Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Soundscape of the Cinema Theatre: Acoustical Design, Embodiment, and Film Theatres as Vehicles for Aural Absorption

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

The Soundscape of the Cinema Theatre: Acoustical Design, Embodiment, and Film Theatres as Vehicles for Aural Absorption

Article excerpt

This article examines the acoustical design of the cinema auditorium and its role in shaping aural absorption in the American cinema house in the mid-late twentieth century. It examines how the auditorium's soundscape profoundly conditioned the role proposed for the cinema auditor and the understanding of cinematic listening during that time. Specifically, I will focus on the creation of the soundscape via the adaptation of a transcendent mode of listening that was applied to cinema from a prior listening culture - that of Wagner's opera - and on the style of architectural design that was born to realise it in cinema. Then, I will discuss the rise of absorption as a mode of aural engagement with cinema. Aural absorption became a goal among auditorium architects in the 1920s, and they used their new tools toward the creation of a new mode of listening. Finally, I also explore how other strains in the 'history of listening' active in cinema during this time show the limitations of these attempts to engineer absorption: the unintended sounds of the spectating body that threatened to reveal its real and evident fissures.

Affecting the acoustical development of cinema theatres, these factors together produced the model of the auditor that manifested within these designs at the rise of architectural acoustics in the 1920s.1 The adoption of acoustical design to combat the body's distracting sounds prompted two actions in the acoustics of film exhibition: first, the elevation of the act of cinematic listening to a 'pure' model consonant with conceptions of sensory experiences appropriate to high art and, second, the creation of acoustically specialised exhibition venues that allowed this type of contemplative listening to be realised. Purified and transcendent listening experiences were cultivated via the liberal use of the science of architectural acoustics, and these acoustics, implicitly, engaged both with a history of listening and with understandings of the spectator's body and its noise.

In exploring these factors I draw from a tradition of engaging with absorption in the arts. I also engage with two concepts from sound studies, with its specific focus on aural cultures and the notion of the soundscape.2 While many studies of film sound focus on sound projection and reception, that is not precisely the goal of this piece. Rather, it attempts to craft a social history of the act of listening in the cinema auditorium that is based upon discourses on listening active at the time and the developing field of architectural acoustics as it was in currency at the time.3 Few studies focus on the matter of how listening itself is constructed through theories that arise in the history of a broader aural culture. My work in general, and this article in particular, focuses on the ways in which beliefs about sound from outside sources come to inflect the cinema experience. Many of these beliefs spoke to a desire for aesthetic absorption; cinema auditoria and their acoustics spoke to a desire for aural transcendence that sought to fuse spectator with spectacle, escaping the bounds of the physical bodies of the spectators. This concept emerged among architectural acousticians and was given a specific shape within auditoria and their acoustical designs. The body was not actively considered in these designs. Instead, it seems to resound as a kind of return of the repressed in accounts. For that reason, the sounding body becomes a site that enables us to examine these threads more clearly. It stands for everything that these structures attempted to downplay: the embodied experience that held us back from aural transcendence. The body emerges as the antithesis of absorption in art. Consciousness of our own embodiment negates absorption. For this reason, the sound of that body stands to teach us a lesson that nothing else can: this is the lesson of the gaps in our own historiography on cinema listening that tends to believe in absorption. …

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