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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Sound Course, Week 2 of 15

A Brief History of Listening


Each week I summarize the lecture and discussion from my course on the role of sound in the media landscape. In cases where I’ve already documented the discussion fairly thoroughly, as with week two, I’ll link to the full summary, and do a more concise one here.

The second week of sound class is the first full lecture, the first week of sound class having been a combination of an extensive overview of the syllabus and a compacted run through the use of music in the work of JJ Abrams, from the “un-theme” of Lost’s opening credits to the highly “originalist” (“ur-theme”) adherence to John Williams’ modus operandi in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The second week’s lecture takes a long view. Titled A Brief History of Listening, it covers in less than three hours about 200,000 some odd years of human development, physiologically (the development of hearing and speech), technologically (from homing pigeons to moveable type to recorded sound), and culturally. The latter bit, the cultural facet, focuses on two subjects. The first discussion is about how Socrates’s anxiety regarding the move from oral to written culture can be mapped to contemporary concerns about transitioning into a digital world. The second discussion is on John Cage’s 4’33”, about the work’s conception and reception, about the idea of an anechoic chamber, and about the way Cage connects, in his book Silence, the ideas inherent in 4’33” beyond music to architecture and sculpture.

As I state occasionally in the early weeks of this course, I’m not trying to convert students to work in sound full time. I don’t need a single student ever to decide to go into sound design or sound engineering to feel that I’ve accomplished something. Quite the contrary, I’m trying to develop sleeper agents who will bring a creative conscientiousness in regard to sound to whatever field they choose to pursue — art direction, design, and so forth.

The big challenge early on in the course is shepherding the students’ off-site work, specifically in the sound journals they’re required to maintain, four days a week, for the full length of the course. For the first entries I ask that they simply list the sounds around them. Inevitably these come back not as sounds but as sources of sounds: door, not door creaking; fan, not fan whirring; baby, not baby cooing. Moving from source to sound, from sound to description, from description to meaning is where we’re headed. It can be painstaking, but learning about sound is like learning a language or achieving a significant improvement in an athletic pursuit. It’s all about dedication and persistence. It’s about practice.

Today’s class (week 3, more on which in next week’s This Week in Sound newsletter) narrowed the scope: last week was 200,000 years; this week was just about 100 years, as the subject was the role of sound in film and television. The timing of today’s class may have been fairly timely, because I was just approached by an organization to give a talk about the past and future of sound in film, and I’m now piecing together an approach for the talk. Here’s a first-draft summary:

Eyes are forgiving, ears less so. Eyes want to be seduced. Ears are sensitive to incongruity, discontinuity, artifice. How can sound reinforce narrative? How can sound be narrative? How can sound design serve as score? We’ll explore the past and the technologically enabled promise of film sound.

And, yeah, when I say “promise” I’m using alliteration as a way to get out of saying “future.” More on this as it comes together.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the February 17, 2016 (it went out a day late), edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter:

By Marc Weidenbaum

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