Gavin Mc Cabe 7 May 2017
In the introduction to his book Sound Design , David Sonnenschein states ‘Giving meaning to noise, sound becomes communication’ (Sonnenschein, 2001, p.17). As sensorial beings we are deeply connected to the auditory experience and Sonnenschein sees the potential of the sound designer as the teller of stories and communicator of ideas and emotions. Assembling a sonic landscape from procured, recorded or synthesized audio, the designer seeks to connect with and transport the audience by appealing to one of our most complex of senses: our hearing.
We can now manipulate sound in ways that the practitioners who came before us could only have dreamt about. In 1913 Luigi Russolo wrote The Art of Noise manifesto which sought to boldly re-evaluate the sonic materials used by classical composers such as Wagner and Beethoven. To Russolos ear the pure tones of the orchestral stringed and wind instrument had become creatively prohibitive and somewhat obsolete and he postulated that the future of composition could be explored through the utilization of noise itself as a medium (Russolo, 1913, p.6) . Russolo also designed and built a number of devices for this purpose, the most notable of which were known as the intonarumori, a group of mechanical synthesizers. One could argue this new line of thinking and process of musical creation was significant in the development of 20th century sound design and that the central idea in Russolos work is reciprocated in Sonnenscheins assertion. The question is how do we, as designers, take sound or noise and instill it with a sense of meaning beyond its original if that is our goal?
It is true to say that every sound in itself has it’s own significance and humans have always used it to relate to each other while negotiating our paths through the world. The siren or alarm alerts us to danger. The cuckoo is named after its unique call. Sound inhabits our dreams, can evoke lucid memories and at times attempts to describe what the future may present to our ear . The designer acts like a composer of sorts but their materials are not always conventional.
In 1956 Louis and Bebe Barron arguably created one of the most forward thinking soundtracks of modern cinema. Their unorthodox approach to scoring the science fiction movie Forbidden Planet saw them credited as the composers of ‘electronic tonalities’. Instead of writing for an orchestra, which was common practice in Hollywood at the time, the couple constructed this strange new soundscape by entirely electronic means. In a 1992 interview with Jane Brockman for The Society of Composers and Lyricists Bebe remembers the French composer Edgard Varese frequenting their studio and how he described music as ‘organised noise’. By Bebe’s admission Varese’s idea greatly influenced the couple’s creative process so it is not a fanciful notion to place them somewhere in the same lineage as Russolo. The Barons used devices hand built by Louis: a collection of electronic circuits and valve driven oscillators. They too sought a modernistic framework of expression. According to the historian Barry Schrader these circuits ‘would exhibit characteristic qualities of pitch, timbre and rhythm and had a sort of life cycle from their beginnings until they burned out’ (Schrader, 2008). The resulting soundtrack was a labour intensive, empirical exercise and is a notable entry in the evolution of film scores as it tested what the audience would accept as accompaniment to the moving image.
In the 2006 documentary Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet Bebe states that people described their music for the Id monster as ‘just like dreams that I have all the time…’ and how it sounded ‘like their subconscious’ (Barron,2006). This supports the idea that sound itself, even in such abstract form, can communicate with us on a profound level and stimulate parts of our brain that often remain shadowy in our everyday existence. Music can make us feel melancholic, uneasy, uplifted. The choked beeping of the cartoon horn can still bring a smile to our face. These effects have and will continue to demand further scientific investigations.
A short documentary from 2008 Building Worlds from the Sound Up directed by Erica Milsom details the work of revered sound designer Ben Burtt on the award winning animation feature Wall E . Burtt combined the art of Foley recording and digital processing to generate ‘a world in sound’. The ‘thunder sheet’ was used to replicate the rumble of the spaceship engine. He dragged a punching bag along a carpeted hallway for the sound of wind. It is clear that Burtt holds the traditions and ingenuity of Foley in high esteem. At the same time he embraced the emerging technology of the time. The Robots in Wall E had no written dialogue as such so Burtts task was to bring their distinct characters into being through a collection of expressive sounds. The vocalizations of Wall E were crafted from recordings Burtt had made of his own voice. He re-synthesized these in the Kyma Sound Design Environment by employing FFT or Fast Fourier Transform processes to change the pitch and time parameters of the recordings resulting in a new robotic sound that mimicked the rising and falling qualities of human speech. Burtt recognised the power of the voice and how astute the human ear is at evaluating its tonality for emotive signifiers. He took this collected library of sound waves, painstakingly modified them and gave breath to an endearing and memorable character. Milsoms documentary also shows us that Burrts approach to sound design in Wall E was partially in contrast to the esoteric qualities of Forbidden Planet as he believed that the usage of real world sounds in the science fiction genre could offer validity to a work of fantasy. However he is fully aware and indebted to the overarching influence of the Barons work and in an in an interview from 2012 with Geeta Dayal for Wired Magazine he offers a persuasive argument as to why this soundtrack was groundbreaking and is still revered . In Burrts estimation the fact that both Louis and Bebe were musicians first, and had understanding of how the composer works to create contrasting shades and variable dynamics, lead to the transformation of what might have been another avant garde oddity into an outstanding work of art in this genre.
Sound design and music composition, however, are not commonly seen as the same discipline even though both are fundamentally a means of expression through the manipulation of tonal and atonal sound. Shaun Farley, a video game developer for Moby Games , argues that the division between the two is in a constant a state of flux due to
changing attitudes in the audio industry and the evolution of the technology that shapes this culture (2013). He asserts that the titles of sound designer or composer ‘no longer apply in the same way they once did; we are now just sound organizers, all of us’ (Farley, 2013). There are clear parallels to the dogmas of Russolo and Varese in this thinking and with the use of current technology our sonic palettes are made abundant. Due to the proliferation of digital audio workstations like Ableton Live accompanied with Max for Live and a host of third party plugins, advanced forms of sound design are fast becoming a staple element in modern electronic music productions. This is not to say that all users of such programmes will engage with the possibilities on offer but those concerned with the progression of sonic art have access to a wide range of highly versatile softwares.
In his creative endeavors the American composer Robert Alexander strives to make work that ‘breaks traditional composition boundaries and explores new landscapes both sonically and emotionally’ (Alexander,2009). In 2013 Alexander collaborated with NASA who had collected images of sun activity from one of their heliospheric spacecrafts. By writing this information into audio files, Alexander employed a process known as data sonification and rendered a number of cosmic soundscapes in an effort to provide further insight into workings of our solar system . To think that we can now collect information from the very place Louis and Bebe had attempted to soundtrack and use it to create new sonic textures illustrates the breadth of development in just over fifty six years and lends a somewhat prophetic tone to The Art of Noise. Rusolo was a self proclaimed futurist. We now inhabit that future and it is open to debate whether a similar manifesto is necessary and if so where might it emerge from?
We are not bound by the limited timbres of the past. Our means of communication through sound seem almost infinite. We have a cornucopia of tools and can greatly inform our process through focused practice and study but possibly the most valuable directives would be to listen first, to commune with our imagination and always be steadfastly willing to experiment. There are stories to be told and the remarkable ones demand arresting voices.