Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted
In my brain still remains
Within the sound of silence
Simon And Garfunkel – Sounds Of Silence
Listen. If you listen closely, intensely, you will hear the sounds of loneliness scoring the most profound encounters found on our screens and in their senses.
Sounding loneliness is heard in the timbre of the vanquished voice, the rhythmic pattern of raindrops falling, the nervous beep of a horn emitting from a car parked in the urban shadows.
Sounding loneliness is made manifest in the cries of a sibling, the weeping strings of a violin, the rustle of yesterday’s newspaper, the click click click of a midnight mouse, the primordial raptures of the wind banging at the back door.
A goodbye, lamenting kiss; the silence of a dead tear collapsing on a wretched face- its liquid vibrations moving the air as it slowly descends; footsteps gradually fading, aching their retreat into the long drawn out distance – all recall the sounds of loneliness.
It is the combination of sounds, the intricacies of a text’s sound design that creates a scene of melancholy and malcontent. A scene can be busy, over-wrought with noise and commotion and yet be a soundtrack of loneliness – a character found lost in the midst of their isolation and distraction as the carnival plays on without them.
Soap operas often employ this convention of loneliness to mark out a character in crisis or deep despair. They sit forlornly in the Rovers Return, or the Queen Vic, with giggles and chatter surrounding them.
Disenchanted environments chant the name of loneliness: a desolate, rocky beach washed with a high tide; a high rise, brutalist housing complex humming to the sound of light strips stripped bare of their dignity; a vast cosmos emptied of its bright stars and luminous planets. An unkempt woman sitting on the edge of an unmade bed, pinching the sheets with her broken fingertips. A silver kettle boiling in an empty Ikea kitchen. The creek of a swing in an abandoned playground – amplifying the sound of rust as it freezes the still air.
How one affectively sound screens loneliness is dependent on what instruments, melodies, voices and sound effects are used to create a sonic membrane that then manifests as melancholy and malcontent. It is in the syncretic and synesthetic entanglement where sounding loneliness takes root. It is in the sound-image, to draw upon Chion, where loneliness fully emerges like a black dahlia.
In the ‘life is a dream’ sequence from True Detective, State homicide detectives Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) are being interviewed about their role in a murder. The interview with Cohle takes up most of the screen time, but is cross-cut to Hart being separately interrogated, and to the memories it evokes as he recalls the events. The diegetic sounds that fill this interview scene are ordinary, realist, but are undercut by a soundtrack that is metallic, sonorous, and haunting. The beer can origami of a person that Cohle is cutting and pressing carries the realist sound motif into the impressionable score and back again. There is something uncanny being revealed in the sound image of life is a dream.
Cohle’s voice, its southern drawl, its existential anguish is softly delivered but sits in the gap between his testimony and what is being revealed. We see images of dead girls, bloodied and marked, in the case folder and rolling off a photocopier, and as we are returned to the murder which took place in the bayou, low-pitch jungle sounds, a helicopter whirl, heat the air, as Cohle’s narration contradicts what it is we are presented with. The ghost of Vietnam is called upon in this narration as is the concept of the locked room – the state that Cohle suggests we all exist in as life, death, memory, converge and conjoin.
Death is past, present and future tense – the audio envelope that carries all the sounds in this scene. Over the photographs of the dead girls we hear Cohle profess that he sees in their eyes in the nano-second before their demise, release and relief. This is the state of our exception. Born alone and to die lonely, if only we hear and see its calling. As viewers we are enmeshed in Cohel’s watery grave, are asked to see and hear through his delivery, weary performance, and the uncanny soundings, loneliness as a deterritorialization experience. This is truly the ‘afterlife of the image’ (Chion, 1994: 123).
Sound can be slowly emptied from a scene so what is left is the solitary figure caught in the internal noise of their own atomization, as if it is them pressing the volume reduction button. Diegetic sound can be emptied from a scene for another reason, to impregnate it with a leitmotif, or to provide it with a song whose melody and lyrics capture the anomie on screen.
A tradition has emerged in the event television series where its finale season episode or finale ‘full stop’, is engineered through the gushing deployment of a pop song. While this technique can be criticized for its emotion manipulation and sanitized anchoring of ‘spectacle’ endings, its affective envelope runs from the screen to the viewers watching and back again.
The pop soundtrack ending is accompanied by higher order iconicity or images saturated with portentousness, and heightened drama as a big ‘explosive’ ending is orchestrated, a central character is killed off, a major relationship ends, or the series is brought to its final curtain with all loose ends tied up and packed away.
The finale to Six Feet Under involves Claire Fisher driving away to the sound of Sia’s Breathe Me, which plays off a CD she has put on in the car. As the song rises up in all its melancholy, beauty and death, we see each character meet their eventual fate, until Claire herself is consumed and is no more, like the series itself.
As we travel through time, we do so within a wall of emotive sound that stings us, asking us to undertake memorial work for each of its characters whom we have come to know and love. As they each meet their death, they do so alone, or at least in front of witnesses (including the viewer) who cannot stop their passing.
We cannot stop their passing or the series ending – the pop sounding of loneliness enters the lifeworld of the viewers, floods their carnal beings, so that they sound lonely too. Sia’s Breathe Me becomes immortalized in this ending and becomes part of viewer’s own memory work. Wherever they hear the song, be it shopping mall or sports field, the strings of Six Feet Under’s loneliness rise up. Sounding loneliness is inter-textual, crosses texts and contexts, it has a life and death of its own.
Loneliness rises up in the image, in the sound ‘en creux’. Loneliness is a phantom in or of the image, not singularly or simply there because of actor, drama, existential encounter or crisis, but because of the inescapable death in and of the image wherever it maybe found. It is the image’s essential state. It is the screen’s innate loneliness room. It is the truth of sounding loneliness.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the signs said, ‘The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’
And whispered in the sounds of silence
Simon And Garfunkel – Sounds Of Silence
With warm thanks to Melissa Keenan for talking through the sounds of loneliness.
Sean Redmond is an Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He writes on stardom and celebrity, science fiction, screen aesthetics, and authorship. His latest book is The cinema of Takeshi Kitano with Columbia University Press (2013). Sean Redmond, Deakin University, Melbourne: email@example.com