The new documentary “32 Sounds” premiered at Dartmouth in the Loew auditorium on Jan. 20, offering students and spectators a new way to experience sound. Though today’s college students never grew up with cassette tapes, record players or CDs, we interact with sound everyday without realizing it — particularly in the age of social media, with viral Tik Tok songs and sound bytes. Nonetheless, we rarely pay unparalleled attention to sound itself. Green’s newest film opened my eyes to the richness that sound adds to everyday life. His film underscores the importance of sound in preserving our most beloved, albeit fleeting, memories.
The production format of “32 Sounds” at Dartmouth’s Loew auditorium featured live narration by director Sam Green along with headphones, allowing each audience member to experience the sound of the film in a more intimate form than the standard theater speaker set-up. After putting on the headphones — which seamlessly relayed Green’s narrative voice over the recorded film soundtrack — I began to feel my focus shift from the imposing silver screen to the world of sound. The film’s visuals serve to supplement the soundtracks, but include both documentary-style footage and more aesthetic, moving shapes.While many in modern audiences may be tempted to associate the world of sound with the ever-popular ASMR trend or live music concerts, these auditory experiences are far from the sensory experience of Green’s film. Green has found a way to tap into the depths of sonic texture, incorporating sounds of nature that can’t normally be heard with the human ear, through special microphones. Ultimately, Green revealed the unheard worlds of sound.
One of the most prominent themes in Green’s film is how sound spans the gap between space and time in an altogether different way than imagetic media. In one scene of the film, a rocket scientist finds an old recording tape of himself as a child recounting what he dreams of becoming when he grows up. When he plays the dusty tape, the rocket scientist reveals a solemn smile at the fact that he had indeed become the rocket scientist of his adolescent dreams. But what was more striking was how the rocket scientist was so moved by the sound of his younger self that he refused to listen to the whole tape in one sitting.
There was something so piercing and unmistakably human about this scene. There is, of course, the shared nostalgia of childhood dreams and the idealized days of the past. But there is, too, the notion that the person listening to the tape is a fundamentally different person than the person speaking in the tape. The film demonstrates how the progression of time can make us different people from who we used to be. Through this scene, Green highlights the power of sound to capture the past in a way that human memory cannot.
Green explores the peculiar variety of noises that constitute sound, and even how some forms of silence add to a sonic texture. This section of the film was especially poignant because it is here where Green denotes a certain authority to commonplace (and often unnoticed) sounds. In the film, he describes how documentary makers film scenes of pure “room tone,” or the noises of each film locale to aid in the continuity of film editing. But what was Green really capturing in each room? Was it a humming, a vibration, a murmur that I was hearing? It was unclear exactly what each “room tone” could be attributed to, but as I watched the room tone-capturing process unfold, it felt as if each room somehow had its own heartbeat, some inherent rhythm that I had never paid attention to before.
In an especially unique scene that further emphasizes the vastness of an auditory landscape, Green records the sound of snowfall. Narration during this scene explains that there is a Japanese term for snowfall that derives from the idea that the sound of falling snow causes ambient silence to “deepen.” Through this explanation, Green challenges the idea that silence implies a lack of sound. To further this idea, he interviews the legendary artist Christine Sun King, who is deaf. In the interview, she describes her unique relationship with sound as something that is not heard, but rather felt and embodied. For her, sound is a part of her physical being.
About midway through the production, Green attempted to further his claim that sound can be a visceral experience. He invited the audience to take off their headphones, stand up from their seats and place their hands on two large subwoofers at the front of the theater, as he cued up a bass-heavy song from the 80s. The subwoofers were so powerful that even as I stayed in my seat, I could feel waves of sound funneling through the wooden armrests of my seat and through the cushion of my chair. It was as if the frequencies were in resonance with the natural “hum” of the human body. As I looked around the theater, I could see the faces of those convinced that sound was not just an auditory experience but a full-body sensation.
Towards the end of the film, Green returns to the idea that sound is a medium that can preserve the memories in a way that no image can. In the most moving scene of the film, Green plays his personal audio tapes of his brother who committed suicide. Here, Green steps out of the theater. He explains via audio why his physical leave is necessary during this part of the film. Green never wants the power of his brother’s voice to be lost on him by hearing it at every performance of the film. To hear a voice that will never speak another word was a poignant experience that I will always remember.
I am grateful to Green for sharing the power of sound — a sense that previously went unnoticed in my life — with me.