“All of It was Music”—Pete Horner’s World of Sound, Part 2

Here is Part Two of my interview with Pete Horner, the Emmy-nominated sound designer for Hemingway and Gellhorn. Don’t read it without first reading Part One here. It was originally published at Good Letters, the blog hosted by Image.

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“All of It Was Music”—Pete Horner’s World of Sound, Part 2

Air travel and a head cold—it’s a hellish combination. Your ears swell shut and your head feels like it’s exploding.

It’s an experience that disturbed Pete Horner. “I felt disconnected from the world…because my senses were temporarily limited.”

It’s how he feels while watching a movie with a shoddy sound design. In his work as a sound designer, his awareness to sound’s potential for enriching experiences inside and outside the theatre has grown.

“When I see a film that takes shortcuts or doesn’t live up to it’s potential,” he explains, “I’m less able to enjoy that film than if I were still living in blissful ignorance. But when it does live up to its potential, my enjoyment is enhanced.”

Mixing movie sound, Horner is learning to direct our attention.

“Our minds have an incredible capacity to filter sounds,” he says. “We never hear things flat. We can focus on a voice in a crowd. Or we can focus on music while completely ignoring a person talking directly to us.”

He throws down this challenge:

Stop whatever you’re doing. Close your eyes.

Now, identify two sounds from the space around you, things you’ve ignored: a refrigerator hum, kids at play, a nearby television.

“Practice moving your attention between them, savoring the full character of one while completely ignoring the other, and then switching,” he says. “Can you attach a thought or emotion to either of them? If you were to mix the film of your mind so that one was louder than the other, which would you choose, and what meaning would that have?”

By playing one sound louder than another, Horner is guiding the audience’s thoughts. “If I choose to play one sound, the eye may be drawn to something I don’t want people to notice. If I play another, I can send their eye searching for something in the frame that might be hard to pick out otherwise. When sound and image are working together we are no longer outside looking in, no longer disconnected.”

Sometimes, sounds that conflict with an image draw us even deeper. For example, asApocalypse Now begins, we see Willard in the hotel, but we hear a cacophonous jungle. “This,” says Horner, “guides the audience into the mind of the character in a way that the image does not on its own.”

In this way, he is learning a new form of poetry. Consider a scene set in Dachau in HBO’s upcoming Hemingway and Gellhorn:

“Martha Gellhorn is overwhelmed by horror of the concentration camp and flees to the forest. There is a particular image of her running past a tree whose leaves are moving in the wind. For some reason when I saw that image I thought of a rattlesnake sound. I thought the image would support it and that the metaphor would work. And indeed it did. In my mind it represented the threat and danger of the Nazi evil that created Dachau.”

Pleased, he spread the sound through the scene. “It lingered at the edges, at one moment sounding like cicadas, then like leaves, and then it would suddenly rise up to strike, to punctuate a particular moment.”

Working on the next scene, in which he found Hemingway fishing, Horner was inspired. What if the fishing reel sounded like a rattlesnake? “So now Hemingway is holding in his hands this same threat—man’s desire to control and dominate. It’s the masculine power Hemingway is famous for, which can be channeled in a positive direction, but can also become the same evil that created Dachau.”

New rattlesnake possibilities appeared everywhere—in the sound of a projector, in a “leafy wind.” “To me,” he says, “it represents a potential evil that is always lurking, can strike at any moment, and runs amok in the scenes depicting the effects of fascism.”

Horner calls this effect “a visceral ambiguity…the distance between the visual representation and sound you attach to it, which creates a visceral emotional response.” It’s not literal sound, but sound that inspires feelings. It connects moments and ideas in a sort of language.

He says, “I often feel as if I am a translator, translating from a language that I am discovering into a language I am making up.”

Looking and listening closely, says Horner, we can discover new levels of meaning in a work.

At first, this laborious discipline can prove frustrating. While watching The Tree of Life, Horner heard a woman say, “I feel stupid.” In that moment, he says, she was judging herself.

Then he adds, “Many people would have said ‘That film is stupid’—a quick judgment brought against the film.”

Both responses, he says, are tragic.

The Tree of Life is a challenging film. But if we can suspend judgment and take the time to empathize with the film, it can unsettle us in a way that opens us up and makes us stronger.”

Such attentiveness may seem impossible to the culture of quick reactions. But it’s an art worth cultivating. But Horner hopes we will all try it, to allow time for revelations that can only come slowly. “Be ready to forgive a film’s shortcomings in order to appreciate something else it has to offer,” he says. “And I would encourage people to challenge themselves while not being too hard on themselves.”

I tell him that he sounds like he’s talking about more than movie-going. He’s talking about how to live.

“Art,” he says, “doesn’t end. Each time I encounter a piece of art, it feels like a fragment that moves me toward another creative thought. Life is a sensory experience. The greater our ability to perceive depth and nuance, the more fully we experience life. Because I have trained my ear, I can tell you that there is a rich abundance to life that most people ignore. I’m certain the same depths exist in sight, smell, touch, and taste. Imagine the riches I miss each day!”

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