Considering components and their variables

Rather than broaching the topic of sound production properly speaking, I find it interesting to go back to its basic components, the various elements on which any production is based: material, gesture and space. I should say right away that the vitality and richness of these elements need to be distinguished from the production processes. What I mean by processes is the successive stages of putting together a project corresponding to automatic steps, induced developments, and operational means conceived by procedural agreements in order to reach a defined objective in a more or less certain way. This series of operations eliminates access to the many variables which should be available to any creative undertaking. The processes themselves, which regulate all the operations involving sound, are no longer even apparent to those who use them, so ingrained have they become in their daily habits. The primary reason for this, of course, is that production needs to be rapid owing to financial considerations. The second reason is that in any creative process, there are so many variables owing to artistic unknowns that the daily habits mentioned represent a welcome haven of certainty. That is why these processes are very rarely questioned. It also means that the question of “How do we do this?” with respect to the elaboration of new forms is hardly ever asked. These processes concern primarily creative sectors, but they also tend to penetrate those which are not, such as the type of broadcast or method of sound recording.

Contrary to what one might presume, these processes do not concern solely technical operations. Each step leading to the making of a work of art – because art is indeed what we are talking about – from preparation to completion, must be examined in this regard. Considering creation in its historic evolution by listening to old productions, for instance, would make it possible to understand a bit better the trend in forms. This historical retrospective allows us to step back and discern things not now readily apparent .

The history of practices in correlation with that of technology would also show other aspects of the trend in sound production, although it would be necessary to take a closer look in order to understand better the developments in production forms. When listening recently to a production from the 1960s, I discovered a production of great originality and freedom of form. Archives broadcasts have become far too rare on the radio but they are rich in lessons for us.

Yet at the same time, we should not forget to consider, at the other end of the chain, the influence of dramatic writing and the evolution in its aesthetics.

Right now, the number of authors who are both interested in and capable of writing “for the radio” is small, and as a result there is little innovation in the genre. Conversely, the tendency of writers to conform to the prevailing framework is still far too great. The sound dimension is also just as neglected as ever, with dialogue predominating at the expense of sound elements restricted too often to mere illustration.

Paradoxically, we hope to see a sound space conceived by dramatic authors who usually do not accord it the slightest attention. This is tantamount to positioning a filter – or more accurately a watertight barrier – upstream from any sound element creative process. It should be recalled incidentally that sound landscapes have more to do with literature and its descriptions than with drama, which is generally confined to dialogue.

While both ends of the production chain are important, the middle part is just as important. What is the cause of the disenchantment and hence the disinterest of listeners? The kinds of stagings? The small number of good directors? The invariable nature of studios? Monotonous sound recordings? Writers who no longer succeed in exciting their actors? And while we are at it, do we always need actors? Aren’t films able to do without them? So how do we revive the desire to listen?

I would like to come back here to the fundamentals of sound creation to try and demonstrate that the points mentioned represent variables that are not that difficult to reactivate.

Restoring to sound production the conditions for existence of its wealth and diversity

The quality of sounds depends primarily on their production and ease of manipulation. Quality for us means above all variety:

  • Variety of sound colours in the spatial dispositions
  • Variety of positions of sound sources but also of the equipment used to pick them up in these different spaces
  • Variety of movements made by the sound sources themselves: in film, the gestures are made in real time, e.g. speaking while working or walking means that the voice is heard in a body at work or in movement.
  • Variety of movements made by the equipment responsible for capturing the sounds: the boom makes it possible to hear the acoustic variations due to physical movements in the spatial disposition, with radio (lapel) mikes helping ensure precise pick-up.

We need to remember that film production constantly varies the distance at which sound is captured by adapting it to the framing of the image. The concept of cutting and editing before, during and after shooting is a variable that radio needs to adopt. Similarly, it is necessary to construct the physical movements in order to allow the voices to be emitted. Behind each voice, there is a body, and the body produces a voice very differently depending on the positions which it adopts. What we hear behind a voice is the body in movement, and behind these movements, feelings can be perceived – and it is because expressing feelings in writing inevitably refers back to our bodies that just any old writing will not do for us.

The monotonous post-synchronization of television shows done with static actors in front of mikes reminds us at once how boring such a set-up can prove. Without pictures, listening to these voices would be quite unbearable.

The significance of sound recording

Recording sound is generally considered as a neutral act which objectively captures the sound produced. We tend to forget that what the mike picks up is not what we hear, but rather offers us far more data than the ear hears on site. We also forget that the “sound image” captured does not allow our brain to make the selection that it would have done on the spot. That wonderful freedom of listening which is part of listening live, and which allows each listener to pick out of the sound environment what he wishes to hear, is lost when listening to recorded sound. The recording of street sounds does not really reflect what we actually heard on the street. There, our perception is not a continuous one but rather disjointed, produced by instantaneous samplings and tuning out. It presupposes the freedom to let our listening wander around, taking and selecting at any given moment what it wants. By contrast, the recording of street sounds is a continual flow of sounds on a listening medium which indicates no other choice than that dictated by the mike’s location. This continual flow bears no relationship to our subconscious listening attitude, a non-continuous and subjective listening mode which constantly selects what it wants to hear, leaving out what does not interest it.

The recording therefore appears as an entity, an entire slice of reality available as an absolute and all-encompassing value along with the obligation to listen to the whole “package”.

Consequently, it is necessary to organize the release of this excess microphone offer, as well as to realize an organized designation of the things captured by the mike and to boil down the sound continuum to its essential.

Sounds are meant to affect us, not merely to convey words which are derived from them. Sounds produce sensations even before they produce meaning, so it is through sensations that the meaning must reach us.

While listening does involve a perception of actual sound forms, these shapes have to do with both the material of the sounding object and the nature of the event which makes them be heard. This event can be a gesture or the result of a natural factor, like wind or rain. The sound of ripe wheat blowing in the wind tells me as much about the form of this plant as it does about the waves of the wind. I feel it in my body through my ears just as I would feel it on my skin if I were in the field. The senses of hearing and touch share the same space of ephemeral perception, as when we say, “Your words touch me.” These meanings occupy the same parts of the brain. The cerebral centres for the body’s movements are next to those for perception. When I listen to an event, my body is called upon to respond instantaneously, and this response does not have to go through an analysis of its meaning. The body responds immediately, without waiting to understand the meaning contained in the sound which reaches it. It immediately moves, either to protect itself, or else it is attracted and moves to gather more information and sensations. No wonder we talk about active listening! The senses of hearing and touch know how to forget at once what has happened in order to make themselves available to receive the next sensation.

But back to sound recording: this act implies the desire to be heard and to designate, and it certainly belongs to a voluntary subject. Recording sounds means to deposit designated objects on a medium, which makes it the equivalent of writing.

By its very act of capturing something, photography draws our attention to its variables: axis, distance, lighting, depth. Sound recording should use this as a model not only to make sounds “visible”, but also to construct better a vocabulary adapted to each work. Each vocabulary of sound recording must be proper to it: a sound recording dies if it claims to be “neutral”. There is no such thing as a neutral demonstration – it simply does not exist. Any conception which consists of rendering neutral an artistic production always harms it. Painting and photography, both figurative arts, made it possible for the cinema to understand how to construct its images amidst a series of greatly differing viewpoints.

In its early days, the cinema found itself obliged to join together the excessively short reels of film which manufacturers were able to produce, making it impossible to film an entire theatrical segment in its dramatic continuity. So film-makers were forced to invent not only editing, but also at the same time the splice to bridge the transition from one reel to the next, in other words the material time needed to change the reel. Thanks to this change of axis, the spectator “forgot” the position occupied by the characters in the preceding take.

The problem with sound is precisely the opposite: any gap can be bridged too easily. Even if editing takes place in the same axis, it will not be heard. There is no jump in movement in characters’ faces or bodies as in pictures. So sound does not have to worry about how to “get through” any cuts in space or changes in axis, which, however, would provide it with a good opportunity to invent new kinds of links that would reactivate listening.

Through the psychic interpretation that we listeners make, sound appears in the form of homogeneous spaces. In keeping with our basic need to spare our energy, our imagination manufactures within us a continuous performance space. I wish to refer here to the recent work by Alain Berthoz, professor at the Collège de France, and especially his work La simplexité.

Yet the desire to listen is born out of surprise, which in turn originates with sudden breaks and depends for its existence on conditions of discontinuity. It is the discontinuity in movements which captures our attention, and this rupture which triggers our need to understand what has just occurred. This is precisely one of the driving forces behind reactivating our listening.

Furthermore, what is important in listening is not what is defined but rather what is uncertain. It is the degree of uncertainty which is listened to. Our listening is constructed in proportion to its incomplete state. If what is offered is excessive, it will arouse only fleeting interest. Any element perceived and understood is immediately abandoned to enable our “survival instinct” to be available to control the next new event that will inevitably arise. Listening opts first of all for what is suggested rather than what is offered. All this naturally corresponds to safeguarding our libido, and indeed, how could it be otherwise? We know that what we are too sure of having is no longer desired and quickly abandoned.

Sound recording has to do with the facing-off of situations, the confrontation of physical movements. What I want to hear in a recording and in the details of the actions made available by sound production is the quality of the desire for exchanges brought into play. The slightest nuance of movement triggered by hesitation, or on the contrary, by certainty will enrich the quality of the sensation, whether it is the movement in a voice, an object or even of the mike which is capturing it. Such extremely refined data as these are at the heart of what is at stake in listening.

In the same way, the complexities of acoustic spaces and their richness are essential variables for the tension of listening. The diversity and acoustic richness conveyed by physical movements within the complexity of a space constitute the driving force behind listening.

The unsuitability of a sound and of its ordinary venue is simultaneously a factor that augments attention and a catalyst.

Placing events in unexpected spaces acts to trigger questions, especially since the unsuitability of such spaces is not a piece of data that is directly perceived. What is perceived is the existence of something singular, but the listener will not necessarily manage to attribute it to one element in particular. The method can be even more radical. To take an extreme example, the sound of a motor scooter heard within the acoustics of a church is certainly not an association that will go unnoticed. It results in a kind of sound explosion where the reinterpretation of each element is in play, but above all the very question of their confrontation.

The acoustics of an incongruous venue do not remain in our consciousness very long; our listening quickly fades. Choosing to place elements in play or the sound recording at the threshold of two different venues makes them appear in an instantaneous comparison which maintains them in our awareness. What is primarily perceived is the moment of rupture in space, the passage from one acoustic space to another. The most explicit venue is thus the threshold separating or uniting the two spaces. It causes us to perceive the difference in quality of the venues in terms of both volume and construction material. The physical bodies or objects which produce sounds are relative to their volume: sound actions are perceived alternately and reinterpreted relative to the acoustics of the spaces.

The neutralization of acoustics is not devoid of interest, but it functions all the better if it corresponds to a particular need for a space devoid of sound, as for instance in the plays of Samuel Beckett. The studio as a neutral space makes it possible to eliminate the invasive continuity of background noise with which real life gratifies us all too generously. Yet conversely, its lack of presence as a sound space is but another element of expression to be found in the toolkit of sound creativity. We should therefore take over other quiet sound spaces whose acoustics are livelier than those of a studio and make possible living performance spaces. The very complexity of these spaces and the diversity of their architecture enhance the succession of fluid, vibrant and changing situations, reintroducing surprises for the listener.

We know all this, at least intuitively, but we must constantly remind ourselves of it at every moment of our activity, no matter what position we occupy, in order to make available for listening the most desirable element of all: the perception of live sound in daily life.