Music is also in the space

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. A conversation between Serge Daney and Noël Simsolo on Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone, first broadcasted on 24 February 1989 on France Culture. Part of Noël Simsolo’s series “Musiciens pour cinéastes”. Translation found on

SIMSOLO: This was the music of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone’s last film, hopefully not his final one. Serge Daney, you remember that one day we had lunch with Sergio Leone and what had struck you that you didn’t know at the time was this sort of precision in what he was doing. Despite appearances, he was very conscious of what he was doing. And although he was attacked by critics at first: destruction of the American western genre, phoney filmmaker that caricatures things, bit of a joker, etc, he slowly established himself as an obvious style, rejected or embraced, but clearly a style, total and consistent. When he makes Once Upon a Time in America, there is a use of the mythology of the cinema of Hollywood, of archetypes of the America of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. And with Morricone, his old accomplice as he said very clearly in the interview we just heard, a research so that the sound outline of the film, sound and music, integrate elements of originality and dramatisation but without illustrating. He is not a filmmaker that uses music as an illustrator, like Hawks for example, but uses music like total element of the fiction. So I’d like to put the question to Serge Daney, film critic but also sport and society critic: how do you feel the effects of this unique work?

DANEY: What strikes me is that we have realised very late that music in the American cinema was broadly a rehash of the Viennese School through the Jewish, German, Austrian and Hungarian musicians who left Europe for America. And we accepted this so naturally that we forgot to ask a very simple question. There has been a serious American music, and I do say “serious”, which is not bad at all, and which almost doesn’t feature at all, apart in some musicals, in the American cinema. And one only has to listen again to some records on 20th century American music to discover people that are relatively known, like Ives for example, to realise that there has been a music that tried to take into account European classical music and something specifically American (marching bands, choral societies, guimbards, hymns from North and South, of the Civil War, etc). This music is not in the cinema.

SIMSOLO: except a bit in Ford’s films.

DANEY: A little bit with Ford. Wagon Master for example. Things like that but rather in the minority. And it came down to an Italian filmmaker, a childhood friend of an Italian musician: Ennio Morricone, a pupil of classical music, to bring back through Italy – the pure conscience of classical music – that there had been an American music which was called Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson. People like that with a bit of jazz, a lot of popular music. And so it was thanks to Italy, and musically as well, not just the relation between Leone and Ford – Leone as the ultimate heir to Ford – but also Leone as the ultimate heir to Ives, let’s say. With a sort of village cacophony, with very simple melodies, and some very complex things, mixed together and having nothing to do with the serious music of the Viennese School.

SIMSOLO: A sort of return of America and its music via a European. Whereas until now Europe had fed Hollywood and Europe had fed from Hollywood.

DANEY: Yes, I would say that it’s the Europeans who have sent the pupils of Schoenberg or Bartók to Hollywood. But it’s also one European, two Europeans, two Italians, late, in the sixties, who implicitly said to the Americans: listen as well to your own musicians, the locals, from your village.

SIMSOLO: I’ll give you an anecdote that Sergio Leone told me. Maybe you were there. He said “The first time that I saw Morricone, I asked him: What did you do before?”. And Morricone said “The music of some western film”. “But that is bad Tiomkin.” And Morricone replied: “But what if they had commissioned bad Tiomkin?” And I think this is very revealing of what you have just said. For a while, through the imitation of the Hollywood system via the Italian or German series of fake westerns, musicians were asked to compose fake Tiomkin music or fake Waxman or fake Steiner music. Morricone was doing this but when he meets Leone, this is no longer what needs to be done. One has to return to the real.

DANEY: And the real when it comes to America is something quite simple. It’s a rather exploded culture, with many different parts, with a mix of very serious and very popular things, something lost in Europe. And what Morricone does with some magnificent melodies but also very refined orchestrations is to bring – apologies for the slightly pompous word – a carnivalesque dimension, in the way Bakhtin meant it, a heterogenous mix of things. So in the music that Morricone composes for Leone there are the guimbard (which in the end refers to the Jew’s harp), Viennese waltzes, and there is mainly military music. And military music is extremely important with Leone because he is perhaps the last filmmaker that is profoundly pacifist, anti-militarist actually, to make films. There is a description of war in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a hate of war, which apart from Ford, the Ford of The Horse Soldiers, had never really been shown in the American cinema.

SIMSOLO: And what also happens is that the music of Hollywood, illustrative or contrapuntal, or to think of it in as a function in the fabric of cinema, played either the theme of the character, and Morricone knew how to do this, as we’ve seen with Addio a Cheyenne, or of the situation, but rarely played the profound origin of people. It’s only with Ford that when a character arrived, we heard in the music some Irish rhythms to guess his origins. Whereas with Leone and this is what we will hear now. Since in Once Upon a Time in America, it’s about the Jewish mafia, one character is going to play the pan flute, as someone could have played it in the Palestine of the 1910s. And it’s mixed with the rest of the music, which means not only there is the character and the situation but there is also what the character fundamentally is, and he can’t function in any other ways than through his profound origins, and that music becomes in this instance not only part of the fabric but also an element of the analysis we can make about the cinema.

DANEY: We could say that this is the music that De Mille couldn’t create.

SIMSOLO: So as we reach the end of this series of broadcasts, there are a few things I’d like to say which are a bit anecdotical, slightly beside the point. But it’s true that when we got to know each other at the end of the 60s, at the time of the Cahiers du cinéma, before Cahiers du cinéma take an ideological turn, we sometimes found ourselves in popular film theatres with people like Jacques Rivette who watched films by Leone, who had been rather despised at some point, and who found an immense force in his cinema. And it’s also true that the force we found in Leone wasn’t just the mise en scène, in the flattest possible sense of the term, meaning how one enters the field of camera, how one cuts, how one constructs a close-up, but also the whole of the tapestry, of the mechanic that was rendered. And it’s true that even though critics like those at Cahiers du cinéma and other precise critics didn’t take the music in film as a fundamental element of the quality of a film. There was even this sentence if you remember that said “when the music of a film is good, we don’t hear it, we don’t remember it.” Leone and Morricone have reversed this problem. It is not possible to think of Leone without Morricone’s music as the interview I conducted with him in Annecy just reminded us. And we have the impression today, twenty years later, is that this crystallization that he managed to operate between a very present music and a very present cinema modified the way in which people use music in cinema.

DANEY: And you inadvertently just said the word that allow me to make a link…

SIMSOLO: Why “inadvertently” Serge?

DANEY: Hold on. You don’t know which word I mean. It’s “crystal”. I didn’t invent that. It’s in the tome two of Deleuze’s book where there are some beautiful things about the cinema. And he talks about certain filmmakers, not Leone because perhaps he doesn’t know him well enough, but he talks about Renoir, people like that, about Ophüls with whom it is already more telling, and he talks about the structure of the crystal. This means that the ensemble of the things that happened, character by character, action by action, memory by memory, is in a crystal. So we can’t touch it. And inside the crystal, there is a small merry-go-round. And each character is riding his own merry-go-round. And the merry-go-round is circular meaning that the characters can’t escape the crystal. It is the past. Fossilized but always ready to return, with the same intact emotional force.

SIMSOLO: Yes, like in the finale of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where the dead punctuate the duelling trio.

DANEY: Exactly. It takes place in front of a cemetery, in front of the dead. And perhaps because of Leone and also Demy with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg as it’s around the same time, there has been the possibility for a film to have a music that was both in complete synchronicity, in complete osmosis with the film, a music that said the same thing as the film, that there was this unforgettable and slightly idiotic crystal where people turn round in circles, are in cycles, do the same gestures, the same mistakes, the waltz of the shadows, and that we could remember the film or the music individ… indifferently. It set a precedent, for better or worse, often for the worse. And the most moving moment is the starting point: Leone. Leone is the first who made films, with Morricone as a magnificent accomplice, where the crystal was eternal. And what could we see inside the crystal? We could see both refrains, which is very Italian, like Nino Rota, differently but in the same way as Nino Rota. Something that an American can’t do. An American can’t create a refrain because he is caught in the countdown of an action. He can only compose a melody with a final catharsis like Tiomkin. Italians have always composed melodies, even refrains and choruses which they have even integrated into classical music. Morricone did this and it matches perfectly with the Leonian project which was to say: look at the cinema we no longer know how to make, let’s say Ford to be quick, before it disappears, and look also at the cinema that is coming: a cinema where we are going to take sample / signs, where we will be between fashion, advertising, short forms, recitative forms, extremely pathetic, where each character do their act, in a loop, with accompanying music.

SIMSOLO: I remember showing to an editor, Khadicha Bariha who worked with Chris Marker, films by Leone that she didn’t know but knew of reputation: popular films, etc. And seeing these films as the technician that she was, as someone who sticks together images and sounds to make a film, she told me “it’s strange, these are auteur films, totally”. Meaning there isn’t one element that has not been thought of. The films are popular but are fundamentally auteur films, as much as Straub or Garrel. And what’s very peculiar in the crystallisation that I was referring to. Leone, while playing a card completely distinct from popularity, but by mixing different elements, managed to give back to the popular cinema its great lyrical force, while never abandoning anything from his own project. And this is where others like Peckinpah have tried but not succeeded as well. For them, the musician, the actor, the archetype, the script, the décor, and always the music, came like an opera which was the musical opposite of the libretto, like a permanent counterpoint, to give a breathing to the modern cinema that we were expecting. That Leone and Morricone gave to us and that for years nobody had seen it.

DANEY: Nobody saw it but everybody took it, everybody copied it, digested it. His films have entered a sort of vague and obscure collective conscience. And now we see very well that Leone was the first, not only to have announced things that are common today, but to have said: this is the river bank we are leaving behind, and this is what is in front of us. What we leave behind is the painting, the symphony. And what we are heading towards is the sampling. We sample qualities from a character, a character from a décor, a rather empty décor. We become incredibly sensitive to a mix of hyper realistic documentary (Leone has observed the true West a lot) which becomes a neo-neorealism [term prompted by Simsolo] and we could say that if there was a history of the sur-figurative, Leone would be its starting point, but more friendly and moving than its current forms because Leone still knows after what this is coming. So this is really a mandatory passage. It’s like the bridge in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We blow it up in the end. But once it’s been blown up, we’ll have a lot of difficulties in continuing to tell stories.

SIMSOLO: There’s also something more technical. What has always titillated me with Leone is that I have listened to a lot of soundtracks which were illustrative, contrapuntal, theme of a character, theme of a situation. But with Leone, something very strange happened. The feeling of the montage: close-up, medium shot, relations between the two to be structuralist. The instruments played a role. When the pan flute plays, it indicates a certain framing of the image. When it’s the Jew’s harp, it’s something else. Music is not here just as a total element of the tapestry, it is sometimes like in painting or in modern music, a given element that can redefine itself and recompose itself. And it’s particularly striking because it’s only Morricone with Leone, not with the others.

DANEY: What Morricone does with music is the equivalent of what Leone does with his shots. He gives a feeling of what is close and what is far. Of what we are getting close to and at what a musical close up would look like. What we often take as melodies, magnificent of course, are close-ups. And what we take for complex orchestral things, are simply long shots. And to have worked with someone who was doing in his domain, his art, music, the same effort of distancing to take a general view, or of tightening to get to a close-up is something absolutely unique. And it’s true that Morricone didn’t do it with the others.

SIMSOLO: That’s the problem. Because with the others, it was: here’s the music, do what you want with it. With Verneuil, with Don Siegel, with great filmmakers. What’s surprising with Leone is this osmosis that we haven’t found elsewhere. Like Rota with other filmmakers than Fellini.

DANEY: This what everybody can understand today with the Dolby, the compact disc, or spatialised music. Music is also in the space. And people in the sixties must have felt implicitly, very directly, that the space that Leone was fracturing in a very inventive way, by keeping in turns the general picture and the close-up, the other one, in music, was doing the same.

What Were They Saying?

By Serge Daney

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was first published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 304, October 1979, and reprinted in La Rampe: Cahiers critique 1970-82 (Cahiers du Cinéma/Gallimard, 1983). Translation found on

By habit and laziness, racism too, whites always thought that emancipated and decolonized black Africa would give birth to a dancing and singing cinema of liberation, which would put them to shame by confirming the idea that, no way around it, blacks dance better than they do. The result of this “division of labor” (logical thought for some, body language for the others) is that the Western specialists of the young African cinema, too preoccupied with defending it through political solidarity or misguided charity, have failed to grasp its real value and originality: the oral tradition, storytelling. Are these “stories told very differently”? Yes, but in a cinema that is literal (and not metaphorical), discontinuous (not homogenous) and verbal (rather than musical). To begin with speech, not music, is what already characterized the early films of Ousmane Sembene, those of Oumaroou Ganda, and Mustapha Alassane, as well as those created in exile by Sidney Sokhona. The same is still true for the most recent – and most beautiful – film by Sembene, shot in 1977 and entitled Ceddo.

The film recounts the forced Islamization of a seventeenth-century village, situated in what would later become Senegal: the conversion of King Demba War and his court, and then of the villagers, even though they are convinced (as their spokesman says several times) that “no faith is worth a man’s life”. The king is secretly assassinated, the nobles are elbowed out of power, and the villagers (who are the ceddo, the “people of refusal”) are vanquished, disarmed, shaved and shorn, and rebaptized with Muslim names, ready for the slave market. (The next instalment, in a sense, will be Roots). Alongside this first story whose center is the village square, Sembene pursues a parallel story whose site is in no man’s land, somewhere out in the bush. The princess Dior Hocine, the king’s daughter, has been carried off by a ceddo who is trying to protest against the Islamization of the court, and who mercilessly kills anyone who tries to free her (first a brother, then a loyal knight). He is finally assassinated on the orders of the imam who has meanwhile taken power. Only at this point does the princess become conscious of the subjection into which her people have fallen. When she is brought back to the village, superb in her pride, with tears in her eyes, she kills the imam: a freeze frame on this last image, and the film is over.

Thus people in Ceddo lose freedom (the village), lives (the king), blinkers (the princess.) But there is worse. Ceddo is the story of a putsch, with the intrusion of religion into politics (as in Moses and Aaron, for instance) and the transition from one type of power to another (as in The Rise of Louis XIV), but it is also the story of a right which is lost: the right to speak. A right but also a duty, a duty but also a pleasure, a game. If the imam wins, it is not because he is militarily stronger, it is because he introduces an element which will cause the traditional African power structure to implode. And this element is a book, a book which is recited: the Koran. Between the beginning and the end of the story told by Ceddo, what has changed is the status of speech.

In the beginning, it is clear that we are in a world where no one lies, where all speech, having no other guarantor than the person who produces it, is speech of “honour”. When he films this people who will soon be reduced to silence, Sembene first insists on restoring their most precious possession: their speech. It’s an entirely political calculation. For what the defeat of the ceddo signifies is that African speech will never again be perceived by whites (first Muslims, then Christians) as speech, but instead as babble, chatter, background noise “for poetic effect” or, worse, “palavers”. Now, what Sembene brings before us, beyond archaeological concerns (which we are too ignorant of Africa history to evaluate) is African speech in so far as it can also have the value of writing. Because one can also write with speech.

In the court of King Demba War, in the coded space where the plot develops and the protagonists of the drama appear, each person is one with what he says: the king and his people, the Muslims and the “pagans”, the pretenders to the throne. There are rhetorical games, theatrical turnabouts, negotiations and oaths, declarations and rights of response: speech is always binding. Only in Pagnol can one find such incandescent moments where speech, functioning as writing, lays down the law. In this way Sembene’s film becomes an extraordinary document on the African body (today’s actors and yesterday’s heroes) upstanding in its language (here, Wolof), as though the voice, accent and intonation, the material of the language and the content of the speeches, were solid blocks of meaning in which every word, for the one who bears it, is the last word.

Is this an ideal, naive vision of a world without lies? The utopia of a world before ideology, ignorant of the gap between the statement and its enunciation? Not so sure. The societies which are a bit hastily considered to be “without writing” have resources all their own for extracting from spoken language that which can have the value of the written. One such resource is the use of what Jakobson called the “phatic” dimension of language (concluding one’s phrases with “I said!”). Another is the use of gestures with a performative value (Madiac, the heir to the throne dispossessed by the new Koranic law, repudiates this law and makes himself an outlaw; he demonstrates this position by trading a slave for wine which he solemnly drinks before the disgusted imam, who holds his nose against the smell.) Yet another resource is the use of undecidable statements (Madder the outlaw speaks only in proverbs.) Finally – and this is the most striking aspect of the film, the most unknown for us – there is the existence of an essential character, without whom communication could not take place: the official spokesman, the pot-bellied nobleman Jafaar.

It is as though an entire aspect of language – speech which is not binding – had fallen to a single man: Jafaar alone can lie, exaggerate, flatter, trick, play every role (including his own), occupy all the positions of discourse. Two characters standing face to face still need him to signify that they are speaking to each other: “Tell him that…” Yet Jafaar is not a spokesman in the Western sense (he doesn’t speak for a statesman who, remaining hidden, can always deny what has been said) and nor is he a buffoon, nor the king’s fool (so common in the Arab tradition.) He is not the one who speaks the truth while all the others lie, he is the only one who has the right to lie while all the others are sworn to truth. He is the one with a monopoly on the gap between statement and enunciation. Without Jafaar there is no communication; he is, if I daresay, the “blank spot” who spaces the speech of others and transforms it, in a certain way, into writing.

Therefore, even more than recounting the fall of King Demba War, it seems to me that Ceddo recounts how someone is dispossessed of his role as spokesman. At the end of the film, the imam sends Jafaar away (despite all his grovelling attempts to keep himself in favour), and replaces him with one of his loyal followers, Babacar. In fact, the function changes. Babacar speaks on the orders of the imam, who himself supposedly speaks in the name of a book (the Koran) he knows by heart. But a book is nobody. This vertical transfer of speech replaces the horizontal circulation of African language where a liar, put at everyone’s disposition, allows each one to “keep his word”. It is after Jafaar’s defeat that the reign of ideology, if you will, can begin. That is to say, the set of positions, not to say postures, that can be adopted before an untouchable Text: poses, travesties, excesses of zeal, hypocrisies, disguised unbelief. This is where Sembene becomes deliberately polemical: the ferocity with which he composes the portrait of the imam speaks clearly of his disdain for the servants of all dogma. More than an anti-Islamic film, Ceddo is anticlerical. Sembene hates priests.

So much for Ceddo-language. Ceddo-music remains. I said above that there were two films, two stories, two “positive heroes”: the people who collectively resist and the princess who becomes aware of the situation out in the isolation of the bush. The two films only converge in the final images, which are all the stronger for their forced, fictional quality. For when the princess kills the imam, it can only be an improbable end, an emblematic denouement: the final liberation of Africa yet to come. Sembene, more dialectical in this than filmmakers such as Leone or Kurosawa, knits together two stories without ever confusing them; he maintains the distance between the description of resistance and the fiction of liberation, between the people and its heroes, the collective and the individual, archaeology and convention. In short, the princess is not Zorro.

In fact, if there are two Ceddos, they are treated by means of two different approaches to cinema. Where the archaeological part is based on speech, the allegorical part is based on music. Each time the film calls on known situations, belonging to a diffuse, trans-historical memory of the history of the African Diaspora, the music – by Manu Dibango – seems to play as a reminder, a connotation. Speech against music? Not really, more a kind of dichotomy: to music belongs everything that refers us to our ignorance – which, in the case of Africa, is boundless. The result is a fascinating displacement of affects. When the villagers are branded with a hot iron, when they are hustled onto the square to be rebaptized, the cruelty of the situation, far from being underlined by the music, is held at a distance, as though someone were murmuring ironically: but you already knew all that… The music (Negro spirituals, balafons, choruses evoking free jazz) does not reassure, exalt or dramatize, but makes meaning. For once, film music has something like the taste of ashes. For this is the music that the ceddo people and their children will make later, elsewhere: in the USA, in Brazil, in the Caribbean. And they don’t yet know that. We know it (and more, we like that kind of music). The music is a future past, it will have been. In the same way, the ceddo people don’t know that for we Westerns, they will become beings of music, good-for-song-and-dance – precisely to the extent that they will lose the right to speech. It’s one thing to perceive in the music of the oppressed the reflection and expression of their oppression, but it’s another to ask oneself this question: before being condemned to sing their condition, what did they say and how did they say it? Ceddo risks an answer. Above all, Ceddo allows us to ask the question.

Interior view

by Claire Bartoli

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was originally published in the booklet of the sound recording of Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague (ECM, 1997). Translation by John M. King.

In a first period
– the old testament –
a human being
(a man)
is rescued from ruin
by another human being
(a woman).
In a second period
– the new testament –
a human being
(a woman)
(the same)
is rescued from ruin
by another human being
(another man).
But the woman discovers that the other man
is the same as the first
that the second is
(still as before)
the same as the first.
So this is a revelation.
And if man proclaimed the mystery,
it is woman who revealed the secret.

I’ve listened to Nouvelle Vague, yes, the film Nouvelle Vague. I’ve heard it. I can’t see it.
Despite my blindness I go often to the cinema. It gives me a lot of pleasure and intrigues me. Naturally, I go for films without a strong visual emphasis, those that contain many dialogues. Assisted by someone who describes a few scenes or décor elements, I use my imagination. I could see up to the age of twenty-three; I have also retained many visual memories and thanks to my imagination, the colours and images replenish the present stock of my “internal cinema”. The films populate the space within, producing bubbles of visual perception or coloured emotions. Listening to a film is a pleasure, but it also means an effort, concentration … Evoking precise memories to render the interior world as rich as possible, imagining and inventing to bridge the silent gaps. There are some film sequences I am convinced I have seen “with my own eyes”, so powerful and clear is the impression left on me by their scenes and colours.
So, just as in everyday life where all my gestures and movements require constant vigilance, cinema also demands intense concentration if I don’t want to lose my thread.

I listened to the soundtrack several times, on my own, without knowing anything else about the film, then I recorded on my tape-recorder (the notebook that never leaves my side) my first impressions. It was in summer, in a little village in the Ariège, in the middle of the Pyrenees. I don’t take my braille material with me on my travels. Back home, I made another copy of these notes, the first outline for my work. Then, much later, I became immersed in listening to the film once again and had one of my reader assistants record the dialogues published in the L‘Avant- Scène Cinéma (no. 396-397).
Again I noted pell-mell my feelings and thoughts on my little recorder. I appreciate this mode of writing, as it is capable of keeping up with the rapid flow of thought. For this reason my writing occasionally bears the features of the spoken idiom, as it does here now.

I made another copy of these words in braille, rereading the whole to sift out five main subjects, a bit like the chapters of a book.
To achieve this aim, I used a cutting technique. I snipped away at the braille page with my scissors, cutting out, subject by subject, little scraps of paper that I then put together again when I thought they matched. I play with the scissors, but unlike Jean-Luc Godard, hardly by choice. Not having a braille computer yet, I use only a braille typewriter which does not allow me to make any corrections. I systematically recopy the whole page.
After this to-ing and fro-ing between my tape-recorder and the write-up in braille, a friend came to help me check certain dialogue excerpts in L’Avant-Scène. She was somewhat horrified to see me among all these pieces of paper littered all over the office. At that stage I wasn’t at all sure I would ever escape from it all.
The next day, my mind clear, everything sorted itself out in the editing. No story, no chronological order, no events. I could not, as I could with other films, accurately depict in my mind’s eye what the sounds evoked, I could not visualise them. What remained was a melody, a musical mosaic. I had navigated to the rhythm of the thinker: overlapping outlines of thought, on the surface or deeper down, like the waves of the sea.
Jean-Luc Godard said: “… my film, if you listen to the soundtrack without the images, will turn out even better.” I’ve started playing this game.
I conceived the layout myself: my own thoughts occupy the whole width of the page; the indentations are a textual description of the sounds as I perceived them (in small capitals), with my interpretation of these sounds; and in italics are the fragments of the film dialogues.


First sensation: I can’t tell what is going on. The sound fails to reveal the action, just a few décor and movement elements.
Tell-tale sounds: steps on the paving, the stairs, the chimes of the clock …
Birds singing, crunching of gravel under car wheels, a horse whinnying, barking, sweeping of leaves, birds in the tree tops. The voices outside do not have the same tonality as those inside.
The jet engines of a plane. The resonance and fading out of the voices.
Grinding sounds, machines, wheels turning, mechanical hammering at a factory.
Elsewhere, a boat engine, a diver, swimming, pleasure and distress in the water of the lake. Then, other sounds: the waves, the thunder, the gulls do not indicate a location but are like the elements of a musical score, words among other words.

And then, a feeling of being lost: some things are said and I cannot hear them completely.
Amidst this fragmentation, the superimposition of all those words. I endeavour to follow one particular voice rather than another but fail. Slipping away, it eludes me.
Anything else to listen to … Yes, the relief of a landscape, composed of elements in successive layers, where words and sounds obscure and bump into each other, fusing together.

It’s a story I wanted to tell …


No place, no time for me, another reality, the metamorphosis of the universe of sound.
Godard, with large cuts of the scissors, divides the material into fragments, producing sound miniatures, as pure elements.

THEN COMES THE RUMBLING OF THE STORM, FOLLOWED BY THE NOISE OF A VACUUM CLEANER, SWEEPING, AND A MAN’S VOICE – There wasn’t enough time to discover, like a lamp that has just been switched on, the chestnut-trees in bloom.

My attention sharpens in an attempt to discover the faintest drop of sound: a beating of wings, the chimes of the clock, some snatches of a song, the trickling of water, nuggets deposited with the gentle care of a goldsmith or an alchemist.

STEPS ON THE PAVING, inside a house, THE VOICE CONTINUES, also inside. IT SPEAKS OF FRAGILITY. And everything one hears renders it fragile: THE RUSHING OF THE WOMAN AND THE SERVANTS, THE RINGING OF THE TELEPHONE… – things of our times that fill life and yet hollow it out, rendering it empty, void.

If Godard adjusts the sounds with the subtlety of a composer, creating shadows and sparks by rubbing them together, I deem him to be a magician capable of producing a bird from a hat, the individual elements being contained in each other.

THE DISTANT SOUNDS OF A CAR HORN ARE ENGENDERED IN THE MUSIC ITSELF, THE LATTER IS AMPLIFIED; SPEED, TOOTING, SLAMMING OF BRAKES. The fusion of the two elements generates the intensity of a perturbing, tragic sonorous event.

Interlude, A SONG BY PATTI SMITH, A more reassuring rhythm and beat in the closed metallic cage of a car. The words stop dead: You’re injured? Still at the side of the road: A BIRD SINGING, CARS PASSING … But what has happened? An accident, maybe?

Godard, the magician, the ferryman from another reality.

BEES BUZZING, a little grain of sound announcing Richard Lennox’s arrival.

Godard dislodges the sounds of the world, fashions them, isolates them from the life peculiar to them: a bark, a strain of music, a few words by a writer, the ring of a bell, the sound of waves returns to them their peculiarity; playing their significant roles of intervention, rupture, tragedy and mystery they become events. The emotion is engendered by the very substance of the sound.


Nouvelle Vague invents concrete music that does not hew to the beat, that toys with the irrational. Can’t we tell that we are made from the fabric of dreams?

The uneasy dialogue between the financiers awaiting Richard Lennox’s arrival is interrupted by A SONG, THE TOOTING OF A CAR HORN, imparting a musical note and substance to the danger of the situation.

And then the words … Ebbing and flowing, confusion and clarity fade and return between the various planes of sound. Passing words from amplified, then obscured voices interrupting each other, stammering, echoing in the panorama of sound.

No doubt a factory, a building site … EXCHANGES BETWEEN INDUSTRIALISTS IN CLEAR VOICES. They are discussing concrete problems. Other voices, deafened, say: Love, Creation …

Godard loves words, but he does not burden them with a concept, he hollows them to fill them with something else. They touch each other, ring, bounce back again, shatter into little pieces of useless glass, composing a score of notes, juxtaposed or bundled into chords.

Women are in love and men are alone.
A woman cannot do much harm to a man …
Love and attachment… attaché from an embassy … movement … movie … cinema.

In an appointed disorder words assume poetic substance. Separation and reconstitution: certain words are sucked down towards the depths, covered up again, then swell, thread their way along the surface, weaving from wave to wave.

Dorothy Parker: I’ve already told you there’s a price to pay when you’re good and when you’re bad. ELENA’S VOICE SUDDENLY LOUD AT THAT MOMENT: A memory … By virtue of its contact and intensity, the word then seems to respond to and reverberate with what has just been said.
THEN THE VOICE BECOMES INDISTINCT: … is the sole paradise we cannot be driven out of.
Richard Lennox: … catches up with the wave receding and falling back into clear water … a hell we are condemned to in complete innocence.
A PHRASE FROM RAOUL, AT FIRST SONOROUS: What she then discovers … – THEN ROLLING TOWARDS THE HORIZON: … is that her lover has committed the unforgivable mistake of being incapable of existence. – THEN RESURGING TO THE FORE: Leaving melancholy. Here is a rhythm, a space, far and near joining in harmony: oh, yes, melancholy.

The voices trumpet, penetrate the air, ring out. Small insertions of a noise, some notes, the object resounds. These cuts in the sound mark the beat or bring things to a halt.


Words are no longer words, the sounds of the world are no longer the sounds of the world. A new polyphony, magic.

People will say … A BIRD CALL MIXES IN WITH THE VOICE: It was the time when there were rich and poor, fortresses to be taken, ladders to be climbed, desirable things that were forbidden to preserve their attraction. Chance was one of the party. Nostalgic meditation? Author’s comments? THE NOISES CONTINUE TO JOIN IN, THE VOICES OF EVERYDAY LIFE. THE STORM THREATENS, BREAKS … because the world breaks. Danger. Only the birds and the dog hear the voice of the heavens.

Fragmentation and dispersion by means of which Godard drags us into a quest for desperately desired reconciliation between the earth and the heavens.

It is quite right that I should hear now and then the earth gently groaning, sending up a ray of light to rend the surface.

The more sombre and grave voices, such as Richard Lennox’s, seem to contain a little of this light. Others, distinct, loud, those of the merchants, freeze with their own emptiness. Behind Lennox’s firm words explaining the economic situation the gardener sweeps untiringly: the union of opposites, the fleeting and permanent nature of the seasons, modern times, the collapse of the old world?
A pleasure for the ears. Words losing their privilege. Certain noises mask them completely (the plane, the car, the machine), music also obliterates them.
Amongst the apparent calm of the conversations, business lunches, contract negotiations: under-cover terror. All profundity hammered by a contemporary world devoid of love.
Nostalgia that I feel palpitating between the bandoneon and the violoncello, in the faint or grave voice of the gardener,

A garden is never finished… but if it is abandoned …,

or in the deep one of the man, or of other characters that are simultaneously “I” and all the others, in multiplicity. I hear that nostalgia in the call of the bird rending the screen of useless words, with the savage force of an older world, or in the lapping of the waves bringing the sands their burden of memory and a new beginning. Nostalgia like the myth of a lost paradise. I think of Mircea Eliade: The life of modern man teems with half-forgotten myths… with obsolete symbols…
Godard reminds me of everything passing between “I” and the other that I am, between the others that approach me and what, of them, crosses my path. His predilection for disruptions and contrasts, these powerful relations he inserts between the words; the voices, the words and the sounds reveal (in a highly sensitive manner) the complexity of a conscience composed of literary reminiscences, of social, moral or aesthetic prejudice. The mystery of love, of a woman, the solitude of a man find themselves degraded, erased, relegated to the backdrop of a torrent of commonplace concerns.

Nostalgia and the dance of “all those images”.

What are all those images, sometimes free, sometimes confined … a tremendous thought?

Draft for another reality: the earnestness of life and the imbricated dreams, ephemeral and permanent states, melancholy and imagination. Will this modern man, cut off from the energies of nature that he only sees as a pleasant décor, stem the current, will he rediscover contact with the universe around him?
Beyond the realm of words, the music, expressed as the inexpressible fluid enchantment, returns like a memory, never to abandon us. It is also fragmented, inserting itself into the score of sound. And yet I feel its permanence, in slow waves.

THE FLUID TO-ING AND FRO-ING OF THE BANDONEON ACCOMPANIES THE FIRST PHRASES OF THE FILM – It’s a story I wanted to tell … and still want to … – giving way in some gaps to THE CALL OF A BIRD, A DISTANT STORM …

Shadowy and gently caressing, the music advances, as if predetermined. It lunges forward with the spoken words, charging them with intensity:

More generally speaking, a memory is the only hell … – THE MUSIC STOPS – … we are condemned to in complete innocence.

In accompaniment, the music may rise up at the same time as a cry.


It becomes finely engrained in the mosaic of the spoken word, fuses with it, anticipates it, punctuates it, interferes with it:

WITH THE ORGAN: Oh, how far toil is, how far the angels.
Alternatively: Tell him that you will really love him.

It harmonizes with the echoes of the interior dialogue.

In the second part, THE DIALOGUE BETWEEN HIM AND HER. He replies in a very concrete and superficial manner; suddenly an older phrase – The presence you have chosen accords no farewell. BRISK TREMOR FROM A VIOLONCELLO.

ACCELERATED RHYTHM just before they take the boat out onto the lake … Danger… Elena falls into the water, THE MUSIC BECOMES FRENZIED, HARSH TONES, PANIC … the imagination has a completely free rein. IT WAXES SOFT AND CHARMING AGAIN WITH ELENA’S WORDS IN ITALIAN. It caresses, becoming tender and comforting, nursing the wound. This interior sound opens doors, frees the emotion the neutrally spoken words do not reveal. The agitation between the words.

In its incessant equilibration it welcomes the moving, fluid force; it is accompanied by the words of the time, of the tangled time and new beginnings:

They felt big, immobile, with the past and the present above them like identical waves.

It can disguise comprehension or give it the beat, like the percussion.

Every transaction is sane – MUSIC – S.A.I.N.T. – MUSIC.


The slightest word that would tell us where we are, where we are going would be of incomparable value.

What are they? All those words at liberty, shot like arrows that will never fall to the ground, fleeing, irretrievable, escaping from books or enclosed within them?
I am almost drowning, confusion… welcome this gushing chant of words, words punctuated to the point of becoming magic formulas. The solitude of words.
Are they replying to each other? These little phrases cast like bottles into the sea. Bygone words, blue words, sailing in deep water.

The love that seeks itself:

It is neither time nor lassitude that must be feared in love; it is the impression of security, a state of inadvertence. One forgets that this charming being is transitory, one hardly enjoys it like a summer that will return, allowing so many beautiful days to be lost.

Love is more than love.

The memory of the world:

All of them, outlined against the backdrop of the lush green of summer and the royal glow of autumn and the ruins of winter before spring blooms again … it’s not as if they were defending the living against the dead with their enormous, monolithic weights and masses, but more like the dead against the living; nay, protecting the empty, pulverised remains, the innocuous dust and without any defence against the anxiety and inhumanity of the human race.

The words immediately echo each other:

Roger Lennox: I will remember … the voice of the interior monologue: A memory is the sole paradise we cannot be driven out of.
The Chairman: In any case, he can’t be any worse than the other one.
Raoul: But in that case there is a way to do it, and a way not to.

Little pebbles falling into the water disturb the surface, in ripples far and near.

Leaving melancholy …

Before we met, we were already unfaithful to each other.

The summer echoes itself in the gardener’s lyrical and grave words. Distant waves surfacing at another time of the film.

Summer is early this year and a little wild …

Like that pile of leaves burnt by the summer …

Perhaps it’s the famine that is ripening in this summer heat and almond fragrances.

Echoed notes resound in the heart of the other.

Lennox: The presence you have chosen accords no farewell.
Elena: Accords no farewell. -The regret…of having paid too high a price for a profit of some kind.
Lennox: Of some kind.

Here the words bounce upon the skin of an imaginary drum. A deaf, subterranean word submerged by the shouts of the merchants makes us wish we could hear better. A plethora of foaming, noisy, gentle or fallacious little phrases. A pro- fusion of puppet-like words.
In this chaotic polyphony I perceive the breathing of nature, springing forth in bird calls and whinnies. Which ear is meant for hearing the movement of the water? The silence of the words would be necessary.
Godard weaves a thread of continuity between the world’s memory and man’s.

All that grass there, is it within me? Is it grass when it is without me? And if no one gives it a name, what is grass when it is … nameless?

In this world built on the values of money and production I feel a constant fragility; the rumbling of the storm and the call of the bird pierce the screen of words.

Summer was early this year, everything came into flower at the same time, the white lilac, the cherry trees …

Here, even a fine summer evening made us feel our fragility.

To whom is the solitude of the word addressed? Roughly-hewn words, cast without any outcome or origin, like the objects of our day and age thrown away after hardly any use. Solitude in the uproar of the silence of the others.

You talk, you talk… How could you understand that there are others?
I say “me” but I could say a man, any man.

This man in possession of knowledge, in possession of progress exercises an influence on the whole world, and yet he is alone, lost, exiled in himself.

You haven’t understood anything about my silence.

But there is no silence: the sonorous landscape is teeming with a thousand sounds and words. Man’s silence is inside the sound; it is necessary to search for it in the slowness, the distance, the space that disturbs the word.
Roger Lennox’s words, their emotion, laboriously clear the way towards the outside.

How could you understand that there are others, others who exist, who think, who suffer, who live? You only think of yourself.

In this mass of auditory impressions, I divine the opacity of the secret.

We have been given the positive, it is our responsibility to create the negative.

A garden is never finished… but if it is abandoned …

The fervour:

The miracle of our empty hands …
love is more than love.

The spark of life:

It’s still winter but rather tender gleams lend the mist an iridescent quality, in the evening a grey cloud is fringed with fire, a sign of light, the discreet annunciation which will be forgotten in the rains and deceptions of March.

The light twinkles, eternal, once it has passed beyond the individual and time.

The words travel through a landscape in full relief and perspective. Godard mingles the dialogues with internal thought.

Your face…
He: What face?
She: I can’t see you.
He: Look at me …
And then, the other one in him:
There is never anything else in my being but all the words that will re- vive me…
The presence you have chosen accords no farewell.

Slight variations in intonation permit distinction between what is expressed and what is restrained.

She thinks: It’s us against all the others… I had to do what I did.
She says at the same time: You mustn’t worry for my sake.

The clarity and the obscurity of the secret. The man before in the depths of the heart of the man after. Does Godard want to lose us in the interior monologue by mixing all the times and the silences of the time, by spouting it from almost all the mouths of one who is in fact the other? Who is pursuing whom, to which fate?
Polyphony of voices interrupted by those of everyday life: a jumble of material concerns, a flashing of ephemeral thoughts. Incessant effervescence of thought. Everyone follows the trajectory of a little solitary planet. We are travelling between different levels of consciousness, perhaps.

IN THE DISTANCE, A TENDER ATTENDANT VOICE: Women are in love and men are alone.

A woman you love deprives you of other women and sometimes of love.

HARDLY AUDIBLE: … the extent to which you have been alone all your life you cannot imagine …

Jean-Luc Godard loves words. He jubilantly hunts them down in books, he shakes them about like a puppeteer, knotting and unknotting their thin invisible strings from one quotation to the next. A servant quotes Schiller:

Friends, what a pleasure to serve you. But what I do stems from a sincere disposition, thus I reap no credit and am deeply distressed. What may I do? I must learn to hate you, and, my heart full of loathing, to serve you, since this is my duty.

Her brother: Is it possible that one should say “women”, “children”, “boys” without having suspected that these words, for a long time, have not had any plural, but only an infinite number of singulars.

The permanent feeling there is another self. Everyone can be the commentator on what is happening to him.

He: They had the impression of having already experienced all that …

And everyone in turn contributes his thread of the warp to the weft produced by the meditation of Godard.

The gardener: One always learns something from the imbeciles lost in a drama.
D. Parker: Men organise the mystery and women find the secret.
Raoul: What women then discover is that their lover has committed the unforgivable mistake of being incapable of existence.

The mosaic of our existence, a fragment of all the others.

R. Lennox: Whatever I say, there is never anything else in my being but all the words that will revive me.

Raoul: She does not suspect the extent to which she is sometimes surrounded; even when she thinks she is alone with her lover there are many people there with them, her lovers former and future …

Abrupt cuts, haunting repetitions, incantations between the earth and the heavens.


She and he meet, and love travels like a question. To what extent do they meet each other?

What a miracle it is to be able to give what one doesn’t have …

Love does not possess, it’s the face of the shadow of the world of possession.
It rows across their voices,


She and he reply to each other in the filigree of a tangled web surfacing and submerging… waves …

Intimate spaces are near at hand. His badly shaven face, his hands that she kisses …

My love, my love … it’s of little importance that I was born, you are becoming visible where I have disappeared.
THE DOG BARKS. Perhaps a link with the outside world? One is never alone with one’s love.
I will work as long as the day.
Amidst the promises of our love … before we met, we were already unfaithful to each other.
The “promises” and the “before”, inseparable, like the wave and the gull. Waves of things said and done with that will always return, and promises of love like the beating of wings.
HIS VOICE HAS BECOME DISTANT, vague. Elena’s words, deaf, hardly cross her lips:
Let us clasp in our hands, so to speak, this happiness now begun …
Her warm and mysterious voice closes the space between the hands touching each other. The gull flies towards the horizon … The love they devise for each other …
Thank you for accepting …
He restores the distance. BUT THEN HIS VOICE VIBRATES A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY, becoming more sensual: Say no more.

I say to myself: one of the voices is his speech, the other his thought. And all lapse into music again.

Say no more.
For me it’s a dance, soft, drawn out, sorrowful, too. Retreating and returning, from one to the other.

A point on the horizon in the sound panorama, the dialogue proceeds at its own slower rhythm, like the ripening of a fruit…

She: The miracle of our empty hands…
He: My mother used to say to me: giving a hand to someone was always what I expected of joy.

The hands always reappear, testimonies to a bond of love, all charged with what their words will fail to say.

Let us take into our hands this happiness now begun …

The sensual presence of their love. The words do not fragment it, do not hollow it out. Hands extended to each other, given or not given.

On the lake: Give me your hand …

The one that is not taken, the one that brings death.

What are you up to here?
Arousing pity.

His profound words do not reach the surface of the discussions.
She alone hears them and REPLIES IN ITALIAN, only for his ears:

Five more minutes and we’ll be together again.

Amidst these illusions of exchanges, as revealed by the decoupage and the superimposition of the dialogues, she and he answer each other, in a thin, unobtrusive voice. Privileged moments in a labyrinth of solitary paths. She occasionally soft, a wave touching the deep ocean of his solitude. Almost at the same time she slips onto the sand of futile investments.

“Rimorso” regret …

He doesn’t just reply to her, he takes up her thought and interprets it. This is real listening.

… the feeling of having paid too high a price for a profit of some kind.

He continues:

of some kind – a heartfelt echo.

This man of silence, withdrawn into himself, replies to the others,


It would be nice if you said something.
He: I know, but I always wonder what.
Their words are coupled with other vibrations: THE RUMBLING STORM, THE WHINNYING OF THE HORSE.

Two sides – two worlds in confrontation: the intimate and the everyday, the exterior and the interior, the severed moments of two individuals.

He, simple and humble: Your dirty money…
She, her voice stifled, colliding with his own. Firm, self-assured, business-like: It could be yours as well.

Then it is he who becomes implacable.
He answers everything with a blanket of words.

She: I think that love has made me blind… I can’t see you.
He: But look at me!
The man before is wrapped up in himself.

On the lake again. AMOROUS MELODY IN ELENA’S VOICE. DOUBLE, INTERLACED VOICE: I love you… it’s us against all the others.

The stories are revived.

With the same harshness he says:
Kiss me, as if she had said: Give me your hand.

Interplay of voices, of multiple persons, restrained, caressing. This cinema makes me hear the invisible, the connection, the border between what is neither one nor the other, what separates them and pulls them towards each other. I sense the imperceptible margin between the words and the persons, the indecipherable element, the transparent knot between the threads of their destinies.


The disassociation of the visual and the sound elements: each sound existing in its own right in a very indirect liaison with the image. Two impervious worlds? Not quite. Imperceptible links, beyond all logic. So I toy with the sounds, fractured and stuck together again, creating my own pictures. This is the artist’s present: allowing myself to leave an illusory reality to re-enter that of the imagination. What one sees is not what one hears, what one hears is not what one sees. I cannot divine a person’s physical appearance on the basis of a voice, but it provides me with a more interior, less regulated truth.

At first the unity seems to burst into pieces subject to the fragmentary and dispersive action of Godard. He fragments sounds and words, interrupts, contrasts, creates distances, superimposes. I immerge into this strange movement between the right and the wrong side of the words, into the incomplete phrases that never cease to elude. The outside world, everyday life, the superficial words cross the interior world, in splinters, fragments or deep waves.
A work of demolition, and the nostalgia, perhaps, of a lost unity. The words of an old domain regularly lap onto the shore.

Before we met …

A memory is the sole paradise …

It was the time when there were still rich and poor, fortresses to be taken …

A melancholic embrace, the energy of the fragmented words is broken by a moving slow pace, where the vagabond characters of this tangled time meet and pass each other by. The drawn-out interior dialogue, violently broken by the noises from the outside (machines, engines, the telephone, voices …), redistributed in the speech of one or the other, is a deep current that fades and is then reborn: a thread in the weft of an iridescent material. The unity of man fades with it, the unity of the world, and here the magic bond between them quivers. I feel the power and the originality of this film in the gentle touches of the chosen elements, the harmonious or dissonant encounters between the notes, the transparent threads between the things and the people, the caresses, touches and clashes.

Just as Jean-Luc Godard loves to divide, he also displays the power to reunite.

Memories… they return to become – inside us – blood, looks, gestures; when they no longer have names, no longer differ from ourselves, only then can it come about, at an extremely rare hour, from their midst, that …

I listen. A feeling of dispersion, of flight, oppresses me a little, then I taste this alchemical concoction. Its unity is recomposed for me by the emotion. Opposites are no longer opposites, as they beget each other like reflected reflections.


I listen. Neither time or space, but an intermingling of all time and all space. Words of the present, the past, thoughts of all times. The man after, the man before, no endings, only new beginnings. Little waves in a large sea, unfolding and subsiding: it’s the same water, but not the same wave. Godard juxtaposes moments, creating another time where past and future are contained in each moment.

Time seen via the image is a time out of sight. The individual and time are quite different. Light twinkles, eternal once it has passed the individual and time.

Losing my sight made me feel that the eye projects towards the outside. The ear takes us back into our interior world. Time is both inside us and outside us. That’s what Nouvelle Vague reminds me of in its interlacing of moments, memories, seeds for the future, where it is the interior being that re-assembles the scattered moments of life. Robert Pinget describes Monsieur Songe’s reflections: ... the minor events of his existence that have no connections between them or, better, incommensurate connections, or that occur all together or that he has already experienced and that recur relentlessly.
The individual that seeks or finds itself in itself does not experience continuous, progressive time, but fragmented, divided time. Lo and behold, there is no evening after day, no morning after night, but what exists is a splintered, fragmented line of slow or flashing moments, parallel or broken, without any outcome. The continuance is not that of the action with its first fruit and consequences. The factory scene occurs just after the meeting between Elena and Lennox.

INTERIOR, EXTERIOR SOUNDS, OF LEAVING AND RETURNING. Which time transpires between all these moments?

The time lags behind, assuming a different rhythm. It leaves the path of linear progression, opting for the escapades of brief eternities. Jean-Luc Godard hurls these little fragments of time up into the air, maybe to find out the sound they would make when falling. And yet it is not a game of chance, but the composition of a score, in flashes, showers of moments, in series, in multiplicity. In the movements of the stars, those of nature, there is no more regularity than in ourselves.

The society we have lived through may be considered to be defunct …
If it is recalled in future centuries, it will be thought of as a charming moment in man’s history, people will say …

He stops. The thought processes re- quire time to mature. Society has realised this and that’s why it spares no effort to glorify love. It’s a key to productivity.

Pauses and sighs in the score, but no gap. A profusion of memories that do not have the time to burst to the surface, of unsatiated desires … and the present pounds away at it all. In the foreground, men reduced to insects, devoured by utilitarian time, historical time. They live according to the rhythm of the fluctuations of the dollar rate; for them nothing exists outside that time.
But Godard resists this belief in the reality of this time, opening up the horizons of the “grand temps”.

Elena says, vehemently: It would be nice if you said something for a change.
I perceive the distances in the interior dialogue …
Much later, he says:
I have no need to say anything, I help her just the same, she recognises it, besides, sometimes she returns to the midst of the people … Sometimes she doesn’t …

Godard arranges the sound material, he gives it its rhythm. Neither a classic progression nor a traditional series of sounds that would reveal the length and the effects of an action. Incidentally, this explains why I cannot divine any part of the action or the image solely with the power of hearing. I find myself in a revolving time where events are resuscitated, like the lake scene.

The presence you have chosen accords no farewell … A memory is the sole paradise we cannot be driven
out of.

The voyager through this time constantly comes across the signs of the morrow.

The incongruous words of the chauffeur – Have you ever been stung by a dead bee? – assume the message of urgency and prediction: A woman cannot do much harm to a man, she can disturb him, annoy him or kill him, that’s all.

The past breaks through in the voice of one or the other, a distant wave from the same ocean.

Is it possible for us to believe that we have to catch up on what has happened before we are born?

A memory is the only hell we are condemned to in complete innocence.

In the passage of time a man mentions the summer of flowers, ripe fruit and almond fragrance … a wild summer. Untiringly he sweeps the leaves of the summer coming to an end. I hear him and associate him with the permanence of the waves. All of this story could germinate and ripen in that summer. The gardener unfolds the seasons, timeless words, almost a legend, an old round dance whose steps have been forgotten. The gardener returns to the subject of summer at the end of the film. Has a year passed or has the meaning of the dance been altered? The music is inscribed in the passage of time. Melancholic, it comes and goes, unable to keep silent, it unfurls and then retires. Creating movement and permanence.

These signs of light will be forgotten in the rain and the deceptions of March.

I hear the light. The music bears it, many other noises also contain it: the bird song, the wind, the water, the heart of the world. The heart of man.


A composer … a poet … Godard dices the sounds, the words, their echoes. A hollow world becomes populated with words seeking, eluding, finding each other.
Jostled along the paths of my listening, I am thrown off course. He identifies the opposite poles; acknowledges them in our reality but clashes them so violently that we pass beyond these polar tensions to rediscover unity.
He blends lucid analyses of behavioural patterns (his own and others’) with compassion, words of love, violence and the harshness of business and moralising talks; rough contours, unexpected landscapes…
As in a novel, Jean-Luc Godard borrows several idioms: that of a class, a professional group, common, anonymous and everyday language or that of a certain character. They combine to form the speech of the author, who strides through every one of them, observing his own visions.
A man lost in himself, lost for the others, women in love, men alone… Their shadows come together, come apart in a world of no certainties.
An intriguing roundabout of complex and composite beings, masks and silhouettes; their existence seems stronger in the shadow than in full light:

Distant, deafened voices express more about the essence than strong, clear ones.

and the shadow of a single poplar behind me is sufficient for me, in its mourning.

The gravitation of all these travelling beings: the being one welcomes in one- self, for reasons of love, the other within oneself, the voices of shadow and sea depths, all the marionettes of modernity, stirred by the slightest breath.
All those voices… I have developed a strong liking for them. Each one has its own colour, its own accent, its own consistency.
I ran after each of them, in every direction. I could not keep hold of all the strings of those kite-words slipping into space. With Jean-Luc Godard one must accept losing. He does not supply us with things in their entirety but merely embers and wisps of smoke.
The error was wanting to hear everything in order to understand everything. The path he proposes is rather to hear the “entirety”. All those pulverised voices compose another one for me now, one alone, a human voice, fragmented but alive, spinning tales, containing gyrating atoms of the same cell, planets of the same cosmos.

What are all those images, …
That tremendous thought…

Cinema, eye and ear, observer of an outside world, reaps little pieces of reality… this deconstruction, symphony and distillation … to release a new reality of images, his, mine, multiplying endlessly.
… The thought, powerful and migratory, stemming from a distant exterior, the thought yet to be born, explorer of the unthinkable.
The voices outside are ferrymen: voices of the frothing waves, a passing fancy or straw fire, cymbals and frosted mirrors, those inside: immersed, grave, wrapped in a cocoon of flesh, a subterranean fire… And my listening is intent on pursuing the movement of the mantree rooted in the depths and reaching up to the skies.
But the character cherished by Godard may be that new wave, the water abolishing the form to produce it anew. The door is open but no-one has the keys, neither the characters nor the author. He has deposited in a corner of my ear an area of mystery which delights me.
The film – once listened to, dreamt of, reinvented – leaves me with a little subversive taste of the invisible and the eternal.

Ear Below Eye

By Trinh T. Minh-ha

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was originally published in Ear 9:5/10:1 (Fall 1985); repr. as “Holes in the Sound Wall”, in Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, 1991, pp 201-206.

Your soundtrack is a disaster!
Why? I asked HIM who knows the rules of precedence. Who can evaluate with certainty what ranks above what ranks below in the art of ordering film sound. There are many not-to-do’s in the field and a small quarrel may bring about many a ruin.
(Silence. Surprised? Indignant?) … because . . . because of the silences … the …. the repetitions!
Don’t I know? Haven’t I learned through COMMON SENSE that nothing is more dreadful to the trained ear than sounding HOLES. Haven’t I noticed through the many films I saw that one of the golden rules of sound cinema is not to leave any empty section on the soundtrack; not even in moments where silence serves as dramatic sound? Above all, no hole. Please no hole. And should there be any, let’s block it up. With music. This, Henri Colpi rightly observed, is one of the cineastes’ cries of terror. Music makes such a successful marriage with the moving image that not using it so as to cover up silence, to combat audience disturbance; and to breathe into the shadows on the screen some of the life that photography has taken away from them seems like an irremediable error, an utter loss, a … di-sas-ter.
Good film music was formerly differentiated from bad film music by its “inaudibility.” It played in such a way as not to impinge on the viewing, and ear always came after eye in the creative process. Belonging to an area of secundary perception, it was more likely to escape critical evaluation, therefore to manipulate affection. In a sound film, there is always something to listen to: either continuous music from the beginning to the end, or sporadic music with sound effects (things crumpling, rustling, rubbing against each other, footsteps, machines running) and especially chatters, a surfeit of dialogues. With this constant train of sounds/OMNIPRESENCE, silence is avoided like a dis-ease/ABSENCE/DEATH.
Music should not disturb the representative continuity. Should not call attention to itself/detract from the images/ remind men and women of their mortality. BE DISCREET. Have a regular and cohesive structure that cements and gives shape to an otherwise incoherent amorphous film. Remove the sound (from it) and we would be confronting a profoundly disjunctive set of images. We might find ourselves yawning at moments of intense actions and laughing at death scenes. In other words, emotional UNDER-scoring is lacking. Filmmaker loses his-her power to transmit the message, filmviewers fail to interpret it. MUSIC IS THE OPIUM OF CINEMA. Music determines characters, expression, mood, atmosphere, transition, orientation, meaning. Music drowns out all life noises that accidentally break in on the created world/Reserved realm that has the force of neither life nor death, is neither one nor the other but ONLY an imaginary site where both remained unassumed, both are re-presented, SEEN or HEARD with enough distance to banish temporarily all fears, to divert temporarily the pangs of death from life/Music more often than not dictates how the viewer should respond to the images. Without the thousand and one anchorings achieved through sound, the film would disperse in numerously diverse directions, giving rise to ERRORS OF INTERPRETATION. Says Hanns Eisler, the magic function of music … consisted in appeasing the evil spirits unconsciously dreaded ….. The need was felt to spare the spectator the unpleasantness involved’ in seeing effigies of living, acting, and even speaking persons, who were at the same time silent. The fact that they are living and non-living at the same time is what constitutes their ghostly characters, and music was introduced … to exorcise fear or help the spectator absorb the shock. The soundless image is mortal (death has already occurred or will soon ensue): it drifts on to infinity, without ever taking root, hence its dreamlike reality – a dream within a dream. A dream that soon becomes a nightmare with deafness, muteness, and death scenes in it. A DREAM then, whose nightmarish potentials must be blocked by the insertion of a descriptive music that would make it resemble REALITY – on the one hand less of a dream because it is temporarily rid of its ghostlike features, on the other hand more of a dream because it grows unconscious of its unreality in its perfective efforts to imitate-duplicate reality. We surely don’t mind (if not enjoy) seeing violence and death on film (representation of death), but we hardly tolerate seeing them built in the very sound-image relationship that makes up the film (representation as death process). Acknowledge them as part of filmmaking.

SILENCES are holes in the sound wall/SOUNDS are bubbles on the surface of silence. Sound like silence is both opening and filling/concave and convex/life and death. Sound like silence may freeze or free the image. In many civilizations, definitions of music and silence are interchangeable. Music is life. But entering into LIFE is also entering into the DEATH process. Every day lived is a step closer to death and every sound sent OUT is a breaking IN on silence. Music goes on permanently and hearing it is like looking at a river which does not stop running when one turns away. The eye hears and the ear sees. Music is neither sound nor silence. It is contained in each and encompasses both, invisible and intangible by nature, it is especially effective in bringing forth the tangible and the visible. As the Hindus put it: “the great singer has erected worlds and the Universe is her-his song.” In the realization of a film soundtrack, clear distinctions have been made between speech (dialogue, voice-over, or oral testimony), noises (sound effects), and music. More often than not, these three elements are used as subservient INSTRUMENTS to promote an end instead of being dealt with as autonomous TOOLS for creativity. They are constructed as signifying units to help the spectator to assimilate the narrative. Thus, language is consumed exclusively as meaning, noises are reproduced mainly for their informative power, and music is tailored to fit the film’s action. There is, on the whole, no room for silence (environmental sounds from the movie-house). The need to fill in every blank space that would reveal the “unrealistic” nature of the image is usually greater than the impulse to break open/in and out the sound-image wall to unveil the void of representation. A certain repulsion for silence is widely shared among filmmakers. Many of us prefer to turn a deaf ear to the death bell – DEATH STROLLS BETWEEN IMAGES – and to make of Art a human aspiration for immortality, a product SEPARATED FROM LIFE, invented so as to postpone death to infinity. The stance is, naturally, highly paradoxical: to turn away from death, one must also turn away from life. Thus, even in experimental films where the conventional narrative structure is questioned, the audience often faces a soundtrack whose continuous, drug-like flow of music does not fail to compromise the subversiveness of the visuals by indulging the viewers in an “artificial paradise” from which they cannot depart without wanting immediately to return. Drift on uninterruptedly. From one paradise one inebriation one oblivion to another. Above all, no hole. Please no hole. And should there be any, let’s block it up. With music. While the images reach a high stage of deconstruction (or do they?), the sound is satisfied with tying some pop, rock tunes, reintroducing thereby in a forceful manner the mainstream devices ( of description, expression, association, identification) the images’ attempt at undermining. INTERNALIZED AESTHETIC CLAP-TRAP. The effect of music combined with film differs from that of film or music alone. One can easily annul the other when their relation is taken for granted, that is to say when their interaction is not thoroughly questioned. The myth of storytelling in music is still very alive in the film world. To challenge the monotonous universe of illustrative logic in which film music usually moves, it is therefore necessary to play an exacting game with all securely anchored audio-visual habits.

Silence: people having faith in each other. If the main motive of cinema is not expression nor communication, not telling a story nor illustrating an idea, then … the coast is clear(ed). Everything remains to be done in the field of film music. Everything seems possible and the constraints are above all a question of relationship. (Relationships that are determined by a specific situation – here, a sound film – but that also exceed it: they interweave beyond the limits set; relate one work to the other, film to life/death; expand layers of reading/listening; connect film, filmed subject, filmmaker, filmviewer, and context in which film can exist. One way of defining filmmaking is to say that it consists of entering into relations with things and people and making as many of these relations come into view/hearing as possible.) Whether noises are music or not, for example, depends en the hearer’s way of living: how one listens to them, absorbs, and recreates them. This no longer sounds new to our ear. Yet looking at the widespread practices of sound cinema, I cannot help asking: why use noises so consistently for their informative power? Why not explore at the same time their musical potentials? Move from that which is easily identifiable to that which is at the limit of being identifiable. Listen to them non-knowingly but alertly. Enjoy their materiality. SUSPEND the MEANING of sound, by multiplying their naturalist-realist role to the point where no single anchoring is possible, no message can be congealed, no analysis can be complete. Let it go; let it exceed all control, for an excess of intentions (conscious control) is always mortal. A sound that one does not recognize (because it is decomposed, recomposed, changed-cut, repeated, emphasized differently) provokes, among other reactions, a renewal of attention for the image whose (form and) content becomes the only point of reference left, and vice-versa. One may also want to use codes so as to displace more effectively their informative content. Intermittently give the illusion of real (synchronized) sound so as to reveal more keenly their illusive nqture. A soundtrack can lure the spectators into a definite mood and take an abrupt turn as soon as they enter into it, thereby keeping constantly open the space of their desire for the finished product. The same holds true for the use of voices and dialogues. Language exceeds meaning. I define it first and foremost as the music of a body and a people. The eternal chatter that escorts images is an oppressive device of fixed association. To bring out the plural, sliding relationship between ear and eye and to leave more room for the spectators to decide what they want to make out of a statement or a sequence of images, it is necessary to invent a whole range of strategies that would unsettle such fixedness. Here, silence and repetitions can play an important role. Cutting a sentence at different places, for example, assembling it with holes, repeating it in slightly different forms and in ever-changing verbal and visual contexts help to produce a constant shift and dislocation in meanings. Silences and repetitions are rejected as a failure of language when they are experienced as oblivious holes or as the utterance of the same thing twice or more. WE SHOULD NOT STAMMER, so goes the reasoning, or we only make our way successfully in life when we speak in a continuous articulate flow. True. After many years of confusions, of suppressed voice and INARTICULATE SOUNDS, holes, blanks, black-outs, jump-cuts, out-of-focus visions, I FINALLY SAY NO: yes, sounds are sounds and should above all be released as sounds. Everything is in the releasing There is no score to follow, no hidden dimension from the visuals to disclose, and endless thread to weave anew.

The Politics of the Soundtrack

By Nina Power

An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was published on Mute on 31 March 2010.

Was there a golden age of the film soundtrack? One might reach for Ennio Morricone (at least until the late 1980s) or the ’70s and ’80s records Popul Vuh made for Werner Herzog’s most memorable films, Aguirre, Nosferatu and Cobra Verde. Even if much of the concept has gone out of ‘conceptual’ film-making and the soundtracks that accompany them, there are nevertheless highlights here and there. We could point to David Lynch, John Carpenter or Howard Shore’s brittle and claustrophobic music for Cronenberg’s Crash (1997), or Ed Tomney’s tense and millennial compositions for Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) as proof that film and sound can be more than whatever bland indie love-songs the studio’s marketing manager has been listening to on his iPod. The soundtrack to Andrea Arnold’s recent Fish Tank does something interesting with the diegetic, with its muffled sounds and tinny music players – indeed, much of the film is about recorded music and its playback, from the tiny speakers that Mia dances to in an empty room to the CD player leading her to her doom in the strip-club.

If we expand our cinematic categories a little, we can point to complex figures like Walter Murch, a ‘sound designer’ among other things, rather than a simple composer or hit song provider for the charts (film soundtracks are often simply understood as ‘secondary usage’, providing producers with additional sources of income). In early silent cinema, pianists were hired to drown out the mechanical whirring of the projectors and ramp up emotion; Murch revisits the noise of the machine in the famous scene in Apocalypse Now where helicopter blades become indiscernible from ceiling fans.(1)

But, for the most part, an ‘original soundtrack’ is the misnomer it always was, being neither the composite track of the film (the dialogue, the sound effects, the music) nor original, being comprised of whichever three-minute songs the studio/record label partnership wishes to promote. The apex, or really nadir, of this trend, which stretches all the way back to the beginning of the marketing of film soundtracks in the late ’40s and ’50s, was reached in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) in which a boring couple have boring (but real!) sex to boring (but real!) songs by Elbow and Franz Ferdinand. The pop song as unifying revelation of a shared humanity features in Magnolia (1999), as the main characters coincidentally start singing Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’, an inverse tribute of sorts to R.E.M’s video for ‘Everybody Hurts’, in which the song is a backdrop to the inner thoughts of bored car passengers, who ultimately get out of their vehicles and unite in a kind of mawkish tribute to collective misery. Music unifies, levels: it is essentially human. If there was ever a different time when the machine instead was integrated and posed as a question for cinematic sound, it could well have been the ’80s, in films like Assault on Precinct 13, The Running Man and Terminator, dystopian visions in which the future sounded as synthetic as the threats that might yet come to menace it.

As we move into a period we could characterise by ‘a revenge of the visual’, with 3D films increasingly regarded as the only thing that will entice people from their mini-cinemas at home, cinema music is increasingly modelled on one of two forms: the pop song iPod playlist or sub-John Williams gloopy orchestral oozing (Williams recently composed a short orchestral piece ‘Air and Simple Gifts’, referencing Aaron Copland, for Barack Obama’s inauguration). If every big-budget soundtrack starts to sound like Jurassic Park or Wagner without the quiet bits, that’s probably because it is. Adorno once perceptively claimed that most films ‘are advertisements for themselves’. Trailers are thus the truth of the film for which the film is the advert. Length becomes a secondary question. It comes as no surprise then to learn that trailers often use music from previous hit films as their soundtrack to create a pre-existing sense of familiarly.(2) When Adorno in ‘Commodity Music Analysed’ (1934-40), speaks of ‘archetypal cinema music’ (‘The birth of the Wurlitzer from the spirit of Faust’ as he puts it), he argues that it is this need for familiarity that characterises much music for cinema.(3) The musical means for covering over the sounds of the whirring projector were prepared by a pre-existing proclivity for a certain mix of sentiment and innovation:

It is doubtless true that towards the close of the nineteenth century the music that swept people off their feet did so because it combined drastic ideas with conventionality. In so doing it satisfied the demands of the cinema before cinema was invented.(4)

Commercial cinema’s desire to block out the machine, to smother the jolts and gaps between movement means that music is often seen as a kind of empathetic patch, a device to pretend that the frames and hyper-technicality are always put in the service of larger, smoother, humanitarian wholes. ‘Mickey-Mousing’, the practice of exactly matching music to image, may be something we associate with animation from half a century ago, but this often comic self-consciousness of the relation between the sound and image is far more radical than the surreptitious manipulation of familiar emotions that much of today’s cinematic music pursues.5 But mainstream cinema remains one of the few places where sounds and music could potentially afford to be brave: the tracks that Kubrick used for 2001: A Space Odysessy originally as a temporary placeholder for the real score, placed Ligeti in more homes than a thousand Radio 3 retrospectives would ever have done. Similarly, as Alex Ross notes:

On the weekend of February 19th, and for some weeks thereafter, millions of Americans will enjoy a program of Giacinto Scelsi, John Cage, Lou Harrison, György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, Nam June Paik, Ingram Marshall, and John Adams. This fairly bold lineup of composers, which would cause the average orchestra subscriber to flee in terror, appears on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s film Shutter Island.(6)

Academic terminology has taken something of a strange optical turn in recent years with ‘visual culture’ and ‘visual theory’ becoming catch-all disciplines that cover elements of cultural studies, art theory and critical theory. This is not to say that there aren’t people working within this areas on sound, music or sonics, however. Take for example Susan Schuppli’s work on media machines that investigates, among other things ‘the missing or “silent” erasure of 18-½ minutes in Watergate Tape No. 342’ or Steve Goodman’s work on sonic warfare.(7) But we have to wonder why this stealthy academic privileging of the visual over other senses has come about.

It is a little as if the ‘attempt to interpose a human coating between the reeled-off pictures and the spectators’ that Adorno and Eisler recognised was the purpose of most film music, has infected the entire study of cinematic culture.8 The tacked-on role of the composer for cinema that Adorno and Eisler deplored, a kind of last-minute annoyance from the standpoint of the budget, has become the occlusion of the sonic in the contemporary understanding of culture in general – the reactionary stereoscopic tendency, a kind of re-visting of the 1950s in the 2010s, proving those covers of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle correct. The photo, J. R. Eyerman’s ‘3D glasses’ taken in 1952 for Life, was captured at the screening of ‘Bwana Devil’, the first full length colour 3-D motion picture, a film about British railway workers in Kenya being eaten by lions. Its tagline was ‘A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!’ As Cameron’s Avatar demonstrates, the closer you get to a pure celebration of vision, the less the music and the script matter; a comparison of the first 3D film and the biggest most recent version may well be worthwhile less for their technical similarities but for the similarity of their colonial content. James Horner’s soundtrack for Avatar – a mix of dramatic timpani rolls, ambient environmental lift-music and belligerent folderol (from ‘Pure Spirits Of the Forest’ to ‘Gathering All The Na’vi Clans For Battle’), plus Leona Lewis – is aural soup for muddy and dubious narration to drown in. Where once the music may have covered over the whirring of new and frightening mechanisms, now the soundtrack disguises little more than the banality of the script – plots which nevertheless seek to assure us of our fundamental intentional human goodness, even if everything we do is actually wrong and vicious.

As Esther Leslie puts the relation between music and image in Adorno’s conception of cinematic music:

Adorno wrote of how in film, music lends the cinematic vision a veneer of humanity, a semblance of liveliness, by masking the whir of the projector in the background, the proof that we exist under the sway of mechanization. Without it, we are blankly exposed to our counterparts, the two-dimensional shadows that cavort on screen. (9)

Increasingly film music seeks to lend humanity itself a veneer of the cinematic, an eco-friendly soundtrack to dampen the fears of the antagonisms and asymmetries of everyday existence. Coupled with the painful loudness of Dolby surround sound and the brutal atonality of sounds of cinematic violence – explosions, car crashes, gun shots – the modern cinematic ear is trained for nothing less than the sickening, yet omnipresent, combination of cruelty and fake humanism that characterises contemporary life.


(1) ‘As soon as movies lasted more than a couple of minutes, owners of nickelodeons hired pianists to drown the noise of the hand-cranked projectors and give an extra emotional dimension to the celluloid product.’ Philip French, ‘From the Sound of Silents to Hollywood’s Golden Composers’.

(2) See here for a list of frequently used tracks across films. Thanks to Daniel Trilling for this point, and for his comments on the piece more generally.

(3) Theodor Adorno, ‘Commodity Music Analysed’, Quasi una Fantasia, trans. by Rodney Livingstone London: Verso, 1992, p. 37

(4) Ibid., p. 42.

(5) See the rather smart parody of both Avatar and Mickey Mouse in a recent episode of the Simpsons (2115), when Bart and Homer see a 3D version of an Itchy and Scratchy film called: ‘Koyaanis-Scraachy: Death out of Balance’.

(6) Alex Ross, ‘Lo and Behold!’, New Yorker.

(7) For more on Susan Schuppli, see here. For more on sonic warfare, see Steven Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear, London: MIT, 2009.

(8) Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films, London: Contium, 2005, p.59.

(9) Esther Leslie, ‘From Stillness to Movement and Back: Cartoon Theory Today’, Radical Philosophy, May/June 2006.