Essence over Existence: what does it mean to be human ….
The very idea of existing is often a perplexing concept, but once the human mind gets used to this contemplation, what becomes of the responsibility of life the species is relegated to? In Blade Runner, set in 2019 Los Angeles, one comes face to face with a highly unnatural world in which humans have forgotten their responsibility of life and bypassed any attempts of conservancy for their power of rationality, while exploiting the privilege of independence. In Blade Runner the world exists on top of the ruins of life, the end of empathy, and the vacancy of autonomous valor. The sounds throughout this film create profound meaning and go beyond symbolic reference or ambiance, acting more as a direct fabrication for a fragmented world. The elements of sound call the attention of the audience and to where he or she exists in this world, urging the contemplation of their own autonomy, why choices are made, and eerily foreshadow the end of the line for the current human social standards. This paper does not intend to argue there is only one particular meaning in Blade Runner, because like one single human life, there is a near infinite strata of complexities to the content of this film.
Why is this important? Through acute attention to the sound design of a film, a specific syuzhet and style is constructed. The syuzhet and style come together to tell a limited set of stories, but are powerful in their ability to shift focus, urging a cerebral-meets-emotional response, and therefore illuminating complex issues that reside within the bigger picture or fabula. In the case of Blade Runner, I am certain there is a mode of construct, or what I will refer to as style. Equal of importance, is the set of specific audio principles that are used to bring complex meaning to the surface for the audience, meaning is the score ‘clean and minimal’, or is it ‘full and layered’. The choices in sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic, are not a sidebar to the image, they are in fact a place where sound and space come together to convey a faith in reality. By this I simply mean: in the case of Blade Runner the audience knows this is a science fiction film, the audience has been marketed to see a story about the future, something that is not supposed to replicate reality but offer a fictional reality, it is a film about the future and about things they should not assume to be true, therefore they can by no means escape the make believe nature of Ridley Scott’s 2019 Los Angeles and a world of replicants. Yet the sounds throughout the film draw a clear line between the audience’s sense of self and the reality of the world around them, outside the theatre. Again I ponder why is this important? Because: sound is a strong vehicle for meaning. It is a sort of diegesis with or without ever saying a word. Sound is often the thing viewers believe enhances images, but in the case of Blade Runner, I am certain that the sounds fabricate the story, and without them, this same story could have been a convoluted action adventure, using science fiction as its genre vehicle.
Ridley Scott, and largely Vangelis’ musical score use a constant twisting of diegetic sounds which test our ability in fidelity, and non-diegetic sounds which engage our emotions throughout the score. The meshing of the two in such a strong fashion represents a cyclone of emotion on Vangelis’ part, resulting from the gravity of a story which warns a 1982 audience that trouble is on the horizon for contemporary culture. Fast forward to the 2000s and the planet is suffering large scale or global consequences of unnatural patterns. There is a constant need for technology to fix what previous technology has destroyed. Designs for beach cleaning arrays that will empty the sea of its millions of pieces of toxic materials have been made, over 1000 species of animals die per year, and many other things that align with the ‘more human than human’ motto of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner. The sounds that communicate this on screen in 1982 are relevant to the type of thoughts one must confront in the real off screen world of 2013. This essay intends to prove that the sounds in Blade Runner do, in fact, support the conceptual nature of the film from an existential epistemology, exploring the human relationship with the world around them. “Sound is fidelity, emotion, and illusion” (Cossar, 2013), what is meant by this? Soundtracks and scores are a fabrication of what needs to be heard to make the image believable, or to conjure intended emotions; it is not simply a replication of the reality of objects or of a world, it is a strategically arranged collection of sounds that ensure a direct relationship to the image within the film. Fidelity is our belief or loyalty to sound, emotion is how we respond to the sounds, and the illusion is what sort of reality is being fabricated through the sounds. In fact the English Literature Professor and Film theorist John Belton (1985) argues that the evolution of sound technology and its purpose in soundtracks is to capture an idealized reality, in which filtering of sounds is crucial to ensure that there are no sounds included that fall outside of understanding or significance. To quote (Belton 1985, 66) “every sound must signify”. To further the power of sound in Blade Runner, one must consider the amount of modern synthesized sound used throughout the film, it seems this choice mirrors the nature of the story. Take for instance sound technology and it’s constant attempts to conceal the apparatus (Doanne 1980), now consider the audience views a film in which the main ambition is to conceal the true identity of characters; are they human or are they more human than human. There is a clear parallel between non-diegetic score and diegetic sound, and the pace of human relationships with the natural environment.
When the filmmaker, Ridley Scott, was asked about his hand in the score he said he did nothing except for choosing Vangelis, stating “I chose Vangelis, but he’s pretty much the kind of man you leave alone to it” (Goldberg et al 1995, 126). With this said the literature review following is nearly used to prove there is a correlation between the sounds within Blade Runner and the abuse that contemporary society relinquishes unto the planet.
In Techno-Noir, Paul Meehan (2008) explains how Vangelis seamlessly layers symphonic themes, futuristic synthesizer music, and sultry jazz into the score to demand contemplation from the audience. For Meehan it is often difficult to distinguish between the non-diegetic soundtrack, diegetic music, and bleeps and squeaks added to the special effects sounds. Meehan also discusses another important component of Vangelis’ desired outcomes is his use of layers of reverb. He explains how reverb creates a sense of space, and or emptiness, in fact stating that Ridley Scott uses ‘hall reverb’ in many key scenes of dialogue to evoke a sense of dread. The use of reverb positions sounds within an artificial space of specific dimensions, in the case of Blade Runner, this is to create a reality in which the audience questions what is truly real. In addition, consider: spatial properties of sound have undergone an intense technological evolution, in which John Belton (1985) argues sound has become unreal in a quest for realism. Furthermore, reverb as a coloration of the sounds, creates feelings like sadness, and nostalgia, both of which insight reflection and contemplation, in this case for the fallen society of Los Angeles 2019. For Meehan (2008), the use of synthetic sound and natural sound along with reverb were used to a great degree by Vangelis, to inspire distance between the audience and their comfort zones, commanding them to think back, and to question themselves.
Another film theorist, Giuliana Bruno works from a geographic film theory perspective, exploring temporal and spatial value, which in the case of Blade Runner results in the idea that Scott’s film is the metaphor for the ‘postmodern condition’. Bruno suggests that the representations of time and space in Blade Runner bring to light the dark side of technology and the process of disintegration. She summarizes the overall interconnected patterns or modes of the film as ‘consumerism, waste, and recycling’ (Telotte, 2001) which aligns with the human relationship to its environment.
With the 2013 release of Mark J. Bartkowiak ‘Sounds of the Future’ he features an essay that discusses the sounds in Blade Runner focusing on the emotional link between the audience and the score by Vangelis. The essay argues that the work of Vangelis evokes a Wagnerian cadence. Wagner, best known for his layers of texture, harmony, and orchestration, used leitmotif- which are compositions closely associated with ideas, ideas in the case of Blade Runner are about the natural being replaced by the unnatural. The essay goes on to point out the dense layering of traditional instruments such as saxophones, percussion, and xylophones, and electronic sounds such as bleeps and machines. These mechanical sounds are, at times, further layered with recordings of natural environmental sounds like thunder, and inundating rain. This author again, focuses largely on the strong use of layering and the strategic blending of types of sound to create a thick soundscape dancing between artificial and natural sound. In the next section I will use two scenes to deconstruct the aforementioned sound style and syuzhet.
Vivian Sobchack reflects on Blade Runner’s sense of real humans and replicants interchanging experience through site and sound. Sobchack recalls Walter Benjamin’s “age of mechanical reproduction” in which the inquiry into the unique status of the human being emerges. The author goes on to discuss the excessive nature of style in the narrative of Blade Runner focusing on ‘excess scenography’ but, this extends into the soundscape as well.
The first scene I will focus on is the sidewalk street scene in which the Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), has found one of the ‘skin jobs’, Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and is chasing her down for the kill. The scene is of a complex nature unto itself as it is traveling through a busy city. Some diegetic sounds are made up of an array of languages, some of bagpipes, and harikrishna singing. The array of languages is constantly changing as the characters are running through the streets, this collection of languages incites confusion, and introduces a world dimension. This is practical for a busy city street scene, but none the less is a layer of sound that creates a cycle of contemplation, from its lack of actual clarity. It is chaotic and lost, building urgency in the audience. Added to the sounds of disparate background dialogue, there is the layer of computer generated walking directions which fade in and out, in sets of repetition similar to an environmental arpeggio, they say ‘and walk…and walk….and walk’ and ‘press the hand…press the hand…press the hand’. Fading in and out seamlessly with the sounds of the emergency sounds, this effectively suggests a world out of control, a sense of loss, a sense of helplessness. At the same time, there is the rain, here it is different than the traditional static presentation of rain. The rain in this scene is saturated in reverb, and goes between sounds of actual water, to mist, to the residual wet activity of movement within a city. Finally as Deckard (Harrison Ford) fires the first shot at Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), is the part where time seems to stand still, in for only a blink of the eyes, this is when diegetic sounds subside, and the sounds of Vangelis fade in, suggesting a totality of self-awareness in this scene. The notes of the non-diegetic sounds are of a sultry nature, they are ambient in form, and frame the death of Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). Instead of creating an emotion, the classic jazz chords that fade in, create stillness in a moment of complete chaos and devastation. The street gun-down of a person, even a ‘skin job’, would normally seem more appropriately framed in a high energy composition one that would guide the audience on the path of valor for the protagonist, but not here. The viewer is left alone, in his or her own thoughts, yet all the while dealing with a juxtaposition of moving images of the murder of a life. The Vangelis score and the diegetic sounds here use reverb, as well, notes are sustained, both creating a sense of temporal and spatial isolation. Let me explain further, recall that I stated “the use of reverb positions sounds within an artificial space of specific dimensions”. In this case hall reverb sets the sounds into a large hall shaped space creating cascading sustain on certain frequencies. This effectively lengthens the sound by simulating the early and late reflections within the space, causing fragmentation of the sound’s unity due to the deadening effect caused by all these reflections. Each time the sound is reflected it loses some of its amplitude and frequency content, paralleling the loss and decay that Blade Runner takes place in. Furthermore, the diegetic sounds of bullets and breaking glass are then layered into the smoky jazzy score, to remind the viewer not to forget the violence and decay, but never stray too far from self-reflection. This scene lasts for nearly 4 minutes, in the life of sound, that resembles forever, so it is a scene within a film, that shows the events of a Blade Runner hunting a replicant, but due to the layering of natural sounds, un-natural sounds, disparate arrangement of language, and classic descending jazz composition that it is no longer just about a Blade Runner and a replicant, it is about the hunter and the hunted, about the haves and the have nots, about the reflection of one’s own priorities and how one exploits or conserves their world around them.
The next scene I have chosen is the love scene between Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Sean Young), a replicant. The complexity of this scene derives from the premise that Rachel (Sean Young) is learning she is not truly human. This distinctly parallels the complex sound design featured within these moments. The scene starts off with the familiar and natural diegetic sounds of a rain storm; this establishes a form of human connection, through familiarity. Then shortly after the initial thunder tracks, you hear both inorganic synthesizer sounds, and a familiar mechanical instrument, the saxophone. All of this dancing back and forth between diegetic and non-diegetic, between organic, and technological. Then Rachel (Sean Young) begins to play the piano, introducing a crucial layer of diegetic sound, a replicant with the programming to play music. The instrument of choice a piano, a symbol of learning, of knowledge, and of culture; is being used to convey an emotion, but an emotion for a character who is not even human, who is void of autonomy, and of true empathy. The diegetic sounds of her piano piece balance back and forth with the sound of the Arp synthesizer, and then again the saxophone washes in with its descending composition. All the while each layer of the soundscape is framed by a hyper-space age synthesized sound emulating a teardrop, or a release, possibly a drop of knowledge, then in with more waves of the Arp synthesizer. The twist is that even the sounds which are physical or mechanical in nature, are merely representations of what the audience identifies as a saxophone or as a piano; they are in fact all synthesized sounds created by Vangelis. Why does Vangelis do this? It would be novice to suggest because keyboards and synthesizers are the only things the composer has access to, the choices are all layers that are critical in creation, they are comparable to the real thing, and create a truth in identity, but they are in fact only representational. Remember Belton’s argument about the technology evolution in spatial representation “sound has become unreal in a quest for realism” (Belton 1985, 66); this seems most appropriate when considering the choices made to frame a rather spatially and emotionally tense interaction. Again the idea of realty being fabricated by technology reappears, and begs to question the value of life forms, and our interactions with the world around us. So we wish to take care of what we have already, or do we seek to recreate what once we already had by nature.
Furthermore, the melodic structures of these parts of the score use descending pitch, and manipulate psychological pressure, isolation, anxiety, and a depressive mood. This type of composition renders highly introspective emotions, again urging the kinds of questions leading to the meaning of human existence. Where pitch descends, the mind pursues clarity, a sort of way out, so it is apparent that Vangelis approaches these compositions with an earnest attempt at designing a quest for omniscience in the soundscapes. To compare and contrast the contemporary tech based movement and loss of appreciation for natural life, or more simply put; the human relationship to the environment, with the sounds from Blade Runner seems a given.
This essay is not intended to only parallel the way the sounds throughout Blade Runner symbolize ideals or evoke emotions, it is about choices and how they can transform a film to the perfect transparent vehicle for a story. Scott apparently did not want to create an action adventure, a good guys vs. bad guys film in the genre of science fiction. Scott wanted the public to consider large sets of concerns; the loss of empathy, the future of the planet, and our own identity of self, and our relationship to the world around us. Take for instance Søren Kierkegaard, who believed it was the individual who was solely responsible for giving meaning to life, and when applied to Blade Runner, Scott conveyed this message of essence over existence.
The film’s most irreplaceable component for the syuzhet and style is the sound design. Where language could have created social unity, Scott chose to go against that by choosing a fragmented array of languages. Where high energy scoring could have created the exhilaration of the chase, and often the win, Vangelis chose jazzy romantic juxtapositions. And continuously throughout the film, the manipulations of synthesized sounds were replaced for real world instruments. Furthermore, stylistic choices in reverb, stratified soundscapes between organic sound and hyper-synthesized sound, and descending pitches carried on throughout the entirely of this film, replacing more traditional selections of adventurous and heroic compositions which would have created a high energy adventure in a post-apocalyptic future. It is because of these sound choices that Blade Runner is not just a story about a Blade Runner hunting replicants, it is an existential response of faith in reality, through a strata of questioning what is real. Finally, it is because of the syuzhet and style through sound choices that Blade Runner asks you to look at the story within the story, and within yourself.
I am very grateful to be so touched by a film, and by a musical score. I think of those I knew who have passed on, most recently: my aunt Alberta Howlett, and the rad Ria Pell. I wonder if they now know what it means to be human.
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Doanne, M.A. “Ideology and the Practice of Sound Editing and Mixing”. The Cinematic Apparatus. Ney York: St. Martins Press, 1980. Book.
Goldberg, L. Randy Lofficer, Jean-Marc Lofficer, William Rabkin. “Science Fiction Filmmaking in the 1980s” Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 1995. Book
Konzett, M., “Sounds of the Future”. London: McFarland, 2013. Book
Meehan, P. “Tech-Noir; The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir”. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2008. Book
Sobchack, V., “Screening Space”. New York: Ungar Publishing Company, 1987. Book
Telotte, J.P. “Science Fiction Film”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Book