Musique Concrete, Electronica & Sound Art

Collapsing Music Into Image Part 1

published in The Wire No.164, October, 1997, London

A movie. A child stands on a street corner. A milkman sorts through his bottles. Clouds streak across the sun. What music goes with these images? What should accompany them? What do they contain that needs to be brought out? Every sprocketed strip of film music is beaded with the sweat of such ponderous deliberation. Its composer has mused over which music to fuse with which image, settling on cues which silently insist that only this music could go with that image. It's part illusion, part trickery, part chance, part chaos. Many film composers know this musical existentialism intimately - and it intimidates them. It is both the source of frustration which hinders and constricts their art (the dictates of convention) and the impetus for the reactionary stance they have struck throughout film history (the spectre of invention). For there is film music which figures there is meaning to be unravelled from image, a desperate reason for syncing to an action. Then there is music that embraces the essentially detached nature of the film score, casting wild sonic gestures whilst inventing a narrative logic to govern its audio-visual realm. Any sound or music or atmosphere will go with those images. The question is not why: it is why not.

Possibly the best answers to date are provided by Pierre Henry's recomposed scores for Walter Ruttman's BERLIN: THE SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927) and Dziga Vertov's THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1928). Both scores (composed in 1991 and 1993 respectively) are designed to accompany the projection of these silent films, with a live multi-track mix in an environment prepared for sound diffusion through anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty speakers. The utter disparity and complete autonomy sound and image grant each other in these 'cinesonic' environments is so unworldly, so unconventional, and so unimaginable that one is silenced into agreeing: why not. A wall of detuned acoustic guitar strings wail as cars streak a wet road; a solitary cricket chirps as people cross a draw-bridge; echoed claps rise and fall as market stalls are set up. No direct sense; no obvious reason; no apparent motive. The stuff of exciting film sound.

From the sparse mechanical rhythms which grind, grate and galvanize in THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, to the dense sheets of layered textures which flap, fringe and float throughout BERLIN: THE SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY, one can hear Henry 'reading between the images'. He is looking elsewhere - beyond the image, past the narrative, through the scene. His choice of sounds empties them (and, to a degree, their matched visuals) of overt content and expected denotation. In place, the newly articulated 'sound effects' enliven the dormant energy of both sound and image. Connections arise which suggest not that this sound goes with that image, but that the fullness of the image is best serviced by an openness to its potential sound accompaniment. This may sound introverted and self-absorbed, but watching the films while hearing Henry's sounds dive through the cinema soundspace to Vertov and Ruttman's flickering images, I was more moved and excited by the scintillating beauty of pure sound and its spatial apparition than I have ever have been in the confines of a cinema and the claustrophobic conditions of unimaginative naturalism which regularly muffle my enjoyment of film music and sound design.

Henry's background in musique concrete is crucial to his approach to film sound and to our awareness of the wide ranging techniques that shape the audio visual event. Admittedly, musique concrete is a somewhat rarefied form of sound art which many casually celebrate as 'radicalized noise' without understanding the more dynamic relationship it entertains with classical, romantic and modern music. Too complex to debate here, musique concrete can be regarded as the first de-interiorization of the sound of music: its experiments are the produce of hearing the sound of sound, of touching the skin of recording technologies which define the postmodern realm by which all music this century is snared.

Most importantly, musique concrete - and both its attendant and contradictory branches in electronic music and electroacoustic music - had by the mid-50s signposted all the transgressive traits which would mark the following forty odd years of recorded rock music. Inverting signal to noise ratios, privileging background hum, overloading electro-magnetic systems, distorting parameters of reproduction, collapsing purposeful amplification, excessively rendering the flow between inputs and outputs - these are as much the base manoeuvres of musique concrete's apparatus as they are the technical fissures of rock music production. Henry has enjoyed a hedonistic divorce from rock's excessive noise, from his aurally schizophrenic collaboration with Spooky Tooth for their gaudy 'electric mass' (CEREMONY, 1970) to the beautifully perplexing trowelling of Jimi Hendrix's guitar in BERLIN: THE SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY. Cinema, musique concrete, noise, rock, cinema. Despite their superficial differences, the genealogical loop is sonically discernible: cinema bore musique concrete which in turn bore rock which in turn rebirthed both.

Some sound. Sonorous tones of men and women breathe words (en Francais) close to a microphone. Footsteps echo along tiled hallways. A body suddenly dives into water. A bird warble. An old car passes. What images accompany these sounds? A quiet landmark is sited by the 1997 ECM release of the soundtrack to Jean Luc Godard's 1990 film NOUVELLE VAGUE. Not the music from the film - nor music 'inspired by' the film - but the actual and complete soundtrack of every sonic moment from the film's 100 plus minutes. Obviously, fixed images do accompany these sounds - but listening to the CD throws one into a disembodied state of listening. It sounds like the soundtrack means something, but searching for that meaning will only frustrate and irritate. This isn't 'film-style music' and all the post-BLADERUNNER ambient stylings which have a certain erotic allure yet are generally bereft of any cinematic substance. This is a functional film soundtrack - one forged by the timings of narrative, the spacing of mise-en-scene, the shifting of focal planes, the lingering and denouement of dramatic configuration.

Directed by Godard (cinema's most sonically-aware modernist director) with sounds designed and mixed by one of French cinema's true artists in the field, Francois Musy, the NOUVELLE VAGUE CD is produced by ECM's Manfred Eicher, who has acted as a close music supervisor on many of Godard's films since the mid-80s. In contrast to the synthetic-cubism of Henry's frenetic scores, NOUVELLE VAGUE typifies the neo-plasticism of Godard's mature recent work. Sounds, atmospheres, voices and traces of music (including Patti Smith, Meredith Monk, Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg, plus instrumental moments performed by David Darling & Dino Saluzzi) no longer collide with each other as they did in, for example, PIERROT LE FOU (1965) and BRITISH SOUNDS (1969). Of late, Godard's soundtracks dance in a series of splayed and webbed curves which envelope each other, stringing aural merges of opposing details. The end result is surprisingly reserved, contained, natural. In fact, after 20 minutes, one notices that sound/voice/music are versions of each other, in that their sum total across a passage of time is what defines that passage's aural gesture. Somewhere between how Luigi Russolo heard machines, how Bela Bartok heard insects, how Glen Gould heard voices, and how Miles Davis heard traffic is how Godard hears the world. It is busy and obtrusive, but it belies a calm and unproblematized logic of presence, timbre and shape. It is all musical; it is all cinematic.

Unfortunately, the chances of catching Henry's live mixes to the Ruttman and Vertov movies are rare. Equally rare will be most people's capacity to listen to 100 minutes of a film soundtrack with no images. However, if one is genuinely interested in investigating the dark, moist centre of the audio visual experience and its fruity alchemical processing, these are the places to which one must journey.

The long standing dialogue which has ensued between film, music and sound along the experimental peripheries of the arts this century provides a rich context for Jerome Noetinger's series of Metakine mini-CDs, COLLECTION CINEMA POUR L'ORIELLE (Cinema For The Eyes). The title has been used often, and here as elsewhere there is little to warrant the use of the term 'cinema'. But many of the works released in this series - resulting from a diverse range of predominantly European electroacoustic composers - have grasped the key dynamic interface between filmic structure and musical narrative and have orchestrated their sounds accordingly. Included in the series are two works - CREDO MAMBO (1992) and GLORIA (1994) - by Michel Chion, one of the world's leading theorists on the nature of contemporary film sound post-production (see his AUDIO VISION translated and published by Columbia University Press). His layering of voice, sounds and atmospheres embodies cinematic devices as much as musique concrete effects, allowing him to freely shift from naturalistic passages to violently stylized moments. Broadening the historical perspective on 'film noise' is Walter Ruttman's own brash sonic montage for his film WEEKEND (1930) - an amazingly succinct treatise on the role that interruption was already playing in information technologies (radios, telephones, etc.) by the 30s.

From the disquieting proto-pornographic murmurs of Luc Ferrari's UN HEIMLICH SCHON (1971) to the hyperkinetic organ babbling of Michele Bokanowski's TABOU (1983/4) to the overpowering majestic sheets of noise in Christine Groult's L'HEURE ALORS S'INCLINE ... (1991) to the chaos of everyday banality in Jim O'Rourke's RULES OF REDUCTION (1993) - there is much here to experience, contemplate, savour. The Metakine CDs do not simply 'evoke moods' and 'paint landscapes' as per the heroic romantic tradition which guides the specious and dubious beauty of many 'cine-ambient' works. Rather, they project architectural domains through which precise events occur and resonate, enlivening the music's depth and flow beyond the erotics of ornamentation. Just as one is sensuously confronted by Henry's scores and headily perplexed by the Godard CD, one's imagination is activated by the impression that somehow, somewhere in the proto-cinescape of the Metakine pieces, action is taking place.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © respective copyright holders