Ideas in Sound Design: Deprivation and Barriers – Part 1
Cross-posting from personal blog.
I’ve had two ideas take obsessive root in my brain recently. They’re not new concepts, nor are they new to me. My first introduction to them was 8 years ago now, but I find myself pondering them with the regularity that my dog wants food. [Now? Now?! ...........Nooooow?] They’re worth talking about in a public space, because I hope they’ll stimulate some engaging conversation in our community. There’s also the hope that said conversation will filter and focus these ideas into greater resolution for myself. If it helps others in the process, so much the better. These two concepts, as spoiled in the title, are deprivation and barriers.
I plan to cover these ideas over two articles. In this, the first, I’ll lay out my thoughts and musings on concepts introduced to me through the writings of Walter Murch and Michel Chion. They are two different arguments, yet I feel they are closely related and augment one another. In the second article, I’ll examine several scenes under the frameworks I present here.
The concepts (paraphrased):
- Deprivation of sensory information causes the viewer to extract greater meaning from art. (Murch)
- The Voice defines the barriers it transcends. (Chion)
Let’s begin with Walter Murch’s argument.
This idea of his is one that I’ve seen pop up in several places. There’s mention of it in an article on FilmSound.org, in the foreword he wrote to the English translation of Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision…in fact, I’ve lost count of the places I’ve seen him mention it. His argument stems from the idea that the more traditional forms of art (writing, painting, sculpture, music, etc.) are predisposed to stimulating a greater sense of meaning for their audience, due to the fact that they are deprived of a broader set of sensory stimuli. As an example, let’s take a moment to look at Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
- Obviously, our example is a painting…art which contains only visual information. We have no acoustic information to work with, but we can extract impressions from the image. Beyond the explicit screaming character in the foreground…there is the indication of water and boats in the background, the walkway appears to be wooden, it is either dawn or dusk, and there is a pair of figures that share the space. All of these elements help us to mentally fill in the missing sensory information. We personalize the painting for ourselves, imagining: the timbre of the scream, what the surrounding space may sound like, or how the figures in the back left react to this vocal individual. Thinking about it further, would you actually imagine the foreground character screaming if the painting were not titled “The Scream?” We may find paths to multiple meanings and scenarios through these musings.
Often times, artists have a meaning that is embedded within their work, but that is merely their intention…their interpretation. One of my professors once said, “If someone identifies a meaning within your piece, it doesn’t matter if you intended it or not. If it can be found, it’s there.” Interpretation of art is a purely subjective act, and we draw our own conclusions…sometimes independent of those around us, sometimes considering their perspectives. If “The Scream” was a piece that provided more sensory information, there would be less room for individual interpretations as to its meaning. The more we know about the piece or it’s creator, the closer we may come to its intended meaning…but that makes it less personal. The less personal (or individual) the meaning, the less weight it carries for that individual.
Back to Murch.
We were talking about this idea that deprivation of sensory information can generate greater meaning and depth in a piece. This is where he points out an inherent weakness of film (post “The Jazz Singer,” 1927) as a medium. We have the ability to provide more information to the viewer, because we can present images, sounds and music. The combination of which can leave very little room for interpretation. [Let's hope things like "Smell-O-Vision" never become part of mainstream media production.] Now, you may be arguing that while we can do this, not everyone does. As with many things in our industry, he’s still way ahead of you…as he acknowledges that this is more of a tendency than a “Truth.” He is merely trying to point out that we have the ability to create greater depth by choosing what to present and what not to, and that better stories leave gaps to be filled in. It can be by presenting less than the image, more…or something that is altogether different…that depth is created.
This is where Murch’s idea begins to tie into Chion’s. The concept of deprivation in a film or audio-visual piece can be a tool within the narrative, not just its construction.
Chion introduces his concept of voices defining the barriers they transcend in his book, The Voice in Cinema. This is a somewhat narrow view, as I feel it can be applied to any sound that is obstructed in a story-telling medium. This is something different from the idea of sounds defining the “space” which they occupy. Sounds do define the phsyical and objective traits of a scene, but they can also define the perceptual and subjective traits of a scene. That subjective space is where we will find the barriers. A barrier can be any number of things: a physical object, a medium, a biological impairment, a mental or neurological process or a metaphysical concept.
Let’s consider the scenario of a sound emanating from the opposite side of a wall. If this were a clean sound being cut to picture in post-production, it could easily be filtered to provide a response that is natural to the real-world. In this case, the sound is defining both the physical space (that which it is occupying in a different room), and the physical nature of the wall. What if that sound were not filtered to mimic traditional physics? What would that do to your interpretation of the wall? It certainly wouldn’t be defining it’s physical characteristics anymore, but it would still be providing a definition regarding the separation between the two rooms.
This is where the two concepts begin to converge. We will still derive meaning from this “sound in another room” scenario, but the meaning will depend on what other information is present in the scene. Barriers afford us the opportunity to deprive information.; they can define what is constrained. Likewise, identifying what is deprived leads to an understanding of the nature of a barrier. They are not equivalent, but they are complementary. We have the opportunity to define one in terms of the other. These ideas provide a means for analysis…just another pair of tools in your box of aesthetic and story-telling techniques.
How can you use them to help define sound’s purpose within the narrative and contribute depth?
Comments and discussion are encouraged. I will be working on a follow up post, examining scenes from audio-visual media with these concepts in mind…though it may take some time.