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Preliminary thoughts on semiology and film rhythm

April 19, 2015

I studied Film and English in the early 1980s at Kent, one of only three universities in the UK that embraced Film Studies at the time. The course was heavily slanted towards theory, particularly structuralism. By contrast, the English department showed a fear and ignorance of most things theoretical.

The semiotic project, at least initially, sought for objectivity. Words like ‘scientificity’ were commonplace and the interpretative gesture was, if not, shunned then secondary to rigour. If you look at Barthes’ Elements of Semiology (1964), for example, you’ll discover a prominent use of paragraph and subject headings that derive from scientific papers: II.5.2, etc. In 1967 Barthes wrote probably his most famous essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ which signalled the abandonment of structural analysis in favour of a theory of the text. He put his theory into practice, as it were, in S/Z (1970) which was as much as anything a demonstration of the process of reading and understanding, deliberately refuting any claims to scientific proof and celebrating the act of interpretation. The first semiology had concentrated on structure and the enounced, essentially static models, whereas the second semiology, prompted by psychoanalysis, addressed the (ephemeral) production of meaning, focusing ono structuration and enunciation. Broadly these are performative concerns and describe the unfolding of the text. We have moved from locating the sign to the realm of signification. And the proliferation of present participles in such discussions is , well, a sign of that new orientation.

Together with this emphasis on the realm of the performative there were also occasional forays into the subject of performance itself. Barthes’ ‘The Grain of the Voice’ originally published in 1972, is probably the single most quoted essay in New Musicology (New Musicology is the movement within musicology that is marked by an equivalent immigration of post-modernist ideas as that experienced by film studies.) Taking as his starting point two singers – Charles Panzera (who briefly gave Barthes singing lessons) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German baritone to whose liquid sound I aspired) – Barthes describes the pleasure he gets from Panzera’s voice, a pleasure that is based on a physical relationship to the singer. The grain, as he describes it, is ‘the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs’. This is very much the realm of the second semiology, the coming-into-being of meaning – significance – and in a later essay Barthes insists that the grain cannot be defined ‘scientifically’ but only through metaphors.

Film_Rhythm_cover_JacobsThat might be a long and irrelevant preamble to Lea Jacobs’ book, Film Rhythm after Sound, but the context is important, not least because it declares my own background and inclination. More relevantly, Jacobs’s book is concerned with performance in film in its most obvious forms – musical performance, acting, etc. This is clearly signalled in the remaining title of the book: Technology, Music, and Performance. But an underlying orientation towards recent debates on meaning in music and film informs the book and shows that Jacobs is also concerned with the realm of the performative.

The two most obviously lacking areas of film analysis that struck me when I studied film were those of film music and acting. (That’s perhaps inevitable in that I was and am a musician, and, at the time, I was heavily involved with theatre.) There were several reasons for the absence of those areas of study, a lot of which has been corrected over the past thirty years by the increasing amount of interdisciplinary work. Writing about music often requires an act of transcription by the writer and a knowledge of notation on the part of the reader, and not everyone reads music. Description alone was no substitute. As Carolyn Abbate, an exponent of New Musicology, puts it, no less eloquently and with more than a nod to Barthes’ own prose style, “[i]nterpreting music involves a terrible and unsafe leap between object and exegesis, from sound that seems to signify nothing (and is nonetheless splendid) to words that claim a discursive sense but are, by comparison, modest and often unlovely.” I once inserted a couple of bars of music in an essay on Fritz Lang (the movie in question, Human Desire) and was awarded with a ‘brilliant!’ in the margin by the lecturer. It turned out he couldn’t read music.

The specific requirement of reading music was certainly an impediment though there were others. Film and music both exist in time and bring with them problems of quotation. Studying film in the 80s offered us access to the physical reality of film – all our movies were screened as 35mm prints with seminars conducted in a room with a Steenbeck machine, a flatbed editor that allowed one to advance a film in single frames – though access to the moving image outside the classroom wasn’t possible (VHS arrived gloriously and suddenly in about 1983). Film theorists could only ‘quote’ individual frames and describe the action as it unfolded on the screen, transcribing dialogue, noting sound effects and, in very rare instances, providing musical notation. All of those acts had the paradoxical effect of halting action and fixing it in the past, rather than in the experienced present that film normally affords. With the digitisation of movies all that has changed. Students are now more likely to view movies on YouTube than in a lecture hall, depriving them of what one commentator called ‘dreaming in a social space’, but at least it means that they can view film in real time and not as a series of stills. Given the problem of quotation in both film and music it’s easy to see why the first book-length study of film music from a broadly semiotic standpoint wasn’t until 1987 – Claudia Gorbmann’s Unheard Melodies. Since then, of course, there has been an extraordinary expansion of writing on the subject.

theatre semioticsIn the case of acting it wasn’t until 1985 that Screen dedicated an issue to the subject though, to be fair, there was little supporting work from the field of theatre studies. It too was in its infancy, likewise struggling with the leap from performance to mediated description, theatre semiotics dominated by turgid taxonomies of theatrical codes that left one struggling to remember what play it was they were analysing.

Musicology was also surprisingly quiet on the subject of performance. Again there are practical reasons. Music notation, a given within the field, was far from lossless. One might recover something of the temporal unfolding of music by reading a score or bashing it out on a piano, but it would inevitably be stripped of timbre, subtle temporal variations, dynamics, all of which fell under the rubric of performance. Look in the 1980 edition of Grove edition and you will find a long article on Performing Practice (tucked between the ‘Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, The’ and ‘Performing Rights Society, The’) but nothing on Performance per se. Performance practice – the historical study of the conditions of musical performance – is there described as a sub-discipline of musicology not, as common sense might suggest, as a sub-discipline of performance. In 1980, then, the study of music – the study of what is by nature a performance-based art – was not concerned with performance other than as a branch of music history. By 2001 the situation had changed. In Grove there was now a long entry on Performance, as well as two related sections under the general heading of Psychology – on performance and skill, and theories of performance expression. Work on the study of recordings has played its part and the availability of digitised recordings has made things considerably easier for academics and students alike. There have been several key players here and several institutions, notably CHARM which was formed in 2004, the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music. Amongst many other notable figures it’s Nicholas Cook who stands out. He’s written a series of articles over the past twenty years (and it’s worth noting that some of his work has been on the combination of music and moving image) culminating in Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (Oxford, 2014).sonic visualiser

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that both Cook’s and Jacobs’s books are accompanied by companion websites that afford the reader demonstrations of the authors’ respective arguments. In Cook’s case he uses software called Sonic Visualiser, developed at the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London, and free to download. With a startling array of tools and options it’s a way of viewing and analysing audio files. Jacobs doesn’t trouble with reader with such a complex tool. Rather, she presents her analysis with her segmentation in place, the bars and accents given visual form as an accompaniment to the unfolding images. She offers us an in-time comparison of music notation and the actual movie. The advantage here is that the non-musician can at least trace the shape of the music as s/he hears it, which at least removes an otherwise excluding aspect of analysis. She also uses Final Cut Pro to analyse sections of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible these are not shared online as the user would be required to spend around £200 to buy the software to view the files.Ivan The Terrible

The internet thus renders the act of description secondary to argument. Now it is as if the writer is looking over the shoulder as a reader, pointing things out as they occur in time. 30 years ago a large part of a book like Film Rhythm after Sound would have had to be taken on trust by the interested reader, perhaps subjected to some investigation in a seminar setting and responded to only on the broadest level by any critic. Now the reader has easy access to Jacobs’s arguments.

I’ll consider the book in more detail over the coming weeks, perhaps bringing to it my recent experience of creating a music score to Dreyer’s 1928 La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. If in the meantime you want to read an excellent review, then go to David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog:

From → Notation, Performance

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