The Triumph of Noise Over Music
published in Essays In Sound No.4,
subjective sound through electronic treatment
opening sequence to THE BIRDS serves as an entry to the
non-musical, solely-sonic domain of its soundtrack. High
contrast visual abstractions of birds move across the frame,
half-photographed, half-animated (Ub Iwerks - veteran cartoon
director/producer - served as special photographic consultant
on the film). Simultaneously, squeals and squawks attack
the viewer's ears. These sounds have a birdlike quality
about them, but it soon becomes apparent that the sounds
are more alien than avian, more artificial than natural.
by electronic music composers Remmi Gassman & Oskar
Sala, the processing of the sounds utilizes many stylistic
traits established in the field of musique concrete. In
this case, taped sounds of birds are altered in pitch, tone,
duration and shape, then mixed into a multi-layered cacophony
of screeches and flapping sounds in sync with the animated
silhouettes of bird shapes. Having been cued to read a mimetic
representation of 'birds' with the title THE BIRDS, we are
jettisoned into experiencing a sensation of 'birdness'.
this difference between 'birds' and 'birdness' signify anything?
In a story about birds whose behaviour defies ornithological
precepts, the very concept of a bird comes into question.
Thematically we can accept the birds' presence and actions
as symbolic of an inexplicable terror, but only if a collapse
of everything that defines a bird is visually and aurally
apparent on the screen. We should hear and see birds while
acknowledging that they are not like normal birds. The key
solution provided by THE BIRDS lies in presenting the birds
from both objective and subjective viewpoints - identifying
'birds' (photographed/depicted/wrangled) versus sensing
title sequence is a distillation of the subjective impression
of birds - of being caught by a flock of them as they swoop
around you, pushing envelopes of air against your ear drums
and flitting within your peripheral vision. You are not
watching birds: you are being attacked by them. You are
more aware of their presence - sonically and visually -
than you are able to objectively hear and see them. Other
factors come into play. Formally, here is a title sequence
devoid of music and hence absent of the emotional cues and
stylistic cards conventionally employed to situate the viewer/auditor
in a specific frame of mind. Technically, the frequencies
of the sounds are harsh, sharply resonant and redolent with
clashing tones. No sweet trills and warbling melodies here
(in part due to atonal composer Bernard Herrman operating
as sound consultant for the film). Combined, the subjective
viewpoint of attacking birds, the unconventional title sequence
and the technical aural aspects psychologically work on
the viewer/auditor to unnerve and unsettle: these birds
are after you.
title sequence fades to black as the bird noises reach a
reverberant crescendo. This cross-fades with an unstylized
sound of massed birds as the image of a flock circling over
San Francisco's business district fades up on the screen.
Car traffic and tram bells mingle with the birds in long
shot, replacing the abstract/stylized/artificial sonorum
of the title sequence with what one presumes will be the
representational/realistic/natural make-up of the depicted
fiction. Yet this simple cross-fade - this slight-of-hand
in the momentary black pause - perversely forecasts the
collapse between objective illustration and subjective impression
which will shape the film. At points the sounds of birds
will be the symbolic conveyance of invisible terror; at
moments their silence will mark their deathly presence.
In short, all modes of audio-visual depiction exude dread
as they carry the potential to be diametrically inverted.
This is nothing short of a 'terror of illusion' - a specifically
audio-visual illusion - central to THE BIRDS' psychological
& scopic manipulation through noise and silence
psycho-acoustic manipulations which characterize the narrative
purpose of THE BIRDS come into play immediately. The first
scene set in the bird shop is a remarkably long one where
slight plot and character information is imparted. Melanie
(Tippi Hedren) orders a bird; she meets and plays a game
on Mitch (Rod Taylor); he uncovers her pose as a saleslady;
after a heated exchange she decides to buy him the birds
he was after. This in itself appears to be a studied and
drawn out tease typical of director Alfred Hitchock's approach:
submitting trivial information to distract from you from
the true mechanisms of the story. Throughout this scene
- one of many banal, domestic exchanges - a wall of bird
noise blankets all dialogue, forcing the audience to selectively
mask out the high frequency information of bird noise from
the mid-range tones of the actors' voices. While one can
readily perform this complex perceptual manoeuvre in reality,
many films will selectively reduce the volume of background
noise to privilege on-screen dialogue. The fact that THE
BIRDS refrains from this indicates that the noise level
is deliberately maintained to build auditory stress within
the viewer as a means of destabilization. You are subtly
yet fundamentally being introduced to the unsettled psychological
state which will eventually befall all the characters of
the film as they are terrorized by bird noise.
contrast, the ensuing scene deploys unnerving passages of
silence. When Melanie delivers the love birds to Mitch's
apartment, the scene's exposition is disarming in its lack
of spatio-temporal ellipses. Melanie enters the building,
catches a lift and walks down a corridor, closely observed
by a resident. A strange voyeuristic effect is distilled
through his silent, pernicious monitoring of her every move
as she carries the love birds in a cage. As he scrutinizes
her, we move with him in a tracking vacuum through the hotel's
interior spaces. The plot remains immobile and silent, progressing
nowhere and telling nothing. Just as bird noise has already
been subliminally ear-marked to trigger anxiety whenever
it recurs, so is extended silence now signposted as an aural
appendage to telescoped viewpoints. A lack of sound will
mean mean someone (or something) is watching.
is watching Melanie when she drives up to Bodago Bay in
a string of plot-less wide-shots? Hard cuts between loud
and soft engine drones transpose us into the car, the bird
cage, then back out to the undulating landscape. Perversely,
we have been granted visual information (she rides in the
car with the birds) only to be split away from it, thereby
inducing a desire to be thrust back into the action. Like
all voyeuristic vantage points - the hill top, the key hole,
the binocular glasses - frustration wells from seeing but
not being there. Phenomenologically, one experience's sight
at the expense of sound. Melanie's drive to Bodega Bay is
an archetypal cinematic reconstruction of this crucial aspect
of the voyeuristic effect, one that binds us, the film itself,
and the birds. Only all three are capable of such telescoped
viewpoints, and all three are perversely ensnared by the
THE BIRDS' empty silence.
Melanie hires a boat to cross the lake and surprise Mitch's
sister with the lovebirds, a highly choreographed staging
of voyeurism unfolds which formally melds audio-visual symmetry
with spatio-temporal symmetry. Corresponding shifts in fields
of vision and acoustic space occur as Melanie carries out
spies on Mitch
sees the other
spies on Melanie
droll expectancy, the scene plays itself out, threading
our voyeuristic pleasure into the game played by Melanie
and Mitch. The major narrative purpose, though, is to rupture
this dome of interaction with an inexplicable and unexpected
force: the peck on Melanie's head by the seagull, sonically
generated as a percussive incision into the sustained passages
of sound and silence. This is the third governing effect
of sound in THE BIRDS - the sudden interruption of any low-key
ambience with a violent pneumonic event. Once quiet builds,
noise will collapse it.
voyeuristic configuration of us/the-film/the birds peaks
at the climactic gas station explosion, helplessly witnessed
by Melanie, Mitch and other diner patrons. The scene's perspective
shifts with the advent of the explosion, transporting us
to an ariel perspective - literally, a bird's eye view.
The microscopic melee below - a mere scar of flame and smoke
on the landscape - emits a thin trail of screams, lifted
and dispersed by the hollow sound of upward spiralling winds.
Who is watching here? On cue to the questioning of this
shot, floating birds creep into the frame from all sides,
gently hovering and letting loose occasional disinterested
squawks. These visually matted birds are those same birds
from the title sequence. Again, they terrorize the frame
they transgress: they artificially inhabit the illusionary
realm of the cine-photo frame, and their voice conveys a
similar disjuncture between normal and aberrant sound effects.
Again, we are made complicit with the actions of the birds
by enjoying an avian sensory perspective of telescopic vision
and displaced wind strewn acoustics. Again, the poetics
of an emptied sound field haunted only by slight wind instil
the scene with pregnant yet unspecified dread.
music & the amoralizing of drama
is much that is pregnant in THE BIRDS due to a distribution
of radical imbalances between the audio and image tracks.
The highest degree of this is to be found in the absence
of music. Save for a piano, a radio and some children singing
(all which occur within the visual diegesis) there is not
a single note of orchestrated music sounded for the film's
soundtrack of THE BIRDS is literally that: voices, sounds,
atmospheres. No violins. It rejects all musical coding traditionally
employed to inform us of how we should care/think/feel/project
at any point in the film. The absence of music is a specific
'sound of silence' which greatly enhances the THE BIRDS'
peculiarly perverse dramatic tone. Picture one of many silent
Melanies: locked into a seductive gravitational sway with
her birds as she navigates the winding road up to Bodega
Bay. She resembles an entranced conductor orchestrating
her droning car engine. No purpose. No reason. No emotion.
such absences of music accrue, fusing Melanie's smooth composure,
impassive face and impeccable style. In fact she becomes
more 'inhuman' as the film progresses. It is hard to watch
the scene where she plants the bird cage in Mitch's bay
house without admiring how a woman in a fur coat and stilettos
can row a boat across a lake and perform such a cunning
task without messing a hair on her head. While the scene's
aural dynamics refuse to manoeuvre changes in dramatic degree
of the actions depicted, the absence of music instils this
protracted scene with a haunting quality that brings into
sharp relief every action, movement and gesture. Far from
being cued to respond to rises and drops of drama, we project
dramatic build-up onto this empty soundtrack, willing her
to get away with her trick and to get caught at the same
time. Music cues conventionally moralize such incidents,
hedging us to empathise with a character. Remove the music
and you disperse an amoral climate, effectively 'amoralizing'
the drama and displacing the viewer/auditor from controlled
streams of empathy.
birds themselves narratively thrive in non-musical silence.
Rather than embodying or transmitting a superimposed musical
logic which tags them as monstrous, malicious and maniacal,
they speak in their own voice to their own kind. Their language
is foreign, alien, avian, excluding us from the inner mechanisms
of their motives and operations. In sync with a decultured
slant on nature, these birds simply have no concept of the
human. Accordingly, human musical codes do not stick. No
JAWS-style orchestral throbbing salaciously trumpets their
arrival. As in their attack of the children playing Blind
Man's Bluff at a birthday party, the birds orchestrate and
enact a cacophony upon their arrival. Balloons burst, children
scream, feathers flutter and beaks peck, all played against
a continual delivery of bird squawks. In the absence of
music, all sound becomes terror; gulls and children scream
peculiar type of silencing occurs when Melanie waits for
Cathy: a silencing through music. Most of the following
incidents are covered by an irritating cannon voiced by
the lacksadasical tones of children singing in school:
enters the school room without disturbing the children's
directing the children's singing, X silently mouths
a directive for Melanie to wait outside
waits outside silently, listening to the children
gather just as silently while the children continue
observes a single crow's trajectory and sees it take
its place with the massed crows in the children's
opens her mouth in a silent scream
moves back inside the school room & confers with
X without the children hearing
tells the students to leave school as quietly as possible
- without voicing the danger which could cause the
children to panic and thereby disturb the crows
scene is no mere set-piece based on undercutting 'mood'.
Tension is painstakingly created by juxtaposing the deadly
delicacy of the situation with the harsh ringing of childrens'
voices. Devoid of non-diegetic orchestral tones to put us
on edge, the innate and unpolished humaness of their voices
serves to offer them as fodder for the abject inhumanity
of the silent crows. It is even as if they are ignorantly
conjuring up more birds with each refrain. This silencing
'through' music is yet another return of the terror of illusion:
the innocence of the singing child - long exploited as a
penultimate trigger of humaness in audio-visual history
- is here a retainer of fate more than a container of pathos.
orchestration of bird noise
title THE BIRDS is simultaneously blunt and unspecific.
It could be referring to any birds, some birds, all birds.
It could indicate a group anywhere between 2 to 2 million.
It could be aligned to species, family, genus. It eventually
means every bird, and every bird potentially belongs to
the dreadful mass of THE BIRDS. As forecast by the musique
concrete overture during the title/credit sequence, bird
noise is circulated and distributed throughout the film
following this logic. The highly orchestrated soundtrack
expands and contracts with the flux between dense sound
of massed birds and sonically isolated elements of single
the sparrows first invade Mitch's house, their entrance
is announced by the insignificant tweeting of a single sparrow
who seems to have aimlessly flown down the chimney. Melanie
- by now accustomed to reading the ominous signs of silence
and emptied sound fields - prompts Mitch, her voice instantly
swallowed up in a wall of bird noise. This 'wall of noise'
is more of a three-dimensional space which terrorizes the
empty domestic domain. As we move from shot to shot, not
the slightest difference in acoustic perspective can be
monitored. The mass screeching sounds the same in the centre
of the room, on the floor, in any corner. The sheer density
and volume of the multiplied frequencies becomes a total
noise from which there is no escape; there is no alcove
or pocket the noise does not occupy. Further, the sparrows
occupy the totality of the audio-visual spectrum. Once again
matted as an abstracted planar field movement over the actors
flailing their arms and cowering in terror, the sound of
the birds obliterates all other space in the soundtrack.
similar yet distinct orchestration is played out following
a prolonged build-up as the school children try to sneak
away from crows. If one shuts one's eyes, one can distinctly
hear aural layering reminiscent of the symphonic approach
taken in many musique concrete compositions:
envelope of low frequency rumble as the children break
into a run
envelope of low frequency rumble as the crows break
sustained sheet of crow noise, highly reverberated
and dispersed as they maintain a hovering cloud of
terror over the frantically running children
this sheet of crow noise, punctuated screams, wing
flaps & distorted squalls
ramping down of volume of this sheet of noise, reduced
and muffled as Melanie & some children take refuge
in a car with the windows wound up
as the sparrows earlier are treated as a mass of sound,
so too is the sheet of crow noise unbroken and undiluted.
Rather than thinning out into individual crow sounds, the
complete aural texture fades down in combined volume, suggesting
that the existence of the birds is predicated on mass and
not individual birds. A more complex and multi-layered sequence
develops in the petrol station attack. It features a linear
dramatic shape, starting low and building to a climax, then
dying down. The aural dynamics of each of these components
are crucial to the controlled deployment of the drama, enhancing
and marking the rhythm of the drama, as well as temporizing
it by making dramatic events match the dynamic shape of
the aural events:
of running petrol
of near/far loud/soft perspectives
light treble layer
of people in diner
of near/far loud/soft perspectives
density of sounds overlapping
of burning petrol
puff & sustained noise
of diner patrons
group of harsh mid-range incidents
single sonic event
quick envelope of noise followed by low sustained
wind, distant rumble, occasional close-up bird calls
to Melanie becoming involved as a witness to the petrol
station explosion, a key scene condenses the film's approaches
to aural orchestration. When she is trapped inside the telephone
booth, moments, incidents, spaces and occurrences are swirled
and concatenated, with emphasis on perspectival shifts in
the sounds of bird noise, human screams, running feet, gushing
water, a car crash, smashing glass, and so on. The telephone
booth's confines serve as a sensory realignment chamber.
Melanie sees all through the glass free from physical contact,
while she hears less but with increased physical sensation.
Chaos surrounds her on all sides while water, gulls and
fists hit the glass and create sonic booms inside her terrorized
space. This is one of many ironic retributions against the
voyeuristic characters of the film, and the telephone booth's
sensory realignment is a typical inversion of normal audio-visual
relationships. While such states can be suffered subjectively
within a character's mind (and distorted/stylized sounds
would represent this), Melanie must endure the terror at
the hands (or wings) of forces outside of her own mind.
Put another way, it is as if she is trapped in the mind
of someone being terrorized by imaginary birds, and as such
is a symbolic conduit for the means the film uses to psychologically
unsettle and terrorize us.
dominance of bird noise over the human voice
the film's midway point, the plot forces all characters
to concede that there is something unusual about the behaviour
of the birds. We too, as viewers/auditors, tread lightly
as the film is brimful of harbingers of death. Most importantly,
silence and sound become key markers of terror more so than
the sight of a bird alone. This shifts our human perceptual
sense of visual primacy into the auditory realm which for
many animals is the primary field within which they assess
danger. Sound without sight may be the ultimate terror for
the human untrained in reading sonic signs, and THE BIRDS
preys upon the viewer/auditor by incessantly mismatching
the two and exploiting the ultimately arbitrary representational
codes which fix the two together.
the opening pet shop scene, Melanie, Mitch and the saleslady
have no problem talking over the bird noise. Perhaps the
fact that the birds are caged subliminally gives the characters
a sense of aural control over the situation: they believe
and feel that they can make themselves heard. By the end
of THE BIRDS, many a character has been silenced - acoustically,
figuratively, terminally. The collective chin-wagging which
builds in the diner gives way to collective jaw-dropping
in wake of the birds' devastating attack on the school and
petrol station. The ornithologist talks too much: she is
left half-framed in profile, stripped of the power of her
words. The same events lead the concerned mother to hysterical
accusations after she is powerless to silence the adults'
inconsiderate chatter in ear-range of her children. Even
the most humanized and domesticated birds - Cathy's lovebirds
- just won't communicate with each other.
Melanie witnesses the petrol station carnage, she is left
speechless in a series of hysterical jump-cuts. She revives
the voyeuristic effect of previous scenes, but this time
her displacement from the action induces stress rather than
pleasure. Her awareness of this accentuates her powerlessness:
the jump-cuts represent the time that literally disappears
as she realizes there is not enough time to warn the man
holding a lighted match standing in a stream of petrol.
A lag follows, after which she and the others scream out
too late - screams which perversely attract his death due
to him dropping the lighted match after straining to here
their calls. Their cries are silenced by the gas pump detonation.
reaches the zenith of terror in the Brenner household. After
spending much time and energy fortifying all potential entrances
into the domestic domain, the family lie in wait - obviously
trapped like birds in a cage. An unnerving silence precedes
the attack as everyone (us included) waits for something
to happen. It does. The soft sound of a few birds merrily
chirping cues the sonic assault which follows instantaneously.
Sound now is at its most abstract and most deafening as
electro-acoustic sheets of noise totally replace all lip-synch
dialogue - visibly inaudible as Mitch gathers everyone into
place. An equally inaudible hysteria ensues as no one knows
where to go. This sense of alienation is intensified by
numerous unmotivated camera angles which make the loungeroom
space as alien to us as it is to the characters trying to
take refuge there. As with the earlier sparrow attack, the
soundtrack is devoured by bird noise - but here there is
not a bird in sight. This is pure, unadulterated sound,
recalling everything from Chinese water torture to Muzak
to sonar crowd control guns to industrial noise deafness.
An apocalyptic decimation of personal space: relentless,
invisible, deafening. Ironically, the first lip-synch dialogue
heard as the birds leave (signalled by a decrease in the
roar) is "they've gone". This scene demonstrates the extent
to which the birds are represented both as sound and by
the cacophonic climax of the Brenner attack, Melanie cautiously
checks the attic. All is still and quiet - until she unwittingly
shines a torch on the massed birds roosted there like a
cancer within the household. They swoop on her as she flails
her arms desperately like a man trying to fly. Her cries
for help slowly disintegrate into a field of whimpers, gasps
and fluttering wings; she lapses into catatonia, recalling
her stilted silent scream as she witnessed the petrol station
incident. The soundtrack impassively documents the near-silence
that ensues as her near-lifeless body is pecked at by near-noiseless
birds. The silence truly is deafening here, because the
birds know that they have her: they need no longer communicate
to each other untranslated directives for procuring her
body. She is now carrion; they need no clarion. The birds
- hitherto named vaguely - reveal themselves to be psycho-genetic
amalgams of carrion crows, desert vultures, scavenger gulls.
They terrorize us from above with sophistication and precision
dreamed of in military aviation. They feed off our cadavers
in disrespectful piecemeal fashion. And in a fitful triumph
of the sonic, they peck out our eyes. As we die and fade
to black, so does the film's sun set, blurring the calm
chattering of all those gathered birds into an agitated
chorus that reverberates deep in the caves of the hollow
sockets which were once our eyes.
soundtrack incidents in chronological order
Bird sounds and images occupy the audio-visual screen during
the title sequence.
Melanie converses with a saleslady in a bird store while
loud bird noise continues unabated. Melanie meets Mitch
and further dialogue develops over the bird noise.
Melanie delivers caged love birds to Mitch's apartment,
followed by a neighbour.
Melanie travels in her car with the love birds from San
Francisco to Bodega Bay.
Melanie takes a hired boat from the port to the back entrance
of Mitch's house. She enters the house and delivers the
love birds, then sneaks back to the boat and watches through
binoculars as Mitch discover the birds. She rows back to
the port as he watches her through binoculars. He drives
around the bay while she motors the boat to port. She is
attacked by a gull as she and Mitch arrive at the dock together.
The children's birthday party is interrupted by a gull attack
as Cathy plays Blind Man's Bluff. Balloons are burst and
children are pecked.
A flock of sparrows suddenly invade the Brenner loungeroom
and terrorize Melanie, Mitch, Cathy and Mrs. Brenner.
Cathy and fellow classmates sing in class as Melanie waits
for Cathy outside. Melanie smokes as they continue singing.
She notices a single crow the discovers a flock gathered
in the playground. She enters the school to warn the teacher,
who then dismisses the children to exit quietly.
The children break into a run and disturb the crows. The
crows attack the children as they run screaming. Melanie
gathers Cathy and another girl into a car for protection.
Birds attack the petrol station and diner exterior. A pecked
gas attendant falls and leaves petrol spilling downhill.
The gathered diner patrons see the petrol trailing to a
man standing near a gas pump. He lights a cigarette; they
scream a warning to him; he drops the match on the spilt
petrol and blows up the gas pumps. Seen from high above,
the birds survey the disaster.
A variety of birds attack the Brenner residence from the
outside while everyone remains locked inside the loungeroom.
Mitch fortifies the barricades and repels attacks by gulls.
Melanie checks the attic and accidentally disturbs massed
birds with her torch. They attack her and peck her to near-death
as she falls into catatonia.
Melanie and the Brenners exit the house and leave Bodega
Bay by car as the birds roost everywhere.