This is as much a question about physical space as it isn’t: where does your body go when you listen to music? Do you curl into car-seats and navigate roads surrounded by the buzz and rattle of unbalanced Honda speakers? Do you wear headphones or earbuds on the trains, on the pavement, in the gym? Or do you slip between bodies, in the swaying jostling bumping breathing of a crowd in a club, at a rave, by a bar?
And why do you go to where you go to listen to music? How do you find your way to where you are when you hear it? Do you crave liberation? Do you beg to be humbled or shaken into feeling? Do you ask and ache for some song to locate meaning inside all the fear and sorrow?
If the song ends and you haven’t caught the meaning yet? If the record stops spinning and the DJ clears the throat, if the signal drops silent or the band tunes guitars, what is that thing? Do you hear the between the same way you hear a song?
What about the muffle of the world outside the headphones? There’s a whole world being soundtracked by your song—do your sounds match these figures, these feelings, these constellations of roil and want?
There is something of nothing in songs; there is nothing but everything in the world. Keep hold and ask again:
Song to Song—the ninth film by Terrence Malick—made its world premiere at South By Southwest on March 10th, 2017. This occasion followed a lengthy post-production period wherein the filmmaker pruned the film’s original eight-hour cut down to the two-hour one shown to the public. It was shot, by the accounts of its actors, in Malick’s usual, improvisatory style. There was no script or storyboard; moments were arrived at based on conversations between the performers and the crew, usually on the day of shooting. Whole storylines and arcs and performances were condensed or discarded altogether.
Think about how this approach must have been frustrating. Preliminary photography began in 2012, five years before the film was released. One actor accounts how he’d be “acting his ass off” only to notice Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shooting a beetle crawling across a leaf.
Think about how this approach must have been liberating. When you free an image from how “it’s supposed to look,” cinematography is more like finding than saying (or: beetles are beautiful, too). Without a script, you open what gets said up to anything in the world; the only sounds left are the ones the actors feel in their bodies in the world.
And so when an actor says, “the birds said we’d love each other forever. Love never fails,” it’s possible that that’s the truth.
Anecdotally: Jim Jarmusch was surprised that Neil Young was interested in sound-tracking his 1995 film Dead Man. “But you know, reading a script, it doesn’t mean anything to me,” Jarmusch recalls Young saying to him. So they rented a warehouse and converted it into a makeshift recording studio and Jarmusch and his editor Jay Rabinowitz (who also edited Malick’s The Tree of Life) projected a rough cut of the film on the side of the wall of the warehouse. “And Neil played to a rough cut of the film, responding to it emotionally.” As if the song was just waiting to happen. As if you could coax it out of emotions hanging in thin air.
Song to Song details the lives of four people working in or adjacent to the Austin music scene. Despite Malick’s inclinations toward the obtuse (a cinema that feels deeply contemplative to some and downright meandering to others), its story is decidedly straightforward, full of stocks and tropes familiar to a Hollywood that’s produced five A Star is Borns: Faye (Rooney Mara) is a guitarist struggling to gain a foothold in the industry. She begins dating BV (Ryan Gosling), a country singer on the precipice of success. BV has a contentious if weirdly fraternal relationship with mogul super-producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), who is sleeping with Faye, his former receptionist. As Faye and BV become more serious, Cook marries Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a teacher who’s been forced into waitressing for money. Around this quartet is an orbit of other lovers (Cate Blanchett and Lykke Li and Bérénice Marlohe) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss it Val Kilmer cameo (riffing on his Jim Morrison history) and thankfully, graciously, Holly Hunter as Rhonda’s mother.
Supplanting this ensemble is a liberal sprinkling of musicians playing themselves: Patti Smith offers life and love advice, Iggy Pop drinks red wine and talks about movie soundtracks, John Lydon proselytizes about who cares what, the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrestle each other, which seems right. We witness snips of performances by Tegan and Sara, the Black Lips, First Aid Kit, and Big Freedia. The film also features nearly a hundred song cues, from the opening stomp of Die Antwoord’s “Never Le Nkemsie 2” the finale from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony in F Major,” which plays on the beach in Mexico, under the birds. The film, as the title suggests, is explicitly concerned with moments occupied by songs. Less explicitly, perhaps, is its concern with people occupied by moments.
Which is to say: in a movie mostly about musicians, the main characters engage in precious little actual music-making. Aside from BV absent-mindedly strumming an acoustic guitar, Faye looking brooding while cradling an electric bass on stage, Cook saying a few excitable words to some saxophonists in a studio, or Rhonda singing a hymn in church, this film about songmakers generally focuses on anything but making songs. They spend time together and alone, making love, walking streets, laughing, crying. They drink and muse. They feel guilty and visit their families. They enter into the stunning Texas landscape, all rolls of hills, purple deserts, mountain frames, only to usually end up back in spacious, vacant mansions and luxury, austere apartments looking out at it all through glass walls. Mostly, they hang out in the world.
“I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song,” Faye confesses early on in her voiceover, “kiss to kiss.” Which is to ask: what’s in a song?
Conventional wisdom suggests a difference between sounds and songs. Songs organize intention (“our freedom of speech is freedom or death / we got to fight the powers that be”) or corral desire (“I really really really really really really like you”) or ceremonialize grief (Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor, K. 626”) or union (Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” but also mostly The Muppets’ “Somebody’s Getting Married”) Songs mean something. Sound simply is, an always-happening in the stream of life. All songs are sounds but the reverse is not true. Songs are sound statements and sounds are happy chaoses; the distinction between them is something like insistence versus occurrence.
Conventional wisdom gets slippery though, and quick. Humpback whales communicate in melodious structures strikingly similar to human musical traditions. The clicks of sperm whales and dolphins occur at varying rhythms and tempos to convey different, intentional messages. And what do we make of the birds? In non-technical terms, “birdsong” is designated from “bird calls” by the human ear’s almost arbitrary perception of melody.
In ornithological terms, “song” (complex vocalization) is distinguished from “call” (simple vocalization) by function. “Call” occurs in spurts, serves to simply alert or greet. “Song” sequences chirrups and tweets into detailed patterns for expressing territoriality, attracting a mate, participating in courtship or rearing young. Even the thrumming of woodpeckers is, in its way, a song in the world.
There are moments in the subtitles of Song to Song that read “[birds singing]” while others simply read “[sound of birds].” When are human sounds different from human songs?
John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33” is a three-movement piece for any instrument or any set of instruments. The only instructions provided in the score are that the performer(s) not play their instruments for the duration of the piece (four minutes and 33 seconds).
To say the piece is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence is inaccurate. The piece, instead, is four minutes and 33 seconds of the sounds that occur at any time during its duration. This may include coughs or cleared throats, the sound of audience members shifting in seats or giggling nervously. Maybe it includes all the sounds your body makes while you sit there in front of your instrument, counting the seconds. In a musical practice devoted to finding the incidence in accidents, 4’33” feels like Cage’s signature proposal: any (all) sounds are music.
Cage found inspiration in all things, in nothing. In 1951, his primary compositional process revolved around the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text devoted to chance operations (one ancient casting method involved sorting 50 stem stalks of the yarrow plant; three identical coins tossed any number of times also does it). In addition to seeing the sound in happenstance and silence, he saw us too: he tells of visiting an anechoic chamber (an echoless and completely quiet room built to absorb sound waves) and hearing two sounds in the silence, one high and one low. “Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, ‘Describe them.’ I did. He said, ‘The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.’”
Listen: all we are is a high sound and a low sound, dragging how we feel around the world.
When I return to re-watch Song to Song, to parse it, to figure out what it is about, I scramble to transcribe quotations, look for links. I pause the DVD twice, restart it, stare at that 54-minute marl, watch a leaf swirl underwater. It’s a quick cut. It follows BV and Lykke saying goodbye in a rainstorm, leaving each other on the tarmac while thunder rolls (“[thunder rolls]”). Then there’s another quick cut, Faye walking in a puddle. Then there’s the underwater shot, the leaf swirling. There’s something connective about the water, maybe? I pause the DVD again.
The best professor I had in college reacted in bemused awe when we had the audacity to complain about her heavy reading list—practically every word Mark Twain had written. “Read them like beach reads,” she said. “Which is how you should read everything. Just hang out with it for a while.”
I don’t think she meant that as an indictment of perception or intellect. And I don’t think it’s meant to discredit the artist’s intention or their labor (though we should be more wary of the demigodification of the artist, probably). Mostly, I think it’s meant to liberate us from something like the oppression of interpretation. I think “deep listening” to Malick, to Mark Twain, to John Cage is valuable but only so much in that it reminds us that artists are just humans doing their best to be in the world with other humans. Sometimes you just sit with a sound for a little while.
I unpause the DVD. We’re still underwater, spinning with that leaf. I feel an immense whoosh of calm. And then I go right back to scrunching meaning out of it. Water, leaf, but overlaid with the sounds of birds. “[birds chirping].” What gets lost in the translation of transcription?
Subtitles are an imperfect solution to a perfect problem: they seek to describe in one set of terms (the organization of letters into a written language) phenomena that occurs in another (the compression and rarefaction of waves by which sound is propagated in air). This is reasonably successful for transcribing dialogue that characters in movies speak—things get slippery the rest of the time. When is an incidental noise (an engine turning over, the patter of rain, a chirp, a sizzle) necessary to the story? And why do we need to “see” the sound it makes? Film is primarily a visual medium: if I see the image of the wave crashing, don’t I hear it, somewhere? To paraphrase Frost, I think: the thing that gets lost between “[waves crashing]” and what it is to hear waves crashing is poetry. When the subtitle directs your eye towards the look of the sound, what does the ear miss?
Which is all an enormously privileged sentiment to express. Subtitles and closed captioning exist primarily to aid those with hearing loss experience a little more movie.
I worry about missing something I haven’t seen or heard. I also worry about missing something because I was too busy listening or looking.
Worry is part of the noise of Song to Song. “I didn’t believe enough in love. Afraid it would burn me up,” Faye confesses, as she tips into romance with BV. They flirt and dance, court and spark: he approaches her at one of Cook’s industry parties, they share a song between a pair of earbuds, they dance under overpasses, they speed-walk race to an ice cream truck, giggling like children. They’re the couple on the beach, asking the birds for a fortune of love. After that, Faye confesses to us: “that was the first time in my life. Everything came from that hour. I wished it could last forever.” I don’t think that means anything, other than how we find each other sometimes. There is the quiet of love in songs, before the toggling back to the fullness of silence. All you can do is spend time with a person in a day. The catching languor of it all, being alive.
We declare (“I love your soul”) and we contradict (“I wanted to break every tie, to go up, free”). We become sonorous. We weave in and out of each other like melody lines, hunch into tension and distortion. Like Faye and BV, we struggle with parents and siblings, guilt and desire, with the need to create things and the anxiety of not making it as an artist. Song to Song doesn’t mean much more than our aspirations (“complex vocalizations”) and our being in the world (“simple vocalizations”). It is all the sounds as a love song.
Cage, in his collection Silence, asks, “If words are sounds, are they musical or are they just noises? If sounds are noises but not words, are they meaningful? Are they musical? Say there are two sounds and two people and one of each is beautiful, is there between all found any communication? And if there are rules, who made them, I ask you? Does it begin somewhere, I mean, and if so, where does it stop?”
I wish it could last forever. Loves fracture, though, and songs end. Faye remembers: “I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you. Because you saw them with me.”
Near the end of last year I began to worry about my hearing. To echo the old Mitch Hedberg formulation, I still worry, but I used to, too. The worry was bad enough that I sought out an audiologist. How could you not be a little paranoid after you’ve had songs in your life? What subtitle could ever express the peculiar heat and brightness of songs?
The audiologist asked why I was there and I went to work making meaning of my worry: I had been to a particularly loud show. I stood too close to a speaker. I’ve been going to shows for too long. I played in bands for many years. A person screamed in my ear once onstage. I stood too close to a prop rifle firing. Sometimes I think I feel a pressure, hear a ringing. Sometimes I swear my worry makes it up.
She listened, nodded at it all. “You’re probably the healthiest person I’ll see today.” She told me to keep an eye on it. Hearing gets worse as we live in the world. “Try to focus on other sounds when you start to worry. Listen for birds.”
A love song worth its salt has room for wrinkles. It collects pockets of conflicting feeling, chutes of doubt and ladders of loathing. I think Song to Song is the most loving gesture to love: one that shows the heave and weight of its work.
Faye and BV bring to their love song all the pricked splendors of baggage: Faye maintains her unsettled attraction to Cook, keeps sleeping with him without telling BV. There’s a violence in Faye and Cook’s relationship—it isn’t pain as catharsis or satisfaction but rather as a reminder to suspend in suffering, a pool to unheal in. She sees that ways Cook might help her career. She sees the ways he’s using her. She keeps doing it anyway. “I wanted to be free the way he was,” she says. “I went on seeing him. I let myself be smashed.”
And BV is beautiful and charming (BV is Ryan Gosling in well-cut tees) but he uses these attributes to hide his own anxieties about aspiration and intimacy. While talking to an old flame, Lykke, he asks “what don’t I know?” She smirks: “How to feel. How to be sick to your bones. How to yearn.”
BV trips up in saying things beyond his flirts, stops short of attaching meaning to his motions. Faye investigates until she instigates, then disappears into self-punishment and doubt. It’s not a perfect transcription, but it’s little like the difference between “call” and “song.”
Faye confides in her voiceover: “I’m so scared sometimes. We’re wanderers, you and I. Like birds.” And doubt grows. Secrets seep. BV asks if she is a good liar. She confesses to us that she wishes to come clean, to peel and then heal, but can’t locate the words. What gets lost in the translation between the feelings and the words? In a stunned and quiet scene in Cook’s cold high-rise (where Faye has been staying, still), BV asks, “Do you love me?” She’s swaddled behind curtains. She turns and stares right back at the camera. “Why do you ask that?”
“I like to hear it,” he says.
“You don’t like to say it.” she says. BV looks at her a second.
I know his response is “I love you” and maybe it’s just Ryan Gosling’s drawly patchy Austin scratch but, I swear he says, “I live you.”
At the rough midpoint of Song to Song, Faye confesses her infidelity. She and BV separate. They begin to see other people. Love splinters and funnels, collects in deltas before bursting free. Are we safer in pools and beds or out in the open ocean of it all?
Cook, the third tone in the chord, sees it all and seizes it. He proposes chaos as a method by which to live between the world’s sounds. He refuses to take the world straight. This is sigh-worthy and slimy business but at least grounded by a perfectly calibrated Michael Fassbender performance.
Like BV, Cook is charming, but to the point of manipulation. And like Faye, he’s perceptive, but to the point of nihilism. He’s magnificent and wretched. He’s Milton’s Satan, too smart, too beautiful, too damned. Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss.
Also: a person smarter than me points out that his marriage to Rhonda is underscored by Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, a tone poem literally about hell. Songs are good when they don’t mess around.
Halfway through the film, Cook unspools his philosophies of violent liberation while under a cocktail of hallucinations. He subjects his wife Rhonda to it, and as the photography grows frenetic, they creep through curtains in the bedroom. “What are you afraid of?” And he gestures to the bed. “How do you want to do it?” She breathes in stabs. “Are you afraid of me?” She nods. They’re beginning to trip. The film does too.
Everything goes cosmic for a flash and we see black-and-white footage of planets and stars, the rings of Saturn spinning. “To think what I once was…what I am now…” Cook coos, and the film splices in more black-and-white footage, this time of a man and an axe and a bloodied woman. It’s a jarring moment, but this is part of the song too.
The images excerpted over Cook’s goopy declarations are from Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 movie, Ménilmontant. These are not incidental images, and their appearance is not happenstance. Malick embraces improvised moments but never carelessness. He finds the intention in occasion. Song to Song flits in starts, doubles back and skirts the concrete. It is sometimes unclear why certain images appear when they do, or at least frustrating that they are being lingered on. They unfold like in dreams, colliding off each other to form impressions rather than definitions. Walking away from watching them, I feel like I’ve just heard a jumble of sounds wiggling through the air.
In a rare interview at SXSW, at the film’s premiere, Malick said, “I think we wanted to make it feel, too, like there were just bits and pieces of their lives. Can you live in this world, this moment, song to song, kiss to kiss? Without a self, just an eager will living from one desire to the next, and where does that lead? What happens to you in that life of moments? It’s a hard thing to convey. And we don’t know how. Doing lots of locations, lots of songs, was our best guess at how to do that.”
Except, that’s not explicitly what Malick said. To re-check the text, to make sure I listened the right way (because hearing gets worse as we age), I returned to that interview again and was shocked at how cavalier my transcription had been. It left out the false starts and hesitations in Malick’s Austin vowels, the way he’d stretch one word a bit and let it sit before tipping into the next one. Or how he’d settle on certain half phrases (“they…they, it was likelike it goes to that quotation, that uh that uh, can you” is how he arrives at Faye’s quote) and give them some space before prodding them into the next thing. This way of speaking (“[Terrence Malick uhmmmming]”) doesn’t sound elegant as pull-quotes in meaning-making essays. But imagine thinking love was somehow about elegance. Imagine thinking you could know everything about a sound from the way the words caption it.
There’s something heinous about casually placing suicide in stories for catharsis or denoument. It becomes a manufacturing, an attempt to suggest the shape of sadness without putting in the work to understand how that shape gets built or what it means outside of movies.
Similarly, there is something treacherous in soundtracking emotional actions with song. It frequently seeks to reinforce and heighten, to play on the trust that an audience has extended towards the storyteller.
But there is an enormous trust in the handling of, say, Richie Tenenbaum’s actions in The Royal Tenenbaums in front of the bathroom mirror. It does not take place to induce waterworks or maneuver a screenplay. It happens because this kind of thing happens. It’s guided by Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which does not carry it or comment on it. It just sings to it. If we are moved, maybe it’s because we know someone or are someone who has felt these things. Or maybe not: the articulation of ache should not depend on empathy.
When Rhonda commits suicide in Song to Song, it doesn’t happen for any one reason. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have meaning—death (like life, like love), is it’s own meaning. It contains its own message. Her death is the result of the tragedy of life, of looking to locate something and missing it. When you look for love and get something that eats at you and scares you, despair can advance and curdle life. The high sounds and the low sounds of being a body start to seem obscene.
When Cook finds her broken in the pool beneath the house’s ledge, we hear Wojciech Kilar’s “Angelus.” In the same SXSW interview, an audience member asks Malick why he chose that piece—a popular Polish prayer to the Virgin Mary. “Why, what was the purpose? Could you tell me why because it was really bothering me.”
“We didn’t expect that anyone would uh understand the words.”
Ménilmontant (remember Ménilmontant?) is the story of two sisters fleeing the country for city life after their parents are slaughtered in a brutal axe murder. Like nearly all motion pictures made before 1926, it unfolds in total silence. Unlike the vast majority of those pictures though, Ménilmontant provides only two title cards in its entire 38-minute runtime, one at the very beginning and one again at the very end. In addition to its silence, it is dialogue-less. Its narrative is conveyed strictly visually. It is pure cinema.
Song to Song is far from silent. It is noisy and messy and fluid and shifting. It is too slow by half and probably not as long as it should be. It is obtuse and contemplative and resistant to meaning-making. At one point, Patti Smith offers Faye a hint. She strums a single guitar chord. “I can go on for hours with one chord. It’s just one chord, hammering.” John Cage wrote: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
I do not think we should prize pure cinema as more perfect any more than we should worship a love that seems scratchless and untouched. Things and arts and lives are meant to have pieces in them, places of rupture. Otherwise silences wouldn’t sound and flowers couldn’t grow. John Cage wrote: “If there were a part of life dark enough to keep out of it a light from art, I would want to be in that darkness, fumbling around if necessary, but alive.”
And so: I think that Song to Song might be pure cinema. It’s just that it sounds like a love song.
Keep an eye on it. To live song to song—and I believe we can—isn’t to ignore moments of discord. You have to sit close to the sounds to feel how the bass might rumble the space around your heart. And we can’t give up on meaning because we can’t give in to meaninglessness. Even silence has a little sound; giving up must always be untenable. Interpretation isn’t a trap but it can be treacherous; things like poetry get lost in translation. Or: the mountain doesn’t mean anything, other than mountain. Other than what it does for you and you do for it.
Through all the fear and sorrow, through all the sounds, Faye and BV return to each other. They run into each other at a party. “I didn’t know why I was coming to this party…have we met before?” he says. She’s guarded, watching. She smiles, but only a little. Things don’t happen for a reason, but things happen. We’re all happening all the time. The song is just the sound of us happening. Faye and BV sit on the piano bench together. It’s one of the few instances of seeing a song created before our eyes, culled out of the emotion of the air. He plays a few chords for her. She watches them. She corrects him: “But slower. It’s a love song.”
BV moves out of Austin, moves back west to help support his family. He gets a job working at an oil rig. “You want to go back to the simple life. I want the same. Let nothing come between us. Ever.” Song to Song arrives at this pastoral conclusion without endorsing pastorality as a cure for the strife that ails us all. I do think Malick may see something like the face of God in a knot of tree, or a splash of pool, or maybe in the way a human body might lie among seeds sprouting as the sunlight fades.
I do not believe in God but I do believe in songs. I do not know if they are different words for the same thing (like sounds and silence) but I do ache to be in the world. I think this is how we might live song to song.
Song to Song suggests a new way to see ourselves in the world. Through its stillness and its flitting, in its deliberate frustrations and the unmoored optimism of its conclusion, it suggests that being is a song and seeing listening.
This is as much a question of physical space as it isn’t. We testify every day—by the sounds and the images of the bodies around us—that we live in the world. The images and the sounds, the coheding and the discord. Or: “And if my life is like the dust that hides the glow of a rose, what good am I?”
We love, but where?
We attach to these sounds and images immeasurable meaning, singing the unutterable every day both in sequences of sounds, both simple and complex. We sound to each other. Or: “What good is love that no one shares?”
Those two verbs look similar, a vowel away from different meanings. If the difference in live and love feels almost imperceptible—like that between call and song, silence and sound—I think the latter is distinguished from the former by function. I think the distance between is traversable by listening. I think all we have are moments to be in that between. I think all we have are moments to live in love.