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Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table

Editors’ note: As an interdisciplinary field, sound studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB

On May 18th, 2017, Solange Knowles took viewers on an expedition as she glided, danced and “agonized” in a “joyful praise break” on the floor of New York City’s Guggenheim museum. Drawing from the museum’s narrative of introspection and multi-sensory connection, Solange’s performance of “An Ode To. . .” prompted viewers to relearn and reorient the melodies of A Seat at the Table (2016). Solange’s performance in this setting hearkened listeners to new concepts and emotions in the record they didn’t catch before as they consumed it. This begs the question– what other sonic elements have we neglected to identify in A Seat at the Table? And why?

A Seat at the Table integrates topics like race, depression, and empowerment. Although the younger sister of powerhouse Beyoncé Knowles, Solange has managed to carve out her own legion of dedicated listeners from her infusion of Minnie Ripperton-esque vocals, hip-hop production and Gil Scott-Heron storytelling. Thematically, the album incorporates issues of Black Lives Matter and cultural self-preservation. However, Solange weaves personal elements such as vulnerability, futurism and paternity throughout the record as well, which buoy the album to praise but are hardly discussed in the album’s many reviews. Instead, writers and listeners have largely focused on resistance, anger and reactionary concepts.

Image of Solange at Boston’s Calling Music Fest 2013 by Flickr User Jessy Gonzalez, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Because Solange is a black women, historical signifiers of black embodiment influence both the listeners’ senses and consumption of her album. Solange’s intimate moments and reveals are shrouded by the limitation of black sound to the disruptive, angry or depressive. Such masking demands a listening praxis akin to what sound artist Christine Sun Kim describes as “unlearning.” “I’m trying to unlearn what I’ve been taught by others,” she said in an interview about her work, “and trying to find my own definition of both sound and silence.”  This unlearning and re-imagination of sound is a difficult transformation considering how sound is influenced by our racialized, gendered, and religious histories.

Consider the contemporary rhetoric of black sound. Black outcry and screaming is a banal American, banal soundscape. Blackness is grieving. Blackness tiptoes near death. Captivity is a breath away. Black Lives Matter leans on the Civil Rights Movement often sonically. Dr. J Marion Sims, both his medical torture of enslaved women and the widespread belief that black people are inured to pain, still haunts our research methodologies, medical practice and our daily lives. This ushering of strife consumes black life into a sound that bleeds—an aural transfer both material and metaphoric—black sound is never personal, individualized or singular, and such historical misperceptions influences black sound studies. The Western artistic critique of black sound and black artistry overwhelmingly focuses on the reaction of whiteness, black resistance, and little else—because supposedly—there is nothing notable about blackness in and of itself.

For example, revisit the 1968 Olympic photo of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman as they stand on the platform with their medals. What do you see in this photo? Perhaps nationalism, masculinity, aggression, or anger from their bodily gesture to the Black Panther Party Movement? What do you hear in the photo—what is its decibel? An outcry? A rebellious yell? desperate scream?

(l-r) Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos during the award ceremony of the 200 m race at the Mexican Olympic games. (creative commons, Wikipedia)

But what other nuances are in the photo? What other critiques are masked by this proscribed sound? In The Sovereignty of Quiet (2012), Kevin Quashie invites us to:

Look again, closely, at the pictures from that day and you can see something more than the certainty of public assertiveness. See, for example, how the severity of Smith’s salute is balanced by the yielding of Carlos’s raised arm. And then notice how the sharpness of their gesture is complemented by one telling detail:  that their heads are bowed as if in prayer, that Smith, in fact, has his eyes closed. The effect of their bowed heads is to suggest intimacy…How is it that they are largely icons of resistance, and that vulnerability and interiority are not among all things we are encouraged to read on their image? (Quashie 2-3).

Because of racialized history, we have limited our conceptualization of blackness in literature, film and other mediums. We only hear blackness as it pertains to resistance, grief, and anger—the reaction to whiteness. Black people are verbs instead of nouns. The ’68 Olympic photo is particularly special as it captures the steadfast Western influence that infects our synesthesia because of political and social histories. Moreover, such defects are even internalized in the black artist. As an identity, Quashie argues that “blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race or racism, or about America, or violence, struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness (4). Sonically this means blackness in contemporary discourse is critiqued by its decibel of resistance.  We cannot read or hear blackness without integrating white pain.

Much like typical readings of the ’68 olympic photo, Solange’s album cover might elicit themes of self-esteem, black-nationalism or even aggression.  However, Solange quietly sounds her life transition and personal vulnerability, via her photo, if we would hear it.

But confining view of blackness as pain and resistance prevents us—including those who are black-identifying—from noticing and celebrating vulnerability, grace, and the interiority.  Quashie describes interiority as the “inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, ambitions that shape a human self. . .[it is] expansive, voluptuous, creative; impulsive…more akin to hunger, memory forgetting, the edges of all the humanness one has” (20-21). It’s the tender part of identity shown through subtlety—the desires and dreams spoken through prayer. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. tapping his feet to Coltrane or Tupac Shakur watching dancers to perfect his plié—it’s the soft falsetto Solange uses in her album that bolsters emotional healing and draws avian imagery.

Asking what quiet can bring to our personal, cultural, historical and political understandings of blackness does not signal the imposition of respectability politics or desire for post-racialism. Rather, Quashie’s theory considers how whiteness has constructed and limited our senses as it relates to blackness. Blackness will remain in resistance because of systemic oppression but there is so more to black life. The element of analysis and the sensorium itself needs expansion.

Subsequently, Solange Knowles’ recent album innovatively captures resistance but centers other aspects of black sonic experience:  individualization—the nuances of interiority regarding mental health, paternity and forgiveness.

The first track of the song, “Rise,” flutters an anthem of well-being:

Fall in your ways so you can crumble.

Fall in your ways so you can sleep at night.

Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise

Her tone and pitch is sweet, light and matter-of-fact. The repetition and delivery is similar to a lullaby —reminiscent of Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son”—a soft plea to rest, welcome weariness and any conflict with authenticity but to also travel with a straight back and head looking forward. Fall in your ways… At the 1.11 mark, there is a break of silence in the song; thereafter, the synthesizer yawns into melody with a futuristic twang. This Afrofuturistic moment—the study of blackness as it relates to space, technology, art and futurism— continues later with the production and lyrical content with “Borderline (An Ode To Self Care).” Notably, “Rise” introduces the sonic atmosphere of the record through Solange’s honeyed tonal drops and leaps when she sings “So you can sleep at night.” Her delivery mimics a bird within a thermal lift—her voice calling the plight of the Flying African—the myth that Igbo people escaped slavery by flying back to Africa at night. “Fall in your ways” whispers the discovery and preservation of one’s interiority. Rise emphasizes inner, restorative practice.

Charles Dickson’s “Wishing on a Star” at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles, image by Flickr User  ATOMIC Hot Links (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Solange also highlights interiority through her album interludes, mostly narrated by Master P, rapper and owner of No Limit Records. This also relates to her inclusion of paternity alongside maternity—a bright distinction considering her identification with black womanhood and the historical racist exclusion of black fathers in the home (e.g. the Moynihan Report and welfare polices). Solange notes the importance of her father and Master P’s presence with an interview with her sister:

I remember reading or hearing things about Master P that reminded me so much of Dad growing up. And I wanted a voice throughout the record that represented empowerment and independence, the voice of someone who never gave in, even when it was easy to lose sight of everything that he built.

Thus the precursor to each song draws from Master P’s embodiment of kinship, lineage and esteem, traits the teenaged-Solange admired and later internalizes into her interiority.

Through these interludes, Solange redresses Master P’s sonic history, particularly his famous rap catch phrase.  As he explains in the interlude “Pedestals“:

I never cried or nothing, and that’s where the, ‘Make ’em say uhh uhh,’ that’s like my pain…that’s my battle cry.

Solange spotlights Master P’s quiet–and accompanying tonal signature—while showing its relation to “louder” elements of masculinization and coping. P’s insoluble moan is a staple throughout his songs and a signature in other No Limit artists’s songs as well.

No longer limited to its “loudness” or flattened to party anthem accompaniment—as this song and sound has all too often been characterized—P’s “battle cry” calls out, sounding a communal harkening of empathy and relation.

. . .uhh uhh. . .

In tracks such as Don’t Touch My Hair, Solange makes Black Lives Matter a key sonic element in her album, but as with her rendering of Master P, in a way that “unlearns” previous assumptions and limitations and reveals how the Black Lives Matter Movement and network is pigeon-holed by American racial ideology and its accompanying sonic constriction. While the catalyst for the movement was white supremacy and police brutality, the movement’s guiding principles also highlight interiority-infused concepts of loving engagement, empathy, and restorative justice. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the network, has been vocal about the movement’s integration of the arts and the reimagination of blackness. The focus on black outcry and white sirens muffles the movement’s quiet. The consequences of ignoring the interiority dismisses the whole, black self.

Belying a similar dynamic, many listeners have pinned “Don’t Touch My Hair” as a declaration to whiteness, but considering Solange’s point of view, lyrics and gentle sonic value, makes the meaning of the stretch far wider.

As Solange divulges through the sound of the Mardi Gras trumpet that blares throughout the chorus and changes in volume and texture after the quiet interlude ends at 3:34, black hair is spiritual.  As the trumpets blasts in hosannas in gospel celebration, the track also sounds honor, adoration, tribute and preservation in the thick of American, racialized fixation.

The unlearning of confined sensory orientation that Solange’s A Seat at The Table and “An Ode To. . .” demands unveils a progression to time travel, what Michelle Commander’s recent book calls  Afro-Atlantic Flight. Solange further incorporates such spiritual, diasporic flight with her homage to Parliament-Funkadelic artist Junie Morrison–who passed just a few months after the record came out–in her futuristic track, “Junie,” punctuated with the light, avian melisma, one of her sonic signatures on the record:

Let’s go to moonlight, then they will never find
Let’s go to home, free from the mother mind.

Come on along, along, along, along, along, along, along

Featured Image of Solange by Flickr User Greg Chow (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Kimberly Williams oversees a Black Cultural Center at Virginia Tech where her work includes advocacy, policy, programming and bloodletting. She received her M.F.A. in poetry at Cornell University where she also became a Callaloo Oxford University fellow. Her thesis studied the sonic flight from the Stono Rebellion into contemporary dance and household rhythm. You can find her work in Gulf Coast, Callaloo, Drunken Boat and more. At night, you can catch her watching 90s live performances of Michael Jackson or Nine Inch Nails.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #45: Immersion and Synesthesia in Role-Playing Games

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In tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons players collaboratively and improvisationally create and explore imagined worlds primarily constructed through speech. In this episode Nicholas Mizer explores what it means to bring those imagined worlds into the shared space of play. Through interviews and recordings of games sessions with a dungeonmaster names Liz Larsen, he explores the importance of what Liz calls “color, song, and choice diction,” for kidnapping this reality with the imagined one. This podcast investigates the often sonic and synesthetic methods needed for conjuring these fantastic realities.

Nicholas Mizer is an anthropology PhD candidate at Texas A&M University.Besides role-playing games his research interests include folklore, mythology, ritual, phenomenology, interpretive anthropology, performance studies, and geek culture.  His dissertation explores how players of tabletop role-playing games collaboratively experience imagined worlds. He is an editor for The Geek Anthropologist and produces Spot Check, a Youtube series about his research on gaming.

Featured image “Map of Nabonidus IV” by Liz Larken. Used with permission by the author.

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The Eldritch Voice: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography

Weird Tales CoverWelcome to the last installment of Sonic Shadows, Sounding Out!’s limited series pursuing the question of what it means to have a voice. In the most recent post, Dominic Pettman encountered several traumatized birds who acoustically and uncannily mirror the human, a feedback loop that composes what he called “the creaturely voice.” This week, James Steintrager investigates the strange meaning of a “metallic” voice in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, showing how early sound recording technology exposed an alien potential lingering within the human voice. This alien voice – between human and machine – was fodder for  techniques of defamiliarizing the world of the reader.
 
I’ll leave James to tell us more. Thanks for reading!

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

A decade after finding itself downsized to a dwarf planet, Pluto has managed to spark wonder in the summer of 2015 as pictures of its remarkable surface features and those of its moon are delivered to us by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. As scientists begin to tentatively name these features, they have drawn from speculative fiction for what they see on the moon Charon, giving craters names including Spock, Sulu, Uhuru, and—mixing franchises—Skywalker . From Doctor Who there will be a Tardis Chasma and a Gallifrey Macula. Pluto’s features stretch back a bit further, where there will also be a Cthulhu Regio, named after the unspeakable interstellar monster-cum-god invented by H. P. Lovecraft.

We can imagine that Lovecraft would have been thrilled, since back when Pluto was first discovered in early 1930 and was the evocative edge of the solar system, he had turned the planet into the putative home of secretive alien visitors to Earth in his short story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1931, “The Whisperer in Darkness” features various media of communication—telegraphs, telephones, photographs, and newspapers—as well as the possibilities of their manipulation and misconstruing. The phonograph, however, plays the starring role in this tale about gathering and interpreting the eerie and otherworldly—the eldritch, in a word—signs of possible alien presence in backwoods Vermont.

In the story, Akeley, a farmer with a degree of erudition and curiosity, captures something strange on a record. This something, when played back by the protagonist Wilmarth, a folklorist at Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, goes like this:

Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! (219)

The sinister resonance of a racial epithet in what appears to be a foreign or truly alien tongue notwithstanding, this story features none of the more obvious and problematic invocations of race and ethnicity—the primitive rituals in the swamps of Louisiana of “The Call of Cthulhu” or the anti-Catholic immigrant panic of “The Horror at Red Hook”—for which Lovecraft has achieved a degree of infamy. Moreover, the understandable concern with Lovecraft’s social Darwinism and bad biology in some ways tends to miss how for the author—and for us as well—power and otherness are bound up with technology.

weirdtalesThe transcription of these exclamations, recorded on a “blasphemous waxen cylinder,” is prefaced with an emphatic remark about their sonic character: “A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH” (219-220). The captured voice is further described as an “accursed buzzing which had no likeness to humanity despite the human words which it uttered in good English grammar and a scholarly accent” (218). It is glossed yet again as a “fiendish buzzing… like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species” (220). If such a creature tried to utter our tongue and to do so in our manner—both of which would be alien to it—surely we might expect an indication of the difference in vocal apparatuses: a revelatory buzzing. Lovecraft’s story figures this “eldritch sound” as it is transduced through the corporeal: as the timbral indication of something off when the human voice is embodied in a fundamentally different sort of being. It is the sound that happens when a fungoid creature from Yuggoth—the supposedly native term for Pluto—speaks our tongue with its insectile mouthparts.

Yet, reading historically, we might understand this transduction as the sound of technical mediation itself: the brazen buzz of phonography, overlaying and, in a sense, inhabiting the human voice.

For listeners to early phonographic recordings, metallic sounds—inevitable given the materials used for styluses, tone arms, diaphragms, amplifying horns—were simply part of the experience. Far from capturing “the unimaginable real” or registering “acoustic events as such,” as media theorist Friedrich Kittler once put the case about Edison’s invention, which debuted in 1877, phonography was not only technically incapable of recording anything like an ambient soundscape but also drew attention to the very noise of itself (23).

For the first several decades of the medium’s existence, patent registers and admen’s pitches show that clean capture and reproduction were elusive rather than given. An account in the Literary Digest Advertiser of Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone, explains the problem:

telegraphoneThe talking-machine records sound by the action of a steel point upon some yielding substance like wax, and reproduces it by practically reversing the operation. The making of the record itself is accompanied by a necessary but disagreeably mechanical noise—that dominating drone—that ‘b-r-r-r-r’ that is never in the human voice, and always in its mechanical imitations. One hears metallic sounds from a brazen throat—uncanny and inhuman. The brittle cylinder drops on the floor, breaks—and the neighbors rejoice!

The Telegraphone, which recorded sounds “upon imperishable steel through the intangible but potent force of electromagnetism” such that no “foreign or mechanical noise is heard or is possible,” of course promised to make the neighbors happy not by breaking the cylinder but rather by taking the inhuman ‘b-r-r-r-r’ out of the phonographically reproduced voice. Nonetheless, etching sound on steel, the Telegraphone was still a metal machine and unlikely to overcome the buzz entirely.

In his account of “weird stories” and why the genre suited him best, Lovecraft explained that one of his “strongest and most persistent wishes” was “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” In “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Lovecraft put to work a technology that was rapidly becoming commonplace to introduce a buzz into the fabric of the everyday. This is the eldritch effect of Lovecraft’s evocation of phonography. While we might wonder whether a photograph has been tampered with, who really sent a telegram, or with whom we are actually speaking over a telephone line—all examples from Lovecraft’s tale—the central, repeated conundrums for the scholar Wilmarth remain not only whose voice is captured on the recorded cylinder but also why it sounds that way.

auxetophoneThe phonograph transforms the human voice, engineers a cosmic transduction, suggesting that within our quotidian reality something strange might lurk. This juxtaposition and interplay of the increasingly ordinary and the eldritch is also glimpsed in an account of Charles Parson’s invention the Auxetophone, which used a column of pressurized air rather than the usual metallic diaphragm. Here is an account of the voice of the Auxetophone from the “Matters Musical” column of The Bystander Magazine from 1905: “Long ago reconciled to the weird workings of the phonograph, we had come to regard as inevitable the metallic nature of its inhuman voice.” The new invention might well upset our listening habits, for Mr. Parson’s invention “bids fair to modify, if not entirely to remove,” the phonograph’s “somewhat unpleasant timbre.”

What the phonograph does as a medium is to make weird. And what making weird means is that instead of merely reproducing the human voice—let alone rendering acoustic events as such—it transforms the latter into its own: an uncanny approximation, which fails to simulate perfectly with regard to timbre in particular. Phonography reveals that the materials of reproduction are not vocal chords, breath, labial and dental friction—not flesh and spirit, but vibrating metal.

Although we can only speculate in this regard, I would suggest that “The Whisperer in Darkness” was weirder for readers for whom phonographs still spoke with metallic timbre. The rasping whisper of the needle on cylinder created what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky was formulating at almost exactly the same time as the function of the literary tout court: defamiliarization or, better, estrangement. Nonetheless, leading the reader to infer an alien presence behind this voice was equally necessary for the effect. After all, if we are to take the Auxetophone as our example—an apparatus announced in 1905, a quarter of a decade before Lovecraft composed his tale, and that joined a marketplace burgeoning with metallic-voice reducing cabinets, styluses, dampers, and other devices—phonographic listeners had long since become habituated to the inhumanity of the medium. That inhumanity had to be recalled and reactivated in the context of Lovecraft’s story.

dictaphoneTo understand fully the nature of this reactivation, moreover, we need to know precisely what Lovecraft’s evocative phonograph was. When Akeley takes his phonograph into the woods, he adds that he brought “a dictaphone attachment and a wax blank” (209). Further, to play back the recording, Wilmarth must borrow the “commercial machine” from the college administration (217). The device most consistent with Lovecraft’s descriptions and terms is not a record player, as we might imagine, but Columbia Gramophone Company’s Dictaphone. By the time of the story’s setting, Edison Phonograph’s had long since switched to more durable celluloid cylinders (Blue Amberol Records; 1912-1929) in an effort to stave off competition from flat records. Only Dictaphones, aimed at businessmen rather than leisure listeners, still used wax cylinders, since recordings could be scraped off and the cylinder reused. The vinyl Dictabelt, which eventually replaced them, would not arrive until 1947.

Meanwhile, precisely when the events depicted in “The Whisperer in Darkness” are supposed to have taken place, phonography was experiencing a revolutionary transformation: electronic sound technologies developed by radio engineers were hybridizing the acoustic machines, and electro-acoustic phonographs were in fact becoming less metallic in tone. Yet circa 1930, as the buzz slipped toward silence, phonography was still the best means of figuring the sonic uncanny valley. It was a sort of return of the technologically repressed: a reminder of the original eeriness of sound reproduction—recalled from childhood or perhaps parental folklore—at the very moment that new technologies promised to hide such inhumanity from sensory perception. Crucially, in Lovecraft’s tale, estrangement is not merely a literary effect. Rather, the eldritch is what happens when the printed word at a given moment of technological history calls up and calls upon other media of communication, phonography not the least.

I have remarked the apparent absence of race as a concern in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but something along the lines of class is subtly but insistently at work in the tale. The academic Wilmarth and his erudite interlocutor Akeley are set in contrast with the benighted, uncomprehending agrarians of rural Vermont. Both men also display a horrified fascination with the alien technology that will allow human brains to be fitted into hearing, seeing, and speaking machines for transportation to Yuggoth. These machines are compared to phonographs: cylinders for storing brains much like those for storing the human voice. In this regard, the fungoid creatures resemble not so much bourgeois users or consumers of technology as scientists and engineers. Moreover, they do so just as a discourse of technocracy—rule by a technologically savvy elite—was being articulated in the United States. Here we might see the discovery of Pluto as a pretext for exploring anxieties closer to home: how new technologies were redistributing power, how their improvement—the fading of the telltale buzz—was making it more difficult to determine where humanity stopped and technology began, and whether acquiescence in this changes was laudable or resistance feasible. As usual with Lovecraft, these topics are handled with disconcerting ambivalence.

James A. Steintrager is a professor of English, Comparative Literature, and European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He writes on a variety of topics, including libertinism, world cinema, and auditory cultures. His translation of and introduction to Michel Chion’s Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise will be published by Duke University Press in fall of 2015.

Featured image: Taken from “Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color” in NASA’s New Horizons Image Gallery, public domain. All other images courtesy of the author.

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The Musical Flow of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color

Sculpting the Film Soundtrack

Welcome back to Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, SO!‘s new series on changing notions about how sound works in recent film and in recent film theory, edited by Katherine Spring.

Two weeks ago, Benjamin Wright started things off with a fascinating study of Hans Zimmer, a highly influential composer whose film scoring borders on engineering — or whose engineering borders on music — in many major Hollywood releases. This week we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum to a seemingly smaller film, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), which has made quite a few waves among sound studies scholars and fans of sound design, even earning a Special Jury Prize for sound at Sundance.

To unpack the many mysteries of the film and explore its place in the field of contemporary filmmaking, we are happy to welcome musicologist and film scholar Danijela Kulezic-Wilson of University College Cork. Listen to Upstream Color through her ears (it’s currently available to stream on Netflix) and perhaps you’ll get a sense of why you’ll have to listen to it two or three more times. At least.

–nv

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 10.04.09 AM

When Shane Carruth’s film Upstream Color was released in 2013, critics described it in various ways—as a body horror film, a sci-fi thriller, a love story, and an art-house head-scratcher—but they all agreed that it was a film “not quite like any other”. And while the film’s cryptic imagery and non-linear editing account for most of the “what the hell?” reactions (see here for example), I argue that the reason for its distinctively hypnotic effect is Carruth’s musical approach to the film’s form: he organizes the images and sounds according to principles of music, including the use of repetition, rhythmic structuring, and antiphony.

The resulting musicality of Upstream Color may not be surprising given that Carruth composed most of the score, and also, as Jonathan Romney has noted in Sight & Sound, Carruth has said on many occasions that he was hoping “people would watch this film repeatedly, as they might listen to a favourite album” (52).  In this sense, Carruth (whose DIY toolkit also includes writing, directing, acting, producing, cinematography, and editing) joins the ranks of filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky and Joe Wright who recognize that, despite our culture’s obsession with the cinematic and narrative aspects of “visual” media, music governs film’s deepest foundations.

 

Upstream Color is a story about a woman, Kris, who is kidnapped by a drug manufacturer (referred to in the credits as Thief) and contaminated with a worm that keeps her in a trance-like state during which the Thief strips her of all her savings.  Kris is subsequently dewormed by a character known as the Sampler, who transfers the parasite into a pig that maintains a physical and/or metaphorical connection to Kris. Kris later meets and falls in love with Jeff who, we eventually discover, has been a victim of the same ordeal. Although the bizarreness of the plot has encouraged numerous interpretations, the film’s unconventional audio-visual language suggests that its story of two people who share supressed memories of the same traumatic experience shouldn’t be taken at face value, but rather serves as a metaphor for existential anxiety resulting from being influenced by unknown forces.

Such an interpretation owes as much to the film’s disregard for the rules of classical storytelling as it does to a formally innovative soundtrack, one that uses musicality as an overarching organizing principle. The fact that Carruth wrote the score and script simultaneously (discussed in the video below) indicates the extent to which music was from the beginning considered an integral part of the film’s expressive language. More importantly, as the scenes discussed in this post suggest, the musical logic of the film is even more pervasive than the style, role, and placement of the actual score.

Whereas feature films traditionally assign a central role to speech, allowing music and sound effects supporting roles only, Upstream Color breaks down the conventional soundtrack hierarchy, often reversing the roles of each constitutive element.  For example, hardly any information in the film that could be considered vital to understanding the story is communicated through speech. Instead, images, sound, music, and editing–for which Carruth shares the credit with fellow indie director David Lowery–are the principal elements that create the atmosphere, convey the sense of the protagonists’ brokenness, and reveal the connection between the characters. At the same time, characters’ conversations are either muted or their speech is blended with music in such a way that we’re encouraged to focus on body language or mise-en-scène rather than trying to discern every spoken word. For example, Jeff and Kris’s flirting with one another during their initial meetings (at roughly 0.44.20-0.47.00 of the film) is conveyed primarily through gestures, glances, and fragmentary editing rather than speech, which would be more typical for this sort of narrative situation.

Further undercutting the significance of speech across the film is how the film has been edited to resemble the flow of music. For example, non-linear jumps in the narrative are often arranged in such a way as to create syncopated audio-visual rhymes. This technique is particularly obvious in the montage sequence in which Kris and Jeff argue over the ownership of their memories, whose similarities suggest that they were implanted during the characters’ kidnappings. In this sequence, both the passing of time and the recurrence of the characters’ argument is conveyed through the repetition of images that become visual refrains: Kris and Jeff lying on a bed, watching birds flying above trees, touching each other. Some of these can be seen in the film’s official trailer:

The scene’s images and sounds are fragmented into a non-linear assembly of pieces of the same conversation the characters had at different times and places, like the verses and the choruses of a song. Importantly, the assemblage is also patterned, with phrases like “we should go on a trip” and “where should we go?” heard in refrain. The first time we hear Jeff say “we should go on a trip” and suggesting that they go “somewhere bright”, his words are played in sync with the image of him and Kris lying on the bed. The following few shots, accompanied only by music, symbolize the “honeymoon” phase of their relationship: the couple kiss, hold hands, and walk with their hands around each other’s waists. A shift in mood is marked by the repetition of the dialogue, with Jeff again saying “we should go on a trip” – only this time, the phrase plays asynchronously over a shot of Jeff and Kris pushing a table into the house that they have moved into together. Finally, the frustration that starts infiltrating the characters’ increasingly heated arguments is alleviated by the repetition of the sentence “They could be starlings.” As it is spoken three times by both characters in an antiphonic exchange, the phrase emphasizes the underlying strength of their connection and gives the scene a rhythmic balance. Across this sequence, the musical organization of audio-visual refrains prompts us to recognize the psychic connection between Kris and Jeff, and even to begin to guess the sinister reason for it.

While speech in Upstream Color is often stripped of its traditional role as a principal source of information, sound and music are given important narrative functions, illuminating hidden connections between the characters. In one of the most memorable scenes, the Sampler is revealed to be not only a pig farmer but also a field recordist and sound artist who symbolizes the hidden source of everything that affects Kris and Jeff from afar. As we hear the sounds of the Sampler’s outdoor recordings merge with and emulate the sounds made and heard by Kris and Jeff at home and at work, the soundtrack eloquently establishes the connection between all three characters while also giving us a look “behind the scenes” of Kris’s and Jeff’s lives and suggesting how they are influenced from a distance.

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In one sense, by calling attention to the very act of recording sound, the scene exposes how films are constructed, offering a reflexive glimpse into usually hidden processes of production. The implied idea here–that the visible and audible are products of not-so-obvious processes of formation–refers not only to the medium of film but also to the complexity of the inner workings of someone’s mind. Thus the Sampler’s role, his actions, and his relationship to Kris, Jeff, and other infected victims can be interpreted as a metaphor for the subconscious programming – all the familial, social and cultural influences – that all of us are exposed to from an early age. The Sampler is portrayed symbolically as the Creator, a force whose actions affect the protagonists’ lives without them knowing it.  The fact that he is simultaneously represented as a sound artist establishes sound-making and musicality as the film’s primary creative principles.

Considering Carruth’s very deliberate departure from the conventions of even what David Bordwell calls “intensified” storytelling, it is fair to say that Upstream Color is a film that weakens the strong narrative role traditionally given to oral language. What is intensified here are the musical and sensuous qualities of the audio-visual material and a mode of perception that encourages absorption of the subtext (in other words, the metaphorical meaning of the film) as well as the text.

The musical organization of film form and soundtrack is no longer limited to independent projects such as Carruth’s Upstream Color. As I have shown elsewhere, musicality has become an extremely influential principle in contemporary cinema, acting as an inspiration and model for editing, camera movement, movement within a scene and sound design. Some of the most interesting results of a musical approach to film include Aronofsky’s “hip hop montage” in Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Jim Jarmusch’s rhythmically structured film poems (The Limits of Control, 2009; Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013), the interchangeable use of musique concrète and environmental sound in Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy and films by Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga, 2009; Berberian Sound Studio, 2012); the choreographed mise-en-scène in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012); the musicalization of language in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012); and the foregrounding of musical material over intelligible speech in Drake Doremus’s Breathe In (2013). Given the breadth of these examples, it’s no exaggeration to say that filmmakers’ growing affinity for a musical approach to film is changing the landscape of contemporary cinema.

Danijela Kulezic-Wilson teaches film music, film sound, and comparative arts at University College Cork. Her research interests include approaches to film that emphasize its inherent musical properties, the use of musique concrète and silence in film, the musicality of sound design, and musical aspects of the plays of Samuel Beckett. Danijela’s publications include essays on film rhythm, musical and film time, the musical use of silence in film, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga, Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy, Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s films, and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. She has also worked as a music editor on documentaries, short films, and television.

All images taken from the film.

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