Welcome to my research and enquiry blog!
I have decided to start by looking afresh at my recent work in the light of our studies at University of Hertfordshire.
We have been given an overview of the varied and interdependent functions of soundtrack in the context of a film in the past fortnight.
A few ideas leaped out as being techniques I have used in some way before, and that might be worth developing.
I’m going to take them one by one and give them a post each.
So, the first one that I started thinking about was…
‘Leitmotif of Noise’
We looked in our first week at the creatively fruitful phenomenon in film that happens when diegetic sound fulfills the traditional role of non-diegetic music. We were shown a little of Forbidden Planet, with its ground-breaking electronic soundtrack by Louis and Bebe Barron. We noted that the soundtrack seems to occur in the narrative space and also to comment on the characters’ states of mind simultaneously.
As we examined this, I thought about traditional film scoring’s heavy use of leitmotif to cue audiences into the big themes of the story and the characterisation. However, contemporary scoring seems to be rejecting this, focusing on acting as the general subconscious of the story. I wondered if, as a kind of substitute signpost, diegetic sounds crossing into the non-diegetic realm could essentially act as a ‘leitmotif of noise’. So, associating a certain recurring sonic event with a theme or character.
This would, I thought, need a conscious and deliberate focussing of the use of sound.
I tried to think of examples of where this has happened.
I decided as a starting point, I would have a look at Brief Encounter. Because the film-makers had chosen to use Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, there was no purpose-built film score to manipulate melody for its own purposes, even though the Rachmaninoff is used effectively to reflect the general mood and emotional arc of the story. I felt this alone might make it easier to pick out the role of the non-musical, designed soundtrack.
Could this ‘leitmotif gap’ have been filled by the equally iconic train sounds that we all associate as closely with the film as the use of the piano concerto?
(I would have to add, I’m sure this has been examined before, so I will also go on a quest for relevant writing on the subject. All suggestions gratefully received! However, it was an interesting exercise for me to do.)
I watched the film again and documented each time we hear the high-pitched, frantic whistle of the express train. Every time we hear it, seems to represent a moment of psychological danger and/or disarray in Laura’s mind.
Here are the key moments where I spotted it (times are approximate):
- Just as the music of the opening credits climaxes (at about 1’45); the music is lost in the sound and this moment segues into the opening dialogue. It seems to serve as an introduction to this particular sound and the music tells us subconsciously, perhaps, to associate it with high feeling.
- 6’05 – we are told the ‘express’ is going through and the alarming noise obliterates the inconsequential dialogue about chocolate purchasing among secondary characters. This is the first time we walk through this moment – the second time, at 1’23’30, we know Laura comes close to committing suicide by throwing herself under the train here.
- 12’11 – Fred makes a joke about the children and Laura starts to cry. Interestingly, this time we hear it outside of the place within the story where the sound originates – the station. Although it is possible we are meant to assume that it could be overheard from the nearby railway, this use seems really deliberately non-diegetic to me. Laura senses the danger of losing control of herself and inadvertently doing irreparable damage to her marriage and home. This use of it at this early stage in the narrative cements it in my head as being something we are to associate with ‘danger’ – especially in Laura’s mind.
- 17’53 – we see Alec in the background and it is the first time within the storyline we see him (because I’m not counting the first account of the final scene that we see at the beginning). Alec looks up and notices Laura just as the whistle sounds faintly. It is easy to miss but looks very carefully placed when you are paying attention!
- 18’12 – Laura gets the grit in her eye, thus providing the vehicle for their meeting – fate providing the next step towards infidelity.
- 59’48 – we hear it quietly as (it turns out, moments later) Alec is making the decision to return to Stephen’s flat with the expectation that she will follow.
- 1’00’07 – Alec announces his intention baldly – Laura refuses to follow, but we know her tortured ambivalence. This time, the whistle is long, loud and alarming; the danger of infidelity is now so great.
- 1’03’39 – after apparently escaping temptation, she changes her mind at the last minute and gets off the train again to go back to the flat.
- 1’23’30 – we hear the ‘suicide’ whistle for the second time and this time we are fully aware of its meaning. It is the climax and I believe the longest and loudest instance of the whistle. The camerawork backs it up this time around. We do not hear any more train noises after this last, final, greatest danger to her and her family.
So – in conclusion! – I do feel I can justifiably describe this as leitmotif of noise.
As to where this takes my work?
I’m really interested in how different people experience the world differently and how this can be portrayed through visual media with the help of sound.
The ‘dream’ is to use visual + aural media to counteract the polarisation of views and tribalism I’m seeing more and more on social media and to help people identify more strongly with people who seem different to them.
Autism is an obvious way into this, as there are sometimes dramatic differences in an autistic’s perceptions to that of a neurotypical brain, partly due to sensory processing differences. Autism is also close to me as there are several important people in my personal life who are on the autistic spectrum. However, I should like to refine these ideas to look at more subtle differences too, in due course.
Earlier this year, as an exercise for myself in storytelling with music and sound, I wrote a soundtrack to accompany a series of stills. The pictures were rudely snatched from a manga book about raising an autistic child, called ‘With the Light,’ by Keiko Tobe and I combined very traditional orchestral writing for the neurotypical protagonist with sound design for the autistic child protagonist’s point of view.
I was attempting to use music to retell the story along with my own response to it, so the music is in the foreground, and the sound has both diegetic and non-diegetic functions.
Here it is:
For this project, I had some really informative and interesting conversations with adults on the autistic spectrum about what sensory overload feels like, in order to represent little Hikaru’s meltdown – but I’ll discuss that more next time.)
For now, here are the things I did in this soundtrack that could at least partially be described as leitmotif of noise, if further developed in a longer piece.
The sound of little Hikaru playing with the sound of stones on a drain in the final segment of the piece is significant.
The book is mostly told from Sachiko’s point of view, but there are odd moments in the illustrations where we observe Hikaru observing. Many autistic people will tell you that as children – and in some cases into adulthood – they are well used to perceiving a lot more than people around them understand that they do.
I didn’t want Hikaru’s own loneliness and his observations of his mother’s unhappiness to go without note; I didn’t want him just to be a vehicle for Sachiko’s story.
The stones interrupt the music that represents Sachiko’s crisis periodically to help us remember that Hikaru is there – and listening, and, through the corner of his eye, watching.
The stones are the sound of a mother and child impeded in communication with one another, and they persist into the fade-out as the relationship continues not quite to function.
The stones work in conjunction with Hikaru’s own actual leitmotif, which is a diminished fifth resolving inwardly to a major third repeatedly.
(This is something I stole from a real-life little boy with autism, who had discovered and play this figure over and over again at a piano. It had interested me greatly at the time, having studied diatonic function, as it appeared from this that the dominant-tonic relationship might be something intrinsically meaningful to this child’s ear at least.)
The musical motif is used throughout the piece including as an intrusion in the more sound-based middle section – and represents Hikaru himself.
The knock of the mother-in-law
Perhaps rather ‘cheesily’ I appropriated the unfeeling mother-in-law’s imperious knock on the car window and turned the rhythm of the knock into a rhythmic motif of sorts, signifying the character. So what began as diegetic sound indicated an unwelcome intrusion, a harsh judgment, incomprehension of the difficult journey, then continued to indicate that meaning throughout.
What is relevant about this? Why does it matter that I’ve happened upon this device?
Well, if I do go with my initial plan and research and help portray in sound what affects cognitive and sensory world view, as a long-term device this would seem quite useful.
So often formative experiences determine how we respond in later life. I wonder if this device might be useful to signify this? A character behaving unreasonably could retain the sympathy of the audience if a sound associated with a formative experience recurs to remind them of the context for that behaviour.
In the example above, the books do continue to chart the progress of Sachiko and her family and (as is usually the case) life gets easier as the parents learn how to support the child’s development, and as the child gets older.
However, there are many difficult times along the way. What if the sound of the stones returned whenever Sachiko feels as though she and Hikaru are failing to relate to one another, when he feels lonely or misunderstood, or when they are both feeling bruised by an episode of sensory distress?
What if they returned when it seems her behaviour is overly defensive or touchy and she as a character becomes harder to like, helping the audience to recall the sadness of the early days and how it changed her?
I will look for examples of film or animation where this is used and will think about how I might like to use it in due course.
In my next post, I should like to refer again to With the Light, but looking more at the concept of ‘point of audition’ and how it might be exploited to examine different experiences of the world (due to neurology, perhaps, or other differences) some more, and how I can build on this with more subtlety.