Album: Amerika, Birth of Primary Cinema From The Spirit Of Sound
Author: Roger Mills
Frank Rothkamm will need little introduction for Furthernoise readers. He has been both a contributor and guest reviewer, and continues to push the boundaries of conceptual music, sound and film theory within contemporary media discourse. This review examines what he describes as the final chapter in his self proclaimed "Magnus Opus", as the final Tetralogy encompassing the Birth of Primary Cinema from the Spirit of Sound DVD, and accompanying soundtrack Amerika. They are at once, both an aesthetic artifact, and critique of current philosophy behind Hollywood motion picture making, serving to highlight issues of human perception in an age of pixel-event overload.
In 1994 the composer Michel Chion commented, “the question of listening with the ear is inseparable from that of listening with the mind, just as looking is with seeing. In other words, in order to describe perceptual phenomena, we must take into account that conscious and active perception is only one part of a wider perceptual field in operation. In the cinema to look is to explore, at once spatially and temporally, in a “given-to-see” (field of vision) that has limits contained by the screen. But listening, for its part, explores in a field of audition that is given or even imposed on the ear, this aural field is much less limited or confined, its contours uncertain and changing” .
Chion suggests that to comprehend “perceptual phenomena”, we must look to the modalities of listening as a way of understanding our relationship to it. His writings on sound in cinema are acute in their observations of the psychological nature of the fusion of sound and image, arguing that it is only by understanding how one listens to sound, that its role in deciphering the moving image becomes clear. In his DVD Birth of Primary Cinema from the Spirit of Sound, Frank Rothkamm develops a related notion, focusing on how sound can once again facilitate an engagement with the single image. He suggests that in order to create ever bigger cinematic spectacles, Hollywood loads so much action-as-information (colour pixels, events, frequency) into each frame, that we are losing the ability to enjoy and comprehend the single image. He argues that auditory perception becomes principal mediator in our understanding of the single image, intimating that in this scenario, “sound is the primary cinema” and, "in an attempt to find meaning, our auditory perception is heightened to compensate for the lack of visual clues”. Echoing Chion's "listening with the mind", to once again re-view the single image, as heard by consciousness.
To illustrate this Rothkamm has produced a series of single image short films, shot in the wilds outside Los Angeles. They are one-shot vignettes of natural locations with near imperceptible movement or change, apart from small camera movements or a breeze on shrubbery or the dust of the desert soil. They are snapshots in time, accompanied by a non-diagetic soundtrack of what might be described as new classical music piano pieces, played on Wurlitzer piano sourced from a city thrift shop (UK charity shop). Some of these tracks are original compositions and others deconstruct melodic fragments of known tunes such as “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child”. They are well executed, single take performances, which as always with Rothkamm inject an atmosphere of ambiguity into the work, and reminiscent of the accompaniment to silent films in dusty old cinemas of the 1950's. What is interesting is the use of sound not implied to be present in the scene, which might have been tempting, even if it were subtle location atmospheres. What this achieves is a temporal trajectory in an otherwise suspended time flow. In Rothkamm’s words “sound is not a soundtrack added to images but it appears that images arise from sounds[…] the image is born from sound”.
The Birth of Primary Cinema from the Spirit of Sound is shot in high definition film, dynamically recreating a marking of space-by-time in a mise-en-scène loaded with meaning rather than action. Released as a DVD and CD soundtrack, the collection of films are also available to view in lower resolution on YouTube, serving as a conceptual commentary on what Rothkamm describes will “exoterically entice[s] the YouTube self to see everything that is and not is […] to represent a supermodern antithesis to YouTube via YouTube”. This is an important conceptual work contributing much to the discussion on the intellectual effects of pumping ever more action and special effects into each frame, as the Hollywood Inc.'s compete to out do each other. It also draws attention to the results of such "pixel fatigue" on our attention spans and perception of the "single image" inherent in the environments we inhabit but think nothing about. Rothkamm reminds us, that as we have become used to absorbing vast amounts of visual and audio stimuli, the more we see the less we understand.
Birth of Primary Cinema from the Spirit of Sound and Amerika act as both theoretical critique and educational artifacts that should be included as core indicative texts in all film and sound design courses. Rothkamm makes insightful observations about the ability of the Holllywood motion picture to ever satiate "spectacle-tolerant" minds, craving more pixels per frame, while forgetting what it is to look at, and comprehend the single image.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
The Band Plays On
Pomp and Circumstance
Your in the Army Now
 Chion, M (1994) Audio Vision: Sound on Screen, Columbia University Press.
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