New insight of Sound and Vision in Audiovisual Arts

A Review of an anthology: “Essays on Sound and Vision” (2007) Eds. John Richardson and Stan Hawkins: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press

In audiovisual art sound and image fight for attention. Visual elements are often regarded as main substances, and it goes without saying that we observe our environment in the first hand visually. For instance, while describing a space, we tend to talk about its color, shape and distances rather than it’s sound scape. In order to draw our attention and to rise above the visuality sound has to be somewhat strange or disturbing.

A recent collection of essays “Sound and Vision”, edited by John Richardson and Stan Hawkins, not only draws attention to phenomena of sound, but also manages to debate about issues rarely discussed in the field of audiovisual art. It has long been a commonplace to divide the arts into high and popular. However, the late 20th century saw a change in this. The transformation is mostly due to the studies of popular arts, which have attempted to present pop art as genuine art with aesthetics of its own, rather than commercial product. The change has also begun to be reflected in the critical art debate. Published in May 2007, “Essays on Sound and Vision” gives another voice to this discussion.

Christian Metz wrote about the nature of sound in audiovisual arts in his essay ‘Aural Objects’ in 1974. Though he was considering mainly film, he put all elements in audiovisual art into a new light. He argued that in the context of a film, sound is more real than the visual elements. From the point of view of the audience, visuals always are off screen, where as the sound, which surrounds the listener, is present. Metz means that visuals are never really there, what we see are the reflections of objects on the screen, not the objects itself. The sound, as we can hear it, really is there. It is never off screen, as the film studies have before argued. This observation challenges the prevalent idea that sound subordinates to visuals. The sound, which has for a long time been a servant to the picture in film studies and the history of film, has finally begun to achieve a more independent and remarkable role in these fields.

In the light of Metz’s observation, the field of audiovisual studies has been astonishingly silent about the relevance of sound. The academic research has focused mainly on film leaving other forms of audiovisual art without attention, but in doing so, it has also left the very issue of sound in fringe. Those studies that consider sound most often concentrate to film music and forget the rest of the auditive material in film.

Richardson and Hawks point out in their foreword, that while Anglo-American art, Hollywood film music and recently even the appropriation of popular music in film have gained lots of scholarly attention, many aspects of audiovisual art still remain in margin. In periphery lie issues like avant-garde aesthetics, music video, music used in computer games and on television, and all the audiovisual art outside Anglo-American countries.

A glimpse on the topics of the book makes it easy to notice that even though most of the topics may be rare from the academic point of view, they are quite familiar from the point of view of every day life. The anthology contains a range of subjects, such as aesthetics of music videos of Aphex Twin and Christina Milian, an analysis of gender orientation in the score of the film “Angels in America”; it considers the relationship between local history, social structure and race in Detroit techno, and addresses David Lynch’s role as a soundman. The book considers diegetic voice in the film “Star Wars” and assesses about national identity in Armenian art and Aki Kaurismäki’s film “A Man Without a Past”.

Of special interest are essays that observe art’s role in ever changing social environment and within different cultures. A good example of this is Sanna Rojola’s essay: ‘Envisioning the future: technology, futurism and the politics of race in Detroit techno’. Rojola links monotonic techno music to its local history and race. According to her the economic situation in 1980’s Detroit was important to the development of the style. Rojola argues that Detroit techno has many similarities with sci-fi films: both idolise futuristic technology as a symbol of better life. Techno music is a means to realize the utopia in the present moment.

The relevance of the writings, such as Rojola’s, lies not only therein, that they present popular culture as a rich and interesting object of study. The book also challenges the art community and large public to change their views. It focuses on the evaluations: what kind of art we value and what kind of knowledge is regarded as valuable. Do we appreciate the knowledge of techno, its history and aesthetics as much as that of opera?

As already mentioned, the views of popular art have been remarkably changed by the end of the last century. Television has had a crucial role in calling forth the conversation. In the United States, TV series turned out to be more interesting topics than film, which has traditionally been evaluated higher. Film actors gave pace to this development by starring in TV-series. The transformation of attitudes about television can also be seen in the newspaper reviews. For instance, The New York Times and The Washington Post both give space to TV reviews beside film reviews. In opposition to this the Finnish press still tends to rule popular culture outside the “real” or high culture.

Susanna Välimäki ponders music’s role in TV films, such as “Angels in America”, in her essay ‘Musical migration, perverted instruments and cosmic sounds: queer constructions in the music and sound of Angels in America’. She considers the score in the film as a key issue in changing the attitudes about Queer sexuality, pictured in the film. Angels in America also had a prominent role in lifting TV’s artistic status in the beginning of 21st century. The film, which had actors such as Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, was a remarkable milestone in the history of television. Välimäki connects the discussion about the film, which has mainly been going on in the United States to the Finnish art scene, as well. She notices, that In Finland television is still regarded as a minor art form and asks if the imago of Finnish TV would need an artistic face lifting.

Rojola and Välimäki represent Finnish art research, which is prominent in the anthology. Six of the thirteen contributors are Finns: among them are Erkki Pekkilä, professor of ethnomusicology of the University of Helsinki, Antti-Ville Kärjä and Yrjö Heinonen, both musicologists based at the Helsinki University and Petri Kuljuntausta, the pioneer of Finnish electro acoustic music. The rest of the authors have collaborated with Finnish musicologists: John Richardson heads the Contemporary Music, Media and Mediation project at the Jyväskylä University. Anahid Kassabian, based in England and the US, has visited Finland lecturing on film music.

Popular or marginal, the topics of “Essays on Sound and Vision” are delightful in their fresh approach. The anthology does not only bring forth alternative ways to see and hear, it also attempts to narrow the gap between popular and high, which still persists in many branches of art. An art research like this is an excellent means to prove, that such new branches of art as street art, popular music, music video or even video games have a history of their own, and that they posses an aesthetics laden with sophisticated codes.