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.