Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media/Sound Design and Science Fiction

By Wright, Benjamin | Music, Sound and the Moving Image, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media/Sound Design and Science Fiction


Wright, Benjamin, Music, Sound and the Moving Image


Steve J. Wurtzler, Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media (Columbia University Press, 2007)

William Whittington, Sound Design and Science Fiction (University of Texas Press, 2007).

review by Benjamin Wright

It has no doubt become a cliché to mourn the paucity of scholarship on sound technology and aesthetics in cinema and media studies. Turning cinema and related media on its ear has revealed a distinct visual bias in the field that still persists, even after several book-length studies of film music and early film sound practices in the United States and Europe have attempted to redress this balance.

At a 2007 Society for Cinema and Media Studies workshop on the state of sound studies, the tone of the panellists and audience was surprisingly grim. A small but determined contingent vowed to continue to fight the image-sound imbalance by stressing the historical and stylistic importance of the soundtrack. However, while some film scholars had all but given up, others were shifting their research to broader fields of inquiry, namely the cultural study of sound media. Needless to say, the workshop set in relief the fractured nature of sound studies. In their attempts to historicise and theorise sound media, scholars have approached the study of auditory culture from various angles. Two recent books exemplify the diverse strands of scholarship. Gianluca Sergi's probing account of Dolby's relationship with Hollywood studios in The Dolby Era (2005) casts a spotlight on this unexplored period of film history by blending the intricacies of Dolby technology (how 'surround sound' immerses an audience) with aesthetic practice (interviews with Hollywood sound practitioners). By contrast, James Lastra's Sound Technology and American Cinema (2000) explores how representational technologies such as synchronised sound in the cinema and phonography have defined modernity through their renegotiation of sensory perception and authenticity.

Indeed, we have only begun to piece together the imbricated history of sonic media, but it would be hyperbole to suggest that it has fallen on deaf ears. In 2007 two books with very different aims emphasised the discursive breadth of sound studies by casting spotlights on two overlooked areas of auditory culture. In Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media, Steve J. Wurtzler aims to recontextualise the relationship between the process of technological change and the emergence of new media forms in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. Tracing the economic and social imperatives that shaped the rise of sync sound film, radio networks, media conglomerates, and the innovation of corporate 'synergy', Wurtzler shows how these media functioned in society. In Sound Design and Science Fiction, William Whittington argues that the notion of 'sound design' in contemporary Hollywood cinema has reshaped the sound of film sound. Whittington suggests that the soundtrack is, above all, a complex construction that is an equal partner to the cinematic image. With multichannel audio mixes comprising hundreds of individual tracks, the soundtrack even surpasses the image in its ability to reveal narrative information. While Wurtzler examines the rise of electric sound technologies from a decidedly interdisciplinary perspective - combining piecemeal history with broader theoretical concepts - Whittington investigates technological and stylistic change through detailed case studies of science fiction films, including Star Wars (1977) and Blade Runner (1982). Together, these books offer precise accounts of major historical moments in twentieth-century sound media, ensuring that when we listen for changes in electric sound technology, we hear with new ears.

The methodological upshot of Wurtzler's study is a widespread renegotiation of disciplinary boundaries that, in the author's view, will engage more fully the links between media forms such as the Hollywood soundtrack, radio, and the phonograph industry. …

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