Sehnsucht through Sound Design

As film making tools and techniques continue to evolve, the role of the film composer diverges along two paths. There is one path toward creating “flexible music,” which can be granulary rearranged as a main track is broken into modifiablepieces, or stems. This aligns with an increasing flexibility in video editing by allowing the filmmaker more freedom to adjust the cut and to rapidly iterate alternate versions.

The other road is one toward creating music that is so meticulously tailored to the locked picture that it bridges conventional scoring with sound design.

John Belanger’s project being the latter, this spurred me toward two linked questions. How should a composer think about sound design? And, how should a sound designer think about music?

Speaking the same language

John and I worked together in a class at Johns Hopkins that paired student filmmakers, composers, and audio engineers. Our final project for this class involved a similar blending of musical material and atmospheric sound.

For this short video, John wanted a blend of music and sound design to heighten the drive and expanse of the visual storytelling. We built our shared language for the piece from a video John had sent for reference.

Carving up the story in sound

I started spotting the film and talking with John about natural act breaks. I focused on dialing in the pacing and accenting the visual cuts and transitions, then went about searching for and creating sounds for this world.

In my head, I divided the sound material into three groups corresponding to the visual transitions. Sharp, fuzzy, and diegetic. The diegetic sounds were the strongest anchors to the picture and only used sparingly. Kettle and skillet sounds bookend the piece, in both cases bridging the abstract montage with the quieter narrative scenes. The highway sounds, car door, and waterfall are other pieces of diegetic sound that pop out of the texture and appear in time with their corresponding visuals. Distorted, crunchy sounds line up with light leaks and similar distortions to the image. Sharp, percussive hits emphasize jump cuts.

Sehnsucht, an artful longing

Sehnsucht is a German word for "longing," but carries with it broader implications of the incompleteness and imperfection of life. Here the music and sound design work together to create a world that feels both grounded in referential sounds yet detached from coherent meaning.

The music cues are meant to sound incomplete in service of a larger notion of Sehnsucht. The sound design should feel both anchored in reality but consciously striving to overcome or rearrange it. Composers and sound designers can think about our own and each other’s work as necessarily incomplete. But completeness is never the goal, it is the gaps in what is said that suggest an unreachable expanse.