My violin teacher fired me when I was twelve. I apologized for my recalcitrant and defiant behavior in a handwritten letter, and she accepted my apology only to stand by her conviction a week later. I now find myself wishing things could have been different. Not because it would have been therapeutic to ground the amorphous days of a pandemic in a structured-sonorous practice, but to have trained my ear to listen more acutely to sound.
I am not an expert on sound, music, and noise but curious about how these elusive terms take shape within the framework of film and the history of cinema. And since I’m not an expert, I absolve myself from starting at the beginning—with the origin story of Sound and sound-film. Jazz Singer (dir. Alan Crosland, 1927), the first feature film with synchronized sound and dialogue, will not be my focus, nor the benshi who narrated Japanese silent feature films at the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, I will introduce Musique Concrète and Pierre Schaeffer and Paris in the late 1940s. But before arriving here, I must mention the Italian futurist Luigi Rusolo and his seminal manifesto on sound, The Art of Noise, published in 1913.
The industrial revolution spawned a fecund ecosystem of mechanical sounds venerated by Futurists who were fixated on modernity, technology, and innovation. The pounding atmospheres of cities and the tumultuous aural textures of battlefields inspired Luigi Rusolo to think about sound outside the confines of classical music, which he referred to as “a hospital for anemic sounds.” Western classical instruments were limited in tonalities and pitch, but modernity was burgeoning with an infinite variety of mechanical tones and pitches. Rusolo was interested in noise as sound and coined the phrase “noise-sound.”
Deliberating on mechanical and quotidian noises as sounds worthy of belonging to the realm of art, Rusolo shifted the prerogative of what constituted sound. He furthered his investigation through his invention of the intonarumori, an acoustic noise maker that generated twenty-seven different noises. Frequency and amplitude could be manipulated to generate different pitches and volumes of loudness. Rusolo believed that “Noise accompanies every manifestation of our life. Noise is familiar to us. Noise has the power to bring us back to life.” So sound was liberated from the confines of classical music and Musique Concrète emerged from its detritus.
Musique Concrète was of its times—without magnetic tape and tape recorders, it couldn’t have existed. The idea of recording sound was not new. One account of recording sound dates back to 1552. François Rabelai’s fourth book Gargantua and Pantagruel tells the tale of voyagers crossing the Northern Sea when they encounter sounds with unbeknownst sources—acousmatic sounds. They learn that the phantasmagoric sounds belonged to a battle that occurred during a year so cold they froze. And on that warm day, the sounds thawed and melted and could be heard, though only once before disappearing across the warming sea.
The proliferation of tape recorders (a residue of WW2) was essential for Musique Concrète. Instead of generating sounds with instruments, Pierre Schaffer began recording sounds from the real-world, the concrete world. Sound recordings of trains and wind and voices were the aural material used in the compositions of the Musique Concrète movement. The non-musical sounds and the studio techniques—looping, slowing and speeding, and reversing sound—that Pierre Schaffer experimented with in the 1950s presaged the prodigious electronic sound industry of contemporary music and film.
Schaffer gave sounds a new temporality: non-musical sounds could be recorded. The abstract process of writing music—conceived as notes on paper that are then played by instruments—enabled the reproduction of music. But before Musique Concrète the noise-sounds of reality were perishable, gone as soon as they were registered. They lacked the permanence of the visual field and the reproducibility of music. Musique Concrète altered notions of noise-sounds by changing their temporality; what was fleeting could now be replayed. The thawed cryogenic sounds of a battle could once again withstand their fleeting nature, although in a different ontological state.
Noise-sound recordings engendered a new way of meditating on sound: as something independent from the object producing it. Unmooring sound from its source of production allowed for a “pure” form of listening—one void of visual associations and systems of meaning. The decoupled sound unit that emerges is the sound object and becomes acousmatic when its cause is unknown or unseen
Detaching sound from its source created infinite possibilities of how scenes and dialogue and effects could sound in a film. Sounds-films were no longer limited to an orchestra or instrumental interpretation, marking the start of field recordings and aural libraries replete with multifarious sound-noises. Ursine and walrus grunts became iconic as they gave language to a Wookie; chimeric sounds breathed life into mythological creatures like Godzilla; prosaic sounds gathered from cables and keys gave illustrious scenes of combat credibility. Active listening can shed insight on how sound appeases and distresses; the psychological and emotional implications of an acousmatic sound that lingers untethered for too long can be heard in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Lucrecia Martel, and Yorgos Lanthimos. And the noises populating the soundscapes of the future reveal their differences.
Sounds conjure effects and sensations and emotions in ways that are sometimes obvious and other times discrete. Sound imbues the realistic and fantastic, the futuristic and historical, the banal and the extraordinary with credibility—the scaffolding that supports the world-building that unfolds within the audio-visual. Musique Concrète lauded the aural purity of decoupled sound. But sound exists in contexts that are shaped but not limited to race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, culture and ethnicity, economics, politics, and religion. Sound is enmeshed in context but also enmeshes the viewer-listener. This duality reveals nuance about the real world through the aural process of world-building.
Chion, Michel, and James A Steintrager. Sound : An Acoulogical Treatise. Durham, Duke University Press, 2016.
Rusolo, Luigi. “Tha Art of Noise.” Something Else Press, 1923.
“Electronic Music – Part 1 of 3 – Musique Concrète | WNYC | New York Public Radio, Podcasts, Live Streaming Radio, News.” WNYC, http://www.wnyc.org/story/electronic-music-part-1-of-2/. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.
“Pierre Schaeffer and the Birth of Musique Concrète | Frieze.” Frieze, http://www.frieze.com/article/music-22.