Talking with Meredith Ward

Director of the Johns Hopkins Program in Film and Media Studies discusses her debut book on the 'sound' of moviegoing

Meredith Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins Program in Film and Media Studies, explores what we're listening to when we go to the movies in her debut book, Static in the System: Noise and the Soundscape of American Cinema Culture (University of California Press). And, no, Ward isn't talking about foley mixers and really wicked speaker systems, though the larger evolutions of 20th- and 21st-century sound technology do inform what we consider pertinent auditory information. Static takes a historical look at what is and isn't considered "noise" in the cinematic experience by charting its evolution from the earliest movie theaters of the late 1800s to streaming movies with earbuds and a smartphone today. Ward explores topics such as what sonically separates public from private space, and who gets to decide what you should and shouldn't be hearing during a movie. The result is a history of how to think about sound, aesthetically or otherwise, in our daily lives.

Johns Hopkins Magazine caught up with Ward to ask her about notions of listening etiquette, how sound affects the body in art, and how movie noise involves more than how cool it is when the new Men in Black chase aliens around in Dolby Digital Ex surround sound.

In your book's introduction you do a great job of talking about what you mean by cinema sound and why it matters. I'm curious: What drew you to cinema sound, and the sound of media in general, in the first place?

Meredith Ward

Image caption: Meredith Ward

As a child, I was always obsessed with history. As I got older, I became extremely interested in aural culture. My work now is really a fusion of the two obsessions. In it, I discuss how aural history animates our approach, past and current, to film culture. My work is consistently an alignment of the history of listening with the histories of sound technologies.

I first discovered sound studies when I was in graduate school, in a course that was on the theory and practice of sound design. But then I moved beyond that to create a different take on what I thought "film sound" was. And that's where this book emerged from: a desire to, in my own small way, redefine what we consider to be film sound. Rather than focusing on the sounds of cinema themselves, I focus on the total aggregate of the sounds that make up cinema culture. This means that I focus equally on the sounds of the auditorium, of the audience, and of the culture that inflects the manner in which we listen when we attend the cinema. It's the whole picture.

Was the early trade magazine The Moving Picture World one of the few primary sources you came across that helped you imagine what going to the movies in the early 1900s sounded like?

Yes, it was and this was because no one really cared to describe the incidental, atmospheric sounds of the moviegoing experience at the time. To be honest, most still do not. The sounds of the moviegoing environment are not supposed to be there. So the main times when they are written about are when some force—in this case, early-20th-century cultural reformers, cinema reformers, and exhibitors in search of a higher-paying, quieter middle-class audience—is aiming to challenge the status quo of the noisy auditorium. As I write about in the book, audiences were, across the board, loud in the earliest moments of cinema history. In the early 20th century, there is then a disciplinary move in The Moving Picture World to recodify sound as "noise," and therefore as transgressive. It is an attempt to make sounds taboo, as long as they are not part of the film.

'Static in the System' book cover

There are a few other accounts—one of my favorites is that penned by the Russian author Maxim Gorky, when he first visited a screening of motion pictures that [included] some of the very first films, those of the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière, in the mid-1890s. And he has this wonderful description of the uncanniness of the "silence" of the film itself. He refers to it enacting "Merlin's trick," and "dooming" the figures pictured within it to eternal silence. But in a juxtaposition that he does not think much about but I think loads about in my first chapter, the account of the film reel's silence is then interrupted by a laugh. And it's a woman in the audience's laugh. Her corporeality—the bodiliness?—that is densely packed into that laugh annoys Gorky to no end. He hates it. He then goes off into speaking about how film culture is going to be true to its birth in environments that evoke the body. That was the first account I ever read in which the sound of the spectator's body featured in. But no one I had ever read discussed that aspect of it yet, so I did. It sent me down a road that later became the first chapter of the book.

Can you briefly describe the class component of movie's "turn to silence" in the early 20th century? I know your research expands this history, which we'll get to in a moment, but I had never thought about that element as it pertains to moviegoing, though I know cultural historians describe similar turns in American symphony halls, live theaters, and museums.

Yes, the history of public comportment as regards sound, and the necessity of "keeping one's silence," was something I discovered in a rather deep dive into many aspects of aural cultural history in the 19th century. And, as I discovered in that dive—which encompassed everything from the history of manners to texts that explicitly related noise-making to our cultural notions of masculinity and femininity, to actual etiquette manuals that circulated and had these wonderful instructions on how to control your body so as to make no noise—there was an enormous amount to be mined there for a historian and analyst of media. But few had. So I went into it.

And yes, as you say, it had a great deal to do with class—the middle class became silentious during this period. It was an era of cities and people living in closer proximity. The ideal of public comportment was shifting to one of silence and anonymity. This is how the city street began to be experienced by middle-class persons. I just map that onto the movie theater.

"Our relationship to our bodies is a fraught one, especially when it comes to arts culture. ... [S]o much of the discourse on art is an attempt to transcend it. We can't; it's a part of our everyday experience, and it's part of our exceptional experience of the arts."

Others have spoken about a turn to silence in opera, theater, and other public venues. I argue that it came to the movie theater later because the film theater is a later cultural invention. There are some magnificent articles in the trade press of the time about how all the noisemakers departed the legitimate theater and began visiting the cinema instead. This pleased the cinema exhibitors no end, until they realized that the tide was turning for them, too, and they needed to achieve a quieter audience. But it is funny to hear them crow about the money they are making before they, just a year or two later, begin to champion the notion of a "respectable" and silent audience.

The claim I make in chapter one of the book is that the "turn to silence," which we know happened in cinema in the early 1910s, was not just a cinema-specific phenomenon: It was a part of the creation of what I call a larger "constellation of silence" that actually spread across many aspects of public life.

You spend a chapter developing your argument on this turn to silence, but what steered you to recognizing that the body played a role in "aural etiquette" and spectators' "disciplined silence?"

It stems from a personal fascination with the environments in which we encounter art and the cultural mores that inflect our behaviors in those spaces. I am similarly fascinated by how people behave in art galleries or museums, or at concerts. How do they feel their bodies to be a part of the experience? Do they dance? Do they nod their heads to the music? Do they hold hands with the person they came with, or do they prefer to imagine that they aren't even really there—that it's just the sound?

Our relationship to our bodies is a fraught one, especially when it comes to arts culture. The body is this messy, distracting, insistent encasement that we truly cannot avoid. But so much of the discourse on art is an attempt to transcend it. We can't; it's a part of our everyday experience, and it's part of our exceptional experience of the arts. That strikes me as a fruitful tension in cinema culture, and many other things besides. I delve into a few areas to discuss this in the book, ranging from studies of attention in 19th-century psychology to studies of the "art of listening" in the 19th century that had fascinating relationships to the body. I even use a study that uses MRI imaging to show how our bodies engage when we listen.

If pressed, I would say that our attentiveness to our bodies fluctuates through a film: at times, we are aware of it, at other times, we are less so. But the discourse on cinemagoing rarely reflects that. I wanted to include it in a new discourse on the act of experiencing film.

Could you talk about how you kind of look at the advent of synchronized sound in movies? I ask because—and I am in no way trying to portray myself as any kind of actual film historian here—the rise of the talkies is often talked about in terms of what it meant for production and presentation, how it affected cameramen, actors, and theaters, that kind of thing. And one of the things I greatly appreciated about Static in the System is your more specific focus on sound and how the idea of noise presents a more complex look at the era.

"I am a historian, so when I write about the movie theater, it's never just to discuss that one example. It's to trace out a development in the way we encounter movies now that was different in the 1930s. And how that's different from listening on your phone now."

I'm not alone in that. A role model of mine, James Lastra, did that in Sound Technology and the American Cinema, and Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity does some great work on that, too. Also, my friend Eric Dienstfrey, who is currently a postdoc at UT Austin, is doing great work on it too. But my goal was to be among the first to delve into some wonderful and incredibly rich documents at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to see how the definition of "noise"—on which my book is based—interacted with notions of film aesthetics. Even more at the heart of things was how two industries—those in charge of apparatuses developed by sound engineers and those in charge of image—came together, and how sound began to be wielded as this secret to be held close or disclosed, depending upon the circumstances. That's the closest my work comes to industrial history, and I think it's a fascinating history to get to tell.

Tell me about how you understand the space of a movie theater. I think, especially in the 21st century, what we think about when we think about movie theaters are the comforts of the experience for the consumer: assigned stadium seating, reclining chairs, whatever Dolby digital experience a theater chain puts in its ads, and you put those qualities into a slightly different historical context.

The various venues in which we encounter motion pictures are a huge focus of my book. I speak a great deal about what in film studies used to be called the "apparatus," which is what brings you into a defined relationship to the film, and conditions you for it. But it goes beyond that because while apparatus theorists were mostly interested in structures and ideologies built into those structures. I am a historian, so when I write about the movie theater, it's never just to discuss that one example. It's to trace out a development in the way we encounter movies now that was different in the 1930s. And how that's different from listening on your phone now.

In many ways my big takeaway from your book is a more robust understanding of the relationship between what I consider "sound in movies" and what I consider sound in visual art, live theater, performance, live music, et cetera—that our understanding of sound's role in an aesthetic experience is more broad than I previously considered. And while, yes, I'm basically asking that you condense a large part of your book here, but how has the individualized media consumption behaviors of iPods, tablets, streaming services, earbuds, et cetera, affected sound in movies in general?

Yes, much of my book aims to describe scenarios in which listening was an act done in public but with a private bubble around it that we created as a purely imaginary entity. Listening in each of the examples throughout the book is always a powerful and active negotiation between the public and the private. We listened to movies themselves in crowded theaters while attempting to block out the sounds of the fellow in the seat behind you chewing his popcorn with those truly gross wet lip-smacks.

In the third chapter of the book, there is a great case study on the Invisible Cinema, which was built at Anthology Film Archives in New York in the 1970s. It was designed to be the ideal cinema environment in that it so drastically decreased the spectator's awareness of the immediate environment. Everything was black, swathed in black velvet that sucked in light and sound. The theater's designer, experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka, compared the hoods around the seats to giant horns that were used for acoustic radar in World War I. But accounts tell that you could still hear heavy breathing of the person next to you. In fact, it became even more taboo because you weren't supposed to be able to hear such sounds. I think that dance between the public and the private is obviously still occurring. It's just happening in different ways. Now, we listen to our own privately consumed media in public spaces all the time. Earbuds allow us to do this, and so we are always negotiating a new soundscape of the public and the private: a private soundscape in a public world.

To answer your implicit question about sound quality, however, I would say that it is making us more aware of sound. Media consumers are hip to sound in a way that they weren't before the rise of so many personal listening platforms. Home theaters were certainly part of this, in the 1990s with the Dolby 5.1 boom. Everyone wanted better home theater sound. There was a rise in audiophilia. And that continues. Even people who don't actively love sound will have a 5.1 system. And many of my students listen to the audio for films on their laptops, which are also, as I note, their primary viewing device. I think it raises the bar for what constitutes "good sound," and helps you listen to have earbuds, even if the signal is technically not as good as it is in the theater. And theater sound is quickly becoming its own rather glorious beast, with the creation of new sound platforms and films being mixed to suit them.

A perhaps different way to ask the above question: Where do you see sound in televisual digital content heading in the future?

You know, I'm not sure. As a historian, I'm always excited to see where we are headed, but simultaneously very suspicious of believing anything to be fully new. So I imagine we will be doing versions of what we have done before, in certain ways. I imagine that the rise of podcasting and other sound media as an area of cultural interest will affect it. I've written about this already, and am again in my current book project, too. I think the modes will get closer together, in certain ways. But these things are evolving, so don't quote me on that yet.

One of the things I like to ask cultural historians is what do they wish they could know but the historical record just doesn't make possible. What questions about movie sound do you still have that you know you probably won't ever really be able to answer succinctly?

What it actually sounded like to be sitting in a movie theater in 1906. But at the same time, I feel that the gaps in the historical record that I have come up against have generally caused me to think differently about my project in ways that challenged me to ask myself new questions. Those gaps are what make you think differently about the story you wanted to tell. There aren't records of what it sounded like to be sitting in a movie theater in the 1900s or the 1910s. We might never know. And even if they did exist, the recordings would be unbelievably bad because no one would have been recording for that. That's OK because we have the records of what people said it sounded like. And whether they are even accurate or not is not the aim of the history I am telling. I'm telling a history of what people felt about sound, and how that affected the way they classified sounds as desirable or as "noise." Not having the sounds themselves encouraged me to refocus on the questions of our beliefs about sound: not what existed but what we believed existed, or wanted to exist. And that is territory that I'm happy to live in.

Where has working on this book taken your research or research interests? What are you currently working on or considering working on?

My second book is very well underway. It is about one-third drafted already. It is Sound Convergence: Listening to Twenty-First Century Sound Media, and it details how sonic media are converging in the ways we listen to them and in the platforms they use. And, as someone told me recently when I spoke to them about it, it really does see me moving from "film historian" to "media historian." I am reaching out into many areas of media that the first book would not have easily accommodated: speaking about music mixing, and internet sound memes, and all sorts of other things. It's been great fun.