Surrounded by Sound

Audio Art & Other Pollution

published in Real Time No.22, Sydney, 1997

Surround sound is not only the most under-theorized aspect of cinema (it rarely rates a mention in the preceding half century of film theory written by deaf mutes), but also the marker of change for the radical transformation of psychoacoustics and aural phenomenology in the social unconsciousness of tactile listening. It is hard to think of contemporary developments in musical/audio-visual consumption, playback systems, and broadcast diffusion which do not actively address issues of spatialization, environment and emersion.

The critical problem - a delicious one - is that the listening experience is always full. It arouses and numbs with full effect. Its presence engulfs so that one becomes one with the sound, installed in its acoustics. It gets me wet. Yet noble intellectual pursuit - that effete, winged flight whose only material effect is the wind from turning the page of a book - has mostly resorted to either immaterial poetics (how beautiful sound is) or tedious conspiracy theories (how controlling sound is) in a vain attempt to articulate the 'power' of sound. Both miss the simple point: sound is power.

As essays, installations, radio works and other texts grow in number to collectively rout sound into some kind of new adventure playground, the supposed forefront of Sound Art proceeds as if the preceding thirty years of Experimental Music has not happened - or, it is locked in a grim, frozen time warp. Architectural discourse, global concern, social theory, urban design, poetic reference, landscape inquiry, body politics, arcane history - all are invoked to evidence intellectual depth (and certainly there can be engaging thoughts in such a practice) but actual sound is all too often employed as a lexicon of effects which narrowly represent and demonstrate extant concepts, occasionally stumbling over obvious correlations (usually tagged by words like 'voice', 'talk', 'ear', 'listen') and holding them up like marvellous discoveries. Granted that any attempt to theorize the complexity of sound deserves support under the tyrannical cult of the eye, but this kind of acultural armchair ponderousness is irritating and stultifying despite its concerted aim to explore the environmentalization of sound.

Why does little of this intellectual pursuit of the acoustic engage me? Why am I so suspect of its aural practice? Simply because the experience it grants me is thin, anaemic, withered, pasty. Because the power of sound - the fringes of its energy field, the verticality of its sensuousness, the density of its aura - can sometimes be enough by itself. Because I have encountered the power of sound in other environments and situations which lay bare the complexity of its operations like a freshly filleted living body. Subsequently, my views of surround sound in the cinema are as much shaped by the terrain of unexpected aural experiences as by the formal engineering of the soundtrack. In the unconsciousness of my own tactile listening - those unprivileged moments when and where sound snares me and activates my sense of sonar-physical presence - many audio-visual experiences have carved up the audio-visual corpus and exposed its fluid machinations. For example ...

Doing some post work in an outer Sydney editing facility, I wandered into a larger mixdown room. No-one was present, but a large video screen projected an episode of (from memory) A Country Practice. At first I thought it was silently playing, but then I noticed that the only sounds being audited through the mixing desk were foley effects - footsteps, clothes rustling, the odd hand on a door knob. The world of a low-key serial TV drama was suddenly transformed into a dimension of subterranean activity where I could hear the minutiae of human presence - its slight and momentary impression on space itself. Like the haunting moments in CARNIVAL OF SOULS when the woman suddenly hears no sound, triggering an awareness of her displacement from the world and forcing her to experience an abject invisibility in the face of others, watching A COUNTRY PRACTICE this way was like being erased from the world. Through a radical imbalance of sound, I inhabited a space of which all on-screen action and activity was totally unaware (they kept on talking to each other wordlessly), divorcing me from the depicted, driving me to the de-mixed. Such is the spooky joy of foley work: conjuring ghostly essences by imaging the sound of an inaudible human on the audio-visual screen.

When Masona took centre stage at The Punters Club, Melbourne, he stood in front of a row of effects boxes lined at his feet. Not a guitar was in sight. Typical of the sardonic mimicry of Osaka and Tokyo noise performers, he theatrically clutched the mic like Iggy Pop, screamed, then held both hands in the air. At that instant, the most deafening, physical wall of noise I have every encountered filled every molecular crevice of the space. Masona stood quivering, like he was being electrified by the sound. I stood still because the density of the frequency range felt like I was hearing every sound in the world, simultaneously and at full volume. An amazingly crystalline and liberating statement of noise, generated by a single gesture: the stamping of the 'on' switch of his chained effects boxes. Again and again, Masona turned on and off the essential totality of noise with command and precision. A single maniacal being - far from the pathetic cool of pithy 'Industrial' acts - he reduced rock to its most binary form: loud noise that engulfs the body and traumatizes it beyond movement into a state of critical inertia. That image from SHINE comes to mind - arms out-stretched, ecstatic, triumphant, listening to 19th Century music on headphones, a weedy figure of humanism. Give me Masona any day.

Having read about the new B.A.S.E. system (Bedini Audio Spatial Environment) and its ability to illusionistically convey an 'ambisonic' and/or 'holographic' image of sound in space (recording pursuits explored throughout the 80s but with limited results), I eagerly sat down to watch Star Trek V. An hour into the film - and after the only interesting sonic moment was hearing William Shatner sing "Row Row Row Your Boat" - some alien dude appears who can read people's mind. Cue for a close up of his eyes and a deep rumble starts to fade up. OK - this must be the showcase of the B.A.S.E. system. Suddenly: a deafening crack as the speakers in Great Union's main theatre blow. The rest of the film emanated from what must have been the odd remaining tweeter, rendering the whole soundtrack like what you would hear if someone was watching a video and you rang them up and heard the TV in the background through the phone. What with the undying cultism of Star Trek and its alignment with the revenge of computer geeks, I guess this was a visionary statement about what would become sound on the net: tinny, bitsy and shitty.

Being late for the Salt & Peppa concert at the Tennis Centre in Melbourne meant missing out on the support band. But rolling up to the front there wasn't a soul in sight. Like, no-one. Nor could I hear any deep rumble - that thrilling premonitory sensation that you're about to partake of a live event. Figuring I had the wrong night, I approach an open door. A solitary guard looks at my ticket and points me in the direction of the Stalls entrance. I open that door, and move down some stairs. A deep rumble is faintly felt. I get to a sealed door at the end of a corridor. I open it: the sound hits me hard in the stomach. I'm standing at the back of the stadium's upper tier, looking down on a packed audience of screaming teen girls (a few guys here and there) as Salt & Peppa are humping on stage to a ground-shaking bass rhythm. Dazed and disoriented, I wind my way down the steep steps to eventually reach the concrete floor. As I touch hard ground - still being pulverized by the deepness of hip hop incongruously pumping through a hard rock sound system in an outdoor tennis court sealed like a bunker - I thrill again to the effect of entering into sound, of passing through a porthole into an alien aural dimension. It's like being thrown into a strange liquid.

Hip ad directors still think it's cool to portray 'the city' as a cacophonous din of pressurized activity. As if Futurism never happened. As if we haven't already seen the stop-motion cinematography of Koyaanisqatsi a million times. As if there can be no pleasure in the existential bustle of massed shoppers or any emotional thrill in window shopping. Nothing clears my head more than to sit in the middle a busy shopping mall (Bourke St mall near Swanston, in Melbourne is the best) and float on its undulating bed of noise. A Golden Hits radio station can drive me crazy - but ten clothes stores all playing similar but different tracks out into the street is - as Neil Diamond says - a beautiful noise. Buskers - who are irritating at the best of times - compete with each other and effectively cancel out the other's identity so I can absorb their presence as an abstracted, free-form concantenation of events. Barkers speaking through cheap portable PA amps vie with each other in a wind-strewn dub mix of babbling Australian vowels, harshly distorting through badly-EQ-ed speakers. And nothing beats occasional low frequency waves as trams pass by, rhythmically clanging their metal bells as they absurdly traverse a mall which is closed to traffic but open for people to walk down - so long as they look out for the trams. All I have described is pleasure, not pain. Nor is it the outmoded celebration of an anti-music aesthetic. The outdoor shopping mall and its desperate pneumonic strategies to aurally direct and acoustically soothe the city worker/consumer exacts a total collapse through the overload of information in a sonically saturated spatial domain. This is the free-market of sound, the Tin Pan Alley of consumption, the cacophony of the social. You're soaking in it.

These kind of experiences (articulated above as purely personal reflections) affect my perception of cinema's audio-visuality. Through such experiences, one can un-watch a film, re-hear its sound design, actively imagine its potential as much as be engaged at the level of its manifest production. One can use their sonar-spatial overload as a reservoir of aural events that can be folded into the cinesonic experience and the eventfulness which is granted by surround sound's active placement of the auditor within the film's expanded diegesis. Filmmakers like Alain Robbe Grillet, Margueritte Duras and Stan Brakhage each valiantly and effectively argued against the pursuit of objective authroing and rendering in their cinema. Their preoccupation with multiple and simultaneous memory planes, spatial environments and audio-visual sensations constitutes a fascinating and oft-overlooked recourse to exploring phenomenological multiplicity without resorting to the tackiness of 'dream' metaphors or drug-induced visions. We have yet to fully apply models of surround sound - in either cinema, multi-media, radio or sound installations) to their concepts which intuitively prophesied the rampant and excessive audio-visuality which now governs the most casual of urban experiences.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © respective authors