Film concerts seem to be everywhere at the moment. You can book tickets to watch La La Land, Jaws, and The Adams Family with a live orchestra. The aim is to take these wonderful scores and have them performed live with the film being projected on a large scale. Last weekend I went to see Harry Potter and the Philsopher’s Stone at the Royal Albert hall with a live orchestra. John Williams’ score for the first Harry Potter film captures the magical surroundings and produces musical threads that are taken and expanded in the subsequent films. When a film is shown in this way, with a live orchestra, immediately something in the cinematic experience has changed. A section of the soundtrack, for want of a better word, is not being played through a speaker system, but is instead performed live in front of the audience. This musical section is separated from its filmic brethren and instead of existing as a recording is now live. It is now a performance. There is, therefore a separation from the norms of cinema. Normally with orchestral music in cinema, the orchestra plays the music and then gets recorded and then place alongside the dialogue, sound effects and visual track.
The films in concert events introduce the arena of the live into film. When a film is watched at home, unless you have an expensive home cinema system, the sound comes at you from a single point of origin, usually the same area as the visuals. This is obviously a huge difference from the live orchestra. However, the differences between a live orchestra and a surround system in a cinema is, on the surface, harder to spot. Like the sound at the royal albert hall, cinematic sound surrounds the audience. Unlike, cinema sound however, live orchestral sound has a viewable point of origin. I can see each pluck of the harp and hear its corresponding sound. Live orchestral sound is a softer experience, still visceral but not as strong as cinematic sound. Cinematic surround sound is pumped through the audience, their bodies feeling each vibration. They become part of this architecture. Cinematic sound seems violent when compared to live orchestral sound. Writing in his book ‘Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound’, Don Ihde states that: “I hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in an acoustically excellent auditorium, I suddenly find myself immersed in sound that surrounds me.” This immersion is softer than the cinema. Cinematic sound presents a full immersion, a situation where the boundaries of the subject become blurred as it becomes blended within sound, architecture and projection. A live orchestra will not achieve this because of the viewable point of origin.
I recently wrote about the boundaries of the subject within cinema during my MA dissertation. Within this text, I explored the differences between audiovisual sound within a gallery and a cinema. In order to do this, I used the uproar around Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’. This exploration led me to examine the inherent vococentrism within cinema. Michel Chion explores vococentrism within ‘Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen’ and ‘The Voice in Cinema’. Within ‘Audio-Vision’ Chion states that: “Cinema is a vococentric or, more precisely, a verbocentric phenomenon.” There is a privileging of the voice. In his later book, ‘The Voice in Cinema’, Chion goes further in defining this sonic quality and states that there is a hierarchy of perception within cinema and the voice sits at the top. Other sounds are dimmed in respect of the voice. Normally our own perception does this to some extent, cinematic sound heightens this process and takes it to an extreme. When an orchestra is recorded and then translated to form a film, it becomes part of the system. It must bow its head in reverence to the voice.
A live orchestra has not been passed through the vococentric filter before being heard by the audience. In fact, what happened is that it almost sat as a sonic equal to the voices being heard via the speakers next to the projection. To counter this the film was shown with subtitles for the dialogue, in case any sections of the voice got lost within the live-ness of the orchestra. There is a certain amount of grit in every live performance, including in very polished orchestral performances at The Royal Albert Hall. This is due to the fact that there are live bodies performing and the presence of this adds a certain layer of grit and of rawness to the event. In his text ‘Nostalgia, Masculinist Discourse and Authoritarianism in John Williams’ Scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Neil Lerner discusses another film for which John Williams composed the orchestral music for: ‘Star Wars’: “As performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and channelled through a Dolby sound system, this music connotes something without grit; on the contrary, it gleans and shines.” Now most of the shine found in the music of Star Wars is the meeting of Williams’ score plus the Dolby sound system. If the music were to be performed live, it would carry a certain amount of grit found in a live performance. This is not to say that seeing an orchestra perform ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ or ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’ has the same level of raw energy and grit that going to watch Green Day live carries. However, there is still something there in a live performance, which is transformed with a recording and a Dolby sound system.
There is different level of absorption when there is a live orchestra performing alongside a film. The experience is one of a constant switching. There is not a complete loss of bodily awareness due to the orchestra that constantly attempts to ground you in the performative moment. The event is a constant flip flopping between filmic absorption and the dragging back of the subject to the auditorium and to the performative element.
Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, 1994, Columbia University Press
Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, 1999, Columbia University Press
Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, 2007, State University of New York Press
Neil Lerner, Nostalgia, Masculinist Discourse and Authoritarianism in John Williams’ Scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In: Off The Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema, edited by Philip Hayward, 2004, John Libbey Publishing