The Pealing of a Bell on a Silent Night:
Jen Frankel Reads Random S#it ep 1.1
original airdate: Jan 6, 2017
For anyone who loves cinema, sound is just as important as the visual image to storytelling. In the debut episode of the JFRRS! Podcast, Jen reads an essay on the use of music and sound effects in Akira Kurosawa’s classic films including Rashomon (left) and Seven Samurai.
Transcript follows: some differences between actual recorded content and script is not just possible but likely!
JFFRS Ep 1.1
“Serenity is the privilege of hearing a sound evoked by the gentle jump of a sparrow accompanied by the sound of a falling leaf.”
Hello and welcome to the first episode of the JFRRS podcast, or, if you’re in a Not Safe For Work be damned environment, Jen Frankel Reads Random Shit. I am Jen Frankel, a writer of said random shit, but at the beginning of this episode, you heard me read a quote from Jaroslav Havelka. I hope to share with you some words of wisdom on life and writing in particular over the course of this podcast, from some of my favourite authors and thinkers on the subject.
You’ve probably heard it said that writing is a lonely profession. There’s something to that, but it’s also true that writers often stand just outside of the world, either on purpose or because they just can’t help it. I was once at an exhibition of new pointillist paintings – you know, the ones made up of tiny dots of colour – and the gallery was in a house so tiny that you literally could not stand far enough back for the pictures to make sense. Being a writer is like that, you need to step back to see the whole picture sometimes.
And taking THAT lesson from my experience also makes me focus less on the way I put my foot right in my mouth by saying, “You just can’t get far enough away from these paintings.” Just when the artist was standing right next to me.
Context. Perspective. Yes, they can make you take a few steps back to get a sense of the entirety of the thing you’re considering. Or you can move in close and see details that were invisible before, a single hair, or a tiny bug, an amoeba, an atom, a quark.
On this episode, I’m going to read you an essay about the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa which delves a little into how both the grandiose and the minute can amaze in the hands of a master. If art is about communication, Kurosawa spoke in a way that made me excited to listen. This is The Pealing of a Bell on a Silent Night.
“Hearkening to the pealing of a bell on a silent night, one may be awakened from a dream of dreams. Gazing at the reflection of the moon on a transparent pool, one may visualize a spiritual body in one’s physical body.” A Chinese Garden of Serenity by Hung Tzu-Ch’eng
The films of Akira Kurosawa are visually stunning. The scope and depth to capture the imaginations of Western, as well as Eastern, audiences. Every moment in a Kurosawa film provides the viewer with breathtaking precision of choreography. Still, every character and motive rings true, as in a well-executed play. Kurosawa understands every device of modern cinema. He utilizes every method of storytelling to a level of excellence rarely seen in any other productions.
Especially outstanding is Kurosawa’s use of sound, both to set mood and underscore action. It is only fitting in a movie of the epic grandeur of The Seven Samurai that the music and sound effects should take the story above conventional adventure, to turn it into legend.
One of Kurosawa’s talents is to use music vividly enough to almost preclude the need for the images themselves. The Seven Samurai opens with heavy, ponderous drumbeats, changing to the overwhelming percussion of hoofbeats, the ominous approach of the bandits. Even without visuals, this scene could be accurately described by someone listening to the soundtrack.
Music in The Seven Samurai never resembles the pervasive background hum of modern Hollywood soundtrack. It is used more as an effect, in the same manner as other sound is added. It is obvious Kurosawa gave as much thought to the inclusion of music as to the images. For example, when the farmers arrive in town to look for their samurai, the music is light, almost comical. It’s setting an easy tone to the first days’ search, and almost giving the audience permission to see the humor in the farmers’ misfortunes.
Later, despair settles on them as they realize they can no longer afford to eat if they expect to pay samurai, if samurai they can even find. A sitar plucks single notes, lending a mood of loneliness and depression.
Another method used by Kurosawa to use sound to its fullest is the idea of personal, or symbolic, themes. Several characters have music or sounds that alert us to their presence. Indeed, the whole well-being of the farmers’ village seems hinged on the sounds of a single bird chirping. As long as the bird chirps, everything is safe. When the bird is silent, there is a reason.
The old grandfather has a very specific theme always associated with him that becomes vital in the latter portion of the film; that of the rhythmic thump of the waterwheel. Whenever the farmers, or later, the samurai, visit the grandfather, Kurosawa has laid over a very heavy track of thumps, of the millwheel in operation. Near the end of the film, when the bandits close in on the village. It is obvious some number of houses will need to be sacrificed because they cannot be adequately defended. It is the repeated thump as the camera focuses on the mill from the distance that reminds us that the grandfather is in danger.
Another way Kurosawa uses sound to manipulate and intensify the involvement of the audience is probably the most obvious, as it is the most striking. This is the simple use of foley and ambience sound that is basic to filmmaking. Kurosawa, however, is not content to lay sound to match every sound that might have been present at the time each scene was shot. One sound is usually picked out as having more importance than the others. It is only this sound that the audience hears.
One example of this is the use of the noise of the falling rain. Repeatedly, this becomes a symbol of despair, especially when no other sound is audible. It is hard to forget the scene in which the farmers realize their crop has ripened. The drumming rain counterpoints the earlier hoofbeats of the bandits’ horses.
In Rashomon, another very powerful example exists. During the scene in which the woman conjures the spirit of her dead husband, the visual suggests a strong wind, whipping her hair and garments. But the soundtrack contains only drumbeats and the spirit’s voice, upsetting the reality of the scene. It allows that mystical things may happen, even in a film otherwise based outside the metaphysical.
Kurosawa has a mastery of the film language that creates the magic of his movies. A storytelling ability that is the culmination of his control of sound, plot, and image. All the planning however does not make a film like the Seven Samurai look contrived, just very well made. The attention paid to sound and music is certainly one of the most valuable lessons to be taken by any student of his work.
I actually did write that essay for a class when I attended art school. In coming weeks, I’ll be sharing with you some purpose-written work like pieces of reporting or other journalistic explorations. Some short fiction, poetry, excerpts from longer work, and lyrics. On subjects from time travel to the Titanic and in a multitude of genres. I am, as you might see, as much a random writer as a reader of random things.
I used to say that the reason I write is that short of becoming a game show contestant. There’s really no other profession that allows me to use all the useful and useless random knowledge that I accumulate. I’m a fact sponge. I love learning things, and when I do, those things rattle around with other things and sometimes make new things.
I’ve also been known to say that, for a creative person, it’s when the voices in your head STOP that you know you’re sick.
As I continue this podcast, I hope to share some insights into the writerly mind. Some extreme close-ups as well as some vistas. Because seeing a person is as difficult as seeing a pointillist painting. You get different impressions depending on how far away you are and how closely you look. I’d like to let you get to know me through my words. And I’d like to get to know you too through yours.
That’s all for this first episode of Jen Frankel Reads Random Shit. I hope you’ll explore the films of Akira Kurosawa, like The Seven Samurai and Rashamon, and maybe look up Jaroslav Havelka as well.
See you next time, when yes, I shall have more random shit for your listening pleasure.