The Sound Auteur: Alan Splet and the Sound of a Signature

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which we grouped the films we watched by their sound designers. You want to see a science fiction movie, but more in the realm where the sound designer chooses to use the bass of a room to more closely engage you – especially using the sound space behind you to disorient and unsettle you. You know this sound designer’s prior work – her inspiration, as well as interviews she has given on the way she chooses the sounds she places within these worlds. She is, therefore, an auteur. Why does this sound so strikingly foreign?

In the world today, we already have sound design auteurs – their work celebrated only in the industry; selected by other professionals to perform their signature, to use their inner worlds to aid the creation of the filmic world. One such auteur is Alan Splet, whose work, in collaboration with directors like David Lynch and Peter Weir, is not only well known, but demonstrates a sound design beyond the signature of a directorial auteur alone.

In this essay, I will demonstrate that not only is Alan Splet an auteur, but that the notion of the auteur is far more complex than the current director-centred system; it will be proven that a film has not one signature, but a collective of signatures. By elucidating Andrew Sarris’ set of criteria for directorial auteurs, it will be easily applied to Alan Splet; and by critically engaging with Eraserhead, a 1977 film and Splet’s second feature, and Dead Poets Society, a 1989 film, and one of Splet’s later works, Splet’s technique, style, and ‘interior meaning’ will be elucidated through a synthesis of these texts. Finally, by explicating Michel Foucault’s essay, “What is an author?”, I will question the current simplistic conception of the auteur – the single signature of the director – in favour of a set of signatures that create disparate texts in collaboration.

In considering Alan Splet as an auteur through his work as a sound designer, it is useful to prepare a set of criteria from which the usual, directorial-centred considerations of auteurship are composed and asserted. In Andrew Sarris’ “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” the author specifies that a criterion of value for a director is their “distinguishable personality”; over a group of films, a director must demonstrate recurring characteristics of style, “which serve as [their] signature.”6 Moreover, the status of auteurship as a whole is based upon three circles: the outer circle of technique; the middle, their personal style; and finally, the inner circle, their “interior meaning”6. These correspond to one’s status, respectively, as “a technician, a stylist, and an auteur.”

Therefore, one’s status as an auteur encompasses and transcends technical craftsmanship, or stylistic considerations, but must assert a set of meanings beyond these conditions toward something perceivable, toward something resembling a signature. From these criteria, however, the question of Splet’s status as an auteur is already settled – after all, there is an amount of critical praise that refers to Splet as an auteur already. While Splet is known predominantly for his partnership with David Lynch, the ways both refer to their works possesses a certain deal of ambiguity and simplicity – Lynch, in creating films, is said to often attempt to achieve an elusive “mood”10; Splet, on the other hand, has rarely offered insight into his approaches beyond a predisposition for industrial sounds, because it “has a lot of leeway with what you can do with the sounds”5, evoking a sense that Splet finds the dimension of sound is most limitless in the industrial mode, most free of constraint to layer and create. Following this symmetrical ambiguity between Lynch and Splet, as one can find many words constructing Lynch’s auteurship, one can find just as many on Splet. Duwayne Dunham, editor for several Lynch-crew projects such as Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, said Splet “designed sound that made that world come alive. He gave a signature to that sound, and it had a meaning”5. Frederick Elmes, who served as director of photography for Lynch-crew films dating back to Eraserhead, including Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and smaller roles on films including Dune, said Splet “was a genius […] he made this undercurrent to a film”5.

This concept of Splet’s sound signature traces beyond the crew to critics such as Richard Woodward, who asserted Splet “left an audible signature on every film he touched”10. That Splet’s stylistic consistency is strong enough to become a signature within the sound design itself is therefore apparent enough, given its recognition; but what must be explored is how Splet’s signature is formed, and from there, his ‘interior meaning.’ What characteristics could be construed independently of the directorial auteur system so as to allow the space for Splet’s auteurship – much like Splet’s personal sense of freedom within certain sound modes, independent of the image? To fulfill and elucidate such analysis, I will examine two eminent Splet films – Eraserhead, a 1977 film, directed by David Lynch, which served as Splet’s second feature film, and Dead Poets Society, a 1989 film directed by Peter Weir, and one of Splet’s later works. The objective of this analysis to use disparate directorial auteurs to elucidate, through a synthesis, Splet’s common features in cinematic scenarios across very different modes – Eraserhead being an atmospheric, yet relatively straightforward art film, and Dead Poets Society, a sentimental, coming-of-age film that adheres to classicalist narrative structure, toward creating a theory of Splet’s ‘interior meaning’ as an auteur – the ‘method to his madness.’

In analyzing Eraserhead, the first – and most important – reservation is in separating the director from the sound designer; how could one attribute a decision to Splet or to Lynch? In auterist film criticism, almost all artistic choices are defaulted to the director – and yet there are obviously aspects to one’s position as a ‘sound designer’ that inherently situate a degree of creative freedom within differing levels of constraint. Indeed, in discovering and appropriating articles toward this reading of Splet, it may be noted that it often must be salvaged, like crumbs from the table, from articles on the supposed genius of Lynch alone – and that it is fitting that, as the editors of Cahiers du Cinema had to reveal the self-effacing signatures of the directorial auteurs of the classical Hollywood cinema, it must be our duties as sound academics to reveal the signatures inherent in sound design from their self-effaced positions as ‘technicians.’

Luckily, in the case of Lynch and Splet’s partnership, their work with Eraserhead has been depicted as a collaboration, with the two “spend[ing] twelve-hour days inventing effects”10; and while Lynch would give Splet direction for what sounds to find, Splet also provided such crucial elements to the soundtrack as the ‘Fats Waller pipe-organ numbers’ – and, importantly, Splet would sometimes “take sounds, slow them down, and these would evoke images for David”10. In approaching Eraserhead, it is therefore imperative to note that at certain turns, sound dictated the image – and so it is comparatively easier to associate the soundtrack as belonging to Splet in an unusually singular way.

In isolating the sound design of Eraserhead, one must ignore the utter singularity of the soundtrack itself – all of it distantly muffled; ‘windy’; ‘atmospheric’; and very, very industrial, with machinery clicking, whistling, and grinding against itself, there is not enough variance to temper and elucidate one substantial section. It all simply is as a whole. In the opening sequence of Eraserhead, with the image depicting Henry Spencer oriented landscape across the widescreen, staring horrified, ahead of himself, beyond the spectator, the sound is a gentle whistle – a muffled wind, powerful but behind some barrier, or a wall3.

This inexpressible sound – a presence – is often described as ‘low-level background noise,’ but such description escapes the composition. This ‘muffled wind’ slowly increases in volume until it dominates the soundtrack, the image itself slowly tracking across a planet’s surface; it is eventually joined by muffled, rhythmic industrial clatter as the Man in the Planet slowly pulls his levers, one by one, each lever strikingly loud, creaking until it hits a final clack. In the next sequence – where the image of Henry is first seen within the actual environment where he lives – the muffled, windy background noise reaches a moderate, pressured timbre and intensity as a train whistle croons, seemingly closely that it must be within a kilometre, as we see Henry walk across dirt piles. The Fats Waller pipe-organ begins, gradually, to take up the space the train whistle left, playing as if part of some faraway carnival, inbetween the odd interjection of other train whistles, battling within the low-level intensity of the ‘muffled wind’. One striking incident occurs when Henry looks down into a deep, black puddle. Within the image, the camera slowly – and consciously – looks up and down the puddle, all tar-black, as if made of oil, as the soundtrack begins to fade in bassy resonance, a sense of menace to its quiet intrusion – and then quickly, as Henry continues walking, the bass fades out of the soundtrack.

Mike D’Angelo, in a retrospective piece on Eraserhead, describes Lynch’s films as

nearly every bit as powerful and disturbing if you close your eyes and just listen to them […] even when Henry is just walking the streets of Philadelphia at the outset of the film, he’s doing so within an evocative aural landscape that mirrors the visual one.1
Splet’s use of sound in these sequences is nothing short of psychological – the objective is to create the sense of being unnerved. The ‘aural landscape’ of Eraserhead is determined to portray a kind of psychological state that, as it mirrors the landscape, mirrors the state of mind of its protagonist. Splet does this through such acts as the aforementioned ‘bassy resonance’ of the black puddle, signifying a kind of danger, a menacing quality – that works simultaneously with the image, which is presented as a point-of-view shot; and, additionally, the use of these train whistles, which are so seemingly close, do not seem to actually alter the Henry’s behavior at all; he does not seem to hear what we do. It is more than a mirroring of his circumstances; it is more than verisimilitude. It signifies through low-level noise as a kind of psychic state. But for what purpose?

In a long-form essay profiling David Lynch’s oeuvre, David Foster Wallace claims:

Evil is what David Lynch’s movies are essentially about […] he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil. He’s interested in Darkness. And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face.9
Splet’s sound design in Eraserhead inhabits a kind of space, away from verisimilitude. In its dense, opaque renderings of ‘background noise,’ it is the soundtrack, above all, that renders the consistent pressures in which Henry Spencer is able to commit the evil of murdering his child. D’Angelo rightfully points out that while the child itself looks revolting, it is its ‘incessant mewling’ that shreds Henry’s nerves1; and, indeed, Wallace adds that in Eraserhead, its supposed world of “demonic conceptions and teratoid offspring and summary decapitations is evil yet […] it’s “poor” Henry Spencer who ends up a baby-killer”9. Sound in Eraserhead represents the psychological rerendering of what might otherwise be an naturalistic diegesis if it were the psychology of another character; it is so surreal and dark because it inhabits and perpetuates the psychic state of Henry that we are to come to identify with and, ourselves, inhabit – the foreign world of Eraserhead, visually and aurally serving to signify the tempered state of Henry’s mind as he slowly prepares to murder his own child. Splet, quoted in an essay by Randy Thom, states sound “is a heart thing”8; it is to this end, as well, that Splet’s sound design functions in Eraserhead, but on the part of the spectator. In addition to depicting the psychological, an externalization of a character’s inner world, it also renders the emotional instability in a spectator – the ‘unnerving’ or ‘menacing’ quality – required to engender and catalyze the inhabitation of a particular psychology. Splet uses your emotions to place you psychologically within a character; but why through a dense, ‘foggy,’ industrial soundtrack? Why through a muffled, indecipherable ambience of pressurized wind and train whistles, always ominously close?

This predisposition toward this method of psychological engagement continues in the 1989 film, Dead Poets Society. Focused on 1950s teenage boys in a boarding school, slowly learning to emancipate themselves through literature with the help of their guide, a young, bohemian teacher – a mentor archetype Robin Williams would spend the next decade portraying through films such as Good Will Hunting or Patch Adams – the film makes use of sound design to articulate differences between different ‘worlds’ or ‘spaces,’ as well as create a haunting psychological environment. Paul Théberge, in his essay establishing his proposed taxonomy of silences, “Almost Silent: The Interplay of Sound and Silence in Contemporary Cinema and Television,” notes that

throughout the film there is virtually no background music associated with the boarding school […] nondiegetic music occurs when the boys escape the repressive confines of the school […] as this transitional music rises to full volume, the sounds of the diegetic world recede into silence.7
But following the aforementioned question, what are the characteristics of the nondiegetic? As the boys learn about the Dead Poets Society, any sequence involving their analysis or appropriation of the eponymous group incorporates various degrees of an ambient ‘hum,’ the texture of the sound consisting of a percussive flittering, deep in the mix2. The first sequence involving one of their excursions, occurring just over the thirty-minute mark, incorporates this hum as it gradually increases in volume as the boys prepare to escape the school for the night – until a dog bark, sound matched to an edit cutting to the school’s head lecturer, looking about suspiciously, indicates the dog bark is diegetic. This is confirmed in the next shot, which tracks down slowly as the boys feed the dog to silence it.

The hum is never interrupted, only joined by the sound of crickets once outside. An ambient melody, possessing the same texture and timbre of the hum begins to play with the hum – with a pan flute also slowly increasing in volume – as the boys finally escape. The characteristic of the nondiegetic music is nothing short of ethereal – or otherworldly – as the soundtrack seems to be associated with an escape from the confines of civilization, toward a Romantic union with nature, a necessary, almost instinctual release.

The associations of this nondiegetic ‘hum’ reach interesting implications when approaching Neil’s suicide – the second-last Act of the film – after his father surprises him and enters to view his performance as Puck in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After a punishment and a promise to take Neil into military school, Neil prepares a ritualistic, slow suicide while his father is asleep.

In this sequence, beginning with the image showing Neil undressing in silhouette before donning the nested crown of his play character, the hum slowly begins to present itself in the mix, until at just over half-volume, allowing for the intrusion of the diegetic – Neil opening his window to feel the cold breeze outside for the final time. As Neil does this, the hum begins to incorporate a deeper resonance – a sound resembling a didgeridoo slowly humming in synchronization; an idle whistle, such as from a kettle, filling the upper register, as the hum slowly begins to encompass all other sound.

As Neil leaves his room to go downstairs, the hum has taken the soundtrack completely – as the diegetic is silenced; the door creak, the soft footsteps on the staircase, are all absent. As Neil stares at the gun and unravels it from its cloth, the shot still and the hum unceasing, as if presenting a tableau, the image and sound are both immediately cut by Neil’s father waking up violently, as if he has heard a noise the audience has not – a consequence of the diegetic silence. The use of nondiegetic music in this sequence is therefore inherently psychological; it only ends when Neil’s life ends, and it gathers in intensity when Neil gets closer toward finally committing the deed itself. As the ‘hum’ also encompasses the total spirit of Romantic, natural expression, it can be said that it reflects not only Neil’s psychology, or externalization of his inner world, but his soul itself, slowly intensifying within the soundtrack as the hum rises in volume and gathers more texture, engulfing the soundtrack entirely, denying the sounds of the diegesis.

In both Eraserhead and Dead Poets Society, then, it can be said that Splet’s sound design uses a dense, ambient, albeit intense quality to evoke the psychology of its characters externalized into the soundtrack. In these situations, it can be said that the soundtrack becomes nothing short of possessed by the characters we are being identified with. The integration of industrial noise allows for the opportunity toward this immersive soundtrack – the noises themselves often unidentifiable, singularly artificial, and yet, endlessly immersive through their aural beauty. Through Splet’s use of sound design, it is clear that Splet uses a very dense, clouded ambience to evoke an intensity by creating psychic spaces that externalize a psychology, whether it is the Lynchian force of evil distorting the world or, in the case of Peter Weir, entangling the characters in a world with the force of creation; and thus it must be apparent that Splet’s sound design represents the translation of the ethereal, or the beyond human, into an aural rendering.

Through the analyses of Eraserhead and Dead Poets Society, it is clear that Splet’s auteurship is, while no more obvious than what we started with, comprised of a detectable interior meaning across texts. Splet’s predisposition toward intense, ambient, externalized psychologies associated with otherworldly forces – or human spirits themselves – is above the technical; it comprises an aural meaning beyond any one text. If Splet is so clearly an auteur, why is it that we do not treat Splet – or other sound designers – with the same, genre constructions the directorial auteur system has created? That is, why is it we will deliberately go to see a David Lynch movie when one could reliably trace the same signatures and meanings through going to see an Alan Splet movie?

To answer such a question, I will explicate from Michel Foucault’s essay, “What is an author?” In this piece, Foucault responds to the Barthesian concept of the “death of the author” to explore how an author relates to the concept of a name, as well as the texts they are associated with, to elucidate a function.

As the essay begins, Foucault declares his intent is to explore the relationship between author and text, as a text points to a figure “who is outside and precedes it”4. In writing a text, an author performs an “obliteration of the self”; but in reading the text, one “has merely transposed the empirical characteristics of an author to a transcendental anonymity”. The name of an author groups together texts, but also establishes relationships among texts; the name of an author “remains at the contours of texts – separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence”4. Foucault argues that authorship is recent, and a product of the proliferation of ‘strict copyright rules; – and that it is far from universal, as there were many times where an author’s identity was unnecessary to a text’s perceived validity and valorization. An author’s function is not formed spontaneously through the attribution of a text to an individual – “it results from the complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author”4. In writing a text, an author obliterates and sublimates themselves into the text, into a rational entity reconstructed as one consumes the text; but Foucault asserts that the perceived ‘profundity’ of an author we feel when reading – or watching a film – is nothing more than a “projection”4. Finally, this system of projection occurring through texts does not refer ‘simply to an individual’ so much as a text “simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions” that, through their creation, recreate the sublimated author into a perceived being who has intents, motives, a mind in themselves, distinct from the actual, literal, physical author. That is, in terms of Andrew Sarris’ distinct circles of ‘technique, style, and interior meaning’6, all are projected upon by the spectator – and yet, this projection can occur on a social scale, beyond the mind of one spectator.

I will assert that this projection occurs toward the director because of the innate priorization of senses that places image above sound; it is no coincidence that film sound academia is but a small bud to the young, but firm tree of scholars devoted to the film frame alone. Directors, audiences, and film critics alike have all been deafened by their eyes; when, if one could do no more than listen to a film, one could make the same connections the critics of Cahiers du Cinema did in the 1950s.

Sound design is an art, with its own set of artists, and if there is no utopian solution in sight toward the future valorization of these artists, as thankless as Orson Welles in 1941, it can still be asserted that a film has not one auteur, but a collective; that, finally, auteurship is not one signature, but a set of many signatures that coalesce into such beautiful art. It is the hope of this author that future academia finds this essay a prophecy; that auteurist readings become less a genre signification of ‘this auteur or that auteur’ but a complex universe of signatures that create disparate and yet similar filmic universes, for example, acknowledging the differences in a film by Alan Splet and Peter Weir, as opposed to Alan Splet and David Lynch. The sound design, in these cases, would still carry the significations of Splet’s signature, but would work in conjunction with the signatures of others, all viewed and valorized separately, as beautiful and valid as the directorial auteurs themselves are today.

In conclusion, through the explication of Andrew Sarris’ conception of auteur theory, a critical analysis of Eraserhead and Dead Poets Society, and an explication of Michel Foucault’s theory of an author’s function, it was established that not only is Alan Splet’s an auteur in himself, but that his sound design represents an intense, ambient externalization of the spiritual and psychological that uses the emotions of the spectator to catalyse their inhabitation of a psychic space. Through this demonstration of Splet’s technique, style, and ‘interior meaning,’ and therefore his auteur status, it was concluded, through explicating Foucault, that current theories of auteurship represent a set of projections on the part of the spectator that favour the director only by a prioritization of the image over the soundtrack – and that a more accurate view of auteurship would conceptualise itself as a collective of signatures that create vastly different texts as these auteurs collaborate. While an auteur is a creation of the exhibition of the text, it is more complex than a single attribution – it is as if other universes beyond our own were shaping our world today in conjunction with the universe we know. And if we cannot create a new world – one where we cherish and valorize the soundtrack – then at least we can acknowledge the complexity inherent in our own.

1. D’Angelo, Mike. “David Lynch shows how audio can be creepier than any image in Eraserhead.” The A.V. Club. 14 May 2012. Web. 17 November 2014.
2. Dead Poets Society. Dir. Peter Weir. Buena Vista Pictures, 1989. DVD.
3. Eraserhead. Dir. David Lynch. American Film Institute, 1977. The Criterion Collection, 2014. DVD.
4. Foucault, Michel. “What is an author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980. Print.
5. Mysteries of Love. Dir. Jeffrey Schwartz. Automat, 2002. Web. 16 Nov 2014.
6. Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
7. Théberge, Paul. “Almost Silent: The Interplay of Sound and Silence in Contemporary Cinema and Television.” Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound. Eds. Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Print.
8. Thom, Randy. “Designing a Movie for Sound.” 1999. Web. 6 Nov 2014.
9. Wallace, David Foster. “David Lynch Keeps his Head.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 1997. Print.
10. Woodward, Richard B. “Snapping, Humming, Buzzing, Banging: Remembering Alan Splet.” The Paris Review. 15 May 2014. Web. 6 Nov 2014.