In the Shell of the Ear: Listening to the School of Sound 2007

By John Bradburn

alan-splet.jpgAlan Splet

You wish to see, listen; hearing is a step toward vision – Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

London’s School of Sound 2007 – four days of talks, screenings and lectures that gracefully moved from the technical through the theoretical to the spiritual – foregrounding not so much the creation of sound as the beauty and importance of simply listening.

The first day is a collection of differing voices. First is the warm American voice of Larry Sider, project director. He implores the audience to come to the school with a beginner’s mind, a mind open to all the wonder and possibilities of the world.

The next voice is English. Piers Plowright, radio presenter and producer. His talk beautifully leads through a story about Franz Kafka visiting a cinema for the blind, through Matisse, the radio ballads of the 1960s, and ends with an excerpt of one of his own programs – a radio documentary on the aural landscape of woodland and a man who has spent his whole life listening to those soundscapes. “I worry that birdsong is decode-able” the voice from the speakers said. “If you listen to it you can feel what amounts to joy.”

The next voice, Michel Chion’s, is not his voice at all but a voice translated into headphones. Chion’s discussion is on the cinematic representation of real speech. His argument – that as cinema attempts to become more realist, with overlapping naturalistic dialogue, it can only become more operatic. The case is illustrated with examples from Don Giovanni, Jaques Tati’s Playtime and Fellini’s Roma.

Marina Warner’s presentation discussed the use of words such as WHAM! BANG! SPLUD! SPLUT! and FLAK! in comic books. Her quest moves on to a search for language beyond the semantic – a language of breath and the body, of the pre-linguistic state devoid of the manifold problems of semantics. These ideas are reflected in the excitable performance of Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonata that crashes and smashes its way around the walls of the room.

Frank Behnke’s introduction to the work of Alan Splet contains a moment that fully illustrates the transcendental power of sound. We hear the late Splet’s own voice coming magically from the speakers, forming in the air as if he were in the room somewhere, though sadly as his voice fades out we realise he is still sadly missed.

The rest of the session is taken by Anne Kroeber, Splet’s wife, as she introduces a selection of short interviews with directors they had previously worked with. Each describes him in the same way – quiet and driven to get the perfect sound for each moment of the film. As Phillip Kaufman notes of his work as sound designer on Henry & June – “you could never push Alan in to an area he was hesitant about, he had to feel his way in like a divining rod.”

heiner-goebbles.jpgHeiner Goebbles

The second day focussed on the use of Sound in South American Cinema. Director Paz Encina talked at length about her film Paraguayan Hammock. She discussed her approach to voice as an element of sound. She painstakingly creates the soundtrack in post production placing dialogue almost musically, considering its timbre, rhythm and pitch to place it within an orchestrated sound design. She mused on the influence that learning to read music before words had on her cinematic approach.

Radio producer Alan Hall started his discussion, No Sound in Innocent, by deliberating over the old idea that “the pictures on radio are better” and admits that no radio pictures could ever match cinema’s widescreen imagery. What radio really is, Hall argues passionately, is a gateway to memories – “a primary portal to the imagination”. Hall demonstrates this with excerpts from his own radio feature on Will Thompson, a GI and musician, returning to a ravaged New Orleans from a tour in Iraq. Hall follows him as he plays the songs he has written while in service and tours his old neighbourhood, now ruined by Hurricane Katrina. Hall asks us to pay particular attention to the click of the Zippo lighter. The click, he says, invokes the memories of a thousand smoking jazz pianists, of the battle torn soldier and the click of artillery either in the deserts of Iraq or the dangerous areas of New Orleans. It is this poetic quality that is the power of radio and proves that no sound can ever be innocent, can never simply be itself.

The next session is a duet as the artist Imogen Stidworthy discusses her use of the voice in works such as Dummy & Audio Cab with Steven Connor, author of Dumbstruck – A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. The room reverberated with many eclectic voices in this session, including screaming Scouse dialects, well trained voices and recovering voices from Stidworthy’s works on Aphasia. This all rounded off a mystical, mercurial presentation that dwelt on ideas of ownership of the voice, projecting and performing it.

Jim Webb, the location mixer for the five early Robert Altman films that used multi-track recording, came to us from his home in America. He paid tribute to Altman’s stoic determination to create a recording system that could handle his desire to capture the free improvisation of speech on set. Webb finished his presentation with a sad lament for the experimentation of the time, noting that although multi track recording is common place in Hollywood today it is rarely used as anything other than a back up system, rather than the expressionistic and exciting agent of all the possibilities it continues to hold.

On the final day Nathan Larson, the composer for films such as The Woodsman and Tigerland, gave an entertaining discussion on his working practice. As an almost accidental career change he explains how his first film score, Boys Don’t Cry, was completed with just a single guitar, amp and tape recorder. It was an approach that continued into his next film, the big budget Tigerland, which involved him spending three weeks on the New York underground trying to find the Chinese busker he had heard playing the Er-hu, a form of Chinese two string violin. An obsessive search for the perfect sound he had heard months previously. A sound so effective he used it almost unaccompanied for the whole piece.

The final speaker at the school was Heiner Goebbels, renowned theatre maker and composer. He opened with a quote from Gertrude Stein – “anything that is not a story could be a play. Everyone knows so many stories; why tell another one?” Goebbels then went on to discuss that what was interesting about theatre was the relation of sound and sight and how one has to do with the other. He discussed his own works and sought to explain as well as advocate for a more enlightened vision of what theatre and film could be – an interaction of sounds, event, performance and music.

In the closing moments of the school Diane Freeman, the project producer, summed up the event. It is about creativity, the process of expression and ultimately about listening. “In all mystical traditions listening is the way to enlightenment. It is the way in which one becomes.” Then with a simple swift chime on a Buddhist prayer gong the sound was returned to the silence and four days of intrigue, excitement, thought and, in many ways, spirituality came to a close.

In the words of Sufi poet Hafiz (quoted by Diane Freeman):

“Everyone is God speaking. Why not be polite and listen?”

John Bradburn is a writer, lecturer and maker of the new British feature Kyle, recently premiered at Seattle International Film Festival.