Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm: Musique Concrète in 1930

October 1, 1983

The Russian film-maker Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) is well-known in cinema history for his documentaries. His method requires the montage of visual recordings of real, not staged, events. These recordings, sometimes altered at either the recording or the editing stages, might be considered a kind of "cinema concrète." Seemingly little-known among musicians is that Vertov applied the same techniques to sound. He experimented with the artistic organization of recorded sound as early as 1918. His first sound film, Enthusiasm (1930),1 is an early example of extensive use of musique concrète.

Music and sound were an important part of Vertov's artistic training and development; he studied music in the Conservatory of Bialystok, the city of his birth. In 1916-17, he studied medicine in St. Petersburg, though during this time he also engaged in artistic activities.2 Vertov says that he began as a writer of novels and verse, then became interested in the montage of stenographic notes and of sound recordings; and that he had

. . . in particular, a fascination with the possibility of documenting sounds in writing, in attempts to depict in words and letters the sound of a waterfall, the noise of a sawmill, in musical-thematic creations of word-montage, Laboratory of Hearing.3

At this time, Vertov considered himself a Futurist. Film historian George Sadoul believes that Luigi Russolo's suggestion to walk across a modern city with "the ear more attentive than the eye" inspired Vertov to found his "Laboratory of Hearing." The little known of the sound montages Vertov created in the laboratory indicates that he used elements specifically catalogued earlier by Russolo—waterfalls, motors, and power saws. The experiments were conducted using a phonograph with both recording and playback possibilities. Vertov's work is distinct from Russolo's in that it used recorded sound. Though these experiments with recorded sound appear to have occurred over a brief time span, their influence can be seen in his films.4 While Vertov does not say so, it is quite probable that a strong factor in his decision to switch to the film medium in 1918 was the possibility of realizing at least some of his ideas about montage as an important artistic principle.

As the leader of a film-making group, often called Kinoks, which made only documentary films but applied radical artistic principles in the making of these films, Vertov produced a large amount of theoretical writing. The goal of the group was to produce films which reveal reality without using professional actors or written scripts, and to accomplish this through the artistic use of montage. The reality they attempted to reveal was not an uninterpreted reality. They did not simply photograph an event and present it like a newsreel. Rather, they attempted to depict a larger reality through the juxtaposition of pictures which were not necessarily from the same time and place.

In Vertov's discussions of visual montage, there is much which could be a description of musical process. In his early writings, he developed a theory of "intervals" which considers the time relationships of the film from the movement between frames to the relative proportions of segments. In the first publications of his theories which appeared in 1922, but which could have been written as early as 1919, Vertov writes,

Kinokism is the art of organizing the necessary movements of things in space through the use of an artistic rhythmic whole conforming to the properties of the material and to the interior rhythm of each thing. The 'Intervals' (passages of one movement to another), and not the movements themselves, contribute the material (elements of the art of movement).5

Further on in the same article, Vertov indicates that in searching for a method of notating these relationships of movement, he is seeking a "cinema-scale."6 By 1929, he seems to have become more sophisticated in his rhythmic organizational techniques. He writes,

There exist montage tables which contain calculations similar to a system of musical notation, a study of rhythms and of 'intervals,' etc. At this moment, I myself am writing a book which will give a whole series of examples and which will draw conclusions from these formulas.7

He says that he feels it would be dangerous to publish these tables because the wholesale applications of these methods would lead to absurdities.8

Organizing the aural elements of his films was important to Vertov even before he made his first sound film.9 In discussing his three silent films immediately before Enthusiasm, he states,

Already in The Sixth Part of the World, the subtitles are replaced by an oral theme, by a radio theme, contrapuntally adapted to the film. The Eleventh Year is already constructed like a visual and sonal cine-thing, that is to say, that the montage was done in relation not only to the eye, but also to the ear. It is in the same direction, in passing from Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye, that our film The Man with the Movie Camera was mounted.10

In explaining more specifically the organization of his film The Eleventh Year, Vertov describes how visual images of machines which make various noises create imaginary sound crescendos and how they contrast dramatically with images which suggest absolute silence.11

As soon as it was technically possible, Vertov actually used a sound track. His idea of the role sound should play in a film is well-presented in a 1942 discussion of the film Pour toi, front!

Everyone understands that a sound track must be listened to and that a silent film must be looked at. But everyone does not understand that a film using both sound and images is not a mechanical joining of a sound track and a silent film, but a certain combination of one with the other which excludes the autonomous existence of a succession of images or one of sounds.

One sees coming into existence a third work which is neither in the sound nor in the images, but which exists only through the continuous interaction of sound track and image.12

Therefore, as one would expect, sound is not a totally independent component of the film. Vertov states, however, that the sound and visual images are to be edited according to the same principles. He says further that they need not be correlated; they may be independently montaged.13 The sound is to be, to a larger degree than in the more usual dramatic film, an independently structured element. A contrapuntal-like relationship between sound and image is an important structural element in Enthusiasm. At times, the sound and image are perfectly matched while at other times they are unrelated. Many types of sound-image relationships are listed in Lucy Fischer's article on Enthusiasm.14

Technical advances in recording sound on location and in editing work in the studio were important to the completion of Enthusiasm. In writing about the film, Vertov describes these advances, but nowhere in the material available to me does he discuss the specific techniques he used for editing and processing the sound—in other words, the technique of musique concrète. In discussing the recording of images, Vertov says:

Kino-Eye avails itself of all the current means of recording ultra-rapid motion, microcinematography, reverse motion, multiple exposure, foreshortening, etc. and does not consider these as tricks, but as a normal process of which wide use must be made.15

Since most of the sound of Enthusiasm was recorded on the same film as the images,16 it is quite likely that some of the musique concrète alterations of the sound took place during recording.

Careful editing also played an important role. Vertov says that in spite of the lack of proper sound editing equipment, he attempted to have "complex interactions of sound and image."17 Jay Leyda indicates that Vertov cut the sound images with the same freedom as visual images, and that he used a great deal of superposition of both picture and sound.18 Other techniques which the hearing of the sound track suggests were used include the creation of sequences of sounds through intercutting, the abridgement of a sound through the removal of either attack or decay, the variation of the speed of a sound, the distortion of a sound, the use of sound loops, and the use of echo. Lucy Fischer suggests, possibly correctly, that sound reversal has also been used in one section.19 I have tried to verify this by playing a tape of the section backwards, and the sound does not seem to be any more realistic. Another possible explanation for the unusual sound at this spot is the superposition of the sound of the accordion playing at several different speeds, including one extremely rapid layer.

In considering the artistic merits of the film, I believe there is validity in discussing the sound track of Enthusiasm alone as a musical composition even though Vertov states that the final result in his films is to be an inseparable combination of sound and image. Reasons for this opinion include the following: In a list of his major accomplishments to 1933, Vertov calls Enthusiasm a "symphony of noise."20 The subtitle of the film is Symphony of the Donbas. Lucy Fischer notes that an outline for the sound of the film is dated 1929, while the plan for the visuals is dated a year later, and that therefore the sound might be considered primary.21

Vertov implies that he considers Enthusiasm a musical work when in defending his film from critics, he includes the following quotation from Charlie Chaplin: "Never had I known that these mechanical sounds could be arranged to sound so beautiful. Regard it as one of the most exhilarating symphonies I have ever heard. Mr. Dziga Vertov is a musician."22 Finally, at the time it was shown, it must have been discussed for its musical values. Vertov notes a "professional" criticism that called the music cacophony because it could not be sung with solfège syllables.23 All of these imply that Enthusiasm is a work of music in the mind of its creator and for the contemporary audience.

In my discussion of the organization of the sound in Enthusiasm, I shall first give an idea of the way the whole is unified. Following that, I shall describe two short sections in more detail.

A large majority of the sounds in the film fit into two categories. The first is musical sounds which include orchestra, band, choir, organ, bells, a man whistling, and music by small groups of instruments in both classical and folk styles. Though there are some recognizable musical units, these traditional kinds of musical sound are often made non-traditional because they are used as material for editing and/or alteration. These sounds are at times treated in exactly the same way as the other main category of sound, the noise of industrial and agricultural machinery. There are a few sounds such as a ticking clock and crowds cheering which do not fit into either category, but in context, they can be related to one of the two. Irregularly throughout the film, segments of actual speaking—generally short—are intercut rhythmically.

The film is organized in a series of segments of varying length. These segments are grouped in two main parts which show first the decay of society under the Tsar, and then the activity of the workers after the revolution fulfilling with dedication the agricultural and industrial goals of the new communist state. Shorter segments have such themes as the general malaise and drunkenness of many during the Tsarist regime, the elimination of the influence of the Church, the mining of coal, the production of steel, and the harvesting of wheat. While the use of general sound types unifies the sound track of the whole film, emphasis on one or two specific sounds unifies each of the segments. For example, the opening section features the sound of a ticking clock, while other sections emphasize a telegraph sound or bell sounds. Indeed, the film is much like a suite of movements which are differentiated by both sound and image. Many of the segments can quite logically be heard as musique concrète compositions of modern length.

The first of the two sections I will describe is basically slow-moving and uses a small number of simple sounds. It is located at the beginning of the second part of the film—the part which describes the achievement of the economic goals. There are six basic sounds used in this section. The first, which I shall call Whistle I, consists of a high-pitched whistle with a soft, throbbing undertone. That two separate sounds are superposed is confirmed by the fact that their pitches change independently. Whistle II is also multi-pitched, but all the separate pitches are high; there is no low component. A third sound is a man speaking. The other three sounds used are workers singing, a marching band, and train sounds.

The 6' 01" section is divided into three segments of approximately equal times of 1' 58", 1' 56", and 2' 07".24 Each of the three is dominated by a different sound: segment 1 by Whistle I, segment 2 by Whistle II and the third by workers singing. The segments are unified by the use of whistle sounds in each and by use of a developing rhythmic motive.

The first 27" of segment 1 is the Whistle I sound. It begins with a glissando from b-flat1 to c2, then maintains a steady c2 for the last 20". The glissando and the steady state are two of the three Whistle I motives. The third motive is a rhythmic pulsing which consists of essentially two lengths which I shall refer to as simply long and short. This rhythmic motive is introduced after a 3" long span of speaking voice. During 13", the rhythmic motive 2 long—3 short-long—3 short-long occurs twice. After another 3" of voice, a 3" extract of the same rhythmic motive—beginning in the middle of a tone with its attack removed—is heard. The rest of the segment consists of 4" voice, 9" rhythmic whistle, 8" steady whistle, 12" glissando whistle with several glissandos (occurring at irregular time intervals while the low undertone remains consistent), 18" steady whistle with the low undertone moving, 12" rhythmic whistle and 6" steady tone. The whistle is present all but 10" of the time. The whistle time is divided among the three motives as follows: steady motive 52", rhythmic motive 37", glissando motive 19". Throughout this segment which alternates generally long time spans of sound, there is essentially no change in pitch. The whistle sound remains on c2 except in the glissandos.

The second segment is introduced in a dramatic way with 2" of the new Whistle II sound on the new pitch g1 but using the familiar glissando motive. This is followed by 4" of voice. While this segment continues to be perceived as faster moving than segment 1 because of a more rapid alternation of motives, more irregularity in the alternation of long and short sounds in the rhythmic motive, some use of change of central pitch, the changes of basic sound remain quite slow. The next sound 38" of Whistle II divided into 20" of rhythmic whistle using irregular alternations of long and short tones, 10" of steady sound interrupted four times at irregular intervals by a quick glissando, and 8" of rhythmically pulsed sound. Whistle II continues for another 44" on the new central pitch, e-flat1. This time segment is divided as follows: 5" steady sound, 11" with four glissandos, 22" rhythmically pulsed sound, and 6" with four relatively quick glissandos. The next 21" are the most complex of the entire 6' section. Whistle II continues at yet a lower pitch. It is basically steady with glissandos at 5", 15", and 18". Superposed on this sound is a buzzing sound which uses the irregular short-long rhythmic patterns occurring in the two whistle sounds throughout the movement. I believe that the function of this sound is to relate the rhythmic motives found here in the whistle sounds to the more "buzzy" sound in long and short rhythms associated with the quite important telegraph motive in the first part of the film. Seven seconds of voice, the last and most substantial passage of speech, concludes segment 2.

Another new element—45" of a large group of people singing the "Internationale"—introduces the again slower-moving third segment. This segment and the marching band, which are both heard as music in the traditional way, appear. The only editing is that entire compositions are not always heard. The second sound in the segment is 12" of train sound which is followed by 7" of cheering and band music. The next 41" relate this segment to the rest of the section through the exclusive use of Whistle II. This is divided into 7" of rhythmic motive, 10" containing four glissandos, 3" of steady sound, 4" of rhythmic motive, 7" containing 2½ glissandos (it ends on the lower rather than the higher pitch on which it concludes all other times), 3" of rhythms, and 7" containing four glissandos. The section concludes with 22" of the workers singing.

The segment just described is basically simple in structure because it uses only a few sounds which themselves are not too complex and because change of sound type takes place slowly. This is typical of much of the film. However, there are places where complexity of sound and/or greater speed in change of sound type are used to create a greater level of tension. To illustrate this, I shall describe the general outlines of a section, located about halfway through part two of the film, which depicts the manufacturing of steel products.

The first thing which makes this segment more complex is the number of different sounds used. These include two different kinds of railroad sounds, the puffing of a steam engine, the humming of cable cars, whistles of three different pitches, and a huge sledge hammer swung by three men. The railroad sounds and the steam engine sound are more complex than those of the section previously described because pulsations of various kinds create rhythmic articulations within the basic sound. Not only is there a larger variety of sounds, some of which are more complex, there is also much more use of the superposition of sounds. The whistles and the hammer are often used as punctuation, sometimes far in the background and sometimes quite prominently within longer segments of the pulsing sounds.

The segment is given a feeling of acceleration through the use of shorter basic time spans of individual sounds. During the first l' 47" of this 4' 16" segment, there are nine basic spans of sound ranging in length from 6" to 15". These lengths are gradually shortened until in the final 31" there are twelve changes of sound, the longest of which is 5". Adding to the feelings of acceleration is the gradual increase in the number of interruptions of the basic sound. Of the first nine segments, only two are punctuated by single whistle sounds which are heard as background. These interruptions become more varied and frequent until they are assimilated into the fabric and begin to be perceived as changes of sound type in their own right, particularly in the final 31".

The general perception of acceleration in the segment is contrasted by the hammer stroke which gains in importance from its first appearance nearly halfway through to its final stroke which ends the segment. This sound first lasts about ½" and is very dry. It becomes longer and more reverberant until in its final stroke ending the segment it is 2" long with a very rich reverberation. The weightiness of this sound contrasted with the decreasing weight of all other sounds provides a convincing ending.

I do not believe that the musique concrète of Vertov's Enthusiasm is great music. The musique concrète segments are interesting to listen to, but they have in common with much other film music that they are even more effective in combination with images. I found the total effect of the combination of images and sound quite striking; the film still seemed original and fresh. Regardless of its precise musical worth, the sound track of Enthusiasm is for its time an important aesthetic and technical achievement. Vertov and his technicians had to invent many sound recording and editing methods in order to realize Vertov's aesthetic ideas. Judging only from the descriptions, the contemporaneous experiments in the synthetic or abstract use of sound on film sound tracks referred to in standard works on the history of electronic music do not seem to be accomplishments of the same artistic importance. Vertov's early theories about the montage of recorded sound to create art works and his realization of these theories in the 1930 film Enthusiasm place him among the significant pioneers in the area of musique concrète.

1Dziga Vertov, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas, with P. Chtro, sound engineer (Ukraiinfilm, 1930).

2Dziga Vertov, "From the Notebooks of Dziga Vertov," trans. Marco Carynnyk, intro. Annette Michelson, Artforum (March 1972), 73.

3Dziga Vertov, "'Kinoks-Revolution', Selections," in Film Makers on Film Making: Statements on Their Art by Thirty Directors, ed. Harry M. Geduld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 89.

4Georges Sadoul, Dziga Vertov (Paris: Editions champ libre, 1971), pp. 26, 15, 35, 16-17.

5Dziga Vertov, Articles, Journaux, Projets, trans. and notes Sylviane Mossé and Andrée Robel (Paris: Union générale d'éditions, 1972), p. 18.

6Vertov, Articles, p. 19.

7Vertov, Articles, p. 142.

8Vertov, Articles, p. 142.

9Vertov, "Kinoks-Revolution," p. 101.

10Vertov, Articles, p. 140.

11Vertov, Articles, pp. 327-328.

12Vertov, Articles, p. 150.

13Lucy Fischer, "'Enthusiasm:' From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye," Film Quarterly (Winter 1977-78), 30-31.

14Vertov, Articles, pp. 151-156.

15Vertov, "Kinoks-Revolution," p. 102.

16Vertov, Articles, pp. 154-155.

17Vertov, Articles, p. 155.

18Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: Allen and Unwin, 1960), p. 282.

19Fischer, p. 32.

20Fischer, p. 26.

21Fischer, pp. 25-26.

22Vertov, "Notebooks," p. 76.

23Vertov, Articles, p. 158.

24The times given in this analysis have been taken from a recording of the sound track made from a copy of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These times were measured using a manually operated digital stop clock and rounded to the nearest second. Though this introduces small error, the timings are accurate enough for my general analysis in this presentation.

5602 Last modified on December 5, 2013