How many times have you experienced that moment when you’re engrossed in the drama of a movie and then, suddenly, music or sound rises from the soundtrack and, as a result, the moment is intensified as the image takes on another dimension of feeling and depth and as the music’s lyricism moves through you? It is precisely this moment – where ‘sound’ meets ‘image’ – that founding director Philip Brophy describes as the fundamental concern and interest of Cinesonic, an International Conference on Film Scores and Sound Design.
With great irony, Philip welcomed the opening night audience to the 3rd Cinesonic amidst the jarring, high-pitched feedback of his microphone. It was the only moment when the materiality of sound as an object of discussion entered the proceedings of Cinesonic uninvited! Nine presentations by local and international theorists and practitioners, film screenings (films selected primarily for their achievements in sound) and a forum devoted to the discussion of the making of the sound for a recent Australian film Mallboy filled the following three days. Not to mention the Opening Night, which featured special guest Jack Nitzsche whose achievements in music supervision, composing and producing for film over the last three decades are unprecedented.
Cinesonic is a totally unique event primarily because it is the only conference in the world exclusively devoted to exploring sound (soundtracks, composition, dialogue, sound effects) in film. At Cinesonic, such exploration takes place from a range of perspectives and emphases: technological, industrial, historical, aesthetic, cultural, or any combination of these. This is one of the unique features of Cinesonic – the eclectic nature of the topics of its papers, which this year ranged from a ground-breaking discussion of the often ignored or overlooked work of the music supervisor to “hearing” sound in silent film to the technology of Dolby Digital to the music in Stanley Kubrick’s films to “perverse” manifestations of the musical in contemporary film, and more. Overall the conference both legitimises sound as an object of study in film criticism and also raises the awareness of the significance of sound design and film scores in our viewing pleasure or displeasure.
The conference opened with special guest Jack Nitzsche, in a program slot titled Revolutionizing Cinema: Or, how I put Rock ‘n’ Roll in movies. The real beauty of Cinesonic is its “pioneering” quality: the way it uncovers and brings to the spotlight real achievements and innovation in sound design and film score that would otherwise remain obscured.
Nitzsche’s career began in the rock/pop recording industry as a producer, musician, arranger and engineer. His career path was entwined with the rise of rock’n’roll (having even backed Elvis Presley in one of his films Girls! Girls! Girls! [Norman Taurog, 1962]). He arranged for Phil Spector and produced for the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Monkees and The Cramps. Once he began score composing and music producing for film, Nitzsche relied heavily on his many contacts in the rock world, which included legends such as Miles Davis, Taj Mahal, Captain Beefheart and so on. His ability to work with musicians combined with his particularly innovative approach to producing sound and detailed knowledge of the sounds and musical instruments from other cultures and, of course, his genuine and innate love of music and connection to the sonic, meant that Nitzsche achieved something radical in his work for the cinema.
Throughout the “conversation” with Nitzsche, clips from various films he worked on were screened and then discussed, including Performance (1970), Cruising (1980), Blue Collar (1978), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Starman (1984), The Hot Spot (1990/1), The Indian Runner (1991), Cutter’s Way (1981). It was quite a treat to be in the presence of such a prolific and accomplished music producer, composer, arranger and so on (who had worked with some of rock’s greats). Although his very laconic, laid-back, soulful kind-a-style precluded rigorous analysis or discussion of his working methods, there were occasional moments when Nitzsche shared a revealing anecdote or two. For instance, after a clip from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he recounted how one of the sounds for that section of the film was produced: one morning, very early, sitting at a bar, aimless and empty time, circling the brim of empty glasses with one’s finger, and, suddenly, a sonic effect.
As the program notes declare, Nitzsche’s contribution to “strategically working the soundtrack as a site for truly modern manifestations of rock’s infection of the cinema” is impossible to ignore. In a further anecdote, Nitzsche revealed that it’s likely he’ll be working again in Hollywood soon – I look forward to hearing the results.
A new addition to this year’s Cinesonic program was the inclusion of film screenings, in particular, those films notable for their contribution to the history of film soundtracks. The first double bill, introduced by Adrian Martin, included William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1971), with music supervision by Nitzsche, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1970). While the former features a very sparse yet powerful and profoundly haunting sound design, the latter is a fascinating example of the sensibilities and aspirations of the era and the filmmaker. Scenes of The Rolling Stones recording their song “Sympathy for the Devil” are inter-cut with extended sequences of political-revolutionary readings by Black Panthers and Maoists. Defiantly political on the level of form and content, the film is equally lyrical in those scenes where Godard’s camera fluidly scans the studio-space in which the Stones record their music. The second double bill, introduced by Philip Brophy, included Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), two films which are fascinating case-studies for their contribution to the soundtrack. Overall, the inclusion of film screenings into the Cinesonic program was an auspicious move, not only for the benefits it provided in enabling conference attendees to watch films with a heightened awareness of the role of music and sound design in film, but also for its gesture in presenting these films to the public under the rubric of “sound in film”.
The first conference paper presented was Bill Routt’s Hearing Silent Films. Like Ian Penman’s Klang! Garvey’s Ghost meets Heidegger’s Geist: Or, how DUB became everyone’s soundtrack already, always & forever more, Routt’s paper was very reliant on pre-existing theoretical ideas and concepts to establish its argument. The apparent topic of Routt’s paper suggests an immediate and inherent contradiction: how can you hear silent films? However, through his already fine and insightful thinking on silent cinema, Routt quickly set any such preconceptions or assumptions aside. In my own very crude interpretation of Routt’s very subtle, eloquently expressed argument: silent cinema often presents images that are the “visual equivalents” of sound or music (for example, a dog barking) that, therefore, imply a shift in the senses from seeing to hearing. Around this point, Routt raises some fascinating questions to do with “synesthesia” as a foundation for understanding “aesthetic experience” and the interrelation of the arts. Routt touched on various powerful and fascinating theoretical concepts throughout the course of his paper: Alain Masson’s claim that silent cinema images work according to Symbolist theory and practice and early psychology (where they signify something other and greater then their referent); synesthesia; inner speech (hearing without sound, for example, in dreams); and the work of Russian formalist Shklovsky (his metaphor of “speech” for the cinematic image) and Boris Eikhenbaum. These concepts and theories enabled Routt to consider silent film as structured according to a “speech act”, which is “heard” – a complex sensory experience that one presumes refers back to the process of synesthesia.
The presentation concluded with the screening of a wonderful short silent film A House Divided (Alice Guy, 1913, 13 mins), which I for one viewed from a new perspective. Routt’s paper was a dense and very thoughtful meditation on hearing silent film, which contained many fascinating ideas and which one hopes to hear and read again.
Philip Brophy’s paper Funny Accents: The Sound of Racism was an intriguing reflection on the process of exporting, importing and appropriating film and television from other countries. His argument highlighted how it is particularly through the mechanisms of post-dubbing that a culture appropriates a “foreign” product and distorts its original meaning. He showed a range of clips from an episode of the American kid’s television series, Power Rangers, which appropriates Japanese pop cultural icons, to a French porn film imported and reworked by American producers as a sci-fi.
Third in the line-up of conference papers was Adrian Martin’s Musical Mutations. Martin’s vast knowledge of and passion for the cinema combined with his brilliant astuteness and sharpness in perceiving the way a film works provided an entertaining presentation and a genuinely insightful reflection on the cinema. In Musical Mutations, Martin is essentially interested in tracing the ways in which contemporary filmmakers reference the musical, in particular, its classical Hollywood form. He theorises the classical musical as an ideal of cinema itself, especially with regard to the idea of the “reciprocal enchantment”, “lyrical, synchronous fusion” of camera, performance, objects and space, where mise en scène expands and contracts according to this transferral and play of energy. As a result, one of the defining features of the classical musical is what Martin calls “the sympathetic camera”, that is, the camera totally tuned into the ever-expanding utopian energy of the mise en scène. He illustrated this idea with clips from Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man (1961) and Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
The musical genre has been theorised by Richard Dyer, Jane Feuer and Rick Altman among others, as a genre that expresses a ‘utopian sensibility’ or that reinforces the ‘mythology’ of entertainment. Martin’s contribution to this history of analysis is in identifying the moment of (the smooth and unhindered) transition between the world of the characters and the world of song and dance as a defining feature of the classical musical. Furthermore, he argues that an analysis of the way contemporary filmmakers negotiate and figure this moment opens up new doors for theorising the musical in contemporary cinema. Martin identifies two strains in post-’60s cinema of “perverse, experimental and wishful” musicals: the tradition of Dennis Potter, in which the banality and emptiness of the everyday world of the characters contrasts ironically with the fantastic fullness of the musical world; and the tradition of Jacques Demy, in which there is no separation from the world of story and that of song, where the latter has subsumed the former. Both of these traditions originated in the musicals of Jean-Luc Godard. Martin’s paper was a rich and fascinating investigation of musical mutations and the contemporary sensibilities they evince.
In The Greatest Music the World Has Known: Kubrick Markets High Culture, Krin Gabbard, Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, presented an intriguing discussion on the particular use of traditional “high culture” music in the films of Kubrick, in particular, A Clockwork Orange (1971). He argued that Kubrick often deployed not only classical music but also pop music in very specific and ironic ways. In relation to Kubrick’s use of pop music, Gabbard showed clips from films like Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) where the soundtrack is juxtaposed in interesting and illuminating ways with the image.
Another international guest of the conference was Anahid Kassabian who has written at length on the significance of music in contemporary film in influencing and shaping the viewer’s identification processes in her book Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music. Her paper for Cinesonic, Listening for Identifications: Compiled vs. Composed Scores in Contemporary Hollywood Films, focused on two different kinds of contemporary scores and the way they influence identification: the composed score and the compiled score.
One of the highlights of the conference was Jeff’s Smith’s paper Taking Music Supervisors Seriously, which sought to uncover a serious blind spot in contemporary film theory and analyses of music in film – that of the music supervisor and their role in the production process. This was a comprehensive, accessible and intelligent paper that raised many important questions and issues. His paper revealed the music supervisor to be one that occupies a very unique position in relation to both the film and music industries and that often performs a very key role in the creative process of filmmaking.
Smith began his presentation by illustrating the great disdain held toward music supervisors by others in the industry, particularly, music composers and directors. This is a result, he argued, both of the music supervisor’s strange position in the overall scheme of production (as interface between the music and film industries) and a general lack of understanding of what exactly they do. Working with a variety of people with markedly different agendas, music supervisors are vulnerable to many forms of criticism and attack (directors can see them as commercially-driven agents of the music industry; composers, as hoarders of their territory and the notion of quality music for film).
Smith provided an invaluable overview of the changing face of the “music supervisor” since the studio era. It is really over the last decade that the significance and importance of the music supervisor has been cemented. This can be primarily attributed to the enormous rise in popularity and sales of the CD soundtrack, a contemporary cultural phenomenon. However, the exact responsibilities of a music supervisor are often very dependent on the project itself. As Smith pointed out, a supervisor working on a Scorsese or Tarantino film may only be required to perform administrative functions. On the other extreme of the spectrum, their freedom to select and compile the soundtrack for a film means that they exercise a significant degree of creative control. Smith argued that the music supervisor often adds an expressive layer to the narrative and even determines its intended meaning through the careful selection of music.
Smith emphasised not only the different and contingent responsibilities of the music supervisor but also the variety of people who perform the role: from professional musicians and top recording artists to businessmen and film producers. In this multi-faceted role of the music supervisor, each has the potential to apply their specialist knowledge. One of the more fascinating sub-definitions of the music supervisor is the “musical archivist”, literally a music-buff with a detailed and encyclopaedic knowledge of a certain period of pop music that they apply in their role (Smith illustrated this definition in relation to the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski ).
It is not difficult to conceptualise the importance of the music supervisor in contemporary film where a great deal of money and emphasis is placed on marketing a film. In this context, the CD soundtrack becomes a powerful marketing tool. Yet Smith revealed that in many ways the CD soundtrack serves the purposes of both the music and film industries.
Smith concluded his paper with suggested contexts in which to further theorise the role of the music supervisor: political-economy studies (multi-national conglomerates and the music supervisor in this environment); postmodernism in the cinema; and gender-labour issues. The richness of this area, hitherto insufficiently acknowledged or theorised, and Smith’s excellent presentation guaranteed that this was a rewarding and very insightful paper.
UK writer, cultural critic and music reviewer Ian Penman presented a witty, dense and philosophical paper on the history and current manifestations of dub, titled KLANG! Garvey’s Ghost meets Heidegger’s Geist: Or, how DUB became everyone’s soundtrack already, always & forever more. Penman explored the history of dub in 1970s Jamaica, its particular mode of production and unique form. He examined current practices of dub, in particular, what he refers to as “the German modem/electronica cut’n’click ‘dubmusik'”, and argued that these current practices rarely achieve the true “Spirit” of dub. This was a very sharp and interesting paper that would have suited those with a pre-existing knowledge and familiarity with the culture and history of dub both in the past and today.
The final day of the conference began with Australian academic Rebecca Coyle’s paper Speaking ‘Strine’: Locating ‘Australia’ in Film Voice & Speech. Drawing on the work of Michel Chion, this paper focused on the “materiality” of the voice, dialogue and accent in Australian mainstream films, in particular, the way this “materiality” can be culturally prescribed and coded in ways that locate a character or place as Australian. Before launching into her discussion Coyle stated that this kind of analysis could be applied to a study of any country’s popular, mainstream films. In this paper, however, her primary concern was with mainstream Australian films. Coyle showed clips from Crocodile Dundee (1986), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Throughout these films and Coyle’s intelligent and well-presented argument, the “materiality” of voice became violently apparent.
Coyle argued that the accent and the voice can not only locate a character as Australian but can also indicate their personality, class, social position, education, place of residence (rural or city) and so on. This was a fascinating and invaluable paper that acknowledged the voice as a powerful cultural index and raised some long overdue ideas about the important role of dialogue and voice in film. Coyle’s argument opened doors for other further analysis and study, for example, the subtle though complex interrelation between voice and body in performance, different “genres” of voice (across television, film, advertising), current trends in more contemporary Australian cinema and the difference between voice and accent in mainstream and independent cinema. This paper was definitely another conference highlight.
In its final phase, the conference introduced a paper primarily concerned with the technology of sound in film. Bruce Emery’s Beyond the Matrix – Dolby Digital Multichannel Sound NOW was a very well presented paper that examined the history of Dolby sound and the intricacies of Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. This was a very specialised presentation aimed primarily at those either professionally or more casually interested in the technology of Dolby Digital. It is to the credit of Cinesonic that it is open to such an eclectic collection of appreciations of sound and music in film, which cater to a wide and broad audience.
Yet, Cinesonic, in placing side-by-side practitioner experience and knowledge of sound in film with critical reflection and discussion, is both radical and unique. Highlights of the conference included those papers that combined this twin perspective of practice and critical analysis into their presentation: for example, Jeff Smith’s paper, which utilised knowledge of the film and music industry (from primary and secondary sources) with critical analysis of popular music in film. Other highlights included those papers which considered closely the sound aspects of various films, such as Adrian Martin’s paper, which closely considered contemporary filmmakers’ attraction to and refiguring of the musical genre and Rebecca Coyle’s study of the materiality of voice in film.
Perhaps the most obvious example where critical reflection and the practice of sound design and film score were entwined was at the forum in which the sound designer/music supervisor Philip Brophy, producer Fiona Eagger and director Vince Giarrusso of recent Australian film Mallboy openly and casually discussed the decision-making process and overall experience in the area of sound throughout the making of the film. The forum screened various scenes from the film, which the panel then discussed from the perspective of sound. Issues like when and where to insert a music cue, the difficulty in gaining licenses and clearance, the challenges in using music to indicate narrative duration, the relationship between the music supervisor and the director, the importance of the director as a musician (as is the case for this film), and so on were raised. This was a fascinating and exciting forum and a perfect close to yet another year’s Cinesonic.
And of course the various rich contributions made to further appreciating and understanding the role of sound in film at this conference will be made available in a book, to be launched at next year’s Cinesonic.