Transcending the Fragmentation of Experience

The acousmêtre on the air in the films of Michael Snow

by Randolph Jordan Volume 6, Issue 11 / November 2002 40 minutes (9990 words)

In “Doing for the Eye what the Phonograph does for the Ear,” Tom Gunning suggests that the project of bringing sound to the cinema has been part of a negative reaction to the separation of the senses made possible by technologies such as the phonograph, technologies dedicated to the isolation, capturing and analysis of individual senses 1 . The idea of a disembodied voice carries with it connotations of the supernatural, often with evil undercurrents. Scientific understanding of technological process has, I believe, done little to dissuade such associations. The number of treatments of the subject of being in touch with the supernatural through technologies of reproduction has remained fairly consistent in the years since the harnessing of electricity. This idea of the supernatural side of technologies of reproduction comes also with increasing humanist tendencies to equate technology with the human body alongside materialist ways of approaching art. When focusing on sound in the cinema, concerns with technology and the material qualities of sound in and of itself often find themselves at the forefront, concerns which can shed new light on the ways that we have tended to think about film in the past.

Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen presents some compelling strategies for approaching and interpreting the use of sound in film, and provides many avenues for using sound as a way of understanding cinema from a more transcendental frame of mind. What Chion discovers through his process of coming to terms, so to speak, with his expanded vocabulary for sound analysis is that much of the deeper experience we get from cinema is a direct result of the transcendence between image and sound to a new level of combined interaction, and it is on this level that he suggests we conduct our inquiries into the use of sound in film. His idea of transsensoriality, which acknowledges the fact that hearing may not take place solely through the ears, and that seeing may not take place solely with the eyes 2 , offers another perspective on Gunning’s conclusion that the sound film may be part of a project to reunite the senses after their isolation and mastery through technologies of reproduction: that sound and image are not necessarily things that can be isolated, and that our demarcation of these individual senses is based on often mistaken understandings of what these senses truly entail.

Interestingly, when perusing the literature surrounding the work of Michael Snow there emerges tendencies to want to examine it in terms of the structuralist isolation of the basic units of cinema for their exhaustive analysis through technological process, alongside an interest in the transcendent qualities of the work and its perception by the audience. These two areas of analysis and ecstasy, as explored by William C. Wees 3 , are often felt to be in contradiction. Not surprisingly, the study of sound and image are often thought to be in contradiction, needing some kind of separate treatment before their work together can be properly understood. This feeling is reflected in Wees’ own caveat to Light Moving in Time: “To do justice to the aural aesthetics of avant-garde film…I would have to adopt a different critical approach, one applicable to a different channel of transmission, a different mode of perception, and (on the whole), a different selection of films for close inspection” 4 . Indeed, Chion’s project also involves a close attention to sound on its own before studying the way sound interacts with image. This is very much akin to Gunning’s idea that film seeks to put these two senses back together after their isolation and deconstruction through the phonograph and the kinetoscope. However, I think Wees’ bracketed “on the whole” might best imply that at least one of the filmmakers he considers might be worthy of sonic consideration as well as visual. Snow’s combination of sound and image seems to reflect an intense desire to bridge the gap that exists between considerations of sound and image and embodies the transsensoriality that Chion’s book ultimately seeks to uncover.

There emerges in many of the articles on Snow an interest in wanting to talk about his use of sound, but with a general capitulation to talking around the subject of sound itself in favour of drawing correlations between Snow and various musicians whose work is particularly open to being discussed conceptually. This capitulation is common in both writing about music alone, probably the branch of human expression that most resists discussion through language, and in discussion of all film. What I will do here is perpetuate this capitulation by discussing sound in Snow’s films as it relates to the preferred topics of deconstruction and transcendence, in order to suggest that Snow’s work is very much concerned with the technological separation of the senses and its spiritualist connotations while also seeking to reunite them, as Gunning suggests is the project of sound film in general. However, in so doing I would like to break, at least a little bit, from tendencies to skirt the issue by bringing Chion’s strategies for analyzing sound in film to the work of Snow in order to begin the much larger work of really grabbing hold of Snow’s sonic world.

Snow himself has expressed frustration with the lack of attention people have paid to his use of sound. In a letter to Peter Gidal on the subject of Back and Forth (1968-1969) he writes: “Now as you say seeing the film is a very physical experience. (I can’t understand why you didn’t also say ‘hearing’ it because the sound, its qualities, relationship to the image, effect, are so important to the whole thing)” 5 . Of course, Snow’s frustration with the absence of critical attention paid to sound in his work is only a small example of the lack of attention paid to sound in film in general, though this situation is changing for the better with each passing day. The fact remains, however, the we still speak of seeing films, while the words listening to are reserved for music and other forms of sound art. As Michel Chion suggests, this idea may be best expressed by the simple fact that a moving picture without sound is still a film, whereas a soundtrack with no image is not. He gives the example of Walter Ruttmann’s 1930 film Weekend as a limit-case: a film with only a montage of sound printed on the optical soundtrack portion of the film with the image track left empty. “Played through the speakers, Weekend is nothing other than a radio program, or perhaps a work in concrete music. It becomes a film only with reference to a frame, even if an empty one” 6 . So we have a situation where, although the sound film is here to stay, the unification of sight and sound into a truly holistic audiovisiual art form has yet to be the norm. This situation may well be the result of some fundamental differences we have in understanding and approaching sound vs. image, as Wees suggests is the reason behind his attention to the visual aesthetics of the avant-garde at the expense of sound. The senses of sight and sound are still kept separate somehow, and this fact touches a nerve within us that primordially fears the isolation of our human faculties for deconstruction and analysis on an individual basis.

This fear of isolation may also be at the root of backlash against scientific classification and categorization of the natural world, a backlash embodied by postmodern tendencies towards the deconstruction of established labels and fragmentation of identities that have been established through the rigors of modern science. To the chagrin of Fredric Jameson and like-minded critics of contemporary culture, much postmodern art revolves around rebuilding the world that was left in pieces by the isolation and categorization of modern science. Though these pieces may be sewn together in a loose fabric of surfaces ripped from their original contexts and without the depth of historicity traceable in a neat hierarchical tree structure beneath each, the act of reassemblage is, I believe, a positive step towards recovering from the intense gaze of analytical scrutiny and rediscovering the joys of more holistic understandings of the world and of human experience within it. Chion’s project in Audio-Vision is to first isolate sound in its own right from its dependence on the image within cinema so that we may undertake the work of careful analysis. However, this isolation and analysis is in aid of then rejoining sound with image so that we may be able to experience the two as a single entity known as cinema, sound and image equal in their own rights in true audiovision. So, Chion advocates a strong sense of rebuilding, and thus recovering from the fear instilled in the heart of human kind by the coming of technologies capable of separating and encapsulating the senses we have come to know as being parts of the larger whole of human experience, not individual channels of information that can work in isolation.

So we have a dichotomy between deconstruction and reconstruction, both of which serve their purpose. This is not unlike the dichotomy between sound and image, or between the ideas of analysis vs. experience that so many people focus on when writing about the films of Michael Snow, or even between his structural approach to filmmaking vs. his interest in improvisational music. The task at hand is to see how Snow seeks to rebuild the world left fragmented by scientific investigation despite his obvious interests in exhaustive analysis of the isolated units of cinema and of human experience.

The resolving of these dichotomies can be understood most basically through Chion’s concept of transsensoriality. Chion is careful not to have us confuse transsensoriality with intersensoriality as exemplified by the “correspondences” spoken of by Beaudelaire, Rimbaud and Claudel wherein “each sense exists in itself, but encounters others at points of contact” 7 . For Chion, transsensoriality means that “there is no sensory given that is demarcated and isolated from the outset. Rather, the senses are channels, highways more than territories or domains” 7 . He gives examples such as rhythm which is most often thought of in terms of sound but is an element of film vocabulary that is not specific to one or another sense. “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” 9 . Chion suggests that this transsensoriality can be applied also to things such as texture, material and language 9 .

I can’t help but be reminded here of Stan Brakhage’s interest in closed-eye vision, vision that takes place without the use of the eyes, drawing instead on the phosphenes and other visual noise that exist within our visual cortex 11 . Brakhage seeks to replicate closed-eye vision by treating film in an analogous way: just as closed-eye vision removes the eye from the act of seeing, so too do his hand-painted films remove the camera-eye from the process of creating images on film. Michael Snow is often compared and contrasted with Brakhage, but as several have suggested, they may be much more alike than is initially apparent. I believe that their kinship rests largely in this realm of transsensoriality, wherein the experience of cinema is explored through the potential for the senses to draw on one another rather than relying on their separation. Indeed, Bruce Elder has made this very link between the two filmmakers. In an interview with Snow, Elder suggests: “in many of your sound ‘recordings’ you seem as interested in what I shall say are the photographic or cinematic aspects of the recording as with the medium of the reproduction. Ironically, Brakhage is devoted to purely musical properties of cinematography” 12 . Chion goes on to suggest that “when kinetic sensations organized into art are transmitted through a single sensory channel, through this single channel they can convey all the other senses at once” 7 . He offers the silent cinema and musique concrète as examples of this, whereby film in the absence of synch sound can sometimes express sounds better than sound itself, while musique concrète may carry with it “visions that are more beautiful than images could ever be” 7 . Indeed Brakhage comes to mind with his frequent assertions that his films remain silent for the most part because he is so interested in exploring the musical qualities of his images in their own right, an exploration that actual sound would distract from severely.

We are so used to the idea of demarcating our individual senses that we allow auditory material to dominate our understanding of sound while letting what we see on screen dictate our understanding of vision. One of Chion’s main purposes in writing Audio-Vision, however, is to remedy this situation, to call specific attention to the ways that hearing affects what we see and vice-versa, and Brakhage is surely on the forefront of exploring how visual information can be understood in auditory terms simply through the act of allowing the images to speak for themselves across all senses. Here again we see an example of the fundamental point of this paper: in order to understand how the senses interact with one another they must first be isolated. It is in their recombination after isolation that a more holistic understanding of our perceptual apparatus occurs. Michael Snow, perhaps more than anyone else, demonstrates an interest in rebuilding towards this holism through the systematic and exhaustive isolation of the basic units of cinematic expression. Ultimately, this holism entails a transcendence of isolated categories, a transcendence that I believe is perfectly exemplified by the transcendence between our individual senses that Chion describes in terms of transsensoriality.

So let’s examine this dichotomy between isolation and analysis vs. recombination and transcendence in the work of Michael Snow. William C. Wees puts the problem forth most clearly when he discusses Snow as being interested in the balancing of eye and mind, seeking to find that perfect fulcrum between ecstasy and analysis. (Of course, as I will discuss shortly, Snow also seeks a balance between eye and ear, which is a crucial element to the ecstasy that he balances with analysis). Wees notes that critics of Snow’s work have tended to “emphasize ‘analysis’ at the expense of ‘ecstasy’ and to concentrate on the conceptual aspects of Snow’s films without giving comparable attention to the perceptual experience they produce” 15 . Wees suggests that this fact may be partially a result of Snow’s emphasis on the “machineness” of cinema. Whereas Brakhage humanizes filmmaking technology by freeing the camera from the constraints of the tripod and seeking an aesthetic not patterned on the rigid structure of Renaissance perspective that has been built into the lens itself, Snow seeks to embrace the technical aspects of cinema in order to push it well beyond any limits seemingly present in these aspects. Wees describes how Snow seized upon the mechanical limitations of zoom and tripod mounted moving-camera in Wavelength (1967), Back and Forth (1968-1969), and La Région Centrale (1971) in order to use them in unconventional ways. “By exaggerating its ‘machine-ness,’ he forces the apparatus to produce new ways of seeing that fully satisfy Brakhage’s own criteria for ‘eye adventures’…In that sense, Snow’s approach is not so different from Brakhage’s” 16 . Thus, Snow’s approach need not be confused with a mechanical and therefore intellectual approach to filmmaking. While there is intellectual exploration of cinematic process, this exploration is in furtherance of liberating cinema from just such intellectualism and to push it on into realms of experience that transcend analysis and become part of a more holistic cinematic experience.

What to make of this idea of holistic cinematic experience, you ask? Thierry du Duve’s “Michael Snow: The Deictics of Experience and Beyond” presents a complex reading of the state of experience through the phases of modernism and postmodernism and whether or not it is possible to have an experience through art that isn’t necessarily vicarious and thus distanced. He begins with a discussion of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Monk Before the Sea.” The monk in the painting is represented as having a mystical experience, but de Duve’s question is if we, in looking at the painting, can have that same experience? “Not only are we contemplating a painting, and not the sea, but we are also contemplating the monk contemplating the sea, from behind” 17 . Quoting Kant, de Duve reminds us that experiences of the sublime must be sought in “crude nature,” not in art, and so all Friedrich’s painting can do is “present us with an experience at a remove” 18 . Modernist painting, de Duve suggests, then went on to try and reclaim authentic experience from such experience by proxy through a process of removing representation and presenting us with abstraction that can be experienced first hand. At which point modernist painting surrendered to the postmodern “disillusioned celebration of surrogate experience as such” 18 . Enter Michael Snow.

For de Duve, Snow came along at a time when trust in experience itself was shattered by postmodern disillusionism, and asked: “given that the unity of experience is shattered, what can be done that is epistemologically enlightening and aesthetically stimulating?” The answer: “First identify the fragments that once composed this unity, that is, the conditions of experience, then, grant them their freedom” 20 . Most importantly though, de Duve suggests that Snow takes on these two tasks simultaneously: “the strategy employed to identify [these fragments] – the modernist strategy of rendering opaque the transparent conditions of a given practice – is also the practice that makes them self-referential and thus autonomous” 20 . Finally, once they are autonomous and “disconnected from the bonds that linked them together in a unity,” they enjoy a freedom that we, in turn, might enjoy. The fragmentation of experience might be a source of pleasure rather than melancholy 20 . Using this as a “working hypothesis,” de Duve’s project is to demonstrate how Snow has been instrumental in freeing up the joy that can be found in the fragmentation of experience.

De Duve conducts an extensive analysis of how Snow has systematically freed the individual components of having an experience (the I, here, and now) from their bonds to one another. However, de Duve struggles with the fact that these components, so expertly separated by Snow, are present in a unity he refers to as the masterpiece that is La Région Centrale. De Duve set out to show that Snow had accepted the fact that the unity of experience had been shattered and that his project was not one of retrieval or salvation of this experience. “Quite to the contrary, it is as if [Snow] had furthered the fragmentation by setting the conditions of experience free of their intrinsic solidarity with each other. [Yet] now I say that from the utter separation of the ingredients, he has succeeded in cooking a meal which has the unity of a masterpiece” 23 . De Duve’s solution to this problem is to suggest that Snow effectively sets the conditions for having an experience by having separated the elements and laying them side by side, but that this experience is not guaranteed and has been removed from the idea of the “subject” as it was in enlightenment-era aesthetic understanding 24 . “For three hours in a row we are watching the conditions of experience being set, installed, tested, probed, laid down before our eyes, and only when the projection is over do we realize that we went through something of which we may say: that was quite an experience” 24 . But, as de Duve explains, the experience is not Snow’s act of making the film or an experience of his own that he wanted to impart through the film. Snow’s experience of La Région Centrale is very much the same as ours. Having only looked in the camera once during its making, Snow was able to watch the film much as we do – seeing it all for the first time. So the subject of the film is not Snow’s experience coming through the film which we are then meant to re-experience. Rather, the film itself sets out the conditions for experience, and manages to give sense of unity despite the fragmentation of these conditions.

This unity within fragmentation need not be as problematic as de Duve suggests, though. This paper being about the embracing of paradox and the balancing of what are considered to be opposites, I might suggest an approach borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Speaking of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method, taking bits and pieces of autonomous texts and folding them one onto another, they say: “in this supplementary dimension of folding, unity continues its spiritual labour. That is why the most resolutely fragmented work can also be presented as the Total Work or Magnum Opus” 26 . Snow’s work may not correspond exactly with the folding of the fragmented conditions of experience onto one another, but I believe the basic idea that unity can result from fragmentation is what makes Snow’s work capable of transcending the fragmentation and giving a sense of wholeness and fullness of experience. Snow may not have wanted to retrieve the idea of sublime experience that de Duve suggests has been lost, but his work nevertheless allows for a new form of experience that embraces (and, in fact, helped create) a new understanding that unity need not be in direct opposition to fragmentation. The work of the postmodern subject, strewn across the devastated ruins of deconstructed categorizations, can pick up the pieces and arrange them in any form or combination desired without losing that sense that there is a structure holding them together which transcends the gaps between the pieces – “all the more total for being fragmented” 27 .

Transcendence, then, becomes not the idea of being able to experience the sublime vicariously through a representation of someone else’s experience, but rather a condition of being able to engage with the underlying unity of fragments that are laid side by side or one atop the next. The synthesis takes place within us, through our engagement with the work, and thus becomes a matter of perception. So, in that spirit, let’s now examine Snow’s processes of fragmentation before moving on to their underlying unity and ultimately their properties of transcendence. In do doing, the move from Snow’s analytical side to his ecstatic side will be made, and the two will be seen to be balanced in spite of their apparent opposition.

It is tempting to put Snow in the context of minimalist artists due to the conceptual nature of their work and their interest in the exposing of process and the isolation of the basic units that structure their art. Bruce Elder has suggested that Snow does indeed have some characteristics in common with the formal minimalists but that he also paves the way for new branches in minimalism that go beyond what is entailed by the classic definition. Elder chooses to focus on minimalist composers in making his comparisons, most notably being Steve Reich, La Monte Young and Philip Glass. These musicians are not invoked for their sound, however, but for the organizational principles at work in their compositions. The first likeness Elder finds between Snow and these composers is that their compositions are based on “comparatively simple musical structures, or modules, that are repeated and only gradually and systematically modified to generate complexity” 28 . He notes that such processes are apparent in most musical compositions, but that in the work of Glass and Reich these processes are made very conspicuous through the extent to which the modules are simple and the developments extended 29 . P. Adams Sitney has also drawn a connection between Snow and minimalist artists for the same reasons. He quotes dancer Yvonne Rainer saying that perfection in art is a reduction to irreducible units, making a definitive statement on the basic principle behind minimalist art 30 . Elder goes on to suggest that Snow’s project in rendering his processes perceptible is to call attention to the role of time in his works, and how his treatment of temporality has a dual character. “Snow’s temporal constructs both hypostatize the shape of time and make evident its flow. In Snow’s work, extended durations are used to raise questions about the relation of passing time to eternity – questions which are of a religious nature” 31 . Here Elder finds a correspondence with Reich particularly, who he feels is in search of the impersonal through focused and prolonged attention, a sense of the impersonal that is related to the composer’s spiritual convictions. Elder associates these convictions with Reich’s “belief in creating music in which appearance (the actual sounds heard) and reality (the generative structures) are at one” 32 . Here again we come across the relationship between the co-existence of experience and analysis in the context of transcendence. Reich gives the example of John Cage, saying “[he] has used processes and he certainly accepted their results, but the processes he used were compositional ones that could not be heard when the piece was performed…The compositional process and the sounding music have no audible connection” 32 . For Reich, the importance rests in the simultaneity of being aware of the processes while being capable of being engrossed in their results. This seems to me to be the perfect expression of the balancing of analysis and ecstasy that Wees discusses in relation to Snow’s work.

Elder goes on to suggest that most often Reich’s desire for rendering processes perceptible is related to modernist notions of moving from subject to object, from spirituality to materialism. De Duve’s conclusion that Snow’s work can retain transcendent qualities of experience while removing the romantic-enlightenment notion of the need for a subject within this experience is of great importance here. In speaking of La Région Centrale, de Duve says this:

I am here, no doubt, in the center, there where the eye of the camera is, but my body is not, and thus, that’s not me, here. I don’t feel it’s me. The sensation I get is one of kinaesthetic sensory deprivation…The result is space minus here: the a priori form of external sensibility without an internal reference point, that point which would be the subject, that point where I can say, through immediate intuition: her I am. I can still say ‘Here I am,’ but only through the mediation of a mental act of reflection 34 .

Here reflexivity enters as a contingent of both the removal of subject and Snow’s ability to present the conditions for transcendent experience nevertheless. De Duve says:

I am usually fed up with self-referentiality, a worn-out modernist device if there ever was one…The fact is that in [Snow’s] work, as with all great modernist art, self-referentiality is never a serpent eating its tail…The intellectual effort you make trying to decode the generative process of the work does not exhaust itself in the mere pleasure of having “cracked” the code 35 .

So we have the ideal conditions here for the balancing of ecstasy and analysis, which I find to be akin to Reich’s statement that “even when all the cards are on the table and everyone hears what is gradually happening in a musical process, there are enough mysteries to satisfy all. These mysteries are the impersonal, unintended, psychoacoustic by-products of the intended process” 32 . And this “impersonal” that Reich speaks of is what Elder suggests is the spiritual, or transcendent, in the work: a result of the simultaneous co-existence of self-reflexivity and self-effacement – we can get lost in the moment while being aware of the processes that have led us there. True holism, the bridge between the Cartesian mind-body split.

The bridge, though, is dependent upon the split for its very existence, and this is what we can’t forget here, and of which de Duve has sought to remind us: Snow’s work operates in the era following the fragmentation of experience. For Elder, Snow’s work embodies the concept found in minimalist musical composition of treating individual modules of structure in such a way as to make their presence clear while illustrating how they can change over time as a result of additive processes of recombination. For de Duve, Snow’s work embodies the move away from the subject being the focus of experience through the separation of the conditions for having an experience: the dissolution of the interdependence of the I, Here, and Now. The very idea of transcendence depends upon two or more points which are usually kept separate, be they Heaven and Earth, body and mind, ecstasy and analysis, or even sound and image. Transcendence becomes the simultaneous co-existence of things we have learned to keep separate, and it is in this domain that Snow’s work triumphs.

Snow’s use of sound/image relations is just as indicative of his project of creating unity out of disparate elements as any of the conceptual issues put forth thus far. Though perhaps not as initially striking as his images, the sound in his films has been crucial to fully realizing the experience that he lays out the conditions for. It is important to begin with Chion’s notion of the audiovisual contract here. In his foreword to Chion’s Audio-Vision, Walter Murch explains that “the essential first step Chion takes is to assume that there is no ‘natural and preexisting harmony between image and sound’ – the shadow is in fact dancing free” 37 . Murch goes on to quote Robert Bresson’s iteration of the same idea: “Images and sounds, like strangers who make acquaintance on a journey and afterwards cannot separate” 37 . I would add Murch’s own statement of a similar idea, from an interview conducted by Frank Paine: “Image and sound are linked together in a dance. And like some kinds of dance, they do not always have to be clasping each other around the waist: they can go off and dance on their own, in a kind of ballet. There are times when they must touch, there must be moments when they make some sort of contact, but then they can be off again” 39 . Each of these three iterations express the fundamental principle I am trying to elucidate in this paper: the simultaneous co-existence of separation and combination within a single text.

For Chion, sound and image are not naturally linked in the cinema, and it is through our experience of their co-existence within the space of a film that they join together and develop into a seemingly cohesive unity; it is our perception that forges the unity. As Murch suggests, there are moments when the simultaneous conjunction of sound and image, which we tend to understand from the perspective of cause and effect, suggest a unity. These are points of contact that help us understand that there may some connections that need to be made between sound and image when watching a film. Very often, though, the sound can break free and dance on its own, while the shadows dance alone on the screen, and whatever correspondences are made between them is a function of our brain’s powers of synthesis.

The image of the shadow dancing free is particularly evocative when considering the work of Michael Snow. In a most literal sense, the feeling I get when seeing the shadow of the camera mount in La Région Centrale is that of a strange being dancing amidst the barren landscape, free to move in any direction it chooses. When considering the sound in Région, which seems in constant connection with the image but without any points of synchronization, the temptation to draw connections with Murch’s image of the dancing shadow grows ever stronger. But before getting to that, I will illustrate some more conceptual manifestations of Snow’s employment of the audiovisual contract.

When discussing the juxtaposition between the jazz soundtrack and the images in New York Eye and Ear Control, Sitney suggests that “Snow obviously wanted to set up a bifurcated experience of picture and sound as if they were two independent contiguous realities” 40 . As Chion suggests, however, sound and image are always independent, and it is simply our conditioning and use of conventions of synchronization that make us believe that they are not. Snow is well aware of these conventions and of our conditioning, and so he does, indeed, seek to separate them again in the minds of the audioviewer so that we may once again understand how they may be unified. The connections that we can make between sound and image in New York Eye and Ear Control are predominantly conceptual, thinking of things like the improvisatory nature of the sweeping camera movements and whimsical placements of the Walking Woman cutouts in various environments as these relate to the practice of improvisation in jazz music. The idea of the Walking Woman itself as a module of repetition which finds itself in ever changing environments can be related to the idea of jazz which often patterns its improvisational exploration around a concrete structure of chord changes. In this line of inquiry we find that one of the biggest apparent paradoxes in the work of Michael Snow – the difference between his structural films and his improvisational musical interests – need not necessarily be considered in contradiction. Like the realms of ecstasy and analysis, the two can co-exist as different sides of the same thing, which can join together if we allow them to synthesize within our own understanding of them.

Wavelength offers a strong venue for the co-existence of things often felt to be kept separate. As Wees describes, “Snow’s goal is to bring the spectator to the fullest possible recognition of both qualities of the cinematic image: its referential nature as representation of the visual world and its essential nature as, in Snow’s words, ‘projected moving light image’” 41 . It is from that recognition that Wees suggests the spectator achieves the “dual state” of ecstasy and analysis. Considering again the analogy of jazz music as improvisation within structure, the 40 minute zoom that is the rigid shell of Wavelength is peppered with all manner of far less structured events. As Wees describes, the “extreme changes in exposure, flares and flash frames, negative footage, flicker effects, superimpositions, ephemeral spots and gleams of light…and innumerable shifts in the color and density of the image recur throughout the film like playful improvisations within the stern and unvarying structure, or shape, imposed by the zoom” 41 . The sound in Wavelength lends itself to ideas of simultaneous co-existence of opposites as well. As Sitney describes, in fact, the sound in Wavelength emphasizes the intersections of the concerns of space and human events, the former demarcated by the sine wave and the latter by the film’s synchronous sounds. Sitney goes as far as to say that “an analysis of the sound alone indicates a dialogue between spheres (human and eternal/topological) just as an exegesis of the visuals would” 43 . Here again we see that sound and image can be kept separate, while finding correlations between the two on conceptual levels.

With Wavelength, however, there is more that just a conceptual linkage, since the film does make use of synchronous sound. In addition to the sounds of the people in the film talking and moving about, the presence of the sine wave (which begins at its lowest cycle part-way into the film and continues until the end in a slow glissando to its highest cycle) can be understood as a sonic counterpart of the zoom lens moving from wide angle to narrow 44 . Of course, this correspondence between sound and image is part of the pun of the film’s title. Not only do we experience a shift in the length between the camera-eye and the picture of the wave on the wall at the far end of the room, we are also experiencing the shift in the frequency of the sine wave, effectively a shift in the length of that very wave. So Snow has created a conceptual, formal, and experiential unison between the sound and image with Wavelength, while still maintaining a separateness to these elements that makes the audioviewer have to do a bit of work to make all the connections and create the experience. As Sitney suggests, the events that take place in the space of Wavelength, whether it be within the room it depicts or to the film itself, can be understood as momentary mental and physical states that have a cumulative effect in our minds while being separate within the film itself 45 . Annette Michelson suggests something similar when she says that Wavelength presents “the movement forward as a flow which bears in its wake, contains, discrete events: their discreteness articulates an allusion to the separate frames out of which persistence of vision organizes cinematic illusion” 46 . So again the idea of Snow keeping elements discreet while succeeding in creating an experience of unity within the audioviewer is front and center, and the sound/image relations in Wavelength are an integral part of this fact.

In Back and Forth as well, the idea of discreet units of sound and image is very apparent. Sitney explains as being made up of a moving camera which “passes a number of ‘events’ which become metaphors for the inflection of the camera (passing a ball, the eye movement of reading, window washing, etc.)” 47 . Relating these to concepts in contemporary dance, he suggests that “each activity is a rhythmic unit, self-enclosed, and joined to the subsequent activity only by the fact that they occur in the same place” 47 . This idea is especially interesting for present purposes if we think of the “place” in which these events are occurring as being ourselves. Our perception of these discrete events becomes the site of their relation to one another.

The discreteness of the elements in Back and Forth holds true for the sound as well. Much more organized and formal than in Wavelength, Back and Forth neatly positions the three traditional levels of film sound in what I will call separate conjunction. Speech, Music and Sound Effects have been the dominate categories for breaking down sound in film, though the boundaries between these are often blurred. I like to think of the three distinct and continuous sonic elements in Back and Forth as being representative of these categories while also trying to suggest their blurred boundaries in the ironic context of keeping them very separate. The three elements I am referring to are the whirring motor sound, the rhythmic metronomic sound, and the lower frequency sound that appears to correspond with camera’s coming to rest at its furthest edges of the pan. The whirring motor sound seems to comply most with the idea of sound effect, since it is the sound that offers most in the way of room ambience as is often established by the presence of mechanical noise of one kind or another. The higher frequency metronomic click is most associated with a traditional understanding of music since it has a steady rhythm and is the most-suggestive of being non-diegetic. Finally, the lower frequency rhythmic sound might be understood as being the speech of the film, since it is the most synchronized sonic event (apart from the brief human events that appear from time to time), and can also be understood as the inflection of the human gesture of the camera panning. The panning is not steady and is thus quite humanized, and the rhythm that accompanies the panning is thus not steady either and becomes the most irregular sonic layer of the three. This reminds me of speech which necessarily involves irregular rhythms, and the fact that speech is uttered by the main subjects of a film for which the pan of the camera acts as an analogy. The pan is the clearest indication of Snow’s own presence within the film as well, and this filmic gesture becomes a surrogate of his own speech.

These three elements work together in unison to a certain extent; the rhythmic elements gain speed while the whirring motor rises in pitch more or less in correspondence with one another, though the whirring motor starts its rise upward in frequency well before any significant increase in panning speed takes place, thereby creating an expectation for speed to be fulfilled on a visual level. This sonic precursor to its visual equivalent also brings up another important area in film sound: the effect of sound on image and vice versa. Chion discusses this using the term added value 49 . In Back and Forth, the speed of the panning seems to increase as a result of the increased pitch of the whirring motor, or at the very least we have a sense that something is happening in a more intense fashion than at the beginning of the film. This says a couple things about our perception of sound. First of all, rising pitch is a conditioned association we have with increased speed. We learn this through observation of mechanical devices that operate this way such as car motors and airplanes. It also illustrates that our perception of visual speed can be affected by sound alone, a fact that suggests the legitimacy of Chion’s ideas of transsensoriality.

Together, the three elements create a kind of symphony, though perhaps one more rooted in traditions of musique concrète. Certainly, the soundtrack alone bears much in common with minimalist composition based on the presentation of modules that remain distinct throughout the piece yet change with time in relation to their combination with other modules. The three elements in Back and Forth do remain distinct, and do not all change at the same rate, and so it becomes a minimalist exercise in calling attention to their separateness in conjunction with the overall experience of how they relate to each other over time. The idea of “Back and Forth” becomes especially evocative here, as one of the main effects of the kind of additive processes based on distinct modules is that, through the act of perception, we can move from one distinct module to the next, or choose to hear them all at once. In effect, we can move back and forth between the three sonic layers, or hear them in unison at our discretion. This in and of itself becomes an analogue for what Snow is doing visually, except that on the visual track it is the panning that guides us back and forth; it is not until the speed of the panning becomes very high that the two poles of the pan become merged with one another, superimposed by our eye’s inability to differentiate between the two at that high of a speed. Persistence of vision and the phi phenomenon take over, and the two sides of the room become one, if but for fleeting moments. The soundtrack prepares us for this by inviting us to play with the idea of separation vs. superimposition within our perception of the distinct sonic elements.

Wees notes Snow’s understanding that “in various philosophies and religions there has often been a suggestion, sometimes the dogma, that transcendence would be a fusion of opposites” 50 . In Back and Forth, Snow suggests that the fusion of opposites is that between the two sides of the room coming together through the velocity of the panning. Wees describes this as a qualitative change in perception resulting from a quantitative change in the camera’s movement 51 . I would suggest also that the sound in the film aids in this change in perception due to its own quantitative changes in pitch and speed of rhythm. This becomes, in the end, a phenomenological exercise as described by Annette Michelson in relation to the philosophy of Gérard Granel: “Phenomenology is an attempt to film, in slow motion, that which has been, owing to the manner in which it is seen in natural speed, not absolutely unseen, but missed, subject to oversight” 52 . Back and Forth, as with the other Snow films at issue here, presents a changing perspective on a specific cinematic unit of expression, and in so doing acts as a phenomenological inquiry into that expression, showing us how it can be perceived at different speeds and thus calling attention to that which is ordinarily missed in other modes of perception. Thus Michelson suggests that “epistemological inquiry and cinematic experience converge, as it were, in reciprocal mimesis” 53 . Again we have a simultaneous co-existence of ecstasy and analysis facilitated by the sound/image relationships that Snow puts forth.

La Région Centrale is the most transcendent and the most analytically exhaustive of Snow’s specifically structural films, and I believe the reasons for this are directly related to the relationship between sound and image. At first one may not know what to make of the repetitive electronic tones of varying pitch and in varying degrees of polyphonic combination. There seems most of the time to be a delayed synchronization between the image and these sounds, with the latter occurring just after a shift in camera movement. However, the sounds are also consistent throughout, though changing in intensity and frequency in more or less conjunction with the increasing speed and intensity of the camera movements. It is tempting to think of the sounds as being present merely as a function of their capacity for inducing trance-like states through repetition. Wees has suggested that this mantra-like approach to sonic repetition is also the main function on the sound in Back and Forth 50 . However, I believe that the key to unlocking the true connection between sound and image in La Région Centrale comes with the knowledge that “the soundtrack duplicates the sine waves and electronic pulses that controlled the camera’s movements…the soundtrack refers directly to the filmmaking machinery and its sonic guidance system. It draws the viewer’s attention away from the landscape per se and toward the means through which it becomes a ‘projected moving light image’” 55 . This direct connection between the sounds we hear and the images we see provides a strong basis of transcendence whereby the very soundscape of the film is the invisible yet tangible wavelength between the filmmaker and his camera; the sounds are that of the communication between mind and machine, the transcendence between human, machine, and space itself through radio-control.

There are two concepts in particular that Chion puts forth in Audio-Vision which will shed special light on this idea of the sound in La Région Centrale as being a mark of the transcendence upon which the film is founded. First of all, there is the acousmêtre:

…this acousmatic [heard but not seen] character whose relationship to the screen involves a specific kind of ambiguity and oscillation…We may define it as neither inside nor outside the image. It is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source – the body, the mouth – is not included. Nor is it outside, since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary “wing,” like a master of ceremonies or a witness, and it is implicated in the action, constantly about to be part of it 56 .

I suggest that we could extend the idea I put forth about the lower frequency rhythmic sound in Back and Forth being a surrogate for Snow’s own voice to the sound in La Région Centrale. Since the sound here is a direct reflection of Snow’s controlling of the camera, as well as being the sound of the camera’s voice (since it is through these sounds that the camera communicates), then the idea of this sound as indicating the presence of an acousmêtre becomes an interesting one. First we have Snow’s presence implicated in the sound as being not visibly on screen but which is felt through his communication with the camera. Indeed, Snow himself in La Région Centrale is an embodiment of the acousmêtre that Chion sees in the character of the Wizard in the land of Oz, whose voice we hear yet whose visible presence is shielded by the curtain behind which he hides. The wizard is within the frame, but is not seen. Snow is the wizard in La Région Centrale, only this time hiding behind a rock with his remote control, spewing his electronically enhanced voice out into the space that surrounds him. Secondly, we also have the camera itself being a character who is everpresent yet never seen. The shadow of the camera mount suggests the presence of this character, ever waiting just outside of view to become part of the action, much as does the acousmêtre in Chion’s sense.

One of the main characteristics of the acousmêtre as described by Chion is its ability to see all, and this is certainly the main function of the machine in Snow’s film. Another key feature of the acousmêtre is that of omnipotence, the power to act on a given situation. This exists also within La Région Centrale in that Snow’s presence and control over the camera, as evidenced by the soundtrack, gives him the power to act on the film’s creation and thus affect what we see as a result. Chion describes this omnipotence as being the power of textual speech as connected to the idea of magic, “when the words one utters have the power to become things” 57 . The words here are those of Snow’s intent as translated through the electronic language that the camera understands and that we hear on the soundtrack. This language is then translated into the object that is the film, and which becomes the key that people like de Duve latch onto when discussing the “objecthood” of modernist art and the disappearance of the subject within the realm of experience.

The acousmêtre is a transcendent figure, hovering somewhere between diegetic and non-diegetic status, transcending time and space through its omniscience and omnipotence. Another category of sound in Chion’s lexicon is that of “on-the-air” sound, that which also has the power to transcend the ordinary cinematic boundaries of time and space because of its status as being electronically reproduced 58 . The acousmêtre in La Région Centrale enjoys being part of this category as well, as the sounds of the communication between Snow and the machine are indeed electronically reproduced, and thus can drift through the space of the film without ever being defined as either diegetic or non-diegetic. So La Région Centrale becomes a fantastic embodiment of the transcendent qualities of an on-the-air acousmêtre, a very special kind of cinematic presence that can be felt in the sonic transmissions that literally ride the air-waves between Snow and his machine, balancing the human and the technological modules in a dance between sound and image that, when put together in the act of perception, becomes an experience indeed.

Ultimately, the real transcendence that we can experience with Snow’s films is that between audioviewer and the films themselves. Snow’s work engages the audioviewer in such a way that we can recombine the modules he lays out side by side and synthesize them through the act of perception, thereby bringing about the experience that the films make possible. This is what cinema should be about, and this is hinted at through the spiritual undertones at work within Snow’s analytical exhaustiveness. The sense that there is a kind of omnipresence transcending the normal boundaries of time, space and subject as exemplified by the concept of the acousmêtre is demonstrated by Snow’s use of sound/image relations. This omnipresence might also be understood in terms of that presence hovering between audioviewer and film, binding the two together along the channels of perception. Snow’s films might work as an analog for the mind’s processing of individual sensory channels; he lays out the modules individually so that they might be recombined. As Chion suggests, our mind takes in sensory information from each channel, but processes it in a space where the limitations of each sense are not demarcated and can flow freely between one another. The film becomes a shadow, then, of the mind’s own perceptual processes, and vice versa. This shadow, the haunting presence of the machine in La Région Centrale, is well summed up by the title of the documentary film on the making of Région that Wees ends his book with: A Humane Use of Technology.

Here yet again the seemingly inevitable comparisons between Snow and Brakhage emerge, and again the comparison yields more of a kinship than a disparity between the two. Sitney speaks precisely of the shadow of the machine and how it can be seen also in Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night (1958). He begins the comparison in his article “Michael Snow’s Cinema,” stating that Brakhage’s concern for the film was to humanize the camera through the use of constantly moving hand-held cinematography and presenting vision through the mediation of subjectivity. This subjectivity is exemplified in the film by the appearance of the central character’s shadow, which is all we ever see of him. Here he suggests that Snow has achieved a similar objective, with the “super-humanization” of the camera through its presentation of an extreme subjectivity through constant movement, embracing the idea of “a film that can reveal to human eyes more of the being of space than human eyes can see” 59 . It is not until he reworks the article for his chapter on structural cinema in Visionary Film, however, that Sitney fully realizes the relationship between the two films through the shadow as presence of the subject: “The Central Region looks back upon Anticipation of the Night, in which Brakhage’s shadow self becomes the shadow of the camera mount” 60 . A correlation is thus made between these two radically different filmmakers to show that they may, after all, be nothing more than separate modules waiting side by side to be combined through the act of human synthesis, each making this synthesis the goal of their films.

Brakhage and Snow both want to bridge the gap between human experience and cinema, each in their own way seeking to bond the act of experiencing film with the fact of experience itself. Both are interested in exploring the correlations between human perceptual processes and the processes of filmmaking, and both have succeeded in creating a cinema that makes us aware of these mutual processes while simultaneously providing us with an experience of the processes. We take the films within ourselves and create the synthesis that leads to experience by the very act of experiencing the films, and so we might end by thinking of the late Terrence McKenna and his quest for the externalization of mental objects through the use of the human body as a site of transcendence between the interior and exterior world. In True Hallucinations he describes his experiments with the human capacity for making sound through the use of the voice as being the key to the alchemist’s dream: we can resonate within and without, and the bridging of this gap between these two worlds through the production of sound can yield the actualization of mental objects in physical space 61 . Much the same with the cinema of Michael Snow. We bring the film into being by bridging the gap between our own perceptual processes and those put forth by the film. We resonate with the modules of the film that we have taken in, and an experience results.

Though the shadow may dance free of its sonic counterpart, the contract we draw up in our minds brings the object of the film into being in a way that would be impossible without the connection of the film/spectator circuit. In the end, this completion of the circuit is the magic of the omnipotent acousmêtre that Chion refers to: the power to act on a situation, in this case a film, and to bring it more fully into being it in so doing. We the audioviewers are the acousmêtres, hovering somewhere between the film itself and our experience of it, ever on the verge of breaking into the action, in constant communication with the film, while never quite appearing on screen. Interestingly, Snow has managed even to bridge that final gap of having the spectator appear on screen. There is a period of time following each appearance of the bright Xs on black backgrounds that punctuate La Région Centrale where their after-images are visible on the landscape of Région. As the camera moves, our corresponding eye movements are literally superimposed onto the film through the movement of the after-image, calling attention to the way that our eyes are reading the image while still being able to see it at the same time. This is the closest I have come to seeing myself within the frame of someone else’s film, and is the perfect reflection of Snow’s quest for simultaneous self-reflexivity and raw experience. If only I could get the lingering after-sounds of the film’s soundtrack out of my head after having been exposed to them incessantly for a period of 190 minutes…

The Michael Snow Dossier


  1. 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 UP, 2001.
  2. Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Claudia Gorbman, trans. New York: Columbia UP, 1995: 137.
  3. Wees, William C. Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992: 153.
  4. Wees 1992:x
  5. Snow, Michael. “Letter From Michael Snow to Peter Gidal on the Film Back and Forth.” The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism: Anthology Film Archives Series. New York: New York UP, 1978:187.
  6. Chion 1995:143.
  7. Chion 1995:137.
  8. Chion 1995:137.
  9. Chion 1995:136.
  10. Chion 1995:136.
  11. Wees 1992:93.
  12. Elder, Bruce + Michael Snow. “On sound, sound recording, making music of recorded sound, the duality of consciousness and its alienation from language, paradoxes arising from these and related matters.” The Michael Snow Project: music/sound 1948-1993: the performed and recorded music/sound of Michael Snow. Michael Snow, ed. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario: The Power Plant: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1994: 10 (as found in the PDF version of the article on the Digital Snow DVD-Rom).
  13. Chion 1995:137.
  14. Chion 1995:137.
  15. Wees 1992:154
  16. Wees 1992:161.
  17. de Duve, Thierry. “Michael Snow: The Deictics of Experience and Beyond.” Parachute. No. 78 (april/may/june 1995):28.
  18. de Duve 1995:28.
  19. de Duve 1995:28.
  20. de Duve 1995:29.
  21. de Duve 1995:29.
  22. de Duve 1995:29.
  23. de Duve 1995:32.
  24. de Duve 1995:34.
  25. de Duve 1995:34.
  26. Deleuze, Gilles + Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateuas. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987:6.
  27. Deleuze + Guattari 1988:6.
  28. Elder, Bruce. “Snow Amongst Musicians: Two Notes on Michael Snow and Music.” Spleen: 60.
  29. Elder:60.
  30. Sitney, P. Adams. “Michael Snow’s Cinema.” The Essential Cinema: Essays on the Films in the Collection of Anthology Film Archives. New York: New York UP, 1975: 220.
  31. Elder:62.
  32. Elder:63.
  33. Elder:63.
  34. de Duve 1995:34
  35. de Duve 34-35.
  36. Elder:63.
  37. Chion 1995:xvii.
  38. Chion 1995:xvii.
  39. Paine, Frank. “Sound Mixing and Apocalypse Now: an Interview with Walter Murch.” Film Sound: Theory and Practice. Elizabeth Weis + John Belton, eds. New York: Columbia UP, 1985:356.
  40. Sitney 1975:224.
  41. Wees 1992:155.
  42. Wees 1992:155.
  43. Sitney 1975:224-225.
  44. Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979:375.
  45. Sitney 1975:222-223.
  46. Michelson, Annette. “Toward Snow.” The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism: Anthology Film Archives Series. P. Adams Sitney, ed. New York: New York UP, 1978:174.
  47. Sitney 1975:223.
  48. Sitney 1975:223.
  49. Chion 1995:5.
  50. Wees 1992:165.
  51. Wees 1992:165
  52. Michelson 1975:172.
  53. Michelson 1975:173.
  54. Wees 1992:165.
  55. Wees 1992:167.
  56. Chion 1995:129.
  57. Chion 1995:130.
  58. Chion 1995:76.
  59. Sitney 1975:228.
  60. Sitney 1979:384.
  61. McKenna, Terrence. True Hallucinations. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Transcending the Fragmentation of Experience

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 6, Issue 11 / November 2002 Essays   Film Reviews   avant-garde   canadian cinema   experimental   michael snow   people_snow   sound