Pioneering sound studies scholar Rick Altman recently wrote about what he calls “establishing sound,” or the sonic techniques used by films to ensure continuity and create coherent spaces for audiences. In his article, Altman unpacks Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) in order to explain how, as with establishing shots, filmmakers developed sonic techniques that enable the construction of filmic space for viewers/listeners.[i]
Altman’s essay is provocative and filled with important insights, but I want to take the notion of establishing sound—or what I would alternately call a “sonic establishing shot”—in a somewhat different direction. I am interested in how some Black films and music videos use a highly deliberate conjunction of sounds and images to provide audiences with “maps” that divulge the artworks’ distinctive logics. In short, the pieces I examine employ “music as a structure for a visual pattern,” as Arthur Jafa says of Kahlil Joseph’s art. Jafa goes on to argue that these musically founded visual patterns reveal “continuities [or] secret histories” at play in Black music and Black visual culture.[ii] Often, such works employ an introductory shot (or series of shots) that telegraph the role music occupies in the films’ foundations. Far from being limited to Joseph’s output, I contend that these maps can be found across lineages of Black filmmaking in pieces such as William Greaves’s groundbreaking Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968), with music from Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way (1969); Spike Lee’s music video “Tutu Medley” (1986) for four tracks from Miles Davis’s album Tutu (1986); and Kahlil Joseph’s short film and gallery installation Wildcat (2013).[iii] For this post, I will focus on “Tutu Medley.”
Jafa points to “Tutu Medley” as his first exposure to this musical mapping technique.[iv] Whereas most music videos incorporate a single song, “Tutu Medley” samples parts of four different tracks—“Splatch,” “Tutu,” “Tomaas,” and “Portia”—with each vignette signifying a different visual aesthetic to match the music. At the beginning, all four songs play simultaneously in a nearly indiscernible cacophony that nevertheless serves as a sonic establishing shot for the entire work. While Altman shows how sound is used to make filmic spaces legible for audiences, Lee is using Miles Davis’s music as a heuristic guide (or map) for the audience’s overall comprehension of his short film. This introductory sonic establishing shot is intelligible only if one is familiar with the Davis album, enabling both recognition of the confluence of the four tracks as well as the key themes present in both the music and the video: deconstruction, sampling, synthesis, technological ambivalence, noise, modernity, coolness, funk, genre, electrification of jazz, improvisation, and Blackness. This is a lot to take in, but one has to look and listen very carefully in order to follow the musical maps through this singular lineage of Black films.
[i] Rick Altman, “Establishing Sound,” Cinémas 24, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 19–33.
[iii] Charles P. Linscott, “In a (Not So) Silent Way: Listening Past Black Visuality in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm,” Black Camera 8, no. 1 (Fall 2016): 169–190.
[iv] Jafa, “Tate Talks.”