Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 84, September 2017.
One of the world’s foremost theorists of sound in the cinema, former Cahiers du cinéma critic Michel Chion is also a composer of musique concrète and a filmmaker in his own right. His books of film theory include the ground-breaking work La Voix au cinéma (The Voice in the Cinema, 1982), Un art sonore, le cinéma (Film, A Sound Art, 2003) and Le Complexe de Cyrano (2008), as well as monographs on Tati, Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Lynch, while his major work of sound theory Le Son, traité d’acoulogie (2010) was recently translated into English as Sound, An Acoulogical Treatise (2016). In an event co-hosted by Liquid Architecture and the Melbourne International Film Festival, Chion recently travelled to Melbourne, where he lectured and gave a live audiovisual performance incorporating his compositions Le Cri (The Scream, 2017), Requiem (1973) and La troisième symphonie (Third Symphony, 2016).
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DF: The unique aspect of your career has been to combine two things: you are both an experimental artist, on the one hand, and a film critic and theorist on the other hand. How did you come to play these two roles?
MC: When I was a child I wanted to be a composer, and in the end I did become one, but not in the form I thought. In my youth I did traditional music studies (solmisation, harmony, counterpoint), and practised piano and singing, while also studying classical literature at university. I thought I would earn a living by being a teacher of French, Latin and Greek. But while writing music, I realised that it physically tired me to write it, to trace out the notes of the score. I lost something of the dynamic side of playing music or listening to it. The great composers have adapted themselves to this rhythm. But through a series of coincidences, linked to my father, I discovered that I was comfortable with tape recorders, and that I could create things, while retaining a physical pleasure, being adept with my hands, all while making traditional music (traditional in the sense that I made composed, stable works, rather than installations or ephemeral pieces). My father was an engineer and an autodidact, with an extensive cultural background, and he was notably interested in contemporary music, so his influence counted a lot for me.
After my music studies in Versailles and Paris, and my literary studies at Nanterre, I felt destined to become a composer, without necessarily earning a living from it. And this is how things have turned out: I have never made much money from my music. In 1969, in order to make musique concrète (which we called electro-acoustic music at the time), I enrolled in a multidisciplinary institution created by Pierre Schaeffer, the inventor of musique concrète, who was also very active in radio, television and the media. In the 1960s he had created the Service de la Recherche, linked to the public radio network. It was a small structure where musicians and creators could meet theorists, without much of a distinction being drawn between the two. For Schaeffer (and I agreed with him on this) it was important that everyone contributed their own knowledge, while taking an interest in what other people were doing, and that nobody thought: “I am an artist, everyone else is in my service, I don’t need to theorise…” It was important that we asked ourselves about the nature of listening. So it was here that I met Schaeffer, who was much older than me, and I was one of the few people to take a real interest in what he had written on music theory.
It is also thanks to Pierre Schaeffer that I began to do film criticism, because at the end of the 1970s there was a coincidence of two events. The first was a technological event: the first amateur video-cassettes came out. In France there were three systems in competition with each other, and VHS won out. Thanks to this invention we could copy films at home, study them, and even detach the sound from the image, look at the image without the sound, or listen to the sound without the image. This was a tool for studying film that we didn’t have before. And the same year, someone proposed to Schaeffer that he teach film sound in the national film school, the IDHEC (which later became La Fémis). Schaeffer told them: “No, it’s not an area I’m competent in. But Chion might be interested.” So initially I taught film sound thanks to my technical experience with sound – because musique concrète gives you technical experience, you have to assemble the sounds, record them, create them, mix them – and also because of the possibility of studying films on video-cassette: cutting the sound, cutting the images, observing and discovering things. I wanted to turn this into a book (in the end it became several books). So I went to see Cahiers du cinéma in 1981 to ask them: “Would you like to publish my book?”
DF: It was Jean Narboni who ran the publishing arm of Cahiers at the time, wasn’t it?
MC: Officially, yes, but for the most part I dealt with Serge Toubiana and Alain Bergala. To get my book published, I went to see Toubiana, who I didn’t know, and he said: “We’re looking for new critics. Have you thought about writing criticism?” Since I was a big cinephile, I started to write film criticism. But I already wanted to make films. I made a short film in the 1970s, Le Grand Nettoyage (1975), and I made another in 1984, Eponine. Later, I also made two major video-music works: La Messe de terre (1996) and La Troisième Symphonie, which I showed in Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland.
DF: Were you an obsessive cinephile, going to the cinémathèque three times a day like many of your contemporaries?
MC: Yes, although I didn’t go to the Cinémathèque française three times a day, because when I was a student at Nanterre the campus was in the outer suburbs of Paris. I went to the cinémathèque from time to time, but it was in Chaillot, which was quite far from the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, where I had to change trains. Near the station, however, there was a cinema run by cinephiles, the Studio Action, which programmed American films every day, and I went there to see films before coming home. I also read a lot, and I enrolled in workshops, some of which were put on by the Federation des Ciné-clubs, which was created by communist militants, people who did real popular culture. So you could go on holidays for two weeks and see five films a day. This was at Annecy, on the lakeside. I was a cinephile in this sense, but in the beginning I wasn’t associated with any cinephile groups. I came to know other cinephiles when I began writing for Cahiers.
DF: Nanterre was also a very politicised university in the 1960s and 1970s. Was this a factor in your life at the time?
MC: Personally I was in the literature department, which was not very political, but I knew that there was a little group we called “Les Enragés de Nanterre”, which had likable people in it such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit. But I was not an activist. I had sympathies but no political convictions. I did not put much stock in the revolution, but I was young. I followed things with a dose of scepticism, because I was not a Maoist, I suspected that China during the cultural revolution was not paradise on Earth, and I took more of a liking to the Trotskyists. Cohn-Bendit’s group was more libertarian, and not at all dogmatic. So I took it all in but I was not really an actor in the events. The spirit of the time also played a role. In fact, it had an important effect on culture in France. After May ‘68, the right returned to power after winning the legislative elections in June. But French cultural institutions (which were still under the tutelage of André Malraux, the minister of culture at the time) understood the need to do new things, because in many areas the country was lagging behind. So in the Conservatoire de Paris (a very official institution), they created an electro-acoustic class, asking Pierre Schaeffer to administer it. This opened things up a lot. And it was all thanks to May ’68. Beforehand, those who were active in culture were the Catholics, and in contemporary art it was the communists. I have a lot of sympathy for what they did in the cultural sphere in France. For instance, the radio station France-Culture. A good number of the people who worked for France-Culture were communists, and they were doing real popular culture.
DF: Did your experience as a film critic for Cahiers in the 1980s help in the development of your film theory?
MC: Of course. It gave me the opportunity to see a lot of films without having to pay for tickets – which is important! I created a column in the magazine called the “Journal of Sound”, where I interviewed technicians. They were delighted that someone took an interest in their work. All the same, in my work on sound in the cinema, I did not consider myself to be a theorist, but an observer. Like someone who observes the clouds and classifies them. I did not make any distinction between the “good” auteur cinema and the “bad” popular, commercial cinema. I did not oppose the two. On the physical level, the audiovisual relations in them are the same. And owing to the fact that my father and brother were engineers, I knew the value of precise observation, of scientific rigour. I observe what happens. If I put this sound with this image, what happens? It’s an observation, like a chemist. It is experimental in the scientific sense. So there was observation, but also creation, because I had a Super-8 camera, and in 1975 I made a short film on Super-8, Le Grand Nettoyage, where I created my own images and sounds. So being at Cahiers du cinéma allowed me to see a lot of films, to go to the Cannes film festival, to meet people, and also to write, first articles and then books. Through writing, you can develop and re-work your questions. I was lucky in the 1980s to have been able to write so many books. I analysed films, not only on the level of sound, but also the screenplay, the narrative. I wrote a book on screenplays, which was one of Cahiers du cinéma’s bestselling titles.
DF: It was a manual for screenwriters?
MC: Yes, but at the same time it was not at all normative. It was a collection of examples, in order to say “You can do this, or you can do that.” I tried to open things up, to say: “You can also make a good film without any precise action.” My main examples were a Japanese film, Sansho dayu by Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954), a Howard Hawks film, To Have and Have Not (1944), an Éric Rohmer film, Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, 1983), and Fritz Lang’s Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, 1933). And I showed that the least conventional, least scripted film of all of them was the Hawks film, which is based on a Hemingway novel. In fact, Hawks and William Faulkner (who wrote the screenplay) just took the first thirty pages of the novel, and tried to make a 90-minute film of it. So it ends up in a queue de poisson (fishtail) structure, as we say in France – that is, it never truly ends. The action simply carries on, but it has an enormous charm to it. Since it is a very loose film, and since Lauren Bacall has a very deep voice, she sings in the film in a scene that goes on for five minutes – and it’s not a musical! So I wanted to show that there was never an American model, or a Japanese model, or any other kind of model. At the same time, I showed that the Mizoguchi film is very scripted, like an opera, but it was not culturally demarcated in the way that people know in the West.
DF: Lang’s Mabuse is an iconic film for you. You have returned to analysing it many times.
MC: It’s a dream film, because it was made at the beginning of sound cinema. Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou (his wife and co-screenwriter) had ideas about sound and images linked to the technology of the time, and the novelty of sound cinema. It is a great film, and it is also a kind of metaphor for the media. I have indeed made a lot of use of it. For my first book, The Voice in the Cinema, I focused on five or six films, including Psycho (1960), Mabuse, and some other French, American and Japanese films.
DF: Did the idea of writing The Voice in the Cinema come from a frustration at the absence of any adequate theorisation of sound or the voice in film studies? Was this a gap that you felt at the time?
MC: Yes, but it was normal. Even today, there are so many fields of cinema on which very few books have been written. For example, acting. There have been interesting articles on Robert de Niro’s acting, for example, but very few books on the subject. There are always domains that have been little observed (I prefer to say “observe” rather than “theorise”). And this was the case for the voice at the time, to respond to your question. Yes, there were some important, but short, texts, like those written by Pascal Bonitzer, who is someone important, someone I know and who I have a good rapport with (some people find him caustic and unpleasant, but I have always been able to have good discussions with him). Some articles he wrote were indeed fundamental for my ideas. But he had no real desire to write a book on the subject. He wrote articles, and put out a volume that collected a dozen or so of them, that’s all. He did not share the vocation that I had to write books. It’s something I like doing. People like Bonitzer, Narboni or Serge Daney have written books, but it’s not their vocation. I was one of the only Cahiers critics who really liked writing books. I enjoyed spending my time on it. At the same time, I continued to make musique concrète. I had three books I wanted to write: on the voice, on music and on noise. In the end, I didn’t write a book on noise, because it would have been a little artificial. But I did write books on the voice, and on music. On the subject of the voice I had some things I wanted to say. I was very influenced by a book written by a Lacanian psychoanalyst, Denis Vasse, called L’Ombilic et la voix (The Navel and the Voice). He presents a theory, not of the voice in cinema, but of the voice as a whole, and I thought it was brilliant. At the time I was reading a lot of Lacan. I am still quite Lacanian, it’s an important reference point for me. It gave me the tools for thinking about the voice.
DF: You are strongly against a traditional hierarchy between image and sound in the cinema. For you, the sound is just as important as the image.
MC: In fact, that’s not even where the question lies. The very question itself is artificial. If you asked, with respect to painting: “Is colour as important as figure?”, this is an abstract question that has no meaning to me. It has absolutely no importance. In my books, I show that there is an ensemble of sounds and images. We are in a situation of audio-vision, of reciprocal influence, exactly the same way that, when you put several simultaneous notes together, you can produce harmonies or dissonances, or what have you. But there is no sense in saying that one note is more important that the other. By contrast, sound functions in and occupies space and time in a different way to the image, which is what I seek to demonstrate in my writings and my teaching. There are very good silent films, and some of them figure among my favourite films, but once there is an ensemble of sounds and images, then it is the ensemble that is important. In my concern for being exhaustive, I have recently incorporated the role of the said in the voice, of the content of dialogues. What interests me is not the dialogues themselves, but how a dialogue functions in the ensemble, and reacts to other elements. It is always the ensemble that counts. So as you can see I think the question of hierarchies is artificial.
DF: There is a contradiction in the nature of sound cinema: the sound and the image can’t be separated, but they are materially heterogeneous, in the sense that the sound track is very different to the image track.
MC: Absolutely. But as you know, I said in my book The Voice in the Cinema that there is no sound track. I do indeed critique the notion of the sound track, because the sound elements of the film are arranged separately from each other, and are also distinct from the visual frame: they are not contained in a single frame, so the relations between them are punctual and distinct. Sound and image are, as a matter of fact, technologically distinct, but for me this is not pertinent for analysis, just as if you wanted to analyse a piece of music that combined a piano and violin, they are different instrument on the technical level, but analysis doesn’t consist of saying: “First I’m going to talk about the violin, and then in the second part I will talk about the piano.” What’s important is the ensemble.
DF: You also say that there are different modes of listening, that the spectator has a different relationship with music than with ambient noises, or the human voice.
MC: What’s interesting is the fact that, every time, the relationship is new and unexpected. I don’t write about the music of films, I write about the music in films. Music in a film can be a pop song, classical music, or a piece composed specially for the film, but what I am always interested in is the relationship with the ensemble of the film. As you know, the music of one film can be used in a different film. For example, Georges Delerue wrote the score to Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), which Godard used in a magnificent way, but, much later, Scorsese reused it in Casino (1995), and it works! There are plenty of people who have never seen Le Mépris, and for them the music is simply the score to Casino! All music can be recycled. At the end of his career, Kubrick preferred to have very little original music, or even none at all. He selected classical pieces, and they became the music of his films. Think of his use of Shostakovich in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which is brilliant.
DF: In your recent book Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, you said that in contemporary cinema, music is always already there, so we have a very different relationship to music than what we had in earlier eras.
MC: Certainly, because today we live in a world where we are constantly accompanied by music, where we can carry music with us. Back in the 1930s, or even in the time of my childhood, the 1950s, you couldn’t carry music around with you all the time. There were transistor radios, but now it’s everywhere. And so the cinema reflects this. There was a very beautiful era in the history of sound cinema, the early 1930s, in which music often emerged from the noises of machines. At the time, machine noises were seen as dynamic and positive. They had a fundamental rhythm to them. Back then, trains were all steam-powered, and they had a rhythmic element that resembled percussion. There was an energy that came from the machine. Today, contemporary machines don’t make these sounds. Trains can go very fast, but they just emit a continuous hum. By contrast, today we live in a world of beeping. This is also linked to the cultural history of sound in everyday life. The machine age is over, factories now are all roboticised. As such, music in contemporary cinema can not have the same meaning that it had in the past. Certainly, there are exceptions, like Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), which has songs that emerge from the noises of reality – that’s a very 1930s effect, recalling musicals like Shall We Dance with Fred Astaire (Mark Sandrich, 1937). Dancer in the Dark frequently harks back to this period.
DF: What about the relationship between sound and montage? The 1930s was also a time where there were experiments that sought to edit sound in the same way images were edited in the silent era, but this was not a very successful endeavour.
MC: It produced effects that were different to what was expected, but it worked. We should indeed make a distinction, because there were attempts at making “films without images”, such as the work of Walter Ruttmann (for example, Wochenende [Weekend, 1930]). What is interesting is that, for the first time, in the 1930s, thanks to the advent of optical sound on celluloid, you could edit sound. What Ruttmann did was remarkable, and it gave us the opportunity to perceive that the result was different from editing with images, even though the technique was the same. I really like popular cinema – my music is classed as experimental, but it’s not what I wanted, it’s just how it is, I make the music I like to make – but when people say: “Experimental cinema is boring”, my answer is that you have to do everything. You have to try out everything, even if mainstream cinema has no use for it afterwards. So, you’re right, rapid editing of sounds does not function in the same way it does with images, but what is important, as Pierre Schaeffer said, is to observe the effects it produces. Plenty of people say: “Eisenstein wanted to do that, so it’s magnificent because it’s Eisenstein.” To that I say: “No. Who cares? What’s important is the effects it produces.” You have to try everything. This is an area where you can experiment without hurting anyone. It’s not like experiments in medicine. So you have to try everything. It can always be useful or interesting. By contrast, what I find tiresome is to ceaselessly repeat the same thing and never observe what it can result in.
DF: Can you speak about your concept of the acousmêtre, this relationship between the voice and the body? It’s a very important aspect of your theory.
MC: Indeed, it’s a projective, personal part of my theory. When you do research work, even on a natural subject like clouds or flowers, you often notice that you end up creating a self-portrait. So I do in fact have a personal history with the voice, with hearing my voice on cassette tape as a child. I was born in 1947, and when I was ten years old, my father bought a German tape-recorder for amateurs. So my brother and I had the possibility of doing something which was very rare at the time, apart from people who worked in radio or cinema: we could hear our own recorded voices. I immediately noticed that my voice sounded totally different. The relationship between my voice and my body struck me as bizarre, monstrous, and this was a decisive experience. Later, I saw films that spoke to the same issues, like Mabuse. The acousmêtre is a theory that concerns the cinema, and the fact that there is a frame. There is no possibility of the acousmêtre without the limit of the frame, for example in certain contemporary forms of audiovisual culture. When people ask me what happens to the acousmêtre with 360-degree cinema, or virtual reality, I say: “It’s different. I have no idea.” Personally, I am less stimulated by omnidirectional forms of expression. It’s not an area I’m competent in. I don’t think it’s bad, but there is no more acousmêtre. The acousmêtre no longer functions.
DF: So the acousmêtre comes from the productive contradiction between a framed image and an unframed sound, given that sound can’t actually be framed.
MC: Precisely. There is a dynamic tension that has been revealed, because the acousmatic situation, a situation where you can hear the sound without seeing its cause, is everywhere in reality, because in reality I can move around, turn my head, etc. The cinema makes use of it, since it gives us the means to show what it wants. It can decide to only show your feet, and then you are in an acousmetric situation. Think of Robert Aldrich’s film, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with a very bad character, who is in fact a normal man, a doctor, but you only see his shoes. That’s all! It’s a partial vision. Bonitzer had good insight into these issues, and the short text he wrote on the subject inspired me a lot.
DF: Does this partial vision produce a situation of what Freud called the unheimlich (the uncanny), when there is a difference between how we imagine a person or an object looks on the basis of their sound or voice, and the image that we see in the end – that is, between our expectation and the reality we end up seeing?
MC: Yes, but this is also because the cinema returns us to an infantile situation. Infants have no control over their body, they can not get out of their bed. So they are stuck, but they can see and hear, and so there is very high level of perception. And the cinema brings us back to that situation. Of course there are some very good films about paralysed individuals, like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel (2007), which is a very well-made film, but the cinema also sometimes keeps us stuck to the reality it shows us, as if we were unable to move. You can think of a prisoner in a cell, but for children, in the earliest stages of infancy, the world really is that strange. They can hear voices, but they can’t turn around so easily to see where the voices are coming from. The source of the voice is hidden. When you are in hospital, you start to feel like a child who can’t move from his bed. All of a sudden, you return to this state. It’s disturbing, terrifying, and sometimes even magical. I think the cinema gives us a link with something of this nature, something inside us, which has always been a part of us.