Walter Murch Essay

In the 1990s, during breaks from editing the film First Knight, starring Sean Connery, Walter Murch was reading The Sleepwalkers, a book on the history of cosmology, by the Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler. Murch was struck by a footnote to a passage about Pythagoras and numerology that mentioned “Bode’s law,” formulated in the 18th century, which holds that planets and moons orbit their hosts at predictable mathematical ratios. “The idea made me go ‘Hmmm,’ ” Murch says. “It percolated in my mind for the next six months or so and then for some reason it moved to the front of my agenda.” It has remained there ever since.

Murch may be the world’s most vocal proponent of Bode’s law, also known as the Titius-Bode law, named after its two founders, and what it might say about the identity of the universe. He has given PowerPoint lectures about its role in our solar system and continues to collect NASA data about exoplanets. In the past few years Murch’s advocacy has gotten a boost from astronomers whose research, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, has shown the law does indeed apply to numerous exoplanet orbits.

The world is musical. If there were no human beings on earth and the wind blew over a frozen lava tube, it would produce a tone; and if the wind blew a little harder it would produce harmonics of that tone.

Murch’s talks on the obscure law may be better attended than those by astronomers because anybody who is a casual film buff knows of his work and reputation. He is the sound editor of The Godfather and the film editor of, to name a few, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The English Patient, for which he won Oscars for both Film Editing and Sound.

Murch, 72, has been a passionate student of science since he was a young man. He went to college intending to be an oceanographer before he fell in love with film. Over the long and adventurous course of his day job, he has continued to read deeply in science. He is a genuine Renaissance man. His passion for science, and Bode’s law in particular, converges with his job as an editor, helping directors refine the narrative line in their footage. “I tend to see in what I do what you might call strange attractors—patterns underneath the patterns that can be quantifiable,” Murch says.

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During his interview with Nautilus, Murch described and defended Bode’s law with verve and eloquence. I say “defended” because most astronomers today regard Bode’s law as not a universal law of orbital harmony but an intriguing coincidence. Reflecting Murch’s boundless curiosity and knowledge, our talk ventured from the solar system to the intersection of art and science, the nature of consciousness, and how Beethoven cracked open culture for the development of cinema. The legendary editor wove the manifold subjects into a cinematic conversation.

The video interview plays at the top of the screen.

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Interview Transcript

Who was Johann Titius?

Johann Titius was a professor at Wittenberg University in Germany. His original name in German was Dietz, but when you got your Ph.D. in those days you Latinized your name because everyone wrote in Latin. So that Dietz became Titius, just like Kopernik became Copernicus.

Anyway, he was translating a book by Charles Bonnet on the systems of nature and in those days—before footnotes or indexes or any of these things—translators were free to add whatever else they thought might go along with the concept. Titius interleaved in one of the pages an idea that he came up with, which was: If you take a very simple algorithm involving the low-integer numbers and apply the following doubling rules to it, it generates a series of numbers and those numbers are uncannily close to the distances of the planets from the sun. At that time, the furthest out planet we knew was Saturn and that has been true from ancient [times], whenever we started looking at the sky and trying to figure it out—let’s say 20,000 years ago. And so, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Tellingly, the algorithm indicated something between Mars and Jupiter. There was an empty space there and Titius wrote in this book, “Would the good Lord have left this space empty? No!” And he kind of left it at that.

There was not a lot of enthusiasm for it until about six years later, [when] Johann Bode, who was sort of the Carl Sagan of the 18th century—he was the head of the Berlin Observatory and a great popularizer of astronomy—picked it up. Initially, he kind of claimed it for himself. He algebracized it so that it looked more like a formula. Titius’ reading of it sort of looked like a Julia Child recipe. Take this number, do this to it, and so on! But now, you could actually look at a little formula.

Is there a mathematical formula for the Titius-Bode law?

What the formula is doing is just a simple geometric progression, but it’s referring to an item somewhere in the middle of the geometric progression as its point of reference—and much better if you have one of those formulas to use the start of the formula rather than something in the middle as your point of reference. So when you simplify it, it starts to look like formulas from music—harmonic series. Knowing as much or as little as I do of these things, I began to pursue that and discovered that if you take Bode’s law, and by inference the actuality of the semi-major axes of the planets, in fact their relationship is musically harmonic according to what we might call “just intonation,” which is music before human beings started fiddling around with it.

The world is musical. If there were no human beings on earth and the wind blew over a frozen lava tube, it would produce a tone; and if the wind blew a little harder it would produce harmonics of that tone according to the laws of “just intonation.” For our complex needs, we have skewed things a little bit so that we can transpose between keys easily with keyboard instruments, and this is the even-tempered scale that we use today. But this is not what we’re talking about! The differences are not huge, but they’re significant—it’s like 2 or 3 percent.

The solar system is still very strange. We haven’t seen other solar systems out there like ours. That may be a consequence of the fact that we just haven’t been looking hard enough and long enough yet.

What happened when Sir William Herschel discovered Uranus?

So then people started to wake up to it because science, the Holy Grail of science, is a formula that is both descriptive of what we know and predictive of things that are going to be later discovered. So here was a formula that described everything we knew in 1766, but in 1781—or whenever it was that Herschel discovered it—sure enough, there was something there. This heated up the excitement for discovering something at this missing gap between Mars and Jupiter.

A group known as the Celestial Police was formed and it was a pan-European—kind of like CERN, you know—group of astronomers led by Wilhelm Olbers, of Olbers’ Paradox. But they were beaten to the punch by a Sicilian priest-astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi, who very similarly to Herschel was just scanning the skies and said, “oh, there’s a comet!” He followed it for three days I think, and then he got sick. He sent out letters. By the time he recovered, whatever that was had fallen into the glare of the sun and [he] couldn’t identify it anymore. It turned out to be Ceres, the center of the asteroid belt, and it also turned out to be within 1 percent of where this algorithm said it was.

At that point, everyone was disarmed by it and it was called Bode’s law popularly—officially, the Titius-Bode law. And so it was for the next 45 years or so until the next planet out was discovered, which was Neptune. Neptune did not fit. They were looking for it to fit because everything else fit, but when the next planet out was identified, it was 50 percent off; it was much closer than it should [have been]. At that point, the law began a very quick tumble into obscurity, from which I’m trying to rescue it!

Why do you want to rescue Bode’s law?

I love underdogs, I guess? You know, there’s a championing of the underdog. I translate the poetry of Curzio Malaparte, who is similarly, an Italian writer of the middle of the 20th century. He was very well known at the time that he was writing, but has since fallen into the same kind of obloquy and forgetting. Interestingly, I discovered his work in a book on cosmology, where one of his stories was brought out as an example of what the French call surfusion—which is what [in] English we call “supercooling”; but similarly, I love his work and he’s forgotten.

Similarly with Titius Bode, the fact that it has the success that it has … if you study astronomy as an undergraduate, in Astronomy 101, Titius-Bode is explained to you for historical reasons and then it’s beaten to a pulp in front of your eyes and you are told, if you think this way you will never be an astronomer, because this is numerology and we discredit this! So [for] people who become astronomers, deep in their educational past is the witnessing of a bloody pulp, and they don’t want to be that bloody pulp.

Just as salt is inherent in the quark soup a nano-billionth of a second after the Big Bang in mysterious ways, so consciousness is also inherent in all of the previous examples of emergent qualities as they come along.

Astrophysicist Caleb Scharf has said Bode’s law is at worst a coincidence and at best a consequence of power laws of planet formation. Yet it has no reliable predictive power.

It’s valid. The power law, what he’s talking about, I would interpret as this doubling thing.

One of the peculiarities of the law is that the solar system is still very strange. We haven’t seen other solar systems out there like ours. That may be a consequence of the fact that we just haven’t been looking hard enough and long enough yet; and that the Kepler telescope broke and so it’s not generating any new data—we’re just combing it for data that we have; but there are peculiar things about our solar system, which is that the first planet in our system, Mercury, is a very large multiple of the diameter of the central object, the sun—and that’s something we’re absolutely not seeing out there. We’re seeing lots of so-called Hot Jupiters. These are very big planets, very close to the central object; they’re almost like double-star systems with the second, the planet, being a star that didn’t ignite—wasn’t massive enough to ignite. So that’s a kind of an asterisk to that observation.

I believe that Bode’s law is dynamic, meaning [that] in the case of Neptune, for instance, there is a moon far out that was clearly a captured Kuiper Belt Object and it is farther out within the Neptune system than Pluto is within our system—it’s the next iteration out; and it [has] an extremely elliptical orbit. It’s the most elliptical object that we know of in the solar system other than some comets; but it nonetheless fits Titius-Bode.

If Titius-Bode is a universal law, what would account for it?

Well, let me just also say that there is a long tradition of this issue, which is that with Kepler’s understanding of elliptical orbits, there was no possible way that anyone could understand why they should be elliptical. That condition pertained for the next 50 or 60 or 70 years; and in fact it drove a certain part of 17th-century science crazy because they had had to abandon Aristotelian and Ptolemaic astronomy, but there was nothing to replace it yet, and causally.

It was believed, even as late as Copernicus, that planets moved around because they were being pushed by angelic forces; angels were pushing their hotdog carts around the circle of the … Newton came along and explained what was going on—with his theory of universal gravitation. He in turn punted downfield, why does that work? And he said famously, “Hypotheses non fingo,”—I don’t know! I’m just reporting how it works not why it works, and he said, I have no idea of why it works. So we had to endure another 250 plus years until Einstein came along and said well, really it’s not a force; if you think of it as a force, it’s a distortion in the four-dimensional time-space field that looks like a force.

The saving grace for both Kepler and Newton is that their theories were extremely useful. You could use Kepler’s formulas to make much better maps of the heavens, and astronomical predictions by an order of magnitude, and that was very useful for navigation and other purposes. Newton obviously, his formulas were very useful for killing people with using artillery. You could calculate artillery by several orders of magnitude. There is no utility yet—we don’t know—for Bode’s law so that’s another stake in its heart. Why should it be? We don’t know. Is it useful? No. Get rid of it.

In terms of speculation—and you know, I emphasize here that this is, let me call it, pure artistry, rather than … but that’s frequently how things emerge—you can think of … what Bode’s law says basically is that there is a central body and at a certain distance from the central body there is a zone in which if a planet or something is orbiting, it will eventually get pulled into the central body. In physical metaphors, it’s like it slides downhill into the center of the well. But at a certain place, there’s a breakpoint at which stable orbits become possible, and there is a corrugation of a kind from that point on—and you could think of it, kind of, in two- three-dimensional terms as an undulating landscape with peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys, and the planets or moons will tend to orbit at the bottom of these valleys. Now are these real? Or are they statistical? Who knows. By the same token, there are peaks where planets will not form stable orbits so the prediction—of my version of Bode’s law—is not only should you find planets here, but here you should not find any planets. And then the period to the next valley is double the distance from the previous valley. So this is the geometric progression. I should say [that] this also [relates] to music in the sense that it’s like an octave, that from the point of this—what we were calling this breakpoint, where stable orbits become possible—the measurement to Venus, if you double that distance, then you get the Earth; if you double the distance from this breakpoint to Earth, you get Mars; and then Ceres, then Jupiter, and so on.

There is an undulation in something. What is that something? Are we talking about some reemergence of the ether? Are we talking about undulations in the fabric of space-time? I mean we all know, thanks to Einstein, that in the case of the central large body, space-time is curved in that, and that’s why starlight will veer around massive bodies. That was the proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1918, I think. So my supposition, and it’s purely a way of thinking about it, is [that] in addition to this curve bending down toward the central body, that from that outward, there is a very light undulation that is easy in the short term—it’s so light that it’s invisible in a sense, and any orbit is possible—but over the long term, things tend to fall into these troughs.

Could Bode’s law be nothing more than the human need to see patterns?

Sure. When I give lectures about this, the third slide is the word “apophenia,” which is the tendency of human beings to see faces in clouds and the face of Jesus in a piece of toast and that kind of stuff.

I begin the lecture by saying this is an occupational hazard of anyone who does this kind of stuff, and it’s particularly true of me. I have to watch out for it because that’s my job. My day job is film editing, and that’s what I do—identify patterns and organize them at the micro- and macro- level to give you the best experience of watching a film possible.

The other thing is that that is perhaps what freed me, because I have this multi-disciplinary approach. I know about music and I know about—to the extent that I’ve studied it—the history of this problem; and we now have the database and I’m putting these things together and I’m not burdened by what we might call, “the bloody pulp problem,” which is, “I don’t want to ever go there.” Just the opposite. Bode’s law, to me, seems to have been unfairly dismissed historically at a time when we didn’t have any data, meaning in the middle of the 19th century. The very first thing that did not fit Bode killed it. But at that time we knew very little in terms of celestial objects, even within our solar system, let alone other systems in the galaxy. Now that we have all this data, I think it’s time to relook at this.

A critic listening to one of Beethoven’s pieces said Beethoven puts together doves and crocodiles in the same cage. If you had to boil down what movies are, we try to put crocodiles and doves into the same cage and see what happens.

Where do you see the intersection of art and science?

Well, there was a very interesting diagram. Charles Simonyi published a book that his father had written. His father taught physics in Hungary—was a very famous teacher, in fact, and did not publish this book himself, but this was his lecture notes. Charles Simonyi, a number of years ago, published this book.

In the book, early on is a diagram of a flow chart over time and the ancient past is high, the present is low; and on the left is art and on the other side is science; and what he’s tracking is pulses of art—where art is advanced and where it is not advanced, where is it advanced and not advanced; where breakthroughs are being made and development is very rapid and areas of stagnation. And on the other side is science, where science is advancing and where it is regressing; where it’s stagnant, where it’s progressive. What’s fascinating about that diagram is that the two pulses are sequential, in the sense that the art pulse always precedes by a century or so the science pulse, and breakthroughs in art, in a sense, break up the hard pan of the soil and fertilize it and add compost to the mix, and then the fruit of science, the plant of science can find … its roots can dig down and develop. That’s, I think, one of the things that’s going on, those two different modes of thinking are complementary and they both need each other and they both work sequentially.

The great thing about Simonyi’s diagram is that the distance between the ticks on the diagram are 50 years, not two years—I don’t know how it exactly applies at the more micro level. It’s clear that around the turn of the century, with the development of motion pictures—which is basically the quantization of movement, breaking movement down into discrete frame moments—that 10 years later, along comes Max Planck and gives us the idea of the quantum, first bursts upon the scene in 1900, which is also the year at which films began to be edited and put together to tell a coherent story out of parts that are not shot in sequence. So those two things, quantum mechanics and quantum analysis and the development of motion pictures in the first 28, 29 years of the 20th century are kind of yoked together.

Are you saying that science needs narratives?

Yeah. I mean the big leap I think that we’ve made in science over the last 100 years, is the, well, 200 years let’s say, is the idea that at deeper and deeper levels, there is a history to the organization of the universe. If you read the Bible, there is a history—it takes place over seven days and then that’s it! So out of the chaos of the primal elements, God fashions the world in seven days, or six days, and then rests on the seventh day.

What we see when we look far enough back into the past is an era of complete, indistinguishable chaos, the pulse of a soup of hot quarks; and if an intelligence was somehow able to see that at the time, it’s very unlikely that that person, whoever that person could ever be, would say oh yes, I see a moment where Walter is in the offices of Nautilus having a discussion about this! If you looked at that soup of indistinguishable quarks, every quark is very similar to every other quark—they have different electrical values, different masses, but to predict the complexity of the universe that we now see would be a leap upon leap upon leap.

This is something that we know now that we did not know 200 years ago and it is a story. We can see the emerging kind of, victory over entropy in a sense, that soup of quarks fits every description we could imagine of an entropic state—great chaos, complete uniformity; looking back into the past with cosmic radiation, we cannot distinguish variation greater than one over 100,000 in the temperature at recombination, which was 380,000 years ago. So what was it at the moment of the Big Bang? Much, much less even, than that!

So how did complexity arise out of great chaotic simplicity? We don’t really know. We can track each thing: Well, there was a moment at which quarks came together to form protons, but electrons, which were there, could not be captured by these protons because the energy was still too great. Then there is a moment where the universe is expanding and cooling at the same time and now a new era of stability happens where atoms are being formed; but you still couldn’t have molecules because the energy is too great. And on and on and on.

So how do you define consciousness?

Consciousness is known as the hard problem because there is clearly some bifurcation going on. It’s the contact point between the reality that we can perceive and a reality that we have not yet perceived.

One of the things that we see in this emergence is hierarchical organization and emergent qualities in the sense that you take two slightly poisonous, nasty substances—sodium and chlorine—and put them together and they turn into table salt, which is what we need; but there is no saltiness in either of those atoms. There is saltiness in the molecule. That saltiness does not become operative until you have a large enough mass of that and that mass is interacting with other masses in a salty way.

I think this is probably a question that we will be able to resolve, which is the following: Is consciousness an emergent quality that’s inherent in the universe in the same sense that salt was inherent in sodium and chlorine but not predictable by sodium and chlorine? Salt is inherent in the protons of hydrogen. It’s inherent, in a sense, in the quarks that form the protons. Or is it?

So my question to the universe—and to myself obviously—is, is consciousness a trivial epiphenomenon like the antlers of the Irish elk, meaning is it a strategy that a certain form of life, us, is using to gain an advantage over other forms of life? And is that advantage sexually attractive, in the larger sense of the term? Somebody who is not conscious is not very sexually attractive. And to an Irish elk, a girl, the guy with the big antlers, is very attractive because he’s able to sprout these things and then to support their weight and that means he’s a good dad, his sperm will be good, so I’m going to mate with him. The problem in there, the unintended consequence of that, is that [it] became a classic example of runaway evolution where the bigger the antlers got, the bigger they got; because you kept fathering with guys who had bigger antlers. Finally, it became a disaster because the antlers got bigger than the average distances between the trees in prehistoric Ireland and so they all died out.

There’s an argument to be made that consciousness is that, that we’re running away with consciousness; it’s building on top of itself. We’re creating a world in which people live virtually all the time and we’re endangering ourselves in global warming and dah, dah, dah and we may get snuffed out because our “antlers” got too big for our britches in a sense. Alright, that’s the pessimistic point of view.

Or is consciousness like salt? Meaning, is it something that at this point in the history of the cosmos—13.7 billion years along from the Big Bang—things have gotten stable enough and complex enough that consciousness can emerge, but that it is going to emerge whenever these conditions are right? And just as salt is inherent in the quark soup a nano-billionth of a second after the Big Bang in mysterious ways, so consciousness is also inherent in all of the previous examples of emergent qualities as they come along. And one of the teleological goals of the universe is to produce consciousness and if it happens on Earth, that’s great—we’re a good place for consciousness to emerge; if we blow it, it’s a tragedy, but the universe is a very big, perhaps infinite, place and there may be other places where consciousness will emerge and it will be able to get over the hump that we’re teetering at the edge of right now.

Did you have an epiphany that ignited your passion for science?

Well yeah. One of those moments where I go, “oh, okay, that’s interesting!” was Loren Eiseley’s work. He’s an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and he wrote a book called The Immense Journey in the late 1950s I think, which I read at the time, so I was in my mid-teens.

One particular example that stuck out was when flowers ruled the world, or when flowers conquered the world, something like that; and he made the point, which is very much along the lines that we’ve been talking, which is that flowers emerged—there were no flowers before 150 million years ago; that evolution had not discovered flowers and that flowers came along at a certain point in our evolutionary history and they burst upon the world. If you were looking at the Earth from far enough away with an accelerated timeframe, you would see the Earth and you would see, in the geological instant, you would see flowers. They were so efficient at what they did that they took over because, and this was his point, they resolved an ethical, existential dilemma, which was an arms race that the plants and other forms of life, notably insects, had been waging. Insects would attack plants with ever more fiendish proboscis, and plants would defend themselves with ever more poisonous thick bark, sticky substances that would trap insects.

So there was an arms race basically, evolutionary speaking, for hundreds of millions of years between plants and insects until some genius—I’ll just say that, who knows what that means—plant said wait a minute, what’s going on here? These guys are attacking us [and] we’re never going to stop them from attacking us, but we can localize the attack. We will go against the received wisdom, which is defense, defense, defense, and actually invite attack; but we will localize the focus of that attack and we’ll advertise—“eat here!”—a flashing neon sign of a flower and scent that will broadcast over the airwaves, “come here and we will deliver goods (meaning nectar) to that place” or fruit that will give these insects something to eat so they won’t bother us in our core. These things will drop off; they’re localizable and dispensable and—and this is the really genius part—we will put seed or pollen at that point so that when the insect or bird or whoever it is, comes to, “eat at Joe’s,” they will take away, unbeknownst to them, pollen and seeds; and because they are intelligent, they are vectored, and that bee or wasp or bird will fly to that other tree over there and go exactly to that flower and to eat, again, at Joe’s, but they will pollinate that flower. Before that, we flowers or plants have been depending on random events to pollinate—wind, water, which are unintelligent; we have to rely on chance for the pollination to take place. Now, with insects being vectors, we no longer have to do this. So it was a brilliant discovery of evolution that both utilized the tools of the insects—so all of the aggressive tools that the insects had used, the long proboscis, were great at doing exactly what was required of them by these flowers and vice versa.

The blend of nature and art is epitomized by the story of Beethoven basing the famous four notes of his “Fifth Symphony” on the sound of a Yellowhammer bird.

He was part of the Romantic movement and it was reacting against the Classical movement in the last generation and their models, the previous generation’s models, which includes Mozart and Haydn, was architectural musically. They would invite you into an architectural space, musical, and they would point out the architecture. They would iterate the different themes—“look at this” and “look at these patterns.” Each movement of one of their works is like a room in a palace and when they pointed out everything of interest in that room, they leave the room and we move to the next room, the next movement, and this is a different architecture and we point out all of those things. But there is a consistency to the architecture within each room.

Beethoven threw that all away with his woodpeckers because he didn’t use architectural models; he went out into nature and he walked around in the woods or in Vienna—or wherever he happened to be—and he was inspired by nature, which is not rigidly architectural. You can have things suddenly bursting in—suddenly the sun comes out in the middle of a gloomy day, or suddenly there are clouds of insects around me, or suddenly it’s muddy where I am. His early work, when listened to with classical ears, sounded like the ravings of a madman because he was not consistent within a movement; he would develop something and then right at the moment of development, he’d abandon it. He would abandon massive instrumentation and everything would become now a single instrument—toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot—and then from somewhere else, these other things would come in. There was a French critic listening to one of Beethoven’s pieces—I forget which one—that said Beethoven puts together doves and crocodiles in the same cage! And that in fact has very much influenced all of the 19th century … and if you had to boil down what movies are, we try to put crocodiles and doves into the same cage and see what happens.

I can argue, when I have a lecture, where I say Beethoven was one of the people who invented cinema—that if you listen to Beethoven, you can hear the grammar of cinema being developed. There are cuts, there are fades, there are dissolves; there are alternating dialogues and sudden transitions in the middle of a scene to vast long shots; and then the musical equivalent of close-ups; and great dynamics; and very, very different than the generation that preceded him. The fact that the 19th century was steeped in Beethovenism was one of the things, I think, that allowed the invention when motion pictures came along, which are technically predisposed to this kind of doves and crocodiles stuff. It allowed cinema to coalesce as an art and as a medium extremely quickly when you consider what’s really going on. How did this thing become part of our culture so fast? We’re celebrating this year the 100th anniversary of Birth of a Nation, which is arguably the beginning of the experience of watching feature films. And that was barely 20 years after the mechanical invention of motion pictures.

So when unfortunate things happen to us, it may simply be that we are dogs on the operating table and something’s going on that we just have no idea about.

The extension of this idea is that cinema was really invented by three people: Edison or Lumière—pick your poison—invented the mechanical nature of what was going on. Neither of them, Edison nor the Lumière brothers, saw really any profound future for this—maybe education, maybe documentation, great speeches we can record, but they did not suspect what has come to pass. Beethoven gave us dynamism, which motion pictures are very adept at; and Gustave Flaubert and the Realist movement, paying close attention to the surfaces of realism and extracting poetry out of that, is the other thing that cinema is very good at. So the dynamical representation of closely observed reality, which is a very good thumbnail for what cinema is, was contributed by Flaubert and Beethoven; Edison came along and capped it with the mechanism that would allow this to happen. But if you think about the 19th century, it was dominated by the novel and the symphony, those were the two main art forms. And it was dominated by the realistic novel, courtesy of Balzac certainly, but Flaubert by the middle of the century, and Beethoven from the beginning on—so these two streams had thickly developed all through the 19th century and then along came a medium that was the perfect environment, the bay in which these two streams could flow together and mix.

Do you fear your views veer from science into metaphysics?

Well, I’m a believer in metaphysics. I think that the reality that we perceive is not the end of it. Similar to what we were talking about before, in terms of the hierarchical organisation of the universe, which is news to us, meaning in the last six or seven generations of human thought, this idea of developmental hierarchy over time, we are still coming to terms with; and what goes along with that is what we were talking about earlier in terms of the emergent qualities, that life is an emergent quality—it is not predicted by the molecules that preceded it. And molecules, like salt, are emergent and not predicted by the elements that make them up. So you have things coming together to produce something that is not predictable or even perceivable by the elements below it. Can sodium perceive salt? Can a cell in my liver perceive me? I don’t think so. It’s busy doing its cell thing and it’s very intelligent at doing that. It’s very, you know, “I’m doing it!” I think even that cell is not aware that it’s part of a liver, in the large sense, and it’s certainly not aware that there is a kidney over here and that there’s a brain up here and that I’m talking to you right now. It would be aware if I started becoming an alcoholic and it would say “what’s going on? How can I cope with this?” And the liver as a whole suffers and each of the cells suffer, as a result. But the point is [that] it’s very presumptuous of us who are basically sodium and chlorine here to think that we are the end of it. Yes, we can perceive everything that we can perceive, and we can perceive downward pretty efficiently thanks to science—we’re discovering the Higgs boson for crying out loud—but constitutionally, I would say, it’s impossible for us to scientifically perceive upward. We have intuitions about that, which is the whole idea of religion, and a lot of those intuitions are wrong. They’re wrong because they’re probably too simple, and they’re wrong because what gets tied in with them is observations about the real world. There is a kind of science in the Bible of, don’t eat pork, don’t eat shellfish, these things, behavioral stuff; but what are these based on? We now know what they’re based on and we can see the larger picture because we’re further down the road, so my hunch is that, I mean it’s a hunch, but a belief is that there are many levels beyond us and I don’t know what those levels are but I know that they are there and that they impinge upon us in the same sense that me becoming an alcoholic impinges upon this poor cell somewhere in my liver—why are you doing this?

William James wrote very nice essays about this, in terms of the relationship between dogs and humans—that dogs are part of the human envelope. We love dogs, dogs are part of our consciousness in a sense. There are things that dogs do that we can’t participate in—their olfactory world is not something that we can get—but by the same token, a dog looking at us, we are very peculiar: Why is my master sitting there staring at an object (which we know to be a book) and he’s just frozen like a statue? We should go for a walk! And then that poor, unfortunate dog gets caught and taken to a laboratory and vivisection is done on it and, “Why are you doing this to me?” We can never explain and it can never understand the reasons for that and then you get into a kind of dialogue sort of, God and Job, which is “why?” Well, it’s a part of a bigger picture that you can never understand, that’s why. We are operating upon you to make medical breakthroughs that you cannot understand and I’m sorry about that. So when unfortunate things happen to us, it may simply be that we are dogs on the operating table and something’s going on that we just have no idea about. It can also be pure chance; I mean if the next asteroid comes in on Tuesday, too bad! It was great while it lasted. What did it mean? I think that there is probably, speaking metaphysically, that our relationship to consciousness and existence is very time-based. What’s out there? Time is not so much a factor and so that things that have happened in the past are still present in a way that we just can’t even begin to grapple with.

[Image: Manhattan, as photographed by DanHill].

Back in April, BLDGBLOG interviewed Walter Murch. Murch has been a film editor and sound designer for nearly four decades; he has won three Oscars and two BAFTA Awards in the process (among many other accolades); and he is the subject of an excellent, often riveting, book-length collection of interviews, called The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, conducted and assembled by novelist Michael Ondaatje.
You can read the BLDGBLOG interview with Murch here – where you’ll notice that I ask Walter, toward the end of our discussion, about sounds and the city: what makes cities sound the way they do?
Can these acoustic properties be artistically re-shaped, or somehow musically used?
In response, Murch cites a short essay written by filmmaker MichelangeloAntonioni in which Antonioni describes what it feels like to listen to Manhattan – as one would listen to a distant symphony, or to the sounds of a unfamiliar instrument.
That essay, with a new introduction by Walter Murch, is now reprinted here, in full, on BLDGBLOG.

• • •

Manhattan Symphony
by Walter Murch

Manhattan: remorseless grid of right-angle streets rescued by a jumble-sale of architectural styles thrown together by history and human will-power. Paris (or Prague, or perhaps any other European city): ancient broken crockery of random-angled streets repaired by architecture of great stylistic and cultural coherence.

Confronted with the classically American paradox of Manhattan’s simultaneous rigidity and exuberance, the refined European sensibility discovers that…

…beauty in the European sense has a premeditated quality. There was always an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. That’s what enabled Western man to spend decades building a Gothic cathedral or a Renaissance piazza. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.

—Franz, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Growing up on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, I never questioned the stalagmites in which we lived: our gang would roam across the rooftops, scrambling up and down the two or three stories difference in height between adjacent apartment buildings, all erected in the 1890s in different vernaculars of the Italianate Palazzo style. The cornices that capped taller buildings would jut perplexedly into thin air, and the cornices of shorter ones would nuzzle up awkwardly against the window of someone’s bathroom.

It was only years later when I was living in the Prati district – Rome’s version of Manhattan’s Upper West Side – that I saw cornices as they were intended: a continuous horizontal line atop several buildings, gathering them together in a single conceptual frame. When I returned to my old neighborhood in Manhattan, it now looked wondrously stalagmitic.

Sometime after the success of his film Blow-Up (1966), the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni visited Manhattan, thinking of setting his next project in New York. Confused and overwhelmed by the city’s visual foreignness, he decided to listen rather than to look: to eavesdrop on the city’s mutterings as it emerged into consciousness from the previous night’s sleep. Sitting in his room on the 34th floor of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, Antonioni kept a journal of everything he heard from six to nine in the morning… Perhaps some inadvertent sound might provide the key to unlock the mysteries of this foreign world.

[Image: Looking down at the roof of Manhattan’s Sherry-Netherland Hotel, via New York Architecture Images].

His New York film was never made, but the pages of Antonioni’s bedside vigil survive, and were published at a conference on film sound that I attended in Copenhagen in 1980. The organizers of that conference – composer Hans-Erik Philip and filmmaker Vibeke Gad – have generously allowed BLDGBLOG to reprint Antonioni’s poetic soundscape of a long-vanished Manhattan, filtered through the Italian sensibility of his acutely sensitive cinematic ear.

• • •

New York from the 34th floor overlooking Central Park
The soundtrack for a film set in New York – circa 1970

by Michelangelo Antonioni

There is a constant murmur, hollow and deep: the traffic. And another sound, intermittent: the wind. It comes in gusts, and in the pauses I can hear it sighing, far away, against other skyscrapers. Here, on the thirty-fourth floor, I can feel the vibration of every gust. It gives me a strange feeling as if, for a few moments, my brain freezes. A faint, short-lived siren comes and goes. The noise of two car-horns. A rumble that approaches but is impatiently eclipsed by a sudden buffet of the wind. A tram car.

It is six o’clock in the morning. Another rumble blends with the first, then drowns it. A faint explosion, far, far away. The wind returns, rising from nothing, spreading, it seems to stretch in the still air, then dies. The hint of a tram, faint, remote. It is not a tram, after all, but another kind of sound I cannot recognize. A truck. A second one, accelerating. Two or three passing cars. The roads in Central Park twist and turn. A line of cars. Their exhausts a kind of organ playing a masterpiece. A moment of absolute silence, eerie. A huge truck passes. It seems so close that I feel I am on the second floor. But that sound, too, quickly fades. A squeal. A ship’s siren, prolonged and melancholy. The wind has dropped. The siren again. The murmur of traffic beneath it. A bell, off key. From a country church. But perhaps it is the clang of iron and not a bell. It comes again. And still once more. A car engine races, furiously, with a sudden spurt of the accelerator. In a momentary hush, the siren again, far away. The metallic echo rises. A terribly noisy truck seems just outside the window. But it is an aircraft. All the sounds increase: car-horns, the siren, trucks; and then they recede, gradually. But no, another rumble, another siren. Irritating, persistent, right across the horizon.

Quarter past six: the same series of sound in waves, each in turn, clearly defined. Brief intervals. A murmur continues. And, always, the siren. An abrupt car-horn, very far away. Another muffled beneath it. Somewhere on a distant street, a car, very fast, perhaps European. The wind swirls against the wall outside. A single gust., immediately swallowed by a raucous truck and then a newer vehicle, steadier. The throb of the two different motors driving off, merging into one. But it is not a truck, it’s an aircraft. No. Not an aircraft. A noise that rises and becomes deafening, only to fade unidentified. All that remains, obsessive, is the siren. And someone whistling (how can that be possible?) instantly drowned by an angry car-horn. Sounds of metal sheets thrown together. Clear and sharp, a winch. The sound of cogs. But it cannot be a winch, and this constant whine is not the siren. More sheets, more metallic. Then a hollow boom, barely audible, but lingering in the air. A faint hum suddenly stops. A car passes, another, then a third, fading, fading, fading. They mingle with other cars, other sounds. An aircraft seems to take off from right beside the building. And as suddenly as it appeared, it is gone. The very beautiful roar of a car, completely appropriate for this moment. It speeds past and dies, distinct, satisfying. Two tones shimmer. A gust of wind.

[Image: A view of Central Park, via Wikipedia].

Half past six: more gusts. A furious flurry of wind between the skyscrapers slides away and buffets across the park. Only a car-horn interrupts, like a slap in the face. The wind drops. A peal of bells in the stillness. And always, the siren. A tone higher now. It wasn’t bells. It is my Italian ear that hears it that way. The sheets of metal. A short clatter, like gunfire. A train passes, perhaps the elevated. A peal, prolonged, and then the siren, abrupt. Gone. The sounds change in a moment, they arise and die again immediately. The hum reasserts itself, advancing like a camouflaged army, approaches, closes in, on the alert, ready to take over completely. It is very close. One can distinguish the wind, the cars, the aircraft, a clash of iron, and the siren. They advance, determined, against this skyscraper hotel. In the forefront, the sound of iron, but the aircraft closes in and takes over alone. And now – nothing. The struggle is over. A small revolution quelled by the authority of a car-horn. The banging of wood. A pause. More banging. They must be moving tables. It sounds like a machine gun that is falling apart. The cars are under fire. They have to pull up and stop. Another siren, more real. The rumble of wheels, but it is not a car. It is the wind, which has risen again. Strong, but not strong enough to cover the aircraft.

Cars. A roar, as if from a cannon, echoless. Here and there, metallic sounds of various intensities. A roar of wind. The roar of a truck. The roar of the elevated railway. Two thuds in different tones. The noise grows and then stops suddenly, as if cut off by the thuds as they start again. Other sounds are born, clear yet unrecognizable. A long, startling car-horn. A sound that does not die, that will never die. I cannot hear it any longer, but it has left me with this certainty. But the sound of the siren is dying. A gust of wind pushes it away, but a truck rises. Then diminishes in turn and mingles with the wind. Some kind of bell.

A voice is heard. The first voice.

Seven o’clock: A blast from the siren, as if to remind me of its existence. Now imperceptible, yet insistent. The squeal of tires. A thundering, a rumble, somewhere underground.

Half-past eight: And now the sun has risen, but the sounds are still the same. With one exception. Drills. Nasty. Destroying a building. They are far away but occasionally, because of the wind, they are perfectly distinct. The other sounds remain. A whistle, shrill, anxious. It repeats – urgently. A noisy engine, I don’t know what kind. And loud, yet distant, the drills. The only change is that it has all become stronger with the daylight. The wind, the cars, the siren. Only the car-horns are less strident, more discrete, a reflection on the drivers who obey New York’s traffic laws: they must use their horns only when absolutely necessary. They cannot afford the fines, and so they obey the law, which seems a little Teutonic. I imagine the drivers in this bewildering noise, melted together, inside their creeping cars: noise that hasn’t the courage to explode, but hovers in the air, in the spring-like, clear, clean winter air.

• • •

(BLDGBLOG owes a huge and genuine thank you to Walter Murch, Hans-Erik Philip, Vibeke Gad, and, of course, Michelangelo Antonioni for the permission to reprint this essay. Meanwhile, if this post appealed to you, I’d urge you to take a look at BLDGBLOG’s interview with Walter Murch, where some of these points are developed further – or simply to pick up a copy of The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, edited by Michael Ondaatje. Of course, Murch is both the subject and author of many other books and articles – links to which can be found embedded in the BLDGBLOG interview. Finally, keep an eye out for Antonioni’s own The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, due out in November 2007).


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