Parties In Your Head

From the Acoustic to the Psycho-Acoustic

Published in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, University of Oxford Press, London, 2013


Scorpio Rising – sites of Otherness

As leather clad teens adorned with satanic trinkets prance in the voyeuristic beams of Scorpio Rising (d. Kenneth Anger, 1964), a gorgeous warbling caresses their bodies in a series of echoic folds. Like radios out of reach, the reverberant voices of long ago pop vocalists seem uncannily matched to the film’s cramped bedrooms, bare garages and deserted churches. All are sites of quiet reflection, sounding all the more lonely when matched to the maudlin teen angst of said vocalists. Despite being essentially a silent film production, the necromantic eroticism of Scorpio Rising’s pre-gay bacchanal bikers is coded less by their overt paraphernalia and more by the covert phonology of their reinterpreted songs.

The film’s spirited experimental pop audio-vision runs counter to the brutish shrink-wrapping of rock which sociologically embalms Easy Rider (d. Dennis Hopper, 1969). With the latter’s brash proclamation of countercultural affectation being the polar opposite of the former’s inhalation of subcultural exaltation, one wonders if there could be two films so radically opposed at the nexus of sight and sound, space and stage, sex and sense. By intially contrasting the mainstream-counterculture soundtrack of Easy Rider with the amateur-subculture soundtrack of Scorpio Rising, I hope to clear ground for a sharper consideration of the sensory sensationalism in what is hazily defined as ‘rock in cinema’. Following this, I will trace a trajectory from the dynamics, tonality and aura of Scorpio Rising’s audio-vision to discuss ways in which the acoustic sense of performed music in cinema is transformed into a psycho-acoustic sensation for both its performers and its auditors.

Maybe film criticism’s musicological deafness – attuned more to Easy Rider’s broadcast message than to Scorpio Rising’s coded signals – has not helped things. Scorpio Rising’s use of song has been footnoted at Easy Rider’s centrality in the rickety paradigm of rock-meets-cinema, as if the mere utterance of a rock song on the soundtrack fast-tracks one to the social imperatives of musicological discourse. Easy Rider seems to be treated by default as if its music and songs naturally emanate from the film, as though the film releases its music and thus signifies how music and image are indelibly fused in its audio-vision. The serendipitous synchronism born of matching song to music infers Scorpio Rising to be the opposite: an example of how music is unnaturally laid onto film so as to qualify its soundtrack as ontologically Other. As both films absent nearly all location/sync-sound while their songs play (save for the occasional bike rumble), might we not reverse this perspective and view Easy Rider as the fawning attempt to clothe itself in that which it is not, and Scorpio Rising to drag that which it knows only too well what it is not?

When flat-bed travelling cameras weave in front of and along side Hollywood actors on Harleys while Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” (1968) and its brittle AM-radio growl staunchly occupies the soundtrack, I hear the sound of advertising executives constructing aural billboards to tag and track the subjects of the film’s social typing and demographic exploitation. When some delinquents play out a mock initiation ceremony, tearing at the clothes of a squirming initiate while Kris Jensen’s “Torture” (1962) and its tremulously murmured harmonies are gently buffeted by fairground organ and fatigued drums, I hear the sound of hidden testimonies of self-inflicted desire played out equally by Kenneth Anger and his amateur cast. Such are the material characteristics of their contrasting sound worlds; such are the aural semiotics which govern their audiovisual equilibrium when one listens more carefully to the sound world of recorded music when it becomes what we expediently term ‘the soundtrack’. My juxtaposition of these two films proceeds from a dual paradigmatic purpose: (i) to demonstrate how the evocation of sensory aural space in a recorded song employed in a film mix imports an ulterior notion of how one exists in space (as a ‘figure in a landscape’, a ‘man of the world’, a ‘woman framed as a picture’, etc.); and (ii) to evidence how that aural space modulates and redefines the pictorial space counter to how it is a priori defined according to scopic cinematic perception. For the sound of recorded music in film is, ironically, mutable: it renders image sonic.

To wit: the ‘open road’ heroics of Easy Rider – as tawdry as befits the counterculture’s revolutionary stance – are matched by the dry non-echoic de-spatialised sound of late 60s rock production. Rock microphone placement of the era tended to prioritise the clinical separation and decompartmentalised identification of sounds. This was mostly a consequence of dealing with excessive volume in the music’s production. While live amplifier stacks could embolden the phenomenological presence of a band on their spectacular Mayan stage, capturing that thrilling sense of overload in a studio environment necessarily transformed the preceding half-century of studio microphonics dedicated to encoding acoustically reconstitutable performances. In the early rock record’s sound world, loudness effectively became symbolically conveyed by the thickness of imposing frequencies, which warranted baffled separation in their encoding and which in turn rendered the instrumentation with a notable reduction in reverberation due to the saturation of the sound. Easy Rider’s road-trip scenography gives a widened scopic space to the records’ construction of such imaginary voluminous spaces. And as the film boasts a ‘journey’ narrative, its songs’ driving rhythms are crucial to the heroic notions of liberated freedom and forging one’s own path to self-discovery. 3

Eschewing rock for pop, Scorpio Rising’s selected songs are shaped by onanistic, narcissistic and messianic fixations on the already-discovered self. The film’s ‘closed room’ theatrics are matched by the distinctive plate reverbs and room-sends of mid-60s era pop songs. The soundtrack’s consequent unremitting reverberance resembles sound as it would be heard by gods in their tombs, awaiting invocation and resurrection. The characters in these songs (all lamenting some sort of emotional rupture or voiding) are asocial figures, caring naught for societal recognition, but desiring acknowledgment of their pitiful pantomimic status. The microphonics of pop production of the time remains embarrassingly erotic, with spatial colouring and textural incidents coalescing through open-spaced studio recording, so that all sounds infect and intonate each other. The effect is one of hearing any individual instrument simultaneously near and far, creating a blur of tactile rapture and echoic confusion. This ‘near-but-far’ simultaneity in turn honours the ultimate narcissist who wants all to come near and gaze upon him while he dismisses their lowly attention upon his sublime self and insists they stay afar. Scorpio Rising also perversely sublimates how Christian churches had long employed reverberant acoustics to colour the human voice as a tenuous link to the voice of god. Indeed, the design of room-send reverberation follows such a ventriloquist principle: the sound of a performer is channelled by audio cable to a separate room wherein the sound is played on a speaker which is miced to return to the mixing desk the ‘wet’ effected sound which is blended with the originating ‘dry’ unaffected sound. Unlike the social, worldly spaces evoked by music which tries hard to capture a performance ‘realistically’, ‘naturally’ and/or ‘honestly’, echoic hyper-reverberant pop from the 60s encapsulates a unique phonological moment wherein ornamental headiness dressed its singers in beguiling aural attire to simultaneously alienate and entrance the listener. The soundtrack’s imported phonological space and unworldly echoes are potent signs of Scorpio Rising’s ‘Otherness’.

Vinyl – live on stage

Scarface – the sensory auditorium

Blue Velvet – dimensional sound stages

La vie nouvelle – collapsing sound worlds

Irréversible – unearthing noise beds

Text © Philip Brophy 2013. Images © respective copyright holders