City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Silence in the cinema

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Interesting piece in the latest Granta (on ‘Film’) by Adam Mars-Jones, concerning the interplay between silence and music in film soundtracks. In particular, about the importance of silence in film, and keeping music in its place – a seemingly lost art. Mars-Jones mentions a couple of works by auteurs (Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Gus Van Sandt’s Elephant), but generally concentrates on the mainstream – from Torn Curtain through to The Perfect Storm via The Dam Busters:

"Eric Coates’s ‘Dam Busters March’ is a classic of film music but it isn’t played to death, and the incidental score is carefully modulated. Passages of tension usually rely on natural sound and dialogue, with music being reserved for moments of release. Then at the end of the film the camera shows, in silence, the rooms of men who didn’t come back from the raid on the Ruhr. As an account of a dazzling wartime exploit, the apotheosis of boffinry, The Dam Busters isn’t above a certain amount of tub-thumping, but the director also knows that there are moments when it’s the silent tub that makes the most noise. … Silence in this short sequence performs the function that the Mozart Mass does for Bresson—it takes the film into new territory … What is being registered here is absence. The approach is impersonal, almost documentary, though there’s little enough to document in the bare quarters of these servicemen: just a travelling clock ticking on, outliving the man whose wrist-turns wound its spring. Music is absent also. Music is the sign that something has become part of culture, whereas this little sequence documents bare absence before it can be tamed into grief. Music takes the edge off, and here we need to feel the edge. The Dam Busters Silence deserves to be as well known as the Dam Busters March."

Mars-Jones notes how infrequently contemporary films can leave the soundtrack alone without a constant musical bed – save, it would seem, a potential saviour in the unlikely guise of Master and Commander:

"(T)he first forty minutes played without music … These days we have to be grateful when at least one mainstream director trusts the visual and dramatic language of film to stay afloat, without an orchestra below decks constantly pumping out bilge. Silence and music have coexisted in films in a thousand different ways in the past, and music is the loser when silence dies."

Thankfully, it’s one the pieces extracted on Granta’s website, so you can read it there – although this edition is definitely worth picking up for a couple of other articles too: Ian Jack’s lovely piece on the northern urban cinemas of his childhood (quoted liberally in last week’s Guardian Review); and Karl French’s illustrated survey of art by directors (feat. Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Kitano, Figgis, Satyajit Ray, Greenaway, Huston, Scorcese). Worth picking up.

Granta: Quiet, Please, by Adam Mars-Jones
Granta 86: Film []


5 responses to “Silence in the cinema”

  1. billtron Avatar

    I noticed a few days ago how quiet the fight scenes were in Superman 2. Very un-Danny Elfman. Speaking of, btw, he has some great orchestrators for this film. Very little oompah-oompah, Fellini-esque stuff like I expect from him.


  2. paul schütze Avatar

    While this piece seems to make a vailid point it in fact betrays the same mode of thought which gives rise to the probelm of “music” saturation in the first place. If music is defined as organised sound and at this point in history any tighter definition would have to deny the last thirty years of contemporary music at least, then the whole sound track of any film should be seen as music. This way of thinking about film sound is crucial to understanding both the past and future of film in terms of sound craft. The “silence” Mars Jones refers to by which he means the absense of conventional recorded score material is almost invariably made up of dozens of tracks of meticulously designed and constructed “organised” sound and dialogue both diogetic and non. “Real” silence in film results in much the same effect as that illustrated by Cage in 4.33 ie: a complete aural refocussing on the mirriad sounds of the audience/venue and the consequent disollution of the illusions the film is struggling to construct. I’m thinking this is not quite the effect he is after?
    Rather than arguing for the absence of “music” the real point should be to argue for a more sophisticated articulation of all sound, a belated re defining of what exactly consitiutes music in film and a concerted exploration of the multiple narratives possible through sound before even one frame of film is shot.


  3. Mattue Avatar

    Silence Documentary:
    interesting in the light of the thread.


  4. marc fedak Avatar
    marc fedak

    Interesting article — an interesting comment from paul schutze.


  5. amit Avatar

    I could’nt agree more with you.
    i loved the reffrence to cage’s 4:33. and the fact that his creation can be set on understanding and analyzing sound design.
    personally , i study the way a scence is created – sound wize. foley,dialoge ,ambiance and ofcourse music , whole togather creates a new level of understanding the narrtive and the visual content of the film. it was written very clearly by paul teberge , who said silence is relative. and theres no such thing as an absolute silence, its just the diffrence from the noise who came before.


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