Reflections on “Contours of Sound” Programme March 24, 2011

by Carlo Cubero

The purpose of the programme was to create a space to discuss the potential that sound has for the production of anthropological knowledge. We considered this issue from the perspective of “sound objects” and from the perspective of the use of sound in film. In the first instance, “sound objects” gives us the possibility of understanding how to narrativise sound in its own terms. To be able to do this it is important to come to terms with the properties of sound and the different potentials that sound has communicate a sense of a social experience.

In the second instance, we wanted to discuss how sound is used in the ethnographic film-making craft. We first presented the sound track of excerpts from documentaries (Sonya and Sparrow, To Live with Herds, and Forest of Bliss) and had a discussion on how the sound “worked” or affected the audience. We then had a round table discussion with filmmakers guests on how they use sound in their craft. Ultimately, we were interested in having a discussion that would lead towards understanding the properties of sound and how it “works” to create a sense of affect, in relation to the image.


The first order of the day was a presentation by Dr. Ernst Karel. In his talk Ernst argued against historical categorisations that divide sound works as either works of art that are mediated – as in the musique concrète movement – and sound works associated to field recordings, which strive for a continuity between sound-time-place – as in the soundscape movement. For Ernst, these divides have outlived their usefulness. Instead, sound recordings phonographies or “vilms” (a neologism he proposed to address the common intention of video and film in a way that would transcend their technological differences) should be understood in a broader context that engages with art as well as ethnographic documentary. Doing so, engages with the medium on its own terms and lends itself to focusing on the immediate, affective, and experiential dimension of living in sound.


The next item on the programme was a “sound film” produced by students and staff of Tallinn University. The intention behind this piece was to consider the possibility of doing fieldwork with a sound recorder. In other words, to apply the same kind of ethical, methodological, and epistemological standards of anthropological participant observation to sound recordings. The phonograph was a portrait of Kerti, a visually impaired life long resident of Tallinn. Kerstin Karu, one of the authors of the piece, felt that the listeners were pleasantly surprised of the concept of doing an ethnography without images - “it was a recording made like an ethnography. People are more accustomed to listening sound recordings following the model of radio, where you do not necessarily have to position yourself within the piece. In this piece, the listener has to focus on the character as well as on the background and makes the listener engage with the piece on different levels. The fact that it had a clear story also helped the listener to position the listener within the piece.” For Ernst Karel, one of the successes of the piece is that the content and the form of the recording parallel each other. “We are hearing about an experience of blindness but the recording is not about blindness”.


By far the most provocative part of the programme was “listening to films”, which unfolded as an interactive workshop. What initially seemed to me, to be an unfair exercise that de-contextualised sound from the author's intention – turned out to be a very provocative and insightful exercise that forced us to focus on sound as an integral and essential role that sound plays in the creative treatment of actuality.

As Guiseppe Tedeschi, one of the festival's filmmaker guests, said “sound is half of the dramaturgy of the film. It gives the film space and volume”. Another unexpected outcome of this workshop was the, at times, dissociative effect that sound has. For instance, when listening to the soundtracks, Ran Mendelson, another of the filmmaker guests, commented that there tended to be a gap between what he thought he was hearing to what was actually producing the sound in the film. This kind of observation brings attention to a dissociative effect common amongst foley artists, who re-create sound de-contextualised from their origin. While this kind of schizophonia may be expected and at times welcome in the sound design world, it is interesting to consider it in the context of ethnographic documentary. Sound in cinema is subjected to mediation and narrativisation in, as the image is. But this schizophonic experience also refers to Sound attention is mediated and narrativised what he thought was producing the sound the quality of sound itself, that when operating independently it takes a shape and meaning of its own.


The final part of the Contours of Sound programme was a round table discussion with some of the filmmaker guests of the festival. Bringing together a group of filmmakers to discuss their approach towards any aspect of the film-making process tends to highlight the differences between approaches rather than their commonalities. The amount of time that was allotted to the discussion did not really offer the opportunity to go very deep into the conceptual approaches. Rather we hovered over the technicalities – i.e. some filmmakers prefer to work with a crew, some prefer diegetic music, some do not, some think of sound early in the process, others consider it in latter stages of post-production. It seemed to me that a lot of these decisions are connected to the demands of the subject matter as much as to the filmmaker's sensibility and sense of narrative. Another limitation brought about by the time constraints was the fact that we did not have the time to present examples of what the filmmakers were talking about. After all, it was the first day of the festival and we had not had the opportunity to watch any of the films yet and the filmmakers could not really connect their points with the practical results that they were seeking to articulate. Perhaps, a workshop like this would have been more effective had it be held after the festival. But then again, who wants to continue talking about films after a week of watching films continuously.


In retrospect, the programme was verifiable hit. It was really effective and getting people to think about themes and issues that they do not usually form part of film festival discussions. It is ironic that something as ubiquitous and as present as sound tends to be “silenced” in festival discussions. More importantly, events like these generate awareness of the complexities of the ethnographic film-making craft and go against any kind of notion that ethnographic documentaries are less mediated and less technological that other kinds of cinema.

Carlo A. Cubero

University of Tallinn

Moments from the round table: Ran Mendelson, Giuseppe Tedeschi and Alyssa Grossmann