A tree falls in a forest … and makes no sound. The age-old koan isn’t said, but the audience understands the reference. It’s one of the earliest images in 32 Sounds, a documentary that asks the viewer to actively consider various questions about listening. Cinema privileges the visual; sound is not just a secondary but often a forgotten element of its construction in the popular consciousness. Director Sam Green and musician JD Samson (of Le Tigre and MEN fame) have created this film to encourage the opposite, even requesting that viewers close their eyes for stretches of time to fully engage their ears.
To accommodate the many ways film can be experienced, there are multiple versions of 32 Sounds, each tailored to a different setting. There’s one fairly standard iteration for its theatrical run, with immersive sound coming from the cinema’s speakers. The streaming version has a sound mix tailored for computer speakers and, especially, headphones. Select theaters will have headphones on hand for audience members, and roughly three-quarters of the film’s audio comes through those devices instead of the theater’s speakers. (This is the version I previewed.) And finally, there is a touring variation of the experience, similar to the headphone theatrical one, but featuring Green narrating and Sampson performing music live in the space.
This blending of cinema and performance continues a trend that Green has been investigating in his recent works, such as his “live documentary” A Thousand Thoughts, from several years back. If the opportunity presents itself, I would highly recommend checking out one of these hybrid exhibitions of 32 Sounds, as its use of headphones absolutely adds to the experience. The film even explains the distinction between familiar theatrical sound (which is focused on immersion) and binaural sound (which is how human ears actually experience the world around us).
This explanation is but one of the various vignettes comprising the film. It features myriad sounds, and it’s not always easy to discern which is the focus, since fewer than half are definitively identified by either onscreen text or the narration. But that doesn’t really matter, and the presentation of each sound poses a different question for the viewer to consider. A whoopie cushion serves as part of an explanation of the biological mechanism of hearing. Experimental composer Annea Lockwood invites us to hear music in the everyday sounds of nature. Foley artist Joanna Fang demonstrates how she creates sounds for video games and film, revealing how what sounds “right” to us can often be very different from how things sound in reality. (She creates audio for that shot of the falling tree by, among other things, dropping a log, making wood joints creak, and rustling strips of plastic.)
The documentary also draws attention to how much of sound’s effect lies in silence. John Cage’s “4’33” is cited, of course, as is the work of deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. The contrasts between absence and presence emerge as one of the primary themes of 32 Sounds, as Green highlights recordings he’s made of conversations with his late father or his erstwhile documentary-subject-turned-friend Nehanda Abiodun. At the British Library, an archived record of the extinct bird Moho braccatus’s mating call demonstrates how even lost history can survive in this way. Sound is, after all, not a tangible thing but a phenomenon created in our brains through our interactions with the world, subjective and tied deeply to emotion. The most impressive aspect of 32 Sounds is the way it emphasizes this through its own toying with audio vectors.
32 Sounds screens at the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) April 24–May 4, with Q&As on April 28, 29, and 30. Further US screenings are scheduled through May and June. A full schedule can be found on the website.