Guest contribution by Martin Stig Andersen
The following is extracted from the author’s article “Electroacoustic Sound and Audiovisual Structure in Film” (supervised by Denis Smalley) originally published by eContact.
Music Versus Sound Effects — Sound Designer qua Composer?
Given sound’s ability to create temporal experiences unique to that of other media, it seems no accident that it has attained an important role in film. Where a film montage made out of cuts in time and space causes a chaotic, fractionated temporal experience, sound can bring to the image an all-embracing temporal trajectory. Conversely, where a film shot implies linear time, sound can impose the experience of non-linear time. While applying to sound in general, in traditional film making such temporal attributes are mostly exploited by means of a film score accompanying the picture. The reasoning behind this, according to Michel Chion, is that where “other sound … elements … are obliged to remain clearly defined in their relation to diegetic space and to a linear and chronological notion of time,” music, on the other hand, “enjoys the status of being a little freer of barriers of time and space” (Chion 1990, 81). Chion states that the spatiotemporal quality of music especially applies to what he himself calls “pit music” (1), with reference to the orchestral pit in the opera house (ibid.). In other words, pit music is the traditional music accompaniment to a film, often performed by an orchestra, residing outside the film’s world. Accordingly he implies that “screen music” (2), that is music arising from a source within the film’s world,may only in some cases attain the status of its aforementioned counterpart. A classic example occurs when music is heard over a car radio, linearizing an otherwise nonlinear montage of images showing a character travelling a long distance. The “other sound elements”, on the other hand, the structuring of which Chion considers subordinated to the spatiotemporal information within the film’s world, could, besides dialogue, be regarded simply as “sound effects”. In the context of motion picture production, sound effects denote all sound elements that do not fall into the categories of music and dialogue. The recording, processing, editing and mixing of sound effects, including “on screen”, Foley, and background sound effects, is often managed by a sound designer. According to Walter Murch — the first person to be credited the title in recognition of his contribution to the film Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1979) — the role of the sound designer is to take care of the overall treatment of sound in film (Thom 1998, 122). Equally, in general, sound design is considered as an artistic field covering all non-compositional elements of film sound. While one can arguably make such a distinction between music and sound effects when considering films featuring traditional film music, incorporating electroacoustic music in film challenges this idea. For decades any sound available, be it instrumental or environmental, has been part of the electroacoustic composer’s sound palette, and musical properties such as space (spatial articulation) have developed and acquired equal importance to pitch and rhythm.Furthermore, just like the sound designer, the electroacoustic composer is concerned with sound recording, editing and mixing, each representing essential and often indistinguishable parts of the compositional process. Thus, in principle, by means of the electroacoustic medium, the composer has the opportunity to include all sounds relating to a given film’s world in his compositional work, thereby potentially exploiting their temporal forces in relation to image. However, temporal utilisation of sound effects in film is not new but has been practised for decades by innovative sound designers. As a brief example, consider the “tiger scene” in Apocalypse Now in which a high-pitched, sustained sound of insects freezes time and causes the experience of suspense, an effect usually achieved through the use of music, and by orchestral means. In such examples, if the categorisation of sound elements into film music and sound effects is to retain any meaning, we would have to redefine the terms according to sounds’ correspondence with the image rather than simply their means of production.