Picture by T. Rider
This article is intended as a small reflection about the place of recorded sounds in three artistic domains that use it as a working material: film sound, concrete music and sound arts related to the soundscape approach. Recorded sound is analyzed here over two main aspects: causality and context. Hopefully, these brief words will serve as an introduction to some of these domains that should be viewed as complementary to each other.
Recorded sound in cinema
In one of his most compelling articles, “Stretching sound to help the mind see“, Walter Murch writes about how the new technical possibility of recording sound over a medium liberated it from its original visual source founding a new autonomous object. Up to that point, sound was mostly confused with whatever may have caused it, a simple coadjuvant, a shadow of the visual objects from which it emanated. As Murch puts it, sounds “appeared to be completely explained by reference to the objects that gave them birth: a metallic clang was always ‘cast’ by the hammer, just as the village steeple cast its shape upon the ground.” Besides this pure indexical nature related to the visual, sound had its brief existence tied to the duration of the event from which it was originated, as it was held captive of its first space and time of existence: the sound of birds flew along with them every morning.
However, once recorded, sounds could escape reality. More than that, in cinema, films finally allowed sounds to be rearranged in a series of new contexts that not necessarily had anything to do with the ones of their first apprehension. This was achieved very early in the american cinema history, as Murch points out in his article, by the development of post production techniques. In the beginning, with the Vitaphone disc-based method of recording and the restrictions on sound editing and mixing, film sound was still tied to what was done during production. SInce editing was hardly achievable, even the timing of the scenes was given by whatever was recorded on the Vitaphone disc and multiple cameras were used with the sole purpose of making cuts possible at least in regard to the image. The early accusations against the “talkies” as being canned theater make more sense if we consider these early methods. However, it would only take a few years to change this setting of things: soon, the first Hollywood sound men developed new practices more adequate to the film medium (even though this was not so simple and without struggle as James Lastra describes it in his phenomenal book about this period), optical sound took over the whole industry and made sound editing possible, mixing became a reality as well by the virtue of new noise reduction techniques.
Birds could finally chirp wherever and whenever they felt like it and in how many films they felt like it. Soon the major Hollywood studios built their own sound libraries. The same sound effects were pulled out of them over and over again and reused in film after film. Pioneer sound designer Ben Burtt tells that, as a child, he could identify if a film was from Warner, Universal or whatever other studio only by hearing the sound of its footsteps or gunshots or any other sound effect for that matter. At this first age, sound effects were much fewer and had a simpler, almost iconic, nature. In a 1930’s JMSPE article, sound engineer John L. Cass compared sound effects to a ‘cheap book’ in the sense that they had to be most of all easily discernible and understood by the film spectator and that any ‘incidental’ material features should be avoided to favour comprehension. Liberated from its original source, sound would nevertheless fall again under its condition of a mere realistic index of something in the new audiovisual context, related to whatever the image had to show.
Burtt’s own generation will largely change that. One of its many contributions to american cinema sound is the conscious investment they have made in the expressive power of sound effects by working over its material, plastic, nature. Along with this was the firm belief that, more than restricted to its indexical, denotative, aspect. sound could seriously influence the perception of the film, enhancing the visuals by working with and beyond them, “stretching sound to help the mind see” just as in the title of Murch’s article. The bonds of causality were stretched along with it in order to create new worlds as in the case of the use of everyday sounds as the source for the sounds of creatures and vehicles that had no equivalent in real life (Ben Burtt’s work in the Star Wars films is the best example). In another variation of the same subject, unexpected sounds could be used as the main components of sounds that exist in real life, but that must be enhanced and exaggerated to be felt as real in a film (the use of animal sounds and even pieces of music by Frank Warner to make the amazing punch sounds of Scorcese’s Raging Bull comes right to the mind). Finally, one should know that no sound should be taken for granted just because of its indexical nature. A sound very frequently indicates not only its visual source but something else. As someone wouldn’t expect a set designer to cast an object without considering its formal qualities (colour, texture, size, etc.) as they also serve the film adding meaning to the narrative, the same could be said soundwise. Once again the best example for this is given by Murch himself when he talks about the choice of a ‘simple’ closing door sound for the ending scene of the Godfather: “The image of a door closing accompanied by the right ‘slam’ can indicate not only the material of the door and the space around it but also the emotional state of the person closing it. The sound for the door at the end of The Godfather, for instance, needed to give the audience more than the correct physical cues about the door; it was even more important to get a firm, irrevocable closure that resonated with and underscored Michael’s final line: ‘Never ask me about my business, Kay.'”
What is behind this incredible malleability of sound? French scholar Michel Chion is the one who most systematically answered this question. First of all, there is what Chion describes as the vague notion we have of a sound’s cause that could be summarised to the fact that if we hear a sound by itself without the accompaniment of the image of its source, it’s most likely we’ll have trouble to identify what is the sound of. If something falls in the adjascent room in our house, maybe we could say that is small, large, metalic, made of plastic, but what is it exactly? We’ll probably have to check out and see for ourselves. The other phenomenon described by Chion is what he calls synchresis that corresponds to our natural tendency to perceive a discrete sound event and a discrete visual event as a single event if they happen at the same time: “There is synchresis when the audio and visual events occur simultaneously, and concomitance alone is the necessary and sufficient condition for synchresis. The impression created is involuntary; it attributes a common cause to sound and image, even if their nature and source are completely different and even if they have little or no relation to each other in reality.” (CHION, 2012, p.15). This blurred causality of sounds and syncresis combined are in great part what makes the work with sound effects and foley in post production possible. To give simple, well known examples, we could record the sound of someone walking over cornstarch and sync with the image of someone walking on snow; crash a watermelon and save a human skull etc. As it’s most frequent in cinema, after a while the sound of the cornstarch will be identified by the spectator as the ‘appropriate’ sound of snow more than the sound of snow itself. In many cases, the reference to judge sounds in cinema is no longer reality but cinema itself.
Most of the time, the work of a film field recordist and sound designer is aimed towards the goal of capturing and preparing a sound to exist in a reality that will not necessarily have any relationship to its primary context, effacing the ontological strings that might still connect it to this original environment. Isolation, for example, is the major concern in sound recording for film in general (both for sound effects and production). The film field recordist develops a series of strategies – location choice, microphone placement, editing, noise reduction processing – to have the cleanest single sound source he can achieve. Even the recording of ambient sounds falls into the same rules as one should judge what sound events would be welcome or not or would eventually try to brake one same environment into focused areas (in a forest, for example: near the trees with the wind over the leafs, by the creek where there will be frogs etc.) dissecting the space as much as possible. This all makes perfect sense and should not be regretted by any chance. In a film that potentially holds thousands of sounds, if each and every one of them carried its private story, Babel would arise. The film sound designer is not a historian but a demiurge, constructing worlds himself from tiny pieces of reality, worlds that don’t exist on their own but are referred to the new ‘reality’ of the film in which they’re now inscribed.
Recorded sound in concrete music
And if there was no image and sound’s only obligation was towards sound itself? This is pretty much the case of concrete music. Although the existence of this huge, fundamental difference, concrete music has much more in common with film sound than we might imagine. So, I’d suggest to first talk about what these two domains have in common rather than what sets them apart.
First of all, this may seem evident but it’s not quite so, the major coincidence between film sound and concrete music is that they share the same working material which is sound recorded over some kind of medium. Concrete music first appeared in France in 1948 and its creator Pierre Schaeffer gave one of its earliest definitions as this: “We call it ‘concrete’ music because this kind of music is made from pre-existing elements, taken from no matter what sound material, whether it’s noise or conventional music, rearranged empirically by a direct effort of the artist and without the the help of a written musical score, an impossible thing to have in this case.” (CHION,1982,p.05) There is this frequent misunderstanding of concrete music as a kind of music made out of everyday objects, the clanging-of-pots-type-of-thing, but that’s not at all what defines it. As Schaeffer’s statement makes clear, any kind of sound can integrate a piece of concrete music, even what we recognise as conventional musical sounds. What makes concrete music concrete are not the sound sources themselves, but the fact that the composition can only be achieved by recording these sounds, rearranging and manipulating them as the composer seems fit. This process is the exact opposite of the abstract thing that is writing a traditional musical score, where the music exists previously its execution in the ideal form of the notation which is based only in a few sound properties such as pitch and rhythm and ignores a whole world of sounds that Schaeffer was trying to unveil during his lifetime.
As Michel Chion tells in the book he wrote about this subject, for a period of its existence, the concrete music movement was intricately related to the work of research that Schaeffer developed at the GRMC (Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrete) in Paris. As early as 1958, Schaeffer worked on this research which culminated with the publishing in 1966 of his Treaty of Musical Objects. The Treaty represents a great effort from Schaeffer’s part in order to understand human perception of sounds and to develop a common ground of terms capable of describing and classifying sounds that otherwise would be identified simply as noise for the mere reason that they didn’t have a recognizable pitch as is the case with traditional musical notes. His ambition is huge and idealistic: Schaeffer, through his research, wants to create a new solfeggio of sounds, appropriate sounds, that could be integrated into the new kind of music he invented years before. The first condition for the work of description of these sounds is that we must completely forget about their source. Schaeffer then writes about a listening mode that intentionally suspends our attention in regard to the causes and meaning related to a sound in order to concentrate on the sound itself, in terms of its own materiality and sensory properties. This listening mode is named reduced listening by him. The reduced listening is not something natural to us since we’re used to consider sound as the vehicle for something (the sound of someone speaking, for example, is mostly considered as a vehicle for language and as an index of who is talking: the voice of Paul, the voice of my aunt etc.). In order to be able to enter this mode of listening, one must really make an effort of abstraction to temporarily ignore the conditioning of our everyday listening. There are two fundamental tools at our disposal in order to develop our reduced listening skills: the first is the very theme of this article, which is to have sound recorded over a medium, a sound that could be repeated and analyzed as many times as we want; the second one is to listen to this sound without any visual reference of its source (Schaeffer uses the greek term acousmatic to refer to this listening situation).
During a few years, Schaeffer conditioned his work as a composer and the work of other members of the GRMC to these pivotal points of his research. Any references to the cause of a sound were forbidden in concrete music pieces of this period: “He favoured the realization of brief studies, where very few sound objects were assembled patiently to make some qualities of sound evident to the ear, these perceived qualities would maybe (nothing was more uncertain!) be used as new musical values if organized and understood properly on its many variations. This was the narrow door Schaeffer proposed towards a new type of music worthy of that name” (CHION,1982,p.79). In this case, we’re really in an extreme version of what Walter Murch was telling us at the beginning of his article: recorded sound was irrevocably liberated from its source, rejoicing in its pure existence. If cinema was still capable of doing the same thing and liberate a sound from its original source, this sound would soon inhabit a new audiovisual context where it would settle again. Even if numerous reassociations were made in that process, even if it would do that with great expressive power, one without cinema would not be the same, the fact is that the majority of films are not abstract and work as a simulacrum of reality. This is not to regret since figurative arts are not worse or better than abstract art, they’re just different. And that’s not to say that concrete music doesn’t have a figurative dimension as well. Great composers like Pierre Henry and Luc Ferrari with his “anedoctic music” soon broke Schaeffer’s interdiction of the mere allusion of sound sources, and a lot of other artists related to the concrete music movement have a strong narrative component in at least some of their pieces as well. The main difference between this and cinema is that these fictional sources (that should not be mistaken with the real, original ones) are completely imagined by each listener since they don’t have a visual correspondent to them. Nevertheless, the parallelisms that can be drawn between concrete music and film remain overwhelming and interesting to explore: the search for mastering its working material in excruciating detail is sure one of them.
Recorded sound in the soundscape approach
However, and if we used recorded sounds not to create new worlds, whether in film or pure sound worlds as in concrete music, but as a path to experience the world itself? I was naive enough to believe that field recording was a term used only to refer to the activity of recording sound effects for film until a couple of years ago, when I stumbled upon a book of interviews organized by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle called “In the field: the art of field recording”. According to the authors, the historic roots of field recording go way back to the work of the first nature recordists as Ludwig Koch who is understood to have made the first wildlife recording in 1889 and whose sounds were made available to the public trough a series of sound-books and the radio. Ethnography is also a precursor if we consider the field work of its practitioners and the act of recording the sound of different folk songs and rituals as a part of it. Even though field recording passed from a working tool to become a form of subjective expression to various sound artists that use it in their work, for many the context of the recordings remain as central as before. The field in field recording is just as important as the sound itself. The term soundscape coined by canadian composer and researcher Raymond Murray Schafer refers to a sonic environment as a place to be first of all perceived and studied, not necessarily recorded.
If field recording has its pre-history in nature recordings and ethnography, Schafer is without a doubt crucial in giving its modern shape throughout his studies over acoustic ecology in the late 60’s and 70’s coordinating the Wolrd Soundscape Project. The project resulted in an extensive number of recordings of Canada soundscapes (starting with Schafer’s own city, Vancouver) and the soundscapes of a few cities in Europe along with a series of publications. The most important would be The tuning of the world, published in 1977, a book where Schafer systematically develops his ideas to a full extent.
The acoustic ecology studies of Schafer were aimed at the analysis of the relationship between people and their sonic environment. Schafer considered this the first necessary step to what he called the “acoustic project” which was meant to be the shaping of the sonic environment according to a certain criteria developed by him that would separate what was to be considered bad sounds, that ultimately should be eliminated, and good sounds worthy of being preserved and multiplied. This very ambitious and idealistic project has a certain resonance with the one developed by his french colleague, almost an homonym, Schaeffer. But if the sound object of Schaeffer had a pure existence of its own, taken apart from the world in order to exist solely as sound and nothing else, Schafer will propose to work with the concept of sound event that will take in consideration not only the sound itself but its associate meanings, causes and most of all its context of apprehension, which is the core aspect of his sound ecology project.
But, what is involved in the attempt to record and create a soundscape? Schafer himself admits that there are many obstacles to represent a soundscape as accurately as its visual equivalent. As he puts it, there is nothing in recorded sound similar to the instantaneous impression created by a single photography and its ability to work immediately as the representation of a place. In order to partially solve that, Schafer presents us with a structured notion of what makes a soundscape considering three different types of sound: 1- what he calls the keynote of a place which could be simply described as the background against which all the other sounds are heard; keynote sounds generally are not the object of conscious listening; 2- sound signals that make the foreground of a soundscape and are heard consciously; 3- finally, there is what Schafer calls soundmark. The tern is derived from landmark and refers to a sound which is unique to a certain area.
Even in face of this more structured organization of the soundscape, we’re able to recognize some gaps towards what should be a well defined sonic representation of a place. Not all places, for instance, will have soundmarks of their own. Sound artist Annea Lockwood, who devoted part of her life work to recording the sound of rivers across the world, tells there’s not a specific sound signature for one or another: ” It’s not so much that the Danube has an ‘ooo’ sound and the Thames an ‘aaa’ sound, but that the cultural differences in the environments feed into the whole ambience. Also any spot on the Danube sounds different from another spot: the gradient, the composition of the banks and riverbed, how much energy and friction there is, whether it’s cold – all these parameters affect the sound and make it impossible for any one river to have an intrinsic characteristic sound” (LANE,2013, p.32).
If the blurred causal link of most sounds make reality difficult to represent a space in pure sonic terms, the soundscape approach will overcome this by a series of varying strategies which ultimately makes its fascination. Lockwood, for instance, in her work on the Danube river, integrates into the many sounds of the river itself the recordings of a series of statements of people that lived by it, in an attempt of providing the social and existential context on which the Danube is inscribed. The presentation of the recordings is done in a 5.1 installation with the speakers arranged equidistantly, so there is no front or back, only a sensation of total envelopment as of someone that is being carried by the flow of the river. This kind of representation may not be as accurate as a visual one, but it’s somehow deeper and more intimate as the presence of the river unfolds itself trough time in an immersive experience.
One relatively simple, but very effective example of enhancing the perception of context in sound recordings are Hildegard Westerkamp’s soundwalking programs transmitted over canadian radio in the 70’s. Westerkamp recorded her experience of moving trough various environments while commenting some of its parts with her own voice. Although done a little bit differently, her famous Kit’s Beach Soundwalk composition is still related to this approach and a mesmerizing example of what can be achieved by it. The presence of Westerkamp’s voice on the recording does the exact opposite of drawing us out of the situation as we could expect in the case of a typical narrator objectifying things. Instead, her voice acts as the testimony of a perceptual body modulating its presence as it hears the sounds we’re hearing with her. Nothing could be this simple and captivating at the same time.This phenomenological approach of sound is still very strange to film sound work for reasons already explained, but maybe we could still learn something from it. In a few cases, I think we did already.
The analysis of these three approaches offer a glimpse of the complexity of recorded sound as an object. These are just a few places it can inhabit in very different forms with very different uses. As stated before, this was only meant as an introduction to these domains. If you want to dig deeper, feel free to consult some of the books listed below (Walter Murch’s article has a direct link on the body of this text).
Chion, Michel. – 100 concepts to think and describe sound in film. 2012. Available for download at michelchion.com
Chion, Michel. – Guide des objets sonores: Pierre Schaeffer et la recherche musicale. Paris: Buchet/Castel, 1983.
Chion, Michel. –La musique électroacoustique. Paris: Press Universitaires de France, 1982. The pdf version of this book is available for download at michelchion.com
Lastra, James. – Sound technology and the american cinema : perception,
representation, modernity. – New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Lane, Cathy et Carlyle, Angus. –In the field: the art of field recording. – Devon: Uniformbooks, 2013.
LoBrutto, Vincent. – Sound-on-film: interviews with creators of film sound. -London:Praeger Publishers, 1994.
Schafer, R. Murray. – The tuning of the world. – London: Random House Publisher, 1977.