A Joyful Noise

By Owen Armstrong

enthusiasm-dziga-vertov.jpgEnthusiasm, 1931

“Festival and Penitence, Violence and Harmony. In an intense instability of powers, two processions, two camps, two lives, two relations to the World rumble and vie around a centre of light and a well of darkness. Around them, the day-to-day labours of men, a strange round dance, boisterous child’s play by the door to the church, and a cortege of penitents mark the significant figures of a secret dynamic – that of music and power” – Jacques Attali

Though the term musique concrete would not be coined until the mid 1940s, Dziga Vertov had begun to explore the conceptual nature of recorded sound over 20 years earlier, addressing the potential of cinema as a visually symphonic medium. Marking his first foray into the realm of sound cinema, Vertov’s 1931 film Enthusiasm – also known as Symphony of the Donbas – further examines the elements of montage prevalent in his previous and most widely regarded work Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and also introduces the relatively uncharted method of field recording as a means of enhancing the photographically rhythmic qualities of cinema. Much in the same way that musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer would later develop these techniques of playing and editing together recording sound as something separate from its entity of origin to create new meaning, Vertov used them to poetically resonate the polemic content of his visual collages.

Three years prior to Enthusiasm and in what became the first of many, Stalin had declared the ‘five-year plan’ – a motion to rapidly industrialise the Soviet Union and in doing so prevent the increasing threat of foreign capitalism. Similarly to Man With a Movie Camera, Vertov observes this social shift by repeatedly fusing together images of the relentless mechanism of production increasingly signalling the Soviet Union’s status as an industrial power. In the belief that special effects were a function of cinema that allowed one to capture an enhanced truth, Vertov overlaps and layers his images to hypnotically critique the implementation of mass production – the stark reality of Marx’s commodification of labour. Similarly, his experiments with sound, which encompassed what would become a widely disregarded documentary faux-pas - the ‘voice of God’ – aimed to broaden the technical repertoire of cinema and thus create a new dialogue through which the reality of everyday life could be conveyed.

brueghel-carnivals-quarrel-with-lent.jpgPieter Brueghel, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559

In his book Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, Douglas Kahn suggests that Vertov’s most significant conception, the Kino-Eye, is perhaps a by-product of his primary artistic interest in sound – more specifically, the possibility of audio montage and documentary recorded sound. Just as his film work would become a composition of what he perceived as reality in minute detail, he expresses a disappointment with early audio technology’s ability to capture the same nuances stating one day in the spring of 1918…returning from a train station. There lingered in my ears the signs and rumble of the departing train…someone’s exclamation…laughter, a whistle, voices…the puffing of the locomotive…I must get a piece of equipment that won’t describe, but will record, photograph these sounds…Organise not the audible, but the visible world… Perhaps that’s the way out?

Coupled with Russia’s increasingly tense political climate, Vertov’s early fascination and excitement with the organisation of sound as something that can portray the depth of one’s surroundings becomes paramount to his artistic motivation. This awareness that recorded sound could create a new dimension within cinema is a flirtatious indication of the visual symphonies that would appear in Enthusiasm - as much a joyous embrace of new technology as it is a socio-political commentary. Attali’s proclaimation that the universes of celebration and labour co-exist in Brueghel’s Carnival’s Quarrel with Lent alludes to the same duality present in Vertov’s social realism. In using sound to punctuate the reality he captures so automatically, he undermines this manipulation, rhythmically drawing attention to the oppressive subservience of Stalinism to the point at which it ruptures and breaks apart. This is the celebration, the orgiastic and festive utopia.

enthusiasm-dziga-vertov-2.jpgEnthusiasm, 1931

A similar aesthetic can be found in the industrial films of Geoffrey Jones, which rhythmically piece together documentary footage of, amongst other things, the British Transport system and Shell oil production. Though not scored to sound recorded remotely, Jones’ most renowned films – Snow (1963) and Trinidad and Tobago (1964) – illustrate his preoccupation with the relationship between sound and image, synchronising what we see with soundtracks composed to emulate each action and edit – as with the frenzied films of Len Lye. Expressing the rhythmic nature of mass labour through music, Jones incorporates Vertov’s method and interest in the poetic qualities of the industrial environment, underlining the mutual reliance between man and machine.

There is also a self-destructive element to Vertov’s visual symphony. As cinema begins to harmonise images and sound that are essentially abstracted from each other, the process eventually becomes little more than staid and manipulative. Sound recording apparatus develops into something commonplace within cinema and is ultimately used as a way of seamlessly conjoining unrelated components of film – a cinematic standard that is consistently challenged in the work of David Lynch. While Pierre Schaeffer believed that sound did not have to be inherently ‘musical’ to produce music, examples of the true artistic and political potential of this idea find a significant emergence in the collaborative work of William Burroughs and Antony Balch. In particular Towers Open Fire (1962-63) and The Cut-Ups (1967) both experiment with the permutative qualities of diagetic and non-diagetic sound recording in film, woven into the multi-layered tapestry of images depicting a variety of artistic practices. Primarily these films emphasise the responsibility of both artist and viewer to engage in a new discourse, challenging the perception of art as something that exists simply to inform rather than question its audience.

enthusiasm-dziga-vertov-3.jpgEnthusiasm, 1931

This is something that also later penetrates the work of Tarkovsky, stressing the abstract nature of synchronised film sound to remind us that it is a tool born of manipulation and not something to be compartmentalised as an art form which is simply an audible temporal reference to the image. Solaris (1972) illustrates this beautifully, examining the seamlessness of synchronised sound to remove certainty and finality from the images he creates. For Tarkovsky, it is only in retaining the ambiguity of a film’s meaning that the viewer is able to actively participate in how it is interpreted – a notion expressed further in the visual painting of Nostalgia (1983). Attali deduces that Brueghel represents a balance of opposing yet co-dependent forces, each vying for attention in the same space – noise and silence. This economy of ideals is prominent in Vertov’s work, clashing together the poeticism of filmmaking with the capitalist values of reproduction – as he states “the line of maximum resistance…that of complex interaction of sound with image.” His ‘unplayed’ film as it was referred to rejects film critic Ippolit Sokulov’s assertion that all sound recorded outside of the tradition of musical notation would merely resemble cacophonous noise. Instead, Vertov ventures into the unpredictability of field recording and produces a new kind of symphony which, in its very production, parallels Soviet Russia’s newly harmonised economic environment. The degree of regimentation and order seen here is sprawling, building to a frenetic onslaught of images and sounds which chart the development of transport links, factories and synchronous human behaviour.

Attali continues to suggest that the symbolic opposition in Brueghel’s painting is prophetic of the basic cultural and ideological values that dictate modern civilisation, and this is certainly a battle that exists within the framework of Vertov’s artistic agenda – a fundamental acknowledgement of the threat of capitalism and modernity. Though the same intrigue in film sound belongs most commonly to the peripheral areas of cinema, the traits of Vertov’s visual symphony have been manifested to a great extent in recent projects like Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark and perhaps to even greater effect, Philip Groning’s Into Great Silence, both unique observations of their respective diagetic landscapes. Into Great Silence in particular – an intimate document of the lives of Carthusian Monks of the Grande Chartreuse – details the day to day happenings of its subjects with tenacity equal to Vertov’s commitment to ‘reality’, and poeticises the rigour and routine of a seemingly mundane yet irresistibly pastoral existence. As dictated by its reception in 1931, Enthusiasm remains one of Vertov’s lesser known works – a fact that will no doubt change due to the advent of DVD. It does, however, also lay the groundwork for a whole series of artists that have continued to challenge the concept of film sound as a formality. For this, it is indispensable.

Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and beekeeper. He lives in London.