Miles Davis, Spike Lee, and the Sonic Establishing Shot

Curator's Note

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.


[ii]  “Kahlil Joseph & Arthur Jafa: In Conversation: Tate Talks,” August 10, 2017, All subsequent Jafa quotations come from this talk.


[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.”


I love this idea of the sonic establishing shot and musical mapping. Your example from Tutu Medley makes me think of the traditional overture. Would you say that the intro effectively combines the visual aesthetics of the four vignettes as well as it does each song? You mention the themes but I wasn't sure if this extended to the film aesthetics as well.

I wouldn't say that the intro combines all of the visual themes so much as it previews some of the film's aesthetics while stridently announcing that the audience is in for a really wild ride. The camera spins, is flipped upside down, shakes, and takes canted angles. The cuts are quick and nonlinear. Brief flashes of the street, street signs, and billboards (the latter featuring Miles's face) swirl together and jump at the audience. Buildings loom--grey and ominous and incomplete--in the background. One billboard plays with both time and medium by acting as an impossible film screen, showing a brief clip of the music video to come. As such, the "billboard-screen" amounts to a vision of the future in that the audience has yet to see the portion of the music video that is being "projected" upon its normally still surface. We end up with yet another, very different visual aesthetic, with Miles filmed through a clear plexiglass wall against a stark white background. Shown briefly here and repeated in a later sequence, Miles paints directly on the clear wall as though painting on the camera lens itself. Here, Spike and Miles once again blur artistic mediums and practices: film/video/painting/music. It's this way--crazy and dense--for the whole music video, and all of the above happens in about 25 seconds. The idea of an overture is really cool; in this case, it's also something like the "head" of a jazz number--a place that the collective can return to for grounding after going way out. 

I can't wait to write more about it soon. It's such a gem.

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