A Cut into Silence…

  1. Filmmakers, then, have also operated on the assumption that the spectator’s imaginary experience of a film can accommodate the most abrupt and seemingly “obtrusive” musical gestures.31 In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there is a sequence that not only confirms this assumption but also provides a glaring instance of how a filmmaker endows a simple procedure with new meaning. I am referring to the well-known sequence in which the black monolith appears for first time before an audience of astonished “primitive” creatures, half-monkeys, half-men. The music cue begins just before the first appearance of the monolith: a faint, dark sound in the background, rather like a low hiss, perhaps emanating from the object itself, over a medium shot of the waking creatures at dawn.32 As the creatures notice the object and gather around it, the initial sound rises in volume and becomes recognizable as music. It is Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Kyrie” from his 1966 Requiem: a sour, non-tonal piece for chorus and orchestra, moving slowly in massive, interlocking shards of sound in which no single voice or instrument is discernible. This is music that borders on the archetypical, perhaps the closest Kubrick could conceive to an utterly unfamiliar, transcendental, non-referential sound.33

  2. The sequence concludes with a shot of the monolith seen from below at dawn. The way the shot is composed conveys the mysterious, possibly supernatural, power of the object more strongly than any of the preceding shots. We see the upper edge of the object barely shielding us from the blinding light of the rising sun. The edge of the monolith, the sun, and the moon are all aligned toward the receding point of the composition. Explicitly centered, the figure of the monolith is made more overwhelming and foreboding by the distortion of the visual field due to the use of a grand angle. Finally, the music greatly enhances the effect of the image, since it is played at this point at maximum volume, literally saturating the spectator’s auditory field.

  3. What follows is an abrupt, unanticipated straight cut both in the image and the sound track to a long shot of a large, desert plateau, clothed by a mantle of almost absolute silence. There isn’t a single reference to this extraordinary moment in the immense literature on this film. The sensorial shift is so sudden and violent that the deafening sound of the previous shot may seem to persist even after the cessation of the sound stimulus itself (a kind of auditory equivalent of an after-image). In narrative terms, the cut conveys with supreme economy that the new shot depicts the earth at an indefinitely later time—thousands, perhaps millions of years after the appearance of the monolith as seen in the previous scene.

  4. I would argue that the abruptness of the cut does not lessen the intensity of the spectator’s absorption, since her attention is wholly captured by its meaning. The desolate landscape is conspicuously lacking in any signs of its position in time, and yet the indication that a large amount of time has intervened between the two shots is very clear. Kubrick decided not to employ the editing figures traditionally used to convey the passage of time, like the fade out, the dissolve, or the montage sequence. Instead, he devised a new, bold solution, one that he must have found commensurate with the scale and the scope of this crucial transition. The moment is crucial because it “trains” the spectator to understand that the temporal course of the story is vertiginously driven toward the future, familiarizing her with the pace at which man’s history on the earth will be narrated in the remainder of the film—by means of jumps of thousands of years at a time, until eternity.

    A World of Appearances

  5. As I have observed, the transition to recorded sound entailed the shift not only from a visible, live ensemble to an invisible, ghostly one, but also from performed to reproduced music. This did not prevent films from being washed in music in the manner of the silent film for quite some time. Many scores from the early 1940s are not immune to it.34 The soundtrack of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may be viewed as a partial revival of the practice of matching long stretches of pre-existing music to silent, dialogue-less visual sequences (most notably in the famous “spaceship-waltz” sequence, accompanied by Strauss’s Blue Danube). In The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Pier Paolo Pasolini used excerpts from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion through entire episodes, creating the impression of isomorphism between musical and narrative development within each episode. Luchino Visconti used lengthy excerpts from Mahler’s 5th Symphony and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in both Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973), respectively, exploiting to great effect the ambiguity between music as a projection or memory of the protagonist and music as independent narrative voice.

  6. Leaving individual differences aside, this style of matching music to narrative is reminiscent of the silent film aesthetics in that musical effects are diffused and the soundtrack, if not a performance, can be grasped and appreciated as a relatively independent component of the representation. It must be said, however, that since the 1930s, the dominant trend has privileged pointed, highly localized effects. Mechanicization allowed filmmakers to begin experimenting with increasing precision and control in their attempts to coordinate music and the image track. Though continuous and hyperexplicit in a way that would later become old-fashioned, scores from as early as the mid-1930s show that filmmakers were able to tailor music to narrative action with a precision impossible to achieve with any other medium before.

  7. Scores eventually became more fragmented. Painstakingly timed, intermittent scores are still with us today. The fact that audiences hardly experience a film score as intermittent—let alone fragmented—would seem to justify Chion’s claim that “each audio element enters into simultaneous vertical relationships with narrative elements contained in the image (characters, actions) and visual elements of texture and setting.”35 In this essay I have been at pains to suggest that such “vertical relationships” arise out of the encounter between a set of visual and auditory stimuli and a perceiving subject, who recomposes them in an imaginary world of appearances.

    Giorgio Biancorosso

    Princeton University

Works Cited

Carolyn Abbate, “Outside Ravel’s Tomb.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 52:3 (Spring 1999): 465-530.

Altman, R., McGraw
Jones, and Sonia Tatroe. “Inventing the Cinema Soundtrack: Hollywood’s Multiplane Sound System.” Music and Cinema. Eds. J. Buhler, C. Flynn, D. Neumeyer. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000. 339-359.

Anderson, Tim. “Reforming ‘Jackass Music’: The Problematic Aesthetics of Early American Film Music Accompaniment.” Cinema Journal 37:1 (1997): 3-22.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Blacking, John. How Musical is Man? Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1973.

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

---. “Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory.” Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Theory. Eds David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 3-36.

---. “Exceptionally Exact Perceptions: On Staging in Depth.” On the History of Film Style. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Brandi, Cesare. Teoria generale della critica. Turin: Einaudi, 1974.

Brecht, Bertolt. “On Film Music.” Bertolt Brecht on Film & Radio. Trans. and ed. M. Silberman. London: Methuen, 2000.

Carroll, Noël. Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

---. The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

---. La musique au cinéma. Paris: Fayard, 1995.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse Revisited. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ, and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.

Gombrich, E. H. Art and Illusion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Hagen, Earl. Scoring for Films. Los Angeles: Alfred Publishing, 1991.

Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Marks, Martin. Music and the Silent Film. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Metz, C. Le signifiante imaginaire. Paris: UGE, 1977.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Eds. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Odin, Roger. “L’entree du spectateur dans la fiction.” Théorie du film. Eds. J. Aumont and J.L. Leutrat. Paris: Editions Albatros, 1980.

Paulin, S. “Richard Wagner and the Fantasy of Cinematic Unity.” Music and Cinema. Eds J. Buhler, C. Flynn, and D. Neumeyer. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Price, H. H. Belief. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Rouget, Gilbert. Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession. Trans. Brunhilde Biebuck. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1985.

Scruton, R. The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Smith, Murray. “Film Spectatorship and the Institution of Fiction.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 53:2 (Spring 1995).

Souriau, E. ed. L’univers filmique. Paris: Flammarion, 1953.

Turvey, M. “Seeing Theory.” Film Theory and Philosophy. Eds. R. Allen and M. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Walton, Kendall. Mimesis as Make-Believe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Williams, Alan. “Godard’s use of Sound.” Camera Obscura nos. 8-10 (1982): 193-208.


* I wish to thank Carolyn Abbate, Masako Hayashi-Ebbesen, and Simon Morrison for their help in writing this article. I am also grateful to two anonymous readers for their thorough and insightful comments on an early draft of this paper. Finally, thanks to Susan McClary and Jacqueline Warwick for their encouragement.

1. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the opening instrumental “Toccata” is marked “to be played thrice, with all the instruments before the curtain is raised.” The marking presumably reflects the functions it was to play when the opera was first performed in Mantua: first, to call the attention of the audience; second, to announce the arrival of the Duke; and third, to sanction the beginning of the drama.

2. In discussing the role of music in bacchic rites, Nietszche went of course well beyond this. He says: “The music of Apollo was Doric architectonics in sound, but only in the kind of hinted-at tones characteristic of the cithara. It keeps at a distance, as something un-Apolline, the very element which defines the character of Dionysiac music (and thus of music generally): the power of its sound to shake us to our very foundations, the unified stream of melody and the quite incomparable world of harmony. In the Dionysiac dithyramb man is stimulated to the highest intensification of his symbolic powers, something that he has never felt before urgently demands to be expressed: the destruction of the veil of maya, one-ness as the genius of humankind, indeed of nature itself” (21). Nietzsche’s reference to the intensity of the effects produced by music reflects the nature of the rites he is discussing. However, it also betrays his view that music functions not so much as a sign that a certain kind of behaviour is allowed and indeed encouraged, but rather as a direct cause of a certain state of consciousness. I will take up the difference between causal function and mediating function below (see also footnote 7).

3. This may well reflect the irreversible shift from “cult” value to “exhibition” value postulated by Benjamin as a condition of modernity. “Artistic production,” wrote Benjamin, “begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view” (224–225).

4. Debussy orchestrated the first and the third Gymnopédies in 1896, Roland-Manuel the second. Satie composed the original piano pieces in 1888. It is worth recalling in this context that the very word “Gymnopedie” refers to the dances of a festival in ancient Sparta, thus linking the music programmatically to a nostalgic celebration of lost, ancient communal rituals.

5. Allen exemplifies here what the Russian formalists called “estrangement,” changing the place of things to heighten their effect. Allen was by no means the first to adopt this strategy with respect to the beginning credits. Both Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1972), feature complex pre-title sequences which call for a new way of understanding credits and their music (or lack thereof).

6. In his essay on the credits sequence of Renoir’s Une partie de campagne, Roger Odin suggestively characterizes the title theme as an enigma, arousing in the spectator the “desire for fiction” (212).

7. Here I am echoing Gilbert Rouget’s observations on the relationship between music and trance: “Demistifying the conception, too often adopted, of the role played by music in inducing trance states will be one of this book’s aims. The importance of music will not be diminished for as much; quite the contrary. Music will ultimately appear as the principal means of manipulating the trance state, but by ‘socializing’ much more than by triggering it” (xviii). See also my observations on Nietzsche’s interpretation of the Dionysiac dithyramb in footnote 2 above.

8. French philosopher Etienne Souriau and his followers first elaborated the notion of diegesis in specifically cinematic terms. It is worth adding at this point that there is an unfortunate graphic coincidence in the English language between the term diegesis as used by Souriau, i.e. meaning “story world,” and Plato’s notion of diegesis as “pure narrative,” i.e. “narrative without dialogue.” In French, the former is spelled “diégèse,” the latter “diégésis.” See Genette 18.

9. The perception of cuts in the image track also depends on the viewer’s allocation of his/her attention. Often the cut is not attended to as such because the visual information contained in the new shot takes up the whole of the viewer’s attention, especially if this information is new or carries the narrative forward in significant ways. An extreme instance of “diegeticization” of the cut occurs when the viewer understands it as representing a character’s shift of attention.

10. For Gombrich’s classic discussion of the psychology of visual representation see Art and Illusion. I hasten to add that Gombrich never intended the term “illusion” to suggest that the beholder is deceived or ensnared by the verisimilitude of the representation. He makes one exception only in his discussion of the Greek story, if the painter who had imitated grapes with such a degree of verisimilitude that the birds came to pick at them (Gombrich 206). Psychologist James J. Gibson discusses this example and Gombrich’s interpretation of it in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception 281.

11. For a theory of representation as make-believe see Walton. I am heavily indebted to Walton’s discussion of imagining and I share his conviction that the differences among varying forms of representation “must be seen against the background of their commonality, the fact that all prescribe imaginings, generate fictional truths” (Walton 51).

12. Here I am taking up Malcolm Turvey’s Wittgensteinian claim that verbs such as “to believe,” “to understand,” and so on, should be interpreted as referring to forms of behavior toward concrete object or situations, not as occult mental processes. That said, I believe that the verb “to imagine”æin the sense defined above also points to a form of behavior, and thus I feel no need to dispose of the term “imagination” altogether, as Turvey seems at times to imply (See Turvey 456).

13. Scruton discusses imagination as a parallel to metaphor in language. The experience of metaphor, in turn, is for Scruton a paradigm of the double intentionality that permeates the experience of music as well. “[O]ne and the same experience takes sound as its object, and also something that is not and cannot be sound: the life and movement that is music” (Scruton 96).

14. In insisting on the double intentionality of the perception of diegetic music, I am adapting Scruton’s claim to a new context (see footnote 13 above). It needs adding that throughout his book, Scruton shows no interest whatsoever in functional or incidental music, nor in music that is artfully exploited as part of a “combinatoire” of elements (to use Claudia Gorbman’s felicitous expression). This is a troubling aspect of the book, especially when Scruton ventures into general claims about musical representation, expression, and the relationship between music and language. For upon embarking on such claims, one should either define clearly what is meant by music or be inclusive enough to cover a sufficient number of repertories, uses, and ways of listening. Scruton seems instead to assume that the reader will agree that “music” refers to so-called Western classical repertory and that “music listening” is best exemplified by absorbed contemplation of tones in a virtual space.

15. For a classic analysis of belief as a dispositional, as opposed to occurrent, mental state, see H. H. Price, Belief, esp. chaps. 1 and 2, series II. In a chapter called “Half-belief,” Price also offers an illuminating analysis of the experience of “make-believe” (309–310).

16. Noël Carroll and Murray Smith have both argued for the need to sever the link between belief in the actuality of what is shown on the screen and the capacity to engage cognitively and emotionally to it.

17. This is also why such avowedly external elements as the written credits or the voice-over reinforce what Christian Metz calls the “fiction-effect” (and I will later call “absorption”). They reassure the spectator of the distance between her and the story world. See Metz,101.

18. In the terminology of philosopher Kendall Walton, the nondiegetic music in Jaws “makes it fictional” that the shark is attacking the unsuspecting swimmer. Diegetic music, on the other hand, “makes it fictional that there is music, that a band is playing, for instance” (172).

19. The effectiveness of the music cue is also dependent on one’s memory of the credits, where the music is used for the first time. Recalling the music already heard is thus part of the listening experience and reinforces our confidence in the intuition that the music is referring to the shark attacking.

20. I am borrowing the idea of film music as “vector” from Cesare Brandi, Teoria generale della critica, 270. Readers fluent in Italian will find many illuminating observations on film music in this important work of aesthetics. On this phenomenon, see also Claudia Gorbman, 32. Note that my use of the term “vector” differs from Michel Chion’s term “vectorization” in his book Audio-Vision. Chion uses “vectorization” to refer to how sound in general endows the image with a unilinear temporality as well as a horizon of expectation. See Chion, 13–14 and 18–20.

21. In his treatment of the relation between depth staging and attention, David Bordwell unfortunately ignores the role of music altogether. See Bordwell, 158–271.

22. See for instance Alfred Newman’s observations as reported in Hagen, 157.

23. Scott Paulin raises indirectly a similar question when he says that anxieties over unity and effacement “have usually made producers of film more anxious than consumers [...]” (64).

24. See, for instance, Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema. For sharp criticism see Noël Carroll, Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory and Bordwell, 3–36.

25. The famed orchestral pit of the Festpielhaus at Bayreuth, the darkness of the theatre during performance, and the elimination of lateral views to achieve frontal engagement with the stage may be interpreted not as necessary steps to ensure heightened attention on the part of the spectator but, rather, as signs or warnings that such continuous attention was being solicited by the Puppet Master (i.e. Wagner himself).

26. The expression “mutual implication” is Gorbman’s and it effectively highlights the fact that music too is transformed in the process of being matched to a cinematic scene. See Gorbman, 15.

27. What I am theorizing here is implicit in two important historical studies of live musical accompaniment by Martin Marks and Tim Anderson. See Marks, especially chapter 2; and Anderson, 3-22.

28. The question is, of course, immense and not new to the 20th–century. Pondering why animated objects create terror, Carolyn Abbate has recently made her own Stanley Cavell’s argument that automata suggest “how we could look down to find our own chests covered by brass plates, ripped open to expose ‘an elegant clockwork within.’ Thus the perfected mechanical man robs us of a prize, our soul, and in so doing injures human individuality and consciousness” (476). Note that is “terrible” here is the display of human features on the part of a mechanism, not the mechanical per se.

29. The impact of the crime is considerably reduced when the scene is viewed without music.

30. In Chapter Two of my dissertation, I examine at length the function of film music as a “prosthesis” of the spectator’s mind.

31. This is not always the case, of course. In the films of Jean-Luc Godard, the beginning and stopping points of the music are sometimes so unconventionally placed that a narrational effect is replaced by one’s awareness of the hand twiddling a dial. For two illuminating discussions of Godard’s use of sound, see Williams, 193–208; and Bordwell, 330–332.

32. It remains unclear whether the music is internal or external to the diegesis and whether the primitive creatures first react to the sight or to the sound of the monolith.

33. Ligeti’s Requiem was completed in 1966 and was still relatively unknown when the film was released in 1968. It was unknown and unfamiliar also in a literal sense to all but the most sophisticated and musically literate filmgoer.

34. In 1941, Bertolt Brecht ironically observed: “The only thing that one can say in defence of the dominance of so much music in film is basically that no one hears it anymore” (11).

35. See Chion, Audio-Vision, 40. Rick Altman has challenged Chion’s complementary claim that “the sounds of a film, taken separately from the image, do not form an internally coherent entity on equal footing with the image track” (ibid.). See Altman, with Jones and Tatroe, 341.