Immersive Sound

I recently came across someone working in radio who has similar preoccupations to this blog.  His name is Oliver Morris; we also share having a psychoanalyst as a parent, so that’s fun!

Oliver has written an article all about what he terms ‘immersive sound,’ as it applies in particular to podcasting and audio drama, which is a very interesting read! His phrase for it is ‘putting on a mind like a hat’ – which is a great summary of this practice, I think.

I should like to read more from him: perhaps I can persuade him to do some some follow-up that delves into analysing more examples.

Here it is!

A few points I took from his thoughts:

I really need to start owning the term phenomenology (understanding through direct experience and consciousness) regardless of the fact that I can’t even say it when I’m sober…

I have been introduced to the term Qualia – which is, as I understand it, the step before we even arrive at anything phenomenological (and if you can pronounce that you get an instant PhD): one’s pure experience, pure consciousness, and seems to be dominated by sensory experience.

This relates to my explorations of sensory issues related to autism, where neurological differences lead to a dramatically different Qualia.  Now, I have found that autistic people say again and again that the sensory challenges are the cause and not the effect of other defining characteristics of autism, the social and communication stuff.  Try focusing wholly on someone’s question and giving an immediate answer when every sight, sound and smell is coming at you thick and fast and you have no way of switching off the irrelevant ones.  I bet I couldn’t!  It always seemed to me that the fact that typical-brained people tend to ignore this is not only arrogant, but also places more weight on the parts of autism that affect us, the neurotypicals, as it is when we find we have to adapt our communication style that we are affected by autism ourselves.

One of Oliver’s teachers, David McNiell, described Qualia as ‘…raw experience.  It’s Brute Feel.  The experience in your own mind. Whether that’s the subjective experience of seeing the colour red or the pain of stubbing your toe!’

If we work outwards from there, to what extent are our higher functions – reason, empathy, expression, etc – moulded by and rooted in Qualia?  To what extent is the processing that happens next a servant of the Qualia, even as we seek to control our experience though language and labels and commonality of experience via social and collective mechanisms?  These questions seem really important.

I would also like to point out the connection between this concept and the musical one of Absolute Listening, as defined by Pierre Schaeffer, which we have already speculated might be an easier process to undertake if you have autistic neurology.

The article moves from this first notion of raw experience to Carl Jung’s concept of collective unconsciousAs a fellow child of a therapist, and as a spiritual kind of being, this notion has always fascinated me too.  I would like to have further discussion about how it can be represented or alluded to via sound design; it seems it would be a difficult thing to do to me.  Any thoughts, Oliver? 🙂

Oliver goes on to discuss the application of these ideas to audio and audio-visual media.  His own podcast drama, Kane and Feels: Paranormal Investigators  makes plenty of use of them, to interesting effect, allowing him to draw on his philosophical ideas via them.  The ‘larger than life’ mood to the show allows for more sonic play, which I think is a very good call.

I love the texture of having sounds irrelevant to the focal point of the drama, personally – if we understand the deviation from tradition of the listeners’ attention being highly directed.  You never know what a sound will do to a drama until you try it out.  I recently went out to record outdoor footsteps and was getting irritated by the denser than usual traffic, but upon playback, the passing cars added depth, texture and atmosphere.

A couple of other questions that arise: how do we make it clear to the audience that what we are perceiving is a character’s consciousness?  I have talked previous about the trick of alternating between points of experience and altering sound worlds to portray this.  In visual media, like the example Oliver posted (scene from Sorkin’s movie The Social Network) much context, information and atmosphere comes from what we see… but how do we do the equivalent in audio media, where information has to be provided through sound and words only?


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