Unreal Nature

May 15, 2014

Spatial Magnetization

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… in the cinema there is spatial magnetization of sound by image.

This is from Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen by Michel Chion (1994):

… Why in the cinema do we speak of “the image” in the singular, when a film has thousands of them (only several hundred if it’s shots we’re counting, but these too are ceaselessly changing)? The reason is that even if there were millions, there would still be only one container for them, the frame. What “the image” designates in the cinema is not content but container: the frame.

… What is the corresponding case for sound? The exact opposite. For sound there is neither frame nor preexisting container. We can pile up as many sounds on the soundtrack as we wish without reaching a limit. Further, these sounds can be situated at different narrative levels, such as conventional background music (nondiegetic) and synch dialogue (diegetic) — while visual elements can hardly be located at more than one of these levels at once.

… What does a sound typically lead us to ask about space? Not “Where is it?” — for the sound “is” in the air we breathe or, if you will, as a perception it’s in our head — but rather, “Where does it come from?” The problem of localizing a sound therefore most often translates as the problem of locating its source.

Traditionally monaural film presents a strange sensory experience in this regard. The point from which sounds physically issue is often not the same as the point on the screen where these sounds are supposed to be coming from, but the spectator nevertheless does perceive the sounds as coming from these “sources” on the screen. In the case of footsteps, for example, if the character is walking across the screen, the sound of the footsteps seems to follow his image, even though in the real space of the movie theater, they continue to issue from the same stationary loudspeaker. If the character is offscreen, we perceive the footsteps as if they are outside the field of vision — an “outside” that’s more mental than physical.

Moreover, if under particular screening conditions the loudspeaker is not located behind the screen, but placed somewhere else in the auditorium or in an outdoor setting (e.g. at the drive-in), or if the soundtrack resonates in our head by means of earphones (watching a movie on an airplane), these sounds will be perceived no less as coming from the screen, in spite of the evidence of our own senses.

This means that in the cinema there is spatial magnetization of sound by image.

Acousmatic, a word of Greek origin discovered by Jérome Peignot and theorized by Pierre Schaeffer, describes “sounds one hears without seeing their originating cause.” Radio, phonograph, and telephone, all which transmit sounds without showing their emitter, are acousmatic media by definition.

… The cinema gives us the famous example of M; for as long as possible the film conceals the physical appearance of the child-murderer, even though we hear his voice and his maniacal whistling from the very beginning. Lang preserves the mystery of the character as long as he can, before “de-acousmatizing” him.

M_poster
[image from Wikipedia]

… In the narrow sense offscreen sound in film is sound that is acousmatic, relative to what is shown in the shot: sound whose source is invisible, whether temporarily or not. We call onscreen sound that whose source appears in the image, and belongs to the reality represented therein.

… The more reverberant the sound, the more it tends to express the space that contains it. The deader it is, the more it tends to refer to its material source. The voice represents a special case. In a film, when the voice is heard in sound closeup without reverb, it is likely to be at once the voice the spectator internalizes as his or her own and the voice that takes total possession of the diegetic space. It is both completely internal and invading the entire universe.

… I have given the name pit music to music that accompanies the image from a nondiegetic position, outside the space and time of the action. The term refers to the classical opera’s orchestra pit. I shall refer as screen music, on the other hand, to music arising from a source located directly or indirectly in the space and time of the action, even if this source is a radio or an offscreen musician.

… In Taxi Driver Bernard Herrmann’s main theme, heard as pit music throughout much of the film, crops up as the music on a photograph to which the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and his young hooker (Jodie Foster) dance.

My most recent previous post from Chion’s book is here.

-Julie

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