Changing Londons: An Analysis of Sound and Transition in Mrs. Dalloway and Blow Up

By Bethany Allard

Although storytellers of different generations, genres and artistic forms, Virginia Woolf and Michelangelo Antonioni created works in which sound plays an instrumental role in constructing their own versions of London. In Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, the upper-class socialite Clarissa Dalloway and the shell-shocked World War I veteran Septimus Smith react to the various sounds of a post-war London, with objects such as backfiring cars and chiming clocks keeping the past alive in their present. Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, although using sounds of the 1960s, such as music and shouting protestors, reveals sound as an essential component in the construction of London, depicting a similar tension and disillusionment present in transitioning city as it follows a nameless photographer. Ultimately, Woolf and Antonioni use sound in order to create a London that accurately manifests and conveys the feelings of disorientation and emptiness that pervaded over their respective time periods of the 1920s and 1960s. 

The presence or absence of sound, in both works, is crucial in framing how the reader or audience perceives London. Blow-Up has no musical score throughout the movie, instead opting for the diegetic sounds of the city to create the aural environment. The only time music is used in the film is when the characters choose to play it. By default, these sounds become the score. Scenes of the protagonist navigating London are filled with car motors, horns, footsteps and perhaps shouting from protestors. Woolf similarly creates a score of sorts in her novel, as the bells of Big Ben regularly toll, serving as a transitionary force and structuring principle for her narrative. The bells come as “first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable” (Woolf 4). Beyond the sound having a literal musical quality, Woolf’s sentence structure itself takes on a rhythmic pattern, with the syllabic structure of the phrases before the comma mirroring each other, creating a sort of song within the sentence. Both the sound she describes and the sentence describing it become part of a score for the novel composed of the sounds of the city, just as in the film. If a score is meant to create atmosphere and mood, indicating the genre or theme of a work, it seems as if both works, with their amalgamation of sounds that comprise their scores, reflect a fragmented London that defies the singularity and simplicity of a clearly defined genre. Are the stories of Woolf and Antonioni’s London ones of perseverance, of disruption, of stagnation, of entrapment, of longing? As the possibilities seemingly endless, the London narrative becomes its own genre. It cannot be any other way, as the London of both the novel and film are a space of confusion in which it can only attempt to describe and define itself. Traditional music could do the city no justice in the process of finding meaning.

With the city sounds acting as the scores of both works, there are inevitably pauses or moments of silence which create empty spaces. These spaces are just as integral as sounds in conveying the anxiety of the search for a London with substance. Woolf describes Septimus’s interpretation of London’s aural environment: “Sounds made harmonies with premeditation; the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. A child cried. Rightly far away a horn sounded. All taken together meant the birth of a new religion–” (Woolf 24). With this description, Woolf reveals the sounds of the city do not always blend together to become an indistinguishable whole melody. Rather, the spaces between the sounds, between the notes of that create the harmony, create an unignorable tension. What exists in that space in between besides pure tension and anxiety? Can the city combat these feelings, or does it provide a better arena for them? She furthers relays the emptiness of the city by describing a physical separation between the “far away” car honk and the child crying, as well as a separation in the sentence structure by placing a period between the cry and the honk. The cry cannot blend seamlessly with the car horn, revealing the isolation of these empty and distress filled spaces. The space between them creates a tension of separate traumas that exist within the bounds of London but cannot come together. Antonioni similarly plays with these tensions in Blow-Up, often using silence as a means of creating aural space, building suspense and leading the audience to believe that the scenes are leading up to a crucial moment of noise. Yet Antonioni does not break the silence with a jolt of noise. Instead, he uses the anticlimactic sounds of mundanity, such as another pedestrian on the street or the sound of another car driving by. This build of tension creates the London that sits on the brink of something, but like Septimus’s thought cut off by the dash, it never reaches a sense of what that something might be. It is unsatisfying and what remains is uncomfortable sense of emptiness and unfulfillment.

It is difficult to find fulfillment, however, when London seems to exist without a clear identity. The only time Antonioni does use a score is during the opening and closing credits of the film, playing jazz music by the American composer, Herby Hancock. The jazz frames a movie about the 1960s in a confusing way: the composer is foreign and the genre of music anachronistic, better suited perhaps to a movie about the 1930s or 40s. With this choice, it seems Antonioni is suggesting that the London the audience is about to witness at the start of the film and the London it sees at the end is searching for a sense of identity in a transitional time between World War II and the Vietnam War. It does not quite understand itself chronologically and cannot know the implications of this confusion. What does it mean to find the characters in the time of the swinging sixties? Perhaps the city of this decade is not so distinctive from the city of the past. Or perhaps, maybe it does not understand how to move forward from its past.

Woolf similarly uses sound to explore the ramifications of the past in her novel. When a car backfires, both Clarissa and Septimus initially believe they have heard a gunshot. Septimus, triggered by memories of the war, experiences a violent reaction to the sound: “The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames” (Woolf 16). The extremity of this reaction to a typical sound of London reveals a crucial fact of its character: the war has irrevocably changed it. Not only is it changed, it is destabilized. In other words, these memories that haunt Septimus and Clarissa haunt the city which cannot be clearly defined as separate from its past. These sounds of both the film and novel reveal how the London undergoing transition and turmoil cannot clearly be defined and characterized — the lack of clear character becoming a danger to itself, the instability seeming to forebode destruction. Yet, this possible impending destruction does not seem to have much of an effect on the city, revealing how meaninglessness has become the new normal.

The propensity to accept meaninglessness as the standard of London grows out of the extreme difficulty in finding rationality in this city of contradictions. One of the first shots of the film is of a group of boisterous shouting mimes, disturbing the peace of the streets of London. These mimes are inherently ironic, as they break the premise of their identity by seemingly doing almost nothing but making noise. It is jarring to hear their almost celebratory shouts without knowing the cause of them. The reason behind their screams is never clear, but perhaps that is exactly the point. It is chaos for the sake of chaos, reflecting the state of the confused and destabilized city. Their identity is completely antithetical to the idea of the traditional mime, fomenting an uncertainty and moreover, an uneasiness, about what their purpose is, reflecting the general attitude of purposelessness in London at the time. Woolf conveys this uneasiness through the “throb of motor engines” which sound “like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body” (Woolf 15-16).  This simile evokes the image of a mortal London that may not live to see another day. It is no longer the stronghold of a city that could never feasibly be defeated. How the city fell from such heights seems to defy logic, and creates a sense of confusion that is difficult for those inhabiting it to reconcile. It begs the question, where does London go from here? And what exactly is here? Ultimately, the city seems to be in a state of inextricable and dangerous chaos that seems impossible to rectify.

This rectification seems particularly impossible due to the disorientation and perversion of the city, as demonstrated through by sound. The London of the 1960s was known for its celebration of free love and liberated sexuality. Yet, the sounds that mark the sex scene between the two young models and the photographer suggest something much more sinister might be at hand. Solely by viewing the film it is clear that the photographer acts as a predator, as he stalks one of the aspiring models before physically overtaking her. Yet, the struggle that ensues between her and the other young model seems as if it might be playful, perhaps meant for the bemusement of the man they want to further their careers. Yet, without the visual, the sounds of the scene are harrowing: the shouts of the girls coupled with the heavy crinkling of the photographer’s paper backdrop in the otherwise silent scene create an atmosphere of genuine fear and chaos. What is most interesting, however, is how these shouts and crinkles do not seem synchronized with choreography of the scene. In other words, the sounds do not match the actions. The result is disorienting, depicting an auditory discordance that suggests the sex is not indicative of a free love at all but is in fact, a rape. This possibility shatters the image of a sexually liberated London is all but shattered for what appears might be the undiscussed reality.

Still, it is impossible to know for sure, resulting in a disorientation that Woolf’s Septimus Smith often experiences in his own time. Septimus mistakes the sounds of his wife and a neighborhood child playing a game as “the cries of people seeking and not finding” (Woolf 159). The sounds of reality become the sounds of his unseen reality, creating an atmosphere of discordance. These cries, although not ascribed to him, easily could be, as he fruitlessly attempts to seek out what is real in a post-war world, tragically not realizing that sound actually works to bolster what is fake. Woolf does not specify what the people are seeking, reflecting the mental confusion of Septimus and on a broader scale, the city, as it struggles to reorient and redefine itself after the war. This lack of specificity clearly represents the pervasive sense of the futility of searching for meaning — it seems not to exist at all. Sound should clarify, yet in both works, it actively and purposefully confuses. What is to be trusted as real, if the sounds convey a falsity? The sounds that do not match with actions or a true reality ultimately reveal how the city becomes a space where reality is often disregarded.

This disorientation of sound results in a city in which it is nearly impossible to connect sound to reality. For instance, Peter Walsh praises London as the bell of the ambulance resounds throughout the streets. To him, “it is one of the triumphs of civilization”, representing “the efficiency, the organization, the communal spirit of London” (Woolf 165). What Peter chooses to ignore is the very reason for the ringing of the bells — Septimus’s suicide. What is perhaps even more ironic is that Septimus did not live in an efficient, organized and communal London. The ringing of the bells for the corpse represent a London that was too late to save the troubled and isolated soldier. By focusing on how the sound commands the crowds to make way for the ambulance rather than the human inside the ambulance, Peter participates in delusion about the empathy and character of a post-war London. He willfully ignores the patient inside the ambulance, choosing instead to admire the appearance of the organized city. The sound allows him to construct a false notion of London that he takes as reality. Perhaps as meaningless a scene of sound is the concert scene in Blow-Up, in which the popular 1960s London band the Yardbirds plays to a catatonic crowd. The crowd only comes to life when the guitarist throws the broken neck of his guitar into the crowd. Both Walsh and the crowd misinterpret the significance of sound, cherishing the empty symbol instead of the experience or reality it is intrinsically connected to. In other words, both cherish uselessness — what is the point in admiring the efficiency of an ambulance for a man it is too late to save, or a guitar neck that cannot be played to music that was not even enjoyed? The message is clear: this is a London that has become attached the empty symbol because it is preferable to facing a painful and harsh reality.

The sounds present in the public spaces show most clearly how the survival of the empty symbols and false reality of the city relies on a mass delusion. The most pertinent example of this is the tennis match that concludes Blow-Up. The scuffs of the two players shoes mimic the faint echo of the sounds of a real game of tennis, but it is not until the photographer — the outsider from the group of spectators and players– decides to partake that the mimed match becomes the reality not only for him but for the audience as well. He puts down camera, which has captured the harsh reality of the murder, before participating in and hearing the game, indicating his full submission into the illusion. His mental submission is what matters most, as demonstrated by Antonioni’s choice to not visually depict the now “real” game, suggesting that sound is what truly creates the false reality. This notion that the mind can usurp physical surroundings in order to construct a better reality is also present in Mrs. Dalloway. The sound of the aeroplane invades the minds of those occupying the various public spaces across the city, prompting each to look up and make sense of it. The sound reflects a communal experience, just as the game is a communal experience. One listener of the plane determines it to be “a symbol…of man’s soul; of his determination…to get outside his body…by means of thought” (Woolf 30). The sound prompts a series of thoughts across the city, most of which have to do with freedom, a desire to be elsewhere. This desire for a mass illusion erases the physical boundaries of the city, and it becomes the clear that the city is in fact unified by the desire to see it the way it wants to be seen, rather than the way it is. The illusion works best and is most comfortable when it is bought into by the masses. The city may not be what its denizens have decided to see it is, but in the tumultuous time it finds itself in, perhaps this is what is necessary in order to survive.

The 1920s and 1960s are not times easily defined and understood, as some categorizations of history might suggest. They were times of disillusionment and confusion. Woolf and Antonioni use London’s sounds to show how the city had to adapt to an alternate reality for it to be bearable to live in. At least this way, if the city is empty and without meaning, it is only because it is built on delusion, constructed to give nothing to its inhabitants. It is better than facing the difficult reality: that the real city, stripped of the illusions, offers just as little as the fake one.

Works Cited –
Antonioni, Michelangelo, director. Blow Up. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1966.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Hogarth Press, 1925.