World Building Through An Alternative Sonic Palate: The Experimental Auditory Experience of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977)

The nature of audio within the modern cinematic realm is vital to the creation of a cohesive motion picture masterpiece. Suggested by Michel Chion is the idea of sound as ‘added value.’ Chion states that ‘… sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression…’ of the action being presented to an audience. (Chion, 2019 p.5) It becomes clear that by adding audio to a moving image, meaning is duplicated and enhanced. As a result, the audience’s ability to interpret meaning is pushed in a specific, carefully constructed direction. However, this is not always the case. Regarding the relevance of audio-visual experimentation, David Lynch’s alternative horror film Eraserhead (1977) exists as a prime example for the discussion of cinematic audio; more specifically, the experimentation with surrealist methods of sound production. In this essay, I will be examining the effectiveness of ambient noise as an accentuating factor of space and emotion. I will also be analysing the way space and emotion can be juxtaposed by the intricate use of music and voice, and the ability to manipulate clarity by disrupting the simplicity of audience comprehension of narrative and time. 

Ambient Noise & Space: 

A major element to the significance of diegetic audio in cinema, is ambient noise and its vitality in the process of world building. Chion suggests that the use of ambient sound functions to ‘[envelop] a scene and inhabit its space without raising the question of the identification of… its source. (Chion, 2011 pg.1) Describing Eraserhead (1977) as a ‘grotesque [and] strangely illuminating’ piece of art, Bhattacharjee raises the point that the ‘nightmarish and hallucinatory… cinematic puzzle’ the film’s universe manifests is successfully crafted through the alternative design experimentation of Lynch’s audio-visual prowess. (Bhattacharjee, 2011 pg.1) However, Bulut reveals that both Lynch and his sound designer Alan Splet ‘did not have access to a state-of-the-art studio’ (Bulut, 2017, pg.1) during the creation of the film’s soundtrack, as a result, the film’s auditory elements exist purely as a ‘marvel of do-it-yourself creativity. Lynch himself suggests that ‘almost every sound used in the final film was crafted from scratch.’ One of the most polarising techniques used by Lynch to capture ambient noise was “by recording air blown through a microphone as it sat inside a plastic bottle, floating in a bathtub.” (Bulut, 2017). 

Within the opening moments of the scene ‘Lady in the Radiator,’ the use of industrial ambient sound is highly prevalent. As the isolated Henry Spencer awakens from slumber, the noise of a soft yet harsh wind accompanies him. A desolate, almost melancholic atmosphere is thus created. As the camera’s point of view enters the radiator, non-consensually dragging the audience into the unknown, the audio also endures a shift. As suggested by Bulut, Lynch and Splet combined ‘low rumbling bass frequencies with screeching industrial noise’ to generate a consistent sonic palette that attempts to evoke a relentless eeriness, complemented by its uncanny narrative ambiguity. (Bulut, 2017 pg.1) It is this ambiguity which illuminates the relationship between ambient noise and space. The ‘low lit, black and white cinematography’ (Morgan, 2011 pg. 3), of the scene’s initial moment begins without music. As a result, no emotional or intellectual prompt is provided to the audience. With viewers faced only with the ‘thrumming industrial room tones’ (Morgan, 2011), of a radiator, the audience is forced to endure the distressing journey into a space plagued with a surreal and almost psychedelic, unfamiliarity. 

Music, Voice & Juxtaposition: 

Regarding the diegetic musical elements of Eraserhead (1977), Lynch’s specific choice in music functions to elevate the film’s narrative ambiguity. Chion’s theory of ‘empathetic sound’ exists as one manner by which music within film is able to evoke specific emotional responses (Chion, 2011 pg.8). An empathetic use of sound works to directly express a scene’s action by ‘imitating the scene’s rhythm, tone, and phrasing…’ (Chion, 2011 pg.8). However, within the scene ‘Lady in the Radiator’ this conventional use of music is subverted and thus replaced with an equivocal and obscure use of diegetic sound. Following the camera’s journey into the center of the radiator, the audience is met with a joyous, smiling woman; an individual whom Henry Spencer ‘experienced constant, repetitive nightmares about’ throughout the film (Bhattacharjee, 2019 pg. 2). Opposite to empathetic music is Chion’s notion of ‘an-empathetic music’ (Chion, 2011 pg.8). Chion further explains that music can also ‘exhibit conscious indifference to a situation.’ (Chion, 2011 pg.8). 

Viewers are met with an isolated woman who is standing on a stage, preparing herself to perform. With minimal lighting illuminating the woman before a pitch-black background, her white dress and pale skin contrast highly with her environment, accentuating her salience. With A cold, uncanny, and almost nightmarish hallucination, the diegetic audio of the scene suggests otherwise. Uplifting carnival music, like that of a merry-go-round, begins to play. However, prompting the lady to sing is a sudden music change. Shifting to a slow, but equally calming number, she begins to repeat the sinister yet comforting lyrics ‘in heaven, everything is fine.’ Digesting this moment in a holistic sense, the auditory element of the scene juxtaposes directly with the visual elements. This notion illuminates Chion’s theory of an-empathetic music use, suggesting its function to not ‘freeze emotion, but rather intensify it by inscribing it on a cosmic background.’ (Chion, 2011 pg.8). The radiator, perhaps, a metaphor for Henry Spencer’s escape from perpetual emotional turmoil, is a reading one could ascribe to the audience’s lack of diegetic instruction regarding how and when to digest the action portrayed. (Bhattacharjee, 2011 pg.2) Rather, the audience is provided the opportunity to contextualise Lynch’s experimental filmic sonic palate by inserting meaning to visual elements designed with a degree of ambiguity fit for provoking intellectual thought and interpretation. 

Conclusion: 

David Lynch’s alternative use of diegetic audio exists as a perfect representation of Michal Chiron’s notion regarding empathetic and an-empethatic audio. By intentionally separating his cinematic intentions from conventional uses of ambient noise and music, Lynch’s experimental approaches to filmic sound design allows for intricately constructed ambiguity. Eraserhead’s sonic palate successfully compliments its effort to manifest an uncanny and hallucinatory realm, providing audiences the chance to be provoked not only intellectually but emotionally as well. 

References:

Bhattacharjee, S (2019). A Critical Analysis of David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ (1977): Whose Dream is it After All? [online] RESEARCH REVIEW International Journal of Multidisciplinary. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/39479577/A_Critical_Analysis_of_David_Lynchs_Eraserhead_1977_Whose_Dream_is_it_After_All [Accessed 12 Apr. 2022].

Chion, M (2019). Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, vol Second edition, Columbia University Press, New York, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=2026762&site=ehost-live [Accessed 14 April 2022].

Morgan F (2011). Darkness Audible: Sub-bass, tape decay and Lynchian noise. [online] Electric Sheep. Available at: http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/2011/11/08/darkness-audible-sub-bass-tape-decay-and-lynchian-noise/ [Accessed 14 Apr. 2022].

Selim Bulut (2017). Revisiting Eraserheads haunting, industrial soundtrack. [online] Dazed. Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/35200/1/eraserhead-soundtrack-40th-anniversary [Accessed 14 Apr. 2022].

Sobczynski, P. (2014). Defying Explanation: The Brilliance of David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ | TV/Streaming | Roger Ebert. [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/streaming/defying-explanation-the-brilliance-of-david-lynchs-eraserhead [Accessed 12 Apr. 2022].

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