Sound Theory (The Clouds)


In the cinema we might hear the sound of a cloth as it rubs against the skin at 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 which is a regular feature of the auditory experience of film and audiovisual media.

The role of loudspeakers and microphones and the way they imprint the sonorous conditions of our media saturated environment is frequently unacknowledged. They do not only affect the sounds we hear, but the ways we make sense of our own listening.

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 imprints which are physically impossible to occur simultaneously – those produced at the point of audition of each pairing of microphone and instrument – as one single acoustic signal, in natural circumstance. But as Kim-Cohen points out, such spatial coalescence becomes specific, and prototypical, of the field of audio recording from then on. 1

Beardsley Victor

Audile Technique

Jonathan Sterne in the book The Audible Past accounts for the conditions in which the birth of sound reproduction technologies at the end of the nineteenth century arose. He emphasizes there the transformations that, across the late nineteenth century, had taken place and had already altered the way listening was being performed.

Thus, new technologies of sound reproduction, apart from expanding the range of possible sound to be produced and proliferated, were part in the development of new competences and new sensibilities. Sterne elaborates on this emergence through what he labels Audile Technique. 1 p. 154]

As sound ceased to be necessarily anchored in a subject that produces it, new skills and modes of attending to sound ensued. These modes encompassed the ‘separation of hearing from the other senses’ as well as the ‘connection between sound, listening and rationality’ (p. 154), the ‘focus on detail’ (p.157), the possibility to conceive of a ‘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 was thus essential for what Sterne also labels the shift towards a tympanic paradigm, in which the focus of technology moved towards the ear, prompting further alterations 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. These practices, informed by collective and material conditions, shape how sound constitutes awareness of one’s environment. In her book “Aurality – Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia” sound studies scholar and musicologist Ana Maria Ochoa exposes how listening is entwined with different cosmologies and 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.” Thus she develops: “a theory of sound implies a listener, [it] imagines a listener and an idea of reception of sound.” 1

In her analysis of the sounding practices of the Bogas – the rowers that traversed the riverine connection of the caribbean atlantic and the Amazon through the territory later known as Colombia – she recounts how to the ears of the European colonial settlers-explorers, the expression of the bogas was comprehended as a mixture of heard linguistic expressions, musical manifestations and “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 was inaccurately appraised by the colonial explorers, their listening incompatible with the diverse logic which articulated voice and listening in the cosmology of the Bogdas. While for the Europeans the voice was conceived as a locus of subjective expression, identifying their own division of language, music and the imitation of the environment, for the BOgas the practice of vocalization of animal sounds, rather than “representing an entity”, were part of the manifestation of 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.” 2

Essentially, Ochoa provides here a fundamental example of how listening is intrinsic to a performative engagement with one’s environment, in which attention unfolds following the form in which the coupling of sensing agent and milieu takes place.

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.

The use of scenes “in perspective”, as were for the first time deployed in Florentine opera, is part of what Chua accounts for as the conditions for a 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.”

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. […] 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

In Chua’s book this argument is coupled to another fundamental one: that the emergence of a notion of absolute music was inherent in the conditions prompted by the new-born opera. Fundamentally, Chua lays the ground to consider how opera’s staging paradigm informed the kind of attention that symphonic music would later rely upon. In opera the role of text in monody “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 within a vibrating mass.
The problem does not concern then 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 technologies of sound reproduction are not hidden as a seemingly anonymous screen, but their material imprint is exposed. The spectator is prompted to make sense of their 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 as technical 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 disciplines informs protocols that 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 the use of cloud machinery in theatre stages.
Buccheri notes that the ubiquitous uses of clouds in renaissance painting was deeply influenced by the moving clouds as stage props used 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 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

In both Cinema and Music, listening is informed by the spectatorial protocols of the theatre. As cinema scholar Morten Meldgaard stated “moving pictures only became cinema when it encountered architecture, [when] the movie-house [became] a spatio-temporal construct for the social venue of cinematic viewing”. 1 Music, on the other hand, has been integrated with the theatre house since its fundamental affiliation with the beginnings of the opera.

Sound Theory (The Clouds) explores the theatre context as a fundamental infrastructure of staging that focuses and synchronizes the attention of spectators. In a world in which the manipulation of the senses via real-time communication and media technologies is ubiquitous, this project asks the question: how do the material qualities and infrastructures of audiovisual technologies inform our engagement with the world around us?

Arne Deforce / Festival Dag in de Branding / Foto: Wouter Vellekoop


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, as they become a locus of attention, a sensorial conditions that modulates the performance of the auditory.

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