Alexandra Bell

Sound Artist

  ︎︎︎ ︎︎

Reflective Journal - Critical Theory & Immersive Contexts

Week 1     Joy: Ecstatic Sounds and the Sublime

Reading: Weisser, S., 2011. Emotion and music: The Ethiopian lyre bagana in Musicae Scientae, 16 (1) pp3-18

Now divine aire, now is his soule ravisht, is it not strange that sheepes guts should hale soules out of mens bodies?
(William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, act 2, scene 3)

The article describes a study of audience reactions to lyre performances, mostly in church settings. Research based on subject response is fraught with challenges, such that tight protocols exist to minimise bias -none of which are evident in this ‘study’. All we can deduce is that a self-selected group of Ethiopian people report emotion when asked “what do you feel”, after listening to the bagana in conditions infused with religious, historical, behavioural and socio-cultural significance.  

Examples of my concerns with the unscientific methodology include: small sample number; no interviewee selection criteria; no interview protocol (Setting -witnessed or private? Questions delivered by a western white stranger in a foreign language & translated? Multiple translations & cultural interpretations involved in data capture? Double blind data analysis?); lack of statistical design; no control benchmarking; disruptive close camera work; no rationale for repeat visit schedule; no comparison of non-religious vs. religious locations etc. All factors which influence subjects in a context where participants are more likely to present the answers they believe are desired.

My frustration with this study (and surprise that it was published in a peer reviewed journal) drove me to read the research approach to the Strong Experiences with Music (SEM) descriptor, which was comparatively robust.

  • Ursprung, P., 2016, Studio Olafur Eliasson, An Encyclopedia, Germany, Taschen. Fantastic reminder of many works I’ve seen, introduction to new work, and the artistic & multidisiplinary processes involved.
  • I’m thinking of ending things (2020), Dir Kaufmann, C. ,[Film], New York, Likely Story Productions. Not a fan of solving things for his audience, Kaufman here makes viewing so challenging that it loses the audience. (Even when I researched the meanings and tried again!)
  • No Time To Die (2021), Dir Fukunaga, C.J. ,{Film], London, Universal Pictures/United Artists. Fantastic foil to Kaufman’s film - fast paced, sexy, funny, accessible, does what it says on the tin.

Week 2     Interest: history, science, poetic documentaries

Reading: Birtwhistle, A., 2016. Electroacoustic Composition and the British Documentary Tradition, In Greene, L., Kulezic-Wilson, D., eds., 2016, The Palgrave Handbook of Sound Design and Music in Screen Media, pp 387-400. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Birtwhistle considers precursors to the contemporary soundtrack, and argues that the boundaries between sound design and music have long been blurred - from early cinematic forms and experimental films.

Despite knowing that creators manipulated sound by painting, printing & editing early optical film, it was a surprise to consciously recognise that such sound adjustments have been practiced for nearly a century. 1930s film makers were using sound effects, articulated musically, long before Schaeffer named the term ‘musique concrete’. It was interesting to note how film sound influenced young art-musicians like John Cage, as cross fertilisation of ideas across industry sectors is not routine.  Electroacoustic sound has often been (and still is) used to represent modernity, change and the future.

  • Song of Ceylon (1934), Dir Wright, B., [Film], London, Denning Films Ltd.
  • Romance Sentimentale (1930), Dir Eisenstein, S.M., Alexandrov, G., [Film], France, Sequana Films.
  • Snow (1963), Dir Jones, G., [Film], UK, British Transport Films. 
  • Mesiti, A.,  In the Round, (2021), AV installation, Edinburgh Talbot Rice Gallery. Accomplished AV exhibits, but I felt the overall show was disjointed, trying to cover too many themes.
  • Till, R., (2012), Soundgate [App], University of Huddersfield/ECAP. Affords interactive exploration of ancient archeological sites & sounds. Interesting concepts to bring history to life but lost my engagement pretty quickly.
  • Galacticle Implosions Great fun experiment of 3-way theatre where online participants propose plot sequences, which are then curated and relayed to actors,  who improvise to plot in a theatre with a live audience, and their avatars are animated in VR. Fourth wall present and dissolved simultaneously.

Week 3    Interest: history, science, poetic documentaries

Reading: The Sound of the Smell of My Shoes, Grimshaw

This literature survey explores the relationships between sounds & odours; and how sonification of smell might enrich the immersive environment. It was interesting to note the cross-modal aspects of sensory activation and the difference between immersion and presence.
My immediate response was to wonder whether the level of forced digital interaction during the pandemic has changed how we feel about immersive technologies right now – are we craving reality, and what’s the balance that forces participation in either?  The perpetual ambiguity of individual perception in these worlds is interesting to consider in terms of artwork. How might this ambiguity be used to perpetuate evolution of the work and create elements of surprise without the viewer feeling directed and manipulated?

Week 4    Surprise /Startle: The Perspective of the Other

Reading: Sobchack, V., Fleshing Out the Image: Phenomenology, Pedagogy, and Derek Jarman’s Blue. Carel, H., Tuck, G., 2011 New Takes in Film Philosophy. Pagrave MacMillan. Pp. 191-206

The structures of experience, film philosophy and academic teaching methods are explored via responses to Derek Jarman’s film Blue. With a blue screen devoid of action, the film destabilises the typical cinematic dominance of the visual and instead offers a rich sound track and narrative.  The work polarises viewers -some are entranced by the opportunity to conjure their own story and meditate on blue for 80 minutes; others frustrated at a perceived lack of cinema.
I think the experience of the viewer will depend on real time state of mind, location of the screening (e.g. cinema or gallery?) and management of expectation. One area of the text seemed paradoxical. The drive for students to be confident with a naturalised experience seemed at odds with Don Ihde’s  rules & exercises  - which could interfere with the truth of the phenomenological act.