Sheherzade - The Untold Story
Recapturing the acoustic magic of the ancient Greek
theaters in this powerful and timely film.
by Don Kulak
The theater is pitch black and silent. From a distance to the right an eerie, howling sound is faintly heard. Almost instantaneously the sound is 100 times louder as it screeches above the audience and fades to the left. It is immediately followed by thousands of similar sounding arrows - Mongolian whistling war arrows, blanketing the night sky with the sound of death.
For a brief moment the opposing army is psychologically paralyzed, knowing full well their impending slaughter. The screen lapses into dawn, panning an inert, bloody army with the sounds of birds diving and calling in real time, along the same paths as the arrows once flew.
Film is a powerful medium in it’s own right, but the producers of Sheherzade - The Untold Story wanted to expand upon film’s ability to reach people through the innovative use of music, sound and acoustics. The soundtrack of Sheherzade is key to bringing the audience from one emotional extreme to the other - from the barbaric horror of war, to compassion, love and understanding of their fellow man.
The whistling arrows used by Mongolian warriors is just one example of how this film brings the audience right into 13th century central Asia - on all levels. This is not a random whistling sound digitally recorded in surround sound. The sonic makeup of these arrows recreates the exact sounds of Mongolian war arrows, sounds which continuously changed over the course of the arrows’ flight. In addition, the spatial ambience of these arrows flying across a desert landscape was captured, giving the acoustic feel of vastness and depth.
From a production standpoint, film is typically a visual experience, with the music and sound created almost as an afterthought. In Sheherzade, sound is used to convey what language is incapable of saying, turning one dimensional, linear words into a multi-dimensional and powerful assault on the senses. In some scenes, the sounds of cries, words, or screaming are augmented seamlessly by the sighs of wind instruments where one cannot tell where the voice ends and the instruments begin.
The audience is hearing a language of sound which creates a more subtle state of perception. This reaches and appeals to the whole person, not the psychologically and emotionally-conditioned products of a “civilized” society. This film tries to reach those fundamental emotions and visceral feelings that cannot be touched by words and visual images alone.
In a windswept desert scene, horsemen rapidly approach the Fort City of Crusades. The sound of swirling sand and wind fades in as they move closer. The rich, delicate, harmonic tones of a Persian santour* are faintly heard, wafting thru the air as if carried by the wind. The wind picks up as they near the city. The swirling sand becomes a loud, teeming, splintering sound, heard close up, while the santour plays faster, becoming chaotic, and frenetic - a precursor to what awaits the horsemen in the city ahead.
In Sheherzade, the science of acoustics is creatively used to not only heighten the dramatic impact of a scene, but also to bring about healing and energizing effects upon the audience. The ancient Greeks used theater, and sound in particular, as a therapy - to relieve the audiences’ tensions, to restore physical and psychological balance, to cure the body and spirit - to bring about acoustic catharsis.
This sonic art (which will be described in detail later in this article) is recreated in Sheherzade to help bring this powerful human story to life - a story that heals and teaches. According to director Salmaan Peerzada, “Today’s collective actions have consequences that we are going to have to deal with. Art or cinema born out of telling a human story is a powerful means for healing and teaching us to listen to the voices and sounds deep in the soul that every individual possesses... America in particular has a huge responsibility to use the impact of cinema in a most intelligent fashion because it is posed in a unique position to unite and heal conflict worldwide.”
The story unfolds along the famed Old Silk Road, and brings to life the Islamic Empire that stretched from Baghdad to Samarkand - a great civilization and crossroads of the world.
It is seen through the eyes of a young mystic nomad woman living in the warring era of Chingis Kahn. Her mystical journeys into other realms guides and helps her to lead her people, and elude the encroaching armies of the great Kahn.
There are similar parallels between her 13th century world and 2005, where war was used to resolve disputes rather than dialogue, and where the strongest armies dictated policy. Sheherzade’s vision was of a world where religion helped unite people and reveal common dreams and aspirations - a world where war was not so easily justified in the name of religion or security - a world where power and greed gave way to a conscious awakening of the human spirit. That same sentiment is probably shared today more than ever, given the renewed military build-ups around the world. The timing of this Worlds Away Films’ 2005 release is therefore even more significant. Salmaan Peerzada pulls out all the production stops so Sheherzade can exert a lasting impact on audiences around the world.
The set is on location in Pakistan in order to capture the spirit of the times, with its unique and inspiring landscapes of high jagged mountains, vast deserts, and lush green valleys. Jack Anderson, director of photography says, “Intimately tied to and arising from the topography are the cultures, each with its own look and its own customs... We will use many cinematic techniques to identify them.. Identifying each world and culture with its own look will enrich the film and transport the audience effortlessly to unknown, exotic, entrancing new realities.” They also strive to create the visual ambience of a world “lit only by fire.” Illumination was limited to candles, oil lamps, fires, and of course the sun. The nights glowed with dim, yellow hues and dancing shadows, as opposed to the relatively harsh antiseptic qualities of flourescent and incandescent lighting. With the night time visuals being toned down, so to speak, it created the perfect opportunity to enhance the sound.
Pakistan was chosen as the filming location for Sheherzade not only for the landscape, but also because of support from the Pakistani Government. Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Chief Minister, Punjab Province, where Sheherzade will be filmed, has met with Producer Peter Ziebert many times to set forth the framework of government support and infrastructure for the production.
While the Pakistani landscape creates the visual ambience of the times, the soundtrack uses specific acoustic methods which are modeled after the ancient Greek theaters. This art of sound reinforcement resonates with the audience on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. - an added dimension that brings the audience out of the theater and directly into Sheherzade’s experience.
The Ancient Greeks, the first pioneers in the field of acoustics, understood the power of sound when they built the Stadium of Epidauros in 330 B.C. It seated 14,000 people and had extraordinary acoustics for speech intelligibility and musical instruments. Imagine sitting in a 14,000 seat open air theater and listening to someone speak without the aid of microphones. The design of the theater was such that the early reflected sounds reached the listener between 20 and 50 milliseconds after the original sound. The result was a single, reinforced acoustic image with greater intensity and enhanced quality than the original sound source.
Dodoni Theater in Greece
In addition, they added multiple earthenware vases, each constructed to amplify certain harmonics. The result was not only improved clarity, but also a subtle, but clearly audible series of notes harmonizing with themselves, giving the audience a sense of well being and pleasure.
In Sheherzade, these harmonics are amplified creating a sonic effect similar to what the ancient Greeks used to produce with their acoustic earthenware vases. However, in this case it is done with the help of digital processing and many sound-generating oscillators.
This film goes back in history not only for a timely spiritual message, but also for the methods of it’s transmission - from screen to audience.
Figure 1 shows the placement of these acoustic vases and their specific resonant frequencies. In addition to clarity and amplification they created what the Greeks used to call concordium, or harmony.
If a singer, instrument, or even a spoken word hit a certain frequency it would resonate the vases tuned to that frequency, and if that tone was loud enough it would set off the other vases which were tuned to the naturally occurring harmonics of that note. This produced a beautiful harmonizing effect, all within a single tone.
This film brings the audience a similar sound experience - one where certain tones feel like they’re resonating with the entire body, and giving a sense of connectedness to the scene.
According to the ancients, there was a scientific reason for these psychological and physiological effects which sound has upon us, the basis of which lies in the whole number relationships between the harmonic series of a single tone, and all sorts of natural phenomena.
In the West, these relationships between the harmonic series and natural laws were formally restricted to the realms of mysticism and occultism. The rapidly advancing world of atomic physics, astronomy, and other scientific disciplines, however, was soon to embrace musical acoustics as a microcosm of all life and form in the universe.
The Language of Ratios
The naturally occurring harmonic series is created when, for example, a guitar string is plucked, or a piano string is struck by the hammer. Once the finger or hammer makes contact with the string, the string naturally divides itself in half many times over. The first division being the 1st harmonic (or overtone) which is exactly twice the frequency of the original tone, or fundamental.. On a piano keyboard if middle C is struck, the first overtone would sound exactly like the C one octave higher. This is a ratio of 2:1.
The next string division or 2nd harmonic occurs when the subdivided string divides each of it’s halves in half again. This creates the ratio of 3:2. Again, on the piano keyboard this ratio would correspond to the interval from C to G - a musical fifth. The next would be a musical fourth or a ratio of 4:3 - from G to C on the keyboard, and so on.
This connection of sound and harmonic proportions to the physical universe also gave the West a somewhat better understanding of the musical cultures of the east, and the spiritual, and healing effects of their music.
The melodies of the Mongolian Shaman (heard in several scenes) fall on the exact pattern of the natural harmonic series. The note intervals they sing and chant create these naturally-occurring ratios.
Hans Kayser, in his books Akroasis, Harmonia Planetarum,and Orphikon, demonstrates that in the fields of atomic physics, chemistry, astronomy, architecture and botany etc. there exists an underlying framework of whole number ratios identical to those of the musical scale, and the harmonic series.
Max Planck, specializing in atomic physics, showed the correlation between the ratios of the shells around the atomic nucleus and the acoustical laws. This was done by observing the radiation quanta which was released when the electrons jumped from shell to shell, showing a similar gradation to that of note intervals.
Similarly, but on a much larger scale, Johannes Kepler, an astronomer in the Middle Ages, showed the relationships between the musical ratios 1:2, 2:3, 3:4 etc., and the spacings of the planets around the sun. From this, he deducted that the musical and harmonic proportions are innate to the human soul and body, and therefore explains our physical and psychological reactions to sound and music.
In his book “Musik und Kosmos” Thomas Michael Schmidt continued to identify musical ratios throughout nature. He was particularly concerned, however, with the human body itself. The body is subdivided into various parts, such as leg and arm sockets, navel, nipples, knees and elbows. Ratios were then made of these various lengths as they compared to the body’s total height.
The research of Mr. Schmidt showed these bodily ratios to also be identical to the musical and harmonic proportions. For example, for a person 172 cm high, the navel would lie at a height of 103 cm.
These measurements form a ratio almost exactly 5:3, corresponding to the interval of a 6th. The distance from the navel to the top of the head relates to the total body height as the ratio 3:2, or the interval of a fifth. The height of the arm socket in relation to the navel produces a ratio of 4:3, or a musical fourth.
It appears to be fairly clear that these cultures understood, at least intuitively, the scope of sound and its harmonic proportions, and its far reaching effects and manifestation in the physical universe. Sound or rather musical tone and its harmonic components to them represented a certain order, the basis of all things in the universe. It was therefore used to restore this natural order when there was an imbalance, such as physical, or psychological sickness.
Salmaan Peerzada has recreated the natural acoustics and resonance of the ancient Greek theaters and applied them to Sheherzade in order to realize his goal in making this film - that is to bring the story of Sheherzade to life, and to connect people on a spiritual and intellectual level, consciously and subconsciously.
He is using all the power of cinema to help shift people from a divisive mentality to one of understanding and cooperation. He wanted to reach people on a verbal and non-verbal level, using the power of sound to effectively communicate what otherwise could not be expressed.
Inside the Fort City of Crusades, several percussion instruments, each tuned a minor 3rd apart, are heard from a far section of the city. As tension mounts between the clerics and the Shams, the drums fade in bringing the audience inches from the scene. The smooth rhythm slowly gives way to the harsh transients of stronger beating on the drums - in sync with the fatal blows on the screen.
This film uses sound to pick-up where words fail to communicate the essence of a scene. The sound of voices, cries, screams, ambient sounds, arrows, music and special effects all acoustically resonate to carry the audience directly into the experience of Sheherzade.
Mr. Peerzada wanted to make a film that was much more than two plus hours of entertainment. He envisioned a film that could touch people on a deeper emotional, and visceral level, a film that transcends language and cultural/political boundaries.
This vision is shared by the Pakistani government which is helping with the production of this film. According to President Pervez Musharraf, “Mr. Elahi represents the paradigm shift at the top level of Pakistani leadership toward a more secular, modern, centrist society.”
Mr. Ziebert also noted. “In my meetings with him, I was struck by his ambitious program to use cultural heritage and artistic rejuvenation to show a different side of Pakistan, one that favors education and emphasizes opportunities for women.”
The film’s on-location production service company, The Peer Group (founded by Mr. Peerzada) has liased closely with Mr. Elahi and the Pakistan tourism ministry, to use the film as a centerpiece of these new initiatives in Pakistan.
“The end result will be an innovative, bilateral public diplomacy venture between the U.S. and Pakistan at a time when our strategic interests are aligned, and both the 9-11 Commission Report and recent pronouncements from the Administration are urging broader and deeper ties between the two countries,” Mr. Ziebert remarked, “There can be no greater way to implement these worthy recommendations than to have one hundred film professionals working side by side with Pakistanis on this global production that brings Hollywood to the heartland of Pakistan to make a film about the famed Old Silk Road and the glory of the Islamic Empire of the 13th century.”