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‘Aesthetic Potentials of Sound are Rarely Explored’ – Budhaditya Chattopadhyay on the Use of Sound in Cinema

December 23, 2021 | By

Dr. Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is an India-born media artist, researcher and writer. He holds a Ph.D. in Sound Studies and Artistic Research from the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts of Leiden University, The Netherlands, and an M.A. in New Media from Aarhus University, Denmark. Shoma A Chatterji catches up with the artist and talks on two seminal works on sound in cinema by Dr Chattopadhyay.

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay sound in cinema

Dr Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

Shoma A Chatterji (SC): What does the word ‘sound’ mean to you – as a word per se, and as a word as related to cinema and other audio-visual media and so on. How do you link sound in cinema with sound per se?

Dr Budhaditya Chattopadhyay (BC):  Sound as a word has many connotations for me, firstly, it is a sensation that the body perceives through a few artifices, the ear the foremost, and then the haptic perception of the vibration through different parts of the body. Sound, to me, is a prominent medium of connections to the world I inhabit. This connection is built often through various perceptual and cognitive processes, and on many levels: ontological, epistemological, and phenomenological. Personally, I am interested in the phenomenological aspects of sonic perception, in which the world unfolds through a poetic moment of rupture and illumination. Sound, on an artistic level, offers to me an unassuming and powerful phenomenon that is deeply personal, as well as surprisingly social, in that sound connects bodies and entities, both humans and non-humans in a collective, communal and reciprocal entanglement.

When it comes to cinema and other audio-visual media, sound is not given due attention and care it deserves, particularly on a subconscious level. Sound’s power in creating alternative realities and cognitive worlds often remained untapped throughout the history of cinema, in which sound is just a tool to tell the stories or create (entertaining) interruptions in the narrative development. The sonic possibility of unfolding realities is often not creatively explored in commercial cinema. If sound is artfully made in cinema, it can take the audience on a listening journey through the sites and settings as well as form alternative narratives parallel to the obvious visual realm. Few filmmakers recognise the sensory nuances and sensitivity that sound offers. When they do, the cinematic experience becomes more relatable and engaging with in-depth connection to the mediated worlds.

SC: You have authored two seminal texts on Sound in Cinema – Between the Headphones and The Auditory Setting – Environmental Sounds in Film and Media Arts. What motivated you to take up such an in-depth and investigative research into sound in cinema? You have explained this in the beginning of your book but a layman’s perspective is needed.

BC: These two books are the result of years of research and groundwork, of thinking and doing, of learning and listening critically, of writing and editing. From the very first cinematic experience in my boyhood, my ears were attuned to the sound environment inside the cinematically mediated world. One of the earliest films that I remember around the age of seven or eight, was Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! – a silent film with non-diegetic music added later in the Grigori Aleksandrov’s 1979 version – I was anticipating the sounds of the Mexican landscape in the film, but they did not appear.

The Auditory Setting

The Auditory Setting

Growing up in the countryside near the Bengal-Bihar border, I was exposed to the sound of nature and a generous landscape. I used to anticipate the intricate layers of sound when I was in the movie theatre. Sadly, most of the films didn’t sound well. When it came to Indian films, the overuse of background score, and verbose soundtracks left me disengaged and dissatisfied. Thus, sound in cinema, especially environmental sounds, became an area of inquiry. The Auditory Setting (2021) is the outcome of this inquisitiveness since my boyhood, a curiosity that was exacerbated by my joining the film school, Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in India, and later my MA in Audio-visual Media, equipping me with certain research methodologies. To ground my research in the practical world, I was compelled to discuss the issues with the leading sound practitioners in the Indian film industry. Between the Headphones (2021) is the outcome of these long conversations.

SC: Why do you think, the area of sound in cinema has been greatly ignored and/or marginalised in cinema studies when compared to other technical areas of cinema?

 BC: Sound’s aesthetic and psychosomatic possibilities in cinema are more significant than the mere technicalities. However, very rarely sound’s aesthetic potentials are explored in cinema by creative practice. As sound designer Walter Murch suggests, ‘We begin to hear before we are born, four and a half months after conception’ (1994), but, after birth, our sight and the visual sense become dominant over sound; aural realisation surfaces only when the visual is absent in perception. This is somewhat like a blind person feeling insecure when objects around him or her are moved. Because of this audio-visual hierarchy in human perception, in their cinematic worlds, sound is taken for granted, and most often undervalued. If another species with a strong aural perception would make other audio-visual mediated worlds, sound could be central in the narrative development and construction of spatiality.

SC: You specialised in the study of sound and did your Ph.D. and post-doctorate in sound in the audio-visual media. You are also a sound practitioner yourself and not just a theorist and author. What made you decide on studying the use of sound in so much detail over other more popular areas of cinema technology such as cinematography, editing and so on?

 BC: As I mentioned earlier, my first cinematic experience instilled in me a curiosity for film as a mediated experience, as well as arousing my interest in the construction of its sonic world, leading to the development of an aesthetic and critical aptitude towards sound in film and media arts. Later, I evolved into a cinephile and graduated from SRFTI specialising in sound, and came across some remarkable films where sound played a crucial role. Having a tape recorder in my boyhood for play was an introduction to sound recording learning by discovering what it means, and how it profoundly impacts listening.

My early sound recordings were lost in the 2000 flood in Birbhum along with many other tapes, CDs and records in our house. One of the reasons I came to study sound in a film school was to learn audio restoration techniques, how to salvage these damaged tapes. Other important factors include my father, who introduced me to radio broadcasts of Western Classical music very early in life, and my mother singing Indian Classical music and Rabindra Sangeet at home and as a music director. I was also influenced by my father-like elder brother-in-law Sarbari Roy Choudhury, who had a large collection of music at his Santiniketan residence. On some weekends I spent listening to from his records and reel-to-reel tapes. Much later, I spent many evenings at artist and art critic Kishore Chatterjee’s house, listening to classical music from CDs. In one of these sessions I re-discovered Dhrupad of Dagar Brothers. The two decades of avid music listening have been fundamental to my developing interest in sound, and in becoming an artist and researcher. My father’s closest friend, and my uncle writer Sandipan Chattopadhyay has been a huge influence in my literary interests and in my writing.

SC: Your focus in both the books is on the different kinds, qualities and significance of ambient sound which you have further classified into different sub-sets in terms of technique used, understanding which covers the historical evolution of sound in cinema from traditional methods of analog sound to digital sound and so on. Do you agree that these are addressed mainly to people specialised in cinema as creative people such as the director, the sound engineer, the recordist, etc? If so, how will you address the lay reader on sound?

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

Dr Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

BC: Both books cover the historical evolution of sound in cinema from conventional methods through the analog era to digital era of sound recording and production.

While Between the Headphones is squarely focussed on the nitty gritty of practice and the practical worlds of filmmaking in India primarily addressing the filmmakers and practitioners specialised in cinema as creative personnel such as director, the sound engineer, the recordist, The Auditory Setting is an academic treatise on the role and use of environmental sound in cinema not limited to Indian films, as it discusses global film and media works representative of creative sound practice with a particular focus on specific sites and their environments.

The wide-ranging film examples discussed in this book span Asian, American and European cinemas, and from the early talkies till contemporary digital eras, some of which are my personal favourites. My own associations and personal reading of these films and artworks create an auto-ethnographic premise to the subject of inquiry. From this vantage point, the book may appeal to general readers and filmgoers.

SC: What do you feel about the sociological, cultural and emotional significance of sound in Indian cinema? Your interviews with directors and sound designers do focus indirectly in these areas but they are too technically written for a lay reader like myself.

BC: The interviews collected in Between the Headphones indirectly touch upon the sociological, cultural and emotional significance of sound in cinema. These in-depth conversations with the sound technicians and practitioners working in Indian Cinema, however, focus primarily on the technological evolution of sound, and how these trajectories impacted on the aesthetic choices and working conditions. While talking about the working conditions, the practitioners illuminate the sociological issues related to film industries in India, such as the hierarchical structures of the filmmaking crew, the struggles to achieve creative freedom, and the rewards that come when a project is craftily done. These questions appear ground up and with the practical knowledge that only the practitioners can provide. On the other hand, The Auditory Setting opens up the discourse and gives insights on the cultural and emotional significance of sound in cinema by making a more scholarly intervention. In the latter book, research and critical inquiry are invested in uncovering the cultural and emotional role environmental sound plays in cinema.

SC: In  Book  of  Silence,  author  Sara  Maitland  observes  that  people  often  perceive  silence  negatively,  equating  it  to  emptiness  and  have  the  urge  to  fill  those  beautiful  moments  even  if  in  a  conversation;  with  chatter  instead  of  just  allowing  the  quietness  to  linger. But within Indian cinema, silence mainly has negative social values such as Dalits and women in Indian films often speaking less or not speaking at all.   This is a cinematic element that focusses on the socio-cultural and even political use of silence. What is your comment?

BC: I hope future film researchers will be interested to delve into these debates. In the capacity of my books, I could uncover some aspects of silence in cinema, particularly focussing on the materiality of ambient sound and the psychosomatic resonances that is left for a sensitive listener of the film. Given this focus on my book, I did not get enough space to discuss the lack of representation of women and Dalit voices in Indian films. In my postdoctoral project (Connecting Resonances), however, I am trying to lend my critical ears to these issues. I am uncovering a lack of representation of Global South voices in contemporary sound studies. Echoing Arundhati Roy, I would say that they are not voiceless, but they are not heard enough; or they are silenced through colonial violence.

SC: What is your personal opinion on the use of music in Indian cinema – as entertainment, as a time-bridge, as time leap, as orchestra support for dances, as emotional expressions of romance, grief, fun, etc?

BC: Music in Indian film is employed primarily to create specific moods; often these mood suggestions are crude and obvious, and lack complexity. A layered moment of rare silence is always invaded by a foregrounded mood music, which erases the nuances of sound and scopes for a sensitive listening. This vulgarity in sound practice dominates Indian cinema in the dubbing era, which is notorious for a lack of qualified sound use. Music is also used as an easy aural mask to camouflage the mediocrity of mainstream popular Indian film sound. So-called alternative cinema, challenged these normative practices by offering sound as a creative tool and using methods such as direct sound. Indian indies took this boldness forward by experimenting with sound. Music was not needed in these films. If music was present, it was a diegetic element. A more mature approach to music was found in these new breeds of Indian films. Music, such as interruptive songs, still continues to entertain, and plays a central role for film’s revenue, and provides for film producer’s extra earning through album sales and promotion. From an aesthetic perspective, songs and foregrounded background music have little role to play in enriching the cinematic experience with value.

SC: How long did it take you to write each book from conception to final draft?

BC: The Auditory Setting (2021) took 5 years of formation through my doctoral research at University of Copenhagen (2012 – 2015) and Leiden University (2016 – 2017), and further 3 years of writing. In the year 2020, I was stuck in Estonia due to an unanticipated Covid lockdown, during which I finished, and submitted the manuscript. Between the Headphones (2021) also took 8 years of development through interviews conducted in fieldworks during my PhD and further with a support of a film research fellowship (2017 – 2018) from SRFTI. In 2020, I finished writing and editing the book.

SC: Your next project?

BC: My ongoing (postdoctoral) project is an investigation into the decolonial ways of listening and locating a sonic confluence between the East and the West, and between Global North and Global South developing historically through artistic and cultural exchanges and transmission of knowledge that subtly overpower the colonial hierarchies and binaries.

SC: Thank you Dr Chattopadhyay. All the best for your future endeavour.

BC: Thank you.

More to read

Knifing the Body – Depiction of Maiming in Cinema

From Margins to Centre Stage

Silent Film Studies: The Curious Absence of Film Sound in Film Theory

Space Sound Color: Giving Life To An Art Film

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
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