Monday 23 March 2009

Sounds and Meanings

One of the fascinating matters raised by Valentine's discussions of how verbal and visual modalities can interact is the way in which the visual can, as it were, extend the metonymic possibilities of the verbal. In The conversations (2002) by Michael Ondaatje (see Books on the Psychology of Fiction by clicking here) the idea is extended further. When Anthony Minghella was making the film of Michael Ondaatje's The English patient, Ondaatje met Walter Murch who was editor for the film, and in The conversations they talk about similarities between writing novels and editing movies. Amongst Murch's many insightful thoughts is that, in editing, he is not only looking for frames that depict the most characteristic shot of the actor in each scene, but also for possibilities of introducing sounds that will act as what he calls precipitants of meaning. Murch discusses a lovely example of this metonymic effect in The English patient when, 20 or 30 minutes into the film, after sounds which until then have been of nothing but war, he introduces the first peacetime sound: churchbells from a nearby village. Audience members may not even notice, but this sound precipitates the return of memories in the English patient. Once Murch has described the idea, one can see how potentially far-ranging it is.

One would think that in its combination of verbal, theatrical, and musical components, opera would be able to make use of these modalities in ways that include those that Murch talks about. The possibilities have recently been brought closer by the addition of film to performances of the New York Metropolitan Opera, which are now broadcast in high definition in cinemas all round the world. For me with these showings, the modalities have not always combined successfully, but they did in the very moving second act of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly (first performed in 1904), which I saw as one of these Met film broadcasts three weeks ago. Is it accidental that this production was by Anthony Minghella (who sadly died last year)?

In Act 1 of Madama Butterfly, US Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton marries a young Japanese woman, Butterfly. Act 2 occurs three years later. Pinkerton has long ago gone back to America, and Butterfly continues to await his return to her. Everyone says he will not return because such American husbands never do. Butterfly sings the aria: "Un bel di vedremo," its libretto by Giacosa and Illica. An English translation is as follows:
One fine, clear day, we shall see
a thin trail of smoke arising,
on the distant horizon, far out to sea.
And then the ship appears.
Then the white ship
enters into the harbour,
and thunders out it's greeting.
In this aria, Butterfly imagines her husband's return as she looks down from the terrace of the house he had built for them, towards the harbour of Nagasaki. Puccini's music is full of the most poignant yearning. After the phrase "Poi la nave bianca entra nel porto" [Then the white ship enters the harbour] there is a double stroke on a tympanum: a shot from the ship's gun, and its echo. It is the sound of the warship, bristling with armaments, self-congratulatory, coming to offer to the Japanese—what shall we call it?—trade, interaction with foreigners, Western culture.

For Butterfly, the sound is a gunshot of the mind. Her confidence that the love of Pinkerton is real is paired with her knowledge that he has abandoned her. The double stroke on a drum is the precipitant of meaning in her life. Perhaps, too, it can be a precipitant of our understanding. (The end of the story is that Pinkerton does return. He is accompanied by an American wife, and they take away from Butterfly the two-year-old son Pinkerton has had with her. She commits suicide, in a very Japanese way.)

Michael Ondaatje (2002). The conversations: Walter Murch and the art of editing film. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

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