Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Notes for an Aesthetics of Cinema Sound

As life slowly climbed the ladder of evolution. one sense after another arrived and developed. 

Hearing was the last to arrive, and the last to attain a state bordering on perfection.  We have acquired the habit of giving the greater part of our attention to what we we, laving a mere fraction to what we hear 

-James Jeans (1937) 

Both the senses of sight and sound, it may be noted, arose out of the need to perceive movement; to locate an object, and one's own relationship to it; to gauge the pressures at work; to achieve points of equilibrium and to move in a controlled manner not only from static point to static point, as we seemed to imagine in our classical civilisations, but to find in these different vibrations, and differences of pressure, the vitality of being itself. 

"When does one say that a piece of material lives. When it continuously does something, moves ..." 

The atomic physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, quoted by Fritz Winckel. Winckel goes on to add that ".. . impulses to movement are, for example, electrical or chemical potential differences. When they are equalised, the tendency to form a chemical bond ceases: temperatures become equalised through heat transfer. Thermodynamic equilibrium results in a condition of constant rest (of maximum entropy), a condition which is precisely: death. From the physical standpoint, disorder is continuously created out of a condition of order. Nature strived for a condition of ideal disorder .. And again Schrodinger 

"The trick by which an organisation can keep its place on a rather high level of order consists in reality of a continuous absorption of order out of the surrounding world." 

Thus Music; 


Music is perhaps the most highly developed sensate function of human understanding. One can begin to speak of the aesthetics of sound only in relation to music, because it is this that provides the most fundamental expression of the states of being and of acting in a continuously impinging disorder. It is possible to read speech, to make sense of words one has never heard, as signs that refer to a content for a state of being or of action. 

As for incidental and atmospheric sounds in the cinema, they lie between The rest is silence. 

Yet silence, from which everything was originally supposed to begin, does not exist in an absolute sense. `The soundtrack invented silence' says Robert Bresson, and this is perhaps true in a far deeper sense than even he meant it. On the most obvious level, silence in music relates to space indirectly. In the cinema, on the other hand, it relates to space in movement. In music, it relates to the sustaining of a note, toreverberation, to absorption by the spatial enclosures, producing, transmitting, reflecting, and receiving the sound. In the cinema all this and more. In fact, cinema may or may not relate to the spaces which produce and receive sound. 

It is the arbitrariness of silence, created both by the sounds, the music, the speech and its juxtaposition with the visual imagery, changing in tone, line and colour that articulates silence further. For this perhaps a reference-point could be the discontinuites of sound in the scene where the heroine of Subannarekha kills herself of screen. Neither the spoken word nor music can work in such discontinuity. 

The smallest unit of the spoken word in any language is the allophone. In specific languages, it is the specific manner of continuously linking of allophones that constitutes a word or even a nonsense syllable. An 'isolated note cannot be perceived as music. If it is held for very long it may not be perceived at all. An isolated note is no different in meaning and perception than what we have just cited as an example of discrete sounds in silence. 

The silence of John Cage, or the pure frequency of the computer, if it is music, is so in a special sense which corresponds more closely with the function of speech, of context. Yet I am sure that it does seem to you, as it seems to me or to anyone who has worked in the cinema-I include those who actively see the cinema-that there is a great deal of overlap between all our categeries. 

In the development of almost all traditions of music, at any rate, the speech and the recitative has always been closely related to changes of frequency, if not the motive force. Many of the classical languages-and perhaps some modern languages-had developed meters from pitch and frequency variations rather than stress. In fact the Khayal gayaki, a system of music we are all familiar with, may be recognised as the highest form of the speech-music continuum. 

The absence of rigid notations, experienced by us today as a near impossibility, along with the apparent semantic poverty of its words, has perhaps made it possible for us to come nearer to what James jeans conjectures to be the music of the future: `. a continuous scale in which every interval can be made perfect'. The simplest example can come from the infinite variations upon the Bhairavi. But closer examination may reveal that we approach it even in pentatonic ragas like the Bhoop. 

For Helmholtz (1877) from whom all modern studies of the sensation of the tone, and the theory of music,.begin, a continuous scale was unimaginable-at least its understanding was impossible. For Winckel (1939), it is only in the context of disorderly sound movement that order arises. And music already begins for him to link itself with indeterminacy. 

It seems clearer than ever before that notations are a mere approximation. Since shrutis have to be heard, we should only strive to name approximations, not absolutes. Yet it is heartening to find that it is the search for precision that yields to flexibility. And vice versa, that it is the flexible language structure which is meaningful. Heartening for every artist who wishes to place himself in a tradition and yet to innovate, to individuate. 

It seems to me that in the use of sound, the cinema has only opened up great possibilities without realising them. When Bresson speaks of the evocation achieved by sound, he is often still speaking of the visual images it can conjure up as against the visual images that are concretely present. When Godard speaks of the destruction of the images, his form becomes anarchic-subservient to speech. And yet they, including Ghatak have gone about the furthest so far in the juxtaposition and superposition of text, sound and music. 

When Bresson asserts that the eye is less attentive than the ear, he is speaking of a condition when the spectator is attentive at all! For in the West, the twin enemies of the development of sound in cinema have been realism (note the unnecessary, unimaginative, recourse to music in the best of neo-realistic work of Rossellini, De Sica) and the theatre (the privileged, synchronous word). Even today despite the most sophisticated mixing equipment available, you can see the dips that take place the moment characters project dialogue. In India it is this same expressionist realist theatrical tradition that has deafened our ears to sound in films. 

Our epic theatre not only used music as part of its narration, but had linked itself to what we clearly find as a correspondence with music in the gesture and the use of verbal imagery. In koodydlom, Draupadi's lotus eyes, touched by kajal, could find a myriad means of expression through the employment of a few basic modes. The curvatures of sculpture find a unity in our aesthetic with the melodic lines that lead to a point of -rest (nyasa). 

It is this epic unity that we seek today, which would include in it the theories of causation and of history that have shaken us from our refined slumber ... It is chronology, not narrative, that we have to abandon. 

The article was originally published in  Issue no-5 1983 in Journal of Arts&Ideas its republished here from Digital South Asia Library Archive under the Creative Commons License


- Issue no-3 coming soon.

1 comment:

srikanth said...

When a soundtrack can cook up as rich a narrative as its imagse, why make it subservient? Making sound as implicative, if not as independent, as the visuals is perhaps what Ray calls poetry of cinema.

Thanks for this article/ Though I couldn't understand most of it, it is thought provoking nonetheless...