Sound Theory (The Clouds)


In the cinema we might hear the sound of a cloth as it rubs against the skin with the same volume of a glass crashing into the ground. This is possible thanks to the massive amplification of the tiniest sound phenomena, even those we wouldn’t be able to perceive in everyday circumstances. This is an unnatural circumstance that nonetheless doesn’t shock us, because these and other frequent manipulations of audio technology are a regular feature of the auditory experience of film and audiovisual media.

The role of loudspeakers and microphones and the way they materially imprint the sonorous circumstances of our media saturated environment is frequently unacknowledged.

Sound scholar Seth Kim-Cohen signals the historical conditions that prompted a “new embodiment of sonic space” as it unraveled in “Muddy Waters’ 1948 recording of I feel like going home”. His observation is that this recording “sets a precedent for a sound condition that will determine a great deal of our implications of hearing from then on. An individual microphone is dedicated to each of the instruments: [voice, bass, guitar] or, more accurately, the guitar amplifier)”. This “new embodiment” alludes to the conflation of spatial conditions physically impossible to be heard simultaneously – those produced at the point of audition of each pairing of microphone and instrument – as one single acoustic signal. Such spatial coalescence becomes specific (and prototypical) of audio recording processes from then on. 1

Beardsley Victor

Audile Technique

Jonathan Sterne in the book The Audible Past accounted for the developments that informed the birth of sound reproduction technologies at the end of the nineteenth century. In this text, he focuses on the transformations which have altered the way listening is performed.

These new technologies of sound reproduction, apart from expanding the range of possible sound to be proliferated, fostered new competences and sensibilities. Sterne links those to the emergence of what he calls Audile Technique. 1 p. 154]

As sound ceased to be necessarily entwined with a producing subject, new skills and modes of attending to sound entailed. These modes implied the ‘separation of hearing from the other senses’, the ‘connection between sound, listening and rationality’ (p. 154), the ‘focus on detail’ (p.157), the ‘reconstruction of acoustic space’ and the consolidation of a ‘private acoustic space’ (p.160). The disappearance of the subject as a necessary condition to which sound was attributed — until the nineteenth century the attempts to technically reproduce sound had been focused on the creation of automata — was at the core of what Sterne labels the tympanic paradigm. The focus of the technology moved towards the ear, prompting further transformations in the ways in which attention to sound developed later on.

Melissa van Drie on the birth of the Théâtrophone and the origin of new listening configurations

Brian Kane on Sterne’s Audile Techniques. Source: West Den Haag / Vimeo


Sound is constantly entering into relationships with practices of listening. Collective and material conditions shape the way sound takes part of different types of awareness of one’s environment. In her book “Aurality – Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia” sound studies scholar and musicologist Ana Maria Ochoa states that “a theory of sound implies a listener, [it] imagines a listener and an idea of reception of sound.” 1

“In the relation between each of these entities—a listening subject, an object that produces a sound, and a supposed listener of that sound object—what is produced is an ontology of relationships, an idea of how to think the interaction between entities that produce/hear sounds” 2

Ochoa’s research reveals how different modes of understanding the relationship between self and environment in distinct cosmovisions prompt ways in which listening is performed. Her research delves into the way colonial settlers in nineteenth century Colombia imposed upon the indigenous people of the region a criteria for distinguishing between language, music and the sound of the environment which was insensitive to the relational dimension that these elements had in the culture and ways of living of the people of the region.

In her analysis of the sounding practices of the Bogas – the rowers that traversed the riverine connection of the caribbean atlantic through the territory later known as Colombia – she recounts how to the ears of the european settlers-explorers, the expression of the bogas was a mixture of: heard linguistic expressions, musical manifestations, “the imitation of the sound of tigers, whistling of the serpent, the shout of the parrot and howling dogs”.

The point that Ochoa makes is that the role of vocal utterances of the bogas is inaccurately appraised by the colonial explorers, as they conceive of the voice as a locus of subjective expression, identifying the division of language, music and the imitation of the environment as distinct functions of the vocal. Instead, the practice of vocalization of animal sounds is to be understood in the cosmovision of the bogas, rather than as “representing an entity”, as manifesting the “locus of a transpersonal self”.

“Voice permits the “sharing of certain attributes” (Sahlins 2013, 31) between beings where relations between entities are conceived as constituting a “mutuality of being” (Sahlins 2013). Voice, rather than a mediation between worlds is “a medium of mutuality” (Sahlins 2013, 54) in the constitution of a notion of a distributed self. […] What the bogas would be doing in envoicing such multiplicity is to invoke the transformational potential of becoming that all envoicement entails. It has been said that the exchange of pronouns between beings or parts of the body is a method to name “a transpersonal existence” (Sahlins 2013). If it is so with pronouns, it is even more so with the sonority of animal voices, as vocalizing them implies giving presence to different parts of that transpersonal being and/or to the mutuality established between beings.” 3

Essentially, Ochoa shows through this crucial example how the role of vocality in the bogas was entwined with another mode of understanding listening, inherent in a particular mode of being in the world: “before the question how do people perceive the environment in auditory terms comes the question of how the very boundaries between personhood and the environment are.”

Source: Center for Science and Society / YouTube

Aural Spectacle

Musicologist Daniel Chua makes a case on his book Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning for the entwined nature of the birth of the opera and the development of stage machinery.

On the articulation of opera and stage design, he elaborates:

How does this optic regime work? There are two stages to the process: a backstage and a frontstage. The backstage was cluttered with machines. The rituals of magic that imitate the invisible forces of the supernatural world through the descent of deities from clouds and the flying of furies from the pit of hell were controlled with an Oz-like wizardry from behind the scenes.
Such stage machinery was something of a ‘crowd puller’ that winched in the audiences, particularly with the commodification of opera in the Seventeenth Century. […]
The backstage is therefore the site of modern science; the ancient magic that the Camerata sought is only possible through modern technology. For all its magic, opera is a machine world of cause (backstage) and effect (frontstage).
So upstage there might be an ancient cosmos with rotating spheres and ethereal beings in full flight, but the magic is thoroughly modern, purely instrumental and entirely human. 1

The use of scenes “in perspective”, as they were for the first time deployed in Florentine opera, sets a peculiar listening stance: “cosmic infinity has been replaced by the infinity of the vanishing point which puts the human eye at the centre of perception. With this monocular vision, music no longer looks down upon humanity but is looked upon as an object […] what is extended through the eye of the prince beyond the backdrop is the stage machinery” (p. 45-46). This is a “seminal” practice that “created the epistemological structures in which music could be objectified on stage for the perspectival gaze of the subject.”

Such argument is coupled to another prime argument in Chua’s book: that the emergence of a notion and practice of absolute music was inherent in the conditions prompted by the birth of the opera. Fundamentally, Chua lays the ground to consider how opera’s staging and representational paradigm informed the kind of attention that symphonic music would later rely upon. Operatic practice was entwined with the role of text in monody which “makes audible the disembodied bubble of the ‘invisible interior’ that is the modern subject; it negates the ‘scriptive space’ of resemblances [that informed the space of music in ancient times, and replaces it with] the sung speech of self-representation” (p. 35).

From Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning Page 59 (D. Chua)

Edison and Dickson's Kinetophone

This short film was a test for Edison’s “Kinetophone” project, the first attempt in history to record sound and moving image in synchronization. This was an experiment by William Dickson to put sound and film together either in 1894 or 1895.

Source: belowline / YouTube

Embodied Sensoriality

Our engagement with the world is saturated by sound. Quite often, sound is associated with the most ethereal realities: that of song and lyricism or the vaporous ephemerality of illusions. But sound also constitutes a sensitive layer through which we experience the proximity of a body, the harsh surface of walls around us or the vastness or oppressing nature of a place. Sound is a material reality whose experience is deeply ingrained in our embodied engagement with our surroundings.

The material nature of the acoustic is often inaccurately addressed by applying categories born out of the domain of the visual or out of the diagrammatic models aimed to identify the functions of practical objects. Since sound is always an expansive phenomena which unfolds inherent to the vibration of a mass (of air, or other materials), it is not possible to “locate” sounds in the same way that we locate points in a diagram. The way we experience the spatial and material qualities of sound are part of the ways we make sense of our engagement with this vibrating mass.
This problem does not concern an opposition of the auditory and the visual, but rather with different regimes of the sensorial as they are usually employed to engage with the auditory or the visual. As cinema scholar Laura Marks states “Cultural traditions that do not separate vision so radically from the body have less need to deconstruct and reimagine visuality” 1

In Sound Theory (The Clouds) the technique of sound reproduction is not hidden as a seemingly anonymous screen, but their material imprint is exposed. The spectator is prompted to make sense of these material qualities and explore the adjustments that listening requires as one engages with the technical configuration of sound reproduction.


Focus is an installation problematizing the ambiguous materiality of the audible. 1

The core of the piece is to create a conflict between the recreation of a spatial impression and the embodied interaction with the acoustic circumstance where the loudspeaker projects sonorous oscillations.

In wandering across the room the listener crosses perceptual thresholds: points where the audible transforms from the re-enaction of a fictional space to a nearly-tactile experience. Listening is rendered as a constant process of adaptation, attuning to the material conditions inherent in the circuit of audio reproduction.

Source: Gabriel Paiuk / Vimeo

Godard and Sound

In her book “Godard and Sound”, cinema scholar Albertine Fox explores the notion of “Acoustic Spectatorship”, and elaborates on the way filmmaker Jean Luc Godard pushed the boundaries of this domain. As such, it prompts to consider further Godard not only as a filmmaker but also - as has also been proposed through other perspectives - as a more widely encompassing media artist for whom the dimension of the acoustic renewed the ways to think our experience of the audiovisual.

Source: Sophie Demay / Vimeo

Infrastructures of Imagination

In the theatre distances are not neutralized, they are ‘transfixed’. That is because even when in theatre a table is a table, the table is there not to fulfil a table-function but, fundamentally, to be sensorially experienced. The act of gazing, listening or “touching at a distance” becomes more important than the real distance that separates us from the table.

This transfixing act inhabits stages and screens from the Greek amphitheatre to the digital surfaces of mobile phones. These could be considered both as technical configurations and as infrastructures where perception is modulated. In both cinema and music there are codes that steer how the spectator listens, how the sound is to be attended to and how the spectator locates itself in relation to the sound. Musical sound (in its habitual form) detaches our attention from the “material reality” of sound production: we are prompted to hear the pitch produced by the instrument and not the effort of the person doing it. On the other hand, cinema can ‘fictionalize’ incidental sound: we hear noises as an imaginary ‘out of screen’ field in the mind of a fictional character thanks to cinema’s montage operations. As such, each of these discplines is informed by protocols and techniques which modulate how we listen.

As French philosopher Bernard Stiegler states, as “we perceive, most of the time, through the intermediary prostheses of perception”, the synthesis that we as subjects perform “stems from knowledge [we have] of the technical conditions of the image-object´s production”. In other words, it is the way we rely on the technologies we use that is the foundation of our perception.

On Cloud Machinery

Alessandra Buccheri in “The Spectacle of Clouds” traces the interlinked history of cloud paintings in renaissance chapels and ceilings and the use of cloud machinery in theatre stages. Buccheri notes that the ubiquitous uses of clouds in renaissance painting was deeply influenced by the tradition of moving clouds as stage props in religious spectacle of late medieval times. She argues that it was “stagecraft that exerted a greater influence on painting, and not the other way around”.

Buccheri underlines how the theatrical context in which cloud machinery was developed was ubiquitous in early renaissance, coupled to the use of “lighting, chanting, music” which enhanced the intensity of the illusion. This enhances experience prompted “religious theatre, from the fourteenth century onwards” to become “a useful model to look at for painters who wanted to represent a seemingly real three-dimensional heaven”.

In Florentine art, there use of clouds in a theatrical fashion in sculptures and paintings portraying the Annunciation, the Assumption and Ascension, can possibly be traced to the significant development of the cloud machinery. This phenomenon became striking from the fourteenth century onwards, when Florentine art moved from a symbolic to a more overtly narrative approach. According to some historians, it was because of this new narrative approach that artists, searching for a new language, turned to theatre to find new ideas and spatial solutions. 1

Staged Listening

Sound Theory (The Clouds) tackles the theatrical as an elementary infrastructure of staging that focuses and synchronizes the attention of spectators.

In both Cinema and Music, listening is informed by the spectatorial forms afforded by the theatre context. As cinema scholar Morten Meldgaard stated “moving pictures only became cinema when it encountered architecture. This observation refers to the movie-house as a spatio-temporal construct for the social venue of cinematic viewing”. 1 Music, on the other hand, has been articulated with the theatre house since its fundamental affiliation dating to the birth of the opera, in ways which have informed music making and auditory attention ever since.

Sound Theory (The Clouds) tackles this manifold configuration of cinema, music and theatre by operating on the way sound becomes a site for the sensorial engagement of the spectator.

Arne Deforce


From the cinema screen and the mobile phone to the theatre stage or online platforms, the protocols of synchronization of the performative, the visual and the aural regularly sustain our sensorial engagement and what we acknowledge as present.
Sound Theory (The Clouds) challenges the steady nature of this perceptual synchronization. The coupling of the visual, material and auditory is dissasembled, visual images are disrupted in their capacity to represent to become sensitive conditions that modulate the performance of the auditory.

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