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- Interview with Owe Svensson, Swedish Sound Mixer - 

When did you start working with Tarkovski?   
I got the chance to work with him in the mid-1980s which was a tremendous opportunity.  I had seen his films earlier and was very impressed. Later when I was able to work with him myself I thought it would be interesting to take the process a step further. I had a sense of where he wanted to go but I thought his films we not properly executed  perhaps because of the lack of resources in Russia. 

What was your method of working with Tarkovski?   
Andrei requested this long list of sound effects, page after page. There were over 250 different examples of sound effects he wanted to work with. I realized this was not going to be possible. There was no space left. The film was going to be crammed with a load of diverging sounds to begin with I cut out half. Then I started working on them. They were often spot effects. 

In the dream, for example, he wanted to make the ice fall down from the roof. Then there was water dripping and various other ideas.  

My contributions were the winds the atmospheres  and the environmental sounds. 


The effect with the airplane was also Andrei's idea and to make the glasses clink before the plane arrived.  
 Generally I set out with a rather naive attitude because I never really know when my work is actually started.  It is not that I think it is difficult - I know what has to be done  - but somehow I have to start and then realize: "This will turn into something. We can build upon this"  But I could never begin by saying "This is really good - this is the way to do it". I have to put things into motion and the start working. 

Could you describe the main components of the soundtrack starting with the woman's voice  we hear in the background?   

This idea about the woman's voice that permeates the film occurred to us early before the sound editing began. Tarkovski wanted to listen to some old recordings of cow calls. These herding calls were used to keep in contact with cows when they went grazing into mountain pastures in Northern Sweden and afterwards when they were gathered. 

We thought of looking for these calls in the Swedish Radio Archives  but did not fins many that were recorded realistically. There were those that had been arranged musically but Andrei rejected those - he wanted it to be real and then we came across a rather old recording that had been made via a telephone cable from Rättvik in the country side to Swedish Radio in Stockholm. It was mastered on wax cylinders. He listened to it - it was of very poor quality There was crackling and static. But he still thought it was marvelous. In the sound track, it was mixed into the outdoor environment with a certain amount of reverberation so the quality did not matter.  

The important thing was that there was this woman and she comes into the film quite early and then she enters the dream and that represents a connection with human emotions which of course a contrast to the threat of war. Both Otto - the actor Allan Edwall - and Alexander are in contact with her Otto seems to receive her call when he suddenly collapses on the floor while walking through the house telling strange tales. One never really discovers what is going on. Somebody asked me long ago if this was a contact with God but I did not want to answer because I do not know - I do not think so. 

Sadly our collaboration was slightly hindered by his illness which is why we never had many contacts during the filming. Andrei's principle was - and he told me from the start that during filming, his focus is always on the picture, while the sound comes later. I agreed with this completely but the producer asked that I still record usable sound on location, but when we arrived on the Swedish island Gotland, the set was built in a bird sanctuary - in the month of May,  when all of Swedish fauna is breeding right there and the noise is overwhelming - it defies description. You could not use the sound from there. 

During shooting, Tarkovski told me in passing: "You know, Owe, in the end we must hear no birds" And I thought to myself: "OK, fair enough".  I knew I was wasting my time but I still wanted good location sound for post-synchronization purposes.  

You seem to have paid unusual attention to even the smallest sounds - floorboards creaking footsteps..?   

I watched the last film Tarkovski made just before The Sacrifice.  It was called Nostalgia and shot in Italy. It, too is a very special film, but what irritated me, as is the case with other films is the way they treat natural sound - everyday sounds like footsteps and environmental sounds- It is very poorly done. Someone walking always sounds like "clic, clic, clic, clic" .  On a staircase, it is the same, only faster. When we started work on The Sacrifice, we took an entirely different approach - not two footsteps would sound alike and they should have a life of their own.  

Because the environment in The Sacrifice was recorded in this house situated in an exposed area on a seaside heath there are naturally many elements that make the house live.  Those wooden house where many things happen, has floorboards. Floorboards which sound different depending on where on stands in the room. I decided to produce these sounds at my own country cottage. It is an old, turn-of-the-century house that has resounding walls and floors  so all the footsteps were produced by med that is, I physically walked in different pairs of shoes even ladies' shoes, size 45. I did the foley in the film myself. 

Post-sync dialogue is often very flat, lacking in personality - but in this film the voices have a remarkable dentistry ..?  

The voices must be given their own character so that you can experience them in their own personal environment. When you move in a room, especially when you move three-dimensionally  that is, into the picture you experience a different reverberation. The voice must develop, it must change. If you are speaking up or down sideways or back the character of the voice changes constantly. Even if the location recording is 100% and sounds even. you would still have to work with spatial dimensions and reverberation in the mix. So if people are at different points in the space every voice must have its own distinct character its own reverberation. That is really to create the sense of credibility and the right emotion. There are many ways to achieving that.  

Actually it is more difficult to achieve the same variety outdoors because there is not as much reverberation in the voice. But still, one experiences it as if there was a distance.  Sometimes it is a bit like magic - in am not always sure how to do it but you have to do something and it does not really take too much extra time to create a good dialogue mix. I would rather spend more time on the dialogues than on other sounds  because you gain so much from it. Some things you can do routinely and it can be a fast process but dialogue is no routine job - it is difficult.  

 The experience of a dream is central to The Sacrifice - how does the soundtrack articulate this feeling?   

In the case of the dreams, it was all very evident. The main component is, naturally, the overhead flights in order to conjure up threats of war, we had to crate a sense of great anxiety as if a war was actually going on It is a composition of many Swedish jet fighters with added bits of rumble and a few other things. 

Another sound component is the Japanese flute. It is a kind of a long tube. we transferred it from a vinyl recording. Strangely enough, Tarkovski wanted us to do a mix of the woman's voice in combination with the Japanese flute and remarkably , it worked. 

Music was made out of two seemingly unrelated components and there is another ingredient . There were ships' horns in the distance that sometimes reach the pitch of the Japanese flute. There is a number of different ships' sirens as well as lighthouses that sound foghorns. So in the end, the dream is heard as a combination of woman's voice, the Japanese flute and various ship sounds. 

The filming took place in the summer and autumn of 1985 and I was aware that Andrei wanted us to dub to revoice all the voices, even those recorded in the studio because he could not concentrate on the dialogue on location. He was only thinking in the terms of visual composition.  That was "OK", but later I realized how much dialogue there would be in the post-synching and I knew that the actor Erland Josephson, for instance found it very difficult to re-record his lines  He hates it. Allan Edwall, who had a large part and said earlier when they were recording the individual lines that post-synching is like having to eat one's own womit so he hated it too.  

I wanted to make life easier for these actors so that the rec-recording of their voices would remind them of the original filming. I thought this would work out better on a sound stage where there is always a good atmosphere It is quite the opposite in the dubbing theatre where everyone just wants to get away and you can not concentrate.  I suggested to the producer that we should do something different: Actually post-sync on the sound stage.  We were lucky, there were not many bookings in the Stockholm studios at the time. Instead of having to work in a mixing or a dubbing studio we did it on a film sound stage. We set up a microphone, some lamps and some TV monitors. I had a video playback deck with the film. We started rehearsing the lines Josephson being the first. I got him to repeat his lines over and over, even before we recorded. A couple of hours later he became quite relaxed.  

There is a prayer in the film a rather long monologue and he said "I would rather not redo it because I can never improve on it".  We persuaded him to try and the final version was even better than the original.  
Compared to Tarkoivski's other films the soundtrack of The Sacrifice is very spare ..?   

We all work in such different ways. If you look at Russian cinema at the time The Sacrifice was made is was so incredibly stripped down. There was this weighty story, music and then, heavy effects. They did not use small effects to create an atmosphere I understand what you are saying. You find this approach in other countries as well, like in Italy.  

Russia and Italy, for me at that time were exactly the same. They post-synched all the voices and did not really bother too much about the sound - It all sounded rather the same. There were extremely few sound effects and then there was music.  

In the The Sacrifice there is no music only the S:t Matthew Passion at the beginning and the end. There is this woman's voice and the Japanese flute.  
Which is why all the other sounds functioned as music instead. So it all grow into something quite natural.  
If we had not arranged the sound like that we would have lost the strong emotions of the story. It would have been much colder and less meaningful.  

It also normal that composers and musicians want me to mix there music. They do not want me to get something ready-made,  that could be session as a pre-mix. That is only right  since the sound consist of so many parts - each component is directly influenced by something else in the film. It is like different musical instruments: different sound effects and different atmospheres. It is precisely their interplay that you want to project. 

Can one actually work with all that at the same time?   You can not always keep everything together you may have to work separately on the music but from my experience I know what is effective - what one should be wary of what has to be emphasized. Primarily, how to achieve the dynamics, this change, the feeling that something is happening. I see film as a homogenous product and none of the components can live on their own. They are all interdependent. Film in its highest sense, is a total experience of sound and vision. 

I have tried take away the picture completely and listen to the sound through headphones  

    It is very interesting  
    It is not something you would expect  
    It is not at all pointless  
    It is contrary  
    It is fascinating 
Is there a recognizable "Owe Svensson" style?   

Yes it does actually exist even if I find it a bit difficult to describe it myself. There is this guy in Sweden who does the optical sound transfers  he has told me many times that you can tell even if one does not know when a mix is done by Owe Svensson. Personal, I think the secret lies in this dynamic curve - the sound is never the same. It is always changing and when it comes to transitions they are often soft and suggestive. I strive for an emotional experience. It is really about feeling but I can say that my way of working with sound does not differ from the way other people work.  

I have noticed one thing, which can be quite irritating. Mixers tend to work with quite general levels where you have dialogue at one level, music at one level and effects an often very loud level but he sounds are always separate at different levels. I think that in mixing, sound must always progress. Levers should never be pre-determined. A voice, if you are talking one way - you should hear it in one particular way. If you are louder, then you hear it louder and so on. In my way of working, the sound must always live. Sound should keep changing.  It should feel obvious and interesting without being aware of it.  

When you watch a film, you are not supposed to notice the sound?   

The sound should just be felt. It is not about pausing for a second to contemplate the sound. The film is an emotional experience where the sound comes at you. The valuable part of working with sound is the very process, the development. As I said earlier, I work very naively  - when I am presented with a film first I strip away everything and then start from the beginning identifying the elements that will work effectively. If you are to create something with sound I increasingly believe that it has to be achieved through experience that is, normal social experience. The things that affect you in everyday life.  

I come across many examples of sound that I find increasingly worthless because they do not give you anything. I appreciate a good sound editor by his awareness of reality. Not all of them are aware.  

Sound varies from situation to situation. One has to think of how to achieve the right atmosphere. For example, when it comes to different seasons: -  if it is afternoon or forenoon, - if it is evening or morning.  

What is it that makes you recognize the differences between these specific times?   

This is what I mean by having an awareness of reality. It is not something you can learn, you are born with it. Of course one can always gain more experience but feeling is a question of talent.  

Owe Svensson

Transcript of TV-interview for  The School of Sound Seminar 
Interviewer and Translator
Larry Sider 
Joakim Sundström 
Jo Ann Kaplan 
Erik Westring 
Lennart Peters
Orna Kustow 

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