In 1995, the Brussels Philharmonic and the Royal Belgian Film Archive (later renamed Cinematek) planned to organize a concert celebrating the one hundred anniversary of cinema at the Luna Theater in Brussels. They asked six composers to choose a movie among the many black and white short silent films they had restored.
We had the privilege to spend two afternoons watching a wide variety of them before making our choice. Most were narrative in various genres, comical, expressionist, detective stories, romance, etc. But I felt attracted by the more experimental ones, which showed more connection with my work and would offer me more artistic freedom. As the ones I was interested in were especially short, I was allowed to choose two of them, Jeux des Reflets et de la Vitesse by Henri Chomette and Back to reason by Man Ray.
I was at the time developing multichannel granular synthesis algorithms, running on the IRCAM Sound Processing Workstation, at the Polytechnic Faculty in Mons, Belgium. Some of the new techniques I had developed seemed particularly appropriate to compose the music for those movies. And they resonate in my opinion with the theme of this magazine.
The principle of granular synthesis consists in generating very small fragments of sounds, the grains, and to control large quantities of them, using various global parameters, in order to sculpt the resulting sound. One can make a very rough analogy with atoms, an analogy that was actually at the origin of the idea behind this synthesis technique: depending on how they are combined, one can produce many different materials and structures using only a few varieties of atoms.
Unlike all other algorithms available at that time, I developed methods to control the synthesis parameters with potentiometers, turning my algorithms into a virtual instrument I could really play. It allowed me to explore expressively a very rich timbral space, ranging from drones to rhythmical structures, from electronic sounds to organic textures, despite using only a few seconds of ‘source sound’, i.e. the sound from which small fragments are extracted for the generation of each individual grain. In addition to granting a finer and wider exploration of the sound material, this gestural control was the key to the creation of evolving sound profiles and the generation of dynamically changing structures in relation to the images.
Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse (Henri Chomette, 1925), 7’20
Henri Chomette, the older brother of René Clair, made some experimental silent movies. His original editing of Jeu des reflets et de la vitesse was unfortunately lost and this movie is made out of the retrieved fragments. It celebrates Paris as a town in perpetual movement. The movie starts with shifting kaleidoscopic reflexions and rotating bodies, and then switches to a long hypnotising run through Paris by train and by boat.
Paul Virilio wrote about what he called the dromoscopic vision, the one that you experience behind the windshield of a fast driving car or watching the landscape scroll through the window of a train. The spectator can lose his bearings in the illusion of movement, enter a modified state of consciousness, and even experience a radical transformation of perception. The effects induced by those situations, akin to vertigo, dizziness or hypnosis, were enhanced using the possibilities of granular synthesis, including specially developed algorithms to control the spatial localization of each grain, to generate constantly moving rhythmical and hexaphonic sound textures that surround the audience. Creating both spinning movements as well as a kind of immersive musical ‘tracking shot’ in order to accentuate the impression of speed given by the movie. The dromoscopic rhythm incites the kinesthetic sensation of the spectator to join its movement. Passing through tunnels and under bridges becomes almost a physical experience...
Back to Reason (Man Ray, 1923), 2’48
For this film, besides granular synthesis, I used a virtual instrument based on the mathematical equation describing the movement of a pendulum in order to create a hypnotic connection with the swinging bodies appearing in the picture. Parameters of the movement could be played with potentiometers and sounds were triggered according to the pendulum position and speed, creating pseudo-repetitive sequences.
Almost no additional effects were applied to the sounds in order to match the nature of the images, evolving from grainy textures to a naked woman’s body, with many unexpected abrupt cuts. I wanted to transpose this constant use of apparently non-related pictures and to stress the impression of vertiginous non-sense present all along this Dadaist movie.
A note on vertigo
The evocation of Vertigo immediately brings back the emotion of the first unreal and uncanny vision of Kim Novak in that green room. But, as a theme, it more generally characterizes the feeling I get in those magical moments where a door suddenly opens on new uncharted territories. In the process of composing, vertigo happens when perception is unexpectedly shifted, transformed, when you feel shivers, overwhelmed by the power of a sound, a structure, an atmosphere that seem to transcend the work. Vertigo is therefore possibly a sign by which our unconscious is revealing to us fertile directions that have the potential to touch the audience as well. A very rich theme indeed.
Vertigo, unfortunately, also describes what I feel as I contemplate our world gone mad at an accelerated pace. Back to Reason?
Both works were composed with the help of the Communauté française de Belgique – Direction générale de la Culture.