The Skin of the Human Drum

Asia Minor & Other Eastern Modes Part 1

published in The Wire No.161, July, 1997, London

Tokyo. Downtown. Peak hour. Three sonic booms are sounded: Godzilla is about to perform some radical urban redevelopment. From 1959 to 1972 - the first cycle of Godzilla movies produced by Toho studios - those sonic booms functioned as phonemes, signalling the arrival of Godzilla's mighty power. Yet despite their iconic clarity, their means of production was and remains indistinct: somewhere between fist bangs on a metal door and mallet strikes on a timpani, recorded with slight distortion and heavy compression. Those booms can serve as our aural porthole into the sound of the East. We arrive somewhere between sound, music and noise. Somewhere outside of European concert halls; somewhere on an Asian soundtrack..

You hear nothing when Sumo wrestlers thump, pound and careen precariously within a minuscule space too small for their size and movement. The similarity in scale between a Sumo wrestler in his ring and Godzilla in Tokyo (a man inside a rubber suit destroying a miniature diorama) suggests that the Godzilla movies are essentially Sumo bouts with post-dubbed sound. In the West, the sprung mat of wrestling already acts as a live sound board - a gross, square drum which amplifies the fall of the vanquished body, giving us a sound uncannily like Godzilla's own thunderous foot-steps. The Eastern silence of Sumo, the Western explosiveness of the WWF, and their monstrous fusion in the Godzilla soundtracks each convey the feeling of being physically struck and racked internally by sub-sonic shock waves. In Sumo, these waves are imagined as if your ear is on the ground; in the WWF, they are amplified by separate mic placement; in the Toho monster movies, they are reconstructed through tape manipulation. The earth, the mat, the body - all become terrorized timpani, psycho-acoustic human skin stretched to grant us as listeners a hyper-tactile sonic experience. On the Eastern soundtrack, sound is physical, tangible, affective; we become the human drum that resonates to its din.

Just as Godzilla sounded his last pedestrian thumps in 1972 (prior to his revival in 1984), kung fu movies from Hong Kong extended this idea of the human drum. To the Western ear, kung fu movies are rendered farcical due to the 'exaggerated' sound of their hand slaps and fist cracks. It is well nigh we acknowledge that kung fu soundtracks push bodily sounds in the mix partly due to the genre's fixation on physical action, and partly because their score and design are a transformation of the highly percussive music which accompanies the acrobatics of traditional Chinese opera.

In Lo Wei's seminal FISTS OF FURY (1972), the score by Ku Chai Hui exemplifies the Eastern dissolution between sound, music and noise. As with many Hong Kong kung-fu action movies from the 70s, the soundtrack deploys a parallel split between post-dubbed effects (metal stings, wood cracks, flesh snaps, etc.) and scored percussive music (drums, wood blocks, cymbals, etc.). A sonic symbiosis is continually struck: the sound effects appear musical while the score has the texture of actual sounds. Key dramatic fight sequences in FISTS OF FURY become richly interpolated lines of sound and music, recalling Edgar Varese's Hyperprism, Peking opera and a furniture factory all at once. Rarely in the West do you get soundtracks so heavily compacted and so defiantly opposed to clear distinctions between the musical and the sonic.

The end fight of FISTS OF FURY is a symphony of bodily effects played by and upon the body of Bruce Lee - a tightly tuned and tautly toned human drum. As Godzilla becomes a magnificent mallet that strikes the skin of Tokyo with each step he takes, Bruce Lee orchestrates every move with an aural spike, inflicting pain, deflecting harm and directing energy from within his physical being. When Bruce finally kills the Western kung-fu expert employed by the Japanese in FISTS OF FURY, he thrusts the guy's head back and snaps his neck with a chop on the Adam's apple. The music score's hissing cymbals and atonal flute wails build in intensity as Bruce internally conducts his chi in order to deliver the death blow. The score, however is extended beyond the event, indicating that Bruce's body still quakes with the excess chi he willed to execute his opponent. Unlike Western film cues where sound is synced to visible on screen action, sound in kung-fu movies closely follows the psycho-physical energies a character masters.

Bruce Lee directs this chi flow as performer and director in WAY OF THE DRAGON (1973) by rigorously timing camera, editing and Joseph Koo's musical score to the real-time mobilization of chi for the major fight sequences. The set piece in the film is the gladiatorial conflict staged in the Roman Colosseum between him and a young Chuck Norris. This symphony of violence is developed across five stages, each of which portrays a variation on how sound and music collide in the act of physical conflict. Silence is first used to allow us to hear the sounds their bodies make as they warm up (cracking bones, slicing air, exhaling breath). Then timpani booms symbolize the weight, mass and power of their bodies as they stomp the ground (a la Godzilla and the Sumo) in preparation for the attack. As their bodies become ravaged and stressed, a low, swirling bed of atonal orchestral humming creates an aural swamp within which their fatigued beings sink, their actions slower, their perception blurred. Pain takes hold, and extreme dissonance builds (almost like multiple cues in different keys have been deliberately mixed together), high lighted by incongruous dub-style echoes. And finally, a fender Rhodes put through a wah-wah sounds their vocal anguish while fuzzed and echoed flutes engulf the sound spectrum, leaving us with an image of Bruce digesting the dead spirit of Chuck while cracking his back bone. It truly is a wildly sonic scene that has no comparison in Western cinema.

Equally devoid of Western sensibilities is the late Toru Takemitsu's radical score for Masaki Kobayashi's KWAIDAN (1964). The film is far too complex to be analytically serviced here, but note must be made of Takemitsu's ruthless asynchronism and his flagrant disavowal of musical signification. In the first story of this horror anthology - THE RECONCILLIATION (AKA THE BLACK HAIR) - a man returns home having left his wife years ago, sleeps with her ghost (she passed away unbeknown to him), then wakes to find the house in a state of total decay. He charges through the house, crashing through the torn paper walls and rotting wood frames, and gradually withers to a skeletal corpse. Initially framed by harsh shakuhachi screams, the raspy breathiness devolves into a score primarily comprised of, well, 'improvized wood creaks'. As his body dries up to a skeleton, so does the score texturally contract to a fractal network of wood splinters, bone fractures and gravel sprinklings. In a bizarrely concocted imagining of Japanese 16th Century futurism, the 'music' sounds like an instrument being destroyed before our very ears. (Interestingly, Takemitsu derived some of his dissonant textures by recording these type of sounds on the surface of a tuned timpani.) Furthermore - and this is to the credit of the close working relationships Takemitsu has enjoyed with Japan's most famous directors - the main movement of this improvization occurs with absolutely no synchronous sound. It takes a while to realize that what one thought was out-of-synch sound is actually the music. The effect is haunting, memorable and exact.

While the minimalist shakuhachi tones evoke an identifiable 'Easterness', their material presence on the soundtrack is really where their 'Easterness' resides. Just as Godzilla's Tokyo stomps are indistinct - part clanging noise, part musical moment - the shakuhachi that recurs throughout KWAIDAN sonically falls between the cracks of sound, music and noise. Firstly, the shakuhachi is one of a number of Japanese instruments that intentionally embraces noise: ie. part of its performance mode is to bring an excess of breath pressure on the reed to traumatize its otherwise pure tone. (Centuries later, it took the modernist/industrial trappings of electrification and effects boxes to allow noise in Western instrument design.) Secondly, the reverberant recording of Takemitsu's score intensifies the noise effect by inducing what at times sounds remarkably like ring modulation distortion. At any one moment, the shakuhachi shifts wildly from a conservative lilt to an alien spasm; from an ancient wooden instrument to a post-industrial electronic weapon. In KWAIDAN, this poetically synchs to a highly modernist film reworking traditional folk tales.

The bendable continuum between old world logic and new world chaos is of course a trait strongly associated with many Asian cultures. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Katsuhiro Otomo's AKIRA (1987). Otomo employed Shoji Yamashiro and his neo-traditionalist 'world music' ensemble Geino Yamashirogumi to provide a futuristic fusion based on collapsing cultures and ethnicities into one another. Obviously, the Eastern sensibility of history folding into itself and echoing its past in the present facilitated such a concept more readily then one could engineer in Western cinema. While many parts of the score are distinctively multicultural and pan-Asian, the opening sequence makes the strongest sonic statement. Massive sonar quakes (yet again, Godzilla-Sumo nexus come to mind) appear in the form of gigantic taiko drum explosions matched to the gargantuan black crater at the heart of Neo-Tokyo. This time, the landscape itself is the drum; its skin the very fabric of a technological society; the impact no less than a nuclear explosion, downtown at peak hour. Once again, sound effect (a past explosion) and musical moment (the ancient taiko drum) fuse as a subsonic event, recorded as a black, concave hole that chillingly forecasts an apocalyptic future without resorting to cloying musical devices.

There is much to be uncovered, experienced and realized in the beautiful chaos of the Asian soundtrack. As with the genuine weirdness one experiences in the urban aura of metropolitan centres like Tokyo and Hong Kong, the aural tailoring of their kung-fu, samurai, ghost and animation movies deliberately confuses the sound of music with the noise of the soundtrack. It is if the Eastern soundtrack is in fact the Western soundtrack turned inside out.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © respective copyright holders