01/21: The Aesthetics of Sound – guest lecture by Michael Filimowicz


Michael Filimowicz’s guest lecture last week presented a sprawling and evocative introduction to the employment of sound in science fiction film. Citing strong ties between the genre of SF and the musical avant-garde, Michael took us through a historical trajectory of weird sound. What follows is the gist:

We started by briefly looking at a layout of sound, as it functions between the poles of noise/pitch and contrast/similarity.

Arnold Schoenburg, along with other early 20th century composers, noted a gradual depature in musical composition from its previously stable and harmonic quality towards more dissonant and chaotic elements. He called this shift the emancipation of dissonance. We watch a few star-trek clips which illustrated the direct use of dissonant tones to connote forces of malevolence and the alien – with the protagonists portrayed in an evidently harmonic contrast.  

Later musicians came to profit from Schoenburg’s narrative, which worked to justify atonality, bringing this departure from convention to their own productions. 

Luigi Russolo’s Futurist Noise Manifesto (1913) extends this idea of dissonance into what he deems as the environment of its inception: the industrialized urban landscape produced concurrent soundscapes of mechanized hum and pandemonium, by which many musicians were influenced.

George Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique displays an embodiment of the technological within the musical, incorporating an on-stage choreography of instruments and devices (electric bells, pianos, airplane propellers etc.) – a visual / sonic expression of the machine aesthetic. 

Further along this path of mechanical sound, albeit in a more abstracted sense, is musique concrète – a form of primarily electronic music (began in the 1940’s), and consequently entwined in a narrative of technological progression. It is produced acousmatically – where the originating cause of the sound is unseen. Here, generating music becomes more an abstraction than a definite, observable act, implicating a sense of uncertainty within its performance.  The work of John Cage, continued this notion of uncertainty, where his “chance” pieces and various experimental compositions pushed music towards further indeterminacy.

From its conception, electronic music became a dominant element in achieving alien effects and the characteristic sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity in SF film. Heavily influenced by the ideas above, pioneers in sound design such as Louis and Bebe Barron forged “electronic tonalities” derived from passing currents through custom circuitries, recording the effects:

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The process itself exposed the ephemerality of the medium, as the circuits would often be destroyed through overheating. More to the point though, these sounds marked an aesthetic of sound distinct to (classic) SF, and one arrived at through the employment of its contemporary technology alongside a sensibility based in the avant-garde.