Thursday, November 8, 2018
Sonic Science Fiction: Programming the Thought Synthesizer
BY TRACE REDDELL
University of Denver
One of the challenges I faced while researching and writing The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film concerned the terminology of the “new” and the role of “futurity.” Early drafts of the project emphasized thematic clusters that brought together films from very different eras in order to emphasize several tonal centers. I have been working now with these in more performative contexts to explore the ways in which individual films might constitute the components of a larger modular thought synthesizer. Could the disruptive cuts of Godard’s Alphaville (1965), for instance, function as a step-sequencing module to control the theremin-drenched soundscapes of Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950) in order to produce an acoustic ecology in which cosmic situations resonate with Cold War dread by offering a scalar attunement to an atomized post-linguistic? Or, can the cosmic engine of Sun Ra’s Moog outbursts in John Coney’s Space Is the Place (1974) introduce the blackness of the AfroStrange as a frequency modulator to attenuate the Wagnerian whiteness of Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? These are still open questions and experiments-in-progress as I regard my book less as the documentation of concluded research than a composition handbook, a score or schemata for new directions and, yes, sounds of things to come.
Conceiving of science fiction (SF) film history not as a timeline of works by composers, musicians, and technicians who build on each other’s work but rather as a proliferation of strategies for “making different,” this project has led me to reject the terminology of innovation and instead promote estrangements at once technical, material, narrative, cognitive, and speculative. The “audible history” that I have ended up with presents a chronology, with each chapter covering about a decade of SF film history from the early 1920s to the end of the 1980s. But I hope this chronology modulates itself over time by activating three compositional modes—the ambient glide, the shimmering fringe, and the xenomorphic—which repeatedly push time out of joint and liquefy historical reference points into a flux state. Not components of the book as modular thought synthesizer but rather techniques for assembling and methods of playing it, these three modes share a propensity toward sonic destabilization. That is, they both work against time and attenuate space while never disavowing the apparent inescapability, if not absolute necessity, of time and space as constituents of what we call sound. I will briefly consider each and how readers might expect them to resound with their experience of The Sound of Things to Come.
SF sounds are ontologically unstable, neither here nor there but always shifting and drifting across categories of place. The ambient glide of sonic science fiction is initiated by the push-pull of the theremin’s siren call in Rocketship X-M. As the sound of Martian psychogeography, the destabilized tonalities of the theremin call the American expedition to Mars. The instrument is barely audible during liftoff but becomes increasingly loud in the score as the rocket is knocked off its original course to the Moon and tugged with increasing volume and volatility of wavering sound toward Mars. The theremin is recorded in an orchestral context, as part of the film’s non-diegetic score, but its unfixed and wobbling wolf tone not only unsettles the sounds of the strings with which it mixes, it contaminates them with its radiant waves. It also suggests diegetic sound. The theremin sonifies the Martian landscape in the same way that the film stock switches from black-and-white to sepia tints during the Mars sequences.
Gliding sonorous events like those of the theremin, Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities in Forbidden Planet (1956), or years later the long descending tones of Vangelis’s synthesizers and siren wails heard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), won’t stay in their place and open up strange new domains of diegetic experience. Much of my film sound analysis maps out a sub-diegetic dimension that plays out along an alien psychological substrata of cinematic phenomena that is also at the same time a techno-diegetic realm. Here, the technological apparatus of film sound carries on an almost independent transaction among machinic, electric and otherwise material speculations. These come together in the form of sonic psychotechnologies through which the SF film imbricates and entangles psychic and cosmic indices. In its gliding mode, this sonic psytech emphasizes mobility that makes thought travel but never arrives fully formed and is perpetually seeking its place.
The shimmering fringe is first heard in Leith Steven’s score to George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950). A series of sustained overtones and polytonal harmonics orchestrally suspend time to lend depth to a brilliant star field. These sounds recede from audition, implying depth through a physiognomic imperceptibility. Likewise, in the same film, the use of an early effects processor known as the Sonovox technologically attenuates orchestral sounds as we observe a lunar panorama, a matte painting by the so-called father of modern space art, Chesley Bonestell. We can never hear the moon, but we can hear our devices hearing the moon, as it were. Sounds that blur or play around the edges of other sounds make peripheral spaces key to our experience of the SF film and are the basis for any understanding of sonic pyschotechnologies. Sonic psytech filters the sonorous event, objectifies it within discrete modular devices, but also gives the audible a withdrawn materiality that eludes comprehension and creates tonal apprehension (in both senses of the word).
In Blade Runner, the pitched shimmer of the ventilation units in Deckard (Harrison Ford)’s apartment or the steady buzz of the hovering police vehicles, spinners, above crowded street scenes, attain a fractal density that seeps away from the ear if we try to concentrate on it, like a star that is seen more brightly at the edges of perception but fades if we turn to view it directly. At the same time, such sounds reveal themselves as artificial sonic props for a manufactured reality and are meant to reinforce the programming of implanted memories. As an auditory fringe beyond the flat affective encounter with the SF landscape, the warbling destabilization of the Sonovox or synthesizer suggests that our encounters with the alien diegetic ambience are experiences with and at the very limits of our perceptual apparatuses and the technologies of sense. The fuzzy edges of synthetic tonalities, then, provide access points for an ambient attunement to an affective nonplace.
The xenomorphic mode is first encountered in electronic tonalities in Forbidden Planet. The Barrons would program sonic patch boards, burn them out by overdriving them as they recorded the sounds on magnetic tape, and then reanimate through a form of tape music that resembles nothing so much as an alien autopsy. This is not hyperbole. Consistently, the Barrons characterize their work as the torture of living sound circuits, a form of biomedia. In the film, these sound beings morph across diegetic layers to express the film’s narrative concern with alien psychotechnological events, an invisible but audible creature manifested from the Id of Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). The xenomorph invariably points to an extracinematic location, a zone of machinic materiality that is also transformed in the service of the speculative imagination in which an ethicoaesthetic dilemma transpires. In Forbidden Planet, this is initiated by the Barron’s abdication of any responsibility they might have to communicate with and nurture the alien biocomputers engineered in their little kitchen laboratory in Greenwich Village.
In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), the sonic xenomorph thrives on an expanded auditory terrain made possible by Dolby Surround Sound, manipulating the vast sonic field to amplify tensions around the unpredictability of emerging alien threats to the listening body. In these films, the unseen becomes emblematic of the sonic xenomorph and stages alien encounter as a form of sensory deficit paradoxically dependent on existential high fidelity. The Dolby System in fact always thrived on aggression toward the listener, originating in theaters with the debut of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). As Michael Geselowitz, senior director of the IEEE History Center has pointed out, most innovations in sound technology happen “while our backs are turned” (2016). As embodied experience of the non-local, these films map the primary body sounds of pumping blood, breathing, the high pitched whine of the nervous system, and even tinnitus. The xenomorphic sonorous hyperobject cannot be perceived as more than the traces of a thing, not the thing itself, that manifest as a byproduct of high fidelity auditory hallucination and uncanny precognitive paranoia.
The title of this project is not meant ironically even as it works around and against notions of newness and futurism to embrace instead estrangement and alterity. As I write in my introduction, I hope that readers will accept that by the book’s conclusion they know less than they did when starting out. This is not to empty out the book of meaning nor to make ineffectual the strategies, techniques and modalities that it encourages readers to adopt as ways of listening to the science fiction film as a sonic art form in its own right. Rather, this is because the work aims for an incommensurable “next thing,” an unavoidable other estrangement. This is the strangeness, for instance, of the widespread digitization of SF film sound in the 1990s, and the pursuit of broader frequency ranges and greater volumes of sound in the 21st century cinema. It also resonates toward different forms as sonic science fiction escapes film and ends up in the music videos of Björk, Grace Jones, and Janelle Monáe, for example, or in the live cinema projects of Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand, Android Jones, and NoiseFold. Whenever it may come from, the future of sonic science fiction is elsewhere, making the new strange again.
The Sound of Things to Come: An Audible History of the Science Fiction Film and associate professor of emergent digital practices at the University of Denver.
"A lively, endlessly inventive exploration of the sonic worlds of science fiction cinema (beginning even before the advent of synchronized sound). The breadth and subtlety of Trace Reddell’s interdisciplinary scholarship is impressive, and his book is an ongoing homage to the valuable conceptual and cognitive challenges upon which effective science fiction depends."
—Scott Bukatman, Stanford University
"Building on the highly original concept of the sonic novum, Trace Reddell has written the first comprehensive theoretical approach to musical science fiction. The Sound of Things to Come is an alternative history of science fiction cinema, a handbook of sophisticated close analyses of many important films, and a re-envisioning of the role of sound technology in modernist aesthetics."
—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, author of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction Studies