Sundance 2022: 32 Sounds by Sam Green, extremely entertaining and fascinating example of STEAM presentation in the wonders of sound
The Sam Green Documentary 32 sounds, which was created as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers program, is a superb example of an interdisciplinary STEAM presentation (i.e., putting the art into STEM). Intelligent because extremely entertaining, Green has crafted an ideal film that will nurture anyone’s aspirations for career or personal experiences, which so delightfully integrate science, physics, music and sound design.
As it encourages audience interaction and on-site reactions, the documentary was meant to be part of a live performance before the festival shifted gears and went live. But, there is hope that live performances will take place at some point later this year. The answer should be an unequivocal yes.
During the first few minutes of setting the stage for the film, Green and collaborator composer JD Samson urge viewers to use headphones for the experience. Although it may not have been necessary, the use of headphones definitely enriched the experience.
What’s remarkable is how Green has synthesized the thread of 32 sounds – truly miniature chapters – into a documentary narrative as seamless as any finely edited narrative in other documentaries. Thereby, 32 sounds is a cinematic composition in a unique structure.
Green begins appropriately enough with the fact that a developing child in its mother’s womb at four months pregnant is able to hear all sounds. There’s a brief introduction to the British Library’s massive sound archive, a collection of seven million recordings, including rare examples from the earliest period available. Among them is the mating call of a Hawaiian bird species that became extinct in the 1980s. Only two remained – a male and a female – but the female was killed during a a hurricane. The sounds of a male bird trying unsuccessfully to attract a mate during breeding season amaze the senses.
Green’s sequences throughout the film are ingenious, quickly moving from the sound of a Zamboni resurfacing on a skating rink to the purring of a cat (a sound that still eludes a comprehensive understanding of this particular feline characteristic) and then to the sound universally familiar juvenile that comes from a whoopee cushion. The bonus is that Green offers the scientific explanation of how this novelty gag item can produce this grossly hilarious sound.
There’s also Green’s fascinating contemplation of Charles Babbage, the 19th-century mathematician who pioneered the fundamental thinking about programmable computers. Babbage’s 1837 quote grounds the film’s later transitions: “The air itself is a vast library on whose pages are forever written all that man ever said or woman whispered.” This concept appears throughout the film. Poet Fred Moten talks about hearing ghosts all the time, including his grandparents, parents, and other loved ones. There is the mention of shinshin, the unique Japanese term to describe the sound of falling snow. Green also enlists Christine Sun Kim, a sound artist who has been profoundly deaf since birth, and whose portfolio credits include appearances at the Super Bowl, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Kim’s work challenges conventions about sound and its considerations as social currency. Her 2015 TED talk recounted how she discovered the similarities between American Sign Language and music and how sound by means other than aural is as central to a Deaf person’s life as it is to anyone. else. Green has so many elucidating juxtapositions at play, with, for example, sound artist and experimental musician Mazen Kerbaj, from Lebanon, and physicist Edgar Choueiri, who is on the faculty at Princeton and a participating scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. .
In some of the most absorbing scenes, Green introduces audiences to avant-garde musicians and composers (including glimpses of Philip Glass, Minimalism’s greatest composer). There are clips of John Cage’s famous play 4′ 33″, which was truly a fundamental philosophical statement that has inspired contemporary composers to this day to think about immersive and ambient sounds in their work, which have taken many directions. The clips include Cage’s own street performance in the middle of Manhattan in 1971.
Meanwhile, Annea Lockwood, a composer and New Zealand native who remains active today at the age of 81, makes a major presence. Green presents a clip of her hot piano composition in a 1968 performance then cuts to a scene filmed in 2020 of the composer recording underwater sounds in a swamp. It is Lockwood’s distinction that in our engagement with sound, it is a ‘listening with’ experience, not a ‘listening’. This enticing statement emphasizes the ubiquitous stealth capability of sound. Indeed, the sound of a train horn in the distance—a mundane occurrence that suddenly seems unbelievable when thinking of Lockwood’s distinction—helps illustrate the point perfectly. She tells how evening sharpens our senses, as another world emerges in the darkness.
Lockwood’s presence in the film anchors Green’s thematic impulses with uplifting clarity. In the 1970s, Lockwood and electronic music pioneer composer Ruth Anderson recorded Conversations, a composition based on long distance calls that the two enjoyed. They would eventually spend the next 46 years together at their home in Flathead Lake, Montana, until Anderson passed away at the age of 91 in 2019. Anderson once wrote of his music: “She evolved from an understanding of sound as energy that affects one’s state. to be. [These are] pieces designed to promote self-fulfillment and unity with others. In truth, the two composers had always operated on the same wavelengths.
Green’s treasure chest of movie sounds is overflowing from the edges. There’s an overview of the trade secrets that make noisemakers an essential part of cinematic sound design. There is a fascinating scene of how binaural sound recordings immerse the listener in a way that a theater’s surround sound technology could never achieve. There are nostalgic tracks, like the songs that brought back 1970s experiences for Nahanda Abiodun, a Black Liberation Army activist who spent the rest of her life in exile in Cuba. There’s a five-minute intermission with DJ remixes, celebrating the hard-hitting bass beats of club favourites, including Giorgio Moroder’s creation of I feel love, immortalized by Donna Summer. The music includes a quick montage of video clips from the same period. Green pulls many classic treasures from the archives, including the Memorex ad from the 1970s, featuring jazz great Ella Fitzgerald smashing a glass with her voice: Hence one of the decade’s most memorable ad lines: “Is it direct from Memorex?
A Sundance veteran who produced many memorable projects. Green has designed this latest documentary to be ecumenical, accessible and meaningful to all, and its multidisciplinary value in particular should be highly valued.
The film is an Impact Partners project, with Geralyn Dreyfous, co-founder and chair of the board of the Utah Film Center, as one of the executive producers.