Manipulating perceptions through music, film and the blink of an eye

Simon Boswell discusses his multi-media Blink project with with Asia House Head of Arts and Learning Pamela Kember

Manipulating perceptions through music, film and the blink of an eye

23 October 2014

By Naomi Canton

Music has the power to manipulate the impression that viewers have of both fictional characters, as well as of real people in the news, twice BAFTA-nominated British film score composer Simon Boswell has said.

Boswell made the remarks when he was in conversation with Asia House’s Head of Arts and Learning Pamela Kember about his multi-media audio-visual installation BLINK!

The installation has news footage of various famous figures, including the late martial arts action film actor Bruce Lee, blinking at a slowed down pace to Boswell’s unique soundtracks on a never-ending loop. It was first exhibited at the ICA in London in 2002 on four simultaneous cinema-sized screens and in 2012 on the exterior wall of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Boswell, who was in several  rock bands before becoming a film composer and has more than 90 credits to his name, including Shallow Grave, said: “Even the news always begins with a piece of music nowadays. In 1999 I was in LA watching a motorway car chase on the news and I thought to myself once what would it be like if the news started with music as if the news was fiction?” he said.

Next he contacted a London news agency and got the licence to use various pieces of major world news footage from them, including  Princess Diana’s funeral,  9/11 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then he edited a single piece of news and scored it with a unique soundtrack and left it on a loop.

“I was trying to see how much music alters your perception of the truth,” he explained.  “If you put music on news it becomes like propaganda very quickly – that’s how film composers tried to persuade you about a character. It’s what we do for a living – try and manipulate people.”

So for example he scored 9/11 as an unrequited love story.

Once that project was over, he reflected on how many times world leaders looked into news cameras and blinked.  “So I began to isolate these moments of people blinking,” he said. “People blink 40,000 times a day.”

Boswell slowed each one down completely so that two-second clips became 20-second clips.

The news footage he acquired also included a shot of former US President Bill Clinton just before he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, a reference  to the Lewinsky scandal.

There were also a clip of the Queen blinking during a broadcast at the time of Princess Diana’s death, as well as shots of Barack Obama, David Bowie and Victoria Beckham.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth: part of Simon Boswell's Blink project.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth: one of the studies for Simon Boswell’s Blink! project.

“They were like strange portraits which hung in the air. It’s really interesting to extend the shutter speed of the camera like that – it was like they were stuck in this movement in time so I thought I will score these portraits and blow them up large and make them like an emotional climax to a story. I had to trawl through a lot of footage to find the best ones that worked,” he added. He said the music he added greatly influenced how the viewer reacted to the household names.

“None of these politicians ever get to say anything to you. They are just blinking at you. It’s a strange way of looking at the famous – I think it neutralises the famous. Each one is on a loop that lasts forever. I would like it to be on a wall and you watch it for as long as you want. You have to synchronise the music with what’s happening on the screen.”

At the 2010 Hong Kong International Art Fair he decided to include figures from Hong Kong in BLINK! The first person that came to mind was Bruce Lee so he contacted the actor’s daughter Shannon at the the Bruce Lee Foundation and asked her for some news footage. “She loved the idea and gave me black and white footage of him rarely shown with Jackie Chan. Musically what I did with Bruce Lee is to make him a hero. The projection was 40 metres long.

“News is about manipulation and music is too. It makes you like someone or not- it captures that slightly unguarded moment of the blink. Sneezing could be the next option as that is another involuntary thing,” he said.

“Boxer Muhammad Ali is the only person who did not blink at all in his clip,” he said, then showed a loop of him grinning just before saying “I am the greatest” for the first time on TV.

“It’s the way you can subvert any theme through music that is fascinating. Music is like an emotional conscience.”