Sean Cubitt on Sun, 8 Mar 1998 21:44:56 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Anxious Loves (Part 2 0f 2)

Anxious Loves:
Sound, Cinema and Multimedia
(Part 2 of 2)

Sean Cubitt


For some commentators, notably Adorno and Eisler (1947), the fatal
flaw came from the cinema's refusal of the revolution in musical
composition accomplished by the Second Viennese School of Schonberg,
Berg and Webern, the introduction of atonality, in which there is no
longer a 'dominant' to which the melody must return in order to give
the feeling of completion, but a democracy among the notes, no one of
which has a privilege over the others. Michael Nyman's successful
collaborations with Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion might seem to be
exceptions, but there is a rift between such 'postmodern' composers
and the close-guarded legacy of atonal composition. Yet both do share,
according to Georgina Born's dramatic anthropology of contemporary
formal music, 'an untainted and idealised notion of a non-commercial,
authentic people's music . . . aesthetically, ideologically and
institutionally distinct from commercial popular music' (Born 1995:

For Born, a critical distinction lies between the institutions of
musical culture, the commercial corporations of pop and the
state-subsidised academies of musical (post)modernism. She insists,
correctly, that the rifts within formal music in the late 20th century
are less central to the wider musical culture than their self-imposed
exile from the vernacular of industrial pop. But you can run a very
similar reading of the splits within pop itself, whose more inflected
forms, from free jazz to world musics to drum and bass, are variously
differentiated from the commercial mainstream. The boundary markers
are as strictly policed among micro-cultural subgroups (handbag versus
darkcore versus trip-hop . . .) as at Pierre Boulez' IRCAM. And
clearly, in terms of cinema, pop has had no problems intertwining with
the canons of Romanticism to produce the epic rock of scores like
those for Top Gun (1986) or Evita (1997). What all these musics share
is a refusal of noise, and it is in noise that the cinema has made its
most significant contribution to the aural arts. Yet, at the same
time, that revolution has been accomplished once more in the interests
of a formal unity between the elements of cinema, a unity, in turn,
still dedicated to resolving the central problem of both realist and
classical cinemas: the problem of representation.

Noise, from the standpoint of music, denotes the uncontrolled world of
sound which corresponds neither to composition nor to the structuring
repetitions of pop. Critically, vis-a-vis Born's argument, noise owes
its existence neither to the state, as subsidy, nor to capitalism as
industrial product. Though both produce noise as by-products of their
processes, in both instances it is considered waste, even as
environmentally hazardous. This makes it possible to understand why
noise has become the cutting edge of the avant-garde, for Jesus and
Mary Chain, John Zorn, Einsturzende Neubaten and crucially for Cage.

The difference between Cage and these others is volume. The use of
massive amplification renders noise not as a state of the world, but
as an effect in the ear of the sheer mass of vibrating air,
obliterating the sound of the world. Beyond a certain volume, the ear
no longer even distinguishes that virtual note which we can perceive,
for example, among the inharmonics of a chiming bell. In Cage's 4'33"
we have the possibility, depending on circumstances, of discriminating
among very faint as well as much louder sounds within the more
familiar range of decibels from heartbeats to the roar of jet engines
at take-off. These are the acoustic facts of the contemporary
soundscape, both far louder and far more diverse than anything our
forebears would have heard. For them, the world fell into three
auditory components: body sounds, including the sounds clothing, tools
and musical instruments make; animal noises; mechanical sounds
(including the more recent mechanically-generated musics like the
hurdy-gurdy and the piano) and, loudest by far, environmental sound of
wind, waves and weather. To these we have added only recorded,
broadcast, amplified and otherwise mediated sounds.

Yet this act of mediation has changed everything. The sound world
before Edison and Bell included all sorts of materials, but mediation
made it possible to consider them as materials, as the raw stuff from
which recordings and broadcasts can be made. It is perfectly logical
then for Cage to turn this soundscape into music, because all noises
are now elements  for a world of sound which it is the composer's task
to order and make sense of. Music attempts, with Cage, to seize
control over the whole of the sound world, to objectify it, as
photography objectified the world of visible surfaces. In the process,
it challenges a fundamental of music: its wholeness to itself, its
organic unity, the integrity of the whole. In its place, in
composition among the Klangfarbenschule, in performance with the New
Thing in jazz, and in analysis in the electronic dissection of sound
qualities in Stockhausen, we find a musical aesthetic comprising
disintegration, sound as particulate suspension. This diasarticualted
music is the heir to that atonality of whose absence from Hollywood
Adorno complained: a music in which sounds attain a certain democracy.
This democracy is precisely the problem: even radical musics deployed
in classical film must be subordinated to the hierarchies of classical
unity. And as if in response, a typical walk down a typical street
demonstrates the opposite effect in the material world: melody reduced
to the level of noise, a trivial and banalised addition to the
ordinary din.

So the question emerges, what is music for in a soundworld that has
become resistant to it? More specifically, what is music for in
multimedia. Music sought to contain every sound, but the soundscape
became soundtrack and now the soundtrack contains the music as just
another element, like street noise and talk. The early sound film
revolted against the dominance of music by borrowing from radio and
the stage, producing a dialogue-driven artform in which the visual
only held on to its position, at the head of a hierarchy running
through dialogue and music to the lowly sound effect, by opting for
the spectacular. It created a classical form which oscillates between
dialogue-dominated static frames, and image-driven spectacular action
sequences, with music reduced to mere accompaniment. This pattern of
shifting emphases is as important to the classical film as the
equilibration of voyeuristic narrative sequences and fetishistic
spectacle: in its very instability lies the continuing interest of the
old movies.

In contemporary Hollywood, the narrative impulse governing this
hierarchy has broken down. The classical character-driven narrative as
unifying principle gave way in the picaresque structures of 60s and
70s road movies to the centrality of character, but in the process
began to produce a newly navigable fictional space. The diegetic forms
the unifying core of neo-classical Hollywood in films, from Apocalypse
Now (1979) to Se7en (1995), in which we are more interested in milieu
than plot, allowing both the exploitation of scenarios like Federation
Space and Gotham City across a raft of products from films to
multimedia, and the spatialisation of classicism's temporal unities.
In such neo-classical films, music is symptomatic, and mixed further
down with both sound effects and dialogue to provide a structural
element linking the film's spatial forms with its residual time-based
narration. The Doors' The End in the opening sequence of Apocalypse
Now, or Uma Thurman dancing to Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon in Pulp
Fiction (1994) are exemplary moments at which music is motivated by
the construction of the mise-en-scene, and is heard as both diegetic
and as direct recording in the soundtrack -- in effect embracing
realist cinema's sound stylistics, but delivering them to the cause of
a neo-classical spatial unity. In such scenes, the very volume and
clarity become as significant as the lyrics and melodies: clearly
audible in the sound edit to John Travolta in the toilet, the
motivated sound of the music now muffled by the door. Neo-classicism
has learnt to treat its music as realism did its sound effects. The
new Hollywood soundtrack works to reduce music to an environmental
effect, significant only in the way the set decor or a clap of thunder
is significant: or as character-oriented motif, like Radio Raheem's
boom-box playing 'Fight the Power'in Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989),
a technique unchanged since Wagner: the music may be radical, but its
use in the movie is conservative.

This tendency belongs to a new attempt to unify the cinema via the
spatial techniques available to stereophonic sound recording. As
cinema has loosened its grip on narrative, so music itself has become
spatialised in the musics of  Glass and Reich and, via Eno, in ambient
music and club DJs segueing from style to style without climax or
conclusion, moving into the a-teleological soundscapes of the
postmodern identified by Born and Toop (1995). But cinema has learnt
its lessons from the success of the walkman and the in-car stereo, and
not at all, or badly, from the architectural and urban explorations of
musical space instigated by Stockhausen and Xenakis. Cinema prefers
the closure of sound into an inward-directed stereophony which
imitates not the world as soundspace through which one moves altering
the sound, but the imaginary fullness of a consciousness at the
assured centre of its world. The neo-classical soundtrack has
regressed into a cinema of liking, of a world entirely at the disposal
of the microphone, freed even of the realist identification with
character, freed to enjoy, freed of responsibility.

Cinema has gradually abandoned the world in favour of its
representation. This is why Baudrillard's fatal seductions are so
attractive: he shares the emergent film aesthetic for which there is
only the relation between the recorded and the real, a dialectic in
which the real can only ever be the loser, since it relies on its
reproduction for its very definition: 'the real becomes that of which
it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction . . . at the limit
of this process of reproducibility, the real is not only what can be
reproduced, but that which is already reproduced. The hyperreal'.
(Baudrillard 1983: 146). In the logic of representation, there can
only be the dereliction of the world. Cinematic realism has become its
own worst enemy: its strategies of subservience to the world, fatally
compromised, have had to witness themselves becoming the servants of a
global narcissism.


To the extent that we live in an individualistic, indeed
hyperindividualistic epoch, separation and distance are the most
ordinary of facts. The theory of representation pretends that the
function of communications is to mediate the world, as objects, to
people, as subjects, individuated in the event. But from the
materialist standpoint, mediation is not a relation between things but
between people. True, we have designed our media technologically to
conform to the aspirations of capital, so that photography and
cinematography, and the actual practices of recording and broadcasting
sound, are bound up through effects like stereophony and perspective
with the recreation of a specific historical, cultural and ideological
world view. To that extent, there is a vast job of retroengineering to
do before we can build a mediasphere proper to human being.

But in order to do so, we must reconsider what it is to be human, as
that changes with histories of the social world in which human being
is constituted. Every society must face death in its own way: this is
fully half of what culture does. Today, the dissolution of melody has
allowed music to face that future with both an exaggerated sense of
the present -- an effect of its emphasis on spatial dispersal -- and a

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