By Arun Fulara. Posted on May 05, 2016
The following is an essay, the legendary film editor & sound designer, Walter Murch wrote as a companion to his lecture on sound designing, 'Dense Clarity – Clear Density'. This was first published on Transom.
Hearing is the first of our senses to be switched on, four-and-a-half months after we are conceived. And for the rest of our time in the womb—another four-and-a-half months—we are pickled in a rich brine of sound that permeates and nourishes our developing consciousness: the intimate and varied pulses of our mother’s heart and breath; her song and voice; the low rumbling and sudden flights of her intestinal trumpeting; the sudden, mysterious, alluring or frightening fragments of the outside world—all of these swirl ceaselessly around the womb-bound child, with no competition from dormant Sight, Smell, Taste or Touch.
Birth wakens those four sleepyhead senses and they scramble for the child’s attention—a race ultimately won by the darting and powerfully insistent Sight—but there is no circumventing the fact that Sound was there before any of the other senses, waiting in the womb’s darkness as consciousness emerged, and was its tender midwife.
So although our mature consciousness may be betrothed to sight, it was suckled by sound, and if we are looking for the source of sound’s ability—in all its forms—to move us more deeply than the other senses and occasionally give us a mysterious feeling of connectedness to the universe, this primal intimacy is a good place to begin.
One of the infant’s first discoveries about the outside world is silence, which was never experienced in the womb. In later life, the absence of sound may come to seem a blessed relief, but for the newly-born, silence must be intensely threatening, with its implications of cessation and death. In radio, accordingly, a gap longer than the distance between a few heartbeats is taboo. In film, however, silence can be a glowing and powerful force if, like any potentially dangerous substance, it is handled correctly.
Another of the infant’s momentous discoveries about the world is its synchronization: our mother speaks and we see her lips move, they close and she falls silent; a plate tumbles off the table and crashes to the floor; we clap our hands and hear (as well as feel) the smack of flesh against flesh. Sounds remembered from the womb are discovered to have an external point of origin. The consequent realization that there is a world “outside” separate from the self (which must therefore be somehow “inside”) is a profound and earth-shaking discovery, and it deserves more attention than we can give it here. Perhaps it is enough to say that this feeling of separation between the self and the world is a hallmark of human existence, and the source of equal amounts of joy when it is overcome and pain when it is not.
Synchronization of sight and sound, which naturally does not exist in radio, can be the glory or the curse of cinema. A curse, because if overused, a string of images relentlessly chained to literal sound has the tyrannical power to strangle the very things it is trying to represent, stifling the imagination of the audience in the bargain. Yet the accommodating technology of cinema gives us the ability to loosen those chains and to re-associate the film’s images with other, carefully-chosen sounds which at first hearing may be “wrong” in the literal sense, but which can offer instead richly descriptive sonic metaphors.
This metaphoric use of sound is one of the most flexible and productive means of opening up a conceptual gap into which the fertile imagination of the audience will reflexively rush, eager (even if unconsciously so) to complete circles that are only suggested, to answer questions that are only half-posed. What each person perceives on screen, then, will have entangled within it fragments of their own personal history, creating that paradoxical state of mass intimacy where—though the audience is being addressed as a whole—each individual feels the film is addressing things known only to him or her.
So the weakness of present-day cinema is paradoxically its strength of representation: it doesn’t automatically possess the built-in escape valves of ambiguity that painting, music, literature, black-and-white silent film, and radio have simply by virtue of their sensory incompleteness—an incompleteness that automatically engages the imagination of the viewer/listener as compensation for what can only be suggested by the artist. In film, therefore, we go to considerable lengths to achieve what comes naturally to radio and the other arts: the space to evoke and inspire, rather than to overwhelm and crush, the imagination of the audience.
The essay that follows asks some questions about multilayered density in sound: are there limits to the number and nature of different elements we can superimpose? Can the border between sparse clarity and obscure density be located in advance?
These questions are, at heart, about how many separate ideas the mind can handle at the same time, and on this topic there seems, surprisingly, to be a common thread linking many different realms of human experience—music, Chinese writing, and Dagwood sandwiches, to name a few—and so I hope some of the tentative answers presented here, even though derived from film, will find their fruitful equivalents in radio.