Five questions for: Esther Johnson

still from Tune In
Tune In (2006)
By Frances Morgan

Esther Johnson's short films uncover the hidden lives of people, places and machines, exploring not only the way they look but also the way they sound. From the rhythmic click and crunch of a camera shutter in Point and Shoot/Instruction Manual#4 to the voice of a caretaker narrating the colourful human history of Sheffield's brutalist Park Hill estate in Elevation, sound is a key aspect of Johnson's work, both enhancing and sometimes contrasting with what we see.

However, she's also delved into sound, and how people use it, as subject matter, with radio the star of 2006's Tune In and new film Analogue Kingdom, which is presented at 2010's Cut & Splice festival from 4 to 6 November as part of a programme of radio-related performances, workshops and installations. Both films are a glimpse into the world of analogue radio and the community of enthusiasts who build their own kit and transit their own signals, broadcasting DIY audio across the airwaves; Analogue Kingdom tells the story of radio collector Gerald Wells, curator of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum. I asked Esther Johnson about her relationship with sound and music, and how it inspires her filmmaking.

How did you find out about Gerald Wells and how did you approach making a documentary about him?

 During research for Tune In I discovered Wells and his amazing collection. However, I felt that he was worthy of a film about himself and his collection, rather than a footnote in a film about HAM radio. I’m intrigued by private collectors and their collections, and with items that have been selected and kept with love.

The film is largely about one man defying class expectations through his obsession with radio; the themes include preservation, memory and his nostalgia for a particular gentle way of life. Analogue Kingdom is also partly about Gerald’s conviction in his interest, despite attempts by external forces to deter him from it. I’m interested in the defiance against buying into supposedly better contemporary ways of living and consuming. New doesn’t always mean better.

The sound of radios in the film is tackled not just by listening to them, but also via Gerald’s verbal descriptions of analogue sound, which he believes is pure, round and mellow in contrast to the clinical sound of digital and transistor radios. Each item in his collection has a very specific story attached, and I wanted to tease these stories out of him.

Still from Analogue Kingdom

What drew you to radio as a subject?

I have always been drawn to radio for its evocative and dreamlike potential. The original inspiration for Tune In was a childhood fascination with the mysterious ‘dot - dash‘ codes in my father’s old Merchant Navy shipping manuals. I also liked the musicality of Morse Code and the fact that there are still folk making and working with rudimentary homemade equipment to communicate with people the other side of the
world, in an age where instant communication through the internet and mobile phones has become commonplace. Then I came across some old QSL cards at a car boot sale and was attracted again to the homemade aspect, this time through the graphics. I now have a collection of these donated by various amateur operators I met through Tune In.

 

Play an extract from Tune In

Watch an extract from Tune In here.

 

It seems as if certain sounds help generate the ideas for your films – industrial or mechanical processes, cameras, telephones, traffic, the soundscape of a city, and human voices. How important is sound to you as a filmmaker?

 When starting research on my films I think about how they might sound even before I think of particular imagery – if the film includes a documentary subject, I’ll interview the participants in their familiar surroundings, recording the tone of their room, then go back to the studio to transcribe. Listening to the sound of a space and the cadence of a person’s voice helps me to feel the tone of a piece, and guides me to the imagery I feel will tell the story in the most fitting way.

To me, good cinema is about what you don’t show, about leaving room for the imagination – and sound is an incredible tool for this. There can be the assumption that sound is secondary or supplementary to the visuals, but this has never been the case for me. I’m fascinated by how a sound can shape how we see and read images on a two-dimensional space. Sound has the potential to transcend the edges of the frame sending a viewer into a dream space. ‘Off-screen sound’ and sound apparently running counter to the image can also have greater scope than sound synched to the image, which are areas I’ve previously experimented with.

The filmmakers I’m drawn to evoke feelings through soundscapes made of field recordings and environmental sounds, added to loaded use of pauses before or after prominent sounds – filmmakers such as Antonioni, Bresson, Godard, Marker, Ozu, Resnais, Herzog, Tarkovsky and Tati. A soundscape can entirely change your perception of space and these can be sounds which we never see the source of – such as Alan Splet’s omnipresent industrial noises in Lynch’s Eraserhead, or Owe Svensson’s sound design in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. I also like the economical and understated sound in the nature documentary feature Le Territoire des Autres by Bel, Fano and Vienne – here we have pure natural sound and Fano’s musique concrète, with no extraneous voiceover. The expected film music is absent, and instead all sonic elements are married together as parts of the composition.

 

 

Do you feel that music – in the more conventional sense – has a place in your films, and are there any examples of film and music used together that you really like?

My films to date have mainly used soundscapes, rather than linear compositions. In Analogue Kingdom there is a mix of original and existing music – the latter is a 1930s record, one of the many 78s lining the museum’s control room, that Gerald plays. It evokes the era that Gerald feels was the best for radio, and he describes seeing his sisters dance on the lawn to the gramophone. In this instance the 1930s record grounds the mood and memory, and the new music functions more as an interlude and refrain to evoke a different tone between Gerald showing the viewer some of the extraordinary items in his collection and him talking about his life and connection with radio and electricity.

As for music in other films, there’s Tarkovsky’s Solaris – unimaginable without his use of Bach; Godard’s stopping, starting and abruptly-cut music over the Madison dancing scene in Bande à Part; the mix of crickets and Robert Mitchum’s distant singing, later married with Lillian Gish’s singing in Night of the Hunter; the kazoo band scene in Humphrey Jennings’ exceptional Spare Time; the jazz/pop of Free Cinema and the British New Wave. In contemporary film, the careful choice of existing music in Ramsey’s Morvern Callar; the much copied Musica Poetica by Carl Orff in Mallick’s Badlands; Ry Cooder’s work for Wender’s Paris, Texas; Jarmusch’s use of Screaming Jay Hawkins in Strangers in Paradise; the Stewart Copeland soundtrack for Coppola’s Rumble Fish; the pop and score of Scorsese and the compositions of Jocelyn
Pook in artist-film maker John Smith’s Blight.

 

 

Are there any other sonic or musical subjects that you'd like to work with in the future?

There are a few subjects I’ve been researching which deal predominantly with sound. One is a project about the sound of dying villages and/or towns and buildings that have now become uninhabited, and another is about the tuning of instruments. I am also interested in ideas of feeling sound, particularly where accentuated by deafness, and the relationship between sound and neurology – for example the effect on the brain of collective singing such as football chants, marching songs and religious singing. I’ve also been researching Williams Syndrome, a heart condition which enlarges parts of the brain associated with sociability, music, speech and emotion. The results include an overwhelming reaction to music, and an intense pleasure in talking and telling stories.

 

still from Tune In

 

Esther Johnson www.blanchepictures.com

Cut & Splice http://soundandmusic.org/projects/cut-splice-transmission

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