“We use ambience to tell the story. It’s more important than music. Ambience.”
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria starts with a sonic sensation, a “bang” that wakes up Tilda Swinton’s Jessica Holland. The noise propels her body and thus the narrative, inasmuch as it sets the viewer’s trajectory onto the realms of sound. In other words, the film becomes all about sound; about hearing, listening and feeling; about the whole notions of the smallest details the sound can produce, which we, the viewers-listeners, microdose along with the screening. To talk about the sonic sphere of Apichatpong’s works, I met with Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, one of the most active sound designers in South East Asia, who worked with the Thai director on most of his films and art installations, including the latest one, Memoria.
The conversation started about a vinyl compilation, “Metaphors.” “A happy customer!”, said Akritchalerm (also known as Rit) to me during our interview conducted over video, laughing when I show the record to the camera of my laptop. It’s a compilation of music and sounds from the universe of Apichatpong’s body of work, including films and art installations he conceived over the years. The vinyl came out as a spontaneous decision between Apichatpong and his sound artists, Rit and Koichi Shimizu. They selected their favorite tracks from films like Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Cemetery of Splendour, and the album became a flow of sounds that travel eclectically: From Thailand’s natural ambience, a field recording from the Middle East, back to Thailand again, with its industrial, albeit meditative and rhythmic soundscapes or joyous Thai pop songs telling bittersweet love stories. And that, essentially, builds into the phonic universe of Apichatpong’s films.
Rit and Apichatpong started making films together with Tropical Malady (2004). “It’s still one of my favorite projects I ever had the chance to work on, even though I was afraid for a long time to watch it again,” said Rit. The film came out shortly after he came back from the United States where he studied filmmaking at Chicago Art Institute (the same university as Apichatpong, although they didn’t meet at the time). While trying to establish himself in Thailand, he would soon start doing sounds for TV commercials with Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Koichi Shimizu, Bangkok-based Japanese composer and sound designer with whom Rit collaborated on Apichatpong’s sound design. At some point, someone introduced him to Apichatpong, who had already started his production company, Kick the Machine. “These were the times when people would send demo reels on VHS to each other,” Rit recollected, “so I sent him one, a VHS tape, and all of the sudden, I received a reply: let’s work together!” Saying this Rit started laughing, as apparently he lied to Apichatpong, saying that he already had prior experience working on sound for a feature film. “I only knew how to operate a boom! So Tropical Malady went really not that well. If it wasn’t for the restoration we’re currently working on, I wouldn’t dare to watch it again. But I had to take a listen and I was like, oh, wow, what have I done?”
Indeed, Tropical Malady consists of imperfections, but they sound as beautifully as they can, rendering a touch of uncanny mysticism. It’s an utterly instinctive work, says Rit when he recollects his experience working on the film. “It’s all instinct and rhythm. Anything that sounded strange to me back then, I would put those elements as [sound] design as long as it would add some meaning. The hardest part to do with sound,” he went on, “is to make sure it sounds good. How would you know?” Since Rit never dealt with sound theory and much of his knowledge came from the work-in-progress approach and observations, he compares being the “sound-guy” to the experience of being the chef. “When I work with directors, I talk to them first. I see what they like. Then, I cook for them. I’m looking for the flavor they will like; maybe it’s my way of making my own omakase.” And apparently, cooking for Apichatpong is always demanding: “The sound needs to always be flat; it can’t exceed a certain level, Memoria is a perfect example of that. Anything that makes people sleep, I go for it. Every time my wife watches Tropical Malady, she will fall asleep and wake up at exactly the same moment. So I guess it works. Hell, I even fell asleep while mixing it.”
When Rit designed Tropical Malady, his first feature project, it consisted of only 50 audio tracks. Memoria has 700. “The more you work with Apichatpong,” he says, “the more you need to develop, both technically and knowledge-wise. But more than that, I feel that I need to do more scientific research, not to just rely on my imagination.” Indeed, although Apichatpong’s films might seem very simple due to the slowness of storytelling, they are, in fact, highly advanced in terms of the technicalities, as well as the complexity of methodology and interdisciplinary research (much of which is included in the Firefly Press’s book devoted to Memoria). “Apichatpong himself has always been a great sound designer. If I were to make a film,” said Rit, “I would ask him to design my sound. He remembers. Whenever I change something that shouldn’t have been changed, he would tell me to undo it. Sound, timing, feeling, instinct; we both rely on all of that. That’s because we use ambience to tell the story. It’s more important than music.”
Even the approach to the on-location recording requires a peculiar on-the-spot re-adjusting. Tropical Malady was no exception. Thailand’s natural soundscape is mostly noise—the city offers much during the daylight from the industrial side, with car honking, motorbikes, air compressors, or even dogs that make the recording somewhat difficult, but then again, at night, there is nature and the wall of constant noise: of birds, of cicadas, of space. “But me and Apichatpong, we like noise,” said Rit, “if you ask me, what is the sound of Thailand, it would be just noise, either one of the traffic or some specific bird in the jungle.” And that translates to the sound design of the films. “To record a clean ambience in Thailand is extremely difficult because no matter how deep you go into the jungle, you will still hear some industrial rumbling, both day and night. And when I work with Apichatpong, we want to have a clean ambience; no cars, no dogs, no rumbling; clean.” All the distinctive sounds need to be added later in the post-production: “cricket, birds, air, rumble—that’s all layers.”
On one level, the sonic sphere of the environment overwhelms the layer of verbal and linguistic expression; the ambience isn’t just the background—in fact, it dominates, so that the logical perception of the narrative comes from the atmospheric radiance, the vibe, and anticipation, rather than the dialogues. These, too, become a distinctive feature of Rit’s designs. The Thai language is quite flat in terms of pronunciation, “that’s why it’s difficult to record it, because we don’t have the headroom, the signal to noise is totally different than in case of English,” said Rit. The peculiarity of linguistics translates to the directing of actors: there’s no room for yelling, hyper-pitched voices, no TV drama acting. Instead, there’s tenderness: the words are almost whispered, shimmering with delicacy to the viewer and listener's ear. The language appears in a natural expression, which paves the way for the environmental ambience to blare. The softness of the word makes space for the harshness of surroundings. As Philippa Lovatt observes in her research on Apichatpong and Akritchalerm’s sound designs,1 the noise not only encourages but rather insists upon an engagement with the scenes on a level that appears as embodied and phenomenological, so that our verbal understanding of the narratives is completely dismantled. It is the noise that makes the phonic sphere of Apichatpong’s films so unique; the films require the audience not just to delve into the visual experience, but also to listen, and listen carefully— to participate. But the task is just as physical as mnemonic.
The tangibility of the experience might be noted with the example of sonic sequences, as Lovatt calls them in the spirit of French composer and musicologist Pierre Schaeffer, that is to say, rhythmic loops of soundtracks that influence our subjective take on the perception of the narrative. They strengthen the feeling of the film, forming a sensation of synaesthesia. These are simple moments, transformed through repetitions of the sound layers, singular vibrations or distortions of the voice. The sound is designed to communicate; to form a dialogue between the substance of the film and our perspective. This can be experienced in the sequence from Cemetery of Splendour in which we observe the changing of the light of the cityscape to the sound of a swirling fan; or when we enter the black hole to the noise of air conditioner in Syndromes and a Century; or when we hear a distorted voice in the ending of Tropical Malady.
Even the recording phase is often based on the concept of participation. To capture the voice of nature, the effort becomes visceral. Many of Apichatpong's narratives are set in the Thai jungle—a microcosm of biodiversity—a place that tends to be amazingly loud. During recording sound for Tropical Malady, much of the process was about waiting. “I realized that if I wanted to capture the natural soundscape of the jungle, I needed to wait until my presence would become unnoticed by nature,” said Rit, “I would sit still for a few minutes, and then the sound would change.” Since human presence affects the language of the jungle, the essence of nature-made sound becomes about anticipation. Such an approach exemplifies the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, a famous American avant-garde composer and influential theorist, and her theory of deep listening: "the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature—exclusive and inclusive—of listening.” This practice enables one to connect with the acoustic environment, with all of its inhabitants, including its smallest and invisible actors, both natural and technological, intended or unintended, real or imaginary. Through listening, through sound, one connects with the surface of the consciousness, thus dissolving the visible boundaries; the connection starts to exist on the level of time and memory. And this is where Memoria starts.
“Every drop of our blood sings the song, the song of happiness. Here, can you hear it?” These words end the experience of Tropical Malady, and in a way, foresee the concept of Memoria, making these two bonded into an exquisite frame. “Working on Memoria felt a bit like going back to the roots. It was, in fact, our first project which entire concept started from the single sound,” said Rit, “we created the ‘bang’ before the script was even written.” The sound comes from Apichatpong’s head, as it originated from the Exploding Head Syndrome—a condition of unreal loud noises recurring during one’s sleep or at the moment of waking-up—he was afflicted by for several months before setting off to Colombia to research Memoria. “It’s been the most difficult sound to achieve,” says Rit, “because it’s like composing precisely from someone’s head—and there are no sound references for other people’s heads.” For a while, the idea of using Apichatpong’s condition as an inspiration left Rit blank; he had no idea how to render it, how to imagine it. The process took them some time, and in some sense it was similar to the studio sequence in Memoria, where Jessica (Tilda Swinton) explains the sonic experience to a sound engineer, Hernan. The earthly, metallic sound she first explains on a linguistic level (in Spanish, in English), eventually finds its representation in sound—and we too can hear it, attuning with our bodies in a mnemonic challenge until they find the right one—and then in the sound spectrograph, as Hernan shows Jessica the wave (or as Rit call it, the mountain) on the screen. Witnessing it, we experience the permeability of the sound: its verbal, sonic, and visual layer; lost in translation between the senses and perspectives, we engage, and the body of the film is thus linked to the body of ours. “The first ‘bang’ will give you certain awareness,” commented Rit, and so the awareness stays for the rest of the film.
The origins of the “bang” came from Apichatpong’s head and it was first used in the theatre show he and Rit worked on together for several years, Fever Room (2015), a projection-performance reflecting on Thai military dictatorship an artwork formed as a fuse of reality, collective memories, dreams, and fantasies. But the explosion sound wasn’t there from the start. Apichatpong decided to include the bang, once it appeared in his life one morning, hearing it in his head for the first time. In fact, the sound base for the “bang” in both Fever Room and Memoria comes from one of the scenes of Syndromes and a Century, in which a boy plays with the tennis ball at the hospital. He swings, the ball hits the door, making an explosion-like noise. “The ‘bang’ from Memoria took probably two to three weeks to capture,” notes Rit. “Normally, you can have like 30 to 40 versions of the effect. From there, we listen to what we like the most and experiment with what we like.”
The whole course of finishing the sound on Memoria was matched with the editing, on which Apichatpong worked with his regular editor, Lee Chatametikool. “The sound needs to go together with the picture; the pace and timing need to mash well,” explained Rit, “but the funny part is that I never read the script. [Laughs.] Instead, I want a dialogue with my director, I want to hear what they want.” Much of the Memoria soundscape was included in the initial vision of the script. With one exception. In one of the final scenes, Jessica visits Hernan (an old man sharing the same name with the sound engineer from the first part of the film) in his house, somewhere in the rural areas of Colombia. With the touch of his hand, she starts receiving sounds connected with the past; they stay in the present but we inherit the audio perspective of the past so that the here-and-now translates phonically to the here-and-then. When Jessica stands by the window, there comes a brief moment of total silence. Then, she transmits the sounds of the surroundings again. “That was very difficult because we had no sound reference in the script, nor it was included in the editing. And we could add anything, it could go in many ways.” One of the ideas to design the sound of the scene was to leave the behind-the-scenes sounds from the set, with the crew talking about the take and the assistant director calling the cuts. “But it didn’t fit. Since it’s Memoria, it needed to be about memories. We had to recreate something from the inside.”
The power of the scene is tied with Swinton’s presence. “Tilda was super, super strong. Even without any sound, it would still work. So we had to do something that would go well together with her acting. It couldn’t be too much or too light, as it would be overwhelmed by the performance,” commented Rit. The result is a beautiful sonic sequence in which the actor becomes the vessel, a microphone. She converts the sounds from the past and links them both spatially and mnemonically. The memories of a specific place are connected through the sounds that belong there, and the “mnemonic potential of the sonic,” to evoke Lovatt’s words, is brought upon the participants in their final moment of Memoria’s journey.
At some point in our conversation, Rit stopped for a second, saying that the last sequence made him feel exactly the same; with him being the receiver and Apichatpong becoming the transmitter. “That’s the way we work. He sends me the signal and I translate it to the speakers.” This time around, it was Colombia’s sounds he had to transmit. Although the environmental soundscape is different, either because of natural ambience, the difference in loudness—Colombia is much quieter than Thailand, said Rit—or the verbal expression—Spanish being way louder than Thai—the outcome is somewhat familiar to their previous films. There is still this distinctive approach to rendering the noise, one that Rit calls “a nice noise underneath the center channel”; it’s a wall of documentary-like sound Apichatpong decided to include in some of the scenes (e.g. cafeteria scene at the beginning of Memoria) so that it would more closely resemble the soundscape of Thailand. For Apichatpong and Akritchalerm, the countries seem to share a lot, both experience and setting-wise. “You can find places in Colombia that look like Thailand and vice versa. He [Apichatpong] felt like he was shooting the picture of his home. Only with Colombian people on the streets, not Thai.”
The difference also comes with the fact that Memoria is designed specifically to match with the sound capabilities of every theater in which it is screened because the range between the loudness and quietness of the film is quite vast. So the process of sound designing is still ongoing with tweaking and adjusting the frequencies and that perhaps stands as the final argument for the fact that Memoria should be watched only at the cinemas. “If you watch the film on TV or your laptop, you won’t hear most of the details. You can achieve that only in the theater; that’s a controlled environment,” remarks Rit. “The experience becomes about playing with human nature—we force the audience to remain still, to be quiet, not to eat; we’re forcing some kind of meditation. Apichatpong’s work is about the experience. The way we watch his films is about the experience: with your sight, your ear, and your body.” After the last sequence of the film, which features a mysterious revelation along with the final “bang,” we’re offered a space for our thoughts. “It keeps getting quiet, the sound goes low,” described Rit. “There’s silence, silence, silence.” That was perhaps the same silence that Apichatpong could finally embrace when he visited Bogota in Colombia for the first time, the one that healed his Exploding Head Syndrome.
The process of wandering—through the city, the land, and Colombian biodiversity, but then again, through different fields: from examining sound texture to examining the remains of the autochtones—brings Jessica closer to the memories and sounds of the past, to the feelings to her deceased husband, perhaps even to a stifled mourning. She goes adrift, between nothingness and wholeness; a state precisely the same Apichatpong described as experiencing his syndrome. Just as Jessica finds herself a piece of clarification, when she becomes the memoria, Apichatpong finds himself an answer through creative process, a way to the cure. It was only possible to find it in Colombia. They set themselves in motion far in a distant land to find the sound that would bring peace—the sound of sleep.
The conversation with Akrichalerm Kalayanamitr was possible thanks to the International Film Festival Rotterdam.