Pseudo Soundtracks

The Myth of Inventive Audiovision in Experimental Cinema

keynote talk for the 2007 Totally Huge New Music Conference, Perth
transcribed for Sound Scripts, Vol.2, Australian Music Centre, Sydney, 2009
Aurevelateur (2004)


Cinematic audiovision, when thought of as a mutated, molecular, fused phenomenon, is probably the most under-theorised aspect of anything to do with hybridity and cultural interaction I can think of. When I was a kid this was not a problem for me. But as I moved through various streams of academia and practice, I came to the view that nothing has changed for about forty years.

Probably the best way to describe how you should ideally be attuned to the audiovisual is that you first have to be, within your mind, completely bisexual or poly-sexual. Anything heterosexual about you is going to inhibit you conceptually. That is not a queer thesis or anything. I am using that metaphorically to suggest how to deal with this ongoing problem that composers and musicians know a fuck of a lot about music, but know jack-shit about cinema, while film-makers, producers and film theoreticians know nothing about music. Amongst those of us here today, I guess we are mostly musicians and composers. So the equivalent of how it works in cinema is that film people have two CDs. One of them is an Enya CD and the other is the score to The Mission (1986) by Ennio Morricone. That is their understanding of all possible cultural formations of music that can happen in cinema, and also of the history of music in cinema. The reverse is in the case of musicians and composers in terms of their grasp of cinema. Just checking out a few art-house movies from the last decade—that is not going to help.

My own practice has no hierarchical basis to it. Jean-Luc Goddard’s Passion (1982) and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1977): to me there is no difference. I make no distinction between what people refer to as high and low culture. People generally assume that I am a pop culture person, but pop culture is New Music composition these days. So I am talking from a completely collapsed plane or perspective. I am not advocating any form of classification. I am advocating just a continuous swirling around, like oil and water, so that it is constantly full of motion and dynamics.

My background in this kind of thinking is represented by a number of publications and conferences in which I have been involved. Cinesonics, for example, was a twenty-two part series that was published in RealTime Australia from 1997 to 2001. That was looking at issues of surround-sound in cinema. The Secret History of Film Music—which is not my title, by the way—was published in the London-based magazine, The Wire, in 1997 and 1998. That was a fifteen part series looking at models of twentieth century film music in a completely non-hierarchical manner, covering everyone from Krzysztof Penderecki to Phil Spector, and the way in which those kinds of musics appear in film. I also ran the international conference on film sound, Cinesonic, from 1998 to 2001, at RMIT University in Melbourne. For that, I deludedly attempted to bring together the music fraternity with the film industry. Traces of Soundtracks, which I do not think anyone heard, was commissioned by ABC Classic FM in 2005. That was a four part series looking at twentieth century ways of using atonal music in film scores. It profiled composers Bernard Herrmann, Quincy Jones, Toru Takemitsu, and Ennio Morricone—two of whom are really well known, while two of whom are under acknowledged—and then how these four incorporated orchestration and studio arrangements into cinema each from their very different cultural perspectives: as a white American, an African-American, a Japanese, and an Italian perspective. Finally there is 100 Modern Soundtracks. This was a book which was commissioned by the British Film Institute in 2004. So what I am presenting today draws on the thinking that went into those publications as well as my own practice.

Today I want to outline some of the major problems with conventional thinking about the audiovisual which exist within cinema and composition today, and then close by briefly sketching a few alternative strategies with regards to how to orient sound and vision. I will also talk a bit about my own score, Aurévélateur, which I composed and I play with guitarist Dave Brown, and which accompanies Philippe Garrel’s silent, black and white film Le révélateur (1968).

I. The Mania For Triggering

Synaesthetic Overload

Most discussion of music in film is based on very Wagnerian notions, which have to do with multiple, simultaneous overstatement across media. This works fine in opera. That is basically what most opera is. Conventional opera is like Spinal Tap: it is “eleven.” There are modulations, but opera is essentially fascistic. Most things are fascistic, in fact, and are quite pleasurable because of this. What I mean though is that there is an overarching mania for unifying everything according to a single authorial voice emanating from the centre of the composer-apparatus. That authorial voice ends up breathing life into every level of what in fact becomes a mimetic production of opera itself. This idea that the composer acts like some sort of snowy-bearded godhead who puffs up his cheeks and blows through all of the instruments and all of the performers, imparting this narrative force into everything—which is very Judaeo-Christian, as well as being Eurocentric. The Western opera machine then vibrates in consonance with this one breath that pummels through the apparatus. This is the pleasure principle of opera. It is what can make opera fantastic, this idea that every possible facet of the diegetic stage which you are in front of is reflecting itself back out to you in this self-referential totality. There are other bits of art throughout, but the directive impulse—and particularly the ideological implications—are very much about the unification of strata into a compressed singularity. Cinema has in turn been brought up by this.

Cinema is like the teenage sons of jazz teachers. Their dad has been playing jazz classics to them and those kids are now going to be screwed for a long time. They need complete re-education. They need an enema. Film-makers, like all modern artists, are wanting to be new, but we are looking to the well established pathways of something that is similar to our own practice for guidance on how to do this. We have to put music to an image: we ask where else has music been put to image? Consequently, cinema is based—sometimes consciously, mostly unconsciously—on the historical precedent of Richard Wagner’s ideal of the total operatic artwork: the gesamtkunstwerk. The worst cinema—Star Wars (1977), The Lord of the Rings (2001)—is completely regressive in this sense. In those films, everything is unifying itself, but this time with only the mirage of an authorial voice. In opera there is a legitimate authorial voice behind it. In cinema there is meant to be some sort of visionary director person who somehow is operating the complete filmic deus ex machina. In terms of music and interrelationships, what you basically get is music that behaves like it does in an opera. That is, it states what is already apparent. In conventional opera, as I have said, there is a certain aesthetic logic to this—a questionable logic, but a logic nevertheless. But cinema imports this in a quite ungainly fashion.

Emotional Synchronism

Emotional synchronism is a particularly important Wagnerian idea which is operative throughout cinema. A mother is on screen and her child is now dead, in her arms, after having just been run over by a truck or something. She is on the ground, crying—so we better put in some sad music, because you need to know that she is sad. To this kind of logic, I personally respond that you do not in fact need to know, musically, something which you already know. Cinema itself is particularly conservative in this respect, though. At least within the artifice of opera, there is a sense in which you are critically aware of how all those voices are coalescing. Cinema however is presumed to be more instructional and information based. You need to know what is happening in every scene. This has completely fucked over cinema. This means of course that you can kill anyone you want to on screen so long as you got a bit of Henryk Górecki playing underneath. That is like one big tit stuffed in your mouth right there. It is a sucker-principle, this belief that you actually need to somehow be set at ease, that the person who made the movie wants you to feel some sort of empathy with what is going on. That is a completely parental, limiting and controlling approach to audiovisual construction. It is as though the film is wanting to step outside of itself and reassure us that no humans were harmed in the making of this movie. That is what most film music is saying, particularly in these post-9/11 times: humanism itself may be going down the drain, but we have got to keep that humanist empathy going in the cinema at least. Even that has its origins in operatic principles about clarifying emotional tenor for the audience—which is why I am not well predisposed to opera. I do not want any of the emotional tenor of what I am shown on the stage or on the screen to be clarified for me. When you interact with people, you cannot control their emotional tenor nor can you ensure that you correctly read their emotional tenor. Emotionally, we’re all over the place. It is only in opera and cinema that the emotion is somehow constricted, controlled and transparently readable.

This form of pre-coded mimicry is quite sophisticated, but only inasmuch as it has become ingrained in us all over the last 150 years. It dominates how we read the signification of emotional states in all American movies, as well as most other English-language movies and a large proportion of European cinema. Japan does not do this and in fact has never done it.

Abstract Simulation

Abstract simulation is at least one interesting counter-trend. Over the last decade, people have been getting abstract experimental films and then performing abstract experimental music to these films, very often using an improvisational practice. Sometimes this is okay, but I have seen many of these events, and I often find myself sitting there thinking: “I wonder what the Bay City Rollers would sound like played along to Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animations?” There is this notion that avant-garde or challenging film requires that the music should be challenging as well: you might have some experimental scene and then, in order for it to be audiovisually qualified as experimental, the music itself should be experimental too. What I am getting at then is that this kind of combination of music and vision becomes like a sign being held up that says: “This is an experimental music event of great historic importance!” The message is: “This film is being shown to let you know that I am doing experimental music—no rock’n’roll here dude, no pop music.” That again is a triggering notion based on a cultural hierarchy. Film occupies this historical plane, therefore the musical practice, the musical tools and the musical language should somehow be triggered from that higher plane—but not necessarily from the image itself. There is a certain obviousness in that.

II. A Manual For Simultaneity

What I am advocating as an alternative though is what I would refer to as a manual for simultaneity. It is a bit harder to explain, but pretty much everything which I have published is somehow aligned with this notion, which is about allowing things to cohabit in time, whilst responding to the fact that these things which are cohabiting have no determinative power upon each other or upon you as an audience member either.

In screen composition, a key term is the music cue. This is a section of vision for which it has somehow been decided that it requires music in one way or another. The duration of the vision is what then becomes the means for determining the nature of the musical cue. The term “cue” itself is again based on this triggering impulse in cinema and opera; this idea that the image “cues” you. This is theatrical terminology: this is your cue. Something happens on screen and that is the cue for the music to happen.

If you are making music for a film, you rarely get to see the script itself. The director and the producer shoot the movie. You do not get to see that. The director and the editor then go through a very tight bonding process of working on the rough cut. If it is a feature, this would be four to six weeks. They put together the rough cut using temporary music tracks—a bit of Enya, a bit of The Mission—which they slap throughout the film. They use someone else’s music, based purely on their own taste—and taste is the enemy of everything. It is how you limit yourself. You have got to go beyond that, particularly when writing music for cinema. Film music requires you, unlike in your own musical practice, to go into areas that you cannot maintain a personal relationship with. The film will call for something else, and you will have to respond to it. For me, that is a wonderfully non-humanist way of being involved with creativity and art practice. I am responding to the fact that the film is not asking me for anything, it is simply asking for something. I have to see whether I can find it. It is an emptying principle, which I enjoy.

Conventionally, the director and the editor then speak to the composer. The composer sits down in front of what is essentially rough cut, or more likely a fine cut. The composer is told: “We want music from here to there, just as they close the door—and can you make it like The Mission?!” So this is what you actually have to deal with. When Igor Stravinsky fled occupied France for the US in 1939, I do not know what film it was, but they said to him: “Dude, you are part of the whole post- World War II European high art influx into America, and we are really neurotic. We have no history yet. Cinema is new, but we want to give it cultural prestige. You guys trained in the European academy, but we are all still cowboys over here! We want you to do some film music for us.” Stravinsky says: “Umm, yes, it will take me one and a half years.” And they say: “Dude, dude! You have got two and a half weeks!” And Stravinsky said: “Good bye.”

So what actually happens to all the rest of us is that everything has already been decided within the film-making process itself. The composer then has to pathetically grapple with this situation. When I started the Cinesonics conferences, it was in a deluded attempt to advocate new models of doing this within the Australian film industry—really “radical” things like letting the composer read a script, or like letting the composer do some test interpretations of the dramaturgy (not the visuals, but the dramaturgy) and then feed that into the editing process. Then when the editor and the director start temp-ing with music, they can actually use music which is potentially going to be used in the final version. The whole thing of temp music, at the end of the day, is that it controlled by very narrow tastes. It is not that the film-makers are dumb or unintelligent. It is simply a question of exposure and logistics. Composers are the one who have to deal with this situation. It is the reason why all film music sounds crap. Two and a half weeks is the standard time currently allocated for writing music for a feature. A big budget feature or a Hollywood film is twelve days to do the complete score. We are not talking a few cues here. We are talking John Williams’ I-am-going-to-shit-for-the-longest-time-possible-for-two-hours-and-I-will-not-shut-up! The music is just going to go “ppppffffffttttt!” for the whole bloody movie! Those scores just bellow aimlessly. And when you do not have music of that kind now, the general audience feel like there is something lacking in the production values. “I do not feel that I got quality there!” This whole idea was imported ideologically into the Hollywood institutional apparatus before the close of the Second World War and high European culture was bomb-dropped onto American frontier narratives.

Events: Asynchronous Occurrence

Following on from these Wagnerian principles, cinema has a real mania for synchronising on screen events to musical changes. The colloquial term for the most direct form of these correspondences is “Mickey-Mousing.” This is the idea that someone looks behind them and then “diddlum, diddlum, diddlum” in time with each movement, the music is maniacally copying what the characters are doing on screen. Again, that is very operatic: this idea that the music is somehow controlling the puppets which are on stage. Cinema definitely shares this characteristic. Even chromatic chord changes across scenes tend to act like cards being held up in a movie. It is particularly noticeable in movies though because they are trying to be subtle about it. If they just said: “No, it is going to happen here!” you would accept it, in much the same way as you accept it in opera. It is like “Pow!”—and you ride with it. Morricone is probably the best example of this. Morricone never does a subtle fade out. If you look at his scores from the 1960s and into the 1980s, Morricone and the Italians have that operatic sense of: “Here is the music!” It really happens in a forceful way. You get used to that artifice, which then becomes naturalised as you experience the film.

One of the things which is interesting about contemporary digital art in this respect is just how far this mania for synchronic audiovisual triggering has gone—particularly using programs like MAX-MSP. It has reached the point where it is no longer manic but schizophrenic, as many of you would have seen with Robin Fox’s coordination of his laptop sound score and a moving, point-laser beam as part of his audiovisual performance last night. There is an incredible, almost numbingly-precise correlation of the on/off impulse here. This is the core of digital art: the binary switch, flicking. We are now getting into what I would describe as more post-operatic modes of cinematic overload. Audiences are presented with amazingly precise audiovisual configurations which do not necessarily concur with each other apart from the fact that they happen at the exact same point in time. The more precise this correlation, the more you get the sense that they are fused together. The sound which you are hearing is the image which you are seeing, and vice-versa. Of course, there is no natural or organic connection between them at all, except for the fact they are precisely synchronised. This produces an emptying out of these eighteenth and nineteenth century humanist notions which I have been talking about.

More than just this though, I want to explore the idea of event-asynchronous concurrence. This is finding ways in which you do not make music happen at the same point that something related to it is also happening on screen. The music is not in “sync,” but it is still concurring with things. This is where you have to get inside what is not visible on the screen, which is particularly to do with interiority.

Durations: Distended Shaping

So to return to music cues and working with rough cuts. What this means is that the image is already dictating everything in a truly fascist sense. That instantly sets up a power base which causes problems and inhibits more free-form, alternative compositional models, because everything is being pushed automatically in that direction. What I am interested in then is looking at the duration of the music “cue” in terms of what I call distended shaping. What that means is that image-wise, the scene might be doing one thing, but dramaturgically, it might actually be proceeding in a manner quite different to this visual structure. Distended shaping is a way of responding not to what is literally on screen, but instead to how dramaturgically things weave their way throughout the script and the vision to end up referencing various psychological mechanisms which might combine to cause a character to perform a set of actions which are in turn only visually captured in the last few frames. I have been involved in films where I have held off playing the actual musical theme until the final credits roll, because there was no need for it to be stated earlier. I made inferences of the theme, but only let it fully resonate in the credit sequence. There are other ways you can do this. You can approach the placement of music in a very malleable way. When you have the opportunity to give the director and the editor extended passages of music that you have composed dramaturgically, they can then find those distended shapes for themselves. I have never dictated for other people that this is whereabouts in the film that the music should go. I compose dramaturgically. I then give it over to them and say: “Work it out!” I have to trust—sometimes wrongly—that the director knows what he or she wants. It is important to give that power to the director. In much the same way that, as a composer, you are going to work with certain musicians because they have a recognisable identity in their playing or other characteristics. There is a specific language which they are developing through their approach or in their relationship to the instrument. You want to let them do it all, in some sense: you want to create the space for them to do that. Film-making does not allow this to happen a lot, but logistically, it is quite simple to do.

Layers: Modulation Interference

Other audiovisual strategies include a quasi self-reflexive mode in which you can layer sound, music and the interaction between them according to dramaturgical principles of distended shaping, rather than simple synchronicity or narrative linearity. Sound in film is multi-tracked or stratified. This produces horizontal and vertical structures or levels of depth within a film. You have dialogue, atmospheres, spot sound effects, and music. Sometimes they will modulate with respect to each other. One will recede while another will take over. Usually dialogue will always sit on top, because cinema is based on humano-centric theatre. (Go back to the ancient Greeks, blame it on them.) There are ways in which you can alter that quite radically though. Sometimes a great moment for music can happen in a film when someone is talking. You have to have a good director to work with on this one. You could, though, remove the dialogue but keep the characters visibly talking and then have the music overcome them. That change in the sound can say something, irrespective of the content of the music itself, which is to do with a sense of being overcome, emotionally and psychologically, in the film. This is something which I have dealt with, because I make my own films, I do sound designs and I do music.

There is no sense worrying about hierarchical structures then. For many composers who I have discussed this with or who contributed to symposiums, they have often been frustrated with the whole film-making process. They really have to relinquish control. The only way you going to take the power-knock on the jaw from film is by relaxing your body. If you are going to be tense, you are going to be fucked up by it. The more control you want for your score in the film, the more it is going to be an unpleasant experience for you. You have got to relax, go with the flow, and find ways to thread yourself in variable ways throughout the process. There is nothing more depressing than reading interviews with composers who bitch about the film-making process. If you have been making major film scores for twenty years and you have not been able to wrangle a situation a bit more on your own terms, that is like being in a really bad marriage. Just get divorced! There is nothing to be gained from elevating this. Here, we have the Australian Screen Composers Guild. It is great to have a guild where everyone gets together to say: “Yeah, fucking producers this, and fucking directors that!” Dude, do not whinge about it. Find alternative methods to get things across! Since I do not come from a specifically musical training in that way, this has never been a problem for me.

III. Aurévélateur (2004)

Having talked conceptually around these things, I want to end by discussing my own composition, Aurévélateur. This is a musicological score, not a music score. It is specifically about referencing modalities and tonalities in the history of rock music from the late 1960s up to the mid 1970s. The film is set in that period—but it looks very contemporary. A lot of people see the film and think it is a Seattle Indie band trying to replicate Joy Division’s look from the late 1970s. But the film was actually made in 1968, even though it does not really look like a 1968 movie.

Accepting performers on-screen as life-forces not humans

Part of the idea with Aurévélateur is the idea of accepting the on screen performers as life forces, not as humans per se. You will noticed throughout my talk today there is an anti-humanist thing going on. This is because humanism is a deluded, hierarchical, self-centred practice that has somehow become aligned with the intelligentsia. It seems accepted that if you are a humanist, you have somehow reached this other level of consciousness. All that means though is that you have gone more neurotically into yourself, because you think that humans are more important than anything. So when you watch a movie, you think you are looking at humans. They are not. They are characters. It is just images, nothing human there. Also, you are probably not human anyway. What the fuck is a human? In film, but especially with a lot of composers, people are always talking about the “human drama.” This idea that somehow there is this elevated human principle, which makes you feel better about yourself because it is an important quality quite distinct from all this other “crap,” which you can safely ignore because that is not humanist, or it is exploitative or so on. This is simply a hierarchy. It is just causing problems and limiting your perception.

Allowing screen energies to co-exist

Le révélateur is thankfully one of those beautiful movies which is what I would call a true a “psychodrama.” So the characters are puppetting themselves. That is the principle of psychodrama—this idea that you empty your humanness and become a psychological element within a scene. This is enacted in the family dynamic of the film. When I am composing music for this film, I do not need to explain anything about what these people are doing. It is all there. I can understand what is happening, their performance mode, their recourse to this gridlock of gestures, repetitions and patterns. I do not have to illuminate anything. What I am rather looking at is their energy. This is something that works with naturalistic drama too. You do not need to listen to what they are saying, you do not worry about whether they are on or off screen. Instead you get a sense of what energy field is created psychologically by their presence or absence within the dramaturgy of the narrative. In this mode, you might compose music which represents one character who is not actually present on screen within the scene, but whose presence is felt in an interior sense by another character who is on screen. This is quite a simple, lateral way to understand dramaturgy and psychological signification on the screen. This was easy to do because Garrel’s Le révélateur is a film with no spoken script as such. I am also allowing two types of energies to coexist. The characters are doing nothing which would have any connection specifically to those chords, while at the same time the music is doing its own chugging energy. Both are metaphorically gridlocked though.

Song score functions as backing to the ‘silent lyrics’ of the screen performers

I did these extended passages which referenced different kinds of music—specifically David Bowie’s album Heroes, which was recorded in Berlin in 1977. It was a very important neo-Krautrock album. The film is actually set in south-western Germany, in the Black Forest, along the autobahn there. Those aspects of post-war German culture were very influential on the development of Krautrock, with bands like Faust, Neu and Kraftwerk. In the early 1970s, Bowie and his then collaborator Brian Eno completely plugged into that world when they first went to Berlin. They referenced a whole lot of Neu’s music—the title of Bowie’s Heroes is in inverted commas because it refers to a famous 1973 track by Neu called “Helden,” or “Heroes.” There is a lot of dense musicological referencing of those artists who were in turn vibing off this Germanic motor-rock—that motoric sort of pummelling sound, like the Kraftwerk sound. I am referencing all of those things and trying to find where I can place them throughout the film—not so it will explain anything that is happening on screen with the characters, but rather it will allow whatever energy they are projecting to proceed independently, unfettered by the music. The idea then was to place the music in Aurévélateur so that their performances would act as if they were lyrics, and I was doing the backing music to their lyrics.

Because they are so repetitive in their gestures, and the film itself is quite extended in that sense, I made sure that the music did not elaborate anything further. There are whole sections that some people might find boring where we just went “da, daa, de daa da da,” and that goes for two minutes; no embellishment, no changes. I am not here to unleash my authorial scripture on you. It is more like there are two chords and we are just chugging away. The characters are up there, gridlocked, and we are completely gridlocked here too. Composers often have this impulse to somehow ameliorate that kind of droning repetitiveness. I have no problem with repetitiveness. Most of us lead pretty boring and repetitive lives most of the time.

Text © Philip Brophy. Thanks to Jonathan Holmes & Cat Hope for transcription & editing. Images © respective copyright holders.