M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village (2004), like many of his movies, deals with boundaries and the fear of the trespass of the other into the heart of community and, as such, structurally inverts our ubiquitous cult-fear of being stolen away. The opening sequence spans the world of the nineteenth-century village of the title, from the trauma of losing a young member of its community, to the guarding of its boundary at night against the unknown outsiders (‘those of whom we do not speak’), from the young women burying a branch of berries because they bear the forbidden colour red, to giving thanks for the plenitude of the village (‘we are grateful for the time we have been given’). The village is a space resolutely connected to the trauma of a failing pastorale: its older members are refugees from horrors outside the village (each of the founding members has a black wooden box, never to be opened in company, in which reminders of the horrors of the past are held), and the young, ostensibly untouched by those horrors, are nonetheless gripped by a fear of what lies outside, in the woods.
This opening montage is heavily scored by James Newton Howard’s music referencing quite explicitly (and knowingly) the pastoral style – the harmonic ‘movement in stillness’ evident in the pastorales of Handel, Vivaldi et al is reworked here in the light of its encounter with twentieth-century ‘pastoral’ styles, notably Vaughn Williams, Delius, Copland, Ives and so on. The harmonic ‘stillness’ is achieved not simply by archetypal repetition of an underlying harmonic sequence or a prolonged pedal point, but by the extensive and systematic use of modal harmony. The repetitive arpeggiated solo violin figure, reminiscent, perhaps, of Vaughn Williams’s The Lark Ascending, and similarly dislocated from the inferred tonic pedal point as befitting the modal texture, tops out a rich and wide frequency range, as if to reference the promised plenitude of the scene of the pastorale. The images are wrapped in the sonic envelope of what Anahid Kassabian has termed ‘assimilationist’ structures of identification.
Such structures are reliant on orchestral scoring in the Hollywood idiom to structure and order the narrative around a coherent give-and-take of identification: where a character is supposed to elicit sympathy, any number of musical topoi can effect the appropriate identification – most obviously the use of the minor mode, slow mournful hymn-like textures, chromatic-to-diatonic movement, falling harmonic sequences and so on. The topoi are enlisted to draw narrative attention onto the Affekt of the scene or to structure our identifications around the moral order of the narrative. What is striking here is that the assimilationist structure of the sound track points to the unusual Affekt of site, where the sonic envelope of the music marks the village as a nurturing space, a space in which change can only bring harm and in which stasis promises the bliss of unending plenitude. Musically, then, the village is bound into its space by the territorialising gestures of the modal harmonies. Long shots and expansive musical spaces work together to make up this sense of the eternal territory of the village.
The assimilationist structuring of identification here is absolutely in line with the makeshift ideology of the post-industrial pastorale in so far as it works to structure a reproach: even as the film unfolds and we learn of the deceit on which the village is built, the music does not abandon its enveloping tendency. There is, indeed, a stark contrast between the film score and the sonic world of the village itself: as the score demonstrates fidelity to the structuring of a nurturing sonic envelop, the village is beset by ominous sonic threats to its boundary by the mournful howls of the unspeakable beasts in the forest. Indeed, just as William Hurt announces, in the opening words of the film, his gratitude for the nurturing space of the village, so the others in the woods make their presence felt with their doleful moans.
The mismatch of the two sonic spheres, what structuralist film music theorists would call the hypodiegetic and the diegetic (the music that scores the film and the music and other sounds that exist ‘within’ the narrative space of the film) points, perhaps, to the always already more-than-one-ness of film production: film, we might say, is the site at which a utilitarian community is formed, a community of work. Yet the mismatch also points to a textual dissonance in the film itself that is in line with the observations we have been making thus far about the primal pastoral scene: in post-industrial societies, the pastorale works as an archaic demand on the community that can never be fully realised such that the always already incomplete nature of the community is aligned resolutely with social failure. In other words, community is set up to fail ontologically. Indeed, the mismatch we identified here between the two spheres points precisely to the incommensurateness of the pastoral fantasy and the lived reality of the social. The Village, then, is a tragedy, in that the disclosure of the ‘deceit’ that has held the community together brings the community into a radical questioning of its self-coherence and the real possibility of its abandonment such that it might no longer remain viable.
The sonic qualities of the village are not completely in accord with its visual/spatial qualities either: where the visual world of the village is shot through with anxious emphases on boundaries and enclosed spaces, the imagination of the village in the score is quite different, thereby juxtaposing an empirical finitude (the particularity of the community) with the open-ended promised plenitude of the musical territory of the film score. The score, then, overwrites the cartography of tragedy, offers a way of recuperating or ‘repairing’ the broken structures of the social. The sounds of the narrative (voices, clicks, whistles, the rustle of the acousmêtres’ clothes, the fall of feet on the ground, music to dance to, song, the resonance of the meeting hall, the noises of work, play, and so on), by contrast, all work to fill out the nurturing space of the village, by lending it a rich indexical acoustic field, precisely that field that Ivy, the blind precocious protagonist, must herself negotiate in order to set the village to rights. The acoustic space of the community, then, is structured both as a secondary space beholden to the visual/spatial narrative (as effecting its indexical enrichment, its ‘authenticity’) and as an element of the narrative in its own right: just at that moment when Lucius is stabbed by George, for example, the acoustic stream is blocked, delivering a kind of ‘deadening’ effect, there is no score, no acoustic indexical field, no sonic clue, but simply the striking shock of the bare visual remnant, the knife in the belly. The acoustic stream is only restored with the thud of Lucius falling to the ground and George’s whimpering.
The Village, then, whilst clearly readable as a critical study of the community ideal, can also be read, against the grain of the visual/cartographic narrative, as an exploration of what might be termed the social relation in sound: the structuring of subject positions, locations and affiliations through resonance, timbre, pitch, dynamics, attack, decay and gain; the acousmêtres and the acoustic ecology of the village; the open/closed binarism of inside/outside (inside the house or meeting hall and out in the open, or within and without the nurturing sonic space of the village). When Ivy stands at the door of her house, for example, at night, as the others ‘attack’ the village, in a scene evocative of Caspar David Friedrich’s Frau vor untergehender Sonne, she speaks both forward into the empty darkness and back into the light of the house, the one voice quiet and imploring, lost into the open-air acoustic of the dangerous outside, the other strong and buoyed with its own agency: “go back inside”. The one voice dissipates, the other resounds through the house
Hence the diegetic-acoustics of the film and its visual narrative are not always in this kind of strict alignment. Indeed, at that very point in the film when the boundary of the village is first breached and one of the ‘others’ is glimpsed crossing under a watch tower, the score delivers an idiomatic resonant metallic ‘stab’, reminiscent of High Modernist 1950s avant-garde uses of percussion, and in stark contrast to the pastorale of the rest of the score. This is meant to mark out a point of traumatic narrative shift. The diegetic-acoustic structuring of that scene, however, works quite differently. The watchman’s shuffling back from the drawbridge and the follow-up emphatic refusal of his sighting of the breach with the thudding fall of the trapdoor, and the high-pitched thud of the latch, point again to a kind of binarism in which low, resonant thuds and booms are juxtaposed with non-resonant scrapes and bangs, the one giving an acoustic life to the watch tower’s strength and resilience, the other underlining its flimsy temporary nature. So here, then, where the score delivers a structural stab to mark the narrative turn (and thereby turning, itself, towards narration rather than territorialisation), the diegetic-acoustic structuring of the scene is metonymic, partial, fragmented.
The social relation in sound, here, is always marked by ambiguity, not because social relations are always already primarily structured in the visual domain, but because the post-industrial demand of the pastorale will always require a disavowal of the sonic in which the cartograpohic-visual order comes to stand for social relations as such – touch, smell, and, hearing faculties are all held in abeyance, curtailed or subsumed within the still life moment of the dead organic community: where visual coordinates of community can easily hold the boundary in place, and clearly mark inside and out with the lines and planes of Euclidean geometry, sound promises always to overrun that orderly Euclidean pastorale with a kind of unruly contagion, with the chatter and noise of the social.
The Village brings into ear shot, then, it is the complex and disruptive work of the acoustic ecology of the social: social relations and coordinates are imagined, set in place and disturbed, not just in the domain of the visual-cartographic imagination, but also across a wiser of senses, across almost the whole human sensorium. In the encounter with acousmêtres and their sonic environs, we begin to get a sense of what it might mean to think about the social, and about communities more specifically, as resonant, as having a sonic life.