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Sound of Noise (2010)

When Mrs. Jiwaku suggested we watch the film Sound of Noise, I was skeptical at first. Musical terrorists in Sweden, that just sounded potentially too cheesy to be good.

Well, a couple of reservations aside, I actually found myself charmed by the film. The reason it won me over was probably mainly because of a couple of scenes near the beginning–one of which is even on Youtube:

I’m talking about the part with the drum kit in the van, which, yeah, that’s about perfect, and a great warm-up to a story of avant-garde musical terrorism. There’s a gutsiness to putting two musicians into that situation, and then just having them go full-on, convincing us that the bassline the drummer is pounding against truly is the sound of the engine and the tires on different painted-road-lines on the road.

The other scene is only a few minutes later into the film, where the same two characters from the road scene are walking through the streets of whatever city they’re in, which is not named in the film. Crappy elevator music spews from public speakers overhead, and one character, without speaking, hands over a pair of wire clippers to the other who, with a lok of weary disgust, reaches up and clips the wire on the speaker, killing the shitty music feed. (Oh, how often did I dream of doing that in Korea?) A few moments later, they speak dialog that could have been written by me:

Listen to this city, contaminated by shitty music… It’s time to strike back.

I’m not sure I really have an ear for how regular terrorists would talk to one another; but musical terrorists, of the avant-garde sort? I’ve never heard of such people, but I still feel pretty certain I’d know if the filmmakers hadn’t nailed it. And I think they did, from the mannerisms and facial expressions to the bullish competition and the seemingly-arrogant posturing of a group of terminally eccentric artists.

Seriously, it made me think back to the bits and pieces of 1970s avant-garde “conservatory” music that I encountered back in undergrad. There was a journal a friend of mine dug up in the library, which had not only a piece of music that was “composed” by someone in the following manner:

  1. Take some music manuscript paper. 
  2. Throw the sheets into the air.
  3. Shoot at them with a machine gun.
  4. Retrieve the bulletholey sheets, and “play” an interpretation of what you see on the page.

Which, yes, is avant-wankery, really. Another issue of the same magazine (or maybe it was the same issue?) included instructions on how best to set a piano on fire; I’m pretty sure it was by Annea Lockwood, since this picture looks very familiar:

(Lockwood’s article looked was less wanky, and more intriguing; a friend of mine seriously considered buying an old upright piano for the purpose, though in the end it didn’t happen.)

That brings me to one of my (minor) complaints about Sound of Noise, which is that the music comes off as much less avant-garde than one expects from characters so pitch-perfect. And they all are: each of the six drummers comes off as wonderfully radical and downright nuts, the exact sort of people you can imagine working with Annea Lockwood… until you hear the music they play, which is much more, well… it’s tonal. Its structures are tonal. At times it’s even poppy. It doesn’t sound particularly radical, to someone who is a musician and familiar with what avant-garde music really sounds like.

That’s forgivable, of course: most audience would not make it through a movie where a group of six avant-garde drummers sound like real avant-garde drummers, and in some ways the music is weird enough that I’m able to set aside the fact that actual avant-garde musical terrorist types would be likelier to mock what’s presented as radical in this film.

The other thing that I wasn’t crazy about, though it’s not a flaw, has to do with the magic in the movie. But saying more would spoil it, and as I say, my idiosyncratic discomfort with the way the “magic” in the film is handled likely wouldn’t come up for most people.

All in all, though, the good outweighs the bad. Sound of Noise is a wonderful, weird cross between The Baader Meinhof Complex and your usual film about musicians learning to work together to achieve a goal; the former determines the latter, and the goal is nothing short of musical revolution. Which, of course, can’t happen through happenings and musical terrorism… but then, everyone seems to realize this, hence the futile terrorist approach.

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