At the first School of Sound, some of the speakers spoke about what first made them interested in sound. It wasn’t planned but, at what was then an unusual type of conference ,there was clearly the need to understand how we got there. What got us started? Walter Murch mentioned the attraction of a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder in his home. Tessa Elliot remembered her fascination with the sound of a scrunched-up sweet wrapper blowing across the pavement. For me it was the Banana Man, a version of Kurt Weil’s and Berthold Brecht’s Mack the Knife (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyckP1Sjjoc), and a Bugs Bunny ‘book and record set’. I was entertained by something in these that made them different from an ordinary film or children’s TV programme. And since then I’ve adopted an approach to film sound that absorbs a variety of forms, be they art or entertainment, technical or theoretical, fine art or audio-visual.
Whether it’s due to the general homogeneity of contemporary filmmaking or the ways higher education teaches filmmaking – opting for vocational training over a more individual approach – sound courses tend to follow an increasingly narrow curriculum (and I am, admittedly, speaking from a UK perspective). Even those courses that are able to integrate sound with other areas of teaching have at their core a technical bias and are unlikely to encourage their students to seek out modern versions of Ernie Kovacs if, indeed, they exist.
I studied in the States in the early 1970s. My undergraduate course followed the traditional American liberal arts degree that requires students to take half their courses in subjects other than their ‘major’. My major was Radio-TV-Film – already much broader in scope than most UK film courses – but I studied literature, history, maths, art, religion (Buddhism has been a major influence since that time) and other courses in my department – theatre, rhetoric and something called Communications Studies where I learned the theory of selling used cars.
My film course was equally eclectic. The course of study included documentary (especially British), animation, experimental filmmaking (American, east and west coast, as well as European) and narrative fiction from all countries – Italian neo-realism, Eastern European and the Czech New Wave, Chinese, Japanese, African, Latin American and of course Godard, Truffaut and the French New Wave. Hollywood was included as innovative and influential but took its place within the context of other, equally interesting filmmaking cultures.
And from this mélange of expression and invention, I found myself focusing, not knowingly, on the sound and its relation to image to the degree that I wanted to edit both picture and sound. How can you separate the two? (This also has to do with the role of technology and how it’s taught, but I’ll deal with that in a future post.) Perhaps this fascination stems from those earlier influences – a vaudeville act, Mack the Knife and an oscilloscope, and a children’s entertainment that combined text, image and sound.
In my own teaching, I’ve found numerous ways to create an awareness of sound without resorting to sound itself. It’s the idea that you can’t use a word to define itself. So we look further afield. One film I’ve found effective is by the art forger, Tom Keating. Keating had copied a vast number of paintings by many of the Great Masters. His forgeries could be found in the major museums and galleries around the world. He was uncovered by a journalist and then prosecuted but the case was dropped. From this came a series of television documentaries where he shows the techniques used by Titian, Rembrandt, Monet and Constable, which can be found on YouTube. But what I find interesting is how his way of working with light and colour, and how he describes his methods, is analogous to working with sound. Contrast, layering, subtlety, focusing attention – these apply to both media. We are always trying to find metaphors and analogies so why not compare sound design to painting? David Lynch compares the way he works with sound to mixing perfume. Then there’s cooking, architecture, neuroscience, religion, music, etc., etc., etc. Bob Dylan credits taking lessons from the painter Norman Raeben with changing his perception of time: “[Raeben] taught me how to see … in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt.”
This has been our approach when programming the School of Sound. In many ways it is a reflection of my undergraduate degree: eclectic, cross-disciplinary, multi-faceted, maybe even Cubist! John Akomfrah evoked the bass culture of West London clubs; Piers Plowright and Roger Crittenden approached sound by interweaving film, poetry and painting; Marina Warner used the graphic imagery of comic books; Lebanese filmmakers Rana Eid and Nadim Mishlawi traced their audio style to the experience of decades of war in their homeland.
I’m reminded of a Q&A with the Brothers Quay when they answered the question, “How can I make films like you?” with “We spend a lot of time in libraries.”