All too often we ignore the sound design of a film while fixating on image and story. Philip Brophy, who once trained as a composer and now teaches and writes about film, has been campaigning for years to have the aural part of our film experience given the same attention we give the images on the screen.
He's just published a book called A Hundred Modern Soundtracks which is both passionate and diverting. It's an eclectic selection of films, from The Planet of the Apes to Resident Evil, via half-forgotten classics from France, Germany and Japan - but the key word in the selection is 'modern'. Why should our ideas about film sound be stuck back there with the outdated conventions of the symphony orchestra?
Philip Brophy's 100 Modern Soundtracks is an outstanding contribution to the growing body of literature on auditory culture. All the essays, on films as diverse as M and Dr Dolittle, are neologism-rich, insight-packed thought-bombs.
This remarkable and unique perspective on film aesthetics examines the hitherto underexplored aural dimension of cinema. 100 Modern Soundtracks takes the unique approach of discussing the sonic virtues of canon classics such as Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane, and Psycho alongside critically maligned movies like I Spit on Your Grave, Resident Evil, and The Haunting. Also included is a fascinating preface which introduces cinema's alternate dimension of sound design and film scoring.
For me, the best of the bunch is 100 Modern Soundtracks by Phillip Brophy, because it requires you to single out a particular element in a film. "Soundscapes" should perhaps have been the title, for Brophy is concerned less about music stings and themes than the ambience of a film's sound design and how it can transform emotional tone.
Brophy brings a welcome lightness of touch to his subject, noting that when haunted houses are beset by deafening ghostly crashes, characters timidly ask if anyone heard a noise, his point being that in such cases the sonic purpose of the film is not to describe reality or portray a psychological state, but to make viewers jump, thereby ending all attempts at plausibility.
Films can disturb more cleverly with the sound of silence; listen to the eerie longeurs in The Innocents or The Birds. Neither Brian De Palma's Blow Out, a film about the very essence of sound, nor Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, which virtually redefined aural effects in the 1980s, make the cut here, but it's the nature of all good lists to leave you with something to argue over.
"When starting to read Brophy's expertly-informed analysis, something becomes eminently clear: the 'film soundtrack' being referred to here is not simply the cleverly-chosen selection of pop hits available on the ubiquitous tie-in CD, nor is it the more 'respectable', orchestra-laden scores so beloved of the Oscar committee. Brophy uses these pages to reclaim the term, to wrestle it way from the modern vernacular. For 'soundtrack' it might be wise to read 'soundscape', the culminative effect of every recorded sound effect, every intonation of dialogue reading and - yes - every piece of music suitably affixed to the scenes in question.
Brophy's passion for the subject is clear, and while the BFI-endorsement often results in somewhat pseudo-intellectual sentiment, his sheer energy and enthusiasm never fails to shine through. The voice of the author is indelibly stamped over the choices of films merited for inclusion - the book takes the form of an alphabetical excursion though these movies, each being allocated two to four pages of insight. This is undoubtedly the most arguable aspect of the book: whilst Brophy finds a lot to say about films such as Contact , Face/Off and Resident Evil , a number of potentially more interesting soundscapes spring to mind, the works which spawned them - American Beauty , Jurassic Park , Ichi The Killer, a multitude of others - conspicuous by their absence. Then again, it is definitely refreshing to see mainstream cinema dealt with in such a manner, and maybe such arguments are what Brophy had intended to provoke: a reassessment of the way in which certain films are perceived. It is an intention in which he overwhelmingly succeeds, rarely setting a foot wrong in his professional, reasoned yet often surprisingly literary prose.
The impression is given that the construction of the book was a slowly-structured, piecemeal affair; certain films capturing Brophy's imagination at certain times and therefore finding themselves subject to further investigation. This is certainly something that is reflected in how the reader approaches the book - 100 Modern Soundtracks is not a continuous, narrative or particularly unified text and therefore does not demand that mindset to enjoy. Readers may well find the book to be a wholly reflexive experience - reading Brophy's thoughts on a particular film could inspire a critical re-watching, whilst on the other hand viewers may finish watching something for the first time and find themselves reaching for Brophy's volume, eager to double-check if that particular piece of cinema has merited inclusion. It is to Brophy's credit that he is fully aware of the confines of his format, that he works well within his structural medium.
As ever with a good deal of BFI Volumes, 100 Modern Soundtracks will be largely perceived to be a purely scholarly work, an aspect of the readership which Brophy clearly has in mind (a teacher himself, he acknowledges the constant inspiration of his 'hyperactive take-no-shit students'). Yet this would be a shame, as Brophy's passion itself is enough to carry the book into the realms of the more casual readership, as well as inciting a greater appreciation for the overall role of sound in cinema. Which - as anyone who works in the much-overlooked arena of soundwork will tell you - is no small deal indeed.
Philip Brophy has programmed his terrific yet frequently overstuffed new book, 100 Modern Soundtracks, like a CD. 100 two or three-page entries on films that apotheosise the modern “cinesonic womb” merge into an endlessly listenable compilation album. If any one track gets dull, zap it and move on to the next. Besides, Brophy would no doubt encourage a reader to move distractedly through his text remote control-like. In fact, reading barely concerns him at all – the interpretive, the synopsising, the decodable can all just fade away. Instead, he wants to transform us from readers into hearers in order to better grasp what he calls the unconsciousness of sound – “that requiring only the slightest act of hearing, placing sound as backgrounded, unfocused, diffused, ambienced” (p. 8). By compelling us to punch away at his tome from chaotic, unpredictable angles, Brophy hopes to prick up our ears to a sonic world that the insidious pull of narrative has cloaked for too long. Thus even if we read the book in order, it offers no teleological thrust. Brophy simply lays his objects of study next to one another alphabetically, from Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) to Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee, 1972). There is no prose-like or even polemical momentum to distract us from our distraction.
But in actuality, all this rhizomatic activity is an illusion. Take in only ten, maybe 15 entries and a meta-film evolves. The Convent (Manoel de Oliveira, 1995) collapses into Violated Angels (Koji Wakamatu, 1967), Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981) into Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979) for a cohesive entity that is alternately robotic (the “sonically simulative technological processes” of Resident Evil [Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002]; the body as “percussive instrument” in Way of the Dragon) and all too human (the “psycho-sexual blips, glitches, gulps and groans” of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens [Russ Meyer, 1979]; “the body as an indistinct, unnamed, anonymous lump” in death from Brakhage’s The Pittsburgh Trilogy ).
This meta-film comes from no place in particular: “Sound’s bombast on the modern soundtrack is authorless and inhuman, yet directional and affecting” (p. 7). A word Brophy likes to use to denote this utopia is “alien” – perpetually Other, irreducible to language. As his meditations on Angel Dust (Sogo Ishii, 1997), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) and Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola, 1983) demonstrate, human speech, if not humans themselves, hold no court here. Besides, as Brophy deduces, human speech results in “mostly an aural stream of the written, where actors – as per stage dramaturgy – are empty vessels through which the words of the author are breathed” (p. 13). Actors, then, never inhabit three-dimensional characters in the meta-film. Identity-emptying nodules like Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996) A Clockwork Orange, (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) or Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) require viral infiltration not The Method. In fact, they barely require directors. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Brophy professes to have little need for auteurs: “Where are the auteurs in this book? Names are largely absent … This is in recognition of sound’s animist being – its pre- and post-human aura – which seizes the sonic senses with utmost embrace” (p. 15).
But while the sound of the meta-film may come from nowhere, Brophy continually charges it with assault and battery. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997), and Resident Evil worm into the ear with an uncommon violence: “You neither watch Resident Evil nor play it: for its duration, you are played” (p. 193). With an arsenal of terms to describe the modern soundtrack’s much-maligned bombast, Brophy actually succeeds in extending the metaphors used to explore the relationship between cinema and modernity. Film scholars have long since abandoned literature as a model for cinema and even moved beyond theatre and the plastic arts to uncover cinematic correlations in trains, automobiles, museums, shopping centres, criminology (1) and the city. Brophy leaves even these behind to conclude that “cinema’s modern audiovisuality … has more to do with endoscopic exploration, plastic surgery, chemical alternation, electroshock therapy and nerve stimulation” (p. 4). The meta-film calls up the anxiety of being put under the knife, of being mental-healthed into oblivion. It slices into us and knows what’s better for us than we know ourselves.
Above all else, Brophy valorises the asynchronous. Like Michel Chion’s The Voice in Cinema, 100 Modern Soundtracks is an emancipation proclamation, struggling to free sound from its bondage to image. Akira sets the tone for the entire book: “The soundtrack…explor(es) the various ways that sound can be temporally split from image, for we most notice the effect of sound when it does not obey the constriction of image. In Akira, the sound of destruction is thus asynchronous (p. 18). Disdaining “mere coincidence or pointed synchronization”, Brophy positively gushes over that sonic matter which detaches itself from all dramaturgical imperatives and repeatedly pounds at the helpless auditor-victim.
So detached from image is this sonic matter that 100 Modern Soundtracks comes off as a fine piece of music criticism in the style of Simon Reynolds or Kodwo Eshun. At his best, Brophy matches Reynolds’ ability to find language for such seemingly unaccountable phenomena as trance or Can’s Soon Over Babaluma. And as with Reynolds, often his brilliant poésie surpasses if not replaces the object in question (his talk of “phallic sound effects” and “aural hard-ons” in Blue Steel [Kathryn Bigelow, 1989] teeters so closely on the edge of ridiculousness that his entry provides more of a rush than anything in the film itself). Certainly, Brophy means to align himself with such luminous scribes when he situates his soundtracks in a lineage Reynolds would definitely applaud (if only lineage itself were not so bourgeois and orderly): “These are the films that are textually filtrated with the voices of Glenn Gould, Phil Spector, Luigi Russolo, John Cage, Roland Barthes, Link Wray, Erik Satie, Kraftwerk, Yoko Ono, Harry Partch, Jimi Hendrix and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others” (p. 4).
But if up until this point, Brophy has had his cake, smooshing it through his eyebrows and behind his ears like the prelinguistic infant-adult he so wants to be, here he wants to eat it too. As with Reynolds again, Brophy upholds the anti-egocentric only to reinstall a modernist, largely highbrow ego such as enjoyed by the list of forepersons above. For sure, he has lightly peppered his tome with names under no threat of auteurist resuscitation – Howard Deutch, Delmer Daves, Betty Thomas, Mier Zarchi, Fred Macleod Wilcox. But overall, 100 Modern Soundtracks is a testament not only to the director but to the genius director – Tati, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Altman, Oliveira, Godard, Lang, Pasolini, Brakhage, Resnais, Cronenberg, Fellini, Bergman, Jarmusch, Hitchcock, Welles (pumped for, of all things, Citizen Kane ). No matter how hard he tries to shake it, most of the 100 soundtracks emanate from exactly this type of legible and praiseworthy agent. When Brophy hears helicopters and synthesisers swirling around him in Apocalypse Now (1977) he may not be picturing Coppola. But a “sensorial, phenomenological and perceptual” focus does not make a sender (in this case, Coppola) evaporate (p. 15). Sensation is still a message sent and in 100 Modern Soundtracks, senders outweigh receivers as they counter-intuitively pop up in many of the book’s crevices. Why, for instance, include a table of contents that identifies each film by year and director in a book excoriating the Self and the linear? (Hell, why even have a table of contents in the first place?)
That the scale is tipped towards the director/sender is only exacerbated by the assaultive nature of the soundtracks discussed. “Sound is hurled, jettisoned and directed at the audience only in order to figure how sound can resonate with the body of the viewer; how sound itself can attain a bodily presence which sets up a sensational dialogue with our bodies and minds”, Brophy maintains (p. 6). But he rarely leaves room for dialogue, sensational or otherwise. The sound hits the audience/receiver with little chance for feedback or even fusion. Any sort of give and take would most likely give birth to a hermeneutic Brophy is hellbent on destroying. And as one of cinema’s incorrigible moralists whom Brophy disdains in his review of De Palma’s Scarface (1983), I must point out that the receiver of all this sonic violence is often a woman in the film. Given his anti-humanist bent, it seems at times as if he relishes the precarious positions greeting Emily in House by the River (Fritz Lang, 1950), the nurses in Violated Angels or Regan in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973).
If indeed a meta-film emerges from 100 Modern Soundtracks, its negative is, of course, the classical Hollywood film. Despite the appearance of House by the River, Pride of the Marines (Delmer Daves, 1945) and hoary old Citizen Kane, pre-1960 Hollywood cinema is an obvious structuring absence here, a point Brophy makes perfectly clear in his introduction:
Somewhere between the death of live musical accompaniment to so-called silent cinema and the wide application of Dolby surround sound in theatres, the soundtrack lay spatially dormant. That is, whatever ‘space’ was signified by any on-screen or off-screen sound was technologically and ontologically streamed from the front-on emission of the screen (p. 7).
But beyond even its putative spatial dormancy (I’d advise Brophy to look at Thunderbolt [Joseph von Sternberg, 1929], Rain [Lewis Milestone, 1932] and Hallelujah, I’m A Bum! [Lewis Milestone, 1933] for some ontological counterexamples), the classical Hollywood cinema’s greatest sin is sync sound. To Brophy’s ears, cinema becomes pregnant with the most possibilities when an imbalance occurs between the audio and visual tracks. But the irony here is that sync sound is itself an imbalance. This seemingly most natural of classic cinematic sound phenomena happens only through the highly unnatural process of manipulating at least two separate pieces of material – a film track and a sound track.
There’s something downright ooky about this hocus pocus process. Thinking back to my film school days while reading this book, I was shaken to recall that the first piece of film I ever synced up to sound was footage that I had shot of my husband. It was as if I was compelled towards this action in order to face the operations of fate that brought us together. The sheer weirdness of sync sound (itself a fateful operation) dramatises this dance with chance; to use Walter Benjamin’s words, it is “a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order” (2).
But one need not be slumped over a Steenbeck to receive this jolt. As the recent furore over Ashlee Simpson’s lip-syncing gaffe demonstrates, we always have access to moments that highlight the imbalance of sync sound. And then we return to these “natural” sound-image packages in what Peter Knight calls a hermeneutic limbo (3). Reading 100 Modern Soundtracks, though, one walks away feeling that this limbo is solely the self-conscious preserve of great directors and their cinemaniac worshippers.
Still, Brophy accomplishes what all great writers on film do – he sends you back to films with refreshed capacities. The first film I saw after finishing 100 Modern Soundtracks was Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1951). All those images of fate and chance began life anew, detonating with folk song, voice grains and an eerie, paradoxical lack of presence. And it was all because Brophy’s book had slathered my ears with fibre-optic caviar.
1. See, respectively: Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Radio and Silent Cinema Duke University Press, Durham, 1997; Ben Singer, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism”, Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (eds), Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 72–99; Mark B. Sandberg, “Effigy and Narrative: Looking into the Nineteenth-Century Folk Museum”, Charney and Schwartz, pp. 320–61; Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993; Tom Gunning, “Tracing the Individual Body: Photography, Detectives, and Early Cinema”, Charney and Schwartz, pp. 15–45.
2. Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken, New York, 1968, p. 60.
3. Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From The Kennedy Assassination to The X-Files, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 98.
1. Cinema is 100% image and 100% sound. This aphorism has served Philip Brophy well since he coined it in the 1980s. Its disciplined, contradictory economy registers his profound, ongoing commitment to cinema as a sonic as well as visual art form that must be listened to as carefully and passionately as it is watched. But isn’t that pretty obvious I hear you say. Isn’t this simply a truism? For Brophy the problem with such overtures to self-evident knowledge is the biases they conceal, their rigid closure of the possibility of new ways of thinking. Brophy’s articulate and inventive writing on film sound is always alive to such possibility, as will be familiar to readers of his contributions to The Wire (London), Film Comment (New York) and RealTime (Sydney), among other publications. Brophy’s writing on film sound dusts off the jaded habits of decades of “watching” movies and awakens us to an energized experience of listening to them. He invites us to think with our ears as well as our eyes, at the same time: 100% image, 100% sound. In returning us again and again to a “residual” art form that we thought we knew everything about, his writing is a timely riposte to the misguided and shallow boast that multimedia was the audiovisual form that completely integrated sound and vision. Brophy’s careful rigor, his determination to fully understand the complex audiovisual experience of cinema, evidences more than twenty-five years of critical inquiry, practical experimentation and visceral listening to the sounds films make.
2. In the spirit of Brophy’s vigilance I want to re-write a previous statement in order to fully grasp what he expects of us. “Cinema must be listened as carefully and passionately as it is watched.” The grammatical awkwardness of this phrase signifies the parsing of the act of listening as an intransitive verb. We are comfortable with the intransitivity of saying that a film is something watched or seen. We are less comfortable with idea of a film as something that is listened, rather than listened to (“heard,” in case you’re wondering, is far too passive and doesn’t connote an active acoustic space.) And it is precisely this focused, intransitive listening that informs Brophy’s approach in 100 Modern Soundtracks:
"We say we 'watch' movies, but the 'cinesonic' experience is far more than a mere optical event. Try watching a film with no sound: gone is its power, emotion, drama, vitality. Shut your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, and through the blackness one can be excited by the orchestration of voices, atmospheres, effects and music. This is how the sonic engulfs us in the unfolding audiovisual carnival that is the cinema." (2)
Brophy clearly privileges an ear for an eye. While this might smack of a McLuhan-like bias of the sense-ratios, it is actually an astute strategy of defamiliarization (at least as it relates to 100 Modern Soundtracks; I have heard him say on more than one occasion that he would rather be blind than deaf any day.) In foregrounding our encounter with sound he is not interested in discriminating it from vision. Rather, he seeks to awaken us to the sensory complexity of cinema as a listened and watched event. Moreover, his neologism “cinesonic” is an inventive critical shorthand that encapsulates his conviction that our experience of sound in the cinema is more profound, enveloping and influential than we think.
3. This conviction underpins Brophy’s main critical objective in 100 Modern Soundtracks . It is, in fact, the only singular principle to be found in this book, concerned as it is with heightening a sensitivity in his readers to the polyvalent nature of the cinematic form: “The ultimate aim of this book is to induce a consciousness of how the soundtrack operates on what we presume to be our perceptual facilities for comprehending film” (3). To achieve this end, Brophy by-passes the well-applied and well-worn literary, visual and structural critical paradigms that have traditionally characterized film discourse. Instead of familiar models of textual analysis, Brophy favors what he calls “flow charts of effects” (3); a style of critical engagement that he famously put to effective use in his highly influential 1983 essay on the horror film, “Horrality.”  Such a form of critical engagement requires a different mode of writing whose “flow” is more important in its capture, replay and rendering of a film’s momentum, than it is in summarizing, reducing or even encapsulating a film’s signifying skeleton. A kind of “Braille for the deaf” is required. (3)
Brophy’s concept of “Braille for the deaf” is a bold response to “years of optical and literal” approaches to filmic experience that privilege visual metaphors (2). In this Brophy challenges the critical paradigm of “reading” a film and seeks, in its stead, to heighten a genuinely audiovisual approach to such experience. As a metaphor for a style of “a-literate” critical writing (ix), this concept is an audacious experiment in writing in print, after the fact, of the dynamic complexity of an encounter with the “psychological sonorum” of a film (2). Before assessing the success of Brophy’s approach to writing of his cinesonic experience of 100 films, it is important to clarify exactly what he means by the concept of the soundtrack. Moreover, we also need to have some understanding of the conventions of his “Braille for the deaf,” if only to grasp how he expects to achieve his critical ends in the severe discipline of 500 words per film.
4. What, then, is a soundtrack and what makes it modern? Brophy’s initial sortie into definitional territory is straightforward enough, identifying the soundtrack as a chimerical amalgam of film score (commissioned music for a scene) and sound design (the editing and mixing of sound for a scene, such as dialogue, sound effects, etc) (1). What is decisive about Brophy’s treatment of this formula, though, is his absolute resistance to the critical tendency to separate the two. His interest in the soundtrack in this respect is informed by his own practice as both sound designer and composer for short and feature films. However in 100 Modern Soundtracks he is predominantly interested in the act of sensory engagement with this composite assemblage of music, noise, sound and speech: and this is despite the impressive list of sound auteurs whose work he anonymously discusses (Ennio Morricone, Jack Nitzsche, Nino Rota, Walter Murch). All cinema (with the exception of silent film) possesses a soundtrack thus defined. Brophy, though, is interested in a particular experience of the soundtrack that in no way attempts to naturalize sound as simply an emotional or psychological accompaniment to the visual scene. Drawing on a particular inflection of the term modern, Brophy is interested in artifice, formalism and technological reflexivity. He is interested in “films of a peculiar sono-musical bent” (15) that excite the “auditory membrane” (3). Another way of putting this is that the modern soundtrack is akin to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque, exaggerated, inflated and preoccupied with itself. The modern soundtrack, then, foregrounds the experience of sound as the locus of our sensory, psychological and emotional engagement with a film. It is a “hyper-dimension where the becoming of sound overwhelms any separate cine-linguistic mode of expression” (15). In this sense, Brophy asserts that the tradition to which the modern soundtrack belongs is not cinematic. Its allegiances are sonic, echoing the reverberations of modernist composers such as Erik Satie, experimental architects of sound such as Harry Partch and Karlheinz Stockhausen, wunderkind producer Phil Spector and the great shaman of feedback, James Marshall Hendrix.
5. The real danger with a project such as this is for the actual entries on the films to become something of a free-for-all, a series of personalized and highly autographical sound checks. Brophy skillfully avoids this problem by identifying in the Introduction a series of characteristics of the modern soundtrack (such as the use of sound effects, the processing of the voice, orchestration, the use of music and songs, etc.) His extended discussion of these “technical and symbolic manoeuvres” (4) offers a kind of Baedeker to the sonic terrain he is about to take us through. Each individual entry, therefore, addresses the particular feature or features that are especially salient in the film at hand. Of George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), for instance, he elicits, with exemplary compression, how the film’s use of rock ‘n roll music doesn’t simply replace the film score, nor merely provide historical contextualization. The “acoustic rendering” of songs by Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly serves as a “base terrain that maps teenage mobility” through early ‘60s Californian suburbia, capturing the “sonic landscape of how radio was broadcast in this epoch” (20). In Jan De Bont’s The Haunting (1999) sound is used to amplify “how much we presume insignificant in acoustic auras” (125). The use of the orchestra is explored in relation to Chuck Jones’ sublime Guided Muscle (1955). “Sonic explosiveness” (118) is an apt musical correlative for one of the most celebrated Roadrunner and Coyote animations. For Brophy, the orchestral bombast of the soundtrack in Guided Muscle exploits the ‘50s’ fascination with unadulterated noise (industrial grinding and clanking, detonation, the capricious mixing of musical genres.) Inviting us to shut our eyes and listen, we hear in his commentary the “shards, snaps and cracks” as Guided Muscle escapes the gravity of cinematography and “veers towards sonic pornography” (118).
6. It is an understatement to suggest that the lean format of these film soundings is challenging, both for author and reader. In some cases there is a flatness that tends towards rather summary description, which, unfortunately, falls on deaf ears. But on the whole Brophy’s shorthand, economical style works to great effect. To write with aplomb in 500 words on the 9 minute Guided Muscle is impressive. To write with equal power of Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) is a tour de force. I have singled out this particular text to evidence discussion of a film that I actually know very well. What is striking in this instance is Brophy’s ability to bring the film’s “opulent soundtrack” (170) to presence with such brevity:
"The scream of the train whistle pierces their hermetic sound fields. When the train comes to rest, it chugs ominously with a heaving rhythm that now replaces all others. As the dusters are about to leave, a wailing harmonica – complete with distended reverb – cuts through the train’s steamy surges. The dusters’ response matches our double-take: is this “noise” score or diegetic sound? Harmonica (Bronson) emerges through the steam like an avenging angel, harmonica in mouth, breathing it to play his signature seething which symbolises the revenge he seeks." (170)
Faithful to his “Braille for the deaf” style of writing, I felt I was listening my own memory of the scene, but heightened and amplified by Brophy’s incisive counterpoints and nuances. By way of contrast, I was intrigued by his account of Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000). This is a film that I am not familiar with, nor, for that matter, thought that I ever would be:
"Once on the island, Noland has to realign his audiovisual balance. Terrorised by the sound of the unknown, he hears “bumps in the night,” which prove to be strange fruit falling from the trees. No living being directed these events; just the life of the island, devoid of such controlled presence. Eventually, Noland gets to read the island as a manual of patterns, frequencies and ratios […] Over the end credits, the refrain of music which hardly marked the film sails forth. But then a quiet mystical gesture is struck which confirms the considered modulation of humanism of Cast Away: the sound of waves gradually fades up and builds in mass, eventually dissolving the score. Music thus becomes the ocean – an ebb and flow of tidal call-and-response to itself; the ocean thus becomes air – the totality of atmosphere which carries sound." (58-59)
One the basis of Brophy’s account, an evocative sense of the film’s soundscape not only came to my mind’s ear, but I feel much more inclined to see and hear it for myself.
7. Hopefully these samples reveal that 100 Modern Soundtracks is not only a guide to how a particular film can be listened. I’m persisting with this awkward, intransitive particle to concentrate Brophy’s interest in the experience of the soundtrack as active, affective and material. As he notes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the “score is not to be assumed as accompaniment. The film integrates it and transforms it into a cinesonic substance which fires the film’s psychotic expulsions” (186). Furthermore, I want its discordance to be a shock to the ear, as a way of drawing attention to what I think is the most important critical contribution of 100 Modern Soundtracks. Brophy wants to awaken us to an aural imagination, in which we “auralise” as well as visualise a film (234). Without compromise or fuss he forges an appropriate critical language that, while perhaps unsettling to many ears, says exactly what he wants to say, without defaulting to the privileging of visual metaphors. We “witness and audition” the anarchy of a Rolling Stones recording session in Jean Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One) (1968); we visualise and “auralise” the roiling tension of Travis Bickle’s exhausted longing in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Each individual entry is an “audit” rather than analysis, a mnemonic encounter with previous auditions. This is not to suggest that Brophy is interested in supplanting a visual paradigm with an aural one. On the contrary, he is alerting us through language to a greater sensitivity to language, to the language of the cinema and the critical languages with which we describe, analyse and imagine it. There will be many films in this book that you thought you knew. Go and listen them again.
1. This essay was originally published in Art + Text, 11 in 1983. It was reprinted in Screen, 27, vol.1, n.2 in 1986 and anthologized in Ken Gelder’s edited collection The Horror Reader. London, Routledge, 2000.
It seems that the world is finally waking up to sound. Or, in less hyperbolic terms, film and media studies appear at last to be acknowledging on a considerable scale, the significance of the role sound plays in audiovisual texts. The history of the field has been dominated by considerations of the image as the primary source of meaning and pleasure of the text; the visual always outweighing the audible in the signifying equation, where the latter so often appears as a mere footnote or aside. Currently there are several volumes in production focusing on sound (and music) in such texts, and a noticeable increase in journal articles and conference panels interested in the long overlooked partner of audiovisual media. Philip Brophy has been a consistent and influential figure in championing and investigating the role of the soundtrack in the cinema long before this current vogue in scholarship. His work as a composer and theorist necessarily informs his particular approach to the task, and in BFI's 100 modern soundtracks, he manages to do far more than simply cataloguing some of the more interesting or innovative film soundtracks. Brophy also advocates and develops an alternate language for discussing sound in film.
Almost every lengthy study on film sound acknowledges the initial problems of language when approaching the subject. The visual prejudice of Western cultures have ensured a correlative linguistic bias, where visual metaphors abound. The result is that writers on film sound find themselves in situations where the existing limits of language prove too restrictive to adequately convey the way sound works, the way it moves and the way it sounds. Theorists like Michel Chion have attempted to resolve this difficulty by forging new words and terms which more accurately represent their ideas without the confusion of attempting to work with visually-charged language. Brophy confronts this challenge by manipulating language with a poetic sensibility, sparking the aural imagination in the ear of the reader.
In his introduction to the catalogue of modern soundtracks he has compiled, Brophy establishes the conditions upon which the selection was made, while at the same time quite convincingly arguing for a specific approach to acknowledging, examining and discussing film sound which is specifically sonic in nature, rather than a simplistic imposition of visual models onto sound. What seems to be at the core of this approach is the move to a more experiential style of writing on and about sound, where the sensation of hearing informs the language and the very structure of analysis. As such, there is an emphasis on the amalgamation of score and sound design in the interpretive and perceptual process of listening.
Clearly, the soundtrack is a chimera of the cinema. It is sound and noise; noise and music; music and speech; speech and sound. At no point can it be distilled into a form which allows us to safely state its essential quality […] Despite the many existing ways in which critics and practitioners tend to separate the two forces, they continue to combine according to a unique, mutative and hermetic logic - little of which conforms to literary models, operatic figures, painterly diagrams or photographic allusions. (1)
The ear and the flesh of the audience does not distinguish between these forces as though they are discrete elements. Sound is a physical event and is perceived through the body as such. In order to understand the operation of the film soundtrack, this inherent quality of sound and its perception needs to be considered without the distinctions between score and sound design which Brophy notes critics and practitioners seem so attached to. What comes of this perspective is the realisation of a more holistic approach to film sound where the voice as much as the sound effect becomes a sensual instrument rather than solely a vehicle for speech and its associated meanings.
However, Brophy significantly limits his employment of this approach in this context by defining his use of the 'modern soundtrack' as the subject. Arguing that "cinema is a spectacular practice" of modernism-as-destruction (3), Brophy goes onto claim that "all that is modern in cinema is the result of technological, metaphysical and existential enquiry" (4). His conclusion is that
Cinema's modern audiovisuality therefore has less to do with the enlightened Classical arts of literature, theatre, painting - even music; it has more to do with endoscopic exploration, plastic surgery, chemical alteration, electroshock therapy and nerve stimulation. (4)
By focusing on films which reveal "the scars, make-up and covering of these operations" while their soundtracks "acknowledge the mutated state of being which arises from decentred and deconstructed audiovisual distribution" (4), Brophy ultimately assembles a collection of films which challenge the relevance of an interpretive paradigm that demands the separation of score and sound design. In many of the films contained within, what is generated is more akin to a soundscape which defies the organising principles traditionally imposed on the soundtrack.
Brophy notes "key transformations by which the modern soundtrack is manifest" that are prominent in the films included in the collection. These include "ruminations on the nature of recorded sound", "the spatialisation of atmospheres and environments" and "celebrations of electricity" (4). Such "transformations" of a sonic nature can ultimately occur at a narrative, diegetic and spectatorial level. Here again Brophy emphasises the very nature of sound in its numerous layers of manifestation (physical, psychological, phonological to name a few of those he identifies) and notes that the modern soundtrack is marked by "heightened sensation" (5) of one or more of these layers. This notion of excess and overloading runs through both the films and Brophy's treatment and discussion of them. There is no restraint in his approach; the kinetic power of sound is present in Brophy's treatment of each soundtrack, enlivening the very language of examining sound and its reception.
The selection of films featured in 100 modern soundtracks is diverse and carefully considered. As well as the titles one would expect to feature owing to their previous treatment in studies of film sound (like The conversation (USA, 1974), Psycho (USA, 1960) The exorcist (USA, 1973) Once upon a time in the west (Italy/USA, 1968) The birds (USA, 1963)), there is a proliferation of less acknowledged works filling out the list which makes for a useful reference guide to films to keep an ear out for. Speaking personally, my own enthusiasm for film sound was excited with the concise but deliciously evocative treatment of soundtracks such as Suspiria (Italy/West Germany, 1977) Magnolia (USA, 1999) Videodrome (Canada/USA, 1983) and Akira (Japan, 1988).
There are so many more challenging, animate, writhing, pulsing ideas on modern film sound contained in Brophy's book than one could imagine would fit in its modest size and many more again than I could convey in a short review. His style is a practical direction of how critics and theorists might go some way to effectively convey the work of sound, and the affect that the modern soundtrack creates for its audience. In his writing, throbs the sensation of the bass and hiss of his sonic subject.