Hear Dziga Vertov’s Revolutionary Experiments in Sound: From His Radio Broadcasts to His First Sound Film

The doc­u­men­tary form, like every oth­er kind of onscreen sto­ry­telling, is a very recent devel­op­ment in human his­to­ry. Yet we tend to take for grant­ed the way in which it con­structs our sense of reality—from not only much-maligned real­i­ty TV, but also end­less loops of cable news and Net­flix chan­nels. But the man wide­ly cred­it­ed with the inven­tion of doc­u­men­tary film, Dzi­ga Ver­tov, made decid­ed­ly anti-sto­ry movies, par­tic­u­lar­ly his Man With a Movie Cam­era (watch it online here)—a film that jars con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ties. With no nar­ra­tive to speak of, the movie con­tains rough­ly 1,775 sep­a­rate shots from three cities, shot over four years time, and edit­ed togeth­er by his wife. Its view­ing is indeed a dizzy­ing expe­ri­ence, and its direc­tor Vertov—born David Kaufman—truly illus­trates the aes­thet­ic of his pseu­do­nym, which means “spin­ning top.”

Vertov’s rad­i­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion did not begin and end with Man With a Movie Cam­era or his oth­er avant-garde doc­u­men­taries and ani­ma­tions. (Find eight of Ver­tov’s films here.) Once a psy­chol­o­gy stu­dent in Pet­ro­grad, the future film­mak­er start­ed his artis­tic career as a writer of futur­ist poet­ry and sci­ence fic­tion. Entranced by emerg­ing record­ing tech­nol­o­gy and com­mit­ted to dis­rupt­ing tra­di­tion­al forms, in 1916 Ver­tov began, writes Mono­skop, “exper­i­ment­ing with the per­cep­tion and arrange­ment of sound.”

He cre­at­ed “sound poems,” and pro­duced “ver­bal mon­tage struc­tures.” Of his audio art, Ver­tov remarked, “I had an idea about the need to enlarge our abil­i­ty for orga­nized hear­ing. Not lim­it­ing this abil­i­ty to the bound­aries of usu­al music. I decid­ed to include the entire audi­ble world into the con­cept of ‘Hear­ing.’”

After the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, Ver­tov embraced Bol­she­vist agit-prop; his “Kino-Prav­da,” or “truth films,” cel­e­brat­ed indus­tri­al­iza­tion and the Russ­ian work­er. His first sound film, Enthu­si­asm! The Don­bass Sym­pho­ny (1930)—a “paean to coal and steel work­ers”—inte­grates his exper­i­ments with sound record­ing in an entire­ly nov­el way. Ubuweb describes the film and its accom­pa­ny­ing sound­track as “Vertov’s most rev­o­lu­tion­ary achieve­ment: a sym­pho­ny of abstract indus­tri­al noise for which a spe­cial­ly designed giant mobile recod­ing sys­tem was con­struct­ed (it weighed over a ton) in order to cap­ture the din of mines, fur­naces and fac­to­ries. For Ver­tov, the intro­duc­tion of sound film didn’t mean talkies, but the oppor­tu­ni­ty to col­lage, mon­tage and splice togeth­er con­struc­tions of pure envi­ron­men­tal noise.”

You can hear three excerpts of this indus­tri­al sound col­lage above and the remain­ing sev­en at Ubuweb. Lis­ten to them first as exam­ples of “sound poems,” then watch Enthu­si­asm: The Don­bass Sym­pho­ny at the top for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of why Ver­tov remains such an influ­en­tial, indeed essen­tial, film—and audio—artist wide­ly cred­it­ed with free­ing new media from the aes­thet­ic con­fines of the stage and the page. Just below, lis­ten to one of Ver­tov’s ear­ly exper­i­ments with doc­u­men­tary sound art, from 1916. Just as he sought to cre­ate an inter­na­tion­al work­er’s visu­al lan­guage through film, “Through radio, he attempt­ed to estab­lish audi­to­ry com­mu­ni­ca­tion across the whole of the world’s pro­le­tari­at by way of record­ing the sounds of work­places and of life itself.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, the 8th Best Film Ever Made

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s Unset­tling Sovi­et Toys: The First Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Movie Ever (1924)

Eight Free Films by Dzi­ga Ver­tov, Cre­ator of Sovi­et Avant-Garde Doc­u­men­taries

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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