WERE WE “SUNG INTO EXISTENCE” with sound?
Many ancient cultures – Egyptians, Chinese, Celts, Arabs, Native Americans, Hebrews, and Christians – spoke of sound as a divine principle. They held the common belief that the universe was created with “One Sound”. God said, “let there be light”, and with the Primal Sound of Being, Nada Brahman, the world was created.
Then Western science came along and with its typical air of superiority it discarded these accounts as myth and lore created by primitive cultures who had very little understanding of how the universe really works.
Very often, though, those who think that they know better than everyone else, tend to not know that much after all. And that turned out to be the case with a lot of Western science. Hundreds of years of advanced scientific methods and technologies led scientists to discover that the ancient cultures had been right all along and they wrong. They had derided the ancient belief in a divine entity and rejected it as superstition without any scientific validity. Then they discovered quantum physics and the likes of Einstein had to concede that there must be an intelligence, a God, behind the design and orchestration of the universe. It couldn’t be any other way.
So does that mean that, as our ancestors claimed, this intelligence sang us into existence with sound? Apparently, yes.
In 1967 and after 14 years of studying the effects of sound vibration on substances such as fluids, powders, and liquid paste, Swiss medical doctor and natural scientist Dr. Hans Jenny published a book titled Cymatics: The Study of Wave Phenomena. Here he explains how, by spreading substances on a metal plate and feeding a simple tone, he was able to bring matter to life, to give it forms and shapes that we invariably find all around us, in both animate and inanimate entities, on earth and in outer space. Here we can see some of these experiments:
The ancients said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”; modern science now says, “Into the great void of space came a sound and matter took shape”.
So yes, it seems that sound calls the universe to order – and beauty. It gives shape to living creatures, crystals, leafs, plants, geological structures, and celestial bodies. And that might explain our ancestors’ fascination with sound.
Sound to them was a means to connect with the universal intelligence. They revered the sounds of life and devotedly listened to its symphony. They produced sounds to enter into a relationship with a greater reality. They prayed, chanted, made invocations, sang, and drummed. They sought paces that emanated powerful sonic vibrations – mountains, caves, rocks, forests. They built sacred structures that recreated and amplified these sounds and went there to attune themselves and to be in harmony with the forces of nature.
They did so not out of superstition or fear of a punishing god. To them, this connection with the universe was vital and essential to their survival. After all, we’re a part of a whole, and if we are not connected and in harmony with it, our survival is threatened. Our ancestors knew this.
Today’s world is very different. We’re surrounded by very different sounds, most of them noise. But there’s one place, one “campfire”, which has been soundproofed, acoustically treated for excellence, and equiped with mightly Dolby systems. It’s a place where we city dwellers can once more experience sound in rich and meaningful ways. There’s much that we can learn from our ancestors about harnessing its power.
NARRATIVE FUNCTION OF BRADLEY COOPER’S VOICE IN A STAR IS BORN
Let’s suppose for a moment that Bradley Cooper is on TV promoting his latest film, A Star Is Born, and the interviewer suddenly puts him on the spot. She congratulates him on the incredible job he’s done on the voice but she tells him that she thinks that it’s incongruous with the character’s disposition.
She does have a point. Our voice is a mirror into the soul. When we speak, it broadcasts the type of person we are. If we’re a calm and secure type of person, we sound calm and secure. If we’re and anxious and fearful type of person, we sound anxious and fearful. This is because our mental and physiological states colour the sound of our voice much like the environment and architectural spaces do. Our breathing dictates the tempo of our voice and the level of tension in our vocal chords its pitch. In short, our bodies act like a resonant cave that gives our voice its characteristics.
A deep, gravelly voice like the one Bradley Cooper gives Jackson in A Star Is Bornbroadcasts a person who is solid and stable and who knows how to keep his cool in a time of crisis. And that’s where the problem lies, according to the interviewer. Jackson is anything but solid and stable. He has demons, he has alcohol and drug problems, and he’s far from in control of himself or his life.
So how can Bradley Cooper give this criticism a positive spin?
Luckily for him, there are elements in the story that he can use to justify his choice. He could argue that, yes, when it comes to the voice, psychophysiological factors are very important, but that’s not everything there is to it.
Our voice, to a large extent, is the result of the survival strategies we adopted as children. When we’re growing up, we embrace behaviours that make us acceptable to the people our survival depends on and repress those behaviours that don’t. The way we talked formed part of the repertoire of behaviours at our disposal. The only thing is that the more behaviours we have to repress as children, the more repressed and distorted our voice becomes when we grow up. Also, as children, we often model the voice of the significant people around us to create a deeper connection with them, to gain their approval, or simply because we look up to them and want to grow up to be like them.
In the film, Bradley Cooper argues, Jackson’s father was an alcoholic, so it fell on his elder brother, Bobby (played by Sam Elliott, who has a naturally deep voice), to take care of Jackson. The relationship between the two brothers is far from easy. Half way through the film, they have a serious argument and exchange the following words:
Bobby is the one who has the real deep voice. Even in a moment of turmoil like this one, his voice remains grounded. He’s the one with a solid personality and the one who’s been keeping his brother on steady ground – as much as it was possible given Jackson’s troubled personality. After this exchange, Bobby decides to quit taking care of his unappreciative brother. Things go downhill for Jackson from that moment on, and later in the film, he admits to Bobby that he copied his voice because it was him he idolised, not his father. So that’s how Jackson got to have his gravelly voice.
Of course, Cooper adds, when you model your voice as a survival strategy, it may help you tell yourself a story about who you ‘are’, but since in most cases it’s not a genuine self, the shadow aspects of the personality that have been repressed will find expression through the voice in moments of weakness. And this is what happens to Jackson in this scene:
His body is so possessed by his wounded child at that moment that physiologically the voice can’t possibly reproduce the sound of a fake persona.
Hopefully by now, Bradley Cooper will be out of trouble. Though if that wasn’t the case, he could always add that his voice is a symbol that works at the thematic level. Jackson adopted it to meet cultural expectations of masculinity that are falling apart in our time, although this is perhaps a weaker argument since there’s not much in the film to support it. Still, it’s an option.
This is, again, only a hypothetical situation. I don’t know how much of this line of thinking was in three screenwriters’ heads when they were writing the script. But what it shows is that the voice in cinema can be used for much more than carrying the dialogue.
We often forget that the voice is the human species’ most important channel of communication. Because of that, our brains have become experts at extracting information from the voice – not just the semantic meaning of words, but also none-verbal cues. In fact, when we communicate, 45% of the message comes through verbal language, and the rest from body language, but out of the 45% of verbal communication, only 7% of the information is derived from the semantic meaning of words. The other 38% comes through other vocal cues that can give us valuable information about a person – their emotional state, integrity, level of confidence, personality, intentions, cultural affiliations, and much more.
And we often forget too that the voice is the most prominent element in the soundtrack. A Star Is Born is a but a minute example of how non-verbal aspects of the voice can be put to good dramatic and cinematic use. Exploiting them gives the audience a means to put their expertise in this area to good use. Deciphering the mysteries hidden behind the voice and extracting the (often subtextual) story it tells about the person can be a source of great pleasure to them.
Offscreen sound in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry: The Devil Is In The Detail
Offscreen sound in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s the trouble with harry: the devil is in the detail
There are directors who know the techniques of filmmaking inside out and use them to make well-crafted films that do moderately well at the box office, and there are directors who understand the craft of filmmaking deeply and apply it inventively to create true masterpieces that withstand the test of time. Alfred Hitchcock was one such director, and one key factor that contributed to his success was his incredible attention to detail. The opening scene of The Trouble With Harry (1955), Hitchcock’s only dark comedy, serves as clear evidence of that.
Here, Hitchcock uses a very simple device to set the story in motion and to create mystery: three simple gunshots heard offscreen followed by remarks that suggest foul play. Not a big deal. But what is impressive about the way he’s arranged image and sound in this scene is that, as well as initiating the story, he achieves a number of other things simultaneously: he introduces the main comedic devices, establishes the thematic elements, and sets the tone of the film – all in one simple stroke.
One source of comedy in The Trouble With Harry is improbable coincidence. Through a number of coincidences, several characters in the story come to believe that they killed Harry accidentally. Through a number of coincidences, too, some of these characters turn out to have what in the eyes of the law might look like a motive for wanting the man dead.
Hitchcock introduces this comedic device in the opening scene by showing a little boy at play in an idyllic landscape, ‘his trusty space gun a deadly weapon to defend himself against the dangers of the unknown’, as the voice-over in the film’s trailer puts it. And then, by some bizarrely improbable coincidence, real gunshots are fired somewhere offscreen that suggest a murder.
The boy’s reaction to the gunshots sets the tone of the film and introduces the second source of humour by mirroring the general attitude the main characters will have towards the situation they face. Instead of panicking, the boy just goes along with the gunshots and makes them part of his pretend play. All excited that there’s actually some real danger out there, he ducks, hides behind a tree, and inspects the scene, ready to deploy his weapon if anyone dears attack him. The residents of the town will be equally nonchalant about the corpse.
With such selection and combination of auditory and visual details, Hitchcock also introduces the main thematic elements. The film explores the subject of ethics and morality by pitting the naive moral relativism of the townspeople against the utilitarian, one-size-fits-all, juridical system of the city, where a person tends to be considered to have done right if the outcome is good, or wrong if the outcome is bad, regardless of whether the action was intentional or unintentional.
In the film, the situation is that one of the town’s inhabitants has killed a man, but since it was an accident, the townspeople don’t see why anyone should go to jail for it. They still go to great lengths to hide the body from the deputy sheriff because they know that, although a local himself, he’s bound by the laws of the city and won’t see things the same way.
Hitchcock introduces these themes by imbuing the elements present in the opening scene with symbolic meaning. The boy stands for the innocent, childlike nature of the townspeople, who’ve been very much tempered by their idyllic surroundings. The gunshots are not a symbol in themselves but act as a link to the dead man, who represents the city. That’s where he comes from and the townspeople often make a reference to it.
What the gunshots do is to bring the two together through juxtaposition, which is how black comedies generate humour – through juxtaposition of contrasting elements that don’t usually go together but that are played out as if they were not incongruous at all. Such arrangement tends to be very satisfactory for audiences. It generates humour, it provides multiple layers of meaning, and it gives them work to do since they have to establish connections and discover the meaning.
This practice of trying to introduce as many as the concepts of the story from the very beginning by cinematic means has been part of Hitchcock’s thinking processes since very early in his career. In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock explains how for the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), he had wanted to start the picture by showing an ice skater tracing numbers on a skating rink. With this, he wanted to suggest the idea of an espionage code. He ditched it, though, and this is the reason he gives for doing it:
”It simply had no place in the story. But the point I was trying to make is that from the very outset the contrast between the snowy Alps and the congested streets of London was a decisive factor. That visual concept had to be embodied in the film.”
By the time he made The Trouble With Harry, he had perfected this technique and learnt that through careful combination of image and sound he could more effectively embody abstract concepts and create multiple layers of meaning. It’s undoubtedly the kind of thing that makes him remain among the most influential directors of all times.
derrida and how to think about film sound differently
JOKE: In what way are film sound theorists like feminists? In that they talk about the image as if it was the man, and about sound as if it was the woman.
I used to do this myself. I used to go on about how filmmakers insist on relegating sound to the shadow of the image. But one day I had this realisation: it’s all very well to say that filmmakers are subordinating sound to the image and giving it a passive role, but what’s the alternative? How do you go about not doing that? If that’s the wrong way, how do you do it the right way?
Of course, it would be impossible to answer that in one simple sentence, but perhaps a good first step would be to shake the impasse a little by dismantling the assumption that took us here in the first place – that film is a visual medium, point-blank period. Therefore, the image must take centre stage. And that takes me to Jaques Derrida.
Derrida was an Algerian-born French philosopher who became famous – and infamous – for deconstruction. Infamous because his method was an attempt to ridicule Western philosophers and their metaphysical approach to life, that is, their quest for the truth of all truths and for the foundation that provides the ultimate origin of all things.
The problem Derrida saw with this approach was that “truth” was being constructed by means of binary oppositions such as good vs evil, reason vs passion, masculinity vs femininity, and so on. Binary oppositions work by giving the first term in the opposition a positive value and privileging it over the second term, and by giving the second term a negative value and subordinating it to the first. This privileged/subordinate dynamic is essential for this type of thinking to work. If the second term was not negative and lacking, the positive term could not hold its position as the ultimate truth. Good is an empty concept without evil.
The aim of Derrida was to undermine this type of thinking, which he saw as deeply flawed. By privileging one part over the other, we fail to see the value in the neglected part, and the aspects of the truth that it also holds. Both need each other. He thought that if we learnt to live in paradox, our experience of life would be much richer. Why does it have to be either one or the other?
Another way of putting it is that when we fixate on the norm, on the privileged position, and don’t question it, we tend to get stuck in the same old rut and we fail to see other things.
Look at this image for a moment. What do you see?
Random irregular and meaningless blocks? If that’s the case, look again. But this time don’t do the obvious thing of looking at the foreground. Instead, focus your attention on the background. Do you now see the word “WEST”?
So, if Derrida is right and we apply this to film, it means that we’re missing on a goldmine of new possibilities by simply thinking in visual terms and then adding sound as an afterthought, as if it was the lesser of the two.
What if we reversed the process for a moment? What if we thought the image in terms of sound – if we took sound as the starting point and figured the visuals, and even aspects of the narrative, from that perspective?
Sounds strange? Then think about this.
Citizen Kane (1941), after nearly 80 years, is still considered to be one of the greatest films of all times because of all the many innovative techniques it introduced in terms of lighting, montage, depth of focus, camera angles and more. But one thing that is less talked about (!!) is that the film also broke radically new ground in the area of sound – probably more so than any other film since sound was introduced in 1927. And who made this film? Someone who had never made a movie before but who had mastered the art of telling stories through sound, a radio guy. Surely not a coincidence.
Could it be that Welles thought about the film first in terms of sound and then figured out many aspects of the image and the narrative from that point? It’s quite plausible.
Another film that springs to mind is David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976). It’s the kind of film that makes me wonder about the thinking processes that led to its conception. What did Lynch have in mind? How did he think about this idea? David Lynch is a musician too, so I can’t help imagining him in front of a newly acquired sampler loaded with amazing sounds that blew his mind and then asking to himself, “What film can I make that justifies having these sounds play non-stop throughout the film? What would the film have to be about? What would it have to look like? I’m of course not saying that that’s how the film came about, but I can’t help imagining that that’s one possibility of how it might have.
Like Derrida says, the beauty of reversing the way we think about something is that it encourages us to consider things that we might not have considered at all otherwise.
The Bells, edgar allan poe’s subtextual acoustic extravaganza
In The Hero’s Two Journeys, Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler talk about stories being divided into an outer journey and an inner journey. The outer journey is the external plot, and the inner journey is what goes on inside the characters. In that sense, the function of the external plot is ultimately to reveal the inner world of the character – the unconscious drives that dictate his or her choices, actions, and decisions.
When we translate a story into film language, we turn the screen into the window that reveals the inner life of the character, and we create that inner space, to a great extent, by selecting the sensory details that mirror the character’s psychological condition. That’s our aim when we choose a type of lighting, when we select a specific camera angle or movement, or when we ask the sound designer to make that wind sound more mournful or those steps more harried and anxious. We’re trying to give physical form to an abstract inner quality.
In a way, then, good screenwriting and good filmmaking is knowing how to tap into the the audience’s perceptual skills in order to get them to experience the character’s inner life first hand. The Bells, which you’ll find at the end of this page, although not a film, is a perfect example of what we can achieve when we understand this.
Being a poem, it uses the many poetic devices that poets use, but that’s not what attracts me so much to this poem. The Bells is a sonic masterpiece. In it, Poe exploits acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena both to produce a rich sensory and emotional experience in the reader and also to create a sonic texture that evokes mood, emotion, and the psychological states of the poem’s speaker.
The poem is about the death of a wife in a fire (though there are other interpretations). It is a journey in four stanzas. The first one represents the courting stage, the second one the wedding, the third one the fire, and the fourth one the burial. In emotional terms, it takes us from merriment to rapture to fear to painful insanity. Poe creates the emotional and psychological effect of each stanza by manipulating the sound of the bells in a number of ways.
In each stanza, the bells are made of a different metal, each of which gives the sound of the bells a different timbre, which in turn has different psychological effects and connotations. He uses words rich in vowels that emulate this timbre and also the motion and rhythm of the bells. In the first stanza (courting), they’re sledge bells made of silver, and the stanza has lots of short i-sounding words like twinkle, jingle, tinkle. The second stanza (wedding) has golden bells and lots of o-sounding, swelling words like mellow, golden-molten, oh, on, swell, and dwell. In the third stanza (fire), the alarm bells are made of brass and it has lots of twisted a-sounding words that have a kind of disorderly ring to them – twanging, clanging, jangling, wrangling. In the final stanza (burial), the bells are made of iron and the stanza has a lot of fall-sounding words such as sound, tone, throat, ghoul, toll, and roll, suggesting not only a heavy, low-pitched sound but also a kind of descent (the wife’s body into the ditch and the husband into insanity?).
The poem takes place at night. In the first two stanzas, Poe uses atmospheric conditions – which do affect sound – to add ‘colour’ to the ringing of the bells. The first night is icy, giving the sledge bells a crispy sound. The second night is balmy, giving the golden wedding bells a warm tone.
In stanzas three and four he uses (vocal) personification to add character to their sound. In the third stanza, the bells ‘scream out their affright’. In the fourth stanza, ‘every sound that floats from the rust within their throats is a groan’.
Poe uses musical terms to refer to the tone of the bells and the emotional effect this tone has on those who hear the bells. In the first stanza, the melody of the bells foretells merriment. In the second stanza, their harmony foretells a world of happiness. These associations – melody/merriment and harmony/happiness – have a psychoacoustic basis. The two factors that make music pleasing to the ear are melody and harmony, which give sound a coherent structure that our brains like.
In the third stanza, where the fire happens, Poe says, “What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”. Turbulency in itself is not a musical term, but then he adds, “they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune”, which is a musical term. One requirement for alarm sounds to be effective generally is that they need to be discordant to make us feel distressed and to make us want to get away from them, and therefore from the danger. Our brain doesn’t like random, incoherent sounds. Poe is aiming for that effect in this stanza.
In the fourth stanza, their monody compels a solemn thought and makes the listener “shiver with affright at the melancholy meaning of their tone”. Monody has several meanings. It can refer to a poem lamenting a person’s death, a type of music consisting of only one melodic line, and it can also be used to refer to a monotonous or mournful sound. Genius choice of word, since all apply here.
Finally, there’s the rhythm. As well as most of the other words, Poe uses “bells” repeatedly at the end of each stanza to emulate the rhythmic ringing of the bells, but he does it in a way that adds subjectivity and subtext. The first stanza starts happy, but the constant, almost frantic, repetition of “bells” at the end creates a slight contrast and gives away a neurotic undertone that makes one feel that something’s not quite right. By the fourth stanza, the bells are so manic that they almost evoke images of ghouls circling around, hand in hand, and performing a satanic death dance. This is probably what’s going on inside the speaker’s head. The ringing of the burial bells seems to be making him go insane with pain.
Sound is a powerful communicator. It is in fact the ultimate form of communication, used by most species. If you think about it, we can’t really do with light what we can do with sound. We don’t have a dedicated organ that allows us to emit beams of light and bend them at will to communicate all the complex ideas and emotions that we do with sound, for which we do have a dedicated organ.
This is not a coincidence. Sound has dense levels of information encoded in it, much more than light. We can trick the eye easily. We can get away with recording images at 24 frames per second. But try recording sound at that rate. The ear won’t be fooled.
Accordingly, the brain is very adept at extracting information about the environment and about our emotional states from sound. Poe understood this very well. He knew how to bend sound to emulate the emotional and psychological states of the speaker of this poem, to create a window into his inner world.
I wonder what Poe would say if we asked for some advice on doing this. He’d probably say: “KNOW THY SOUND!”.
As an end note, if you’ve read the poem, did you notice how each stanza starts with the speaker inviting you to HEAR?
What is Poe up to here? Any thoughts?
The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe
Hear the sledges with the bells–
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Hear the mellow wedding bells
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!
Hear the loud alarum bells–
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells–
Of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!
Hear the tolling of the bells–
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people–
They that dwell up in the steeple,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone–
They are neither man nor woman–
They are neither brute nor human–
They are Ghouls:–
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells–
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.