The Sounds Of Cinema Chion

Michel Chion is primarily known in Film Studies for his ground-breaking work on the soundtrack, but he is also a composer of electronic music, a film-maker and a university teacher in Paris. He has published some 18 books since the mid-1970s, either on music, film-makers (one on Jacques Tati in 1987 and one on David Lynch in 1992) or various aspects of the film soundtrack. In this last group, there are five key works: the first three, on voice (1982), on sound (1985) and on dialogue (1988), were all published by the Cahiers du cinema, and form a triptych; his volumes on 'audio-vision' (1990) and, more recently, on music (1995), have systematised and refined the work of the triptych.

Chion's general approach is broad-minded enthusiasm. He detests value-judgements in soundtrack analysis, a frequent statement being that of course a film could have been made in a completely different way with different music, but what we have is the film as it is, with all its faults and its attractions. Chion is, like Deleuze, full of enthusiasm for the great auteurs, such as Hitchcock, Welles, Bresson or Duras, but is equally filled with admiration for particularly interesting soundtracks in obscure as well as very popular commercial films. He is similarly full of enthusiasm for technological developments. Whereas many critics deplored the advent of the Dolby sound system during the 1980s, suggesting that it turned films into depthless spectacle, Chion sees the advantages of such a system, arguing, for example in L'Audio-Vision (1990), that having Dolby is like the difference between a concert grand piano and a drawing-room upright.

Although several theorists addressed the soundtrack prior to Chion (Arnheim and Balâsz, for example), they did not do so systematically. Chion remains, with Rick Altman in the USA, the most important theorist in this area, not least because much of the interest in the soundtrack in recent years has focused on music to the detriment of other aspects, whereas Chion is concerned to investigate all aspects of the soundtrack, and to rehabilitate the soundtrack within Film Studies.

L'Audio-Vision, unlike his previous works, which often read more like collections of essays, attempts to do precisely this. It begins provocatively by showing the many ways in which the soundtrack affects the image-track. Dialogue frames the visual images we see, and gives them meaning that, in themselves, they do not have. Music supports or undermines what we see on screen. Sound is associated with movement and therefore helps to indicate the passage of time; Chion gives the example of a sequence of images that could be read as actions occurring either sequentially or simultaneously; sound will tend to suggest sequentiality by its very nature.

The second major point made by the volume is again expressed provocatively, and was first elaborated in Le Son au cinéma (Chapter 5): the 'soundtrack does not exist'. Chion means that the soundtrack is not organised autonomously like the imagetrack, it is, rather, 'disorganised' around it. He uses the musical analogy of counterpoint, which holds that notes (or in this case sounds) evolve horizontally in relation to each other, but can be seen vertically as harmony. Chion's point is that the soundtrack in film generally is less obviously horizontal counterpoint, and more vertical counterpoint in relation to the image-track; it is the latter which, despite the claims made in the first part of the volume, predominates. Put another way, he is suggesting that sounds are better understood as part of a complex including the image-track, rather than as something separate in which they are seen only in relation to other sounds. He then lists the various ways in which the soundtrack interacts with the image-track: it links images together (with sound-bridges, the creation of atmosphere, the use of non-diegetic film music); it punctuates in the grammatical sense (as might do commas and full stops); it creates anticipation (especially in the case of music); and, finally, silence, an extreme case of the soundtrack, separates. Amongst the many terms forged by Chion, and now generally accepted, is a particularly clear combination of the soundtrack and the image-track, such as the sound and image of someone hitting someone else. As Chion points out, in reality blows rarely make the noise we hear in films; that noise combined with the image constitutes what Chion calls the 'point of synchresis' (formed on 'synthesis' and 'synchronic').

The next major section of the volume, and perhaps its most powerful, are the chapters devoted to the 'audio-visual scene' (Chapters 4 to 6). Chion's major point here is that unlike images, which are either 'there' or 'not there' and thus constitute an observable space, sounds by their nature escape localisation; in other words, images rely on the frame of the screen but sounds do not. Counterbalancing his provocative comments in the first section of the volume, then, Chion shows how the soundtrack is spatialised by the image-track; if a character is walking off-screen, spectators will visualise the sound of the footsteps off-screen. A key notion raised by this example is the off-screen voice.

One of Chion's more original, indeed eccentric, notions is that of the acousmêtre, usually translated as 'acousmatic being', by which is meant an invisible source of speech, such as the wizard in the Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939) or the Peter Lorre character in M (Lang, 1930). The idea has much to do with a voice-over, of course, but Chion's discussion of it brings out the notion of patriarchal power (since the acousmatic being tends to be male), while at the same time highlighting the undermining of that power (since the acousmatic being is often revealed as considerably less powerful than he was when we first heard his voice).

Chion has tried to systematise the 'audio-visual scene', formulating, for example, the 'tri-circle' with its three overlapping areas of sound, in-screen sound (the source is on-screen), off-screen sound (the source is off-screen, 'acousmatic', either permanently or temporarily) and off-sound (where the sound or the music have nothing to do with the situation which can be seen on the screen, like a voice-over or accompanying music). Chion was much criticised for the over-simplification of the tri-circle when he first introduced it in 1982, and in LAudio-Vision, while accepting that the analysis needed to be extended to include other cases, such as ambient sound (birds singing), internal sound (a character's heartbeat being an example of internal-objective sound, and his memories internal-subjective sounds), and on-the-air sound (the sounds emanating from a radio), he remains unrepentant, suggesting that the distinctions made in the tri-circle facilitate analysis.

Indeed, so unrepentant is he that he returns to the power of the soundtrack and the concerns of the first section of the volume, which the tri-circle can in a sense be seen to diminish by its emphasis on the image as the key determinant of the status of a sound. Off-screen sound affects our perception of the image; for example, a landscape can be extended off-screen with the sound of a car crash or the sound of the sea, and two very different landscapes will appear to the spectator.

Nevertheless, sound and image are intricately intertwined, as Chion's next discussion shows. In this discussion he demonstrates how he is at his best when he takes what might have seemed a simple idea, and shows that it is far from simple, such as his discussion of the point d'écoute (point of hearing), which he contrasts with the point de vue (point of view). As a result of his discussion, we become more attuned to the ways in which sound and dialogue relate to the visual image, such as, for example, the way in which many films do not try to represent sound in a realist fashion (a conversation in a car that we see from a distance).

Despite the emphasis on the soundtrack as a whole, it is hardly surprising that Chion, as a musician himself, should have devoted considerable attention to music in the cinema. Half of Sound in the Cinema is devoted to music, the key issues being where the music is located and what it does in relation to the image. Chion contrasts what he calls musique de fosse (pit music, or accompanying music with no screen representation) with musique d'écran (screen music, in the sense that the source of the music can be seen on-screen); his distinction is one frequently made, although the terms used in Anglophone Film Studies are non-diegetic and diegetic respectively. However, two other terms coined by Chion are regularly used: music is either 'empathetic', working to support the feelings of the characters and to make spectators identify themselves with those characters, or 'anempathetic', working against them by creating a sense of nature's indifference to the characters. In extreme cases, that music can be 'contrapuntal didactic', forcing the spectator to adopt a very distanced, indeed a critical position in relation to the characters (as with, for example, a happy tune that accompanies a tragic event).

More recently, Chion has published a major volume devoted entirely to music (Chion, 1995). The volume reprises some of the theoretical concerns discussed in previous volumes relating to the functions of the soundtrack more generally, such as unification (plugging gaps), anticipation, giving meaning and temporality to the image, extension of off-screen space or specifically of music, such as symbolisation, and the contrast between empathetic and anempathetic music. The first part of the volume, however, is a history of music in film. While some of this material is familiar from the work of Anglophone theorists such as Claudia Gorbman (whose work Chion admires and frequently quotes), the interest of the opening historical section is Chion's tracing of different types of music (classical, jazz, rock, pop, opera films, modern scoring for silent films, and so on) and, more obviously for our purposes, his occasional attention to French cinema, such as the comment on what might be a 'typically French' musical score contrasted with other national cinemas:

French cinema is less keen on sweeping strings. It has its own musical traditions, for example a solo instrument, such as the saxophone, emerging from the orchestra; played in a way quite different from jazz, it has long been a speciality of our screens. Another tradition is French cinema's taste for a relatively clever and abstract musical form, which avoids imparting too obvious an emotional tonality. (Chion, 1995: 131)

Chion also discusses the eclectic use of music in the New Wave, with a close analysis of the opening sequence of Godard's A bout de souffle (Chion, 1995: 143-4), and is particularly enthusiastic (unlike many reviewers of the time) about Kieslowski's use of music (and Dolby stereo) in Trois couleurs: Bleu (Chion, 1995: 268-70) in a long section that deals with music as a subject of films or as a metaphor in films (particularly interesting here is his discussion of the song within a film, as a principle of circulation; see Chion, 1995: 280-3). A third of the volume is an encyclopaedia of directors and composers, emphasising their use of music. Relevant here are Chion's sketches of a number of French directors: Blier, Corneau, Demy, Deville, Duras, Epstein, Godard, Lelouch, Ophuls, Renoir,

Resnais, Rohmer, Sautet, Tad and Truffaut. Only three composers are dealt with: the American Bernard Herrmann (Welles' and Hitchcock's composer), and two French composers. Surprisingly, Chion does not include Michel Legrand. The first of his two French composers is Maurice Jaubert (1900^10; see Chion, 1995: 342-4), the composer of Vigo's L'Atalante, a film on which Chion concentrates, while explaining the importance of Jaubert as a supporter of popular and realist music. The second French composer is Georges Delerue (1925-90; see Chion, 1995: 313-16), who is best known for his New Wave scores, such as Tirez sur le pianiste (Truffaut, 1960) and Le Mépris (Godard, 1963). In fact, Delerue was prolific, composing for directors as diverse as Ken Russell and Oliver Stone; he was prolific too in his use of musical styles, preferring to avoid imposing his own style. Chion characterises Delerue's music thus: 'Unlike the lavish orchestration of the American cinema, he does not pile on the colours; he prefers to use a solo instrument to give the main atmosphere, the climate, the place (accordion, banjo, flute, clarinet) over a "carpet of strings". Because of this restraint he has been seen by some American critics as typically French' (Chion, 1995: 314).

Chion's legacy is considerable. First, in his extensive discussions of the soundtrack, he has formulated expressions that are now commonly used. For example, apart from the terms empathetic and anempathetic, there is the term 'vococentric', by which Chion means that soundscapes are organised hierarchically around the human voice. Second, he has brought rigour to the analysis of the soundtrack; why say a 'sound' when you could say a crackling, a rumbling, a tremolo, he says in L'Audio-Vision (Chion, 1990: 158). Third, his case analyses are always fascinating, and often lead to brilliant observations, such as his comments on the use of the telephone for suspense. This is not only because the telephone separates the voice from the body, he says, but more because the telephone 'has the effect of "suspending" a character we see from the voice of someone we don't see' (Chion 1999: 63). Another example is his fascinating discussion of the structural importance of the scream in a film, which acts as the dead centre around which much else revolves, the unsayable around which what is said is gathered: 'The screaming point is a point of the unthinkable inside the thought, of the indeterminate inside the spoken, of unrepresentability inside representation' (Chion, 1999: 77). Finally, he has always insisted that France is the most inventive country when it comes to the soundtrack (see Chion, 1994: 201; Chion, 1999: 85), while also deploring the poor use of available technology by the French.

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