Brian De Palma explained once in a press conference how, during the mixing of Dressed to Kill (1980), he rebuked his sound engineer: “That wind, I hear that wind over and over, you’ve used it for four films. Get me some new wind!”
This anecdote – that the director would then incorporate into the fiction of Blow Out (1981) – made me remember vividly my first experience watching (and listening to) The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011). At first, I couldn’t exactly tell what was bothering me. But, halfway through, I realised: the answer was blowing in the wind.
What I was hearing was clearly quite different to the indomitable force of nature evoked by so many critics in their texts, as well as by Tarr himself. What I was hearing was a loop: a fragment of barely nineteen seconds, with the same wind sound repeated over and over again.
Critics did not miss the wind altogether. On the contrary, in a typical paean, art critic Travis Jeppesen wrote in Vlak magazine: “The wind. You could close your eyes for the entire duration and just listen to the film and come away with an understanding nearly equal to the experience of watching it. [The wind] is the inner soundtrack to the characters’ lives, while the outer soundtrack – the music – is a single droning theme of sadness and desolation, excerpts from an infinite loop.”
How strange that this critic (among many) noted the repetition in the music, but not in the atmospheric sound effects track! Considering that, alongside Mihály Vig’s music, the wind is what we hear most often in The Turin Horse, I think it is pretty difficult to remain deaf, if not to the loop itself, at least to its effects – especially in the interior scenes where, unlike in the exterior ones, this looped wind is barely mixed with anything else, and is played for minutes at a time.
We could debate whether this particular decision to use the same short audio fragment as the basis of the sound in many scenes contributes to the global, aesthetic system of the film, or if it’s the signal of a rather lazy minimalism. But, in order to begin such a discussion, we should first be ready to notice this particular characteristic of the sound. And, while there has been much written about how the film’s work with repetition and variation shapes its narrative and visual composition, not much of this kind has been said about its soundtrack. To deform an old saying: a loop is as good as a symphony to a deaf horse.
For me, a crucial step toward an awakening to sound happened when I began to make audiovisual essays. I found that, by manipulating images and sounds from movies, I became more attuned to their qualities and to the work that goes into building a cinematic effect. But, sometimes, listening properly also helps. By listening properly, I mean: listening to how it sounds and not just to what it represents; interrogating and feeling the qualities of the sound instead of attributing to sound a set of typical adjectives and clichéd functions.
I like to think that, if more people had listened properly to the soundtrack of The Turin Horse, that wind would have been described quite differently. Because a sound repeatedly looped, no matter how violent at the outset, becomes less and less ferocious. It stops being an uncontrollable force of nature and becomes comforting: a tamed musical background – highly reassuring precisely because it’s easily predictable.