Santiago Álvarez en un rodaje. Foto: Archivo Oficina Santiago Álvarez.
Santiago Álvarez en un rodaje. Foto: Archivo Oficina Santiago Álvarez.

Santiago Álvarez: story orchestrator

11 minutos / Andy Muñoz Alfonso

11.12.2019 / Articles

Balance. The only way to achieve audiovisual harmony is to maintain the balance of its codes: when the sound redundant the image, it hinders. Santiago Álvarez learned this in the daily exercise of cinema, making him the most important Cuban filmmaker to the soundtrack. But to fully understand the works of Santiago Álvarez you must first know how he conceived them and what is the value of music in this process of creation.

The documentary maker established a curious creative mechanism. As he did not study film, or any of the so-called “fine arts”, he chose to perform his works based on something he did know well (and for which he had tremendous sensitivity) by working so many years in the archives of the CMQ station : music. 

He translated the phenomena he wanted to narrate into ideas-sounds. He first found the rhythmic nature of the characters, landscapes and feelings and looked for musical themes that approached those rhythms and cadences. If he could not find it, he would send it to compose; Santiago had been one of the defenders of Silvio, Pablo and the Nueva Trova in general when nobody supported them and had put an image to their songs (by the way, any resemblance to an early video clip attempt is not pure coincidence), in addition to their close link with the Icaic Sound Experimentation Group.

After finding that rhythmic essence, and the song or sound effect that best approached her, she already had the rhythm of the assembly. It is thus very noticeable in most of the documentaries and News of Santiago, a subordination of the image to the rhythm of the sounds, as if the planes were forced to dance to the beat of the soundtrack. 

This partly explains the extensive use of photomontage, quick cuts, play with visual references taken from almost anywhere (a magazine, a western movie, a newspaper, a cartoon) and intellectual assembly. To make the images dance at the whim of the soundtrack and, at the same time, to convey a complex idea, I had to "sacrifice" the calmness of a long understood as voyeuristic — by a picotillo of seemingly unconnected images that, in connection with music and sound effects, they generated that audiovisual discourse that Santiago wanted to convey.

Santiago Álvarez with Pablo Milanés. Photo: Santiago Álvarez Office Archive.

Santiago Álvarez with Pablo Milanés. Photo: Santiago Álvarez Office Archive.

That is, in the desire to communicate with the language of the cinema, Santiago Álvarez put the codes of audiovisual language (image, sound ...) based on the narration and dramaturgy of the stories he told. Thus, he created a style of work and representation of the facts from his own ideas about events. These particularities of his ideoesthetic proposal, a mixture of cinematographic journalism and “subjective journalism” (Santiago did not believe in journalistic objectivity, but rather narrated the news from an obvious point of view and that it was none other than that of his political conviction), located within the paradigms of Cuban and world documentary films. 

But why is the soundtrack so important in Santiago Álvarez? Cinema in general, as well as film music in particular, inherited resources, practices and customs of the performing arts that preceded them directly. In the first decade of sound cinema, several countries established different uses and customs in their process of conversion to sound; However, the American industry universalized and imposed a classic mode of sound that encourages certain parameters, to the point of standardizing the soundtrack as a simple musical accompaniment full of formal clichés that do not directly affect meaning or the creation of meaning 

Contrary to this, Santiago makes the soundtrack direct the meaning and directs the message, responding to its intent and taking into account that both image and sound are interrelated codes. It does not use sounds as a complement to the image, but as a vital part of the story and final discourse of the work. The soundtrack interprets the ideas suggested in the assembly, generally used in the documentary as evidence of the facts and that Santiago uses to create relationships, face realities or establish correspondences; therefore, the creator uses the expressive resources of audiovisual language to "prove" his interpretation of events.

Let's put some examples:

In Ciclón (1963), the most obvious in terms of soundtrack is the absence of a verbal discourse. The human voice is not placed in the sound plane despite the fact that the image stimulates the presence of “synchronization points” (moments in which sound and image coincide) that would correspond to dialogues present throughout the work. Therefore, the author is not interested in naively reproducing the sound of the reality he shows, but that that sound becomes an insightful narrator. 

The sound elements present here (noises, effects, silences, music) swell a great symphony with different textures. They are treated with musical characteristics and that makes them more than just sounds. When, for example, the murmur of the cyclone is magnified, it is not done by fidelity to the action, but as if it were another instrument within an orchestra performing a single: it has its own meaning at the narrative level (the Cyclone is that other enemy of Cuba which is determined to destroy the achievements of a Revolution that has just triumphed) and contributes to a specific story. In fact, the main character of this documentary is the murmur of the cyclone (Cyclone Flora) dramatically maximized. 

The meaning of the soundtrack in this documentary is to create sensations and emotions that the image cannot provide.

In Now (1965), unlike Ciclón, there is the presence of spoken word as a sound element. However, that voice is part of the lyrics of the song itself that constitutes the axis of the documentary and is not used as a narrator of historical events, but instead adopts the same value as the emotional guide of music. 

Why not tell the story simply and appealing to a voiceover off that explains the events? Cinema does not say things directly, but suggests them, provides clues to arrive at meaning instead of pointing the direct path. That is why Slavoj Zizek defines cinema as a sinister art: it does not give you what you want but tells you how to desire. 

Santiago Álvarez in his office. Photo: Santiago Álvarez Office Archive

Santiago Álvarez in his office. Photo: Santiago Álvarez Office Archive

This axiom of cinema explains in some way why Santiago called himself a "subjective journalist." He did not report the news but showed how to interpret it. Before, he offered his point of view, his positioning. Then, it gave space to the interpretation showing all the edges of the same phenomenon. The author achieves a link between cinema and journalism that makes the work more suggestive than informative. Inform by emotion will be your budget to give the news greater reach.

The case of El Benny (1963) is similar, there is no other sound element than the music of Benny Moré himself. Outstanding use of long-lasting sounds (exactly musical themes) that cover all the different stages of the assembly stands out. The director maneuvers the ideas through a parallel montage of the images of the funeral of Benny Moré with others of his musical career that creates a fairly clear sense: despite the physical death, the musician has not died.

In an interview the author says that he surprised himself when he made this documentary (originally conceived as a report more than one of the broadcasts of his Latin American Icaic News) and used the music of the popular Cuban singer with a narrative and assembly intention: "From that moment said Santiago , "I began to work the narrative with musicalization." 

However, if in Ciclón the soundtrack supports or establishes the emotional content of the image, in El Benny the music is used in a more daring way, that is, as a true “free counterpoint” in which the sounds are not heard. -They should-be, but music resignifies the fact to another dimension of interpretation. It empties the visual signs of their most obvious meanings-denotations and fills them with the meanings-connotations of the music used at a given moment. 

For example, at the discursive level the sequence of the beginning of this report could be used with the intention of suggesting that the trumpets of the funeral march of the funeral of the Cuban musician are only the trumpets of his music band and, therefore, that his work It continues despite death. To suggest this the author, from the assembly, chooses an interesting frame (it does not show the trumpeter's person but his shadow in the street) that conjugates with a Benny's son (musically characterized by the predominant trumpets). With the sound substitution of what should be heard (funeral march) by the author's translation (they are from Benny) it is suggested that his funeral cannot be contaminated with funeral connotations but with the joy of his work.

On the other hand, LBJ (1968) is organized in such a way that in order to discern the author's intention a decoding of the conjunctions between the assembly of the visual continuum and what the soundtrack proposes is necessary. The filmmaker creates his own semantic intertextual universe, in which the connotations of music establish the content of visual signs or poetically narrate the facts that are shown at the image level. 

In the first place, several sequences of the documentary are a clear allusion to the origins of the text taken by the cantata Carmina Burana: songs of mockery to power established with critical approaches to the social and ecclesiastical estates, belonging to a medieval poem of the same first name. 

Unlike what happens in El Benny, in LBJ it is necessary to take the full interpretation to the connotative level. The wedding images denote that religious civic event in which a man and a woman swear love, however, in the context of the documentary they could also connote lavishness, frivolity and waste; The latter is articulated with the satirical connotations of the texts of Carmina Burana until one of the possible meanings of that scene is formed. Santiago does not simply narrate the wedding of Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter but is exposing a whole satirical discourse about the customs of “American royalty”, her intimate life, supported by a framework of war, colonization and racial discrimination.

LBJ LBJ manages to capture the dissimilar complexities of the story using numerous discursive strategies that encompass all the constitutive substances of cinema, also expressing its concern to conceive a cinematographic work in the purest. Precisely music is one of those codes that generates essential senses or meanings to understand the discourse suggested by the author based, above all, on the symbolic connotations of the music he uses.

All these ideas of music for cinema - and the conception of sound elements as part of an audiovisual symphony that generates meaning in relation to images - shaped that unmistakable style of Santiago Álvarez's documentaries. Documentaries in which the soundtrack is an essential element of the discourse and that demonstrate that Santiago was, more than a filmmaker, an orchestrator of stories.

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Andy Muñoz Alfonso

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