Sound Theory (The Clouds)


The role of loudspeakers and microphones – as technologies of sound reproduction – and the way they materially imprint the sonorous circumstances they produce is frequently unacknowledged.

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 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.

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

Sound Theory (The Clouds) acts upon the acoustic through disassembling the frontal and immersive quality of sound staging practices. It prompts questions such as: How does the imprint of sound mediation techniques prompt a diverse embodied experience of sound? how do the processes of recording and reproducing might render a sonorous circumstance as a fiction or as a testimony?

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 that would 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


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

Sound is constantly entering into relationships with practices of listening, that is, collective and material conditions which shape how sound gets transformed into different types of awareness. “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 different cosmovisions prompt ways in which listening is performed. Her research exposes how 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 fundamentally insensitive to the actual relationship that these elements played within the culture and way of living of the people of the region.

In her analysis of the sounding practice 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 the vocal utterances of the bogas need not be conceived from the point of view and tools that the colonial botanists applied, but can be accounted for through a vocality which manifests the “locus of a transpersonal self” rather than “represent an entity”. That is

“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 entwiend with another mode of understanding listening, which was itself entwined with a particular modes 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 opera’s birth and the development of stage machinery. This is elaborated along one of Chua’s prime arguments: 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, representational practice informed the kind of attention that symphonic music would later rely upon.

In his analysis, the birth of this tradition is simultaneous with a way of using 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).

On the articulation of opera’s functioning and the role 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, is exposed as setting in place 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.”

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 objects in a functional way. This problem is not concerned with an opposition of the auditory and the visual, but rather with different regimes of the sensorial as they take place in the acoustic realm from those that are often habitually used to engage with 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

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.

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 elaborates on the deep engagement that filmmaker Jean Luc Godard has with the domain of sound. Although the role of Godard as an innovator in the domain of film sound has been widely acknowledged, this work is relevant in showing how Godard pushes the boundaries of what Fox labels “acoustic spectatorship”. It prompts to consider Godard as an encompassing media artist for whom the dimension of the acoustic renewed the ways to think our possible engagement with 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 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 ae 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 more elaborate and ubiquitous uses of clouds in renaissance painting was deeply influenced by the tradition of moving clouds as stage props in the religious spectacle of late medieval times – claiming that it was “stagecraft that exerted a greater influence on painting, and not the other way around”.

This is an interesting example of cross-medial influence between performative and pictorial arts. Buccheri underlines the fact that the theatrical context in which these cloud machinery was developed was ubiquitous in early renaissance, as well as the use of “lighting, chanting, music” which enhanced the intensity of the illusion. This prompted the fact that “religious theatre, from the fourteenth century onwards, became a useful model to look at for painters who wanted to represent a seemingly real three-dimensional heaven”.

In Florentine art, there is a recurrent use of cloud in a theatrical fashion in the case of sculptures and paintings portraying the Annunciation, the Assumption and Ascension, which can possibly be traced to the particularly significant development of the cloud machinery. This phenomenon started to be much more 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) unfolds at the confluence of music performance and cinematography as they both rely on the theatre as an infrastructure that modulates our engagement with sound. Theatre is here understood in its very elementary form, as a staging practice that organizes and synchronizes the attention of the spectator through its collective, architectural and technical protocols.

Both music performance and cinema are entwined with modes in which listening is informed by the spectatorial context of the theatre. As cinema scholar Morten Meldgaard states “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 practice has been articulated with theatre through a long lineage, one of its fundamental affiliations dating to the birth of opera in the renaissance. This audio-visual association has influenced music making and auditory attention ever since.

Sound Theory (The Clouds) tackles the three-fold configuration of cinema, music and theatre by acting on the way sound becomes a site for the sensorial engagement of the spectator. This is acted upon on two layers: the synchronization of the aural and the visual, and the ways in which the acoustic is materially rendered. Through misalignments and shifts in the way these two layers are bound together, the work exposes how listening adjusts to the technical circuits that mediate our engagement with our environment.

Arne Deforce


In the context of most audiovisual spectacle, from the cinema screen and the mobile phone to the theatre stage or an online platform, the steady protocols of synchronization of the performative, the visual and the aural regularly sustain the nature of our sensorial engagement and become mediators for what we acknowledge as being present
Sound Theory (The Clouds) challenges the continuity of this synchronization. In this challenge visual images are disrupted in their capacity to represent. They rather become sensitive conditions that modulate the way auditory impressions are formed.

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