Breaking the sound barrier

With sound being one of the most important mediums of communication in a film, here’s an attempt to look at new techniques in the field

June 27, 2019 01:06 pm | Updated June 28, 2019 01:09 pm IST

The world of sound design and original soundtrack is seeing a fresh change in contemporary Indian cinema. With the rise of online portals like Netflix and Amazon Prime beaming new content, a novel form of experimentation in sound and music is being encouraged. This has opened a whole gamut of possibilities for composers, sound designers, foley artists and editors. Editing as a process is far more enjoyable with an exploration of different genres of music, complementing a montage. The coming together of audio-visual filmic elements as a collaborative science has seen a shake-up in this millennial generation.

Sound and music, when treated as characters in the cinematic medium, have a significant presence of their own. These sounds signal our sensorial experience in peculiar ways. When cinema evolved from silent films to the talkies, the generations that were only familiar with ‘seeing’ a film, got something to listen to. This transformed the visual cinematic experience to a multi-sensorial one. When we hear a sound for the first time, we try to answer several questions about the origin of the sound: where does it come from? Is it moving and if so, in what direction? What kind of movement? Consider a scene where the visual is that of the swaying of a lone rocking chair on the portico of a house. The sound that has to be created for this has to embody human presence and time. It has to indicate that someone was sitting on the chair and has just moved away. How the chair rocks hints the mood of the person who occupied the chair. If it is swaying rapidly, you would perhaps guess that the occupant was anxious, but, if it is slow and gradual, and you also hear birds chirping, you assume a pleasant persona. Let’s say it is accompanied by creaking, then it creates a sense of eeriness. The fear can be further enhanced by visually zooming in on the rocking chair, heightening the suspense.

Suspense was explored extensively by the master, Alfred Hitchcock. In Alfred Hitchcock’s much acclaimed Psycho (1960), a lodger is murdered in the shower at a desolate motel. As we watch the brutal attack, with the knife slowly lurking behind the shower curtains hacking the body multiple times, the uniquely orchestrated music (composed by Bernard Hermann, interpreted by Danny Elfman) instils shock, fear and pain. The music allegorizes the series of hacks, screams and blows: repeated passages on violins and the strings section is a personification of what happens visually. If we watch the same scene without music, the intensity hardly comes through. In the movie Babel (2006), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the pure guitar string plucking in ‘Tazarine’, a track by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaollala, sets the mood perfectly for the introduction of an alien in an unknown Moroccan city, where the characters (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are looking for a doctor to nurse a bullet wound. The naked guitar track is a metaphor for what the characters experience – it becomes a metaphor for pain, uncertainty and loneliness in an unknown land.

Babel (2006) and Psycho (1960) use sound as a metaphoric medium to overcome hurdles of conveying emotions sensorially. Don Ihde, philosopher of sound, says: “The silence of the invisible comes to life in sound.” Voices encapsulate emotion and meaning in our holistic way of living and thinking. The sound of a bird chirping and echoing through a valley instills peace in our minds. The sound of rain drops invoke comfort in an indoor setting and makes us want to have a hot cup of coffee. The voice of Frank Sinatra from an old radio set triggers longing for a quiet evening, a glass of wine and the company of a loved one. Objects or material things around us begin to have a voice of their own.

In the recent Netflix Hindi feature production, Soni (2018), directed by Ivan Ayr, diegetic sound plays a crucial role in constructing the narrative throughout the film. The fresh morning chirps, cycle bells of the milkman, paperwallahs, the coaxed cries of the chaiwallahs and whispering winds invite us into the warmth, love and lap of the beautiful city of Delhi. These sounds reassure the safety of Soni (played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), a lissome young police officer as she completes her morning chores. She does her laundry, warms milk, makes tea in the microwave – in a meditative state. At times, the mundane chores make the house go completely silent, making her feel like she’s missing something in her home. The long nights of police duty are filled with engine sounds, whirring of vehicles, murmurs of lone men speaking of their pervert desires by make-shift fires. These diegetic sounds create an architectural structure for the entire movie. We can also call it a circadian rhythm where the nights are tense and seemingly endless, the mornings are fresh, inviting and soft, the afternoons filled with office banter, file sounds and mundane nonchalance. Soni embodies a particular sound aesthetic where, just through diegetic sound, the script acquires strength. So much so that music becomes unnecessary.

While the silent aesthetic marks a new genre of independent cinema online, there are fresh possibilities for experimental music composers in mainstream action films. In the Kannada film ‘Kavaludaari’ (2019), directed by Hemanth Rao, a traffic police officer teams up with a retired police officer to solve a murder case in a political cat and mouse game. The music director, Charanraj uses elements of jazz, electronic synths, percussions and orchestral combinations to augment the experience of this neo-noir thriller. According to the music director, the collaborative nature of music itself is the magical foundation for a successful score. Collaboration among musicians of different ages, styles, regions and backgrounds amalgamates the thought process of the composer and the expressions of various musicians. Charanraj says: “We can never sense fresh changes unless we experiment with different musicians who have several valuable suggestions that add to the final taste of a song or score. I like working with directors who are open to complete collaboration and submission.” The electro-rock “Nigooda” that plays during the uncovering of suspects by the police officer is a catchy situational song that sets up the movie for its second half. “Burning Tree”, a foot tapping jazz track in the score, is a treat. Over this score, Anant Nag, who plays the retired police official remembers from his career days that the location of a tree was also a scene of crime.

AESTHETICS OF A NEW KIND  Scenes from Kavaludaari, Charulatha, Sholay, Babel and Psycho where sound plays a major role

AESTHETICS OF A NEW KIND Scenes from Kavaludaari, Charulatha, Sholay, Babel and Psycho where sound plays a major role

Jazz builds up an element of suspense and turns a tense situation into a comical one. Each genre of music produces a different effect on the mood of the scene, especially when they are mixed and matched in adventurous ways. Filmmaking succeeds through disciplinary collaboration between various departments. The film need not be a monarchy of the film director. The audience is no more strictly regional. Through online distribution, films can reach out to a variety of people from different countries who absorb techniques and cultures in their own hybrid ways. Sound is one of the most important mediums of communication and expression in a film. It can no longer be treated as a mere add on. Minimalist soundtracks with diegetic sounds have as strong an impact on the present millennial audience just as Sholay’ s exuberant tracks had on its audience in the 70s.

What we really need is the ability to listen in this world that never ceases to be noisy.

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