The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) 67-72
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An Interview with Rick Altman
VLT: The field of sound studies began with a concentration on film music but has increasingly considered cinematic sound environments through attempts to account for the larger sound environment created in a given film. Your work has underlined the need to deal with sound in the so-called silent era, inviting others to consider movie theaters as acoustic spaces, and to consider the role of audiences in any given setting. What remains to be examined once we consider cinema as an event?
RA: Jean-Louis Comolli properly alerted us to the fact that a term and concept as basic and simple as the "close-up" has a history. Because of the cultural work done by the cinema industry, what counts as a close-up in one period may not be the same as what counts as a close-up in another era. Though we have assimilated this insight into our textual theories, we have been slow to recognize the importance of this claim for terms such as "spectator" and "audience" as well as broader concepts like "film exhibition" and even "film sound." As I suggested in "Film Sound—All of It" (Iris : 27), the nineteenth century's paradoxical attempts simultaneously to democratize and silence theater audiences continued during the first twenty years of film history, eventually producing the respectfully screen-oriented audiences we now consider canonical. Banishing ballyhoo from the street and all forms of active participation from the theater, this movement joined a general tendency to transform an interactive performance medium into the text-based phenomenon we imply today when we speak of film exhibition.
If we want to understand film's cultural impact, we must refuse to be governed by the ideological work that has restricted our understanding of cinema to textual images and sounds. Instead, we need to consider the many methods the film industry has used to "extend" its texts: sheet music and fan magazines in the teens and twenties, radio programs and actor lookalike contests in the thirties and forties, original cast albums and theme songs in the fifties and sixties, talk shows and photo ops in the seventies and eighties, sound track CDs and web sites in the nineties and the new century. Not to mention audience participation outside the theater: fan frenzy from Valentino to Sinatra and Elvis to Madonna, union activity from Disney to SAG, L.A. crowds expressing themselves over Boyz N the Hood or New Jack City, and nonnormative behavior for selected films, venues, or populations. Only when film projection is understood as part of an increasingly complex event can we hope to reverse the conservative influence so central to audience-taming and text-centered movements.
This point brings me around, finally, to the first part of your question. As I see it, the study of film music has actually proven more conservative than Hollywood itself. Whereas the film industry labored mightily to concentrate our attention on the movie theater and its screen, as if films were located there and there only, film music critics have repeatedly refused to go even that far, attending instead to the composer's original score for the film, before it was "bowdlerized" by the final film mix. Until recently, a "film music" recording was more likely to offer the audible record of a Steiner or Stalling score than the sound of an actual film. Fortunately, we are now witnessing a change both in the music industry, with more and more recordings from the film itself, and in music scholarship, with increasing attention to the interaction between a film's music and its dialogue, sound effects, and images.
VLT:What would be an ideal cinematic sound experience? In your Living Nickelodeon performances, you attempt to re-create the sonic environment of the era, which emphasizes audience participation. For you, how does this experience compare to the moviegoing experience in the present day?
RA: For me, an ideal cinematic sound experience is one that makes me hear things I hadn't noticed before. [End Page 67...