Animating (and Reanimating) Debussy, or, The Artist (and Hugo)

Listen to and look at this lovely thing:

This animated score of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 [h/t Nathan Pensky] is the most compelling visual illustration of musical voicing I’ve seen since—well, since Fantasia. I loved Fantasia as a kid, but it had the formal disadvantage of layering on, not just a visual component to an aural experience, but an entire narrative* over a non-narrative form.

*I had written “silent film” where now it says “narrative” until it dawned on me that “silent film” might be an unforgivable misnomer. The Artist popped into my head as a fresh reminder of how stylized the sounds of “silent” film really are. I just saw it, thanks to  Virgin Atlantic’s movie smorgasboard. I chose it groggily on the plane because it was “silent” and would spare me the strain of trying to hear dialogue over the airplane’s ambient noise without blasting my eardrums. And if it put me to sleep—well, there are worse things that can happen on a ten-hour flight.

If you’ve seen it, you know that The Artist‘s “silence” is loud. Loud with what we perceive on the one hand as the absence of eliminated voices, loud on the other with constant, attentive, anchoring music that substitutes melody and harmony for the hyperreal sonic landscape we’re used to in movies. It does this so effectively that by the end you forget you ever missed the talky minutiae of inessential dialogue.

When I was in elementary schools, a group of sound engineers came to talk to us about how they used jello to make the sounds of ET’s footsteps. It took them an eternity to figure out how to make the crunchy sound of biting into a potato chip. I can’t remember how they finally did it, but I left the assembly wanting pretty desperately to be a sound engineer, making a living on the weird fact that random things sound more like everyday sounds than the sounds themselves.

The Artist makes a point of highlighting, in a scene when the main character suddenly hears a door slam in the way we do, the extent to which “silent film” strips out the disruptive footsteps and door-slams of the physical world. But it manages to make the protagonist’s inability to speak a critical plot point that collapses seamlessly back into the conventions of silent film. In this sense, The Artist does what Hugo failed to do: it captures the nostalgia of another time, not by bludgeoning the viewer with bleeding-edge technology, but by inhabiting the technological limits of that past and creating, within those limits, an experience powerful enough to engage an audience so supersaturated with sensory stimuli that it fidgets and bores in the absence of screamy shiny things.

Again, take Hugo. People were amazed by Melies’ films; this is a key point the film wishes you to understand. It instructs you, not by amazing you with the films on their own merits, or the stories they told, but by insisting (pedantically, one feels) on the wonders of film production. It shows you clips, but they function less as objets d’art in their own right than as the finished casseroles television cooks pull out of their ovens after showing you how to combine the ingredients. There’s both too much and not enough of the process that turns a set into a film.

There being several ways to skin a cat, an easier way of putting this is to say that Hugo gets obsessed with the director’s story while The Artist focuses on the obsessions of its actors and audience.

While Hugo goes nuclear with technology Melies didn’t have, The Artist commits absolutely to the technical limitations of the period it explores, rendering those limitations not only engaging and productive in their own right, but central to the film’s aesthetic and narrative concerns. The Artist shows us the crowds adoring silent film and souring on it, but those crowds don’t model the appropriate reactions the way they do in Hugo. Instead, the film positions us as the anachronisms, enjoying a genre the audiences within the film have outgrown. This is how it pulls us into Valentin’s tragedy.

Not that Hugo is a one-trick pony. (It’s more of a billion-trick pony.) Having amused you with the steampunk charm of Melies’ film production, the film communicates his legendary popularity by showing—not the films—but the delighted faces of a rapt audience. Those delighted faces are in 3-D so as to amaze and move you, the contemporary viewer. The project here is not quite to elicit that reaction from you afresh, but rather to encourage you into it by offering models of old amazement in a flashy new format. Hugo doesn’t inhabit Melies’ form; it leaves it flat and drums up nostalgia from the outside by adding bells, whistles, laugh tracks and applause signs—all beautifully shot.

And it is all incorrigibly retrospective, even as it clumsily points to the future of film. The hint at the end that the whole film was the girl’s journal manages to both acknowledge Brian Selznick and perform a kind of technological tokenism: remember, Melies‘ techniques weren’t enough to hold your interest without 3-D. What should we conclude about the sudden fifth-act appearance of a relic like a book? Especially since it’s implied that the film is the natural endpoint of that book: it sees the book as an early (and less sophisticated) progenitor.

It all strikes this reader as peculiarly condescending. And it creates a telos where none need exist: just as Melies’ charming but archaic moviemaking techniques paved the way for Scorsese’s 3-D extravaganza, the technology of the printed book gets a nod as a point of origin, a distant and even more archaic product that made Melies’ movies possible. It’s as if Scorsese slipped into that 19th century mindset that mistakes evolution for progress and genetic change for the moral improvement of the race. “Fitness” and goodness, despite their frequent overlap, are different categories.

But the clearest difference between Hugo and The Artist is this: both end with the resurrection of the fallen hero. But The Artist ends with the silent film protagonist and the talkies actress resisting the tyrannical narrative that provoked their split. They aren’t doing the new thing—talking—they aren’t doing the old thing—not-talking. Instead, they dance!

And this is purely at the level of plot. More interestingly (at the level of form) is the fact that the film ends with the two main characters tap-dancing “silently”. Their tap-dancing is the perfect compromise: the sound of their shoes has been subsumed into the music that constitutes silence: it’s audible, it’s a sonic expression of physical events. They are footsteps, but they are also music. Silent tap-dancing occupies the same hybrid non-space as the video animation of Debussy’s Arabesque, which was the point of this post, and to which I will shortly return.

But then, suddenly, distractingly, you hear Peppy and Valentin breathing. And voices break out, and you hear Valentin speak (!), but before you can delight in the sound of his voice, the absence of which has motivated the whole film, the noise of production takes over on set. It’s not silent and sweet and fascinating; it’s not the triumphant apex Scorsese would have made it; it’s a throwaway line swallowed by noise, refreshing and ugly and disruptive.

To belabor this a little: you don’t see Valentin finally recognized and remembered for all he’s done. He isn’t resurrected in the minds of his audience, he isn’t adored for what he was. He doesn’t get to take a bow. There are no adoring crowds. “Perfect!” the director says as Georges and Peppy try to catch their breath. And the director asks for another take, and the start walking to their marks, and the camera pans out to show actors and crew and the whole mess of humans trying, over and over, to get “perfect” right, again.

That’s a poem to movies.

But they’re both poems, in their way, and they’re certainly both trying to do similar things with similar meta-narratives about film history. It’s worth trying to understand why one manages with grace and subtlety what the other achieves with bombast. The best way to understand the difference between the two, in my opinion, is to listen to and watch these two animations of Debussy. The first is the one I started with, Arabesque No. 1:

The first time I watched it I got just a whiff of what synesthesia might be like: the blue notes on top are the longer, more languid voices, and the animation reflects this, making them constrict and expand as if each was a tiny ephemeral musical heart.

I used to spend hours and hours rehearsing the various voices of a piece by drilling them separately, then trying to bring them together. This was essential for Bach, of course, but I tended to do it for other composers to. I can’t explain why it was hard to get a grip on—I imagine that for musicians more natural than I am it must come naturally. But for me there was a missing link.

I listened to recordings of artists I admired to see how they voiced the pieces, and it helped, but something just a little more tangible. I tried watching video of various performances, and that didn’t help either, particularly.

Watching this video was exactly what I’d been wishing for all along. It takes the concept of a score and makes it fluid. The colors separate the strands, the voices become clearer—you can see the blue notes linger, languidly. You can watch the runs run.

I was about to declare this amazing technology the miraculous solution for piano teachers trying to teach students like me, when I came across this animation of Claire de Lune, by the same creator:

Same composer, same animator, but the effect is drastically different. The Arabesque animation confirms and extends the languor of the piece; the notes appear and fade, some bigger than others, depending on the intensity of that particular musical line. The movement through the notes is liquid. Chord ideas carry over into each other, notes exist as suspensions and gentle flurries.

The Claire de Lune animation is made up of colored bars or blocks. The bars light up when it’s their turn to be played. It’s very clockworky. The blocks used in the animation tick and tock and sever and chop a piece known for its mellifluous unbrokenness and seas of fermatas. The notes that should linger on and blend are represented with right angles.

No temporality of Debussy’s has anything like a right angle.

I don’t know whether this is an earlier version of the same technology used to animate the Arabesque. I imagine it probably is, but I’m wary of reproducing, in musical animation form, Scorsese’s triumphalist book–>silent film–>3-D narrative. Knowing nothing about the production of either animation, all I can observe is that while both get the job done, and animate a score, one is so right, and lovely, and miraculous, while the other makes a production of showing all its work.