Unreal Nature

May 22, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… Materializing indices can pull the scene toward the material and concrete, or their sparsity can lead to a perception of the characters and story as ethereal, abstract and fluid.

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

… A common perspective to which we made reference in the preceding chapter, which might be called naturalist, postulates that sounds and images start out in “natural harmony.” Proponents of this approach seem surprised not to find it working in the cinema; they attribute the lack of this natural audiovisual harmony to technical falsifications in the filmmaking process. If people would only use the sounds recorded during shooting, without trying to improve on them, the argument goes, this unity could be found.

Such is of course rarely the case in reality. Even with so-called direct sound, sounds recorded during filming have always been enriched by later addition of sound effects, room tone, and other sounds. Sounds are also eliminated during the very shooting process by virtue of placement and directionality of microphones, soundproofing, and so on. In other words, the processed food of location sound is most often skimmed of certain substances and enriched with others. Can we hear a great ecological cry — “give us organic sound without additives”?

Occasionally filmmakers have tried this, like Straub in Trop tôt trop tard. The result is totally strange. Is this because the spectator isn’t accustomed to it? Surely. But also because reality is one thing, and its transposition into audiovisual two-dimensionality (a flat image and usually a monaural soundtrack), which involves radical sensory reduction, is another. What’s amazing is that it works at all in this form.

[ … ]

… A sound of voices, noise, or music has a particular number of materializing sound indices [m.s.i.], from zero to infinity, whose relative abundance or scarcity always influences the perception of the scene and its meaning. Materializing indices can pull the scene toward the material and concrete, or their sparsity can lead to a perception of the characters and story as ethereal, abstract and fluid.

The materializing indices are the sound’s details that cause us to “feel” the material conditions of the sound source, and refer to the concrete process of the sound’s production. They can give us information about the substance causing the sound — wood, metal, paper, cloth — as well as the way the sound is produced — by friction, impact, uneven oscillations, periodic movement back and forth, and so on.

… In many musical traditions perfection is defined by an absence of m.s.i.s. The musician’s or singer’s goal is to purify the voice or instrument sound of all noises of breathing, scratching, or any other adventitious friction or vibrance linked to producing the musical tone. Even if she takes care to conserve at least an exquisite hint of materiality and noise in the release of the sound, the musician’s effort lies in detaching the latter from its causality. Other musical cultures — some African traditions, for example — strive for the opposite: the “perfect” instrumental or vocal performance enriches the sound with supplementary noises, which bring out rather than dissimulate the material origin of the sound. From this contrast we see that the composite and culture-bound notion of noise is closely related to the question of materializing indices.

… An m.s.i. in a voice might also consist of the presence of breathing noise, mouth and throat sounds, but also any changes in timbre (if the voice breaks, goes off-key, is scratchy). For the sound of a musical instrument, m.s.i.s would include the attack of a note, unevennesses, friction, breaths, and fingernails on piano keys. An out of tune chord in a piano piece or uneven voicing in a choral piece have a materializing effect on the sound heard. They return the sound to the sender, so to speak, in accentuating the work of the sound’s emitter and its faults instead of allowing us to forget the emitter in favor of the sound or the note itself.

Bresson and Tarkovsky have a predilection for materializing indices that immerse us in the here-and-now (dragging footsteps with clogs or old shoes in Bresson’s films, agonized coughing and painful breathing in Tarkovsky’s). Tati, by suppressing m.s.i.s, subtly gives us an ethereal perception of the world: think of the abstract dematerialized perception of the dining room’s swinging door in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

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




Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: