— One way to know a film is through its sound. In his book Listening, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy states, “although it seems simple enough to evoke a form—even a vision—that is sonorous, under what conditions, by contrast, can one talk about a visual sound?” Using the found material of film scores and diegetic sound to build a tonal composition of time, DECADES, a durational video work, pursues visual sound rather than visualized sound. One inspiration for DECADES takes it cue from the sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who in his recent work, used the interactive digital model of the Saydnaya prison in Syria to address memory, the politics of listening, and the forensics of sound. Part of Amnesty International’s work to raise awareness of the untold stories of President Assad’s brutal regime, Hamdan’s project with the former prison detainees is ear-witness: “Unlike vision,” he points out, “sound leaks into other people’s spaces.” Because many of the prisoners of Saydnaya could not see the rooms in which they were held captive and tortured, the former detainees recreated a forensic architecture of the prison based on the sounds they remember hearing in those rooms: “You try to build an image based on the sounds you hear,” explains Salam Othman, a former Saydnaya detainee in an interview. It is this idea of sound-memory and sound-recall, of pictures made of/from/by sound, that led me to make DECADES.
In Notes on the Cinematographer, Robert Bresson makes a similar point as Nancy: “No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all.” The aphorism, under the subsection, “On Music,” comes with a concessional footnote: “Except, of course, the music played by visible instruments.” (my emphasis). This concession is essential to DECADES. First Bresson vehemently objects to score as unseen, to score as non-diegetic garnish; to music that appears by not appearing. Then he revises his earlier decree by creating a statute: we must see what we are hearing and what we are hearing should be shown to us—made visible as diegetic (“music played by visible instruments”). DECADES makes sound visible, turning sound into image, disclosing it and the normally concealed work it does. Most TV shows today submerge every image in music. Every action and emotion is overbearingly codified by musical cuts, acts, cues, and emotional compressions that are never outed, yet are overarchingly present.
DECADES proposes that the way we experience cultural shifts is not simply visual or narrative, but tonal. Like LOVE SOUNDS, a 24-hour film which used audio (dialogue) from movies to compose a spoken history of love in English-speaking cinema, DECADES utilizes film scores to produce a score of every decade: a tonal ethnography of time—unearthing each decade’s particular sound patterns and cultural progressions: its themes, politics, anxieties, moods, recurring notes. DECADES asks: What sounds does a decade make? What is each decade’s mood, tone, and theme? Why do sounds return? How do sounds accumulate and accrue into a system of information? What do the sounds we hear tell us about what we are seeing, what we have seen, and what we expect to see in the future? Finally, what new narratives emerge if we use sound as our organizing principle for images rather than the other way around?
Both LOVE SOUNDS and DECADES ask us to listen to what is communicated to us by and through a visual medium but is not visual. Images train our ears, not just our eyes, so ears remember differently. This means we need a listening viewer. Not simply a viewer or a listener. Using editing as a tracking device, DECADES listens to the way images sound—or rather, to the sounds images make. After a new score for each decade is composed, the musical fragments will be correlated to their corresponding visuals and rearranged into a non-narrative order, producing a new cinematic history and chronology that privileges what Nancy calls visual sound. The musical structure for each decade will both determine and reveal the visual narrative.
I was trained as a classical musician and grew up listening to soundtracks. I would often ask my parents if I could buy the soundtrack to a film I had just seen: Out of Africa, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Pretty in Pink, Taxi Driver, Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave,Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. I listened to Madonna’s Who’s That Girl incessantly one summer as a double score—to the film, to the score I invented for my tomboy girlhood. I wanted to understand movies through the sounds they made. It was how I remembered movies and developed memories around movies. Listening to a movie—its score, its dialogue, its voices—has in some sense always been more important to me than watching it. I wear things out with my ears until everything becomes an earworm. It’s the same with words. Lovers get wedged in the ear too.
Last April, I rewatched A History of Violence for a film class I was teaching on cinematic doubles. I had not seen the movie in 10 years but knew immediately that whoever composed the soundtrack for A History of Violence had also composed the score for The Silence of The Lambs and Se7en. I haven’t seen Se7en since it came out either, but I remember how all three films sound. I’ve internalized the notes, the mood, the time periods, not the plots. The sound of one film makes me remember the sound of another film. It is the ongoing thread of sound that connects all those movies: a tone recurs, persists. A tone that does not go away, returns through a composer. Different, but also the same. By listening intently to the sounds a decade makes, the sounds it keeps making, the instruments repeatedly chosen (the 70s harp, string instruments; the 80s saxophone; the prevalence of the pop song) to signal a particular time, place, mood, we can begin to understand something about the progression and treatment of time, and how a decade voices itself through sound.
In another aphorism from “On Music,” Bresson instructs: “The noises must become music.” No movie decade took this more seriously than the 1970s, which blended and layered diegetic sound with non-diegetic score, the filmic and profilmic, in often extraordinary ways. In 1970s movies, sound was visible. I think this is because the world was still real.
Below are some of my favorite film scores. Most are from the 1970s since it is the decade I am currently working on for DECADES. Apart from Taxi Driver, Body Double, and Day Out of Days, these musical segments do not exist as official soundtracks. They are my recordings.
Masha Tupitsyn is a writer, critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of several books like LOVE DOG, LACONIA: 1,200 TWEETS ON FILM, and BEAUTY TALK & MONSTERS. Her fiction and criticism has been published widely in journals and anthologies. In 2015, she completed the film LOVE SOUNDS, a 24-hour audio-essay and history of love in English-speaking cinema. Her new durational film, DECADES, a study of time through film sound, is forthcoming. She teaches film, literature, and gender studies at The New School and Pratt in New York City. Her Tumblr, is Love Dog