January 25, 2009
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It’s next time again
“If your soundtrack sucks, your movie sucks.” – eloquent advice from New York agent, Larry Meistrich
Consider the acoustic.
Imagine one of the great train stations in London, New York or Paris; a mammoth Eifflel tower–like construction of girders and glass. Your acoustic memory of the sounds of such a place is probably as vivid and romantic as the mental picture. These sorts of buildings talk to you with echos and they whisper about grand adventures and big ideas. Now imagine waiting in line at security in a modern airport. Between the bad muzak, the crowd noise, CNN at top volume and barking flight announcements laced with the authoritarian yammer of crowd control, and it is no wonder getting on an airplane has become so unpleasant.
I adored this sign in a European airport: “In an experiment with the effects of noise pollution we have eliminated flight announcements in this area. Please be advised.” That section of the airport was as restful as a library. It was heaven. Quiet is a new luxury. I am so fortunate to work inside of a recording studio where the peace and silence cocoons creativity.
For many, the antidote to the toxicity of noisy modern life is an iPod playing our own personal soundtracks. This only makes the producers of the outside noise crank up the volume to cut through our aural-induced haze. All this escalation of the “noise floor” around us has an effect, and causes lots of stress – but often it is below our radar. We get tense and cranky and we don’t know why.
Why is our reaction to audio often below the threshold of our conscious mind? By what means do sounds become containers for feelings? How do sounds become emotion delivery systems?
The word resonance can be used figuratively, meaning the suggestion of feelings, images and memories. Sounds evoke feelings. Does this happen by “Nature or Nurture?” The arguments of behavioral scientists can easily be brought into our relationships to sounds. The angel’s harp. The bugler at dawn. The Magic Flute. Are the rich images and associations we have with certain sounds learned, or are they innate to the sounds themselves? Clearly, it is a blending of both, but I’m curious about your ideas and how you would describe your interior reactions to sound as well as the memorable experiences of sound which have moved you in some extraordinary way.
Many years ago in a recording session with George Gates, the owner of Commercial Recording, I asked, “How do you think certain sounds seem gifted with particular personalities?” He said, “Blame Walt Disney.”
We make the connections early on. Baby talk comes to mind. The mother’s tone of voice is every bit as communicative as the words. Filmmakers latched on to evocative power of sound as soon as talkies were born. Even before that if you count the piano and organ accompaniments to early silent films. Images and music have often been wedded together as famous couples. The Lone Ranger and the William Tell Overture. The Five Ringed Olympics Logo and its trumpeted fanfare. Audrey Hepburn and Moon River. There is great artistry in such inspired choices and the power of those superbly executed decisions endures in pop culture.
The best filmmakers use sound every bit as well as they use pictures. Kubrick is perhaps the best example. His music choices are legend. Who would ever think of using a Strauss waltz for a docking maneuver with a space station? The juxtaposition of warm music and cool technology, in his film 2001, made film history. But, I’m not only talking about music. Sound Engineering is a magician’s workshop of auditory tools requiring special skills. Engineers build things. What most people don’t realize is how soundtracks build emotions and how, like an wicked undertow, they submerge the viewer into the flow of the story. Quality and craftsmanship are essential in every stage. In the dialog recording, the selection of music, the placement of sound effects, the application of equalization and compression, the mixing and the use of surround sound to create acoustic environments, every step clarifies and refines the cinematic experience. All of these ingredients are seamlessly blended together by the audio team to give a modern film fully one half of its ultimate power. Why do the images always get the lions share of our attention? Probably because all this work happens below the surface and is, by its very nature, invisible.
The architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes about “Acoustic Intimacy”
“Sight isolates, whereas sound incorporates: vision is directional, whereas sound is omni-directional. The sense of sight implies exteriority, but sound creates an experience of interiority. I regard an object, but sound approaches me; the eye reaches, but the ear receives. Buildings do not react to our gaze, but they do return our sounds back to our ears.
Hearing structures and articulates the experience and understanding of space. We are not normally aware of the significance of hearing in spatial experience, although sound often provides the temporal continuum in which visual impressions are embedded. When the soundtrack is removed from a film, for instance, the scene loses its plasticity and sense of continuity and the life. Silent film, indeed, had to compensate for the lack of sound by a demonstrative manner of overacting.”
The unsung hero of all great films (since The Jazz Singer, 1927) is the soundtrack. My brain is wired for the visual but I am learning the sound designer is every bit is crucial to the success of a film as the cinematographer. Sound is more difficult to write about and more difficult for me to describe because it is more elusive and more mysterious. I hope to write more about sound in the coming year and I’d like your help. Sound in film quite literally gets overlooked. No one ever says, “That was one of the best films I ever heard!” I’m not sure why this is so but I’m hoping you will come to the rescue and articulate some of the ways in which music, sound and acoustics has touched and enriched your life.
Until next time with much love I remain your