In the radio dramatization of Return of the Jedi (1996), a hibernation sickness-blinded Han Solo can tell bounty hunter Boba Fett is in the same room with him just by smelling him. Later this month, Solo: A Star Wars Story (part of the Anthology films, and as you might expect from the title, a prequel to Han Solo’s first appearance in Star Wars: A New Hope) may be able to shed some light on how Han developed this particular skill.
Later in that dramatization, we have to presume Han is able to accurately shoot a blaster blind by hearing alone. Appropriately, then, sound is integral to Star Wars. For every iconic image in the franchise—from R2D2 to Chewbacca to Darth Vader to X-Wing and TIE-fighters to the Millennium Falcon and the light sabers—there is a correspondingly iconic sound. In musical terms, too, the franchise is exemplary. John Williams, Star Wars’ composer, won the most awards of his career for his Star Wars (1977) score, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and three Grammys. Not to mention Star Wars’ equally iconic diegetic music, such as the Mos Eisley Cantina band (officially known as Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes).
Without sound, there would be no Star Wars. How else could Charles Ross’ One Man Star Wars Trilogy function? In One Man Star Wars, Ross performs all the voices, music, and sound effects himself. He needs no quick costume changes; indeed, in his rapid-fire, verbatim treatment, it is sound (along with a few gestures) that he uses to distinguish between characters. His one-man show, in fact, echoes C-3PO’s performance of Star Wars to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, a story told in narration and sound effects far more than in any visuals. “Translate the words, tell the story,” says Luke in the radio dramatization of this scene. That is what sound does in Star Wars.
I believe that the general viewing public is aware on a subconscious level of Star Wars’ impressive sound achievements, even if this is not always articulated as such. As Rick Altman noted in 1992 in his four and a half film fallacies, the ontological fallacy of film—while not unchallenged—began life with André Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” (1960) which argues that film cannot exist without image. Challenging such an argument not only elevates silent film but also the discipline of film sound generally, so often regarded as an afterthought. “In virtually all film schools,” Randy Thom wrote in 1999, “sound is taught as if it were simply a tedious and mystifying series of technical operations, a necessary evil on the way to doing the fun stuff.”
Film critic Pauline Kael wrote about Star Wars on original release in what Gianlucca Sergi terms a “harmful generalization” that its defining characteristic was its “loudness.” Loud sound does not necessarily equal good sound in the movies, which audiences themselves can sometimes confuse. “High fidelity recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well fabricated alien creature vocalizations” do not equal good sound design alone, as Thom has argued. On the contrary, Star Wars’ achievements, Sergi posited, married technological invention with overall sound concept and refined if not defined the work of sound technicians and sound-conscious directors.
The reason why Star Wars is so successful aurally is because its creator, George Lucas, was invested in sound holistically and cohesively, a commitment that has carried through nearly every iteration of the franchise, and because his original sound designer, Ben Burtt, understood there was an art as well as a science to highly original, aurally “sticky” sounds. Ontologically, then, Star Wars is a sound-based story, as reflected in the existence of the radio dramatizations (more on them later). This article traces the historical development of sound in not only the Star Wars films (four decades of them!) but also in other associated media, such as television and video games as well as examining aspects of Star Wars’ holistic sound design in detail.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .
As Chris Taylor points out, George Lucas “loved cool sounds and sweeping music and the babble of dialogue more than he cared for dialogue itself.” In 1974, Lucas was working on The Radioland Murders, a screwball comedy thriller set in the fictional 1930s radio station WKGL. Radio, indeed, had already made a strong impression on Lucas, such that legendary “Border blaster” DJ Wolfman Jack played an integral part in Lucas’ film American Graffiti (1973). As Marcus Hearn picks up the story, Lucas soon realized that The Radioland Murders were going nowhere (the film would eventually be made in 1994). Lucas then turned his sound-conscious sensibilities in a different direction, in “The Star Wars” project upon which he had been ruminating since his film school days at the University of Southern California. Retaining creative control, and a holistic interest in a defined soundworld, were two aspects Lucas insisted upon during the development of the project that would become Star Wars. Lucas had worked with his contemporary at USC, sound designer and recordist Walter Murch, on THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, and Murch would go on to provide legendary sound work for The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). Murch was unavailable for the new project, so Lucas then asked producer Gary Kurtz to visit USC to evaluate emerging talent.
Pursuing a Masters degree in Film Production at USC was Ben Burtt, whose BA was in physics. In Burtt, Lucas found a truly innovative approach to film sound which was the genesis of Star Wars’ sonic invention, providing, in Sergi’s words, “audiences with a new array of aural pleasures.” Sound is embodied in the narrative of Star Wars. Not only was Burtt innovative in his meticulous attention to “found sounds” (whereas sound composition for science fiction films has previously relied on electronic sounds), he applied his meticulousness in character terms. Burtt said that Lucas and Kurtz, “just gave me a Nagra recorder and I worked out of my apartment near USC for a year, just going out and collecting sound that might be useful.”
Inherent in this was Burtt’s relationship with sound, in the way he was able to construct a sound of an imaginary object from a visual reference, such as the light saber, described in Lucas’ script and also in concept illustrations by Ralph McQuarrie. “I could kind of hear the sound in my head of the lightsabers even though it was just a painting of a lightsaber,” he said. “I could really just sort of hear the sound maybe somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before.” Burtt also shared with Lucas a sonic memory of sound from the Golden Age of Radio: “I said, `All my life I’ve wanted to see, let alone work on, a film like this.’ I loved Flash Gordon and other serials, and westerns. I immediately saw the potential of what they wanted to do.”
But sir, nobody worries about upsetting a droid
Burtt has described the story of A New Hope as being told from the point of view of the droids (the robots). While Lucas was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) to create the characters of droids R2-D2 (“Artoo”) and C-3PO (“Threepio”), the robots are patently non-human characters. Yet, it was essential to imbue them with personalities. There have been cinematic robots since Maria, but Burtt uniquely used sound to convey not only these two robots’ personalities, but many others as well. As Jeanne Cavelos argues, “Hearing plays a critical role in the functioning of both Threepio and Artoo. They must understand the orders of their human owners.” Previous robots had less personality in their voices; for example, Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, spoke each word crisply with pauses. Threepio is a communications expert, with a human-like voice, provided by British actor (and BBC Radio Drama Repertory Company graduate) Anthony Daniels. According to Hearn, Burtt felt Daniels should use his own voice, but Lucas was unsure, wanting an American used car salesman voice. Burtt prevailed, creating in Threepio, vocally, “a highly strung, rather neurotic character,” in Daniels’ words, “so I decided to speak in a higher register, at the top of the lungs.” (Indeed, in the Diné translation of Star Wars [see below], Threepio was voiced by a woman, Geri Hongeva-Camarillo, something that the audience seemed to find hilarious.)
Artoo was altogether a more challenging proposition. As Cavelos puts it, “Artoo, even without the ability to speak English, manages to convey a clear personality himself, and to express a range of emotions.” Artoo’s non-speech sounds still convey emotional content. We know when Artoo is frightened;
when he is curious and friendly;
and when he is being insulting.
we started making little vocal sounds between each other to get a feeling for it. And it dawned on us that the sounds we were making were not actually so bad. Out of that discussion came the idea that the sounds a baby makes as it learns to walk would be a direction to go; a baby doesn’t form any words, but it can communicate with sounds.
The approach to Artoo’s aural communications became emblematic of all of the sounds made by machines in Star Wars, creating a non-verbal language, as Kris Jacobs calls it, the “exclusive province” of the Star Wars universe.
Powers of observation lie with the mind, Luke, not the eyes
According to Gianlucca Sergi, the film soundtrack is composed of sound effects, music, dialogue, and silence, all of which work together with great precision in Star Wars, to a highly memorable degree. Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), noted that when filming light saber battles with Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), he could not resist vocally making the sound effects associated with these weapons.
This a good illustration of how iconic the sound effects of Star Wars have become. As Burtt noted above, he was stimulated by visuals to create the sound effects of the light sabers, though he was also inspired by the motor on a projector in the Department of Cinema at USC. As Todd Longwell pointed out in Variety, the projector hum was combined with a microphone passed in front of an old TV to create the sound. (It’s worth noting that the sounds of weapons were some of the first sound effects created in aural media, as in the case with Wallenstein, the first drama on German radio, in 1924, which featured clanging swords.)
If Burtt gave personality to robots through their aural communications, he created an innovative sound palette for far more than the light sabers in Star Wars. In modifying and layering found sounds to create sounds corresponding to every aspect of the film world—from laser blasts (the sound of a hammer on an antenna tower guy wire) to the Imperial Walkers from Empire Strikes Back (modifying the sound of a machinist’s punch press combined with the sounds of bicycle chains being dropped on concrete)—he worked as meticulously as a (visual) designer to establish cohesion and impact.
Sergi argues that the sound effects in Star Wars can give subtle clues about the objects with which they are associated. The sound of Imperial TIE fighters, which “roar” as they hurtle through space, was made from elephant bellows, and the deep and rumbling sound made by the Death Star is achieved through active use of sub-frequencies. Meanwhile, “the rebel X-wing and Y-wing fighters attacking the Death Star, though small, emit a wider range of frequencies, ranging from the high to the low (piloted as they are by men of different ages and experience).” One could argue that even here, Burtt has matched personality to machine. The varied sounds of the Millennium Falcon (jumping into hyperspace, hyperdrive malfunction), created by Burtt by processing sounds made by existing airplanes (along with some groaning water pipes and a dentist’s drill), give it, in the words of Sergi, a much more “grown-up” sound than Luke’s X-Wing fighter or Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV. Given that, like its pilot Han Solo, the Falcon is weathered and experienced, and Luke and Leia are comparatively young and ingenuous, this sonic shorthand makes sense.
Millions of voices
Michel Chion argues that film has tended to be verbocentric, that is, that film soundtracks are produced around the assumption that dialogue, and indeed the sense of the dialogue rather than the sound, should be paramount and most easily heard by viewers. Star Wars contradicts this convention in many ways, beginning with the way it uses non-English communication forms, not only the droid languages discussed above but also its plethora of languages for various denizens of the galaxy. For example, Cavelos points out that Wookiees “have rather inexpressive faces yet reveal emotion through voice and body language.”
While the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special may have many sins laid at its door, among them must surely be that the only Wookiee who actually sounds like a Wookiee is Chewbacca. His putative family sound more like tauntauns. Such a small detail can be quite jarring in a universe as sonically invested as Star Wars.
While many of the lines in Star Wars are eminently quotable, the vocal performances have perhaps received less attention than they deserve. As Starr A. Marcello notes, vocal performance can be extremely powerful, capitalizing on the “unique timbre and materiality that belong to a particular voice.” For example, while Lucas originally wanted Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan, Alec Guinness’ patrician Standard English Neutral accent clearly became an important part of the character. For example, when (Scottish) actor Ewan McGregor was cast to play the younger version of Obi-Wan, he began voice lessons to reproduce Guinness’ voice. Ian McDiarmid (also Scottish), a primarily a Shakespearean stage actor, was cast as arch-enemy the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, presumably on the quality of his vocal performance, and as such has portrayed the character in everything from Revenge of the Sith to Angry Birds Star Wars II.
Sergi argues that Harrison Ford as Han Solo performs in a lower pitch but an unstable meter, a characterization explored in the radio dramatizations of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, when Perry King stands in for Ford. By contrast, Mark Hamill voices Luke in two of the radio dramatizations, refining and intensifying his film performances. Sergi argues that Hamill’s voice emphasizes youth: staccato, interrupting/interrupted, high pitch.
And affectionately parodied here:
I would add warmth of tone to this list, perhaps illustrated nowhere better than in Hamill’s performance in episode 1 – “A Wind to Shake the Stars” of the radio dramatization, which depicts much of Luke’s story that never made it onscreen, from Luke’s interaction with his friends in Beggar’s Canyon to a zany remark to a droid (“I know you don’t know, you maniac!”). It will come as no surprise to the listeners of the radio dramatization that Hamill would find acclaim in voice work (receiving multiple nominations and awards). In the cinematic version, Hamill’s performance is perhaps most gripping during the climactic scene in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tells him:
According to Hamill, “what he was hearing from Vader that day were the words, ‘You don’t know the truth: Obi-Wan killed your father.’ Vader’s real dialogue would be recorded in postproduction under conditions easier to control.” More on that (and Vader) shortly.
It has been noted that Carrie Fisher (who was only nineteen when A New Hope was filmed) uses an accent that wavers between Standard North American and Standard Neutral English. Fisher has explained this as her emulating experienced British star of stage and screen Peter Cushing (playing Grand Moff Tarkin).
However, the accents of Star Wars have remained a contentious if little commented upon topic, with most (if not all) Imperial staff from A New Hope onwards speaking Standard Neutral English (see the exception, stormtroopers, further on). In production terms, naturally, this has a simple explanation. In story terms, however, fans have advanced theories regarding the galactic center of the universe, with an allegorical impetus in the form of the American Revolution. George Lucas, after all, is an American, so the heroic Rebels here have echoes with American colonists throwing off British rule in the 18th century, inspired in part because of their geographical remove from centers of Imperial rule like London. Therefore, goes this argument, in Star Wars, worlds like Coruscant are peopled by those speaking Standard Neutral English, while those in the Outer Rim (the majority of our heroes) speak varieties of Standard North American. Star Wars thus both advances and reinforces the stereotype that the Brits are evil.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that James Earl Jones’ performance as Darth Vader has been noted for sounding more British than American, though Sergi emphasizes musicality rather than accent, the vocal quality over verbocentricity:
The end product is a fascinating mixture of two opposite aspects: an extremely captivating, operatic quality (especially the melodic meter with which he delivers the lines) and an evil and cold means of destruction (achieved mainly through echoing and distancing the voice).
It is worth noting that Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles, perhaps the most famous radio voice of all time, to portray Vader, yet feared that Welles would be too recognizable. That a different voice needed to emanate from behind Vader’s mask than the actor playing his body was evident from British bodybuilder David Prowse’s “thick West Country brogue.” The effect is parodied in the substitution of a Cockney accent from Snatch (2000) for Jones’ majestic tones:
A Newsweek review of Jones in the 1967 play A Great White Hope argued that Jones had honed his craft through “Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt.” Sergi has characterized Jones’ voice as the most famous in Hollywood, in part because in addition to his prolific theatre back catalogue, Jones took bit parts and voiced commercials—“commercials can be very exciting,” he noted. The two competing forces combined to create a memorable performance, though as others have noted, Jones is the African-American voice to the white actors who portrayed Anakin Skywalker (Clive Revill and Hayden Christensen), one British, one American.
Brock Peters, also African American and known for his deep voice, played Vader in the radio dramatizations. Jennifer Stoever notes that in America, the sonic color line “historically contoured, identified, and marked mismatches between ‘sounding white’ and ‘looking black’” (231) whereas the Vader performances “sound black” and “look white.” Andrew Howe in his chapter “Star Wars in Black and White” notes the “tension between black outer visage and white interior identity [ . . ] Blackness is thus constructed as a mask of evil that can be both acquired and discarded.”
Like many of the most important aspects of Star Wars, Vader’s sonic presence is multi-layered, consisting in part of Jones’ voices manipulated by Burtt, as well as the sonic indicator of his presence: his mechanized breathing”
The concept for the sound of Darth Vader came about from the first film, and the script described him as some kind of a strange dark being who is in some kind of life support system. That he was breathing strange, that maybe you heard the sounds of mechanics or motors, he might be part robot, he might be part human, we really didn’t know. [ . . .] He was almost like some robot in some sense and he made so much noise that we had to sort of cut back on that concept.
On radio, a character cannot be said to exist unless we hear from him or her; whether listening to the radio dramatizations or watching Star Wars with our eyes closed, we can always sense the presence of Vader by the sound of his breathing. As Kevin L. Ferguson points out, “Is it accidental, then, that cinematic villains, troubling in their behaviour, are also often troubled in their breathing?” As Kris Jacobs notes, “Darth Vader’s mechanized breathing can’t be written down”—it exists purely in a sonic state.
Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them
Music is the final element of Sergi’s list of what makes up the soundtrack, and John Williams’ enduring musical score is the most obvious of Star Wars’ sonic elements. Unlike “classical era” Hollywood film composers like Max Steiner or Erich Korngold who, according to Kathryn Kalinak, “entered the studio ranks with a fair amount of prestige and its attendant power, Williams entered as a contract musician working with ‘the then giants of the film industry,’” moving into a “late-romantic idiom” that has come to characterize his work. This coincided with what Lucas envisioned for Star Wars, influenced as it was by 1930s radio serial culture.
Williams’ emotionally-pitched music has many elements that Kalinak argues link him with the classical score model: unity, the use of music in the creation of mood and character; the privileging of music in moments of spectacle, the way music and dialogue are carefully mixed. This effect is exemplified in the opening of A New Hope, the “Main Title” or, as Dr Lehman has it (see below), “Main/Luke A.” As Sergi notes, “the musical score does not simply fade out to allow the effects in; it is, rather literally, blasted away by an explosion (the only sound clearly indicated in the screenplay).”
As Kalinak points out, it was common in the era of Steiner and Korngold to score music for roughly three-quarters of a film, whereas by the 1970s, it was more likely to be one-quarter. “Empire runs 127 minutes, and Williams initially marked 117 minutes of it for musical accompaniment”; while he used three themes from A New Hope, “the vast majority of music in The Empire Strikes Back was scored specifically for the film.”
Perhaps Williams’ most effective technique is the use of leitmotifs, derived from the work of Richard Wagner, and more complex than a simple repetition of themes. Within leitmotifs, we hear the blending of denotative and connotative associations, as Matthew Bribitzer-Stull notes, “not just a musical labelling of people and things” but also, as Thomas S. Grey puts it, “a matter of musical memory, of recalling things dimly remembered and seeing what sense we can make of them in a new context.” Bribitzer-Stull also notes the complexity of Williams’ leitmotif use, given that tonal music is given for both protagonists and antagonists, resisting the then-cliché of using atonal music for antagonists. In Williams’ score, atonal music is used for accompanying exotic landscapes and fight or action scenes. As Jonathan Broxton explains,
That’s how it works. It’s how the films maintain musical consistency, it’s how characters’ musical identities are established, and it offers the composer an opportunity to create interesting contrapuntal variations on existing ideas, when they are placed in new situations, or face off against new opponents.
Within the leitmotifs, Williams provides various variations and disruptions, such as the harmonic corruption when “the melody remains largely the same, but its harmonization becomes dissonant.” One of the most haunting ways in which Williams alters and reworks his leitmotifs is what Bribitzer-Stull calls “change of texture.”
Frank Lehman of Harvard has examined Williams’ leitmotifs in detail, cataloguing them based on a variety of meticulous criteria. He has noted, for example, that some leitmotifs are used often, like “Rebel Fanfare” which has been used in Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Rogue One. Lehman particularly admires Williams’ skill and restraint, though, in reserving particular leitmotifs for very special occasions. For example, “Luke & Leia,” first heard in Return of the Jedi (both film and radio dramatization) and not again until The Last Jedi:
While Williams’ use of leitmotifs is successful and evocative, not all of Star Wars’ music consists of leitmotifs, as Lehman points out; single, memorable pieces of music not heard elsewhere are still startlingly effective.
In the upcoming Solo, John Williams will contribute a new leitmotif for Han Solo, while all other material will be written and adapted by John Powell. Williams has said in interview that “I don’t make a particular distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ Music is there for everybody. It’s a river we can all put our cups into, and drink it, and be sustained by it.” The sounds of Star Wars have sustained it—and us—and perfectly illustrate George Lucas’ investment in the equal power of sound to vision in the cinematic experience. I, for one, am looking forward to what new sonic gems may be unleashed as the saga continues.
On the first week of June, Leslie McMurtry will return with Episode II, focusing on shifts in sound in the newer films and multi-media forms of Star Wars, including radio and cartoons–and, if we are lucky, her take on Solo!
Featured Image made here: Enjoy!
Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University. Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras. Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.
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Speaking American–Leslie McMurtry
Out of Sync: Gendered Location Sound Work in Bollywood–Priya Jaikumar
A sound art multimedia piece by Anthony William Rasmussen
Funded by the UC MEXUS Dissertation Research Grant
Map graphics by Julie K. Wesp
Additional Footage by Oswaldo Mejía
The megalopolis of Mexico City is experienced by many who live there as a network of “known” places, laden with both personal memory and collective meaning. Sounds provide inhabitants with a powerful means of navigation: the unique calls of street vendors, song fragments, speech, and protest chants echolocate the listener within a vast spatiotemporal grid. The title of this piece (“the snail/the shell”) refers to the prolific spiral motif in Mesoamerican cosmology and alludes to a nonlinear vision of time and space.
The piece consists of four journeys, each beginning at the outskirts of the city and ending in or near the Zócalo—Mexico City’s central plaza and the symbolic heart of the nation. The video element consists of footage captured while walking through various sites in Mexico City and represents the phenomenological present. The audio element provides a counterpoint to the visual: sounds meander and drift from the visual field; occasional ruptures of historical sound expose layers of this audible palimpsest.
Sounding Out! is thrilled to host a virtual installation of “El Caracol” right here, right now:
Featured Image: Screen Capture from El Caracol
Anthony W. Rasmussen is a musician, educator, and postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Currently, he is investigating the transformation of whistles from a rural system of long-distance communication to an aesthetic/symbolic practice in Mexico City. In 2017, he completed a PhD in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside with a dissertation on sound culture and urban conflict, “Resistance Resounds: Hearing Power in Mexico City.” His work can be found in Ethnomusicology Forum. Anthony also holds an MFA from UC Irvine where he studied Persian classical music, music composition, and interactive arts technology. He has composed for film, a range of traditional and experimental ensembles, and is singer/songwriter for the pop group, The Fantastic Toes.
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Standing Up, For Jose–Installation Piece by Mandie O’Connell
If you were to choose to watch live video composer and performer Ana Carvalho’s work silent, your brain would be easily guided into a synesthetic experience, assigning sounds to each rhythmic change in color, pace, frame. Her images oscillate…they dance, they breathe. As you experience this, there might be a sense that you have lost your ability to hear the outside world, as these images are clearly attached to, woven with, a part of sound.
There is a history of composers such as Iannis Xenaxis and Cornelius Cardew using graphic scores and notation in place of traditional methods and symbols, as a way to reach a deeper expression through allowing greater interpretation, chance, and improvisation with their musicians. They concentrate more on conveying information on how a work is played, rather then what notes to play when. Carvalho uses the graphic score much in the same way, but also as a method of communication between live audio and live video performances, instructing a dialog between two disciplines that are often side-by-side or leaning on each other, but rarely woven together in the manner I have experienced both as audience, and as an audio composer, with her work.
The following interview has been edited for style.
Maile Colbert: Hi Ana, how are you today? And what are you working on currently?
Ana Carvalho: I am good. I’m working on a performance to present at the solstice, with Neil Leonard, and a text about the possibility of expansion of the mind through performing and fruition of being in an audiovisual performance.
At the moment the performance is still involved into misty possibilities of what we know of each other’s work, and what we have been developing individually and talking about. There will be saxophone, electronics, and visuals made of strange landscapes.
MC: At this stage in the process, when working with a sound maker such as Leonard, how do you think about the images’ relationship with the sound?
AC: Images come to be as they appear on the screen in two ways: first there is the introspection about what have I learned from the previous performances, what I want to explore further and what I don’t want to repeat. Secondly, there is the encounter with the other person and his or her work and how do I translate their sound into moving image. At some point my ideas change through the exchange and becomes something else, a visual performance that could only be presented with that sound, with that person, at that place and time.
Regarding the sound in particular, sometimes I propose a structure, or a score, to be followed by sound and image. Other times it is improvised. As I enjoy very much the process, I tend to like to make structures for the performances, which develop along drawings and texts.
As a sound maker, I find they have a flow and almost narrative that feels both intentional and intuitive, no matter how abstract. When you make these, how much of a clear idea of how the audio would sound in relation to the images is in your mind? Do your images always or often follow the same score? Do the results surprise you?
AC: My state of arriving at the point of starting to make a composition is very much the same I described about working with a sound artist towards the presentation of a performance, that is, what do I want to develop further and what I want to leave behind? Then, what is particular to this new situation/performance/collaboration? The composition is a sort of a vehicle that connects process and performance, and that connects sound and image.
The composition is for the two mediums, sound and image, and they are considered in terms of composition as a unity made of two parts. They have to work in a conversational way. Imagine two close friends and how they would be talking to each other. I have in my imagination how it would be ideally two people in that position. That is how sound and image relate on the composition. I think in the most generic terms, more of intensity and flow rather than sonic results. For this reason any musician, with any possible (or invented) instrument, with whichever image or sound database, is able to play a score. It’s required though that the performers take time to reflect, that the composition is understood and incorporated in the way each one plays their instrument. The results are always a surprise.
MC: What inspired you to start working in this way with the scores, and when?
AC: My interest in making compositional scores, and from them documents related to my performance, has been inspired by conceptual and process based art and by my research on documentation of the ephemeral. The focus on the process highlights the need for other representations that are not the finished art object per se. These other ways of representation use available media to describe the making and the reflection while making. Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-79) is a very interesting example of what I am describing. She is expressing her feelings, the growing process of a child and an external perspective through visual objects displayed both as an exhibition and in book formats. Within audiovisual practice, I have been researching for the past five years on creative ways to make documents of the process. My attention was directed to composition in music. The influence of the composer Cornelius Cardew has been great, especially his work Treatise and his idea of directed improvisation. John Cage was also very important for his structures (in talks, texts and music), the use of the I Ching, and for bringing chance into composition.
Simultaneously, while studying and reflecting on these and other subjects, I realized that intuitively I make drawings, texts, and take photographs as a way to detach from the everyday and immerge into a creative process which eventually will lead to the concept and content of a performance.
Systematic Illusion – The Subtle Technique in an Earthquake Detector Construction has been so far the most complex project to include a score, as well as a series of photographs and the performance. It was presented in its complete form just once in the curatorial project Decalcomania. Organizing these elements as composition, creating a score, and from all this to make little books has been a way of putting into practice my research interests.
A result from the construction of the score has been that the process doesn’t stop with one performance, as I then use the same scores to perform with different artists. For example with the score from this project I created the Earthquake Detector performance series within which we presented the performance together in São Paulo in 2013 at the event Arranjos Experimentais.
MC: As you speak about your work, I keep thinking about Robert Bresson’s Notes on Sound and how most of his notes refer to variations of not letting sound or image take over each other, but to weave them together within the composition. In his Notes on the Cinematographer, he also wrote number “10. not to use two violins when one is enough”. What might this mean to you in relation to your collaborations?
AC: One very inspiring event in the attempts I make to construct a formal grammar and way for me to address collaborations has been to see the film Passage Through: A Ritual by Stan Brakhage. The film was screened at Serralves Museum, here in Porto, Portugal, in June 2011. The event addressed the collaboration and improvisation of music in relationship with cinema from the work of the composers Malcolm Goldstein and Philip Corner and their music in the film work of Daïchi Saïto and Stan Brakhage.
The most amazing thing in Passage Through: A Ritual was to watch such a beautiful film made of an abundance of black screen, that is, an absence of visual form, of light and movement. Each appearance of image was a precious moment. What I learned is that the visual emptiness, and sonic as well, contains information when stimulated through glimpses of image, making the experience of seeing and listening very deep. (In his Notes), Bresson sums up this appropriateness of means and complex connections in a simple and clear sentence.
On the scores I make most of the information can be used for both sound and image. On the Refractive Composition, the scale of greys is for image. That was its purpose when the score was performed the first time. But if someone decides to play from the score without knowing anything about it beforehand, and lacking this intention (which was relevant when it was made, but afterwards there was the decision to not leave it as a declared instruction), that person can also interpret the same information as sound.
MC: Alchemy has been described as: “…the chemistry of the subtlest kind which allows one to observe extraordinary chemical operations at a more rapid pace; ones that require a long time for nature to produce” (Paul-Jacques Malouin, Alchimie). Looking from a history of cinema, there is a tradition and pattern of picture coming before sound, a hierarchy that is both in process and production. You often feel this as an audience. Your work and collaboration have a quality of sound and image having been born together. Having worked with you using your scores, I was likening it to being given a recipe where you have before you ingredients and suggestions, but there is room for your own improvisations and reading. Perhaps that is where that feeling of both disciplines coming together in a manner that feels like they are one part of a whole, rather then separate but leaning on each other, comes from.
Is there an alchemical element to this work, or are you seeking one out? And in that regard, are your scores like a recipe?
AC: What I am seeking with my work can relate to alchemy as experiments and attempts in the quest for depth in all things at the point where differences and frontiers become undefined and irrelevant (in communication between beings, in areas of knowledge, between matter and energy). This quest for depth is based on stubborn curiosity towards evolution as a person, and as part of the world. Perhaps there isn’t an alchemical element to the work, but rather a connection with alchemy, in the ways scores relate to the experiments as recipes to be shared with others in construction and change. This takes me to another aspect of composition. It is difficult for me to understand live image as just accompaniment to a music performance, and vice versa. This is perhaps central to my composition, and the reason why I am doing it for sound and image, to be able to perform that intertwined.
If we look at compositions as recipes, it aim will be to set the performers in tune with each other in the construction of a performance, to set sound and image in dialogue, and to permit a multisensory experience. I have been trying to get other artists interested in performing my scores. To perform from another artist’s score may be very common in music but is unheard of in live visuals. I have as an objective to make a change in that, but for now I perform the scores with sound artists. With the Earthquake Detector series I asked sound artists to read from the score and perform with me. So far, I have presented this as performance with Jeremy Slater, Ben Owen, and with you. Because each artist has a very different approach to the score and reads it in its own way, the processes have been very different. For example, Ben Owen made visual reinterpretations of the structure, and you experimented with and without voice (reading of the text in the score), the results are therefore equally different.
MC: Aside from your scores, you could speak about your relationship to the sound you work with, and sound makers you work with, in the live moment of performance?
AC: Looking for a sound artist to work together on a specific piece or to interpret with me a composition comes from a need to transcend my individual perception of the world and to perceive it with others. It is, again, the curiosity to know the world. The only time I made a complete sound piece on my own was for the performance Vista II – Montanha presented last May (as part of Semana Andrómeda, in Maus Hábitos, Porto). Aside from this really interesting experience, each collaboration is different, every process is different, because each musician is a different person with different skills and sees the relationship between sound and image in different ways.
I am very thankful for everything I have learned with each collaboration and all the intensity with each performance but, as always, it’s the curiosity and the need to explore new frontiers that makes me move from previous project to next project. It is also the possibilities that intuitively present themselves as challenges and the “what if…” in variations.
Ana Carvalho is a live video composer and performer, and writes on subjects related to live audiovisual performance. She is a doctor of Communication and Digital Platforms from FLUP (Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto). Her thesis is “Materiality and the Ephemeral: Identity and Performative Audiovisual Arts, its Documentation and Memory Construction.” Currently, she holds a position as invited lecturer at the ISMAI (Instituto Universitário da Maia). For more on her work, visit: http://cargocollective.com/visual-agency/About.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
All images courtesy of the author.
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This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. Last Monday, you heard from Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers) who read Beyoncé’s track “No Angel” against the New York Times’ reference to Michael Brown as #noangel. You will also hear from Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé). Today, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) gives us full Beyoncé realness, from TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again,–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
Less than six months after Beyoncé released Beyoncé, she was momentarily silenced on the small screen when the gossip site TMZ released silent elevator security footage of a fight between her famous husband and sister. Doubly framed by the black and white of a surveillance video screen surreptitiously captured on a security guard’s camera-phone, the video’s silence left plenty of room for speculation. But the footage also revealed a woman conscious that her life is on record: Beyoncé’s body seemed to elude the camera’s full view and she emerged from the elevator with a camera-ready smile.
Like Kevin Allred in his powerful reading of “No Angel,” I could not help but rethink Beyoncé in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. I already read Beyoncé as a sophisticated response to the visual and aural policing of black female bodies, but the closed-circuit images of Beyoncé on TMZ (and in Beyoncé) made me reconsider silence as a damning convention of video surveillance; like Aaron Trammell in “Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surveillance,” I questioned (the lack of) sound as a technique of control. When the camera-phone recording of Kajieme Powell’s murder, photographed and narrated by a community member in real-time, was released with silent surveillance footage of the alleged theft, my appreciation of Beyoncé—as a response to those silent damnations—took a new turn.
“Resounding Silence and Surveillance” argues that Beyoncé returns the media’s visual-aural gaze. Because of its pop package, the album’s artistic composition and socio-cultural merit are often underestimated. Like the silence of surveillance footage, omitting any one sensory element from Beyoncé distorts the holistic meaning. To untangle this critically complex interplay of audio and video, I analyze the visualized song “Haunted” and briefly address the single “***Flawless” to show how the artist’s triple consciousness anchors Beyoncé. She is on to us: Beyoncé is the culmination of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her. Temporarily silenced by footage that she could not control, Beyoncé resounds that “elevator incident”—and our sonic/optic perceptions of her feminism—with a flawless remix.
“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear,” declares Beyoncé. Her voiceover runs over the black screen that opens the promotional video “Self-Titled.” Released the same day Beyoncé premiered on iTunes, “Self-Titled” directs audiences to “see the whole vision of the album.” By design, Beyoncé is an immersive experience—like watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a television event on MTV.
Because Beyoncé was born the same year the cable music channel MTV premiered, she has never known a world without the ability to “see music.” In many ways, her visual album reinvigorates the early spirit of MTV: after Beyoncé, we will “never look at music the same way again.” Though music videos exacerbate the pop single obsession that Beyoncé explicitly resists with Beyoncé, they also produce a unique kinetic connection with the listener-viewer, whose experience of sound is visually registered by the body as it processes shots and edits. This is especially true when strong imagery, rhythmic editing, and dance movements are expertly employed, as in Beyoncé.
Beyoncé deftly critiques the beauty and music/media industries that have been central to her pop success. If taken piecemeal, these critiques can be easily dismissed: the sustained gloss of her image works all too well. There is much to say on a video-by-video basis, but I focus here on the specific aural elements of “Haunted” that articulate Beyoncé’s refusal of the music industry’s status quo. This visualized rejection reveals the layers of racism and sexism that nonwhite female artists (even Beyoncé, even today) must negotiate.
Because of my personal and professional interest in music videos, I consumed Beyoncé as she intended: a sequence of MPEG-4 videos rather than AAC audio files. But it was not until I solely listened to the album that I could discern Beyoncé’s maturation as a black female multimedia pop/culture artist. One refrain from “Haunted” was especially effective:
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you/ Onto you, you must be on to me
The song’s ethereal quality is amplified by Boots (Jordy Asher), one of Beyoncé’s (then-unknown) collaborators with whom she shares “Haunted”’s writing and producing credit. The track builds slowly, supporting Beyoncé’s “stream of consciousness” delivery with layers of reverberation and waves of synth sounds like “Soundtrack” or the Roland TR-808 kick drum. Punches of bass accelerate the beat until Beyoncé riffs her explicit desire to create something more than a product:
The music winds to a halt, but the song is not over. Breathy, reverberating vocals transition the track and a piano is delicately introduced:
It’s what you do, it’s what you see
I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me
It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you
Onto you, you must be on to me
At this point, the song “Haunted” is split into two videos: “Ghost” (directed by Pierre Debusschere) and “Haunted” (directed by Jonas Åkerlund). The videos’ visual differences exemplify the various points of view—from active subject to object of desire and back again—employed across Beyoncé. “Ghost”’s hypnotic visuals underscore the song’s sentiments: close-ups of Beyoncé’s immaculately lit visage soberly mouthing lyrics are intercut with medium shots of her still body swathed in floating fabric and wide shots of her athletic movements against sparse backgrounds. The ar/rhythmic cuts of “Ghost” enunciate an artistic dissatisfaction with the industry: visuals build against/with the synthetic beat, mixing Beyoncé’s kinetically intense movements with her deadpan delivery.
The fiery agency of “Ghost” sets up the chill of “Haunted,” a voyeuristic tour in which Beyoncé watches and is watched. The “knowing-ness” of her breathy refrain (“I know if I’m haunting you”) is heightened when the tempo accelerates in the song’s second half. There is much to say about “Haunted”—from the interracial family of atomic bomb mannequins to Beyoncé’s writhing boudoir choreography. Most significantly, she is the video’s voyeur and object of surveillance: her face appears on multiple television screens and her voyeur-character is regularly captured on closed-circuit footage. The “Haunted” video soundtrack features the foley and stinger sounds of a horror film, but these surveillance shots feature the low whirr of a film projector rather than silence. The silence of a moving image is so jarring that it compels us to watch differently, so much so that “silent” film scenes utilize a recorded sound of “nothing” (“room tone”) to focus the audience.
When Beyoncé finally resounded the silence of the “elevator incident,” she chose to do it through “***Flawless,” her explicit response to anti-feminist accusations. While the multifaceted anthem gained attention because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s audio, the song is uniquely infused with a kind of docu-visuality thanks to Ed McMahon’s well-known voice and the Star Search jingle. These bookends cite a young Beyoncé losing to an all-male rock band, the kind heavily programmed during MTV’s early days. The clips reinforce the album’s critique of racial and gender hierarchies while questioning the double-edged “work ethic” required to surpass them. Of course, Beyoncé pre-emptively frames this discussion for us in “Self-Titled,” a necessary step that helps audiences appreciate the many moving parts of her tour de force, including her creative business mind.So when Beyoncé swapped the audio of Adichie and McMahon for Nicki Minaj, it was no less of a feminist move. Instead, Beyoncé silences TMZ gawkers:
She then offers herself as a medium of empowerment. Beyoncé may be part of a billion-dollar empire, but she willingly shares that pleasure with us:
I wake up looking this good
And I wouldn’t change it if I could
(If I could, if I, if I, could)
And you can say what you want, I’m the shit
(What you want I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
(I’m the shit, I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
I want everyone to feel like this tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn!
Beyoncé’s last word is an image. She and her creative team remixed the visuals of the “elevator incident”: the remix single website features black and white photos of Beyoncé and Minaj, simultaneously evoking surveillance footage and the photo booth images of a girls’ night out. Beyoncé is the work of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her: this minor moment exemplifies Beyoncé’s multimedia resonance as an artist whose power is visible and audible across iTunes and TMZ screens alike.
Thanks to Elizabeth Peterson, Charise Cheney, Loren Kajikawa, André Sirois and Jennifer Stoever for providing research and intellectual support for this essay
Priscilla Peña Ovalle is the Associate Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Oregon. After studying film and interactive media production at Emerson College, she received her PhD from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television while collaborating with the Labyrinth Project at the Annenberg Center for Communication. She has written on MTV, Jennifer Lopez, and Beyoncé. Her book, Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 2011), addresses the symbolic connection between dance and the racialized sexuality of Latinas in popular culture. Her next research project explores the historical, industrial, and cultural function of hair in mainstream film and television. You can find her work in American Quarterly, Theatre Journal, and Women & Performance.
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