Week 10 – The Sound

“When a sound can replace an image, cut the image

or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards

the within, the eye towards the outer.”

Robert Bresson

What impact sounds and soundscapes can have on the creative process is the topic of this week.

Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer first coined the word soundscape. He referred to the soundscape as an acoustic environment consisting of events heard, rather than objects seen. To describe a soundscape he used the terms Hi-Fi and Lo-Fi: in the Hi-Fi soundscape discrete sounds can be heard clearly because of the low ambience noise level (the countryside is generally more hi-fi than the city; night more than day). And there is a perspective, foreground and background: You can hear and see far. In the Lo-Fi soundscape individual acoustic signals can hardly be differentiated anymore, perspective is lost (a train station for example).

For him a soundscape consists of speech, music, and sounds. Each of these three parameters can be the starting point for an idea: A conversation overheard, the melody or the mood of a tune, a composition by J.S.Bach, a sound that suddenly pops up, like a telephone ringing inside and nobody is answering. Also every location has its own soundscape, whether it is a supermarket, an airport terminal, an office or a farm.

The richness and variety of sounds can turn into music – “The noises must become music“ (Robert Bresson) – that’s why there are filmmakers who don’t use music at all in their films. For Robert Bresson music isolates your film from the life of your film (musical delectation), it modifies and destroys “the real“, like alcohol or a drug. Michelangelo Antonioni thought the same:

“I give enormous importance to the soundtrack and I always try to give it the greatest attention. And when I say “soundtrack,” I allude to natur­al sounds, to noises, rather than to music. Music rarely reinforces the image, more often it serves merely to put the spectator to sleep and to keep him from appreciating clearly what he is seeing.”

But what is the ’meaning’ of a sound? Partly a sound ’means’ something because of what produces it, but mainly because of the circumstances under which it is heard. We all know the irritation hearing a sound we can’t categorize or localize: What is this sound? Where does this sound come from? Furthermore if common sounds occur at a place, in a context they are not supposed to be, we not only become irritated, sometimes we even get scared.

Noises can suggest events, they can punctuate a scene, enhance a moment. Speech-wise every conversation has its own rhythm, its own unique tempo – the pace of the voices, the moments of silence. And also the kind of speaking, the words and phrases used, slang or a dialect can suggest a culture, a socio-economic background, and a profession. Character and sometimes even location is immediately established.

Today’s films are often oversaturated with images, music, sounds and speech at the same time. Perhaps we should reconsider the relationship of all these parameters:

“One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.“ (Robert Bresson)

Your turn!

1. Get used to use the audio recorder of your smartphone: for capturing sounds and making notes.

2. Listen to some radio plays.

3. Watch a film without the audio track. Try to find imagine new sounds, music and dialogues! Then watch the same film only with the audio track, imagine the images, the locations, actors, scenes.

4. Go to different locations while listening to music on your iPod. Use all kind of pop music and classical music (J.S. Bach!). Realize how different you experience the space and what kind of ideas related to it and the music come into your mind.

5. Stay wherever you are, stand still and close your eyes. Relax! Try to become aware of all the sounds that surround you. What is acoustically in the foreground, what is in the background? How many layers can you hear and describe? What is the “quality“ of every sound? Make a list.

6. Go out for a ’sound walk’ with your partner or friend. Let her or him take you by the hand and close your eyes. Experience your city in a new way, only by hearing! Listen to your surrounding as if it were a musical composition, in which all of the parts together are creating a piece. Or think of it as many people talking to each other.

7. For Robert Bresson the eye (in general) is superficial, the ear profound and inventive. Think about sounds that imply and let us imagine whole scenes and locations.

8. Find a film idea that is totally based on silence and on stillness.

Films to watch

Jean-Jacques Beineix

John Carney

Francis Ford Coppola

  • The Conversation (1974) IMDB

Jacques Demy

  • Une chambre en ville (1982) IMDB

Jean-Luc Godard

  • First Name: Carmen (1983) IMDB

Derek Jarman

David Lynch

  • Lost Highway (1997) IMDB

Louis Malle

  • Elevator to the Gallows (1958) IMDB

Alain Resnais

  • Last Year at Marienbad (1961) IMDB

Nicolas Roeg

  • Performance (1970) IMDB

Julie Taymor

  • Across the Universe (2007) IMDB

Lars von Trier

  • Dancer in the Dark (2000) IMDB