Michelangelo Antonioni – Trilogy And Epilogue: Various Artists
Michelangelo Antonioni – Trilogy And Epilogue
This wonderful double CD sent to me by and/OAR’s Dale Lloyd is a collector’s item. Anyone interested in film, film music and sound, or simply wishing to explore the work of a range of excellent artists should have this album in their collection.
The concept behind the album was to invite selected sound artists to consider a series of basic guidelines in responding to four of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films: L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962) and Il Deserto Rosso (1963). I imagine that in broad terms the individual works would set out to respond to the films individually or collectively, considering themes and topics common to all: specifically cinematic topics such as narrative, the various psychological and emotional moods of the tetralogy, cinematography, and of course film sound itself, an area in which Antonioni is highly respected.
There must be hundreds of ways of mapping the wealth of topics in even one film to a response in sound alone: mood, narrative, cues from the soundtrack and so on. In fact the only element that I can think of which would be almost impossible to map to sound is the elusive quality of stage presence. The two films with which I’m familiar, L’Avventura and La Notte, featuring the likes of Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, are blessed with an abundance of stage presence (much to the envy I’m sure of many contemporary Hollywood directors who have to make do with the merely handsome, beautiful and sexy).
Two sleeve note quotation’s from the work of Seymour Chatman, an expert on Antonioni’s work, will help set the context:-
Antonioni asks us to take a slow, steady look at the world around us, to forget our ordinary preoccupations, and to contemplate that which lies slightly athwart them.
Antonioni’s lifelong effort (was) to uncover the meanings of things beneath the mystery of their appearances
If somebody asked me to respond to Antonioni’s work, my first task would be to turn to the films first of all and to look at the mapping possibilities. For example, L’Avventura is in black and white, which to my way of thinking suggests a very obvious mono piece, as opposed to stereo. The instrumental music by Giovanni Fusci has implications, picked up in due course by those artists who made use of woodwind and reed instruments in their contributions, Tyler Wilcox/Corey Fuller and EKG.
Both L’Avventura and La Notte have something not quite right in the man/woman relationships, a Hitchockian unease, which seems to have been explored by the many of the artists, particularly in the form of sustained tones (or drones) with accompanying field recording or foley type sounds, for example Block/Sonderberg, Calarco, Courtis.
Antonioni often manages to sustain interest with nothing much happening, or more accurately with a sense of uncertainty as to what’s going on, reminding me of some of Robbe-Grillet’s novels. Not an easy feat. The radically linear works of i8u and Adam Sonderberg would seem to allude to the ‘nothing much happening’ interpretation; the works emphasising field recordings, the majority in other words, certainly emphasise uncertainty.
While we’re on the topic of field recordings, there would seem to be a correspondence going on, across many of the pieces, between field recordings and foley sound at a very basic level, and between field recordings and the complexity of film sound (less consciously I suspect) as revealed by Michel Chion in his essential text Audio Vision: Sound on Screen.
The island in in L’Avventura, from which Anna disappears, suggests to me the island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a place where all manner of strange sounds, happenings and mischief come to pass. But these potential energies are tempered or undermined in that any reasonable symbolic correspondences find themselves compromised by the ‘just there-ness’ and lassitude of the players. The complexity and ambiguity of this uneasy amoral mood, also found in the ‘existential’ novels of Camus, comes across in those works that concern themselves less with wide dynamics and sonic exploration and more with a sense of menacing stasis.
Overall, Antonioni uses sound extremely well in his films, on a par at times with Tarkovsky’s sensual meditations on streams, rivers, rain and other water sources. He frequently foregrounds engine sounds, boats and especially trains (explored by Meursault, Paiuk, Garet) to the point of wallowing in their uniqueness. In La Notte we have a range of aircraft, helicopter and rocket sounds – symbolic or random (who knows?) but certainly menacing and possibly implying a desire to escape. In L’Avventura the quality and shape of the wind sounds inside the cabin on the island would grace any field recordists catalogue, as would the sea sounds. The interplay between foley and dialogue, beautifully orchestrated at times, jumps out at you, offering yet another possible mapping for the sound artist. J. Winston Phillips’ offering, to take but one example, explores some of this interplay. In general most of these subtleties are not lost on the contributing artists. Listening out for specific allusions has been one of the most enjoyable treats on this album.
Across the films that I watched we have the same seemingly random, unexplained, almost meaningless events such as random sexual encounters in a hospital which reminded me of Kafka’s The Trial, in which girls appear oneirically and seem to make themselves available as and when desired. To my ears, those pieces which seemed to tackle this theme of randomness or meaninglessness made the greatest impact, above and beyond any cleverness in composition.
Given the difficulty in ordering 24 individual pieces with so many similarities and differences between them, the album is very well curated and presented. For example CD1 is bookended by works using reed and woodwind, CD 2 by piano works. One slight problem I had was how to go about listening to it. I always like to know who I’m listening to, which is difficult with 12 artists presenting a short (4 – 7 minutes on average) track on each CD. I suppose you could plug yourself into the old iPod and wander about bumping into people and things, but good artists like these deserve much closer listening.
Because of the politics and economics of the film industry we won’t get large scale commercial movies with sound by artists like those on the album. Nowadays in particular sound is often left till last, an afterthought, made even more problematic if a big name composer has to be paid his large fee. So, in order to get a glimpse into a rosier future, I recommend that you put the CDs on random, both CDs in the player if possible, then watch one of the movies with the sound muted. The coincidences that arise are highly edifying and always give me a heightened sense of optimism for very interesting possible futures where sound and moving image can seek out new relationships.
I mentioned Michel Chion earlier and would like to return briefly to his work to round off. As I said, his work is a fine resource for sound artists. I was particularly helped in my own understanding of film sound, and in my research and practice with representational sound in general: environmental field recordings/phonography/what-you-will. Specifically, I found it interesting that four of his many definitions and terms seemed to gather in most of the important elements at play in the contributing works.
Elements of auditory setting (EAS): sounds with a more or less punctual source which appear more or less intermittently and help to create a film’s space by means of specific, distinct small touches, for example, dog’s barking, phones in an office next door. EAS inhabits and defines a space unlike permanent ‘sound’ (birds, surf) that is the space itself.
Ambient sound (territory sound): sound that envelops a scene and inhabits its space (birds, churchbells). These might be called territory sounds because they inhabit a particular locale.
Materialising Sound Indices (MSIs): these pull the scene towards the material and concrete. Absence can lead to the ethereal, abstract and fluid.
Superfield: the space created by ambient natural sounds, city noises, music, etc. that can issue from speakers outside the boundaries of the screen.
Cinema, in combining elements of the novel and the theatre, is able to demand multiple, ambiguous and even contradictory readings. It is a place of semiotics and it is here that I find much common ground with purely sonic work based on field recordings. and/OAR is therefore to be congratulated for making important connections between art forms and for drawing together such a gifted pool of artists under the same conceptual roof. So next time can we please have a go at Tarkovsky’s The Mirror?
I’ll round off with a short reading list on film sound which has helped to open my ears and eyes to past work and new ideas :-
ALTMAN, R. (Ed.), (1992). Sound theory, sound practice. New York; London: Routledge.
CHION, M., (1994). Audio-vision: sound on screen. New York: Columbia University Press.
MURCH, W., (1998). Touch of Silence. In: L. SIDER, D. FREEMAN and J. SIDER, eds. Soundscape: the school of sound lectures 1998-2001. London: Wallflower Press.
THOM, R., (1998). Designing a Movie for Sound. In: L. SIDER, D. FREEMAN and J. SIDER, eds. Soundscape: the school of sound lectures 1998-2001. London: Wallflower Press.
WEIS, E. and BELTON, J. (Eds.), (1985). Film sound: theory and practice. New York: Columbia University Press.
Also of interest to enthusiasts will be and/OAR’s online companion project pertaining to Antonioni’s work in general.