The Sound of Godard

By Michael Chanan

Jean-Luc Godard, Nouvelle Vague
The soundtrack on CD (2 CD set, ECM 1600/01)

July, and the Almeida Festival in North London; I go to see a piece of music theatre which includes parts for deaf performers, who sign instead of sing. August: I am asked to review the soundtrack of a film I have not yet seen, which has been issued on CD. Not the music from the soundtrack, and not a CD-ROM, but the whole soundtrack, the film’s final sound mix, only without the images.

Dokumentation 1 by Helmut Oehring is a kind of dramatic oratorio for two singers, three deaf performers using sign language, and a small ensemble with electronic sound and video projection. The idea is highly paradoxical. In the supposedly normal world, music and deafness are absolute opposites, much more irreconcilable than deafness and speech. The composer, Helmut Oehring, is the hearing son of deaf parents whose first language was Sign (he only began speaking with his voice when he was nearly four and a half). 'I think and listen,' he says in a discussion before the performance, 'in Sign.' He thus conceives his music in a gestural language of the body and of space, a visual form of thinking, he says, which has a stronger affinity to film than to written musical composition in the traditional manner. It makes him feel ‘like a handicapped film-maker.' Musically and dramatically, the piece is indeed extremely effective.

The CDs now in front of me contain the soundtrack of a film by Godard, Nouvelle Vague, which I haven’t seen. The records come with a booklet in which a writer who has been blind since the age of twenty-three describes her own response to it. Another paradox of the senses. Despite her blindness, says Claire Bartoli, she often goes to the cinema, usually to films with lots of dialogue and not much visual emphasis. With the aid of her visual memories, her imagination, and a few words of description from a friend, listening to a film becomes a concentrated pleasure. But this film is different. Despite its wordiness, the visual dimension, and with it the narrative, escapes her, and it becomes a different type of experience.

I put the CD on and listen, attentive to my own temporary handicap. (Should I be closing my eyes? Should I wait until night and listen in the dark? What did I do when I watched Derek Jarman’s Blue?) As Bartoli says, the sound fails to reveal the action. After a while I stop listening for clues to the narrative, and hear it instead as an aural composition, a piece of musique concrète, or works of radio art, until some fresh dialogue pulls me back in; then it escapes again. With his predilection for disruption and contrasts, Godard constantly dislodges the sounds of the world into fragmentation and dispersion, and words and sounds interrupt each other, conflict, create distances, superimpose themselves; soon I abandon the pull of narrativity altogether, and listen instead to the way he ‘adjusts the sounds with the subtlety of a composer, creating shadows and sparks by rubbing them together...’ Thus, out of separation, says Bartoli, comes reconstitution, and a new polyphony of voices and sounds with a different kind of rhythm; leaving the path of linear progression, this is a revolving time, like that of poetry and of memory, where events are resuscitated, but there are no endings, only new beginnings.

I confirm that I experience the same thing: the ‘disassociation of the visual and the sound’ which, as if by some kind of alchemical process, becomes recomposed and unified again in a new form of aesthetic discourse. But I also think that the experience of the film by the sighted is not so different, for this is Godard’s form of montage: every sound exists in its own right whether in direct liaison with the image or not. There are many people who can’t seem to take it, but after listening and reading Bartoli, one can no longer say that those who reject the cinema of Godard, complaining of its willful intellectualism or whatever (one of them is producer David Puttnam, about whom Julian Petley writes on another page) - that such people are, metaphorically speaking, blind, for they are also closed to the kind of experience which evidently a blind person may nonetheless find in such a film.

By the same token, neither would it be correct to call them deaf. I think back to the music theatre of Oehring, The director of the staging speaks of the filmic thinking implicit in Oehring's work, the introduction of a kind of scenic logic into the construction of the music, and I remember a conversation many years ago with the composer Peter Maxwell Davies when he talked about the filmic sense of montage as a principle of musical composition. But this is something we didn’t imagine. Oerhing has created an extraordinary experience (for a hearing person): the sense of silent singing, with voices and texts layered in different degrees of comprehensibility. It gives me the sensation of a kind of palindrome: the hearing can hear the singers but not understand the signing; the deaf can read the signing but not hear the singing. Each part of the audience only gets part of the message. Yet for an audience both hearing and deaf, assembled in a congregation which is constructed on their difference, namely the wall of non-communication which normally separates the deaf from the hearing, this experience creates a temporary utopian space of unity, which builds a strange new coherence out of incompatible disparities and the incommunicable; and perhaps it gives the hearing audience a faint impression of what deafness must be like, which turns out to be a world with its own highly sophisticated mode of articulation.

It strikes me that the insistence on the experience of what normals regard as sense deprivation is a metaphor for our current cultural condition, in which aesthetic experience has become fractured and broken, and we need to find new ways to manoeuvre the fragments and broken moieties. Meanwhile, I am left waiting to see the film.

Michael Chanan is a filmmaker and writer who teaches film at the London College of Printing.