Brakhage’s Silent Legacy for Sound Cinema

Re-thinking the art of hearing through Brakhage's silent filmmaking

by Randolph Jordan Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 19 minutes (4640 words)

Stan Brakhage has left the world a legacy larger than we’ll ever be likely to get a handle on. With a body of work as large as his, one might find it difficult and ultimately pointless to try and reign it all in beneath a single umbrella. But there is a sheltering concept under which his vast array of films enjoys a bond: Brakhage wanted the world to learn to see again. He wanted us to rid ourselves of the shackles imposed on us by the rules of Renaissance perspective, to abandon the search for ever greater levels of visual acuity, definition, clarity and detail, and to re-embrace those parts of our experience that we have learned to let go unnoticed, or consider to be flawed by the standards of High Definition culture. As P. Adams Sitney notes, “When [Brakhage] decided to become a filmmaker he threw away his eyeglasses” (Sitney 1979:149). That about sums it up.

Now, consider this goal of Brakhage’s work alongside his oft-stated desire to create visual music – silent film which emphasizes the musical quality of the images and their montage without the distraction imposed by sound of the auditory variety. In many ways, Brakhage’s wish for us to learn to see again goes part and parcel with his interest in learning to hear again – to hear in ways that are unfettered by the imposed association of tight sound/image synchronization in the cinema, but also from the Cagean perspective of learning to hear the world around us in ways that reject social boundaries between “noise” and more pleasurable sounds. Most importantly, though, he wanted us to understand that what we think of as sound and music need not be confined to the realm of hearing; that the mind does not necessarily differentiate between the senses within the totality of thought. In this reflection I would like to explore Brakhage’s contribution to the advancement of the reuniting of the senses through a holistic approach to the representation of human experience on film. As such, his work advocates a view of the senses that does not rely on the categorizations laid out late by 19th century scientific interest in isolation. Because of this, I suggest that Brakhage’s legacy of visual cinema has done as much for changing our understanding of sound as it has for the image. And for this I am very grateful.

During his 2001 retrospective at the Cinémathèque Québequoise in Montreal, Brakhage exclaimed something to the effect of: “When you synch something, then you’re sunk.” He was referring to the banality of treating sound/image relations in mainstream film as elements to be unified through representational cause/effect synchronization. In a letter to Ronna Page on the subject of music, he speaks of his intense dissatisfaction with “conventional uses of music for ‘mood’ and so-called ‘realistic sounds’ as mere referendum to image in movies” (Brakhage 1978:134). So, he studied with John Cage and Edgard Varèse “at first with the idea of searching out a new relationship between image and sound and of, thus, creating a new dimension for the sound track” (Brakhage 1978:134). He continues:

The more informed I became with aesthetics of sound, the less I began to feel any need for an audio accompaniment to the visuals I was making…The more silently-oriented my creative philosophies have become, the more inspired-by-music have my photographic aesthetics and my actual editing orders become, both engendering a coming-into-being of the physiological relationship between seeing and hearing in the making of a work of art in film. (Brakhage 1978:135)

With this kind of approach, Brakhage was moving in the direction of exploring the highly soluble boundaries between our demarcations of sound and image to show that a work which we perceive with the eyes does not mean that we experience it solely as visual information. To this end, he wanted to “get deeper into [his] concept of music as sound equivalent of the mind’s moving” (Brakhage 1978:135). To me, Brakhage’s concept of the moving mind is the crux of the biscuit. Here’s why.

Film theorist, filmmaker and sound artist Michel Chion has been most vocal in his search for understanding the relationships between sound and image in the cinema. In Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, he puts forth the concept of transsensoriality: “In the transsensorial model…there is no sensory given that is demarcated and isolated from the outset. Rather, the senses are channels, highways more than territories or domains” (Chion 1994:137). He gives rhythm as an example of an element found in cinema that is neither specifically auditory nor visual:

When a rhythmic phenomenon reaches us via a given sensory path, this path, eye or ear, is perhaps nothing more than the channel through which rhythm reaches us. Once it has entered the ear or eye, the phenomenon strikes us in some region of the brain connected to the motor functions, and it is solely at this level that it is decoded as rhythm. (Chion 1994:136)

The upshot of this transsensorial model for understanding cinematic experience suggests that there are more fundamental levels of the cinema than simply sight and sound, levels which do not differentiate between the auditory and the visual but which cut through both to a deeper and more holistic understanding of experience. This is a very important suggestion when considering Brakhage’s concept of the moving mind. What Brakhage suggests when he refers to music as the “sound equivalent of the mind’s moving” is that the mind’s processing of the world is best understood as the movement of thought. This movement is not confined to isolated channels of hearing or seeing, but can be represented and expressed by both sight and sound equally well (not to mention the rest of our senses). This is exemplified by the idea that Brakhage’s films need no soundtrack for their musical qualities to come through: the brain understands the music even if the ears do not hear it. William C. Wees’ Light Moving in Time explores Brakhage’s ideas about the holism of the mind in great detail. He evokes Fred Camper’s comment that Brakhage “uses the visual to express the totality of thought” (Wees 1992:77). Indeed, I couldn’t find better words to express what is at issue here. The totality of thought pays no heed to whether sensory information came in through the eyes or the ears. It is simply the totality of experience which cannot be broken down the way our technologies of representation make us believe they can.

Now let’s consider Tom Gunning’s suggestion that the sound cinema may have, in fact, been born out of the need to reunite the senses of sight and hearing after they had been individually isolated and separated through the late 19th century’s new technologies of reproduction and representation. Speaking of Edison’s now famous statement that with the kinetoscope he wanted to “do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear,” Gunning suggests that: “the relation between the phonograph and motion pictures shows both the process of the separation of the senses…essential to nineteenth century investigations of perception and an anxiety about this separation, a desire to heal the breach” (Gunning 2001:16). In the context of spiritualist traditions alive and well at the time, Gunning holds that the separation of the human voice from the body was seen as being unnatural, and perhaps even evidence of a spirit world with which we could make contact through the new technologies at issue here. For many, this was akin to the work of the devil and demanded some restitching to counter the effect. “In the popular imagination of the initial phonographic craze,” Gunning says, “devices of visual simulation were immediately suggested” (Gunning 2001:19). Of course, there are many factors to be considered when discussing the development of sound cinema. For my purposes here, the main point is that there was an awareness of the unnaturalness of separating the senses from one another, an awareness that had some influence on the way recordings of sound and image were perceived. Gunning concludes his article by suggesting that we are a long way from achieving a cinema that truly harmonizes sound and image. He suggests that this is, in part, because of our continued tendency towards thinking of the senses as being separate.

Such continuing tendencies also bleed into our understanding of what “music” is supposed to be, as well as why it is always associated with hearing and listening rather than any other sense. To begin with, there is the distinction that many of us still make between “sound” and “music.” Composers like John Cage have espoused the idea that all sound should be subject to consideration as music, and that we should eschew our socially established notions of which sounds are supposed to be beautiful and which are supposed to be ignored. There is a Cagean by-product in Brakhage’s silent films caused by having an audience sit in “silence” for extended periods of time, thus calling attention to all the sounds of a theatre full of people that would ordinarily be drowned out by the soundtrack. This might be compared with Cage’s 4’33” which sought to achieve this exact effect, and which was explored further by Michael Snow in his film Presents (1981), featuring the sounds of an audience watching the film as the primary soundtrack element. But these effects were not Brakhage’s main goal in the creation of silent film. Rather, it was Brakhage’s desire to explore realms of experience not generally represented in the cinema, combined with a use of the technology that often goes against its design purposes. So, the music that Brakhage wanted us to experience is not that of the “noise” of the audience, but that music contained within the visual elements of the film itself.

There is another level to which the concept of music can be taken as well. In “The Musical Analogy,” David Bordwell addresses the fact that concepts from Western music theory have been used repeatedly in reference to film sound, since little work has been done to understand the composition of sound that is not in keeping with the standards of Western musical practice. What Bordwell suggests, however, is that there is a very useful way in which the idea of music can be applied to film as a whole. He describes “music” as being nothing more than a system of systems, a way of organizing a great number of elements that work in tandem with one another. In Western composition, this may mean that music is the governing body which regulates the systems of harmony, melody, rhythm, as well as all the various interactions between individual and groups of instruments. Bordwell concludes that this idea might be applied to film so that film itself is understood as a musical system which governs the interactions of the systems of both image and sound with all their intrinsic elements. The major implication of this idea is that, in such a governing system, no one element need dominate another. As we know, the image in film has dominated since the medium’s birth; and within the soundtrack, dialogue has dominated. Within the form that image and sound take on, narrative has dominated. Bordwell suggests that filmmaking and film analysis alike would benefit from a more holistic understanding of the medium where all elements are treated with equal importance.

Interestingly enough, Brakhage’s silent work espouses just such a point of view. Since we have not yet reached the stage where sound and image are treated with any kind of equal importance (resulting in the hindrance of our perception of one at the hands of the other), Brakhage often opted to leave all auditory treatments of “sound” off his films altogether. So, our sense of hearing does not detract from any information in the image which may also be considered to be sonic, but which does not require the ear to be processed as such. So, there is a balance maintained in the films wherein hierarchical dominance between sight and sound is not an issue, and the mind is left to sort it out on its own. This approach to the experience of hearing without the ears is akin also to Brakhage’s desire to explore the concept of seeing without the eyes, often achieved through the exploration of film in the absence of the camera lens via direct treatment of the celluloid.

The idea of film as music, however, still suffers from the legacy of understanding music, and sound for that matter, on purely auditory terms. This is clearly demonstrated by Peter Kivy, who begins a highly sophisticated inquiry into the nature of the musical experience by trying to come to terms with why there has not been a “purely visual music” to compare with the great masterpieces of Western composition for the ears. He suggests that despite the wealth of experimentation with “totally abstract, non-representational sequences of patterns and colors that can fairly be described as ‘music for the eyes’…[this] visual music has been unable to sustain itself to any significant length, at least in terms of the normal viewer (not the fanatic)” (Kivy 1990:2). Granted, many of Brakhage’s greatest fans might fall into the category of “fanatic,” but I digress. Kivy continues:

A person of no particular musical expertise, with only limited musical enthusiasms, can listen, with more or less rapt attention, to a concert of chamber music that may last for two hours. Nothing even approaching this attention span seems possible for visual music. Why is this? (Kivy 1990:2)

Kivy then goes on to offer an evolutionary perspective in answer to his question.

Drawing on the work of Le Gros Clark, Kivy latches onto evidence that vision is used by the higher primates as the primary survival sense, and that the development of the brain’s visual centre had a great deal to do with the evolution of human beings as a species. Clark also suggests that, with increased visual acuity came a corresponding decrease in hearing and the other senses. Kivy’s conjecture based on such evidence is that, over the course of our evolution, humans have become increasingly “hard-wired…to see defensively…We are compelled to place ‘realistic’ or ‘representational’ interpretations on visual perceptions” (Kivy 1990:4). Thus, his conclusion is that we cannot sustain extended periods of non-interpretive vision because our visual sense is so geared towards making sense of what we see.

Brakhage is easily one of the world’s leading practitioners of what Kivy would consider to be visual music: sustained works of visual abstraction and non-representational material. Indeed, the fact that maybe only fanatics can watch and enjoy Brakhage’s longer forays suggests that we are not equipped to switch our visual apparatus into non-survival mode long enough to sustain non-interpretative viewing. The fact that Brakhage seems to call on us to do so in many cases ties in perfectly with his aim to have the world learn to see again. In the opening to his book Metaphors on Vision, he asks the question: “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green?’” (Sitney 1979:145). Indeed, if we could unlearn the survival instincts responsible for the use of our eyes as carriers of representational information, instincts that quickly categorize and label the visual world into useable groupings at the expense of appreciating diversity, we could be far more open to different forms of visual experience. Perhaps it is because we have not yet broken away from our use of the eyes as tools of survival that The Text of Light (1974) has never enjoyed a run at the local multiplex.

However, it is incorrect on many levels to suggest that Brakhage’s work, even at its most abstract, is also necessarily non-representational. With his hand-painted films he seeks to represent the vast array of visual patterns that are apparent in closed-eye vision and hypnogogic vision. Part of Brakhage’s grand project has been to give a voice (pun intended) to these under-represented forms of vision, forms that our survival instincts have trained us to ignore. So it becomes a question not only of learning to abstract our visual perception, but also to recognize other existing forms of vision within the world that are just as worthy of representation on film as the more concrete objects with which we have been more often concerned.

The question of representation is also raised with respect to auditory music. Kivy’s argument suggests, to a certain extent, that the purely musical experience is necessarily a non-representational one. This is a highly contentious area, and one which has occupied an entire book by the same author. The question as to what is being represented in music, if anything, is an issue. Perhaps our perception of representation need not be limited to objects in the world; it could be expanded to the idea of representing other areas of human experience – such as emotion. It is largely our upbringing in the midst of certain scientific notions about reality vs. feeling that suggest that human emotion is not something which can be represented in the way that a chair can.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we cannot see or hear human emotion, so how can it be represented through either audio or visual means? As Peter Kivy asks, “How can music possibly “possess” emotions?” (Kivy 1990:173). In some way, a picture of a chair might be said to possess that chair such that we can perceive it within the picture. But emotions? This is nebulous territory far too murky to address properly here. The main purpose in bringing it up is to stress the importance of broadening our notion of what representational imagery, and sound, can entail. Brakhage wanted to express what it is like to be human. In many ways, he sought to do this through the representation of realms of experience that are not usually represented, but should be recognized as equally important and worthy of representation as anything else.

It is also interesting to consider the fact that cinema has no doubt had an influence on the way we perceive so-called non-representational music. The variety of sounds we have come to associate with images, the conventions that have arisen over the years in the sound cinema, have certainly created a new repertoire of representational imagery in our minds that pop up when certain kinds of music or sounds are heard – even in the absence of an image. This is yet another situation that Brakhage would have us unlearn through his explorations into the musical qualities of the “purely visual” cinema.

The problem still remains, however, that Kivy strictly separates the auditory from the visual. Brakhage, Chion, and a host of others have recognized that the demarcation of the senses is useful only up until a certain point, and to move beyond that into a realm of holistic experience there has to be an acknowledgement of the interdependence of the senses within the totality of thought. Surely it is not only the ears at work when experiencing a work of music. The fullness of experience that Kivy so treasures is clearly the result of that music’s ability to engage with the totality of thought, which must necessarily cross borders between the artificially isolated sense categorizations imposed on us by our technologies of representation.

So, we go back to the question of understanding music in non-auditory terms. Sergei Eisenstein was another leading explorer of the relationships between our understanding of music and visual cinema. In Nonindifferent Nature he speaks of “plastic music,” that music which is contained and expressed by the visual aspects of cinema, particularly in the silent era. He says that the idea of expressing music visually fell mostly to images of landscape, “and a similar emotional landscape, functioning as a musical component, is what I call ‘nonindifferent nature’” (Eisenstein 1987:216). For Eisenstein:

The musical course of a scene in those days was decided by the structure and montage of representation. The greatest share in ‘making sound’ fell to landscape. For landscape is the freest element of film, the least burdened with servile, narrative tasks, and the most flexible in conveying moods, emotional states, and spiritual experiences. In a word, all that, in its exhaustive total, is accessible only to music, with its hazily perceptible, flowing imagery. (Eisenstein 1987:217)

Clearly, ideas about the understanding of how sound can be contained within the purely visual have been around for some time, as well as how music and representation are linked through the desire of filmmakers to represent emotion as well as the more tangible elements of human experience. No surprise then that Brakhage’s films are so often concerned with landscape, both outer and inner, and that this exploration of landscape goes part and parcel with his interest in exploring the musical qualities of the visual as a key to unlocking the totality of thought. Eisenstein’s idea of music as being comprised of “hazily perceptible, flowing imagery” makes me think of Brakhage’s idea of “moving visual thinking:” the landscape of human consciousness in full motion between the borders of five sense organs, occupying a space where perception is only the beginning of experience, not the definer of it.

Brakhage himself makes connections with music and landscape. In his letter to Ronna Page, he says:

I recall first hearing shifting chords of sound that corresponded in meaningful interplay with what I was seeing when I was a child in a Kansas cornfield at mid-night. That was the first time I was in an environment silent enough to permit me to hear “the music of the spheres,” as it’s called, and visually specific enough for me to be aware of the eye’s pulse of receiving image. (Brakhage 1978:136-37)

So we might understand Brakhage, on some levels, to be interested in the synesthesia that I have willfully avoided discussing up until this point. He says that he “seek[s] to hear colour just as Messiaen seeks to see sounds,” the classic goal of the synesthesia enthusiast (Brakhage 1978:136). Loaded with the negative connotations of psychedelic drug-culture, this most overt manifestation of the desire to blur the boundaries between the senses has gone the way of the see-saw riding Moody Blues elegy that so espoused its wondrousness in 1968. Yet the filmmakers of the American Avant-Garde share a close affinity with many of the explorations undertaken in the age of the hippies, and they need not all be dismissed as maniacal rantings by drug-addled minds.

Indeed, the use of psychedelics was often in aid of seeing the world anew, and many have turned to cinema as a viable way of exploring similar territory without the need for ingested substances. Alejandro Jodorowsky maybe said it best:

I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs. The difference being that when one creates a psychedelic film, he need not create a film that shows the visions of a person who has taken a pill; rather he needs to manufacture the pill. (Samuels 1983:33)

Interestingly, Jodorowsky’s thoughts here also address the question of representing experience. Just as Kivy addressed the problem of understanding emotion to be contained within music rather than inspired in the listener, here Jodorowsky suggests that the best way to facilitate an understanding of psychedelic experience is to instill it in the viewer rather than represent it on the screen itself. Certainly Brakhage also seeks to instill experience in the viewer as well as represent his own experience on the screen. As has by now been firmly established, he seeks to do so through the exploration of music as a concept that runs well beyond the realm of the auditory.

I began this little adventure by suggesting that Brakhage’s desire for the world to learn to see again goes hand in hand with his desire for us to learn to hear again as well. By using the visual to explore how far beyond the visual the totality of thought extends, he explores the ways in which our understanding of sound and music can also be re-examined through the visual. I believe that Brakhage is one of a handful of practitioners and theorists alike who have pointed the way to new phases in human evolution. In The World is Sound, Joachim-Ernst Berendt suggests that if a new consciousness is to arise in humanity, it will be governed by a renewed emphasis on hearing to re-establish equilibrium between the senses disrupted by our current over-emphasis on the visual. He echoes Brakhage’s dismay at the weight that has been put on renaissance ideals of vision when he notes that “the better [eyes] are, the sharper they are; ‘sharpness’ is a quality of knives and cutting, which for the New Consciousness means a negative, destructive, possibly even murderous quality” (Berendt 1983:5). He notes that “human beings with their disproportionate emphasis on seeing have brought on the excess of rationality, of analysis and abstraction, whose breakdown we are now witnessing” (Berendt 1983:5). Our dependence on vision for survival, he suggests, has been mostly one of convenience at the expense of recognizing the power of the ear. “Why are the data we receive from our ears so much more precise than that from our eyes? Why is the range of what we can hear so much wider – by exactly tenfold – than the range of what we can see? What is that meant to signal to us?” (Berendt 1983:8). For Berendt, it is time to turn our attention once again to the power of hearing. And he rightly notes that in order to learn to hear again, we will also have to learn to see again (Berendt 1983:7), so that our current tendency to highlight vision at the expense of all the other senses can be replaced by a seeing that works in tandem with the totality of thought.

There are some, like Gilles Deleuze, who believe that the cinema not only reflects the way that human beings think, but has also the power to change our very processes of thought (Colebrook 2002:31) – the power to be the pill that Jodorowsky would cinematically manufacture. Brakhage clearly believed in this power of cinema as well. His love of the medium of film worked in tandem with his love of human experience, and he explored the relationship between the two to greater extents than most. His call for re-learning to see so that we may also re-learn to hear is Brakhage’s legacy to the world, and it is fittingly made through the vehicle of the cinema which may well have the power to shape the next phase in the evolution of human consciousness.


Berendt, Joachim-Ernst. The World is Sound – Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness. Rochester: Destiny Books, 1983.

Bordwell, David. “The Musical Analogy.” Yale French Studies. No. 60.1980: 141-156.

Brakhage, Stan. “Letter to Ronna Page (On Music).” The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism. Sitney, P. Adams, ed. Anthology Film Archives Series: 3. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Claudia Gorbman, trans. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Colebrook, Claire. Gilles Deleuze. London: Routledge, 2002.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Nonindifferent Nature. Herbert Marshall, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Gunning, Tom. “Doing for the Eye What the Phonograph Does for the Ear.” The Sounds of Early Cinema. Richard Abel and Rick Altman, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Kivy, Peter. Music Alone: Philosophical Reflections on the Purely Musical Experience. Ithica: Cornell UP, 1990.

Samuels, Stuart. Midnight Movies. New York: Collier Books, 1983.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant Garde, 1943-1973. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

Wees, William C. Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Brakhage’s Silent Legacy for Sound Cinema

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. His research lives at the intersection of acoustic ecology, film studies, and critical geography. He teaches in the Humanities department at Champlain College, and has previously taught film, media literacy, and environmental philosophy at Concordia University, Ryerson University, Dawson College and LaSalle College. He is co-editor of the Sound, Media, Ecology collection (Palgrave 2019), and his monograph Acoustic Profiles: A Sound Ecology of the Cinema has just been published by Oxford University Press (2023). He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

Volume 7, Issue 2 / February 2003 Essays   avant-garde   cinematheque quebecois   experimental   film theory   sound   stan brakhage