on the Western notion of an aspect of the animation process — ‘in-betweening’ — these cinematographic captures of ‘in-betweened’ calligraphic veins neither destroy meaning nor posit a replacement: they serve as psychic squiggles, phantom doodles, automatic scribbles which refuse to attach themselves to intention, projection, communication. Their beauty is their deft escape from overt signification through their dynamic presence and the totality of their motion.

If those mesmerizing swirls of inky threads recall the animatic base of cinema’s prime mechanical pleasure, the accompanying soundtrack just as effectively exposes what I earlier tagged “the absolute rupture which gapes and throbs at the audiovisual core of cinematic experience”. Kwaidan’s opening titles/credits feature a score by Toru Takemitsu — renowned composer in the history of cinema who has welcomed, celebrated and advanced the collapse between sound and music, between sonority and tonality. His score for Kwaidan is a landmark in this regard because of its revolutionary means of discounting a relationship with non-musical sound by becoming sound. This notion will be explained in full shortly. For now, I make note of his presence during the title credits. The greater percentage of this sequence unfolds in total silence, into which breaks the occasional sound of small bell clusters being struck. Each tone is allowed to sustain until it becomes silence, after which there is a measurable pause, as if silence itself is taking a breath. Terms like ‘simplicity’ and ‘minimalism’ (or even ‘Japanese’) do not adequately describe the effect, for just as the spiralling spillage of ink achieves a heightened sense of attraction through its simultaneous expansion and diminution, these single strikes of bell clusters are equally riveting in their purity and clarity. And just as the watery ballet of coloured lines suggest the dynamic shaping of an organic life-force, so do the bells evoke a sense of performative being — that is, the bells sound like they are striking themselves, devoid of any human timing and metre as they are.

This erasure of human presence and an attenuation to elemental forces is a marvellously apt way of casting the mystical and metaphysical stories of Kwaidan (an omnibus of four ghost tales) in an Animist light. Obviously it would be difficult for Judaeo Christian Occidental ghost narratives to do this, hamstrung as they are by theological doctrine and fundamentalist indoctrination of the relationship between life and death. Pertinent to our inquiry into the ‘decategorized’ soundtrack, Kwaidan enacts an Oriental sense of being by rejecting the core of Euclidean physics to which the West clings: synchronism, or, the binding of all perceivable form according to a single set of physical laws. The bell rings and ink patterns each conjure their own Animist spirit according to their medium — respectively, harmonic vibration and decay, and the interplay between colour, shape and movement — yet they operate in parallel dimensions. The edits of the visuals seem to refute any temporal relationship with the sonic events of the score. Each neither heeds nor observes the other: they co-exist.

By virtue of their self-contained co-existence, the very concept of synchronism comes into question. Are the veins of ink ‘in’ the water, or does the pressure and density of the water shape those veins? Do the bells rupture the silence, or does the quiet well to foreground a shape around the bells? The experiential nature of both the visuals and sounds’ dynamics is not ably studied by discussing whether or not one is in-sync or out-of-sync with the other. Nor is the binary of absence/presence suitable — though maybe a notion of pregnancy is. Just as the calligraphy is in the state of ‘being in between’ and the bells are in the state of ‘becoming’, so might we best understand their relationship through their latent potential to ‘be delivered’. For sure the inequilibirum struck here is engineered by the removal of any base spatio-temporal plane from which we could easily orient an audiovisual model.

Why does Kwaidan do this? What is its mysterious purpose in unsettling our desire to interpret its narration? I postulate that Kwaidan — specifically, in concert with Takemitsu, and maybe as an emblem for much audiovisual narration in Japanese cinema — arises from an ephemeral, transitional and rejuvenescent concept of land. As ecologically terrifying as this sounds, it is worth investigating (there may be key problems in ‘our’ ideal of land as territorial site, cultivated terrain and exchangeable real estate). Kwaidan abounds with images of terra, flora and aqua; often they occur in silence. This violent silence to me suggests a refutation of land’s holistic embrace as a firm entity. Like the Japanese children’s game Jyankin Poppu (similar to the western Paper, Scissors, Rock), ‘the earth’ is a meta-cyclical morphing between the elements: oceans house mountains; pools reflect skies; rivers carve plains; trees mirror roots; clouds resemble vistas. All elemental manifestations can thus be viewed as ‘being in between’, ‘becoming’, and ‘to be delivered’. This is a macro cosmological view which strongly informs visual and aural representations of the landscape in Japanese art, especially the cinema. It is a view derived partly from Japan’s fragile island status — rocked as it is continually with subsonic shock waves welling up from tectonic plates to subway systems and freeway overpasses — and partly from reincarnation beliefs grounded in a mix of Animism, Buddhism and Confucianism. [5]

Aurally, this has clear ramifications. Instability of land logically leads to a devaluing of every metaphorical, allusory and poetic idea of ‘grounding’. The base elements of music — rhythm, melody, harmony — are perceived sans the grounding principles of, respectively, tempo, key and tonality. This is why the many forms of traditional Japanese folk and theatre music generate such strange and unsettling listening states. As American producers are often heard to moan when they have to re-dub anime for the western market, the Japanese put their music “in all the wrong places”. I don’t need to critique such shallow understanding of music, but both the appeal and irritation of Japanese musics lie in their ‘march to a different drum’. If we track this break-down of metaphorical relationships between land and sound/music, we can witness many relational paradigms like foreground/background, above/below, with/against, etc. vaporize into air.

Take this further: if there is no ground, there can be no ‘earth hum’. I use this concept of the conduction, earthing and looping of electrical current through one’s body to the earth as a metaphorical means of considering that our aural perception is determined by diatonic tonality and binary rhythm patterns in a way that anchors us within a chain of reception. If in Western music and tonality we can feel ‘grounded’ by the architectonic facets of music’s progression, in Japanese music we could be like birds who perch on overheard electrical wires without being electrocuted. By being removed from contact with the earth, we would occupy space and be touched by its energy differently. As it is depicted throughout Kwaidan, space is less about how one connects to the ground and its comforting gravitational pull, and more about how we might use our bodies as resonators as we float on land. If the spatial plane of Kwaidan has no ground hum, no fundamental tone, and no basis as to what differentiates interference from that which is being interfered with (as in the opening’s water/ink = silence/bells construct), then such an environment must entail a re-invention of architecture. Of course in Japan the stability, solidity and fixity of architecture as developing from a Greco-Egyptian lineage has little bearing: for a terrain which hums with regular tremors, collapsible paper walls are required. Certainly the notion of building walls so that they can fall down seems unworldly to those of us trapped in concrete.

One story in Kwaidan (The Reconciliation aka The Black Hair) is centred on the habitation of a domestic enclosure, and renders explicit the body’s relation to land, the psyche’s occupation of space, and the transfigured laws of spatio-temporal physics which follow in the wake of audiovisual disequilibria. After a samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) leaves his wife (Michiyo Aratama) in order to socially ingratiate himself by marrying into a noted family, he finds he has irrepressible memories of the woman he deserted. Her phantom presence weighs on him so heavily — as demonstrated in numerous scenes where the sound of her weaving yarn obliterates all other sensation — he returns. Amazingly, he finds her still there, desperate for his touch. He spends the night with her, only to wake up the next morning beside her calcified remains. The realization that he has sexually gratified himself with her dry and shrivelled corpse sends him so mad that he too withers into a corpse, chased by her long black hair which now takes on a life of its own. The story opens with a slow camera track toward the couple’s home. As the camera reaches the large wooden doors to the entrance, they magically open by themselves — then the camera cranes up over the doorway’s arch, rides into the front gardens and sweeps across the expanse of long grass toward the front porch of the abode. This is a profound gesture toward the relationship between the motion mechanics of the camera as ghostly narrator, and its disconnection from the material world which it photographs and captures.

Takemitsu’s score for this story almost defies description. It does not even remotely ‘sound’ like music, what with its fractured, spasmodic, unpitched bursts of wood, string and metal timbres melding into dissonant, ring-modulated sonic splinters. Indeed, it sounds like something is being destroyed, let alone recorded, and inconceivable that it is performed. Once again, the decimation of human presence is forceful and consuming, and through discounting even an opposition to sound and literally ‘becoming sound’, Takemitsu’s ‘unmusic’ elicits a perplexing response: we actively disrecognize all we hear, just as if we are trying to read those inky swirls in water. While no musical grammar explicates the status of this score, its connotative power is deafening. The score advances an authenticity of texture while foregrounding an aberrant performance: the pressured shimasen bowing breathes like the ghost floating through the air of the haunted space inside the decrepit house; the destroyed shakuhachi bursts augur the accelerated decay of the samurai's corporeal constitution; and the spastic rifling through assorted percussive instruments without playing them suggests a dispassionate, necrophiliac fondling of bones.

The samurai thinks he has returned home to the erotic presence beyond paper walls, the massage of the yarn-weaver’s wooden rhythm, and the heady fragrance of his first wife’s long black hair. Instead, he has returned to a coffin — his coffin. When he wakes up after breaching sexual taboos, and wakes up to breaking his own promises, his nostalgic space remains but its tactility is rendered opposite to his original perception. Hysterical, he smashes through the house’s now rotting interiors, still believing that he is ‘inside’ its domain, when in fact his world has been turned inside out. 6 His life did not flash before him, but rather his death; his entry into the domain of the dead occurred earlier before he was unaware of where he was. The splintered soundtrack is the violence of his interiority not merely represented — as if we are in his head — but of his interiority materially externalized. Through the psychotic disynchronization engineered by the inversion of spatio-temporal parameters, we experience his sonic hell.

... beneath an Australian river

Black River (1993)

So what is land? What does it contain, withhold, sustain, unfold? The Gothic lineage of horror sculpts land as a seething blanket within whose creases smoulders the slow combustible heat of revenge. Swamps, ravines, caverns, grottoes — wherever land is unstable, wherever there grows an interstice between impenetrable mass and dynamic flux — these are the psycho-geographical backdrops to horror films from around the world. [7] Bizarrely, Australia has in its film history almost never made reference to or exploited a terra australis version of this dominant figure in the folklore of so many other cultures. This maybe one of the core racist veins which runs deep through the craggy subterranean of white Australia: how have we been able to so consistently and remorselessly suppress any Gothic-tinged horror iconography in our white mythological narratives — of which liberal minds are so desperate to qualify as ‘uniquely Australian’ — when our colonial and contemporary history is one of a total occupation of land to which we cannot justifiably lay claim to either inheriting, acquiring, or possessing?

Not that I wish to promote liberal guilt and its cheap expulsion of phantom regret, nor signpost a ‘post-colonial’ trope of political correctness here, but it is frightening that in place of any sedimentary subtextual grip which could at least tinge, intone or imbue our nationalist folklore, Australian cinema conversely boasts about ‘our land’ in an endless stream of macho cinematographers’ ‘capture’ of its vistas in glorified wide-screen precision. This photochemical wash of earthy hues inseminates advertising with its suspect celebration of the heroic landscape, giving us an equally unstoppable gush of 4XWD ads. And there lies the perfect cinematized icon of ‘our Australia’: a dust-caked, metal machine burning volatile fuel as it pummels the earth under its monstrous weight, leaving a rapacious trail of scarred crust wherever it indiscriminately roams, and in its wake unleashing the sound of looped, sampled didgeridoos manufactured by European CD sound effects libraries for the digital composition of music by someone whose only experience of the instrument is hearing it played by hippies busking at craft markets.

For these reasons and more, the opening to Kevin Lucas’s Black River (1993, Australia) has the power to stop one dead in one’s drongo tyre tracks. A long, floating/tracking shot skims atop a river so wide it seems oceanic in its span. The camera is placed so that the horizon is centred mid-screen, in exact recall of the Eurocentric ‘vanishing-point’. The bottom half of the screen is a perfect mirror of the top half, with glimpses of sky and trees sprouting from the river equally occupying upper and lower halves of the picture frame, dissolving the split screen into a morphic continuum of seemingly rootless vegetation. As the camera penetrates this de-gravitated roll of ungrounded forestry, the trees appear to be alive, gliding towards one almost as if we are still and the land is passing through us. The physical concept of land is here not merely questioned: it is rendered as a multi-dimensional state of existence which we are but temporarily visiting. It exists beyond us, before us, despite us. The stillness of the water — crucial to the mirroring effect and its dissolve between heavens and humus — is acoustically mirrored by an ambient stillness whose quietude distils this environment into a soft chorus of invisible birds and camouflaged insects. No didgeridoo spookily rolls across this landscape. In place, the faint and distant rattle of chains: the ghostly aural apparition of the white mancipation and incarceration of black people. While rich in visual allure, Black River’s opening is a statement about time. The sound of the past intermingles with the image of the present, while the nature which forms the present is the ecological recording of its elemental growth. ‘Timelessness’ here is not copy for a tourist brocheure but a chilling separation of our human experience from the totality of land. The plane of the present invades the land of the past, leaving one to ponder how exactly are time and space joined if at all.

Yet this audiovisual panorama which opens and closes Black River with such breathtaking depth is the meta-framing of the film’s operatic narrative. The film’s thematically stylized and contracted story centres on a set of characters trapped in a remote police station as torrential rains cause the Black River to rise to unprecedented heights. These characters are a Koori mother whose son was recently found hung while in police custody; the white custodian of the jail; a white bigot regularly jailed there for drunkenness and violence; and a white judge and his Asian wife sent to the local town to investigate the rise of black deaths in custody. The first cut from the quiet of the creeping river to the story proper is possibly the most violent edit in the history of Australian cinema. Pow — the image cuts to two traditional burial coffins as the Koori flag unfurls like a cloud onto them lying ready to be placed into the red earth. Clang — an unworldly sound pierces the silence as an orchestra wails with a series of barbed, percussive dins. Wham — sound attacks image just as white Europe attacked black Australia. The acerbic collision between the two is undeniable and inescapable. That orchestral wail is no simple effect. As the opening notes to the opera composed by Andrew Schultz, it detonates a semiological explosion which martials the postwar atonality of the European avant garde and imports it as an utterly displacing and dyspeptic sonorum into the yawning openness of the Australian outback. To say that this music does not ‘match’ the visuals is not enough — especially when most cinema audiences will only accept atonality if a monster appears nearby. The musicological schism carved by this particular audiovisual rupture transmutes the national anguish suffered by countries throughout both World Wars, and transmits their reverberated cries to the terse narrative mobilized by Black River.

Schultz’s music is a mix of skilful orchestration and clear references. Edgar Varese’s seminal Hyperprism (1923) and Deserts (1954) are echoed and whipped in the hysterical cacophony which drives Black River’s operatic form, and even Jerry Goldsmith’s appropriation of similar texts for his score to Franklin Schaffner’s futuristically desert-scaped Planet of the Apes (1968) are evoked (unintentionally, perhaps). Yet such references grant the score its iconic depth, especially as its violently European surface symbolically fuels the cinematic clash between sound and image. The harmonic tactic throughout the score is to — in the tradition of Varese — reduce the melodic breadth of all instruments and accord them a restricted voice. Brass and woodwinds thus tend to play single notes, as if they are traumatized into a frozen state, incapable of harmonic flow and pitch movement. Neither grounded nor rooted, they are fixed in terror, forced to each scream with the only note they can. Their chorus of singularity takes on a percussive quality, with ‘melody’ being the incidents of those single notes being struck rather than being performed. Again, an erasure of the human presence within what in this case is a deafening orchestral machine — a 4XWD of symphonic drive — empowers the score to move beyond mandates of depiction and accompaniment, and into its dimensional fusion within the cinematic terrain of the film’s scenes. (The fact that the film is a ‘version’ of a pre-staged opera suggests that this audiovisual freedom comes from the score being fundamentally incorporated into the narrative text, when the opposite is the common case with film music.)

The inversion of European stature into an Antipodean contortion is epicentral to all sono-musical facets of Black River as opera and film, including its use of the voice. Once the score has commenced, the libretto’s words are spoken as voice-over narration by a white male. In a sardonic ‘ocker’ drawl, he growls: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Every word is a lie. This speaker has as much of an empathetic connection to his sanctified words as white Australia has had to this thing it has called ‘Australia’. His lack of conviction and belief in the abused recitation of the grand Christian prayer — the incanted aria of the church’s communal manual — speaks volumes. Sexual stereotyping accepted, it is the voice of the ugly Australian; it scrapes your ears like sunburnt stubble pressing into your face, breathing alcohol and nicotine down your nostrils. Far from identifying with this ‘classic’ voice of Australia (especially as it has featured in over half a century of cinema, television and advertising), its status as a ‘sonicon’ is used to infect the film’s audiovisual space like a foreign vermin, at once a rampant feature of the landscape and an artificially introduced plague upon the land.

If opera glorifies divas in orgasmic and ejaculative excess, Black River’s use of singer Maroochy Barambah (who plays the mother, Miriam) stages her as the salient spittle of maternal might."The pain she feels is so monumental it is like land itself, like she is feeling the death of the land and its people, not merely her own son. When she cries, generations buried deep in the earth and its underground rivers hear her and rise. When she seethes “Serpent!” in many chilling pauses in the score, her sibilance cuts into the atonal bombast like a deep bite. The very timbre of her voice and its raspy nasal grain repels the over-vowelled pomposity of the white Australians who declaim, detract and denounce in comparatively thin tones. While their breath collectively soars with melodramatic vibrato, her solo grain remains as flat as the endless land. Her accusatory tone is granted rock-solid validity while those she accuses flail and fidget through their ignorance and denial of what is presented as a ruthless view-point: if there were no jails built on this land there would be no deaths-in-custody. Just as the music does not belong in the land which it depicts, Miriam does not belong in the music which attempts to be her land.

.... in conclusion

Folk and indigenous musics have been corrupted by the unneeded stringent purity which musicological dogma has foisted upon them. Under the most reductionist and restrictive banner of liberalism, they have been aligned with ‘naturalism’, ‘realism’, ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’. Their further cooption by and incorporation into the cinema proceeds not only a deafness which impedes sono-musical development of the soundtrack, but also an ignorance which serves to repress the greater power for music to ‘become sound’ in the cinematic terrain. When I see a blonde-ponytailed busker in the street wearing Trotsky/Lennon glasses and strumming songs by Don Maclean and Bob Seeger, I am incited to intellectual violence. I therefore empathize with the violent release in the soundtracks I have discussed — examples of musical catalysis and sonic dieresis; where sound never matches anything on the visual screen.

[Parts of this talk were originally developed for a presentation on sound design and film scores for the Indigenous Narrative Drama Initiative for the Australian Film Commission, 1995. Special thanks to Adrian Martin for introducing me to the cinema of Vitali Kanevski.]


1. Ritchie Valens’ original version of "La Bamba" (1959) occupies a unique position in American pop music due to its Hispanic orientation. Derived from traditional melodic refrains in Mexican music, Valens (ne Valenzuala) produced a ‘rocked-up’ version with an electric twang, scoring a major hit in the United States (not known for its friendliness toward Mexico) when he was only seventeen years old. In the process "La Bamba" inspired dozens of ‘Chicano Rock’ combos to similarly mutate Mexican folk music with white Rock’n’Roll and score regional radio and local hop hits, thereby attaining status within the mulatto history of Latin popular music. As a Latino singer/song-writer/guitarist, Valens shines boldly, leaving British pop star Adam Faith to pale in the radiant energy of "La Bamba".

2. It is remarkable how much of film form, language and grammar has been historically dictated by the fixture of the ‘double system’. While it not within the scope of this article to explicate this juncture between the technological and the syntactical, see Francois Thomas, “Orson Welles’ Turn from Live Recording to Postsynchronisation: a Technical and Aesthetic Evolution” elsewhere in this book for a discussion of Orson Welles’ approach to post-sync dialogue. See also Nicholas Pasquariello, “A Chorus Line - On Location on Broadway” in Sounds of Movies - Interviews with the Creators of Feature Sound Tracks, Port Bridge Books, San Francisco, 1996, for an interview with Chris Newman on how he recorded actors dialogue while playing music back on set.

3. Another mind field of socio-economic complexity. See Russell and David Sanjek’s American Popular Music Business In The 20th Century, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991 for the Tin Pan Alley origins of music publishing, copyright and royalties and their affect on the recording industries to the present day. See also Jeff Smith’s The Sounds of Commerce - Marketing Popular Film Music, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998 for a particular analysis of mergers, collusions and synergies between the recording and film industries since the ’60s.

4. The placement of voice throughout An Independent Life is a curious mix of documentary sound recording behaving as post-synced dialogue. To this end, it sounds like Kanevski conducts dialogue delivery off-camera, with which on-camera persons converse, but the off-camera voice is audible close to the microphone, while those on-camera are further away, even with allowances for boom-swinging. This makes it hard to discern whether many of the off-screen voices are post-synced or ‘live’ — though I suspect the latter due to the orchestration of events in continuous long takes. Also, Kanevski is credited at the end of the film as supplying the voice for singing many of the snatches of folk songs which populate the film.

5. For further discussion of Japan’s island status and its relation to audio-visual projections, see my Sonic - Atomic - Neumonic: Post-Apocalyptic Echoes in Japanese Anime, in Cholodenko, Allan (ed.), The Life of Illusion: 2nd International Conference on Animation, 1995, Power Publications, Sydney, 2000.

6. For more on this notion of ‘inside out’ and its psycho-sonic relation to Japanese cinema, see my Secret History of Film Music Part 3 in The Wire, No.153, 1998, London, & Secret History of Film Music Part 4: Once Upon A Time In The East in The Wire, No.153, 1998, London.

7. Consider how water, wind and land merge according to these conditions for example in the following neo-Gothic variations: Fritz Lang’s House By The River (1950); Jack Arnold’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954); John Sherwood’s The Monolith Monsters (1957); Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961); Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961); Ishiro Honda’s Matago (1963); Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964); Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974); Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980); Gary Sherman’s Dead And Buried (1980); and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1981).

Text © Philip Brophy 1990. Images © respective copyright holders