The ubiquity and interactive edge of modern auditory systems have been achieved in tandem with other socio-cultural and technological enhancements of a post digital environment. Leaps in sound reproductions, electroacoustics, multimedia, psychoacoustics and sound engineering enjoy a large chunk of investments and visibility but still constitute an incomplete pie without the conceptual understanding and theorisations around patterns of listening, modes of perception and nature of interaction in a technologically mediated world.
Immersive Audio is necessarily preceded by Immersive sound and embedded auditory systems in plastic environments are preceded by embedded sounds in the natural acoustic environment. However much technology might dissuade us from acknowledging the organic processes in nature we continue to mobilise a complex set of skills to listen, hear, comprehend, interpret and respond to the signals that float around us and accompany us in our daily routine. These same skills are remodelled to facilitate the functioning of technologically mediated audio systems.
In this presentation I will like to draw out a preliminary framework of aural interactions in our natural acoustic environment and then draw correlations with practices in sound design in cinema that tend to be immersive in quality. Secondly, I would like to highlight the immersive characteristics of archetypal sounds.
2. Patterns Of Listening
In her scientific paper Understanding Immersive Audio: A Historical And Socio-cultural Exploration Of Auditory Displays, scholar Milena Droumeva presents a literature survey of the studies conducted on listening patterns and perception from which two major groups of listening pattern emerge. She elaborates,
Two major groups of listening are ‘everyday listening’ , , ,  – omni-directional, semi-distracted, adaptive-interactive listening that focuses on immediate information-processing of sound, and ‘analytic listening’  – attention to detail, ‘expert’ activity focussed on an aesthetic or analytical experience. Based on these patterns, Truax has developed a number of terms exemplifying major listening modes and processes. Listening-in-search involves a determined seeking of a particular sound template in an aurally busy environment. Listening-in-readiness involves background listening with an underlying expectation for a particular sound or set of sound signals (such as a baby cry) . The ‘cocktail party effect,’ conceptualized by many AD designers, is a special mode of listening-in-search, which involves a ‘zooming in’ on a particular sound source – often semantic-based (speech) – in an environment of competing sound information with the same spectrum.
An acoustic ecology that provokes both the modes of listening(Everyday/Analytical) is shrouded in an oppositional conditioning of both understanding as well as lack of comprehension. While the listener’s mind achieves a stasis with those sources that it’s able to comprehend it is unsettled with respect to other sources. Lack or it’s opposite can both be ascertained by causes that are cultural or physical. While physical reasons that create lack can lead to unease, cultural conditions can create a whole array of feelings like uncanny, wonder, strangeness or enigma all of which have an affective potential. (Example: L’Eclise). I would like to argue that immersion is achieved by both engagement
as well as a challenged-engagement which defies complete comprehension. It is therefore a two pronged process in which certain sources are identified, comprehended and precipitated while others which are semi-identified, shrouded in incomprehension (for cultural/physical reasons) and demands a continuous engagement. Taken together it is an environment that simulates real life multi-nodal aural interaction with space. While it is possible to imagine a natural acoustic environment where these two processes are organically born and which we can testify with our experience there are only a few inspired moments in cinema where such an immersion is attempted by provoking an organic relation between the two processes. The scene of FEAST (Witch’s Sabbath) in Andrey Rublov(Andrei Tarkovsky/1966/180min/Russian) is emblematic of this acoustic ecology and worth an enquiry of the various structures of listening that it provokes. The narrative ensures that Andrey suddenly finds himself surrounded by hundreds of witches who have surfaced to celebrate an erotic feast- a celebration of corporeal love, which is alien to the order of monks that he belongs to. It is the suddenness and the cultural distance that befuddles him and also sucks him irresistibly into an enigma whose sensory impulses are not only difficult to ignore but have the potential to threaten his poise and meditative serenity. The mise en scene mobilises a camera movement that is meandering but intentional and has the propensity to open up secrets. Andrey himself becomes a VR subject attracted towards new directions in quick succession. It is worth pondering over the nature of immersion that the sound design constructs for this VR subject.
But before we embark on this journey it would be pertinent to re-tell some of the key concepts in Acoustic Ecology that formalise our understanding of our surroundings and facilitate acoustic communication.
Hi-fi : A high information environment with high signal to noise ratio.
Lo-fi: An environment with high degree of masking with low signal to noise ratio.
Keynote: An ambient sound, present in an acoustic environment most of the time and cognitively backgrounded by listeners.
Sound Signal: Foreground sound events providing information.
Sound Mark: Unique sounds characterising a community.
Everyday Listening: Omni-directional, semi-distracted, adaptive-interactive listening that we engage in on a daily basis with the goal of immediate information processing.
Analytical Listening: Attentive, foreground listening, usually to finer details of sound.
Cocktail Party Effect: An aural ‘zooming-in’ in a busy acoustic environment.
Masking: The result in a perceptual loss due to white, traffic or other broadband noise prominently present in the environment.
Acoustic Space: A sound field of propagation and interaction between sound and environment.
Coming back to the sound track of the FEAST it can be broken up into the usual components:
Andrey’s interaction with the witches having a very confrontational character.
The call of the witches which have a joyous mood to it.
B. Sound Effects:
The sound of flowing water and blowing wind create a sense of movement and brings organicity to the acoustic environment.
The sound of nightingale that emits a sharp call in the foreground.
Both the sound effects function like Sound Signals providing information regarding the nature of acoustic environment.
Bells and violin vibratos create a dominant rhythm, at times working like a blade that saws and gnaws through the mind in a very definite rhythm. This rhythmic sound functions like a Sound Mark characterising the witches’ community which sways and moves in a pattern. The source of the bells and blade are never revealed making them omni-directional and all enveloping. They are also given a perspectival modulation as they surface, fade away, hide completely and again resurface at heightened moments of the action thereby creating an extremely dynamic and fluid relationship with Andrey. They work like floating stanzas that come and fly away with a certain un-uniformity giving a very unpredictable texture to the overall composition. It is the cultural singularity of this Sound Mark that draws Andrey towards it eliciting an Analytical Listening from him, as he cranes his ears to the finer details of the sound’s rhythmic variations.
The orchestral music by composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov forms the chore of this sound track. (Ovchinnikov composed music for more than 40 films and Andrei Tarkovsky had a special word of praise for him. He specialised in tone-poem and Orchestral overtures and infused a sense of acute drama into his compositions.) In this piece he juxtaposes violin vibratos with choric music that is dominated by higher octave female soprano. The juxtaposition creates a sharp cleavage between vigorous-lustful passions and the guilt of sin, simultaneously binding the cultural other in a dialogue. It achieves polyphony over unision by bringing together polyphasic elements on a single temporal register, the final meaning of which is unfathomable. Does this choric music work like Key Note, which is being presented as acoustic environment all the time but is cognitively backgrounded by the listener?
The idea of this exercise is not merely to lay bare the components that participate in the construction of the acoustic environment but to demonstrate the multi-nodal sound production and the varied structures of listening that it provokes in the protagonist as a necessary condition for immersive sound.
3. Sonsigns or Pure Sound
The lack of connection between the various sound components have a significance which goes much beyond unpredictability or multi-nodality of the acoustic environment but engenders a weakening of the sensory-motor connection that we are used to observing in an action driven image. The narrative of the scene of FEAST shows Andrey in a state of paralysed action, numbed into helplessness before being taken captive. He is conducted through the scene, his agency completely vampirised but he continues to delve into the depth of the sensory world. He is all eyes and ears, wholly devoted to the sensory impulses which do not lead to any affirmative action or bring a conclusion. He runs amok in a dream-like-passage through a corridor of senses. For him the space becomes any-space-whatsoever and he experiences the acoustic as any-sound-whatsoever. Both
image and sound transcend their indexicality and become opsigns and sonsigns, which refer to limit-circumstances, but above all subjective images, memories, dreams, fantasies become part of Andrey’s objective reality that surround him in an envelop. Andrey’s circumstance bears a kinship with several neo-realist characters that Deleuze recollects in Beyond The Movement-Image:
…the character has become a kind of a viewer. He shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than reacts. He is prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in an action. Visconti’s Obsession rightly stands as the forerunner of neo-realism; and what strikes the viewer is the way in which the black-clad heroine is possessed by an almost hallucinatory sensuality. She is closer to a visionary, a sleepwalker, than to a seductress or a lover.
Deleuze acknowledges the presence of two poles in the construction of the opsigns and sonsigns: objective and subjective, real and imaginary, physical and mental; where these poles conflate and collapse into each other. Going back to the sound track in question the element which forms the Key Note by virtue of being constantly pushed into liminality is the choric music dominated by higher octave female sopranos. The final meaning of it’s composition is not fathomable and yet one identifies it as an archetypal mother’s voice with which one had an umblical connection in preconsciousness. It describes a subjective, imaginary and mental world which far exceeds the world that Andrey knows as he has come to imbibe it in his conscious state. It is an expression that is complete in itself, abstracted from all spatio-temporal realities and achieves the condition of firstness as elaborated by C.S. Peirce. The choric music by virtue of it’s archetypality enters into the regime of the Affect. Shorn of the socius, political and every other actualising force Choric Music presents itself in all it’s naked ‘firstness’ to Andrey, which he tries hard to resist and yet it becomes his fatal identity.
This is a clear demonstration of how archetypal sounds (like choric music) can become pure sounds that have an affective quality and power.
1. Time Image, Gilles Deleuze
2. The Voice in Cinema, Michel Chion
3. Understanding Immersive Audio: A Historical and Sociocultural Exploration of Auditory Displays, Milena Droumeva
4. Additional Inputs from Shri Tanmoy Basu on the analysis of Choric Music in Andrey Rublov.