Noise, Noise, Noise

Collapsing Music Into Image Part 2

published in The Wire No.165, November, 1997, London

If experimental music the first half of this century engineered a metaphysical realm wherein all musical possibilities have been rendered as pure sonic data, cinema this second half of this century has commandeered that realm and transformed it into a chaotic free market. There, any sound effect or musical motif is employed as a value or marker of controlled meaning within the film narrative. As a free market, the film soundtrack does not care how conservative or radical sound or music is - so long as it does its job. For some, this is a frightening world where art is rendered meaningless assigned commodity value. For others, it is a decentred and destabilised terrain across which the very notion of 'value' is endlessly re-invented, thereby allowing multiple and lateral invention. This second point of view is evidenced by the fact that radical sound experimentalism often crops up in cliche-ridden Hollywood blockbusters. Rarely is it marked on the soundtrack of respectable European art house movies - most of which employ a fromage of emotive new-world muzak just this side of Easy Listening but devoid of irony. Yet the abject noise of Russolo, the aural complexity of Henry, the electronic overload of Stockhausen, the sonic density of Cage, the overpowering tonality of Young, the expansive harmonics of Penderecki - all have found their way into films whose true contribution to the audio-visuality of the cinema has fallen on deaf ears.

Play a Roadrunner & Coyote cartoon from the early 50s and shut your eyes. Flash back to the Atomic Era: the power of neutrons, the wondrous glow of radioactivity, the breaking of the sound barrier, the frottage of freeways across the nation. Listen to the soundtrack: presses, plants and pumps from fantastic factories; valves, pistons, ignitions from unimagined motors; gears, exhausts and turbines from evenerated engines. This is the true sound of the 50s orchestra: a machine of sonic production, unromanticized for its collapse of music yet fetishized for the sheer power and beauty of its metallica. Carl Stalling's orchestration - itself an octane-fuelled cocktail of pre and postwar jazz populism - spills onto the heated asphalt of Tregg Brown's earth-rumbling speed-addicted sound effects montage. Bizarrely, contemporary 'industrial' and 'dark ambient' music sounds 'cartoony' when compared to the genuine embrace of noise which these family-oriented animated shorts extolled over forty years ago.

The Warner Bros. cartoons from the mid 40s to the mid 50s - now marketed as trademarked produce to exploit a vague nostalgic yearning for 'wackiness' - exemplify how deeply the mechanical had penetrated the popular consciousness. Here was a mass medium which auditioned both the scarring cacophony of wartime trauma and the heady eroticism of postwar technologies. Cartoons digested by audiences whose listening had been profoundly altered by bomb detonations, and to whom the metallic ring of chrome appliances was strangely titillating, the smell of exhaust a futuristic fragrance. While the Futurists were attracted to noise for its destructive potential - its ability to blast the orchestral academy back into history - common audiences identified with noise in the Warner Bros. cartoons as an acceptable and exciting record of their sonic landscape.

Throughout the hysterically utopian 50s, noise - a gigantic sound effects library of destruction, detonation and devastation - perversely reigns on the cinematic soundtrack. And this is despite the pseudo-neo-Romantic toning of symphonies which tried to split sound from music like the space between two single beds in a married couple's bedroom (a quaint denial of sexuality at the time). The aptly titled blockbusters of the 50s went big on the screen, high on moral content, lurid in their visuality, and loud in their sound design: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952), THE ROBE (1953), MOBY DICK (1956), THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), BEN HUR (1959), JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH (1959). All can be noted for their dramatic peaks occurring in synch with explosive cacophonies when nature, machines and the elements collide in gladiatorial spectacle. In a sense, these blockbusters - far from being commercial 'bombs' - were the exhausted expulsions of a dying studio system in Hollywood. The more the authoritative voice of Hollywood weakened, the louder its soundtrack, desperately trying to convince one that the MGM lion roar was somehow more than a sound effect.

The cacophony of the Roadrunner & Coyote cartoons' is reorchestrated in numerous films from America and Europe toward the end of the 60s. To pick one of many machine cycles in the cinema at this time, car films like Claude Lelouch's A MAN AND A WOMAN (1966), Jean Luc Godard's WEEKEND (1967), Peter Yates BULLIT (1969) and Lee H. Katzin's LE MANS (1971) feature passages of unadulterated engine noise intended to be overpowering and debilitating to the senses. Burning rubber, vibrating chassis, steaming carburettors - these movies sonically inhale the smoke and exhaust which flared the nostrils of J.G.Ballard. More often resembling documentaries than fictional stories, they foreground the sounds and images of revving machines for sensorial effect, enthralling audiences with a celebration of noise brutally montaged and mixed.

A celebratory explosiveness of sound inherited from the big screen aesthetic still characterizes blockbuster cinema en masse. Yet a regrettably facile dichotomy still holds fast: that loud, noisy movies have nothing to say and are thus covering up their lack, while films of substance have subtle soundtracks which don't need to draw attention to themselves. In reality, those supposedly 'individual/personal/expressive' films which shy away from the crassness of the big screen sound aesthetic simply resort to the far more repelling archaic model of harmonious accord and lilting idyllicism which has always imparted humanist cinema with a processed chemical-saccharine taste. Films that wish to avoid noisiness remove the excesses of sound from the mix - but leave in the gross orchestrations (full or sparse) against which noise always fought. Listen to THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. The lugubrious score by X desperately (and vainly) tries to drown out the dynamite blasts which the audience has waited to hear for over seventy minutes. Noise on the big movie soundtrack is and always has been its most progressive element. An avoidance of it in the name of sophistication is a decidedly reactionary move.

Even though Francis Ford Coppola's THE CONVERSATION (1974) is overly enraptured by the stylized existentialism that typifies the work of Michael Antonioni, the latter director never produced anything that sounds like THE CONVERSATION. With unnerving precision and awe-inspiring craft, sound designer Walter Murch sculpts a psychological landscape of piercing interiority which demonstrates how complex and effective noise can be in detailing shifting mental states. And I mean noise. Interference, distortion, unfidelity, overload - all the tactile signifiers of the moment when sound becomes its other, its nightmare, its transfigured monster. Gene Hackman's understated, repressed portrayal of the solipsistic sound recordist bent on tapping and taping other people's private conversations gives rise to a character whose stability is maintained by treating dialogue purely as legible sonic data. But when he reads meaning into the recorded dialogue, the pure sound then becomes oppressive noise, representing the impenetrability of both the tape he has recorded and the psychological wall he has built around his sense of self. The film contains many stirring moments predicated on the Stockhausian aesthetics of ring modulation, sweep equalization and inverted compression ratios, but never are they employed as decoration. Walter Murch brings the noise as the drama demands it, figuring the soundtrack as a resolutely tailored text with little concern for gratuitous effects.

THE CONVERSATION is unsettling due to the way it sonically pictures the sound of a mind falling apart. William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (1973) - with sound editing by Chris Newman - unsettles by attacking us with sound. Poles apart from just about every other demonic possession film made then and since, the film spends its first half by showing us little. But nearly every edit is an incisive aural rupture caused by an inordinately loud and disproportionately banal sound: a cup smashes, a phone rings, a car horn beeps, a door slams shut. 10 minutes into the film, one is put on edge, disoriented by the viciousness of common sounds while being smothered by a visual domesticity. The tension between sound and image is crucial to setting us up for the film's visual opera of visceral ocularism. Watching THE EXORCIST knowing that the inevitable intrusion of unspeakable evil is just around the corner puts one even more on edge: one can hear exactly how Chris Newman has constructed a soundscape that slowly turns the New England calm inside out, not to mention the vocal chords of young Regan herself. Key images may repulse, but all sound in THE EXORCIST is violent, forceful and vilifying.

Numerous other 'big noise movies' trail into the 70s: William Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), Richard Rush's FREEBIE & THE BEAN (1974), Mark Robson's EARTHQUAKE (1974), Norman Jewison's ROLLERBALL (1975). Cartoons reached a similar peak of sonic saturation with the sound effects in Hanna Barbera series like SCOOBY DOO WHERE ARE YOU? (1970), MOBY DICK & THE MIGHTY MIGHTOR (1972), and SPEED BUGGY (1973). But as the 70s progress, filmic realism becomes caught between socio-political dogma and escalating stylization. The power of noise is usurped firstly by postmodern allusions to foregrounding visual artifice, and secondly the demand for fidelity required by the developing Dolby noise reduction applications. Suffice to say, by the mid 80s, a balance is thankfully struck by the superior quality the Dolby applications afford, and the hyper-material aggressiveness with which sound and noise could manipulate an audience.

One of the best and earliest examples of this is Paul Verhoven's ROBOCOP (1985, and well worth auditioning on a Dolby Surround Sound laser disc). As cartoony as the Roadrunner and Coyote shorts and as hell-bent on the cacophony of the machine age but with a non-comical, brooding tone, ROBOCOP fetishizes noise to great extremes. Guns, cars, doors, lifts, monitors, radios, buttons, gears, levers, pistons, drills, cranes, wheels, gates, shields - everything is mechanized in this Detroit of the near-future. If it moves, it makes a noise. And because noise is so fetishized in this movie, everything is constantly moving. Major fight sequences - Robocop battling it out with X i the corporate office, the big shoot-out in the drug factory, the gang playing with their new weaponry downtown - are saturated with a mind-bogging track-lay of hundreds of sound effects and sonic incidents, each perfectly legible in the mix and designed to make one jump in one's seat. The fictional Detroit of ROBOCOP - like the actual Detroit that inspired such ground-breaking electronic landscapes in original Techno - is a sonar mine field of intense action aimed as much at the nerves and stomach as at the eardrums. Once again, no grand statements carry the effectiveness of ROBOCOP. Like the Roadrunner & Coyote shorts, it is yet another example of how the radical can unproblematically co-exist with the popular in the chaotic free market of the film soundtrack.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © respective copyright holders