If You Wish to See, Listen: The School of Sound

By Larry Sider


"The visual image begins with an idea and moves inward towards the sensual. A sound image begins with the sensual and leads outwards towards ideas." – Jacques Barzun

The School of Sound, a four-day symposium exploring the use of sound with moving images, was held from the 16th-19th April at the French Institute in London. Conceived as an intervention into the practice and teaching of sound in film, television and multimedia, the School presented 24 speakers to 255 people from 13 countries.

The Concept

As a sound designer, film editor and a teacher of these crafts, I had become concerned with the ways in which people learned to work in cinema and television. Obviously as the media grows into a well financed global enterprise, it takes on more and more industrial practices at the expense of aesthetic and cultural values. No surprises there. But what is disturbing is when film schools and film-makers cooperate in this atrophy, show-reels taking precedence over watching films. Notions of creative thought and collaboration, traditional influences on film and television production are jettisoned. The movies and TV become mere job providers. It was this situation that the School of Sound was meant to address.


Sound was chosen as the subject for this project primarily because I know sound – I know the amazing alchemy created when sound is married with images and I understand why it has been relegated to a mere post-production, technical exercise in film and TV. But, as an overlooked partner in an image dominated industry, sound provided a good starting point for picking apart the fabric of screen image production, to see exactly what we are up to. As Jonathan Romney wrote in his review of the School of Sound in The Guardian, “Try thinking of sound first, and the whole picture changes.”

As you cannot define a word by using the word itself, to study sound in a festival of button-pushing, Dolbyized workshops would have been counter-productive. So, quite intentionally, I chose a format to isolate sound in its most fundamental form – the spoken word. This was back to basics. The medium would be the message: stop and listen. The School would not be an academic conference or a training course in audio production techniques. Consequently we were able to present a diversity of experience, points of view and vision incompatible with those formats. Those attending experienced an eclectic group of speakers who built up a combined concept of working with sound and image unlike any taught in media courses or uttered in a cutting room. The result was that rare amalgam of theory and practice presented to an audience comprising professional practitioners (directors, designers, editors, composers), academics and students.


As Phil Parker of the London College of Printing points out in his forthcoming article in Iris, the proceedings were marked by a discussion about gaps - real and metaphorical. While many in the audience expected explanations of how to layer dense soundtracks, most speakers were more interested in silences and the removal of sound. The opening speaker, radio producer Piers Plowright, quoted editor Walter Murch: “... film seems to be ‘all there’ (it isn’t, but it seems to be), and thus the responsibility of film makers is to find ways within that completeness to refrain from achieving it... by choosing carefully what to eliminate, and then adding sounds that at first hearing seem to be somewhat at odds with the accompanying image, the film-maker can open up a perceptual vacuum into which the mind of the audience must inevitably rush.” Plowright presented an outlook promoting the subtle, metaphorical use of sound that engaged, rather than assaulted, the audience. This was a motif that continued throughout the four days.

French theorist, Michel Chion, explained how Dolby had created not only the means to build up loud, bombastic soundtracks but also to produce silence. This was a new cinematic “space”, a way of emptying the frame and allowing the audience to hear details of sound in a new context.

Oscar-winning editor, Walter Murch, showed scenes from Apocalypse Now and his reconstructed version of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (based on Welles’s own notes to Universal). He showed how the meaning of a scene’s sound-image relationship is often created by what is eliminated from the track (“unexpected silences”), how an audience is engaged by having to “read” this relationship rather than taking for granted that they will hear what they see.

Ian Christie gave a history of asynchronous sound, highlighting the use of narration in clips ranging from Pudovkin to Scorsese. And this pinpointed a fundamental idea that was later expanded on by Austrian avant-garde film-maker, Peter Kubelka: film (and by implication video and multimedia) is designed for the sound and image to be pulled apart. As Kubelka said, “Nature is synchronous. In nature sound and image always go together and can never be separated. But film allows for sound and image to move.” This movement produces gaps and silences or creates juxtapositions which lead to metaphor and the multiplicity of meaning. And that is what we are aiming for.

As I promised at the opening of the School of Sound, the speakers would not present a set of rules or Ten Commandments for good sound design; instead, hundreds of ideas would be suggested inspiring the delegates with new perspectives and ways of approaching their work. With passion and a wealth of creative thought, the potential for using sound with images was made clear. Film, television and multimedia were defined as “audio-visual” media where, due to improved technology and the refinement of delivery systems, sound and image now complement one another. The messages put forward in moving image productions lies in the constant redefinition of picture by a sound, and that sound by the new picture, and that picture by another sound, and on and on and on...

But which sounds shall we hear? Which images will have sound and which will be left in silence? Will music continue to be a necessary accompaniment for movies, an audio anaglyptic without which audiences will feel uncomfortable? Will writers and directors increasingly rely on dialogue as the sole means of story-telling? Or will film-makers look, listen and then create the structures that allow their audience to use sound as a way of seeing and interpreting the pictures on screen?

In a videotaped interview, David Lynch offered his intuitive approach to this challenge. He said that every film presented a new world to the director. Hundreds of pictures and sounds fit into this world while thousands of others did not. It was up to the film-maker to “listen” to his material, to be hyper-conscious of the mood he was creating and eliminate any sound that broke that mood. He emphasised several times that the process was one of action and reaction, doing and then listening and then re-doing. “But when the sound and picture are working together,” he said, “and the pace and balance is right, there’s nothing else like it. Then a film can take you to another place. It can make you think things you’ve never thought of before.”

The Future School of Sound

In her impassioned closing speech, Pact’s Diane Freeman (co-creator of the School of Sound) rejected Jacques Santer’s plan for a European film school, another ungainly institution that is meant to fulfil a need for film-makers not met by the various national film schools - which, when you consider their student make-up, are all “European film schools”. While these “big ideas” are attractive to the industry, they do little to feed the cultural and aesthetic debates which film, TV and multimedia ultimately grow from. Freeman called for more initiatives that balance and complement the technical training courses which channel so many people into the industry every year.

This is the impetus behind the School of Sound. It was conceived as a low-cost, renewable event that could move to different cities or countries, adapting its format and content to its audience. Our aim was to emphasise the “school” aspect rather than celebrate technology or the audio-visual industry. We rejected offers from manufacturers to demonstrate hardware and software. Advertising and logos were kept to a minimum and reflected only products and services of direct benefit to the audience. This meant that we relied on over 25 organisations (led by the British Film Institute, The Performing Rights Society, The Arts Council of England and Channel Four Television) who shared our interest in approaching film, TV and multimedia as cultural and artistic practice.

While there is nothing revolutionary about bringing together a group of people to listen to expert speakers, this symposium format is not popular amongst professional film and programme makers in this country. We tend to opt for the festival, business conference or technical exhibition. But those who attended the School of Sound have said that there is a want - and a need - for small scale, intensive courses that work at the interface between technology and aesthetics, between practice and theory. The School of Sound has provided a model forum that benefits both industry and academia. Plans are underway for it to be held again in 1999.