What can we say about sound? It was so much easier when it was just music – a limited range of sounds and sound-sources, and a clearly delineated frame in which we could seek structure, regularities and underlying patterns. Once our preoccupation becomes sound, everything blows open. Just as the making of music has grown beyond orchestral playing and instrumental arrangement to recording, film post-production and game audio, so studying sound grows from narrowly musical analysis to psychoacoustics and protean fields such as sound studies or acoustic ecology.
“We talk about sound in every conceivable context,” says Michel Chion, “but the second it becomes a topic in itself…we no longer know what it is.” What makes this essay, newly translated into English by James Steintrager, stand out is that the author aims to capitalise on the breadth of the topic, rather than trying to make it manageable by reducing it. The book’s interconnected chapters (“intended for those interested in the topic from whatever discipline”) range over depictions of sound in literature, the role of technology and the physiology of the ear. (To the applause of undergraduates in music technology, the author calls into question the “uncertain status” of the decibel as a “bastard, dubious tool of quantification”.) Chion’s examination of ambient sound includes the observation that the sounds we might interpret as most representative of a place are not necessarily those that would score highest in brute statistics, leading him to the interesting concept of “soundmark”: “a community’s sonic jingle”, the encapsulation or cartoonish synecdoche of a location in the sounds that we would associate with it. Unsurprisingly, too – Chion was formerly professor of film at the École supérieure d’études cinématographiques in Paris, and is arguably best known for his books on film sound – he has much to say about sound in movies.
Chion’s work is refreshing in many ways. At the most general level, it is good to read a text that can refer to the Western classical canon unapologetically. From the opening reference to Racine’s Iphigénie, many of his reference points are the high culture heavy hitters: Homer, Schubert, Proust. In the UK, it feels as though anything that does not refer to the critical canon of Paddy McGuinness needs apology for elitism and, thanks to the sterling work of British education policy, young people reading Sound would assume that Artaud is the cute bleeping ’droid in the Star Wars franchise.
It is clear that Chion lives his topic deeply, and has not simply “researched” it. Alongside the extended theorisation, the book teems with thought-provoking observations, like the best of Jean Baudrillard (who could always be appreciated for his vignettes if not for his theories) or Roland Barthes. How good it is to find that someone else has asked himself why being subjected to one side of a conversation on a mobile phone is even more frustrating than overhearing a two-way conversation in person – and Chion has an answer.
Sound does not leave us with an integrated theory, but, then, much of contemporary French thought gives us provocation and insight rather than systematisation. To use the image made famous by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, we are given rhizomes instead of roots. Don’t we have more fun with Lego if we’re not told that we have to make a space shuttle with the pieces?
David Revill is assistant professor of music, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise
By Michel Chion
Translated by James A. Steintrager
Duke University Press, 312pp, £70.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780822360223 and 60391
Published 15 January 2016