Unreal Nature

May 1, 2014

Insidious Means

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… sound more than image has the ability to saturate and short-circuit our perception.

This is from Audio-Vision: Sound On Screen by Michel Chion (1994):

… there are at least three modes of listening, each of which addresses different objects. We shall call them causal listening, semantic listening, and reduced listening.

Causal listening, the most common, consists of listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause (or source).

… in … more ambiguous cases far more numerous than one might think, what we recognize is only the general nature of the sound’s cause. We may say, “That must be something mechanical” (identified by a certain rhythm, a regularity aptly called “mechanical”); or, “That must be some animal” or “a human sound.” For lack of anything more specific, we identify indices, particularly temporal ones, that we try to draw upon to discern the nature of the cause.

Even without identifying the source in the sense of the nature of the causal object, we can still follow with precision the causal history of the sound itself. For example, we can trace the evolution of a scraping noise (accelerating, rapid, slowing down, etc.) and sense changes in pressure, speed, and amplitude without having any idea of what is scraping against what.

… I call semantic listening that which refers to a code or a language to interpret a message: spoken language, of course, as well as Morse and other such codes. This mode of listening, which functions in an extremely complex way, has been the object of linguistic research and has been the most widely studied. One crucial finding is that it is purely differential. A phoneme is listened to not strictly for its acoustical properties but as part of an entire system of oppositions and differences. Thus semantic listening often ignores considerable differences in pronunciation (hence in sound) if they are not pertinent differences in the language in question.

Pierre Schaeffer gave the name reduced listening to the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning. Reduced listening takes the sound — verbal, played on an instrument, noises, or whatever — as itself the object to be observed instead of as a vehicle for something else.

A session of reduced listening is quite an instructive experience. Participants quickly realize that in speaking about sounds they shuttle constantly between a sound’s actual content, its source, and its meaning. They find out that it is no mean task to speak about sounds in themselves, if the listener is forced to describe them independently of any cause, meaning, or effect.

… Reduced listening is an enterprise that is new, fruitful, and hardly natural. It disrupts established lazy habits and opens up a world of previously unimagined questions for those who try it. Everybody practices at least rudimentary forms of reduced listening. When we identify the pitch of a tone or figure out an interval between two notes, we are doing reduced listening; for pitch is an inherent characteristic of sound, independent of the sound’s cause or the comprehension of its meaning.

What complicates matters is that a sound is not defined solely by its pitch; it has many other perceptual characteristics. Many common sounds do not even have a precise or determinate pitch; if they did, reduced listening would consist of nothing but good old traditional solfeggio practice. Can a descriptive system for sounds be formulated, independent of any consideration of their cause?

… reduced listening has the enormous advantage of opening up our ears and sharpening our power of listening. Film and video makers, scholars, and technicians can get to know their medium better as a result of this experience and gain mastery over it. The emotional physical and aesthetic value of a sound is linked not only to the causal explanation we attribute to it but also to its own qualities of timbre and texture, to its own personal vibration.

… Confronted with a sound from a loudspeaker that is presenting itself without a visual calling card, the listener is led all the more intently to ask, “What’s that?” (i.e. “What is causing this sound?”) and to be attuned to the minutest clues (often interpreted wrong anyway) that might help to identify the cause.

When we listen acousmatically to recorded sounds it takes repeated hearings of a single sound to allow us gradually to stop attending to its cause and to more accurately perceive its own inherent traits.

A seasoned auditor can exercise causal listening and reduced listening in tandem, especially when the two are correlated. Indeed, what leads us to deduce a sound’s cause if not the characteristic form it takes? Knowing that this is “the sound of x” allows us to proceed without further interference to explore what the sound is like in and of itself.

… Due to natural factors of which we are all aware — the absence of anything like eyelids for the ears, the omnidirectionality of hearing, and the physical nature of sound — but also owing to a lack of any real aural traning in our culture, this “imposed-to-hear” makes it exceedingly difficult for us to select or cut things out. There is always something about sound that overwhelms and surprises us no matter what — especially when we refuse to lend it our conscious attention; and thus sound interferes with our perception, affects it. Surely, our conscious perception can valiantly work at submitting everything to its control, but, in the present cultural state of things, sound more than image has the ability to saturate and short-circuit our perception.

The consequence for film is that sound, much more than the image, can become an insidious means of affective and semantic manipulation. On one hand, sound works on us directly, physiologically (breathing noises in a film can directly affect our own respiration). On the other, sound has an influence on perception: through the phenomenon of added value, it interprets the meaning of the image, and makes us see in the image what we would not otherwise see, or would see differently. And so we see that sound is not at all invested and localized in the same way as the image.

My most recent previous post from Chion’s book is here.




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