Impulse: Electronic Tonalities in Cinema

The Cine-Files, issue 11 (fall 2016)

Brian Cantrell

Graduate Student, School of Cinematic Arts, USC



Electronic sound, understood as sound generated or processed electronically that retains the qualitative aural properties of its electronic origins, is so commonplace in contemporary film and media as to go unnoticed by most audiences. Digital technologies have rendered recorded and computationally synthesized sound so thoroughly malleable that a composer may conjure alien sonic worlds with a few clicks of the mouse. Today, electronic sound is simply one more color on the sound designer’s palette. When the buzz and drone of analog synthesizers are used transparently or brought to the forefront of a film’s music or sound effects, it is typically used as an auditory shorthand for sci-fi nostalgia, high-tech interfaces, or cyberpunk action.

Historically, however, the analogue electronic instrument was put to less expected semiotic uses by filmmakers seeking to exploit these instruments’ ethereal tones. This video essay examines the use of analogue electronic instruments drawn from the musical avant-garde for the creation of both film scores and sound effects that evoke liminal states, the passage of dark impulses or monsters of the id across physical and psychological thresholds, and transitions between material and immaterial worlds. This examination gestures toward a genealogical study of electronic sound in film, focusing on the use of experimental analogue synthesizers.



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The Cine-Files, issue 11 (fall 2016)