The Philips Pavilion, based on hyperbolic paraboloids originally used in Metastaseis musical piece by Iannis Xenakis
“Sound is a spatial event, a material phenomenon and an auditive experience rolled into one. It can be described using the vectors of distance, direction and location. Within architecture, every built space can modify, position, reflect or reverberate the sounds that occur there. Sound embraces and transcends the spaces in which it occurs, opening up a consummate context for the listener: the acoustic source and its surroundings unite into a unique auditory experience.”
The spatial metaphor
Over the years, the relationship and analogy between music/sound art/sound design and architecture has been explored in several aspects. In the same way architecture works over the solid materials, visual spaces, geometry, abstract realities or social contexts, it does over the aural realities, the sonic dimension. When it comes to space, sound can be valued in an architectural process, just as architecture is also sonic.
Although when it comes to music, there has been a discussion on the validity of the analogy between the musical space and that of architecture, and there’s also some way of relating both concepts in the role of sound design, since it doesn’t rely in a fixed language as some music is, and it’s always open to the contexts in which it evolves or in which it is developed, such as a film. Space in terms of sound design is immensely important, both in terms of the visual/outer spaces projected in a particular audiovisual medium, but also in the inner, abstract or invisible faculties of a piece like a film or a videogame, thus introducing the possibility of creating architecture with aural elements in the same way the visual aspect creates its own spaces and objects.
Image by Stewart Butterfield, used under a Creative Commons license. Click image to view source.
When we say “space”, people generally think of two things: outer space, or a bounded area that something fits into. It’s a safe bet that most people in the sound community immediately think of the latter. So often we focus on the characteristics of a space…how far a sound carries, reflections and reverberation time, etc. Certainly that helps us define a space, but…for the most part…only on a technical level. What really defines a space, is what occupies it. There’s no denying that production designers and location scouts in film, or level designers and artists in games, have a strong role in creating a space, but we in the sonic branch of our respective mediums have the unique ability to refine…or even redefine…those spaces they create. Sometimes, we’re even given the opportunity to create spaces where they cannot. What I want us to consider in light of that, is how we approach the creation of that space.
If you made it to the Designing Sound mixer we held during the AES conference in New York last year, you may have met Neil Benezra. Neil is a Brooklyn based sound designer and mixer, and he’s just shown up on the cover of the latest issue of CineMontage (the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild Journal). We’re always happy to see members of our community being recognized. Why not go give it a read? ;)
Blind Man’s Buff, by Eugene Pierre Francois Giraud
Silence! Be quiet! Because listening is active, because the birds have already left but their sound still reverberates. Silent all ears that listen, stunned by the noise that is gone but still relishes. The soundtrack? Our life! That one of changes, transition, mutation and mysteries, that one able to peer into the recesses of the deepest realities, responsible for questioning the apparent manifestations of the abstract and the concrete to go into unexpected territories of consciousness. These are the realities of sound phenomena, the challenges of searching for a continuous vibration, a pure sonic experience.
Let the mind travel around 2.500 years ago: we’re here in the Pythagorean School, waiting for the teacher to lead us into the most unlikely truths of the cosmic harmony. Our eyes are eager, the heart rumbles and a curtain, the veil of listening, can be seen on the horizon. Suddenly, a voice is heard, the teaching begins. The eyes, yet expectant, cry for the face of the talking master, who is not (and will not) on the retina. The curtain is still there and is the only visual reference for the sounds being heard. The voices possibly emerge from the cloisters of the mind or perhaps from the same shadows in the curtain, where the teacher continues his mission.
Silence! Be quiet! Because the sound is active, the akousma has emerged and the sonic code is already running through the mazes of the passions and the cusps of thinking. Slowly and without seeing, the oral reality becomes symphony, opening the doors to an intimate universe, the acousmatic. The teaching behind the curtain now makes sense and invisibility brings a message to the cochlea that is impatient because of its blindness. Over time it gets calmed, the world of sound is clear and the government of tongue and thought becomes possible, and with them also the desires and the scars of those memories that despite of being absent, still hit the listener’s soul.
And so, behind the curtain, sitting in silence, the initiation begins.
Exercising listening in a public outdoor space.
Sound designers by nature have an inherent curiosity towards sound. We explore the way sounds work every time we approach a project. With each new opportunity to design a sound, we ask ourselves questions such as: What object/event produced the sound(s)? Where is the sound source located in relation to the listener, and just as importantly, how does (or how will) the sound impact an audience’s emotional state when heard?
It goes without saying that the sheer act of producing our own sonic work, and by critically listening to and dissecting the works of others (as Berrak Nil Boya explored and extrapolated on in her recent post) will inherently make us stronger and better critical listeners. Though along with these practices, it is invaluable to also step away from evaluating completed, produced works and critically listen to some alternate sound sources, and in some potentially new ways; just like exercising a muscle, the more angles you can target your critical listening “muscle”, the stronger and more well-rounded it becomes.
The question then must be, other than by evaluating an already existing game or film’s audio as it was intended, how, and what, can we listen to in order to hone our listening abilities?
This post looks to add to this conversation by offering a few exercises I’ve picked up and augmented over the years and still use to this day. Once again, just like any exercise routine, training your critical listening is an on-going responsibility for any sound designer (though vitally important early in your career, continued practice is essential to maintain a high level of critical listening fitness).