The 1812 Overture: Full. With Cannons.


Calvin gets it.

Calvin gets it.

It turns out that it is more difficult than you might think to tell a story with only sound. I have a new respect for radio. In movies, sound usually gets overlooked: literally. Audiences spend so much time looking at the picture that they don’t even realize what they are hearing. For the most part, this is a good thing because if the sound is distracting you from the picture then the sound is preventing you from being engaged in the story- invisibility (no pun intended) is crucial to sound.

As a class assignment we had to create a sound edit inspired by a DaVinci drawing called “The Deluge”: a sketch for a painting based on the biblical story of the great flood. We were listening through the different sound edits, and realizing just how important (and difficult) it is to create dramatic structure in sound design. With no picture to tell us when the “important” moment is, everything has to built up through intensity and volume and carefully orchestrated to not just turn into noise.

To illustrate this idea, the professor played the end portion of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture- a fully orchestrated version including cannons. First of all, I never realized just how much instrumentation Tchaikovsky threw in there- I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a kitchen sink- and second, I was surprised at how deep-down the music spoke to me.

As a kid, we used to go to a fireworks display at Fort Sheridan on Lake Michigan. The fort was an army reserve center and eventually closed in 1993, but they put on a good fireworks display for Independence Day. I don’t recall for certain whether they played the 1812 Overture before the fireworks began, but I definitely remember that they would set off a battery of cannons as the start to the display. The cannons were terrifyingly loud: I recall looking forward to them with dread, knowing that I would have to make it through the cannons before I got to see the fireworks, but they were nothing if not memorable.

Listening to the Overture, crushed down for internet streaming and played over theatre speakers limited in their volume range to prevent hearing damage, the sound was grand but not chest-thumpingly intense. Still, it spoke to something in my memory and I found myself on the edge of some emotion that I couldn’t quite define but went straight down to my guts. I found myself very nearly on the verge of tears- if the song had gone on much longer I probably would’ve needed a tissue.

That kind of deep feeling is pretty rare for me to encounter- especially in response to movies since I spend so much time picking them apart- so when I get it, so I tend to take note. I suspect that it is the memory as much as the sound itself that moved me, and I wonder if the true point of making a movie is not to present a new feeling for an audience, but rather to allow them to re-feel old feelings. It certainly worked for me.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on March 8, 2016.

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