Experimental Sound on Film | Bleader

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Experimental Sound on Film

Posted By on 11.11.09 at 05:09 PM

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Richard Lermans Sections for Screen
  • Richard Lerman's "Sections for Screen"
We all know how important the soundtrack is to most films, and scores by certain composers—Ennio Morricone, Toru Takemitsu, Bernard Herrmann, Georges Delerue, and John Barry, to name a few—more than stand on their own. Other soundtracks rely heavily on nonmusical material, such as Walter Murch’s brilliant sound design in the Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation. Though it’s rare for filmmakers to place as much emphasis on sound as they do on what’s on the screen, a program screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday night at 6 PM offers just as much to fans of experimental music and noise as it does to cinephiles.

"Variable Area: Hearing and Seeing Sound, 1966-1978" is part of the Film Center’s weekly Conversations at the Edge series as well as part of this year’s Outer Ear Festival of Sound, presented by Experimental Sound Studio. (Full disclosure: the program was curated by my girlfriend, Michelle Puetz, but regular readers ought to know that I don’t need to fake an interest in this stuff—nor would I.)

Most of films get their juice from using optical sound, where a transparent strip marked with various lines and waves is printed on the margin of the actual film and read with light. Rather than try to explain this process further, I’ll direct you to this explanation. In any case, most films employ the technique to transmit music, dialogue, sound effects, or whatever we usually hear as we watch. But some of the directors whose work is being screened on Thursday fill that strip with deliberately abstract patterns to create intensely weird and noisy sound.

Primary Stimulus (1977) by Robert Russert features a wildly fluctuating series of horizontal lines, thickening and thinning in ever-changing combinations and speeds, and a representation of this action printed on the soundtrack strip produces a synchronized series of accelerating-decelerating and pitch-shifting electronic tones. Soundtrack (1969) by Barry Spinello consists of identical, constantly morphing hand-painted abstractions on both the film surface and the soundtrack. The Paul Sharits flicker film Ray Gun Virus (1966) is particularly challenging, with intensely pulsing fields of color and sound produced by letting the optical reader translate a set of open sprocket holes where the soundtrack strip would normally be.

The other films on the program don’t experiment with optical sound, but their soundtracks (when they have them) are hard to miss. For Pausa! (1977) Peter Kubelka recorded the heavy breathing, facial contortions, throat patter, and manic gestures and gesticulations of Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer, and the soundtrack distorts the various utterances with a contact microphone; it’s some seriously weird shit. The Gypsy Cried (1972) by Chris Langdon presages myriad YouTube videos now extant where a camera simply records the sound and image of record playing on a turntable.

The final entry on the program, Sections for Screen (1974) by Richard Lerman, is actually a silent film that creates a rapidly moving collage of imagery from standard musical notation and kinetic graphic scores. Lerman used an oscilloscope to generate many of the jittery, electronic abstractions. The director might be best known as founder of the Travelon Gamelon—a kind of abstract orchestra that used contact mikes to pick up the vibrations of bicycles, and which made a peculiar album for Folkways back in 1982 (it’s currently available as a lavish double CD on the Japanese label Em Records). He intended the film to have live musical accompaniment, and for this screening Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet), Brian Labycz (electronics), and Art Lange (piano) have created their own score.

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