Retuning the Screen
Sound Methods and the Aural Dimension of Film & Media History
XXVII International Film and Media Studies Conference
November 3rd - 5th 2020, Gorizia Italy
More than twenty years have passed since Rick Altman famously proclaimed sound studies “a field whose time has come" (1999), magnifying a then growing body in film scholarship: the research interests he and his colleagues have systematically pursued since the early eighties, at the Iowa University. Altman's statement helped in unravelling an interdisciplinary undercurrent in American, European and non-English speaking film scholarship - Michel Chion’s widely influential works were published approximately at the same time.
As Michele Hilmes later stated, the sound has been an “always emerging and never emerged” area of interest, “doomed to a position on the margins of the various fields of scholarship, whispering unobtrusively in the background while the main action occurs elsewhere” (Hilmes 2005: 249). Nevertheless, Sound Studies have progressively become an internationally recognised (and sometimes criticised: Feld 2015) interdisciplinary
tendency since the early 2000s, redeeming aurality from its ever-marginal position and foregrounding it as an area of inquiry in its own right.
Whereas this renewed interest did encourage explorations on previously neglected aspects of film and videosound (Birtwistle 2010; Rogers 2014; Iannotta 2018)., scholars interested in aurality only occasionally dwelt on cinema and visual media: however, they contributed to fresh perspectives and angles. Think at the researches on acoustic architecture of movie theatres and film studios (Thompson 2002; Meandri 2016) or at the studies on the relation between art-film and urban spaces and media/soundscapes (Birdsall 2012), or on other sonic artistic expressions (Halliday 2013).
This year the FilmForum conference aims at enhancing the emergence and consolidation of these aurally oriented perspectives, as innovative entry points in film and media theory and history at large. As Jonathan Sterne has argued, to think sonically does not so much imply sound as an exclusive object of interest. Instead, it outlines an alternative path to be pursued through history, a different mapping of the same territory, a distinct epistemological position (Sterne 2003; 2012). Following this approach, we are not interested in exploring the aural “segment” of audiovisual texts (i.e. the soundtrack) for their expressive and artistic significance. Neither we are exclusively concerned with “audio” and technologically mediated sound in itself. Instead, our general objective is to understand how the theoretical concepts and methods developed to investigate aurality could reframe cinema and visual media as research objects.
Moving from these general premises, we will primarily focus on the following areas of interest.
- Aural epistemologies and metaphors of the audition. Albeit mostly visually biased, film and media theory has always made use of sonically inspired terms and concepts far beyond their literal meaning. Words such as “noise” or “voice” may indicate an unwanted element of communication and a marker and signifier of social identities and gender differences, respectively. The concept of “rhythm” served as a modernist notion to interpret the changes in the interfaces between the organic and the machinic and with the temporal dimension of cinematography itself (Cowan 2012). However, recent studies proposed equally aurally and temporally inspired neologisms to address the technological specificities of contemporary digital media – e.g. Ernst’s "sonicity" (2016). Such extensive use of the aural vocabulary raises questions about the metaphor of listening as a "constitutive feature of epistemology" (Sterne 2012).How did aural figures such as “soundscape” (Schafer 1977), "secondary orality” (Ong 1989), or "acousmatic” (Schaeffer 1952; Kane 2016) contribute to shaping our understanding of the overall media experience? Can these terms be critically scrutinised or re-assessed as tools for media and film analysis?
- Cinema and media in/and listening culture. The notion of “auditory/listening culture” is one of the key concepts introduced by Sound Studies. Traditionally described as a purely affective and eternally archaic sense (Adorno-Eisler 1947), the hearing has been recently re-assessed as the result of historical, social and cultural construction. Its characteristics may significantly be varying. It depends on the "network of practices that communities of listeners participate in when they hear relevant features of the auditory world, communicate them to others, and pass them on through training” (Kane 2017). To offer but an example, the shift from “silent” film to synchronised sound certainly changed what we expected to hear in a movie theatre, but also our set of practices and routines as spectators. Professionals in the film industry were suddenly required to become acquainted new audile techniques as “technical skills which can be developed and used toward instrumental ends” (Sterne 2003). We can argue the same for other stages and aspects of film and media history. How did cinema and visual media emerge from or react to a given aural culture, and how did they contribute to shaping it? To which extent the modern and contemporary spectatorship interweave the formation of the modern and contemporary listener? Does film culture contribute to cultivating our listening practices as well? Which sonic skills can be considered representative of the modern and contemporary media culture?
- Sound archives and archaeology. Retrieving the sounds of the past is an ever-challenging task which confronts scholars and historians with a wide array of sources. As already stressed (Birdsall 2015, 2017; Birdsall –Tkackzyk 2019), a close dialogue with the established field of Film Preservation Studies would help in promoting sound archives as a distinct object of study. It could foster a systematic reflection on the preservation methods, institutions and infrastructures and on the formal practices of restoration, exhibition and creative re-use of sonic materials. And still, however important, sound recordings alone may suffice to fully reconstruct historical soundscape and significance for the cultures of the past. Can non-sounding written and/or material records (e.g. scripts, physical places, architectural designs) enrich our knowledge on the aural dimension of cinema and media? Can the research and excavation methods developed in sound and music archaeology (see Smith 1999) be fruitfully applied also in film and media history?