Monday, 19 December 2011

Destructural Sound

An entry in the Glossary project

Perhaps inspired by the way a flying trapezist orients himself in the 3-dimensional space of the big top using the balancing mechanisms of his semi-circular canals, it was Nanneman’s belief that movie audiences could be guided through the hidden substructures of a movie by their ears, although in this case through the use of structural sound mapping* rather than endolymphatic stimulation. With every last component of a Redestructivish film chosen from the finite (if massive) selection listed in the Catalogue, it was possible to assign each component (be it a character, a costume, a feeling or whatever) a more or less noticeable sound identity quite aside from any specific functional sound it might be associated with on a narrative level. Thus, an audience member should be able to position himself in relation to a Redestructivish movie’s invisible moral or sartorial or emotional framework at any point during a screening, by triangulating the sound identities of each activated component. It was Nanneman’s claim that, much like the trapezist (or man on the street) whose sense of balance is essentially an automatic process (with conscious attention demanded by the tricky bits), the audience would rarely have to work at recognising these sonically-highlighted substructures, although Hanni suggested that was a slightly optimistic view of how the human mind works.

Nanneman coined the term ‘Destructural Sound’ to refer to a recurring technical fault within this system whereby sounds intended to be ‘structural’ would leak between the materials of a film’s architecture, warping or even demolishing that movie’s substructures even as it unfolded.

For the most part, when this inexplicable glitch occurred, sound identities would jump between components, even between those components that did not feature together in the same scenes; some would become completely detached from their intended components and float freely through a movie without becoming attached to other components; still other sound identities would spontaneously begin to mimic adjacent components creating meshes of unintended meaning, exposing oversimplified versions of unintended undercurrents to anyone who was listening carefully. Hanni reassured Nanneman that such audience members would be few and far between, and that to the casual viewer of these early test movies the Destructural Sound - if noticed at all - would probably be attributed to faulty speakers. Still, Nanneman could only hear these distortions as structural damage and, when a remedy was not forthcoming, he instead opted to recast the defect in a positive light.

Nanneman’s suggestion that a filmmaker using the Catalogue to create a Redestructivish movie might "encourage" the phenomenon of Destructural Sound merely by the (non)-act of not correcting it when it occurred might seem disingenuous. Rather than taking the blame, wasn’t Nanneman attempting to take credit, as conceiver and craftsman, for what was essentially a major fault in the Redestructivish system? Was not his capitalisation of the very term Destructural Sound the equivalent of a car manufacturer trademarking the phrase "break down"?

In fact, the period that Nanneman spent developing sounds and sound systems for the Catalogue was, for him, a deeply troubling time, in which he lost faith in himself as a facilitator and an engineer. He had designed himself into a corner, considered himself professionally stranded and, despite his stated goal of facilitating films that would reassure the nation’s unsettled populace, he perhaps saw in the phenomenon of Destructural Sound an apt and personally comforting structural/aesthetic analogy for his own condition - and by extension a valid artistic mechanism. An audience member trying too hard to navigate the hidden substructures of a Redestructivish movie could now become literally ‘lost’ in it.

Of course, Nanneman eventually worked his way through his sound issues, variously fixing or explaining away or forgetting about the Catalogue’s audio shortcomings, the plain passing of time allowing him to look back on that period as what he might characteristically have called a "forest/trees" situation. All the same, once in the clear Nanneman never returned to confront the "forest" of sound in which he had become so lost: the flaws and their euphemistic labels remained integral to the Redestructivish package. The turmoil that Destructural Sound would have made on the cinema sound system repairs industry had the Catalogue ever progressed beyond the test stage can only be imagined.

*(not to be confused with geographic sound mapping in the films of Francis Dove, whose ever diminishing budgets saw an increasing reliance on sets built from light, fog and upturned boxes and who therefore oriented audiences in his characters’ surroundings through the use of consistent and aggressive soundscaping)

See also: Foley Bleed

Monday, 12 December 2011


An entry in the Glossary project

Nanneman’s Catalogue removed the trial of working with actors from the filmmaking process by creating the possibility of generating endless, digitally powered variations on just two pre-recorded performances (those of he and his second wife, Hanni). For a journeyman director like Francis Dove, forced to continue working with real actors and often with little say in the casting process, Nanneman’s reductive approach was understandably appealing:

"Could we postulate that, for those of us who cannot or will not utilise Nanneman's toolkit, there remain two possible approaches to putting an actor on the screen?" asked Dove, in his trade journal column. "The first is ‘acting for the screen’, in which the actor is the screen’s "goon", that is to say they act for and in total deference to the screen. The second, more tiresome method is ‘a screen for the actor’, in which the screen becomes a canvas over which the actor may freely ejaculate his or her deepest needs and instincts safe in the knowledge that none will be wasted, all will be caught and exhibited via the familiar media.

"In the instance of acting for the screen, only a contorted sense of human biophysics is directly referenced: the screen is a two dimensional light show rather than a stage play, and instructions or ‘shapes’ (fine-tuned and categorised through hundreds of hours of laboratory work) are imparted to the actor to carry out without question. (It is a given that such direction is most effective when conveyed with a firmness that borders on cruelty).

"By acknowledging the volition of the players, the screen for the actor method allows a complex but aesthetically arbitrary, exploration of idiocy (the fundamental subject matter of any human-oriented drama). Each actor becomes yet another inlet in the convoluted plumbing of an idea from inspiration to finished screen efflux.

"Thus before embarking on a new project, I always ask myself: can I afford to gamble on the idiocy of my cast? If they unexpectedly turn out perceptive actor-oriented performances of grace and dignity, will I have the resources to fix (break) them? If the answer is No, I get out my big book of shapes.

"Finally, it might be divulged here that actor and screen are both absolutely the goons of sound: this is one of the great secrets of cinema, and sound likes it that way."

Monday, 5 December 2011


An entry in the Glossary project

Ever-cautious about confusing issues of authorship and ownership, Nanneman did not provide a facility for voiceovers within his movie-making kit, claiming that "audiences are wont to recognise the perpetrator of a movie voiceover as the owner of the images and their subsidiary ideas and emotions regardless of the fact that the voice belongs to a fictional character with limited proprietary rights." However, it did not take long for his city council colleagues to find a 'cheat': a specific combination of one of the shyest character types placed into a busy set (where they would inevitably recede behind other visual matter) and pumped full of third-person dialogue. It appeared, when this cheat was being used, that a voiceover was being read by some unseen, all-seeing character when in fact this effect was achieved by specifically generating a self-effacing character with a high intuition level-setting. A cruder version of this cheat, known as a "feelings voiceover", involved partially-hidden characters screaming, grunting or verbalising emotions in sympathy with the surrounding images: Nanneman was not impressed, pointing out that there were plenty of pure feelings to choose from within the Catalogue without having to resort to ambiguous vocal effects.

Unusually, Nanneman was in agreement with Francis Dove concerning the rejection of voiceover, albeit for different reasons. In his (apparently ad lib) narration of an educational video on the history of film, an increasingly distressed-sounding Dove offers the theory that voiceover is first experienced as the third-person narration of one’s own development i.e. as a baby listening to one's parents; that this early exposure to voiceover is an over-clinical yet disorienting affair following the abstract aural experience of womb life; and that indeed, should we choose to go back that far, it all goes downhill after one's respective gametes are rocked by the soundwaves of pleasure or relief that accompany the procreative act. Three-fifths of the way through the same educational video, just after describing Harley Byrne’s notorious documentary Girls of Unfortunate Climes*, Dove declares the voiceover "dead", himself remaining silent for the rest of the programme apart from the occasional faint chewing sound.

Aside from his pathological distrust of certainty - which he identified as a recurrent yet undesirable characteristic of the movie voiceover - Dove had several recent examples of the voiceover-in-breakdown to inspire this moratorium. In Harris Metcalf's Clockwork Film it quickly becomes clear from the way they move that the supporting characters, as the result of a technical fault, can hear the hero's voiceover, though not make out the words he's saying - only cadence and timbre. Their actions become an involuntary dance to an obscure song whose near synchronization with the unfolding events (which the voiceover of course describes) occurs to them as a déjà vu. Metcalf attempted to improve on his "mechanically-generated" filmmaking technique with Clockwork II, but this time the hero - who is retrospectively narrating the images in which he appears - runs out of things to say mid-way through. The on-screen action slows to a halt and, to fill the time, our screen-hero himself starts to dance, accompanied intermittently by the rather amateurish beat-boxing attempts of his narrator alter-ego. After a while, the screen-hero runs out of moves and sits down for the rest of the movie, while the other characters develop a subplot.

Witness also Nola Luna IV's Takashi From End To End, the unauthorised feature-length biopic of her eponymous ex-boyfriend, in which Luna herself provides the "narration": the off-screen parroting of Takashi's every spoken line with sounds like "muh" and "mur" pronounced in what is undoubtedly neither her own natural voice nor a strictly accurate impersonation of Takashi himself.

*(in which Byrne's authoritative narration, rewriting events in his own voice, was committed to tape in apparent denial of the trauma of having been imprisoned and tortured by the feral teens he was documenting; a digital stutter on surviving copies seems, however, to express through technical fault that which Byrne was unwilling or unable to acknowledge in the text.)