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What I think about, when I think about Norman McLaren.

Alex Klassen

Okay, so he's an animator. But if that's all he is then Norman McLaren is a director in the same
way that Stockhausen is a computer programmer. The comparison can be really telling (I'm glad I
thought of it). Before K.H.S had begun fiddling around with oscilloscopes and sine waves,
McLaren had developed a fascinating landscape of sounds to accompany his films. The most
famous of which, Neighbours, has sounds perfectly matched to the action on screen, highlighting
all elements of the action in a similar pointillist fashion. So lets call it a ballet for two actors,
jperhaps a pantomime with incidental music. The most curious aspect of McLaren's technique is
that it highlights the discrete nature of the film visual in an extreme way. Most of the time
watching stop motion animation one is impressed with the lively nature of the animated forms
(this is true for most of McLaren's typical animations as well). IN using live performers for this
film, he turns the use of stop motion into a sort of dance beyond the usual emotional limits of
human movement. This is the same trick he pulls with creating music out of the neumes he draws
down the border of the filmThe rest of the time the characters move around as you would expect.
It's amazing to hear the variety of sounds he manages to draw to construct such a marvellous
soundtrack. Also quite impressive is the development of a sort of leitmotif that is manipulated
throughout. Following the tragic conclusion he even manages a grand sort of cadential fanfare.
The soundscape we are presented with in the film 'Dots' is most remarkable for the contrasting
timbre to the sounds of neighbours. Where in Neighbours we had what would be recognized as an
8-bit sound in todays modern electronica parlance. The sounds of 'Dots' are rounder,
indescribably rougher. The music of them is still of much the same style of metrical and thematic
development. Certainly a more complex signal is heard here. This might not be a purposeful
outcome. Most likely is that he developed the 'cleaner' sounds as he went along refining his
technique. Rounding of the edges over the years.
McLaren's musical magnum opus though must be Synchromy. A piece that so perfectly melds
sound and vision that you could believe that the very images appearing on screen were making
the sounds coming out of the speakers. The closest classical cousin I can think of to this music is
the implied counterpoint of the so string works of Bach. The enormous contrapuntal structures of
both works are astounding at implying a continuous dialogue made mostly of single sounds. This

breaks down in the later part of the film as the voices develop their own independence. And just
as they reach a sort of disorderly breaking point they slip back into sync and dance together until
the end.
On its own merits the music is not very good. It is at best derivative of McLaren's musical
influences in boogie jazz and Bach. If there is a single aspect of his work that seems to elevate it
beyond itself and perhaps qualify it as something more that a gimmick it is the effect it has on
altering the experience of the listener when experiencing its antecedents. If one simply lets the
YouTube roll of McLaren's films run in the background it is amazing to hear the gaps and
discretization between the notes of gelnn Gould's piano or to imagine what shapes the sound of
the Oscar Peterson Trio are making on the optical track of the film. What Mclaren may have
come up with in his work is one of the purest forms of music. The notion of drawing the sound
and having it interpreted directly by a purely visual instrument. The music made through
electronic means has evolved a great deal in the last half century but perhaps it has lost this
directness that few besides McLaren had the opportunity to master on film.