SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! 32 Sounds is best experienced in your home, viewed while wearing headphones. Preferably a very good pair of stereo or even binaural headphones. As documentary filmmaker Sam Green opens the movie, he even encourages us, the spectators, to find our headphones. Why? Because this is an interactive, experiential wonder.
A cataloging of 32 official sounds and many more unofficial recordings, the documentary explores how sound enriches our lives and deepens specific interactions with the world and people. Through dynamic vignettes concerning people, sound, and compositions, we meet a foley artist, legendary avant-garde composer Annea Lockwood, a scientist researching binaural sound, and many other fascinating creators and researchers of sound. A particularly haunting moment is sound #1, which is the song of a Hawaiian bird who went extinct in the 1980s. I also particularly enjoyed the interaction when Green accompanied Lockwood to record the sounds of a river in Upstate New York. Apparently, she has been documenting the sounds of waterways for more than 50 years, starting with the Danube in Austria.
Binaural audio recordings are the most striking and powers much of 32 Sounds. Binaural sound is the process of recording and presenting sound through headphones in such a manner you feel as if you are following the sound as it moves about any given space. For example, there’s a scene wherein a researcher of binaural sound named Edgar lights a match near his binaural dummy, Johann-Kristofer. Johann-Kristofer and everyone watching while wearing headphones hears the way the flickering match sounds as it moves around Johann-Kristofer’s ears. This experience is both unnerving and exhilarating.
“…seeks to explore how sound both enriches our lives and deepens specific interactions…”
Employing the thesis of Charles Babbage that recorded sound serves as a preservation of memory, the film explores how the sounds of those who have died become ghosts of a sort. You can listen to a recording of your dead brother’s voice and remember something about him. This ties in nicely to a collection of voicemail tapes preserved by Green. He plays a sampling of them throughout, and there’s something both nostalgic and haunting involved in listening to the voices of people you know have all passed on.
A performance of John Cage’s 4:33reminds us the absence of sound can be just as meaningful as any note emitted by Mr. Cage hitting a key on his piano. 4:33 is quite literally the musician sitting at their selected instrument and not playing for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds. As we see from the 1971 recording from Harvard Square, the act of just sitting there and permitting the world around you to provide the ambient musical noise is just wonderful and highly unconventional.
Ultimately, 32 Sounds serves as a glorious pastiche of interviews with sound makers, found footage concerning sound, and interactive experiments for audience members to participate in. My favorite of these experiments is near the conclusion, where you involve yourself in a vocal meditation session. Sam Green has helmed a magnificent work. I highly encourage everyone to seek out the documentary and acquire a really great set of headphones to experience this movie as intended.
32 Sounds screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
"…a magnificent work."