Essay in ‘Autumn Leaves: sound and the environment’, Paris: Double Entendre, 2007, ISBN 095480743X



Völlig Losgelöst


The Day the Earth Stood Still is, initially at least, a hopeful film. Klaatu, aka Mr. Carpenter, travels millions of miles through the universe to tell the inhabitants of the earth how to avoid destruction and certain extinction. The earthlings - in this case the Americans, aliens always land in America – reject as impossible his demand to arrange a meeting of all world leaders to hear his warning. Instead, they hunt and persecute him. In the end he goes back home without having completed his mission, leaving us ignorant and oblivious to urgent tragedy. There is hope, however. Shortly before take-off he does manage to speak to a gathering of scientists, brought together by Professor Jacob Barnhardt, and they might be able to pass on his knowledge when the world is ready to hear it.


The themes of hope and anticipated futility in 1950s science fiction films have a lot in common with the World Soundscape Project, founded in the 1970s. This is not a leap, it is an ideological connection. Acoustic ecologists share the dream of a new (sonic) landscape and a different (aural) sensitivity. Their concerns are with imperialist economic and industrial expansions, that bring with them a universalising of the global soundtrack into a loud hum of machines and amplifiers, extinguishing local and discreet soundscapes. 1950s science fiction films engage in a similar relationship with territorial expansion; the curious look that turns into the cautionary tale. For all the spacecraft designed according to what then constituted the ‘modern’, for all the futuristic shiny uniforms, these films too manifest a solid conservatism, bringing us back to core values very much of this world.


In contrast to the conservative values driving both endeavours – R. Murray Schafer’s initial idea of a World Soundscape Project and the science fiction film genre of the 1950s – there is, simultaneously, an extremely progressive dimension, manifest as much in the engagement they demand of the viewer and listener as it is in the relation to the actual sounds produced. It is the soundtrack not the image that creates a new planet. Sound seduces us into a different world, and in turn demands of us a generative participation in what we see.


Visual things - props, costume, actors, stage-sets - are given shape and come to life through the soundtrack. Preceding Schafer’s desire for a new listening, an attentive listening that understands the world as a “macrocosmic musical composition” (Schafer in Cox and Warner: 37), the science fiction genre quietly composes its sounds in precisely this way and provokes an active listening. It is the soundtrack that merges us into an extraterrestrial world. The viewer becomes a listener, positioned at the centre of creation, producing an unknown planet in his or her imagination.


This is in tune with Schafer’s beliefs that proper listening is a re-finding of an auditive culture rather than a compositional task executed by some remote design-elite, placing the individual listener as composer in the middle of a non-hierarchical soundscape (Werner, 1990). Listening becomes an act of inventing a future reality, a space far away, bringing with it notions of an involved subjectivity, as well as, potentially, political and economical balance.




What is otherworldly about Forbidden Planet, for example, are not the issues discussed, those of intelligence and power, the conclusions reached do little more than reflect traditional mores. Neither is it the look of the faithful Robby the Robot nor the high-tech toystore-like interior of Dr Morbius’ home. Rather it is the soundtrack that tilts the perception of these things and furnishes the planet’s otherness. The soundscape of Altair IV, a planet in the Alpha Aquilae star system, is not loud but quietly prophetic, full of sonic silence stretching our ears. The atmostrack is like a musical composition produced with synthetic sounds. Listening to it now it may have lost some of its futuristic unfamiliarity but none of its power to envelop us in a temporal space of heavy but fluid materiality that the visual can only suggest but not bring into being.


Rather than the desert backdrop steeped in Scandinavian winter-light, the Cuban Communist Party-style military uniforms or the American domestic kitchenware design of the aluminium-clad spaceship the visitors from planet earth arrive in, it is the soundtrack that makes us suspend our disbelief and persuades us that we are indeed on another planet. The sound makes us aware of another environment and a different gravity to the subjects moving within it. Everything appears softer, more malleable and warm. I breathe lighter here, unexpectedly agreeing with Commander John J. Adams that there is a high oxygen content in the atmosphere.


There is no differentiation between music and sound on this planet. The harmonic tones and synthesised foley sounds blend into one, supporting the experience of another world to its very fabric and engaging my listening in a matter of fact. It is in this way that science fiction promotes a new sensitivity towards the environment, not from a visual position, celebrating instead an auditory aesthetic. And I, as an auditory subject, generate rather than perceive this planet, hearing rather than recognising its topography.


For my audio-visual piece Heliodor I borrowed such science fiction sounds. I plundered them to encourage listening rather than viewing; creating, from worldly footage - images of a pitch and putt golf course in Porthkerry, Wales - a sonic planet. Using such material I borrow not only the space of its transmission (film soundtracks have a very particular sonic quality and acoustic space), but also made use of the science fiction genre’s ideologies, and rendered concrete its connections to soundscape research; producing sound art as a platform for a new listening and the initiation of an auditory subjectivity.


I had been intrigued with this pitch and putt golf course for some time, not quite knowing why it held my attention. It seemed a bizarre place, an in-between place, hovering between normal living, going about one’s daily business, and alien terrain - a new planet. Such a new planet is a mute landscape, rigid, inviting the composition of a soundtrack not as a negative abatement of noise but as a positive production of sounds and silences to stimulate listening and an active engagement with that environment. The auditory subject inhabiting this new planet then becomes its composer, in a reciprocal engagement inventing its formation as well as his or her own identity.


My aim was not to produce a linear narration of this space, but instead to provoke the imaginative generation of another space, a space in sonic motion, subjective and complex. I employed these sounds and their associations to create the fluid materiality and temporal space of Altair IV. The purposelessness of a Sunday afternoon spent on a pitch and putt golf course, re-staged via science fiction sound, averts the gaze of the viewer, triggering a different engagement. The Theremin’s wobbly tones produce a quiver on the spot, creating a time on hold, brought to life, again and again, by an attentively listening-viewer.



References


Schafer, Murray R., ‘The Music of the Environment’, in

Audio Cultures, Readings in Modern Music, Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner eds, (Continuum Books: London, 2004)


Werner, Hans U., Soundscapes Akustische Landschaften, Eine klangökologische Spurensuche, (Akroama: Basel, 1990)


Forbidden Planet, 1956, USA, dir. Fred M. Wilcox


The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, USA, dir. Robert Wise                                                                                                                  


                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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