Vimeo / Music, Sound, and the Moving Image
My audiovisual essay begins with a confession: ‘In life and in film, I have a fondness for the sound of footsteps.’ When I was a child, the loud sounds of clicking heels in particular impressed me. When I heard people’s steps in the echoey halls of my father’s workplace or in the streets of big cities, they embodied all the confidence and presence that I associated with adulthood. Early on, this fascination with certain footstep sounds became mixed with a growing interest in old movies, above all the films of Alfred Hitchcock, which were ever-present on German television when I grew up. Due in part to Hitchcock’s careful, hierarchical approach to sound balance, and perhaps also to historical and technological conventions in sound recording and mixing1 as well as trends in shoe manufacturing and fashion, the sounds of Cary Grant’s, Tipi Hedren’s, and James Stewart’s heels seemed to produce more distinct and/or affirmative sounds than those of my own world and time, and they became attached to my Ur-fascination with cinema’s ability to capture and replay a moment in time. The presence I heard in their footsteps made them feel intensely past and present at the same time–an acoustic version of the Barthesian ‘That-has-been’ (Barthes, 1980, pp.76–78). Of course, this particular ‘That-has-been’ is removed to a degree because the sounds’ indexical trace that as a young cinephile I had attached to the images on the screen actually leads back to the invisible, off-screen foley artists who performed many of the actors’ sound effects at a given moment in the past.
The multiplicity of implied, performed, audible, and visual bodies that arises from this notion contributes further complexity to what Michel Chion defines as sound’s primary ‘added value’: ‘the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression, in the immediate or remembered experience one has of it, that this information or expression “naturally” comes from what is seen’ (Chion, 1994, p.5). It is only through this audiovisual illusion of synchresis that we assume an indexical connection between the visible actors on screen and the acoustic bodies we hear. This audiovisual essay does not attempt to provide a historical and/or industry-specific account of foley practices, which film scholarship (including studies of Hitchcock’s work) tends to ignore.2 However, I hope that its foregrounding of footsteps and performances of walking provokes additional attention to those layers of film style and sound that might otherwise be easy to overlook and overhear.
Given its basis in a pubescent fascination, I have kept the video’s rhetoric purposely simple, and I consider it a reflection on the memories and affect derived from cinematic hearing first and an investigation into Hitchcock’s specific ‘sound signature’ second. By tracking footsteps across seven of Hitchcock’s most famous films (Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), and Frenzy (1972)), I aim to show the breadth and depth of meaning, identification, and storytelling that a single sonic element can perform for us as viewers and listeners–when it is loud, when it is quiet, and even when it is silent.