Unreal Nature

June 12, 2014

Inhabited Silence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… For example, when you hear the hum or an airplane that passes overhead, demonstrating its ignorance of the sports event with a superb feline indifference.

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

… In La Toile trouée I wrote (with no pejorative intention) that television is illustrated radio. The point here is that sound, mainly the sound of speech, is always foremost in television.

[ … ]

… Of all sports on television tennis is the acoustic sport par excellence. It is the only one where the commentators agree to curb their prattling so as to let us hear ten, twenty, sometimes thirty seconds of volleys without a peep out of them.

… So in this sense tennis is unique in its genre.

… Traditionally what was heard was brief thumps accompanying each hit of the ball. These constitute the sonic signature of the sport: the thump with a dry echo, by which the ear can gauge the spatial limits of the court or arena. In addition to the racquet strokes we now hear a number of small, finely delineated sound events, very well reproduced on the televised soundtrack: subtle hisses and squeaks created by the opponents’ legs and feet moving across the court; panting, breathing, and sometimes grunts or shouts when the players are fatigued and playing ever harder. It’s an entire acoustic narrative, but with the characteristic narrative ambiguity of the universe of sounds; we hear precisely what is happening, yet we don’t know what is happening. There is not a different impact sound for each racquet or each player. Although the quality and, in any case, the force of the stroke can sometimes be identified, the sound does not tell us who struck the ball and where it’s going.

It remains that in the game of tennis every meaningful moment is punctuated by a specific sound and each volley is an acoustic drama organized around an auditory accident: the absence of the thump signifying the ball hit and returned (either player A has sent it into the net or player B has missed it). But this sonic void, this musical rest, this missed point of synchronization in the alternating play of the athletes becomes immediately compensated by the nuanced waves of the voices of the crowd, their constant and unpredictable peripeteias: applause, disappointed “ooohhs …,” whistling. In reacting to the absence of sound, the audience plays its own sonic and rhythmical part in the spectacle.

… The telespectator’s aural connection with the microevents of a tennis match is always subject to interruption. All it takes ia a volley ending and a point being declared and the audience making a collective response for the sounds made by the players to disappear, as if their microphones suddenly shut off. Then they move, silent silhouettes, on ground that does not crunch or squeak under their feet, and the radiophonic voice commenting on them regains the upper hand.

If, finally, during the television broadcast moments of aural poetry still manage to materialize in the silences between the anchors’ comments, it is a stroke of good fortune. For example, when you hear the hum or an airplane that passes overhead, demonstrating its ignorance of the sports event with a superb feline indifference. If only television would offer this “inhabited silence” more often: a little of the sonic flow of life.

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

-Julie

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