Towards the end of the 1920s cinema underwent a crucial transformation - from a visual medium to an audiovisual one. What were the specifics of this process in the Russian context? How was the audience affected? How did the narrative strategies of the medium change? To what extent were these changes determined by the shift of political and technological regimes? What were the different approaches to film sound at its very beginnings in various national cinemas? How did their semantic hierarchies of word, music and noise vary? And in what categories is the theorization of film sound still insufficient? These were some of the questions discussed at the conference organized by Dmitri Zakharine at the University of Konstanz under the title “Stumm oder vertont. Krisen und Neuanfänge in der Filmkunst um 1930“ (Silent or sound. Crises and New Beginnings in Film Art of the 1930s“).
The discussion intersected a number of disciplines ranging from media anthropology, film theory and history, sociology and cultural studies, to the history of sound recording, acoustics, and the theory of reproduced sound.
The conference opened with BARBARA FLÜCKIGER’s introduction to the two main opposing film sound ideologies – the Russian call for contrapuntal use of image and sound, formulated in the famous Statement on Sound (1928) versus the conventions of Hollywood film sound practice, which mostly adhered to a strict synchronization. A selection of technical and cultural aspects of the latter as well as several issues of cognitive psychology involved in the synchronization of the visual and acoustical elements were explained.
After a brief outline of the history of sound recording, Flückiger focused on the hierarchy of speech and image in national cinemas. Russian cinema stood for the culture of “minimal comprehensibility” that tends to be related to editing and acoustical creativity, whereas the American or German cinemas exemplified the culture of “maximal comprehensibility” and were, at their beginnings, proponents of the “continuity system” - a highly standardized system of (sound) editing, which matches spatial and temporal relations from shot to shot in order to maintain continuous and clear narrative action.
SABINE HÄNSGEN traced the fundamental transformations in the dispositive of cinema caused by the introduction of sound, and their consequences for the aesthetics of the medium. The concurrence of sound and image, and hence voice and figure, brought not only a radically new organization of space, time and narrative, but demanded a new mode of perception from the spectator. The different approaches to the idea of synchronicity in American and Soviet cinema were linked to a broader cultural-political background. In the U.S., the speedy takeover of sound technologies was motivated primarily by commercial considerations, while the media revolution in the Soviet Union, preceded by hypertrophy of theories and visions, coincided with fundamental turns on the political level. For the first time, Chion’s terminology was applied on the Soviet context, in which the ambiguity of ‘audiovision’ has a particular relevance – firstly as a specific cooperation of audio and visual technology on the screen, secondly in the sense of visionary fantasies about the coming of sound and the possibilities of acoustical creativity it may open.
NATASCHA DRUBEK-MEYER analyzed the genre of the early Soviet musical in the first half of the 1930s, a time when the mere use of sound in film was still considered experimental, no matter how a/synchronous its relation to the image was. A close reading of Igor Savchenko’s collectivization musical Garmon (Accordion, 1934), the very first Soviet musical film, showed the principal difference in the role that music played within the film narrative in Soviet and American musicals. Even the level of “musical numbers” reaffirmed the Soviet emphasis on montage, where music (as well as sound in general) is not motivated by the plot, does not ensue from the diegesis of the film but rather occupies a status of its own. Drubek-Meyer also emphasized the different use of noises, such as the thumping of machines or the sound of rainfall, which, in the American musical, serve rather as a gate or intro to the musical numbers, whereas in the early Soviet tradition they become acoustical objects of their own semantic significance.
OKSANA BULGAKOVA pointed to the way the advent of film sound changed the semantics of film silence – the coming of sound paradoxically turned silence into an expressive element and for the first time opened up the possibility of “hearing silence”. Bulgakova outlined the different categories introduced into the field of film sound by the German, French and American school: Fritz Lang’s selective subjective vision, mediated by acoustic characteristics, and his conception of silence as a neutral zero point; René Clair’s use of partial vision and the “we hear but do not see” principle; as well as the American phenomenon of ‘Mickey Mousing’ – the absolute coincidence of musical accents with the accents of bodily movement. In the discussion of the Soviet school’s approach to early film sound, framed by the categories of noise, silence and voice, Bulgakova concentrated on Vertov’s use of noises charged with a particular semantic energy, noises which represent acoustical signs. This phenomenon was demonstrated on Vertov’s first sound film, the Symphony of the Donbass (1930), the soundtrack of which consists mainly of elements of an industrial soundscape - decodable as meaningful acoustical signs only to the working class, as Vertov claimed.
RASHIT JANGIROW’S paper dealt with the early attempts at film sonification in Russia from the so far unresearched perspective of the émigré critics, such as Solomon Polyakov (Litovtsev) or Sergei Volkonsky, whose attitude toward the novelty of film sound was rather skeptical, as was the case with many contemporary film critics, who believed that the poetics of the cinematic medium lies precisely in its silence. Jangirow also explored the beginnings of Russian sound film abroad, such as Nicolas Evreinoff’s production in France. With a screening of Romance Sentimentale (1930), a short surrealist film made by Grigori Alexandrov and Sergei Eisenstein, Jangirow showed their only realization of the “contrapuntal use of sound” that they postulated together with Vsevolod Pudovkin in the Statement on Sound.
ROLAND KAZARJAN, a sound designer, theoretician and practitioner, stressed that film sound is mostly understood and discussed in terms of three categories: music, speech and sound, while “sound as such”, the carrier of spatial characteristics is rarely analyzed. Based on the elementary asymmetry of a two-dimensional image and an ever three-dimensional sound, Kazarjan devoted his contribution to the principal question: what is the influence of space on the semantics of sound? From a practitioner’s point of view, in the field of film sound, the term – “akustika kadra” (the acoustics of a shot) is understood as the relationship between the source of sound and the space where the sound is realized. The design itself is then never independent of the image, and the kernel of the profession lies precisely in the combination of the image and sound and the affect that this combination creates. It is an interaction of light, a cosmic phenomenon, and sound, an earthly element, Kazarjan concluded.
VALERIE POZNER’s paper, based on extensive field research in film archives all over Russia, highlighted the fact that most of the vast experimental intentions provoked by the coming of film sound towards the end of the 1920s remained unrealized - in the Soviet context more than anywhere else – due not only to the incongruity of the highly self-reflective aesthetic repercussions of the technological revolution in the works of the avant-garde directors with the goals of the ascending political regime, but also to insufficient financial and technological capacities.
JAN LEVCHENKO analyzed the experimental soundtrack of the first Russian sound film Odna (Alone, 1931) directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, originally as a silent film. Eventually, the film was released in 1931 in a sound version and provided with a score by Shostakovich. The soundtrack lacks synchronized dialogue almost entirely, combining subtitles with a rich conceptual use of noise and everyday sounds. Levchenko also presented an ambitious project launched by a Moscow company “Drugoje kino” (Alternative Cinema), which started to publish some of the classics of Russian silent film (e.g.Yevgeni Bauer, Dziga Vertov) along with contemporary experimental soundtracks.
From a rather philological standpoint, ARKADIJ BLUMBAUM examined one of the cult Soviet films - Strogiy yunosha (A Severe Young Man, 1934) written by Yuri Olesha and directed by Abram Room. The film was immediately banned for its ideological demerits and unacceptable formalism. Blumbaum subjected Olesha’s screenplay and Room’s realization to an intertextual analysis, referring to its symbolist inspiration as well as to the interrelatedness with concrete political documents and speeches of the time, or images popular in the Soviet art of the 1930s. Olesha’s play with the motives of ‘youth’, ‘genius’ or ‘inequality’ designed for the new medium of sound film was interpreted
in the context of the cultural-political ideology of a transition from the “old world” to the “new one”.
IGOR SMIRNOV turned his attention to the emergence of new genres, such as musical comedies, brought on by the technological shift, as well as to the consequent reconfiguration of relations between literature, theatre and film. Another inevitable transformation was that of the spectatorship - from an active reception, interpretation and completion of the exclusively visual message to a more passive position when confronted with the polymedial sound film. Smirnov drew a parallel between the evolution of cinema and ritual culture – the mythogenic tendency of the Soviet cinema in the 1930s and 1940s manifested in the retelling of classical myths and the generation of new ones, with Stalin on the position of the absolute addressee. In the Soviet context, the cinema also played a crucial role in the ritualization of the revolution.
NADEZHDA GRIGOREVA examined an opposition of concepts – “ecstasy” and “enthusiasm” - permeating the work of two leading directors of the Russian avant-garde cinema – Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. These concepts were interpreted not only in terms of the directors’ commitment to participate in the zeal of constructing a new society imposed from above, but also as two different ways of constructing a mystical cinematic anthropology on the intersection of political and medial revolutions. In their account, sound is understood as a reference to the transcendental, and the transition to sound is seen as a mediation of a mystical experience to the spectator.
DMITRI ZAKHARINE approached the question of concurrences and differences between the first directors and spectators of early sound films from the perspective of media anthropology. Tracing the audiovisual associations bound to social practices of a specific historical context, he aimed to determine the specifics of the acoustical landscape in Russia of the 1930s and its reverberations in the sound films of the period. Primarily the communal signals of notification - such as factory whistles, sirens, plaudits and bell chiming – are acoustical symbols which were, in the Russian context, characterized by instability and anthropomorphism. This instability causes the superseding of one acoustical symbol by another, such as the church bell and the factory siren, following the turnover of the sociopolitical system, while the anthropomorphism ascribes the signals of notification the attributes of a human voice. The generous use of noise in the latter half of the 1920s was supported by the contemporary belief in its association with naturalness and authenticity of depiction. According to Zakharine’s illuminating conclusion, noise became a symbol of authenticity in early Russian cinema.
Overall, the conference revealed in closer perspective the specific system of semantic validity associated with various forms of sound (music, word and noise) in early Russian cinema tradition. It was a tradition that paid so much attention to abstract sound in an effort to preserve greater semantic openness and freedom of audio-vision at its very formation, to elaborate on the montage principle developed within the silent era, to revolt against theatrical practices, which represented the initial inspiration of the cinematic medium but simultaneously seemed to threaten the autonomy of its means of expression and aesthetics, and to contradict the American illustrative strategy in relating sound to image. By placing emphasis on the authenticity of noise, predominantly drawn from the gamut of everyday sounds in the urban and proletarian soundscape of the time, early Russian cinema laid the foundations of documentary sound, a field that is yet to be developed and theorized.