Ancillary to Another Purpose

Michel Chion describes causal listening as a mode of attending to sounds in order to identify unique objects causing them; to identify classes of causes (e.g. human, mechanical, animal sources); or to at least ascribe to them a general etiological nature (e.g. “it sounds like something mechanical,” or “something digital,” etc.). “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” (Audio-Vision 27). Lacking any more concrete clues, we can, in this mode, trace the “causal history of a sound” even without knowing the sound’s cause.

As is already clear, there is a complex interplay between states of knowing and non-knowing in Chion’s description of listening modes, and this epistemological problematic is intimately tied to questions of visibility and invisibility. In other words, seeing images concomitant with sounds suggests to us causal relations, but these suggestions can be highly misleading – as they usually are in the case of the highly constructed soundscapes of filmic productions. This is why reduced listening – “the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning” (29) – has often been associated with “acousmatic listening” (in which the putative causal relations are severed by listening blind, so to speak, i.e. without any accompanying images). As a form of phenomenological bracketing, acousmatic listening seeks to place us in a state of non-knowing with relation to causes and their visual cues, thus helping us to attend to “sound—verbal, played on an instrument, noises, or whatever—as itself the object […] instead of as a vehicle for something else” (29). In such a situation, we can focus on the sound’s “own qualities of timbre and texture, to its own personal vibration” (31) – or so it would seem.

Acousmatic listening is a path to reduced listening, perhaps, but only after an initial intensification of causal listening that occurs (that is, we try even harder to “see” the causes when we can’t simply look at them). In some respect, then, knowing the causes to begin with can actually help overcome this problem, allowing us to stop focusing on the question of causality so that we can more freely “explore what the sound is like in and of itself” (33).

I describe these complexities of Chion’s listening modes because they neatly summarize the complexities of my own experience of constructing, listening to, and experiencing a sound montage. This montage, which runs 2 minutes and 21 seconds in total, is constructed from found materials, all of which were collected on YouTube. The process of collection was guided by only very loose criteria – I was interested in finding sonic materials that are related in some way to changing human-technological relations. I thought of transitions from pre-industrial to industrial to digital environments and sought to find sounds that might evoke these (along with broader contrasts, real or imagined, between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, organic and technical).

The materials collected are: an amateur video of a “1953 VAC CASE tractor running a buzz saw” (http://youtu.be/wrGdgjoUJSg); an excerpt from the creation sequence in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein (http://youtu.be/8H3dFh6GA-A); “Sounds of the 90’s – old computer and printer starting up,” which shows a desktop computer ca. 1993 booting Windows 95 (http://youtu.be/JpSfgusep7s); a full-album pirating of Brian Eno’s classic album Ambient 1 – Music for Airports from 1978, set against a static image of the album cover (http://youtu.be/5KGMo9yOaSU); “1 Hour of Ambient Sound From Forbidden Planet: The Great Krell Machine (1956 Mono)” (http://youtu.be/0nt7q5Rw-R8); and “Leslie S5T-R train horn & Doran-Cunningham 6-B Ship horn,” an amateur demonstration of these two industrial horns, installed in a car and blasted in an empty canyon (http://youtu.be/cjyUfV3W5zk).

The fact that these sound materials were culled from a video-sharing site had implications for the epistemological/phenomenological situation of listening. In the case of the tractor, the old computer, and the industrial horns, the amateur nature of the video emphasized a direct causal link; presumably, a viewer of the video “knows” exactly what is causing the sounds. The situation is more complicated in the other three sources. The Eno album is the only specifically musical source selected; and while it is recognizably “musical,” in that musical instruments are identifiable as causes of sounds, the ambient nature of the music is itself designed to problematize causal listening and to open the very notion of the sound object to include the chance sounds that accompany its audition. Nevertheless, finding the object on YouTube, where it is attributed to Eno as an album, and where the still video track of the album cover objectifies the sound as an encapsulated and specifically musical product, reinforces a different level of causal indexing. Similarly, the ambient sounds from Forbidden Planet might be extremely difficult to identify without the attribution and the still video image on YouTube; with them, a very general causal relation (it sounds like the rumble of a space ship, for example) is established – despite the fact that the real sound sources, the production processes involved in the studio film’s soundtrack, are obscured. The sounds from Frankenstein, from which all dialogue has been omitted, seem even more causally determinate: the video shows us lightning flashes and technical apparatuses emitting sounds. Especially in this case, but to varying degrees in all of them, knowing where these sounds come from makes it hard to put aside putative causal knowledge, to reduce the sounds phenomenally to their sonic textures, and not to slide farther into a form of listening that would seek to move beyond the “added value” of the sound/image relation and to locate the “real” sources of the sounds (as sound effects).

In putting together the sound montage, I was therefore concerned to blend the materials in such a way that would not only obscure these sources for an imagined listener, but that would open them up to a different sort of listening – a reduced listening that severed the indexical links articulating what I thought I knew or didn’t know about the sounds’ causes – for myself. For the reasons listed above, this was no easy task. Shuffling around the sounds still seemed like shuffling around the tractor, the thunder, the horns, etc. It proved helpful to randomly silence various tracks, fading them out and back in at a given point without any specific reason, sonically, focusing instead on the relations between the visual patterns described by the sounds on my computer screen. Especially the ambient sounds (Frankenstein, Forbidden Planet) proved easy to obscure, and the fact of severing their indexical ties to films and the themes they involved allowed for alternate hearings of the other sonic elements (horns, Windows 95 startup sound, etc.), which still retained their character of foreground objects but could be imagined in different settings, etc. (i.e. I was still caught in a form of causal listening, but I had begun imaginatively varying what the causes might be). For example, by varying the volume levels of these tracks, so that they became less distinct from one another, a clicking sound produced by turning on the old computer could be reimagined as starting a tape deck, especially as it preceded the commencement of the Eno music.

Getting past this level of reimagining causal relations, and moving on to a reduced form of listening, was no easy task, and I doubt that it can ever be achieved fully or in purified form. In any case, I began to discover the truth of Chion’s remark, that a prior knowledge of causal relations can actually help liberate the listener from causal listening; thus, the complications described above, stemming from the fact that I found my materials on a video-sharing site, actually helped me to get past the hyper-causal listening that accompanies a purely blind, acousmatic audition. I began hearing low electrical hums rather than identifiable causes, for example, but it remained difficult to get beyond an objectifying and visualizing form of hearing with respect to the buzz saw. The latter instrument was, however, opened up to alternative scenes: perhaps it was a construction crew on a street, and the spaceship was actually a subway beneath that street. Inchoate scenes began to open up as soon as a texture was discovered behind a cause. A dreamy, perhaps hallucinatory, possibly arthouse-style but maybe more ironic or even humorous, visual landscape lay just outside this increasingly material sonic envelope. It remained, therefore, to be seen just what could be heard in these sounds, especially when they were combined with alternate visual materials.

In the process of assembling the found-footage video montage – which I did not begin doing until I had finalized the soundtrack – I discovered an agency or set of agencies in these sounds; they directed my placement of video clips, suggesting that I pull them to the left, nudge them back a bit to the right, shift them elsewhere, or cut them out completely. A sort of dance ensued between the images and the sounds, imbuing both of them with new color, new meaning, and transformed causal and material relations. The final result, which I have titled “Ancillary to Another Purpose,” still embodies many of the thematic elements that I thought it might when I began constructing the soundtrack, but not at all in the same form I anticipated.

Finally, however the results of my experiment might be judged, I highly recommend this exercise – which I undertook in the context of Shambhavi Kaul’s class on “Editing for Film and Video” at Duke University – to anyone interested in gaining a better, more practical, and more embodied understanding of sound/image relations.

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