Starre Vartan August 30 2017

Take an Aural Journey


All four of these films use sound in an especially powerful way, plunging you into the creator's worlds. In the first, what is heard is the focus of a visual world for a deaf woman; in the second, it is all about the intense insect cacophony of the forest, and in the third, the auditory world tells the story as much as the visuals do—maybe even more so as the sounds we hear seem to direct the action. In the final selection, film takes on a new meaning as the aural world predominates in a film that puts you in the mushroom's POV.


Alfred Hitchcock once said, “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” But don’t let this quote confuse you: while he may have eschewed extraneous dialog, he didn’t discount sound in his films at all—though he was very particular about it, likely because he had started his career with silent films. Like his cinematography choices, Hitchcock’s aural settings were meticulously constructed. He often used silence to heighten suspense, and used ambient sounds to create mystery. , Music is an important plot driver in half his films, sometimes giving viewers hints about what was to come without anyone saying a word—which was the point.

Composer Oskar Sala's electronic sound effects for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (made in 1963 on his trademark Trautonium beast). Here is Mr Hitchcock testing this device.

Of course, filmmakers can communicate volumes of information using sound—or the lack of it—all three of these selections use natural or ambient sounds, silence, music and the human voice to communicate their quite disparate worlds.

In “Sound Shadows” we are dropped into an intensely human soundscape. It’s known among neurobiologists that when one sense is lost, the brain redistributes the neurons for the missing sense to the others, heightening them. If you don’t know what a sound shadow is, that’s probably because you don’t have the extra-sensory power that Hege, the blind woman who narrates Julie Engaas’ film possesses. “There are sound shadows everywhere,” says Hege, as she describes her world. These “wonderful” sounds can be felt by our heroine in her cheekbones, and her cheeks, and they help her to orient herself. As Hege details her what these shadows sound like, we get an aural glimpse into her life, but this isn’t a documentary. It was important to Engaas that the audible landscape of her film be a “...poetic and descriptive one that would convey the right atmosphere,” she said.

Hege’s voice is also a powerful part of the soundscape of the film: “Hege, the main character, had a lot to say in choosing the takes, and read over again until she was content with the sound of her voice. I believe this gave her a special ownership to the film and a feeling of controlling her own story,” says Engaas. The simple illustrations that accompany the sound design of this film only serve to make us listen even closer, to the world that’s right there for the listening.

Sound Shadows (Julie Engaas, 2008)

Humans feel secondary, as the sounds of the natural world are almost overpowering in “Biosemiotic Borneo,” a film that explores the “multi-species ecology of a small segment of the forest in South Kalimantan,” according to director Ursula Riemann. Centered around a giant banyan tree, which focuses the film’s myriad living subjects, there are times when it feels like a veritable cacophony—which is the point. “The biodiversity in the rainforest is so dense that a single tree can host 950 different insect species. About a fifth of them coevolved with that specific tree location and would not be found in other tree species. These micro-ecologies are highly specialized and short range. Insects are connected to these ambient conditions like sounds to a musical score,” explains Riemann.

It’s meant to be an intense experience, as she uses multiple camera perspectives to explore the ideas of biologist Jakob von Uexküll (he thought that various species in a particular environment evolved together as inseparable units). Sound ended up being an ideal way to illustrate this complex concept, and writer and sound artist Nabil Ahmed, who joined Riemann on her Borneo trip, brought along specialized microphones to capture the unique interactions between insects, bird, plants and microorganisms.

Biosemiotic Borneo (Ursula Biemann, 2016)

In “Hope Island,” filmmaker Charles Lindsay also dips us in an aural ocean, steeping us in the sounds of the sea—with a perspective. Lindsay’s aim was to bring the viewer along with him, into the environments he was working in as he filmed comb jellies during a full moon along the coast of British Columbia. He calls the soundscape there “primal,” and in order to portray the location and life there, he included both natural and created elements which came together to create a “memory grab” of his  time there.

Accompanying the dreamy visuals of jellies bobbing and floating, the sound is tougher, more percussive, creating a striking juxtaposition. “There is wind, with intentional clipping, hydrophone recordings, makeshift percussion, the ever-present ravens, and surf,” said Lindsay. We are immersed in the jellies’ world, maybe getting a glimpse into what life is like for these simple floating creatures, all telegraphed via an unusual and stormy soundscape that blends the natural and the heard-by-humans.


Field Work - Hope Island (Charles Lindsay, 2015)

Mycological” challenges the viewer by totally excising what most think of as the primary experience of film—yes, this is a sound-only piece. That’s how its director, Ernst Karel, intended it to be “from the beginning,” since, after all, mushrooms grow beautifully in the dark. Unlike most living, growing things on planet earth, they don’t directly need the sun’s rays to grow and propagate, and indeed, they don’t “see” at all.

Karel creates a narrative that puts us in the world of the mushrooms, editing sound “ a similar way to how one would edit observational film footage, considering that each ’shot’ is already complete because of the way it’s been recorded, rather than in using techniques of ’sound design’, in terms of composing scenes using layering,” he says. Cuts between scenes are purposefully audible, and the listener “moves” in space with the microphone—just as we would follow with our eyes when a camera moves through a scene.  That makes “Mycological” the perfect cap to a group of films that takes special care to attend to the aural world.

Mycological (Ernst Karel, 2015)

Ernst Karel recording sound (2015)

About Author

Starre Vartan is a former geologist who is now a science and environment writer. She's cowritten screenplays on climate change, the power grid and the first Mars landing for HBO, Discovery and CBS respectively. Her favorite films include The Fly, Logan's Run, the original Planet of the Apes, War Games, and Brazil. 

Cover Photo  Charles Lindsay - CODE HUMPBACK @ MASS MoCA

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