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Materializing Sound Indices (M. S. I.) 

Sonic details that "materialize" or "de-materialize" the sound of moving images. 

  • Abundance of Materializing Sound Indices (M.S.I.) can pull the scene toward the material and concrete.  
  • Scarcity of  Materializing Sound Indices can lead to a perception of the characters and story as ethereal, abstract and fluid. 
Concrete footsteps can contain a maximum of M.S.I as gravel crunching, or steps on a squeaking wood floor. ("High quality sound" - containing more information in high frequencies  - is able to provide more materializing indices.) 

Abstract footsteps can contain a minimum of M.S. I as the unobtrusive clicking in serial TV dramas. 

Either option may be chosen in connection with any image and synchresis predispose the spectator to hear either one and accept the sounds he hears.  

At the beginning of Mon Oncle when the Arpel family gets up in the morning, the little boy's footsteps on the cement in the yard make a pleasant and concrete rustling, while those of his father, a large, uptight, and unhappy man, only produce a thin unrealistic "ding" 

An out of tune chord in a piano piece or uneven voicing in a choral piece have an materializing effect on the sound heard.  Take one image an compare the effect of a music cue played on a well-tuned piano with the effect of a cue played on a slightly out of tune piano with a few bad keys. We tend to read the first cue more as Mood music (non-diegetic music),  while the second cue will read as Source music (diegetic music). Even if the instrument isn't identified or showed in image, we will sense its concrete presence in the setting. 

In "classical" musical tradition perfection is defined by an absence of M.S.I. The musician's or singer's goal is to purify the voice or instrument sound of all noises of breathing, scratching, any other adventitious friction or vibration linked to producing the musical tone. African musical tradition strive for the opposite: the instrumental or vocal performance enriches the sound with supplementary noises, which bring out rather than dissimulate the material origin of the sound.  

Materializing Sound Indices supply information about the concrete materiality of sound production in film space. They are the sound's details that cause us to "feel" the material conditions of sounds source, and refer to the concrete  process of the sound's production.  

They can give us information about.... 

  • the substance causing the sound - wood, metal, paper, cloth 
  • the way the sound is produced - by friction, impact, uneven oscillations, periodic movement back and forth 
Among the most common noises surrounding us there are some that are poor in materializing indices, which, when heard from their source (acousmatized), became enigmas: a motor noise or creaking can acquire an abstract quality, deprived of referentiality. 

Bresson and Tarkovsky have a predilection for M.S. I. that immerse us in the here-and-now. 

    -  In Bresson's films: dragging footsteps with clogs or old shoes. 
    -  In Tarkovsky's: agonized coughing and painful breathing. 
Tati, by suppressing M. S. I., subtly gives us an ethereal perception of the world: think of the abstract, dematerialized plunk of the dining room's swinging doors in Mr Hulot's Holiday. 
Edited excerpts: Michel Chion; AUDIO-VISION, Sound on Screen 

Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen  is  available at Internet book stores as  Amazon books   Highly recommended


Other Books by Michel Chion 

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