Performance versus Reproduction

  1. Until the advent of the sound film, musical accompaniment has always required an “apparatus” of sorts, be it an orchestra, a small ensemble, or a single instrumentalist. In this respect, there is continuity not only between the sound film and the silent film but also between cinema and other forms of representation. However, the painstaking, fastidious way in which the beginning and stopping points of the music were treated indicate that mechanical reproduction must have been perceived as a genuine break in the relationship between performing apparatus and visually depicted narrative. I take it that Hollywood composers, filmmakers, and sound engineers were following their listening habits when they set out systematically to efface signs of their intervention on the recorded soundtrack. In particular, I am referring to their understanding of the different aesthetic status of live and recorded music, respectively.

  2. Those who have attended a film show with live musical accompaniment will have noticed how easily one’s attention shifts from the performing group to the narrative. This applies also to those cases in which the orchestra is fully visible (proof, if any were needed, that the invisibility of the musical ensemble is not a necessary condition for music/image relationships to obtain). Whenever there occurs a shift in attention away from the narrative and a refocusing on musical accompaniment per se, one is still witnessing a performance. This makes it relatively acceptable. On the other hand, attention to mechanical reproduction, as opposed to performance, always seems undesirable. Why? Though it would be an exaggeration to claim that live musical accompaniment possesses the “aura” Benjamin famously talked about, it is undeniable that spectators regard live accompaniment in terms of an age-old aesthetics of “the event.” This makes it a relatively acceptable, and sometimes even desirable, focus of attention.27 It goes without saying that an aesthetics of the event—as I have called it—was simply not available for the processes of recording and reproduction, which replaced live performance with the advent of sound.

  3. This interpretation is meant to reopen, or at least historicize, the question of whether there is something inherently displeasing or disruptive about mechanical reproduction per se.28 It also implies that if an aesthetics of the recording or reproduction process were to emerge, the preoccupation with the traces of such processes would perhaps vanish. Admittedly, the prospects for such a development look bleak, except perhaps in the realms of the avant-garde film or video art. The history of sound recording practices outside cinema confirms that the dominant approach to the reproductive technology in the 20th century has privileged function over contemplation, effacement over exposure.

  4. For a functionalist, recording and reproduction are not events worthy of attention in themselves. When they survive at all, he appreciates audible traces of the processes of recording and reproduction only insofar as they point to a musical performance, the time or place in which it took place, or the agents involved in them. He treats these traces as “evidence,” not as objects of appreciation. Not surprisingly, in most studio recordings, they are nowhere to be heard. In the recordings of as radical a performer as Glenn Gould, one hears his own singing with the music, his legendary squeaking, or the creaking of his broken chair. Everything else is cut out as unnecessary. This is in keeping with Gould’s intention to foreground his own presence—not the technology he is using or the manner he is using it—as the focus of the listener’s attention.

    “Passing Unnoticed”

  5. Mainstream narrative films often feature moments of loud music and abrupt editing which pass just as “unnoticed” as the faintest string underscoring. How is this possible? The answer lies in what we mean by “unnoticed.” What goes “unnoticed” is not the music tout court but some of the information it carries with it—some of its formal features, when and where it was recorded, what kind of ensemble it used, who composed it, how it was edited, and so on. This information could potentially be the focus of our attention, but it is instead pushed to the margins of our field of attention even when the music is loud and the editing abrupt. However loud the music or abrupt the cut, the loudness of the volume and the abruptness of the edit are perceived as integral to our experience of the narrative. They are translated immediately into components of what psychologists of reading call our “semantic representation” of a fictional world. It is only in this sense that the music “passes unnoticed.”

  6. When this happens the spectator simply does not process the music as “loud music” or the cut as an “abrupt cut,” but rather as paths of access to, or attributes of, the represented content of the scene. When Norman Bates attacks Marion in the famous shower sequence in Hitchcock’s Psycho, for instance, the music literally assaults the viewer. But the viewer has neither time nor interest in dwelling on the music’s abnormal volume or the abruptness of the edit per se, as these features are immediately turned into signifiers of the murderous folly of the protagonist himself (especially upon viewing the film for the first time).29

  7. The Psycho example indicates that it is impossible to understand the perception of film music by reference to the external facets of the stimulus alone. “Effacement,” as it has been called, obtains even when the music is all but soft and discrete, and the editing abrupt and unsubtle. To claim that Bernard Herrmann’s loud, obtrusive music for the shower scene is self-effacing may seem paradoxical. However, this paradox need not detain us long, as we can easily renounce the notion of effacement, along with the negative connotations of “inaudibility” or “unnoticeability” it carries, and substitute it with that of absorption in an imaginary world. Once we acknowledge that the goal pursued by filmmakers is absorption, it will seem both sensible and desirable to view loud, violent gestures on the same continuum with subtle editing and delicate underscoring. Whether there is absorption depends on the relationship between film and spectator, not on the features of the soundtrack alone.

  8. Hitchcock’s famed collaborator had a special gift for spotting in a finished film places in which loud music or abrupt cuts would be both technically possible and highly effective. The shower scene in Psycho is a case in point. Herrmann’s perspicacity and confidence in using music in that scene becomes all the more apparent when one learns that Hitchcock originally did not want any music in it. In Vertigo, also scored by Herrmann, a sudden, loud statement of the habañera motif in the brass marks Scottie’s realisation that the necklace Judy is wearing is the same as Magdalene’s.

  9. In the same film, the music underscoring Scottie’s first exploration of Carlotta’s old house is suddenly cut by the voice of the day porter. Far from calling attention to the cut itself, the halting of the music renders quite wonderfully the reawakening of Scottie’s consciousness to the external world after speculating and daydreaming about the alleged ancestor of Elster’s wife. Near the end of the film, the music stops even more abruptly as Judy, after confessing her deeds to Scottie on top of the Mission Tower, sees the nun coming up the tower stairs. The cut wipes out the music, conveying unequivocally Judy’s sudden shift of attention, coupled with surprise and fear, due to the appearance of the nun (only the faint sound of an Hammond organ is audible). The ensuing silence, one of the most tension-ridden silences in all of film, is broken by a few words whispered by the nun first, and then even more violently by Judy’s scream as she throws herself off the tower.

  10. The final event of Vertigo is conveyed solely through aural means. From the moment Judy starts screaming until her death the camera alternates between close-ups of Scottie and medium shots of the nun. Thus Judy’s fall and her death remain unseen. As her body crashes on the roof, Judy’s scream also comes to a sudden halt. In its place, we hear a loud B played by tuba and trombones, accompanied by a single, loud blow of the timpani. The loud entrance of the music is unprepared; nothing is done to “cover” it. Herrmann must have been confident that the music would naturally fill in the psychological void left by the impossibility of actually seeing the impact of the body on the roof. So driven is the horizon of expectation at that moment, so certain is the outcome of Judy’s deadly fall, that when the low B strikes, it fulfils our need for some sensorial evidence of the unseen impact of the body on the roof. Moreover, the entry of the music is timed in such a way as to give the impression that the sound originates from the crash itself.

  11. The dark sound of the brass also takes on a number of expressive overtones: it may connote Judy’s suicide as being sudden, incomprehensible, cruel; it may point to the irreversibility of her destiny, or to Scottie’s shock at witnessing her death, again. The semantic indeterminacy of the unison allows for a degree of interpretive openness, of course. The effect of the sound on each spectator depends on one’s interpretation of the film up to that moment and the role of the nun’s sudden appearance in Judy’s decision to kill herself. The orchestral sound also produces an effect of stylization, abstracting the incident, as it were, and tempering considerably the suicide’s most gruesome aspects.

  12. Though it may at first appear like an isolated occurrence marking the crash of the body, the low B is in fact the first note of a two-note chromatic motif (B-C). The same music is heard over the shots of the dead body of Scottie’s colleague at the beginning, and of Madeleine’s body at the end of the first half of the film. It is a highly recognizable musical gesture that neatly marks the film at beginning-, mid-, and end-point. The motif is played repeatedly as the camera moves from a brief shot of Scottie to another medium shot of the nun. The music decreases in volume to underscore the nun’s reaction to the suicide. As the nun starts ringing the large tower bell, the volume of the music rises again so that the orchestra does not drown in the loud, metallic sound of the bell. It would be unfair to characterize the combination merely as a perceivable overlap of diegetic and nondiegetic sound. The two sounds—the brass and the bell—amalgamate to form a sonic complex in which the traditional border between diegetic and nondiegetic becomes fuzzy. On the one hand, the music seems like a component of the diegetic soundscape; on the other, the sound of the bells comments upon the scene non-diegetically as well as being a realistic element of it.

    Outer versus Inner Sounds

  13. Metaphorically speaking, our reaction to Judy’s suicide in Vertigo inwardly produces the equivalent of a loud, purely mental “noise” resounding all through our minds. Thus, when we first hear the low B in the brass and the blow in the timpani, there is a kind of overlap between the sound of the orchestra and the emotional turmoil provoked by Judy's suicide. I believe that the metaphor captures a psychological truth, as it is precisely our own emotional state of shock, and not another sound, that “covers” the loudness of the soundtrack. The metaphor also shows that our vulnerability to potentially distracting facets of the music does not depend solely on such physical invariance as loudness, timbre, or timing of the cue. While loudness is a physical feature of the music, “obtrusiveness” is a psychological category. What is processed as “loud” physiologically may not be interpreted as obtrusive. This is because the extent to which film music infiltrates the imaginative experience of the diegesis, thus “passing unnoticed,” depends at each moment on one’s attentional focus and emotional situation.

  14. There are many examples in mainstream narrative cinema of such “overlaps” between outer and inner sounds. Hitchcock’s equally well-known classic, North by Northwest, produced only a year after Vertigo and scored again by Herrmann, features a spectacular and exemplary moment in which a loud orchestral music cue is edited without preparation. I am referring to the oft-cited sequence in which the protagonist, Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is attacked by nothing less than a crop-duster plane while waiting for an agent in the middle of a huge, flat, deserted field in Indiana.

  15. As those familiar with the film will recall, the agent Thornill is waiting for never turns up. However,the attack on Thornhill fails as the plane crashes into an oncoming fuel truck. At this point Herrmann’s music, scored for the whole orchestra, explodes at maximum volume, presenting a variant of the title-theme. After the crash, we see the truck drivers precipitously leave the vehicle and then the explosion of the fuel tank.

  16. The example is particularly revealing because music occurs after several minutes of almost total silence, and yet nonetheless “passes unnoticed.” The recent memory of the eight minutes of almost total silence does nothing to heighten our sensitivity to the suddenness and bombastic quality of the music cue. The in-point of the music is “covered” by the sound of the crash itself, of course, but also by our involvement with the unexpected, spectacular conclusion of the episode. So fast is the escalation of events, such is our preoccupation with the crash and its consequences, that there is no psychological room to perceive the music as anything but strictly integral to our imaginative absorption in the action.

  17. As it is cued in just after the explosion, the music seems to result from the deflagration itself. In other words, the timing of the cue establishes a virtual, imaginary cause-effect relationship between the explosion and the appearance of the music. Moreover, the music participates in the deflagration, becoming part of the diegetic soundscape of the scene, and magnifying the sensorial impact of the explosion on the spectator. Finally, as in the Vertigo example described above, Herrmann’s music actualizes, prolongs the spectator’s own emotional state of shock and excitement.30 As the scene comes to a close, the image track takes us far away both in time and space from the site of the accident. Accordingly, Herrmann’s music attenuates its role through a swift thinning out of texture and the deintensification of the thematic work in the strings and brasses. It is as if the music were voicing the spectators’ own releasing of emotional energy following the spectacular climax. A simple, two-note descending motif played by the low clarinet underscores the dissolve to the shot of the truck stolen by Thornhill parked in downtown Chicago.