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‘There must be a poetry of sound that none of us knows…’ Early British documentary film and the prefiguring of musique concrète

Cox, Geoffrey (2016) ‘There must be a poetry of sound that none of us knows…’ Early British documentary film and the prefiguring of musique concrète. In: Alternative Histories of Electronic Music Conference, 14-16 Apr 2016, The Science Museum Research Centre, Queen’s Gate, London. (Unpublished)

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Shortly before his death in February 1972, John Grierson, the ‘father’ of documentary (and inventor of the term), sardonically remarked that ‘of course the French are always finding phrases and discovering terms for things…when I was in Cannes, invited by Jean Cocteau, to hear this amazing new world of musique concrète, I laughed if I did not sneer because it’s something we’d been all playing with a long time before, maybe twelve years’. The work of the British documentary movement which he oversaw in the 1930s is testament to this with Walter Leigh’s title music for the GPO Film Unit’s 6.30 Collection (1934) orchestrated for an ensemble made up of everyday objects and a trumpet, Benjamin Britten working alongside Alberto Cavalcanti, ‘imagining a kind of musique concrète’ in the scores and sound design for Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936), and Humphrey Jennings’ ‘symphony of sound, evocatively blending all kinds of music, the natural sounds of the city’ in Listen to Britain (1942).
By way of Grierson, the work of the British documentary movement was informed by Russian documentary filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov who as early as 1916 created a ‘laboratory of hearing’ declaring ‘the need to enlarge our ability to organize sound…to transcend the limits of ordinary music. I decided that the concept of sound included all of the audible world’. Technological limitations at the time made his idea all but impossible but he eventually realised them in his first sound film, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Don Basin (1930), of which Charlie Chaplin said that he would never have imagined that ‘these mechanical sounds [the rhythmic sounds of Stalinist industry] could be arranged to sound so beautiful. I regard it as one of the most exhilarating symphonies I have heard. Mr. Dziga Vertov is a musician’. In very similar terms Walter Ruttmann declared in 1929 that ‘everything audible in the world becomes material’ leading to his proto Hörspiel work (made using film stock), Wochenende (1930) ‘a study in sound-montage…In Weekend sound was an end itself’ (Ruttmann 1933).
This presentation therefore aims to draw attention to the various threads of early documentary filmmaking that foreshadowed the sound experiments of Pierre Schaffer with a focus on early British documentary. It will challenge the notion that musique concrète’s lineage lies mainly in the Futurists’ declarations, through Cage’s ‘emancipation’ of noise, to Schaeffer’s codifications.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
Schools: School of Music, Humanities and Media
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Geoffrey Cox
Date Deposited: 11 May 2016 07:28
Last Modified: 11 May 2016 07:36


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