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Ambient Sound: the Presence We May Not Notice

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Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even when it is having its way with us.

There is always a scenic dimension to the various physical elements that limit or enhance our actions. The funny old aphorism that ‘everybody has to be someplace’ is a reminder that our lives must unfold in some particular space. Sonics are always a part of a scene, even if they are hardly noticed. Pure silence is almost never an option; even a “quiet” place is full of ambient sound that affects the qualities that shape any particular moment. For example, ambient sounds are what transform stilted film dialogue captured on a set into conversations that seem to be happening in real space. Like the visual cues of color and texture, aural cues define where we are: anywhere from a busy playground to a space deep in the woods. More than we might acknowledge, it is ambiance that defines a desert from a busy city street, a cathedral from a conference room, or a busy office from a bedroom.

I was reminded of the importance of ambiance several years ago, when I was working on a chapter about film sound design. Since mics can barely do more than capture dialogue, Foley artists and sound editors recreate sonics that were inadequately captured on location. They add the aural details that make a place real.

In crowded places like midtown Manhattan we often want to escape what has gone beyond ambience and become intense noise. The constant racket of the city is the number one complaint of its residents. And we know that heart rate, irritability and blood pressure rise in very noisy spaces. But I know from experience that some of those same folks transported to the quiet acres of rural forest may also find the stillness pretty creepy. Though not loud, small Eastern Screech Owls at night are dependable producers of the kinds of quiet cries we might expect from ghosts passing through the trees.

Here’s the thing about ambient sound: we tend to put it out of mind even while it is having its way with us, increasingly making us anxious, annoyed, impatient or—too infrequently—calmed. Our brains scan the information that we obtain from incidental sounds. And while our ears aren’t as sensitive as many other mammals, they are good enough to detect an oncoming car we still can’t see, or an air leak in a window that is supposedly sealed.

The films Blow Out (1981) and The Conversation (1974) are good explorations of how we rely on incidental sound to make sense of the world. Both show technicians using just ambient sound to solve crimes. More happily, Joni Mitchell subtly embeds one of her signature songs with the soothing ambience of summer crickets.

Sound anchors us to a scene. Experiencing a completely silent environment, as in an anechoic chamber, is unnatural and, for most, unpleasant. A quiet spot is one thing, but we are only too happy to be in the presence of enough sound to blot out the sounds of our own heartbeats.

Americans living near cities and traffic often live within what has become sewers of noise. Tokyo and Mumbai are also bad, but we have our own unique mix. Aircraft noise is often a constant presence. And American reliance on gas engines is even more prominent, with most towns falling short of reining in the constant din from sources ranging from souped up motorcycles and cars, to the horrible pollution of machines we use to manicure green spaces. A recording studio built in most towns must be built like a bank vault in order to keep all of that chaos at bay. One science writer has cleverly imagined that if noise pollution could be seen, its scale would produce a level of filth we would never tolerate.

But the basic point here is simpler. We need to give the tiny sensory organs behind our ears a break, and the chance to hear quieter ambient sounds. That was always a birthright of our species for millennia before the relatively recent mechanical and electrical ages.

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Too Many Performances are Locked up by Corporate Gatekeepers

The digital ‘siloing’ of a piece of a recorded performance is a far cry from the days when even a local book, video or record store would carry thousands of physical copies to be purchased on the spot.

In addition to the release of his powerful recent film, Oppenheimer (2023), one useful public service director Christopher Nolan has provided is to make the case for preserving media products in physical copies that can be easily accessed. Having shot his movie on film, it’s clear Nolan likes the idea of physical media. His concern is a familiar one among seasoned Hollywood directors. Films are now held by companies and licensed to streaming services where—if a copy can be purchased at all—they remain offsite in a corporate computer farm.  A physical and usually analog form of a performance that has been duplicated has a much easier pathway to enthusiasts and collectors.

Soon it will be difficult to purchase a DVD of a film. And it is also getting more difficult for musicians to achieve a run of CDs, a digital form for sure, but easily accessible when it appears as a physical copy. The same accessibility quotient applies to digital books and streamed audio in all categories. In some cases we can own a download. But even those must be channeled through a corporate gatekeeper. That’s the price of losing the chance to be a collector who curates their own copies of books, films and music.

Film directors want their work to live in the world. Nolan is happy to share his films on a DVDs, though the format can’t do justice to the 70-millimeter Imax prints of Oppenheimer he made for some theaters. He knows that cinema is a more public thing when it exists in physical media outside of what is euphemistically called “the cloud.”

Alarmingly, as access to films and music moves to streaming and premium cable, it is clear that some license holders for individual titles are withholding products from audiences. For example, a person who would like to see Apple’s award-winning film, Coda (2021), can view it only on Apple TV+. If a person is not a subscriber, they are left to find used copies of the DVD, or perhaps a copy at a library (alas, not mine). Incredibly, this is the fate of a film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2021.

This ‘siloing’ of a piece of art—a strategy that Apple has perfected—is a far cry from the days when a good local book, video or record store would carry thousands of physical copies to be purchased on the spot. The purchase was your copy for as long as you wish. By contrast, if you download songs or albums from Apple Music, you don’t own it. Instead, they grant you only a license to use it.

To be sure, no one would know what to do with the mammoth 600-pound reel of film that is the Imax form of Oppenheimer. But the DVD and its advanced cousins are compact and easily played on home players that are, incidentally, also on their way out. We could not have known it, but the late 1990s were a high point for easy access to performances that were available on physical media. The DVD was new, but picking up supporters, and CD sales were only starting their slow decline in the face of digital copying and streaming. In those few years just before the new century consumers and collectors could build and curate huge personal libraries. In addition, content providers and talent had the satisfaction of sometimes significant sales revenue, and the added advantage to know that a third party had not put their work out of reach. It has gotten so bad lately that studios like Warner Brothers and Netflix are even shelving some finished films with no intention to release them: the rough equivalent of completing a painting and then locking it in a closet. We should have pity for the talent whose work has been captured. Film especially is a collaborative enterprise; many professionals in various departments count on building their careers by having their work seen widely.

Media Extensions of Ourselves 

Finally, the denial of purchase and ownership of a performance affects what one media analyst has called the “association factor.” When we take ownership of a specific performance, in some small way we may well incorporate it into our identity. It can be an extension of our world in a more precise sense than if we are witnessing a streamed item controlled by another source. Our homes and children’s rooms are filled with performances of various types we are usually proud to have and display. The humble bookshelf was among the first ways to express media extensions of our sense of self.

Without question the internet, cable and streaming have greatly expanded our access to wonderful and sometimes obscure performances, many on YouTube. But the cost of turning over content control to a service looking for big audiences means that a great deal of Hollywood’s output has been sold to corporations with little interest in keeping it available to the public. For the moment set aside the butchered slice-and-dice display of films on “free tv.”  It is more worrisome when classic Hollywood movies, especially from the last century are not easily available from any traditional source. For example, if a person wants to see some of the classic films of the popular American playwright Neil Simon, they will probably have to pay to be an Amazon Prime member, in addition to paying an additional charge for a specific title. And by the time a person becomes a “member” of Prime, a film may have moved to a lock box at another pay-to-watch provider.  Making art is a precarious business: all the more so when we know that some media companies like MGM and Warner Brothers have not always been good stewards of the performances they once supported.

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