In what is widely regarded as the first film with synchronized sound, The Edison Kinetophone (1912), Allan Ramsay (the director and the actor of the film) delivers the following speech:
Ladies and Gentlemen, a few brief years ago Mr. Thomas A. Edison presented to the world ‘The Kinetoscope.’ Inventors the world over have endeavored to synchronize the ‘Phonograph’ and motion picture but it remained for Mr. Edison, to whom the world owes the ‘Phonograph’ and motion picture, to combine his two great inventions into this one, which is now entertaining you and is called ‘The Kinetophone.’ The Edison Kinetophone is absolutely the first genuine talking picture ever produced. The actor performs exactly as he does upon the stage, moving freely about, and his every word and every action are simultaneously recorded with all the realism of nature. In only this way can perfect synchronism and illusion be obtained. The world’s great actors and singers of today can be seen and heard one hundred years from now. In fact, there seems to be no end to the possibilities of his latest and greatest invention of that wizard of sound and sight, Mr. Thomas A. Edison.
Ramsay’s promise was however far from what the Kinetophone claimed to have achieved. A celluloid cylinder record measuring five and a half inches in diameter was used for the phonograph. Synchronization was achieved by connecting the projector at one end of the theater and the phonograph at the other end with a long pulley. This method of synchronization worked well under strictly ideal conditions but elementary happenstances such as the incompetency of the projectionist or an electric fluctuation in the local grid (not uncommon in those times) or a break in the film caused the film to go out of sync, resulting in the audiences’ dissatisfaction. Edison’s ‘Kinetoscope’ was retired after only a year.
The synchronization of sound and the film image was achieved a little over a decade later and the ‘talkies’ have come to become the norm of cinema today. Image and sound in perfect mathematical synchrony brought about a sense of realism in films contrary to the fact that in real life light travels many times faster than sound. How many times have human beings seen the flash of lightning in the night sky and heard the rumble of the thunder after a few moments’ delay? And how many times have they seen the perfect synchronization of lightning and thunder in films? Perhaps we as human beings only have an assumption of synchronization between sound and image.
In Norman McLaren’s landmark film Synchromy (1971) sound and image come together, as the title suggests, in total synchronization. The film consists of optically printed vertical bars with horizontal blocks appearing on them in synchrony with the soundtrack. McLaren had composed the soundtrack before-hand and printed it onto the optical sound-strip section of 35mm film stock. He then proceeded to duplicate the optical sound patterns onto the stock’s visual frame. Where this could’ve been a plain frame filled with black and white lines, McLaren can’t resist interpreting the spirit of his geometrically-composed soundtrack through the use of colour.
McLaren has been known to interpret music through visuals even prior to Synchromy. One of his very first works employing this is Fiddle-de-dee (1947) where McLaren interprets music through a lush landscape of painted patterns. It was his very own original take on the method previously employed by Len Lye on A Colour Box (1935). In a series of collaborations with Evelyn Lambart, he interpreted pieces of music using vertical bars in Lignes Verticales (1960) and horizontal bars in Lignes Horizontales (1962). It’s clear these two films led to the visual language of Synchromy, with the added technical challenge of synchronizing it to the optical soundtrack patterns with pain-staking precision.
The vertical bars of Lignes Verticales form the background of Synchromy on top of which horizontal blocks, provided by the visuals of Lignes Horizontales interpret the sound and silence through their visual presence and absence. These horizontal blocks ‘metamorphose’ according to the various notes being played- each note and octave with its distinct visual metaphor.
Where Synchromy finds its existence in the perfect synchronization of sound and image, Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) finds itself between synchronicity and non-synchronicity. The film is a demonstration of the reduction of the relationship between sound and image to its simplest form- the play between darkness and light, and between sound and silence. On the visual front, the film is a mathematical juxtaposition of black and clear 35mm frames, that when projected travel between pure light and total darkness. On the aural front, the sound travels between total silence and white noise. The white noise contains all the possible frequencies on a 35mm optical film soundtrack- from around 30 hertz to 18 kilo hertz, slightly less than the full range of human hearing- and this corresponds to the way that white light contains all the visible colors of the spectrum.1
Arnulf Rainer exists by teasing synchronicity of sound and image. Sometimes the image and sound are in sync but mostly they follow their own paths. Kubelka’s seemingly random play between sound and image is actually highly mathematical, probably even more so than the straight-forward math of Synchromy. One could get a sense of the mathematical patterns when Kubelka presented the film strips of Arnulf Rainer as an installation piece in the order in which they appear in the film. Nicky Hamlyn in his essay Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer points out:
The discrepancy between image and sound perception arises from the fact that as a photochemical process, vision is inherently slower than the mechanical apparatus in the auditory system. Thus the sound rhythms in the film are bold, insistent and fully discernible, in contrast to the visual ones, where the experience of identical patterns is inflected by the interference of after-images, the temporary partial blindness caused by the exposure to white frames, etc.
Hamlyn further elaborates on the inherent asymmetry of the film:
These perceptions are compounded by the fact that the sound is often out of sync with the picture, although what ’sync’ means here is brought into question by the film. Since there is no necessary, or necessarily fixed, relationship between white and sound, say, or black and silence, there are no grounds for saying that the sound is in or out of sync at any point in the film. However, the dialectic between a stretch of white, synchronized with a burst of continuous sound, followed by a stretch of black with a rhythmic sound pattern, compounds the sense of local asymmetry in the film.
Where Arnulf Rainer takes us between darkness and light, Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) takes us into the heart of blindness, or as Jarman puts it ‘sightlessness’.2 The film was made when Jarman was dying of AIDS, in the moment his vision was slowly deteriorating. In January 1992, he wrote in his journal: «…if Beethoven could write the Ninth without hearing, I’m certain I could make a film without seeing.»3
The film is a 79-minute long shot of the color Blue, or more specifically Yves Klein’s International Blue. The soundtrack of the film is a collage of voices, ambient sounds and music, and on top of them all, the voice of Jarman himself narrating the experience of heading into blindness and towards eventual death. Josef Albers in his book Interaction of Color points out: «Though we were taught, only a few years ago, that there is no connection whatever between visual and auditory perception, we know now that a color changes visually when a changing tone is heard simultaneously»4
For those who ‘experienced’ the first televised screening of Blue on 19th September, 1993, the sound took a deeper significance. In a never-before attempted move, Channel 4 and BBC Radio 3 collaborated to present a double-broadcast of the film: visually with a mono-soundtrack on the television by Channel 4 and aurally with a secondary soundtrack on the radio by BBC Radio 3. Both the broadcasts were synchronized so that for the viewer watching the film at home on his mono-sound television, if he were to switch on his radio and tune into BBC Radio 3, the synchronized soundtrack would create a stereo experience of sound.
Jenna Carine Ashton writing about Blue in the Journal of Applied Arts & Health says that:
Our understanding of and perception of sound, like color, is not predetermined, but is reliant upon a cultural framework that informs every seeing and hearing body. It could be argued that sight masks the sonic for the non-visually impaired body. In removing full vision we (Jarman and the viewers/ listeners of Blue) are forced into an encounter with the materiality of everyday living through other sensory receptors.5
She further notes that:
…in coming to terms with ‘sightlessness’, Jarman turns to the sonic. Or, rather, he is forced into turning to the sonic, due to failing sight. Jarman’s film is seemingly empty of visual stimuli and yet it is emphatically visual. In not using his trademark film collages, leaving the screen a persistently unchanging blue, he actually draws attention to the problems of a cultural language that is directed by the visual.
Another seminal work that draws attention “to the problems of a cultural language” is John Smith’s darkly funny Om (1986). The film presents us with an image of a young white male (played by John Harding) sporting a slight buzz of hair on his head, dressed in what appears to be a saffron, hindu/ buddhist robe with the apparent smoke of an off-screen incense stick. He begins chanting the hindu meditative syllable ‘om’ and holds the note for almost two minutes (half of the total running time of the film). The hands of a barber (unseen) enter the frame with an electric shaver, which proceed to shave the buzz off the head of our supposed monk. Once the barber has finished shaving the head and switches the shaver off, the sound ends, giving the impression that somewhere in the chant, the soundtrack switched to the sound of the shaver’s electric motor.
Smith then takes the gag further visually by having the actor take off the robe to reveal what appears to be standard skinhead clothes and what was assumed to have been an incense stick off-screen is brought up into the frame to be revealed as a lit cigarette. Although sound and image are in perfect sync in Om, their cultural language is gloriously out of sync. The film plays on the cultural stereotypes and the human tendency to resort to such assumptions through visual clues. Sound, however is the only element that is truly metamorphosed here- from the sound of the chant to the sound of the electric motor of the shaver. It also alerts the viewer that perhaps something is wrong here and that perhaps, nothing is what it is presented as– both visually and aurally. It makes the viewer question, albeit well after the film has ended, his or her own tendency to fall into stereotyping traps.
Stereotypes, both visual and aural, are formed over the course of one’s lifetime much like motor memory. In Manon DeBoer’s Dissonant (2010) two kinds of memory are made to clash through the use of sound– motor and aural. DeBoer’s film features dancer Cynthia Loemij, as she dances for 10 minutes to Eugène Ysaÿe’s 3 sonates for violin solo– a piece she has danced to many times before. The trick here is that DeBoer plays the music right at the beginning of the film as Loemij listens to it and when the music ends, Loemij begins dancing. Although, she has danced to this piece many times before, she is made to recall the exact choreography of the piece purely from aural memory. The dance moves themselves being strictly physical, her body works through her motor memory. She repeats the pattern over and over again, several times.
DeBoer goes even further by making the audience resort to their aural memory during the film. The film is shot on hundred-foot rolls of 16mm film– which provides for just about three minutes of footage per roll. As one roll winds down in the camera, the image goes to black while the sound continues. The cameraman proceeds to load a new roll of film as the audience hears Loemij’s dance moves. They are made to recall from aural memory what her exact position is and when the image comes back on, they see Loemij reaching a certain position in the pattern of dance she keeps repeating.
In an interview with The International Film Festival Rotterdam, when asked what she would like to tell her audience before they see the film, DeBoer said: «Go and see it, above all listen to it.»6 These films are some of the many cases where film as an audiovisual medium transcended the clear demarcation between sound and image. These films are vivid examples of instances where sound has influenced the visual sense in the viewer and as a result made them “see” sonically.
Back in 1913, Edison’s Kinetophone resulted in the following article in the New York Times:
…the real sensation of the day was scored quite unintentionally by the operator of the machine at the Union Square Theatre last evening. He inadvertently set his pictures some ten or twelve seconds ahead of his sounds, and the result was amazing. The interlocutor, who, by a coincidence, wore a peculiarly defiant and offended expression, would rise pompously, his lips would move, he would bow and sit down. Then his speech would float out over the audience… This diverted the audience vastly, but the outbursts of laughter would come when the singer would close his lips, smile in a contented manner, bow, and retire while his highest and best notes were still ringing clear. The audience, however, knew what had happened, and the mishap did not serve to lessen their tribute of real wonder at Edison’s latest.7
The eye hears and the ear sees indeed.
1. From Nicky Hamlyn’s essay Arnulf Rainer: «Just as the 35mm projected picture will be brighter and more forceful than a 16mm projection, so the frequency spectrum of 35mm white noise is considerably wider than it is for 16mm.»
2. Words taken from Blue (1993), Dir: Derek Jarman.
3. Darek Jarman, Smiling in Slow Motion, The Random House Group Limited, London 2000, p. 192;
4. Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, New Haven / London 1975, p. 72;
5. Jenna Carine Ashton, "Derek Jarman's Blue: Negating The Visual." Journal Of Applied Arts & Health Volume 3 Number 3.
7. "New York Applauds the Talking Picture," New York Times (February 18, 1913).