[Excerpt of a conversation between Bani Khoshnoudi, Mario de Vega and Rodolfo Sánchez Alvarado about the way in which he made the soundtrack for the film El Grito considered one of the only filmic testimonials “from within the student movement”, and which is about its own development as a movement in 1968 and the brutal end of it on October 2nd in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. A collective document made within a context of authoritarianism and governmental repression, which has become emblematic in Mexico’s modern history. What is the place of “the real” within material composed from so many fragments, imprints and visions? How does imagination work in structuring a political document of this type?]
Mario de Vega: As a starting point I wanted to ask you what you mean by scenophony, in order to then come back to El Grito, the document that we are working with.
Rodolfo Sánchez Alvarado: A quick definition would be to call it a sound costume for a scenic act. Nevertheless, this is very vague. I remember that someone once said that scenophony is “the costume of the stage”, for example, which would make me a costume designer. He didn’t really get the metaphor; well, it’s a sound costume in this case, sound made for the stage, to be worked with like set design… In fact, I start from the concept of set design, which is all that is visual and corporeal and the site of dramatic development. In my case it is sound in relation to the stage. It came out of a long search. Recently I got together with various colleagues to discuss in depth about how to give a name to our work, to our contribution in theatre. Many of them make music for the set, others say that they are sound engineers or composers, and it occurred to me to use this term that seems more encompassing, “scenophony”.
Mario de Vega: When I hear you explain what scenophony is, this is even more motivating because you are touching exactly on the point that I’m interested in, since what we are interested in not at all placing music on a visual event; on a visual document like this one. In my case, I’m not trying to make music at all, but there are clearly the remains of the film El Grito, there is the work that you did that has a background and a specific form, and now I think that what has to happen is to transgress this, to fragment these remains. For me it was important to know how you understood it, how you understood the principle. To structure a sound event for a visual event that does not necessarily mean placing music on it. It’s not composing music for a video, a documentary. Now that I’ve watched El Grito about four times, what interests me above all is that it seems that the image and the sound are two separate things. Obviously they live in a common space, but they are not illustrating anything and now, what Bani and I are trying to do is precisely that, maybe even making it more radical. How can I depart from your work, from your sound treatment? Bani, who’s working with the visual archive and I, with the sound, but with the intention that in the end it will be converted into a piece that is more of a physical confrontation of the spectator. And I think that scenophony has a lot to do with it. It’s very nice the way you put it; a sound costume, but a costume that is less of an article and more of an aura, or an ether on the visual condition that physically confronts the spectator or imposes itself.
Bani Khoshnoudi: Following what Mario is saying about the sound costume as something apart from or separate from the image, and in relation to what I’ve read about the way you worked on El Grito, with sounds that were given to you by others who had recorded them on the streets, and how after only having seen some parts of the film, you worked from your imagination. I would like you to talk to us more about this, and to know if your imagination was based mostly on those images or also on your own experiences and things that you had seen in the streets during that time when so much was happening in Mexico. What was inspiring the way you worked with the sound?
Rodolfo Sánchez Alvarado: Many people thought that I was very immersed in what was happening in 1968 and all that… which I was, because it was not possible not to be… but that year in particular, I had a lot of work, sound work, maybe more than I have ever had after that. In addition to my work at Radio Universidad, I was working in cinema and theatre. It was the Cultural Olympiad and I made an electro-acoustic ballet with Rafael Elizondo and well, theatre and cinema pieces for the Olympic Committee. I was completely consumed with work, and then the project El Grito fell into my lap. The events were very intense for everyone who lived in the city, but my work on the film didn’t happen until the year after, in 1969. They didn’t have even one sound and so they came to me. Back then, I was at the CUEC (University Center of Film Studies) giving classes, and they came to me and asked me to do it; I did it from special effects, made-up sounds and a song here and there. I recorded some of those songs in a different context, not within the movement, and others were brought to me by the people who had recorded them at the events. I didn’t even have any time because I was working so much. There was enormous pressure on me and I was sleeping three to four hours a night, that’s how the situation was…
Leobardo López, who was the person who organized the whole thing and who played a major role in bringing the images together, called me to help him with the sound and well, there was nothing, except for a few songs that already existed, but the rest was to be invented. The idea was to substitute the sound that was not recorded and to invent it
-there was no other choice- based on sound effects and imagination, for example simulating the fights in order to put sound to the images of disputes. There are some shots in the film taken in a hospital so I sent an assistant to record in the waiting room of a hospital; the sounds of the medical instruments, and all that I had to invent because, of course, the sound effects that I already had were not very good and also there was the aggravating fact that they were recorded on vinyl, LPs, so there was a lot of superficial noise, clicks and those types of things, and I had to struggle with all of that. Even now I have offered, and I’ve said it many times to people I know at the Filmoteca, that I would like to go back and redo the sound so that the quality is more decent…
Carlos Prieto Acevedo: Why did you do it? Was it only because you were the only person who knew how to or because you felt responsible in a certain way?
Rodolfo Sánchez Alvarado: Therewere not many people who were working with sound like I was. And at the same time, I was at the CUEC; I can’t remember if I was already giving classes there but I had many friends and acquaintances there like Alfredo Joscowicz, José Rovirosa, and Leobardo himself. Many who were students and some who were professors; all of us shared a certain moral sentiment. If some of our colleagues had gone to jail for filming, of course I felt some responsibility to them; and well, also, there was no one else really who was working with sound in this manner. People were just starting to do direct sound, although there was none for the images I had, except for maybe a very small percentage of the images. So I had to fabricate them myself or recreate them or return to record them, in the case of some of the songs for example. The rest of it was what others were gathering, because there were cassette decks at the time that they were taking to the demonstrations; a speech here or there, but not synchronized with the film, of course. For example, the gun shots. I remember that they gave me two gunshots, but I don’t know who recorded them.
Mario de Vega: You didn’t record it… you received it later on?
Rodolfo Sánchez Alvarado: Almost all of the material that I was given was recorded here and there, and it was known that we had to take certain precautions, and well, I will tell you sincerely, I didn’t ever know who had recorded the two gunshots that I used. In one of them, you can tell that they were journalists because they are talking, comparing and making comments in the recording that I have. And in the other one, it gives the impression that they are really close, too close, and I don’t know if it was a soldier or if someone hung a microphone from a window or something. I don’t really know and sincerely, I didn’t even want to ask who did it because I’m sure I was afraid that they may ask us or find out, so I didn’t even want to have that information on me, and so I was careful or afraid, call it whatever you like. The fact is that I didn’t want to know who recorded it.
Bani Khoshnoudi: That was precisely a question that I wanted to ask; about the fear one has when working with materials of this kind in a moment that is so politically and socially difficult. And also, the fear of giving so much force, so much power to a visual archive with the sound that you were creating. How did you feel about the film when it was finished?
RSA: I will be honest with you. I’ve watched the film two or three times and it has been a long time since I saw it. Right now I don’t have a clear image of it. I remember some things that made an impact on me, but I don’t have a global feeling of the film. With all that we are discussing, it makes me want to go and watch the film, to see what I’ve done. I need to go back and see the film again and re-evaluate everything that has been done there, no?
MdeV: What you say motivates me a lot. Speaking a little about the way in which I have tried to approach this and how we have started to work, each one on our own. Like Bani with the sequences that she has selected and the way she has worked with them, I think that it functions like an interpretation. A big part of the sounds that I have been making are even antagonistic; they don’t try to illustrate an image. I think the challenge and what is interesting for us is possibly the same as what you did: to have an audiovisual document, I mean, it’s obvious that you see an image and there is a sound, but which does not correspond to it 100 percent. I mean, that there is an antagonism. The interesting thing for me is to know, when does this antagonism become a unit; at what moment does this difference unify the two parts? For example, right now while I’m producing the sound only digitally without having any type of recording and without using any of the sounds that are in the film that you edited, but using different sequences of frequencies, or modulation of this or that sound that do not come from or correspond to an image; they don’t resonate with the basic idea of how the documentwas made, but while I hear you talk it seems that the approximation is very similar. That’s why it was important for me to hear you talk about the editing process. It is inspiring to hear that you did not go to the demonstrations with a microphone in hand, risking your life, because maybe you would not be here today to tell us all about it, but that the sounds came from others and well, you edited them and now we have the result.
BK: Well, and I wanted to ask you what happened to the sounds that you didn’t use. For example, when I have worked on similar projects, recording and filming on my own, and later editing, I have felt the responsibility of not only considering my own material, but to go and see what others have filmed and put on Youtube. There are thousands of videos and well, later, in a certain sense, I begin to catalog all of that, and this is a way for me to realize that there already exists an archive. The dilemma is then to share that archive and how to do it. I remember that putting this or that thing in the edit was not only a thing of doubt, but also a responsibility. And to also recognize what I was afraid to put in and what I wasn’t, to blur the faces of people in order to protect their identity or not to. With El Grito this was maybe not the case, but I wanted to know what you did with the material… the voices of the soldiers and all the rest. What would that archive, from the materials that you did not use and if it even exists, mean for today’s Mexico?
RSA: There was really not much material, and I will confess that the only things that I kept and that I’m conscious that I have archived are the two gunshots; that is what I remember. Surely there is more but the truth is that I don’t have it clear in my mind. And so much of what I produced and what people gave me, I later put onto reels that I gave to Leobardo, as he asked me to. He had given me a list of reels in the way they are used in cinema. I don’t know how many reels there were, like a dozen or more, and then there was a list that would say: “In reel 1, I need this and that sound; in reel 2 this one and that one…”, so I want to tell you that I did the sound work… how should I say… very much blindly. I saw isolated images, but nothing put together. I don’t even remember having seen the film edited, and so my work was really very much a blind one; very disconnected… because there are other things in cinema where you see the image, synchronized…
BK: Well, or if you are editing something that is very different from the intentions of the sounds, then you at least have the film as a reference…
RSA: Exactly and now with the computer it is very easy to have the image in front of you when you are working, but no… I was working completely in a blind way, with my own personal experiences as my reference, or with what I was seeing on the news, with what people were talking about, but I didn’t work with the image in front of me at all. There was only the relationship, the list of sounds that Leobardo gave me, where he would tell me in which sequence he needed the sound of a demonstration, the sound of a gunshot, another one of traffic, stuff like that… and well, I would go and find them and put them together with what they needed. I had to invent some things, or use some sound effects. I remember that one thing that Leobardo asked me was the sound of a burial during a funeral, and I had to record it behind my house, in the garden, the sounds of a shovel digging…. mountains of dirt… to invent them because we didn’t have that sound. And this is what I do; I make sounds for the stage, for theatre, and at a certain point I invent them, I have to. It was the same when I made the sound for El Grito, although I had a lot less experience and fewer tools. That’s how I had to do things, trying to be the least picky as possible, it’s worth using that word because, well, I didn’t have the right conditions.
But I would like to get back to an anecdote about the specific sound of the gunshots from Tlatelolco, in the last part of the film. I had two recordings of gunshots, but that is just what they were: gunshots. There was no human factor, no screams… you couldn’t hear screams in the recordings that I had. Based on what I knew, these were from a general recording of October 2, so there was a need to have the sound of panic; the sound of people panicking during the massacre in Tlatelolco. I was searching but I couldn’t find a sound effect that had this panic factor in it. And we’re not talking about three little cats crying out, we needed a mass of people, so we had to invent it, for lack of the real thing, let’s say. And during that time, the film director Carlos Velo came to Radio Universidad, for whom I recorded something, although I don’t remember what, and I felt in confidence with him so I asked for his help. Since he was working at the Churubusco studios and was a man of cinema, I thought that he could help me with this issue of human panic that I needed for the gunshot. So I asked him: Maestro, could I ask you a favor; would it be possible for you to record the sound of a multitude in panic? And he told me: “Why not, I’ll do it, I’ll get it for you; count on it.” And so I thought that he had a stock of sounds in the Churubusco Studios and imagined great professionalism, no? And of course he splendidly did what he promised and sent me a reel with his assistant, but when I listened to it, it was really lamentable, because although there were panic cries, there were only a couple of actors doing them, and this was exactly what I was trying to avoid. The sounds could seem ridiculous: "¡eh, uh, ah, eh, eh ah, ah!"; something completely makeshift, and so I definitely had to get rid of that. So I ask Héctor Mendoza who was working on a theatre piece and where there were a dozen actors who could help me. And since we were all imbued with the spirit to do something because of what had happened, he helped me. So I took my recorder there and recorded the actors, whom we asked to do the screams. Even then, when I listened to them, it is not enough so I put a background sound of reverberation but well, I didn’t have filters or equalizers, reverberating chambers, absolutely nothing. The reverberation that we would do back then was delay that is made from the start of recording to the start of replaying; so much so that everything we did, as I’ve said before, we did with the tips of our nails.
BK: And what was the collaboration like? Did Leobardo have a fixed idea for the film, was there a date when he wanted to show it, to put it out to the public?
RSA: I don’t remember there being deadlines, it was just being done however it was possible. He would outline what was needed in terms of sound and without even saying it, he would give me time to do it however I could, and whenever it was necessary, would come to retrieve it. He was also working slowly on his part, editing the images. I was always just delivering partial tracks of audio… and well, the truth is that there was never a global or final delivery; I was giving him the sounds as I was making them.
BK: Do you know what happened with the film once you had delivered everything?
RSA: It was all really random, although I was starting to work in cinema doing recording and direct sound. And this film was made, how should I put it, on the margins of everything. Because these events had overwhelmed us all, I think, and more than having a method, we had the motivation to capture the testimony. In some way, this is what guided us, and now many years have passed and those memories are very vague.
CPA: It’s very interesting how you make visible this open character, in process, of the project that you participated in. Something that you eventually let go of while still being open to the process.
BK: I think that what we are trying to do is to show how politics and social movements can also be based on illusions and the imagination. I consider myself someone who is quite politicized but at the same time I want to put into question the impact that image and sound can have, because when those two things are together they are much stronger and have an immense amount of power… I think of political documents like El Grito, and I think that on the one hand they somehow lose their historic and archival value because they are revisited in the same way every time; an homage to the same things. I’m not saying that we should stop looking at photos of Tlatelolco, of October 2, but that we have to put them into a different context, to make a collision between the image and the sound, between the event and the moment. I think that this can allow us to do more excavation and to see if these images inhabit us or if they are outside of us, what our perceptions are, how they affect us and what we can do with them and with our own bodies.
Transcription: Carlos Prieto Acevedo
Translation: Bani Khoshnoudi