Polyphony in Motion

A lot of the readings regarding sound we were set for Film-TV 1 gave an overview of basic sound design concepts and the technical aspects of recording with different types of mics and equipment. Of course, I left the shortest one to last, and I’m glad I did, because it was a collection of points about the actual purpose and use of sound, an extract from R. Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer.

‘Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.’

That quote sums up the nature of the other points quite well. It’s all about thinking about the image and sound as separate entities that aren’t merely complimenting and moulding into each other.

This reminded me of a piece by Roger Hillman I read a little while ago about Malick’s use of sound in The Tree of Life. The focus was the concept of ‘polyphony’ and it isn’t the easiest to explain, but essentially involves the preservation of individual elements, and of course this comes from music, where that sort of layering and interaction of elements is well understood.

‘It is … this false sense of unity that characterizes so many contemporary multi-plot films, that undermines any genuine claim to polyphony. It is as if we have lost an ear for polyphony, so strong is the compulsion to unify disparate elements, so tempting it is to bring separate lines to some sort of tonal accord.’

— John Bruns, “The Polyphonic Film”, New Review of Film and Television Studies 6/2 (2008), 208. (Quote used in Hillman’s article)

It’s a great read if you’re a Malick fan, since it goes through his other films, but the emphasis is on The Tree of Life. Hillman’s notes on the scene set to Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau are especially interesting, partly because it’s one of the most affecting sequences in the film, and it’s great to understand why.

‘The camera is completely infected by the flow of the music, and the fluidity of the camerawork is closer to a genre with a very different kind of music, the musical … for its part, the musical flow becomes an acoustic Steadicam.’

Understanding that music, cinematography and editing are supposed to interact in this way, rather than just attempt to convey exactly the same thing, is something I have found really helpful, especially since I have had very little experience in sound design; an area I often feel out of my depth in.


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