The Spaces Beyond: Experimenting with the Theory of Audiovisual Concrète

Creator's Statement

Supporting Statement by Holly Rogers

Sonic resonance emerges slowly through timbre shifts, echoes and reminiscences. It is ambiguous, dissonant, subtle and powerful. It emerges when the sounding objects within a visual world become untethered from the images that seem to have generated them, becoming adrift, noisy, musical: this is the process of sonic elongation. Sounds, first heard in sync with a corresponding image, slowly lose their referentiality through de-synchronization, manipulation and composition, moving from the onscreen to the ambiguous space between film world and audience. Memory is important here: we must remember the visual source for sonic elongation to work. Set adrift, these unsynchronized sounds tap into and generate meaning and affect unique to themselves: they might comment on the visual objects or actions that generated them; they may defamiliarise the image, question its signifying potential, comment on it, undermine it. Either way, slowly but surely the source sounds of an experimental, mainstream, arthouse or documentary film transform into musique concrète

Sonic elongation is not a technique or aesthetic local to one discrete artform or genre: it is a process that roams freely between styles and platforms. In some genres, the noise of sonic elongation is embraced, and this can result in audiovisual textures that are contradictory, ruptured and difficult to navigate. In others, the manipulated real-world sounds integrate with existing music to create tightly-knit yet complex soundscapes. Using the practice of extended sound as a new way of thinking about cultural listening and audiovisual dissonance allows us to explore the transmedial resonant gaps of elongated sounds as they move through and between contemporary moving-image media. 

Sonic process, rupture, noise. These are things that take a lot of words to describe, and in so doing, the describer pins down an interpretation. In many cases, it is possible to comment on sound through a web of language that translates sensory experience into another form. Film music scholars have developed a complex and nuanced vocabulary to enact this translation, while being careful to take into account the historical and cultural contingencies of hearing as a situated practice. Moments of sonic elongation, however, are especially nebulous, particularly when they appear in the already ambiguous practices of experimental film.

If sounds become music through a process of sonic elongation, when does this process begin? For me, music emerges early because I like noise and its disruptive, empowering potential. Because of my taste, listening habits and engagement with radical forms of noise through the work of my students, real-world sounds quickly flip into music as my mode of attention shifts from hearing—an involuntary process of reception—to listening—an attentive, interpretative from of engagement. But when does this happen for you? How can I explain this process adequately, knowing that this sonic transference is so personal, so cultural? And that this individual contingency is so significant and welcome? How can I explain this while also listening through your ears? The best answer is for you to also listen.

This short piece of creative research—a collaboration with filmmaker Heather Britton—allows us to listen, through our individual sonic vocabularies, to sonic elongation as a progression governed by process, time and memory. While allowing us to listen directly, it also acts performatively, subjecting words and language to the same process of elongation and defamiliarization that stretch the soundtracks we hear. In moments of sonic elongation, sound lengthens away from the image but our memory of the original audiovisual connection is maintained. When it reaches a certain rhythmic and aesthetic distance, however, the stretched sound no longer tells us what the image is, but rather encourages us to speculate, interpret and rethink what it might be. To respond to this process, this video is in two sections that elongate from one another. The first section outlines the theory through prose and analysis: the second unravels this prose until the semantic roots of the words become untethered, elongated. Sentences are reconfigured, common words repeated, connections foregone: a string of haiku emerges; a textural reconfiguration appropriate to the cinematic poetry of its subject. What do you hear?



Author: Holly Rogers is Reader in Music at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK where she convenes the MA Music (Audiovisual Cultures). She is author of Sounding the Gallery: Video and the Rise of Art-Music (OUP, 2013) and Twentieth Century Music in the West (CUP, 2021) and editor of Music and Sound in Documentary Film (Routledge, 2014), The Music and Sound of Experimental Film (Bloomsbury, 2017), Transmedia Directors: Artistry, Industry and New Audiovisual Aesthetics (Bloomsbury, 2019), Cybermedia: Explorations in Science, Sound and Vision (Bloomsbury, 2021) and YouTube and Music, Vols 1&2 (Bloomsbury, 2022). Holly is a founding editor of the Bloomsbury book series New Approaches to Music, Sound and Media, and is director of the creative research journal Sonic Scope: New Approaches to Audiovisual CultureShe lives in London with her scottie dog Monty.

Filmmaker: Heather Britton is a multi-instrumentalist and audiovisual composer, working across multiple mediums and genres. She completed her MA in Creative Practice at Goldsmiths, where she produced her first audiovisual album and a documentary film exploring the effects of ageing on the identity of a nonagenarian musician. Current projects include a political audio piece for the BBC, ICA and NTS radio and composing music for film and TV. Her extended research interests and practice cover a broad range of topics from sound design to video editing, with a special interest in synchresis and incongruousness in audiovisual composition, as well as being a cinephile with a passion for experimental filmmaking. She is on the editorial board for the journal Sonic Scope and lives in Brighton with her pet rabbit, Zissou.

Holly Rogers’ and Heather Britton’s concept of 'sonic elongation' developed in their piece The Spaces Beyond: Experimenting with the Theory of Audiovisual Concrète offers an original and fruitful addition to the vocabulary of film sound analysis, in particular that of Michel Chion’s well-known theoretical framework, with which the video engages alongside related concepts and practices of musique concrète. In doing so, it offers a new entry point for analyzing sound-image relations while opening an avenue for thinking in new ways about defamiliarization and perception of film sound. By 'sonic elongation' the authors refer to the dynamic sound-image relation through which a sound’s source is clearly established visually, upon which the initially heard sound is gradually manipulated and removed from its (still visible) source to acquire a more abstract quality. As a result of this process a gap is opened between image and sound that offers room for reflection through a process of defamiliarization. Transporting the spectator from a mode of hearing to a mode of listening, 'sonic elongation' takes the spectator by surprise by destabilizing the auditory presence and verisimilitude of location sound to instead offer a sonic cue that is difficult to make sense of and that invites reflection on the image’s meaning through sound. The concept is clearly defined through analysis of clips that can be considered instances of sonic elongation as well as clips that cannot, while also offering an example of how the concept may apply to practice-based research in the video essay’s final part. 

As a concept, 'sonic elongation' appears original because it describes more than a simple process of acousmatization, by highlighting and pointing to a grey area where the meaning of film sound is not entirely abstract but appears (deliberately) ambiguous. To stay in Chion’s terminology, 'sonic elongation' characterizes a process through which the spectator is positioned and suspended somewhere between 'causal' listening and 'codal listening', between trying to locate a sound’s source in an image and figuring out what a sound means in relation to the image and its story-world or subject matter, all the while having to come to terms with a sound-image relation that becomes gradually more complex (see Chion, 2019). As such, the concept is highly relevant and useful for analyzing how distinct listening modes, levels of interpretation and (film) sound memories can be activated – and become blurred – through defamiliarization strategies in ways we might not have fully considered before. Offering compelling analyses of Edward Artemiev’s sound composition for Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and Dan Driscoll’s score for Manufactured Landscapes (2006) in order to delineate the concept (among several other well-chosen examples), the video essay presents an account that simultaneously engages with film sound studies’ familiar vocabulary and more recent deformative criticism. 

For this reviewer, the piece also resonated with personal film experiences and left me wondering whether I could identify other instances of sonic elongation, trying to think along with the concept. As a related example, I considered the Tokyo highway scene from Solaris (1972) as a clear instance of sonic elongation. There are also instances where sound design incorporates existing soundscape compositions and/or concrète works, such as Gus van Sant’s respective use of Bernard Parmegiani’s and Hildegard Westerkamp’s sound-based compositions in combination with diegetic location sounds in the shower scene in Paranoid Park (2007)or in one of the final walking sequences of Last Days (2005). Although I am not sure if these last examples would qualify as sonic elongation exactly in the sense proposed by Rogers and Britton (perhaps more so in the latter case than in the former), they do succeed in anchoring sounds from these composers’ works in the films’ diegeses and, through juxtaposition with location sounds, create a gap between sound and image to defamiliarizing effect.


Work cited

Chion, Michel. 2019. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Documentary, experimental, and mainstream films have long experimented with images—but what about sounds? Stan Brakhage, for one, notoriously rejected sound in his films to pursue a 'pure' form of tactile vision (see Kase, 2012). But many filmmakers are attuned to the materiality and malleability of sound and music, like Hollis Frampton, who declared cinema as 'the whole universe of sound ordered to aesthetic ends' (1986-87). Contemporary accounts of film, however, tend to focus primarily on visual poetry, even though their sonic poetry is often equally enthralling.

Holly Rogers and Heather Britton counter that trend, illustrating an essential concept for audiovisual relations in film. As they explain, sonic elongation occurs when sounds linked to onscreen images become defamiliarized as noise or music, gradually becoming untethered from the initial interpretive context of the image. Sonic elongation connects to a history of technologically-enabled musique concrète, or montages of recorded sound (e.g., 'Revolution 9', where the Beatles and Yoko Ono cut up found sounds to create rhythmic and emotional intensity). Importantly, sonic elongation is a process of augmentation and transformation not only in production, but also in reception. Rogers states that when music or sound is elongated, so is the way that the listener engages with the film’s images and contexts. Listeners draw on their memory of what they’ve seen and heard to re-anchor themselves in manipulated sounds, but their imaginations also take flight in creative acts of interpretation.  

To reveal how sonic elongation tests both sonic and visual perception, Rogers and Britton interweave an array of examples from international documentary, mainstream, and experimental films. Rogers and Britton deftly command the video essay’s perceptual channels, distributing narration among spoken and written text. Their explanation of sonic elongation is thus stretched across audiovisual space, mimicking its use in the media they cite. And their citational practices are inclusive, reflective, and generative—they showcase underrecognized women filmmakers and give listeners time to absorb their experiments with audiovisual material.

In the last part of the video, Rogers and Britton ask if there is a way beyond theory and prose to interpret sound-image relations—a central question for videographic criticism. They propose that analysts work within constraints to create theoretical poetry that incorporates the object under examination. Then, they remix their theory as concrete poetry that harmonizes with two different films. By showing how sonic elongation encourages reinterpretation, they invite listeners into their own processes of listening and viewing. Taking sounds and contexts apart and then gluing them together again, they make criticism playful and fundamentally audiovisual.


Works Cited

Frampton, Hollis. 1986-87. “Three Talks at Millennium.” Millennium Film Journal, 16/17/18, p.277. 

Kase, Juan Carlos. 2012. “Encounters with the Real: Historicizing Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with one’s own eyes.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, 12(1), p.4.