In Walter Murch’s “Stretching Sound to Help the Mind See”, we are invited to think about the role of sound in cinema and in our own lives. He makes reference to recording prototypes by Edison, and early 20th century films, some of which may be too obscure for a younger generation. For example: the last time I watched the Godfather Trilogy, it was playing on a Laserdisc – everything is better on Laserdisc. What I found most compelling was Murch’s idea about sound and three-dimensional perception as a hallucination:
…the depth we perceive is not a hallucination. But the way we perceive it — its particular flavor — is uniquely our own… And in that sense it is a kind of hallucination, because the brain does not alert us to what is actually going on. Instead, the dimensionality is fused into the image and made to seem as if it is coming from “out there” rather than “in here.”
As much as there is a rift dividing the generations and their tastes in movies, there is an even greater rift dividing the generations in our ever-expansive field of technologically induced hallucinations. In the span of homosapiens’ arrival as a species, it has only been a blink of an eye since we clever apes invented devices to trick our ears into believing in a virtual world of sound.
Specifically, I’m reminded of another classic film, George Romero’s Day of the Dead, when the zombie “Bub” hear’s music for the first time in his (undead) life.
There is a mixture of joy and terror, living in a world filled with synthetic sound.
As we currently push the limits of computer-generated images, virtual reality, and augmented reality, I cannot help but wonder if I will simply be too old to appreciate the benefits. I’ll admit that getting my first iPod turned me into a zombie of sorts, and who wouldn’t want to fill the doldrums of everyday life with their own personal soundtrack? This welcomed distraction was not without consequence, because my primate brain was too poorly equipped to tackle the nuances separating the real from the virtual – I’ve walked out into traffic on more than one occasion because the sound in my ears was too engrossing for me to keep my wits about me.
What will become of sound, now that virtual acoustics are entering the market place, creating virtual, interactive audio environments in a mobile platform?
The progress of cinema as a means of escape, is not that different from our organic evolution. From simple paintings on the walls of caves to MegaPlex 3D Movies, every step has required humanity to sacrifice a little bit of what we consider to be “real”. As Murch pointed out:
King Ndombe of the Congo consented to have his voice recorded in 1904 but immediately regretted it when the cylinder was played back: the “shadow” danced on its own, and he heard his people cry in dismay: “The King sits still, his lips are sealed, while the white man forces his soul to sing!”
The next evolution of sound will not provoke thoughts of spirits or souls, but will create space for sound that is hyper-real, and cleaner than the sounds produced by our natural environments. Coupled with other electronic and synthetic facets of reality, we’ll be forced to reconcile our world with one that is unreal, but ultimately a stronger reflection of our internal perception of the world.