The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Isabelle Delmotte: TUNED IN AND HANDS ON: SOUND DESIGNERS BEYOND TECHNICAL EXPERTISE

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Coenaesthetic sculptors

Gibson's writes that "imposed perceptions" are obtained through the interactions of traditional organs of perception with the environment. His definition of "imposed proprioception" involves movement of the head and stimulation of the vestibular organs and then "the whole individual is passively transported and the eyes are stimulated by motion perspective" without any muscle participation (Gibson 1966: 44-45). This "passive transport" coincides with the notion of affect described as a state that is not linked to emotions but is the body's response to stimuli "at a precognitive and prelinguistic level" (Labanyi 2010: 224). Consciousness is not fast enough at registering the impulses absorbed by the body; they are quicker than can be perceived, therefore "the entire vibratory event is unconscious, out of mind" (Massumi 2002: 29).

Audible and inaudible sounds transform the body in its totality as an interface able to convey states preceding conscious responses and emotional involvement. Film theoretician Steven Shaviro notes the hegemony of consciousness as the knowledgeable judge for the reality of sensations but comments that the cognitive grows out of the visceral (Shaviro 2008: 53). Sound makers' craft relies on their own predisposed and acquired bodily relationship to audible and non-audible sounds. Their role is literally pivotal. John Kassab comments that to create the "right sound" directors have to tell him "what they want their audience to feel" (personal communication, July 29, 2011). A cinema sound experience starts in the flesh of its creators, sound designers and directors, in order to move audiences. The physicality of the practice might give us clues as to the potential of sound design and a better appreciation of the professional title itself. The stylisation and transformation of sonic elements create unique artistic expressions of phenomenological characterisations and emotions in movement: sound designers are artists in their own rights.

Gabor Csepregi notes that artists at large are able to experience a form of coenaesthesia, which he refers to as "deep sensibility stimuli" (Csepregi 2006: 37). Yuasa refers to coenaesthesia as "consciousness of self-apprehending sensation" (Yuasa 1993: 47, italics in text), a state that promotes an awareness of one's own body. Coenaesthesia, as a felt immediacy of the body’s presence in itself and the world, is also described as "a vital sense", an undefined consciousness and product of all the vital processes (The Oxford English Dictionary 1989: 433). David Appelbaum, relaying philosopher Maine de Biran’s eighteenth century idea, notes that kinaesthesia, the sense of moving through space, is a mode of body consciousness that is part of coenaesthetic perception, regardless of bodily stillness or activity (Appelbaum 1993: 52).

Coenaesthesia and kinaesthesia are creative parameters that we can associate with the experiential and imaginative practice of cinema sound design. Humans have the ability to internally access different rotational planes, therefore applying kinaesthetic qualities to perceptual abstractions (Johnson 1987: 125). A person can actually imagine being in her or his own body and experiencing sensations expected in an actual situation (Mahoney and Avener 1977: 137). This process of internal imagery requires an approximation of real-life phenomenology to perform motor imagery and is a common faculty amongst athletes and other sports practitioners. Visual imagery is a mindful representation that triggers "the experience of ‘seeing’ in an absence of the appropriate visual stimulation from the eyes" (Kosslyn 1983: 29). Without vocal expression, the sounding of gestures, postures, materials, as well as environmental silences, echoes images of a coenaesthetic body performing within a specific space.

Each haptic element, such as the smoking of a cigarette, pushes the air a bit further so that protagonists expand their bodies and extend their physical imprint on audiences' imagination. There is no finality in the audio storytelling; instead there is a potential of visceral affect generated by mimetism, described as "the corporeally based form of imitation, both voluntary and involuntary" (Gibbs 2010: 186). Tom Heuzenroeder mentions that the artistry of sound design comes into focus when instinct and less conscious thoughts lead to a bolder approach and design takes on a character of its own (personal communication, August 16, 2010). As an experiential transfer of the coenaesthesia experienced by all individuals, sound can trigger a transmission of affect, "a process that is social in origin but biological and physical in effect" (Brennan 2004: 3). The nurturing of affect amongst a film production team that appreciates sound designers' experiences of the world could impact on the coenaesthesia of the story itself.

A scene of the film The Hurt Locker (Bigelow 2008) provides such a coenaesthetic sculpting of a narrative and its space modelling. In an emptied Baghdad street, American military bomb disarmer Sergent Matt Thomson, played by Guy Pearce, walks towards an explosive device wearing an armoured suit for bomb disposal, his head topped with a five-kilo helmet. The walk is slow and economical in gesture. Thomson's breath stops at the visor of his helmet, and travels back to his skin. We feel the thumping of his boots on the arid and rocky street and the armoured suit pulls us towards the ground, our shoulders feeling the weight. Through the two-way communication system Thomson's words and those of his colleagues circle around his head, our head. When Thomson kneels to pick up a piece of equipment and then stands up slowly with his arms stretched in front of him, we feel his instability and the material inside the suit brushing his limbs. There is no music but just space, skin, weight, rigidity and an impaired centre of gravity.

The sensory potential of sound reinforces both instinctive and intentional experiments of cinema sound designers to channel sonic worlds to influence the centre of gravity of their first public: themselves and directors/producers. These physical reactions are signs of oscillations, of the perturbation of emotional and physical balance that take us, primates, in and out of ourselves. This definition of the concept of affect adds a subtext that includes notions of movement and oscillating states:

Affect, at its most anthropomorphic, is the name we give to those forces - visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion - that can serve to drive us towards movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world's apparent intractability. (Seigworth and Gregg 2010: 1)

The various suggestions and opinions on the roles of "sound designer" mentioned in this paper propose that environmental knowledge intrinsic to bodily activities is able to affect the embodiment of a story. Affect is a pre-emotional and a-subjective state that allows the body to be part of environments without a hierarchy of sensations and cognitive promotion. I consider cinema sound designers as "coenaesthetic sculptors" because of the different sensory imaginations and axial permutations that they apply, consciously or not, to visible or invisible matters and bodies, thus reflecting the oscillations of a scene and immersing us in its spatio-temporality. The notion of affect is applicable to sound designers' lives and work practices and to their interactions with a film production team when devising or assembling an audio-visual narrative.