The Heliocentric Pantheon: An Interview with Walter Murch

[Image: Inside the Pantheon; via].

Through both film editing and sound design, Walter Murch has worked literally behind the scenes of Hollywood to give shape and structure to the films we see. In the process, he’s won three Academy Awards; he’s directed his own feature-length film, the creatively subversive Return to Oz; and he’s worked with some of the greatest directors of modern times, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, on some of their greatest films, from The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now to The Conversation and THX-1138.
But it is due only in part to Murch’s stellar career in film that I wanted to talk to him for BLDGBLOG.
As it happens, Murch’s interests go far beyond the reach of cinema, encompassing architecture, astronomy, music theory, and mathematics – among an almost impossibly broad range of other subjects. When a friend of mine casually mentioned that Walter had “discovered” something about the Pantheon, in Rome, and that this discovery had something to do with Nicolaus Copernicus and the origins of heliocentrism in Western astronomy, I was determined to write about it for BLDGBLOG. Within only a few weeks, Walter and I were in touch.
Of course, Murch is already very well-known as an interviewee; as only one example of this, novelist Michael Ondaatje recorded an entire book’s worth of interviews with Murch, later published under the title The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.
That book is never less than fascinating, if frequently enigmatic; at one point Murch claims, for instance, referring to his sound work for film: “If I go out to record a door-slam, I don’t think I’m recording a door-slam. I think I am recording the space in which a door-slam happens.”
Or, continuing that thought:

I spent a lot of time trying to discover those key sounds that bring universes along with them. I tend not to visualize but auralize, to think about sound in terms of space. Rather than listen to the sound itself, I listen to the space in which the sound is contained.

Murch and I spoke for roughly an hour, and we continued our conversation through email; we managed to discuss the Pantheon, Copernicus, the Mithraic religion of the ancient Mediterranean, urban acoustics, the music of the spheres, Brian Eno, Single Speed Design, the architecture of film, and whether CCTV surveillance of city streets should be considered a new cinematic avant-garde.
It’s worth noting, finally, that this interview goes online only a few hours before Murch is due to speak at an event in San Francisco, co-organized by BLDGBLOG and Chronicle Books; there, he will be discussing his thoughts on Copernicus and the Pantheon in more detail.

• • •

[Image: Exterior view of the Pantheon].

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with your research into the Pantheon – in particular, how that building’s structure may have influenced the astronomical theories of Nicolaus Copernicus. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

Walter Murch: Well, the Pantheon still holds its mysteries: Who designed it? How was it used? What does it mean? But Copernicus still has his mysteries, too: Why did someone like him, a high official in the Church, 500 years ago, dedicate his life to the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun? Not only did this contradict common-sense and the teaching of the Bible, but it also capsized 1400 years of Ptolemaic, geocentric astronomy. And Ptolemy, it turns out, was writing his classic book on astronomy – the Almagest – while the Pantheon was being built.

At any rate, Copernicus was born in 1473. He studied astronomy at the University of Bologna, along with medicine and law, and while he was there he became an assistant to Domenico Novara. Novara was a well-known astronomer who may have exposed Copernicus to the 3rd century BC theories of Aristarchus.

Aristarchus believed that the Sun was the center of the universe. He also believed that the Earth not only revolved around the Sun, along with all the other planets, but that it rotated on its axis once every 24 hours, and that the moon, in turn, revolved around the Earth. So – more than two thousand years ago – Aristarchus described the solar system essentially the way we conceive of it today; yet his theory was rejected at the time, and his writings were subsequently lost.

Scholars in the Renaissance were only able to learn about Aristarchus through a book called The Sand Reckoner, by Archimedes, where Aristarchus’s theory is described – but it’s used as the premise for an impossibly large universe. Aristarchus’s heliocentrism is almost certainly the source of Copernicus’s inspiration – but why did Copernicus take it seriously when no one else did?

In 1500, a Jubilee year, Copernicus took time off from his studies in Bologna and he moved to Rome. This is where the Pantheon comes in. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that if you were a young man of 27, footloose in Rome, the Pantheon would be high on your list of places to visit: it was probably the most famous building in the world at that time – the only intact structure from Ancient Rome – and it featured the world’s largest dome: 142 feet in diameter. It remains, to this day, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture.

The Pantheon had survived mainly because it was consecrated in 609, yet the overwhelming feeling when you walk into that building is pagan: a series of concentric circles surrounding a single bright source of light – which is the oculus in the center of the dome. It’s pretty certain that the Pantheon was designed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Hadrian was a Mithraist – a worshipper of the Sun.

The only writing about the Pantheon from around the time it was built appears in the History of Rome, by Dio Cassius. Dio Cassius mentions that some people believed the name Pantheon (which is Greek for all gods) came from the statues of the many different gods which decorated the building, “but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens.”

That powerful image of the central source of sunlight surrounded by a series of concentric circles must have been an overwhelming experience for Copernicus, primed by his knowledge of Aristarchus. He would have been standing in a church (St. Mary All Martyrs) built 1400 years earlier as a pagan temple, looking up at Aristarchus’s theory “in the flesh” so to speak.

[Image: The dome of the Pantheon, a “celestogramme” by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Are there any writings or images by Copernicus that might prove he interpreted the building this way?

Murch: There is a drawing in Revolutions, at the end of Chapter Ten, where Copernicus, for the first time, schematically illustrates his conception of the Universe. It’s a series of concentric circles, the outermost being the “Sphere of the Fixed Stars,” with progressively smaller circles representing the orbits of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury. In the center, of course, is the dot of the Sun. Copernicus’s exact words accompanying the drawing are significant:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the Sun. For in this most beautiful temple (in hoc pulcherimo templo) who could place this lamp in another or better position than the center, from which it can light up the whole at the same time? For, is not the Sun called ‘the lantern of the universe’ and, ‘its mind’ and by others ‘its ruler’? Hermes Trismegistus calls the Sun ‘a visible god’, and Sophocles’ Electra calls it ‘the all-seeing’. Thus indeed, as though upon a royal throne, the Sun governs the family of planets revolving around it.

What leaps out from that text are the allusions to this beautiful temple, illuminated by a central lamp – and lantern was the architectural term used in Copernicus’s time to refer to the central opening in a dome – which lights up the whole. Then there are the classical references to Hermes Trismegistus and Sophocles. These are not the words of a cautious medieval ecclesiastic, but someone deeply influenced by the ancient pre-Christian world.

[Image: A diagram of the planetary orbits, by Nicholas Copernicus].

BLDGBLOG: So, in that passage, he was simultaneously describing the structure of the Pantheon and his theory of the solar system?

Murch: In a sense.

Inspired by that description, I then superimposed Copernicus’s drawing over an image of the Pantheon’s dome – and found that the ratios of the circles in his drawing and the ratios of the circles of the Pantheon line up almost exactly. Seeing that alignment was one of those wonderful moments where you suddenly feel a strong current of connection with the past.

[Image: A superimposition, by Walter Murch, of Copernicus’s diagram of planetary orbits over a celestogramme of the Pantheon by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Wow! That’s not just a coincidence? Copernicus actually meant for that to happen?

Murch: The circumstantial evidence is compelling, but there is no reference to the Pantheon in any of Copernicus’s correspondence or in the various manuscript versions of de Revolutionibus – so we will probably never know for sure.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating thought: that this magnificent temple, built 1400 years before Copernicus ever saw it, designed by a pagan, Sun-worshipping Roman emperor, and later transformed into a church, may have had secretly encoded within it the idea that the Sun was the center of the universe; and that this ancient, wordless wisdom helped to revolutionize our view of the cosmos.

BLDGBLOG: As far as the organization of the solar system goes, you’ve also been doing some interesting work with Bode’s Law, which has to do with finding a mathematical pattern in the orbits of the planets. How did you first discover that Law, and where is your research going?

Murch: Well, it was something I ran across a number of years ago in Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers – a history of our conception of the universe from ancient Greece through Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to Newton. Bode’s Law is just mentioned as a footnote.

Kepler, in particular, had been obsessed with finding a pattern in the orbits of the planets – his famous Three Laws were discovered almost incidentally along the way to that goal, and he would probably be very upset to find that we remember him for his those laws (which he did not number or particularly esteem) and that we’ve forgotten the planetary harmonics to which he devoted his life. But, even by the middle of the 1600s, Kepler’s harmonies were considered a lost cause.

Then, sometime in the 1760s – more than a hundred years after Kepler – a German professor of physics inserted a formula into a French book he was translating: a simple bit of algebra which seemed to indicate there was, indeed, a pattern to the planetary orbits. That professor was Johann Titius, and his formula was later appropriated and published by the director of the Berlin observatory, Johann Bode. Bode had a much bigger megaphone than Titius, so the formula became known as Bode’s Law – but it should really be named after Titius.

When I read Sleepwalkers I was right in the middle of finishing a film – and it was odd, because I was under a tight deadline, but this idea really got under my skin. So at 11:30 at night I started fooling around with the Bode numbers, and within half an hour, I came up with a formula that generated the same set of ratios, yet was different from the original – and that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up! That was what started me down this road, about ten years ago.

[Image: The rings of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: What’s the specific idea behind the Law itself? In other words, what exactly is Bode’s Law?

Murch: It’s a relatively simple exponential function, sprinkled with a few arbitrary constants – you put whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) in at one end and a series of different numbers come out the other (.4, .7, 1.0, 1.6, etc.). It turns out that these new numbers are very close to the average distances of the planets from the Sun, measured in Astronomical Units (AU). For instance, the Earth is (by definition) 1 AU from the Sun. Bode’s Law says that there should be a planet at .7 of that distance – and Venus is actually found at .72 AU.

Titius’s formula not only correctly described – to within a few percentage points – the average distances of the six planets known at the time, but it also predicted that there should be planets at certain distances where there seemed to be empty space. Then, in 1781, Uranus was discovered – the first planet ever to be discovered with a telescope – and its average distance turned out to be 19.2 AU, within 2% of the predicted 19.6. In 1801, Ceres, the first and largest asteroid, was discovered at 2.77 AU, within 1% of the predicted 2.8.

It was a kind of astronomical apotheosis: Titius’s formula seemed to be both descriptive and predictive: the holy grail of science. It fit all the known planets – even newly-discovered ones. So, even though nobody knew why it worked, Titius’s formula was assumed to be a Law. Unfortunately for Titius, who died in 1796, it became popularly known as Bode’s Law.

Everything was fine for the next fifty years, but then disaster struck: in 1846, another new planet was discovered – Neptune – but it didn’t fit. It should have been at 38.8 AU, but it was orbiting at 30, off by almost 30%.

It was a fatal blow. Bode’s Law fell into obscurity, where it remains to this day. Now, when you take astronomy 101, if Bode’s Law is mentioned at all, it’s presented as a historical curiosity. Or a cautionary tale of wrong thinking – luring unwary astronomers into the swamp of numerology.

But, then, when Pluto was discovered in 1930, it fit to within 2% the orbit where Neptune should have been. So rather than throw the whole thing out because one planet didn’t fit, I thought it would be interesting to set Neptune aside as a renegade and see what I could learn by applying the formula to other orbital systems.

I eventually discovered that there are parts of the formula that are linked to particular and unique aspects of our own solar system – and that these particularities are responsible for some of the arbitrary constants in the formula. I found if I could purify the formula of these constants, then I could also make it simpler and more general, and yet it would still yield the same set of ratios.

[Images: The rings – and a moon – of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: How did you purify it?

Murch: Well, one of the unexamined assumptions in Bode’s Law is that the unit to which everything is mathematically compared is the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This seems perfectly natural – it’s the Astronomical Unit, and the Earth is where we live. But this comparison requires the formula to perform a kind of mathematical jiu-jitsu: it has to generate a series of ratios and compare all of those ratios to the Astronomical Unit.

So it seemed more logical to abandon the Astronomical Unit and just concentrate on the ratios. Once you do that, the formula gets much simpler: it doesn’t have to do two things at once. This new formula is not only simpler, but it’s also lost its “Earth-centricity.” Now you can apply it to other orbital systems – the miniature “solar systems” of the moons around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, for instance, and you find the same set of ratios cropping up!

Of course, it’s not that the moon systems of those planets somehow duplicate the solar system – they don’t. It’s rather that, underlying all of these moons and planets, there is a pattern of ratios, like the musical ratios underlying a keyboard. Just as you are restricted to playing certain musical ratios on a keyboard, so it seems to be with the arrangements of these moons. Some systems “play” – or occupy – certain orbits that others don’t.

Applying the same formula to different systems is potentially very fruitful. By comparing orbital systems you find that, in each of system, there are a few renegades – like Neptune in our solar system – but each of these is a renegade in the same way as Neptune: all of them fall exactly at the midpoint between two adjacent Bode-predicted orbits. So there is an underlying similarity even to the exceptions.

[Image: Bode-predicted planetary orbits compared to those orbits as they are now scientifically understood].

BLDGBLOG: The “music of the spheres” is perhaps an inevitable metaphor to use here – but I’m curious if you have actually found a real, numerical correspondence between the structure of Western music and the orbits of the planets, or if it’s just a convenient metaphor.

Murch: That’s one of the startling things about this. If I wrote the simplified Bode formula down on a piece of paper and showed it to music theorists, they would ask: “Why are you showing us a formula from the overtone series…?”

In other words, Bode’s Law gives a series of orbital ratios which are mathematically identical to intervals in musical theory. They’re primarily variations on what we call the 7th chord: C, E, G, B-flat. Bode’s predicted ratio between Earth and Mars, for instance, is the same as the 5:8 musical ratio between E and C. And if you divide the distances, in kilometers, of the four Galilean moons by a common denominator you get the notes Ab, E, C, Bb. And so on.

[Image: The moons of Jupiter].

BLDGBLOG: Have you discussed these ideas with actual astronomers? How did they react?

Murch: I’ve given this, as a lecture, in various forms – at the National Convention of Digital Astronomy in Italy in 2004; at NYU in 2005; and then, last year, at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I think it was well-received in each case, but it’s still a work-in-progress, and I’m looking for feedback from people who are interested in this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking. For most astronomers it’s hard to contemplate reviving a long-discredited 18th century law of celestial mechanics, let alone the music of the spheres! [laughs] The conventional wisdom about Bode’s Law is that it’s just a fluky coincidence.

[Images: The world as a series of chords; via].

BLDGBLOG: So there are similarities between this and music theory – but what about between this and film theory? Is there a kind of Bode’s Law of film editing? The relationships between scenes and so on?

Murch: I think the common thread to both astronomy and film-editing is this search for patterns. Now, at least as far as we can tell, filmmaking is not amenable to the same kind of mathematical rigor that applies to astronomy [laughs] – there may be a mathematical rigor, but we certainly haven’t discovered what it is yet.

Think how difficult it would be to explain musical notation to someone from ancient Egypt, when they did not even suspect the underlying mathematical laws of harmonics, let alone a way of writing it all down. Instead, for thousands of years, music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved. Music evaporates as soon as it is performed. So this idea – that marks could be made on paper, and that this paper could then be sent hundreds of miles away, allowing different people to play the same music years later – I think would have seemed very strange, even impossible, to people in ancient times.

Maybe someday, though, we’ll turn a conceptual corner and suddenly discover the equivalent of musical theory and notation in film. Maybe we are still “Ancient Egyptians” in that regard.

BLDGBLOG: When you’re actually editing a film, do you ever become aware of this kind of underlying structure, or architecture, amongst the scenes?

Murch: There are little hints of underlying cinematic structures now and then. For instance: to make a convincing action sequence requires, on average, fourteen different camera angles a minute. I don’t mean fourteen cuts – you can have many more than fourteen cuts per minute – but fourteen new views. Let’s say there is a one-minute action scene with thirty cuts, so that the average length of each is two seconds – but, of those thirty cuts, sixteen of them will be repeats of a previous camera angle.

Now what you have to keep in mind is that the perceiving brain reacts differently to completely new visual information than it does to something it has seen before. In the second case, there is already a familiar template into which the information can be placed, so it can be taken in faster and more readily.

So with fourteen “untemplated” angles a minute, a well-shot action sequence will feel thrilling and yet still comprehensible: just on the edge of chaos, which is how action feels if you are in the middle of it. If it’s less than fourteen, the audience will feel like something is lacking, and they’ll disengage; if it’s more than fourteen, so much new information is being thrown at the audience that they’ll also disengage, though for different reasons.

At the other end of the spectrum, dialogue scenes seem to need an average of four new camera angles a minute. Less than that, and the scene will seem flat and perfunctory; more than that, and it will be hard for the audience to concentrate on the performances and the meaning of the dialogue: the visual style will get in the way of the verbal content and the subtleties of the actors’ performances.

This rule of “four to fourteen” seems to hold across all kinds of films and different styles and periods of filmmaking.

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the idea of music and sound for a moment, are there any places or buildings that you’ve visited, anywhere in the world, that particularly seemed to highlight the connection between a space and the sounds that occur in it? A kind of acoustic urbanism, where how a place sounds totally transforms what you see happening there?

Murch: Actually, I had that exact experience – but it was while watching a film. [laughter] Grand Central Station had been used as a location for one of the scenes. And this was despite the fact that I grew up in Manhattan, had been in Grand Central many times, and had developed an interest in sound recording as a teenager. But I was deaf to the kind of acoustic urbanism you’re speaking of until I saw Seconds by John Frankenheimer, in 1965.

There was just a single hand-held shot gliding down the main staircase, but accompanied by this…. bwoooaaahmmmm… the sound of that great room in all its wonderful complexity. It hit me very hard, emotionally, even though in retrospect it was quite obvious: the realization that you could join a certain tonality with a certain architectural space to create an emotion in the audience. And, if you wanted to, that you could then manipulate or distort that tonality to create a different sense of the visual space and a different emotion.

I’ve been pursuing that idea ever since. On every film I try to think as deeply as I can about the implied acoustic space of each scene; I then try to tailor the reverberant quality of the sound, and the tonality, to the spaces that we’re looking at. It’s endlessly fascinating, particularly because this technique flies “below the radar” of the audience. The filmmaker can have an effect on the audience without the audience knowing where that effect is coming from. Which I would guess is something that architects enjoy playing with, too.

[Images: Grand Central Station; via].

BLDGBLOG: As far as an acoustically rich space goes, is there a specific place – or a building or a landscape – where you like to record sounds for use in a film? How does the actual space affect the sounds you can record in it?

Murch: Well, first of all, I record a sound without any atmospheric envelope around it. I then take that recorded sound and find an acoustic space that is as close as possible to the acoustical space in the film; I play the sound in that space; and I record the resulting reverberation on another device, placed to extract the maximum reverberation. Then, in the final mix, I have the ability to blend those two sounds: the “dry” sound itself, alongside a sound which is almost all reverberation.

In musical terms, you could say it’s like the relationship between the string of the violin and the reverberation and amplification added by the body of the violin itself.

By first separating and then balancing those two elements together, I can custom-fit what seems to be the right dimension of sound implied by the space on screen. If you have too much reverb, and you don’t hear enough of the original sound itself, the result is too diffuse and ethereal to be realistic – but sometimes that lack of realism is exactly what you want. On the other hand, if you play proportionately too much of the dry sound, it doesn’t seem to connect to the space you’re looking at. But maybe that’s exactly what you want – that kind of dislocation. It all depends on the dramatic intent of the moment. But these two elements give you the handles to control the final result.

Over the last forty years, this time-consuming technique of physically “worldizing” the sound has been gradually replaced by increasingly sophisticated digital techniques, though the principle is the same. Now we can record a digital “snapshot” of a real acoustic space, using tone bursts and frequency sweeps, and then impose the resulting parameters on any sound we want, back in the studio.

BLDGBLOG: In a still unpublished interview I did with a Boston-based architecture firm called Single Speed Design, I asked one of the principal designers whether he liked ambient music – and his answer was interesting. He said that he didn’t like ambient music at all because it already included all the reverb, echo, and other effects that should have been introduced by the space in which the music was played. In other words, ambient music does the work of architecture for you, on the level of acoustics.

Murch: Exactly. He was reiterating, in an architectural sense, exactly what we do as a sound recordists.

BLDGBLOG: Another anecdote I think is interesting here comes from the British composer Brian Eno. Eno once said that he would make field recordings in different parks around London, then listen to the tapes until he’d memorized them – the way you would memorize a Beatles song. So he would know exactly when the church bell rang, and the mother called out to her child, and the birds flew overhead – or a distant truck rumbled by. He memorized the space according to the sounds that occurred within it.

Murch: There’s a wonderful essay by Michelangelo Antonioni, notes for a film that he was going to make in New York. To familiarize himself with the acoustic space of Manhattan (where he had never made a film) he sat in a room 34 stories up in a hotel somewhere on Fifth Avenue, writing down exactly what he heard over a period of three hours from dawn through rush hour. He came up with the most wonderful metaphors for sounds that were mysterious and unfamiliar to him, but which would be run-of-the-mill to a New Yorker. It’s a great read: a kind of meditative poetry, or song, just like Brian Eno said. It can evoke a whole series of emotional responses if you’re sensitive to that kind of stuff.

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of which, is there a specific place, like Leicester Square or some forest near San Francisco, where you thought to yourself: I could do this better – I could make this place sound better?

Murch: [laughs] Back in the late 60s we used to think of hiding a series of playback devices around a house to improve the sounds of the doors closing, the toilets flushing, and so on. Creating a real-life alternate acoustic universe.

Certainly the dominant thing that’s happened over the last hundred years is the universal spreading of white noise – just the general mush of traffic, air-conditioning, and jet planes. Whereas if you were in Leicester Square a hundred years ago, it might have been just as noisy – but the sounds would be more specific, less mushy and ill-defined because of the lack of the internal combustion engine and the constant whir of rubber tires on asphalt. For a number of years Aggie and I lived very near a freeway, on a Sausalito houseboat, and that constant mushy sound eventually became a kind of water-torture for me.

So I don’t have a specific answer for your question – but, generally, it would be to try to find some way to eliminate the white noise and to make people more sensitive to the individual sources of sound and reverberations within the space. Church bells can do that: they attract the ear with their tonality and reverberation, making you aware of the space between you and the church, and making you less aware of the underlying white noise.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) gets to know his surveillance equipment; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’m curious how you, as a film editor, see the rise of video surveillance – CCTV – in cities around the world. It seems that cinema has become the default condition of urban security. So I have two questions: do you think that a new kind of cinematic avant-garde is evolving in the control rooms of private security firms? In other words, these epic, nine-hour shots of parking lots seem more Warholian than Andy Warhol. And, second: if you were suddenly faced with all of the surveillance footage generated in a city for a day, do you think you could edit it into a convenient, albeit imaginary, narrative? You could take all those non-events and edit them into something – with action, and a storyline, and rhythm?

Murch: Well, there was a short film made a few years ago where the filmmaker had worked out the location of all the surveillance cameras along a cross-section of London, and how many of those cameras were operated by the municipal authorities. If the cameras were operated by the city, then he could get access to the footage. So he mapped out a pedestrian trip for himself across town knowing that, at every moment he would be on CCTV: as soon as he was out of range of one camera, he would come into focus on another. So he walked the walk, wrote to all the relevant authorities, got the footage, and then edited it all together into a continuous narrative. It’s very amusing in a dystopian, Warholian kind of way. You only “get” the joke after a few minutes of watching.

But George Lucas’s THX-1138 was kind of like that, except it was made in 1971. Much of the action takes place on video surveillance cameras. In fact, the job of the girl in the film is to monitor banks of surveillance cameras. She eventually gets fed up, stops taking her Prozac, or whatever, and tries to escape this completely video-monitored world – which, it turns out, is completely underground because of some disaster that had happened on the surface many years earlier.

Also similar, in some ways, is The Conversation – which is about audio surveillance – made around the same time. Part of the visual style of that film was a dispassionate “surveillance camera” look. There are a number of moments in the film where Gene Hackman walks into the shot, lingers for a moment, and then he walks out – but the camera doesn’t follow him or cut, as it normally would. Until, maybe five or ten seconds later, it slowly pans left, in a very mechanical way, over to where he is, and then it watches him for a while. But then he gets up and moves out of range again, and so on.

This is all in 35mm, not video, but the effect is disorienting just the same – perhaps even more so. It’s as if the camera has a motion-detector behind it, not an intelligence. It will stay still as long as there is activity – but then, if it detects a lack of activity, it will wait five seconds before searching out where the activity might have gone. The film both begins and ends like that – a long slow mechanical zoom at the beginning, then ending on an oscillating camera that pans back and forth mindlessly. And there are a number of scenes in the middle that are shot similarly.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) realizes his apartment is bugged; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: So do you think that video surveillance is a kind of unacknowledged form of cinema, or even a counter-Hollywood on the rise? The next avant-garde?

Murch: Something may be emerging. For instance, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is similar in its use of the simultaneous action of a four-way split screen telling four stories which sometimes interconnect.

You know, the other aspect of this is that these CCTV images are recycled and abandoned regularly. They are preserved for a certain length of time, and then they’re obliterated if there is no call for them. There is a temporality to it all which I think needs to be taken into account. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how rapidly this technology has spread – for economic reasons that have nothing to do with creativity. Insurance companies will now put cameras up at intersections where there have been lots of accidents. Then, if there is an accident involving one of their clients, they can use the footage to prove that the other person is at fault. Even when their client may be dead. Especially when he is dead.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Murch: There’s also footage now being made available, showing the July 7 London bombers rehearsing their terror plan two weeks ahead of time – all caught on publicly-operated CCTV cameras – and it is almost like the first example I mentioned, of crossing London on foot – lots of continuity of action. Except that it was real, and many lives were lost.

One hope I have is that someone will put a HiDef camera into orbit, giving a full-frame view of the Earth spinning below, and this will be made available to everyone on HiDef cable channel 427 or whatever. Then, when plasma screens – or liquid crystal, or digital wallpaper – get large enough, this image can then occupy the entire wall of a room in your house. You’ll be able to go into that room and do other things – read a book, or listen to music, and occasionally look up – and one entire wall of the room is the Earth as it actually is at the very moment that you’re looking at it. It would be as if your room were in orbit.

You’d begin to see Earthly events in context – a volcanic eruption in Peru, or the pollution coming out of New York harbor, or the hurricane threatening New Orleans, floods in Bangladesh – and it will begin to change our awareness of our relationship to the Earth in a profound way, the way the mirror changed our relationship to ourselves, and deepened our sense of identity as individuals. Given the technology that we have today, I’m interested that it hasn’t already happened yet. Given the state of the world at the moment, I hope it happens soon.

[Image: The Earth; image courtesy of NASA].

• • •

I owe an enormous thank you to Walter Murch, both for taking the time to do this interview – even following up via email from London – and for speaking at BLDGBLOG’s event, co-organized by Chronicle Books, tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco. If you’re anywhere nearby, be sure to stop in.
I also owe a huge thanks to Lawrence Weschler for first putting me in touch with Walter, and for introducing Walter to BLDGBLOG; and to Anne-Marie Cowsill, Chad Keig, and James Mockoski at American Zoetrope for sending me images from the filming of the The Conversation. Finally, I want to thank my wife, Nicola, for helping edit all this together while we drove up to San Francisco – it was also Nicola who suggested the interview’s title.
Meanwhile, I would urge anyone even remotely interested in the topics covered by this interview to pick up a copy of The Conversations. It’s compulsively readable, and well worth the time. Murch’s own book, In the Blink of an Eye, is particularly useful for anyone working in film.
Finally, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema is a detailed look at the film-editing experience itself, focusing on Murch’s decision to use an off-the-shelf software package in the editing of Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.

Listening to a machine made entirely from windows

An old issue of The Wire introduces us to a synthesizer called the ANS, built in 1950s Moscow by Eugene Murzin and “constructed around a unique and incredibly intricate photoelectronic system.”

[Image: The ANS].

The ANS functioned through an “array of tiny chisels” that engraved “lines and points on rotating black enamelled glass discs.” These engravings would then “regulate the brightness of light rays” that passed “through the discs onto photoelements,” like the sun streaming through carefully shaded windows. The “level of intensity” of this light then produced specific sounds.

Elsewhere (scroll down in this link till you hit the COILANS review), we read about the ANS’s unique compositional process: “The composer inscribes his visual ‘score’ onto a glass plate covered with sticky black mastic, slides it through the machine, which reads the inscribed plate and converts the etchings into sound produced by a system of 800 oscillators.”

It’s a machine that reads windows.

[Image: A representative musical score for the ANS – but what if you fed it architectural diagrams?].

The Wire then explains that, in 2002, British band Coil visited the synthesizer in Moscow and recorded nearly 4 hours of music using the machine. Listening to what they produced, we’re told, sounds “like travelling through the Oort Cloud or the Kuiper Belt – glitting slivers of distant white light and vast, nebulous spaces populated by inchoate radioactive matter.” As you’ll notice in these three, 3-minute samples, the effect is certainly weird – but also unbelievably mesmerizing: 1, 2, and 3 (all MP3s).

Light, chisels, glass plates, oscillators, enamelled surfaces, engravings on windows – with these elements it is not at all hard to imagine a kind of ANS architecture, rebuilt on the scale of a building. Windowed lobbies and escalators; sunlight; entire lift shafts full of glass discs, inscribed and black-enamelled, emitting music like light. Whole rooms of sound, angelic, the windows slightly trembling.

Moving panes of glass, washed clean at the end of the day, pass slowly behind curtains, casting acoustic shadows.

A symphony for glass escalators. Chamber music.

Entire cities, made from nothing but windows, tuning to one another like the sound of orchestral sunlight.

(Note: The ANS was apparently used to soundtrack Andrei Tarkovsky’s films Solaris and Stalker).


There was a short article in the August 2004 issue of The Wire about sound artist Mark Bain. “Equipped with seismometers,” The Wire writes, Bain “can turn architectural structures into giant musical instruments and demolish buildings with sound alone.” His installations have included “sensing devices, oscillators and the occasional sculptural element” – such as the “six metre high inflatable speaker” featured below.

This is the Sonusphere, formerly installed in the Edith Russ Haus, Germany. The Sonusphere musicalizes the effects of plate tectonics: “Modified seismic sensors pick up the normally unheard movements of the earth and are channeled through the entire building until reaching a ‘crescendo’ in Bain’s sonusphere. Unique in its purpose and design, the sonusphere is essentially a wired, inflatable ball that fills the entire upper floor and takes signals generated from an acoustic network running through the entire architecture. It acts as a low frequency, 360 degree, acoustic radiator translating the sound to its curved walls as physically pulsating sound pressure.”
Bain’s work, The Wire explains, references “the ideas of maverick engineer Nikola Tesla.” Tesla’s prolific output and avant-garde electrical ideas inspired Bain to develop “a system for resonating buildings that allowed him to ‘play’ structures. ‘The multi-resonator system I designed could drive waveforms into buildings,’ Bain comments, ‘like giant additive synthesis where you get different beatings of frequencies and shifted harmonics. I was basically designing systems that turned a structure into a musical instrument.'”
Elsewhere, we’re told, “the portable earthquake machines [that Bain] showed in Holland in 2001 produced severe tremors that spread through the surrounding area. Then there was Het Paard, a large music venue in The Hague slated for demolition. The oscillators he attached to the building activated the entire structure, inflicting severe damage on parts of the walls and ceilings.”
Of course, Bain has been on BLDGBLOG before, where we discuss a musical composition of his made entirely from seismic data recorded during the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 – the trembling of Manhattan turned into a roar of sound. (Listen to an excerpt here).

(Similar ideas are taken up in this post).

Dolby Earth / Tectonic Surround-Sound

“In any given instant,” the Discovery Channel reminds us, “one or more rocky plates beneath Earth’s surface are in motion, and now visitors to a California museum exhibit can hear virtually every big and small earthquake simultaneously in just a few seconds off real time. Scientists have captured earthquake noises before, but this is believed to be the first instantaneous, unified recording of multiple global tectonic events, and it sounds like the constant, dull roar of the world’s biggest earthquake chorus.”

The planet, droning like a bell in space.

Of course, the musicalization of the earth’s tectonic plates has come up on BLDGBLOG before, specifically in the context of 9/11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers. Among many other things, 9/11 was an architectural event which shook the bedrock of Manhattan; the resulting vibrations were turned into a piece of abstract music by composer Mark Bain (more info at the Guardian – and you can listen to an excerpt here).

Meanwhile, if somebody set up a radio station – perhaps called Dolby Earth – permanently dedicated to realtime platecasts of the earth’s droning motions… at the very least I’d be a dedicated listener. A glimpse of what could have been: Earth: The Peel Sessions.

In any case, if I could also remind everyone here of an interview with David Ulin, in which he discusses the intellectual and philosophical perils of earthquake prediction – the topic of his excellent book, The Myth of Solid Ground. One of the predictors discussed in Ulin’s book, for instance, spends his time “monitoring a symphony of static coming from an elaborate array of radios tuned between stations at the low end of the dial.”

Dolby Earth, indeed.

(Thanks to Alex P. for the Discovery Channel link! Related: Sound Dunes).

Super Reef

[Image: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef].

A “vanished giant has reappeared in the rocks of Europe,” New Scientist writes. It extends “from southern Spain to eastern Romania, making it one of the largest living structures ever to have existed on Earth.”

This “bioengineering marvel” is actually a fossil reef, and it has resurfaced in “a vast area of central and southern Spain, southwest Germany, central Poland, southeastern France, Switzerland and as far as eastern Romania, near the Black Sea. Despite the scale of this buried structure, until recently researchers knew surprisingly little about it. Individual workers had seen only glimpses of reef structures that formed parts of the whole complex. They viewed each area separately rather than putting them together to make one huge structure.”

[Image: The reefs of Raiatea and Tahaa in the South Pacific; NASA/LiveScience].

In fact, Marine Matters, an online journal based in the Queen Charlotte Islands, thinks the reef was even larger: “Remnants of the reef can be found from Russia all the way to Spain and Portugal. Portions have even been found in Newfoundland. They were part of a giant reef system, 7,000km long and up to 60 meters thick which was the largest living structure ever created.”

[Image: The Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NW Hawaii, via NOAA Ocean Explorer].

The reef’s history, according to New Scientist:

About 200 million years ago the sea level rose throughout the world. A huge ocean known as the Tethys Seaway expanded to reach almost around the globe at the Equator. Its warm, shallow waters enhanced the deposition of widespread lime muds and sands which made a stable foundation for the sponges and other inhabitants of the reef. The sponge reef began to grow in the Late Jurassic period, between 170 and 150 million years ago, and its several phases were dominated by siliceous sponges.

Rigid with glass “created by using silica dissolved in the water,” this proto-reef “continued to expand across the seafloor for between 5 and 10 million years until it occupied most of the wide sea shelf that extended over central Europe.”

Thus, today, in the foundations of European geography, you see the remains of a huge, living creature that, according to H.P. Lovecraft, is not yet dead.

Wait, what—

“We do not know,” New Scientist says, “whether the demise of this fossil sponge reef was caused by an environmental change to shallower waters, or from the competition for growing space with corals. What we do know is that such a structure never appeared again in the history of the Earth.” (You can read more here).

For a variety of reasons, meanwhile, this story reminds me of a concert by Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki that I attended in London back in 2002 at the School of Oriental and African Studies. That night, Suzuki played a variety of instruments, including the amazing “Analapos,” which he’d constructed himself, and a number of small stone flutes, or iwabue.

The amazing thing about those flutes was that they were literally just rocks, hollowed out by natural erosion; Suzuki had simply picked them up from the Japanese beach years before. If I remember right, one of them was even from Denmark. He chose the stones based on their natural acoustic properties: he could attain the right resonance, hit the right notes, and so, we might say, their musical playability was really a by-product of geology and landscape design. An accident of erosion—as if rocks everywhere might be hiding musical instruments. Or musical instruments, disguised as rocks.

[Image: Saxophone valve diagram by Thomas Ohme].

But I mention these two things together because the idea that there might be a similar stone flute—albeit one the size and shape of a vast fossilized reef, stretching from Portugal to southern Russia—is an incredible thing to contemplate. In other words, locked into the rocks of Europe is the largest musical instrument ever made: awaiting a million more years of wind and rain, or even war, to carve that reef into a flute, a flute the size of a continent, a buried saxophone made of fossilized glass, pocketed with caves and indentations, reflecting the black light of uncountable eclipses until the earth gives out.

Weird European land animals, evolving fifty eons from now, will notice it first: a strange whistling on the edges of the wind whenever storms blow up from Africa. Mediterranean rains wash more dust and soil to the sea, exposing more reef, and the sounds get louder. The reef looms larger. Its structure like vertebrae, or hollow backbones, frames valleys, rims horizons, carries any and all sounds above silence through the reef’s reverberating latticework of small wormholes and caves. Musically equivalent to a hundred thousand flutes per square-mile, embedded into bedrock.

[Image: Sheridan Flute Company].

Soon the reef generates its own weather, forming storms where there had only been breezes before; it echoes with the sound of itself from one end to the next. It wakes up animals, howling.

For the last two or three breeding groups of humans still around, there’s an odd familiarity to some of the reef-flute’s sounds, as if every two years a certain storm comes through, playing the reef to the tune of… something they can’t quite remember.

[Image: Sheridan Flute Company].

It’s rumored amidst these dying, malnourished tribes that if you whisper a secret into the reef it will echo there forever; that a man can be hundreds of miles away when the secret comes through, passing ridge to ridge on Saharan gales.

And then there’s just the reef, half-buried by desert, whispering to itself on windless days—till it erodes into a fine black dust, lost beneath dunes, and its million years of musicalized weather go silent forever.

Sound dunes

“Sand dunes in certain parts of the world are notorious for the noises they make,” New Scientist reports, “as sand avalanches down their sides. Some [dunes] emit low powerful booms, others sound like drum rolls or galloping horses, and some are even tuneful. These dune songs have been reported to last for up to 15 minutes and can sound as loud as a low-flying airplane.”

To test for the causes, properties, and other effects of these sand dune booms, “Stéphane Douady of the French national research agency CNRS and his colleagues shipped sand from Moroccan singing dunes back to his lab to investigate.” There, Douady’s team “found that they could play notes by pushing the sand by hand, or with a metal handle.”

The transformation of a sand dune – and, by extension, the entire Sahara desert, indeed any desert – even, by extension, the rust deserts of Mars – into a musical instrument. Music of the spheres, indeed.

“When the sand avalanches, the grains jostle each other at different frequencies, setting up standing waves in the cascading layer, says Douady. These waves reinforce one another, making the layer vibrate like the surface of a loud speaker. ‘What’s funny is that in these massive dunes, only a thin layer of 2 or 3 centimetres is needed to set up the resonance,’ says Douady. ‘Soon all grains begin to vibrate in step.'”

Douady has so perfected his technique of dune resonance that he has now “successfully predicted the notes emitted by dunes in Morocco, Chile and the US simply by measuring the size of the grains they contain.” The music of the dunes, in other words, was determined entirely by the size, shape, and roughness of the sand grains involved, where excessive smoothness dampened the dunes’ sound.

I’m reminded of the coast of Inishowen, a peninsula south of Malin Head in the north of Ireland, where the rocks endlessly grind across one another in the backwash of heaving, metallic, grey Atlantic waves. Under constant pressure of the oceanic, the rocks carve into themselves and each other, chipping down over decades into perfectly polished and rounded spheres, columns, and eggs – as if Archimedean solids or the nested orbits of Kepler could be discovered on the Irish ocean foreshore –

– all glittering. The rocks, I later learned, were actually semi-precious stones, and I had a kind of weird epiphany, standing there above the hush and clatter of bejewelled rocks, rubbing and rubbed one to the other in the depopulated void of a coastal November. It was not a sound easy to forget.

Because the earth itself is already a musical instrument: there is “a deep, low-frequency rumble that is present in the ground even when there are no earthquakes happening. Dubbed the ‘Earth’s hum‘, the signal had gone unnoticed in previous studies because it looked like noise in the data.”

Elsewhere: “Competing with the natural emissions from stars and other celestial objects, our Earth sings like a canary – it drones on in a constant hum of a gazillion notes. If it were several octaves higher, and hence, audible to the human ear,” it could probably get recorded by the unpredictably omnidirectional antennas of ShortWaveMusic and… you could download the sound of the earth. Free Radio Interterrestrial. [Note: the “drones on” link, a sentence or two back, offers a contrary theory (published in 2000) about the origins of these planetary sound waves.]

Which, finally, brings us to Ernst Chladni and his Chladni figures, or: architectonic structures appearing in sand due to patterns of acoustic resonance. The architecture of sand, involving sound—or architecture through sound, involving sand. Silicon assuming structure, humming.

The gist of Chladni’s experiments involved spreading a thin layer of sand across a vibrating plate, changing the frequency at which the plate vibrated, and then watching the sand as it shivered round, forming regular, highly geometric patterns. Those patterns depended upon, and were formed in response to, whatever vibration frequency it was that Chladni chose.

So you’ve got sand, dune music, terrestrial vibration, some Chladni figures – one could be excused for wondering whether the earth, apparently a kind of carbon-ironic bell made of continental plates and oceanic resonators, is really a vast Chladni plate, vibrating every little mineral, every pebble, every grain of sand, perhaps every organic molecule, into complex, three-dimensional, time-persistent patterns for which we have no standard or even technique of measurement. Or maybe William Blake knew how to do it, or Pythagoras, or perhaps even Nikola Tesla, but…

The sound dunes continue to boom and shiver. The deserts roar. The continents hum.

Musicalizing the weather through landscape architecture

The idea of listening to a landscape – how to podcast a landscape, for instance – tends to be literally overlooked in favor of a site’s visual impact or even its smell. When I was in Greece a few years ago, for instance, hiking toward an abandoned village on Tilos, every step I took crushed wild onions, herbs, and different flowers, and a temporary envelope of scent, picked up by breezes, floated all around me as I walked uphill. I may not remember every single detail of what that path *looked* like – but I do remember how it *smelled*.
It was like hiking through salad.
In any case, you don’t often see people packing up the family car, or hopping onto a train, to tour Wales or the Green Mountains of Vermont so that they can listen to the hills – they’ll go out to look at autumn leaf colors, sure, or take photographs of spring wildflowers. But to go all the way to Wales so they can hear a particular autumn wind storm howling through the gorges, a storm that only lasts two days of every year? Specifically going somewhere to *listen to the landscape*.
Seasonal weather events and their sonic after-effects. The Great November Moan.
All of which brings me to the idea of sound mirrors.

Musicalizing a weather system through landscape architecture.
BLDGBLOG here proposes a series of sound mirrors to be built in a landscape with regular, annual wind phenomena. A distant gully, moaning at 2am every second week in October due to northern winds from Canada, has its low, droning, cliff-created reverb carefully echoed back up a chain of sound mirrors to supply natural soundscapes for the sleeping residents of nearby towns.
Or a crevasse that actually makes no sound at all has a sound mirror built nearby, which then amplifies and redirects the ambient air movements, coaxing out a tone – but only for the first week of March. Annually.
Landscape as saxophone.

It’s a question of interacting with the earth’s atmosphere through human geotechnical constructions. Through sound mirrors.
What you’d need: 1) Detailed meteorological charts of a region’s annual wind-flow patterns. 2) Sound mirrors. 3) A very large arts grant.
You could then musicalize the climate.
With exactly placed and arranged sound mirrors atop a mesa, for instance, deep inside a system of canyons – whether that’s in the Peak District or Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – or even in Rajasthan, or western Afghanistan – you could interact with the earth’s atmosphere to create music for two weeks every year, amplifying the natural sounds of seasonal air patterns.
People would come, camp out, check into hotels, open all their windows – and just listen to the landscaped echoes.

A few questions arise: in this context, does Stonehenge make any sounds? What if – and this is just a question – it was built not as a prehistoric astronomical device but as a *landscape wind instrument*? You’d be out there wandering around the Cotswolds, thinking oh – christ, it’s 5000 years ago and we’re lost, but: what’s that? I hear Stonehenge… And then you locate yourself.
Sonic landmark.
This raises the possibility of building smaller versions of these sound mirrors in urban neighborhoods so that, for instance, Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg sounds different than Mitte, which sounds different than Kreuzberg – which sounds different than South Kensington, which is different than Gramercy Park… Etc.
You’d always know which district of the city you were in – even which city you were in, full stop – based on what the wind sounded like.
(Which reminds me of another idea: that, to attract people to a city without much going for it, you could *flavor the water supply*: make it taste like Doritos, for instance, and then sell that on huge billboards: buy your new home in Detroit, the water tastes like Doritos… the water tastes like tofurky…).
Second: is there a sonic signature to the US occupation of Baghdad? And I don’t mean rumbling Hummers and airplane engines, I mean what if all those Bremer walls –

– generate sounds during passing wind storms? All the American military bases of Iraq moaning at 3am as desert breezes pass by.
What does the occupation *sound like*?
A sonic taxonomy of architectural forms could begin…