Monday, August 2, 2010

Sight & Sound, Toccata & Fugue

O ! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where

— S. T. Coleridge, "The Æolian Harp"

Disney’s Fantasia opens to stage empty of everything except risers and chairs for a symphony orchestra. The musicians amble on stage from the rear center and take their places. Then comes the master of ceremonies, music critic Deems Taylor. First he introduces the entire program and then, specifically, the first number, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

He introduces it as a piece of absolute music, contrasting it with music that somehow tells a story. Thus Taylor informs us, the images we are bout to see are those
that might pass through your mind if you sat in a concert hall listening to this music. At first, you are more or less conscious of the orchestra. So our picture opens with a series of impressions of the conductor and the players. Then the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination. They might be, oh, just masses of color, or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space.
Much of the imagery in this sequence is semi-abstract and Disney was worried that the audience wouldn’t know quite what to make of it. So he gives them a story that prepares them for the imagery and gives them a way of interpreting it — oh, it’s just things and stuff that come to mind as your mind wanders while listing to the music, just things and stuff, not to worry. We then cut to an image of conductor Leopold Stokowski on the podium, arms raised, ready to deliver the downbeat. As his arms come down and the music starts, the image dissolves into the animation or, as we will see, something a bit different in this case.

Bach’s piece is in two parts, the opening toccata, which is not played in strict tempo, but freely, followed by the fugue, which is, for the most part, played at a fixed tempo. These two sections have different imagery.

It is in the toccata that we see the conductor and players, but mostly as shadows and silhouettes in various colors:

Occasionally, there will be enough front lighting so that the musicians would emerge into view and as three-dimensional figures, but these moments are few and fleeting:

The overall effect, then, is not quite that of watching a concert film. The forms you see are those of musicians, and their movements are synchronized with the music. They have to be, for their movements are what elicit sounds from their instruments. For the most part, however, you don’t see the musicians directly. You see shadows and silhouettes, often in combinations not available in a concert hall and the lighting is not that of a darkened concert hall. The imagery, them, is abstracted and flattened simulacrum of the actual orchestra.

However, the changes in the imagery, whether in color, number of shadows, from the strings to the brass, and so forth, all of these transitions are recognizably synchronized to distinguishable phrases in the music. Thus you can “read” the gross structure of the music from the gross structure of the visual imagery. They are synchronized.

The effect is to couple the imagery and sound together into a single integrated sensory experience. Rather than seeing concrete three-dimensional musicians playing intangible and ethereal music, we experience a coordinated flow of visual-sonic forms.

The imagery changes dramatically when we move to the fugue section. At the moment of the transition we see a silhouette of Stokowski dissolving into an orange-pinkish cloud, which then becomes blue, with small yellow sparkles appearing in synchrony with the melody. Most of the imagery in this section, though not all of it, does look like something; it is not completely abstract.

In this Disney was inspired by Oskar Fischinger, an avant-garde animator from Germany who pioneered abstract animation. Fischinger was on staff with Disney for awhile during the production of Fantasia, but quit over artistic differences. Fischinger wanted complete abstraction; Disney did not.

Still, putting such imagery in a mass-market film at the time was an adventuresome move. The fact that much of this imagery looks like something is, however, a side issue. The more important point is that these images do not imply a coherent three-dimensional space. The imagery changes from clouds to violin bows to waves to disks to mountains, and so forth, but there is no apparent logic to these transitions and so sense that these abstracted objects exist in some coherent space such that you can see, this type of imagery is here in this place, that type of imagery is over there, and so forth. The imagery unfolds in a space without structure or boundaries and often without any sense of a solid ground where one could stand.

But, the changes in the imagery are synchronized to the music. The sparkles, bows, waves, disks, and so forth, move in time to the music. Transitions between one type of imagery and another are synchronized with the transition from one musical phrase to another. To the extent that it makes sense to talk of causality in this fantastic world, it is the music that drives motion in the imagery and causes one type of imagery to give way to another.

And that, I suspect, is why Disney had to put this sequence at the beginning of the film. For it establishes, in an unmistakable way, that we are in a world where sound is the causal force driving everything else. Henceforth, for the duration of the film, we are in a special sound-driven world, a sound-like power in light.

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