What does it mean to sit in a moment? For some, it means to be present, to actively engage in the “now.” It implies an action, a movement made in order to seize what’s before you. It’s the difference between singing along with the live band in front of you versus recording them on your phone or playing with your loved ones versus using your mobile phone in their presence. But there’s something else you can do: be still and listen. The idea can be overwhelming to those with sensory sensitivities, but listening to what’s around you is a particular kind of engagement that requires the full body and presence of mind without actually doing anything. Through the act of listening, we absorb the vibrations of the world, translating them into the sounds of life. Exploring this topic is director Sam Green (A Thousand Thoughts) in his new documentary 32 Sounds, having its Texas premiere at SXSW 2022. Startling in its approach and content, 32 Sounds offers an exploration on the known and unknown of sound as it relates to the human condition.
There are two preferred ways to experience 32 Sounds: at a theater where Green can offer live narration and musician JD Samson will play music to accompany it while the audience wears headphones *or* in a pre-recorded setting with (again) headphones on. For the purposes of clarity, this review will be of the second form as I attended the festival remotely. As the film began, both Green and Samson illustrated why headphones are a preference, both playing with space and sound as they do, but it’s not a requirement in order to enjoy the documentary. However, if you are offered the chance, do wear headphones. Or, if you feel comfortable enough, I imagine the already reflective film would increase its potency in the live presentation. Also, not for nothing, but when the introduction says that you’re welcome to engage the material physically through song or dance, it’s not just a joke played for laughs given the subject matter. There are several moments in which the audience is invited to interact with the material being discussed.
Green’s 32 Sounds is a marvel of a balancing act, deftly moving between standard topic explanation (how does sound work?/speaking with experts) and exploration (how does it feel?/how is it used?). So, on the one hand, he’ll show you (with a bit of cheek) an educational video on how the human body processes vibrations and he’ll discuss individuals who have studied sound, but he’ll also put you in the room with someone like Annea Lockwood, a composer he’s worked with before in documentary short Annea Lockwood/A Film About Listening (2021), foley artist Joanna Fang, scientist/engineer Edgar Choueiri, and sound artist Christine Sun Kim. These four don’t make up the only specialists Green focuses on, but they each provide a different perspective on how individuals conceive of or consider sound. From Lockwood, we’re asked to consider reframing how we speak about sound, trading “listening with” for “listening to,” as the object making the noise is also responding to the vibrations hitting it. For Fang, Green is more subtle, showing her at work in a few segments without consideration for the project she’s working on, only to bring it all together toward the end in a beautiful “a-ha” moment. For Choueiri, it means not only speaking with him in order to get a better understanding of binaural sound in a technical sense, but to also discuss how sounds of the past impact the present in a more philosophical sense. Sound, especially preserved, can have a profound impact on how we, all of us, occupy with the world.
Because of the experimental approach of the documentary, I think it’s important to discuss a bit my experience with it. I used a Vimeo link streaming from my Xbox One to watch with sound projected through my Yamaha 5.1 stereo. Per the instructions, I did use headphones, though the pair I own isn’t clear on what’s the left versus the right ear. Despite my directional confusion, the spatial experience was astonishing and made the film something I felt like I was engaging with intimately. Though I’ve never quite understood the rise in autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos, 32 Sounds almost put me to sleep between the constant thumping of hearing my own blood flow and the soothing sounds of so many of examples. That there are at least two moments where the audience is encouraged to close their eyes so as to more easily process the sound “on stage,” the desire to just drift off rose quite frequently. This isn’t a slight on the film, whatsoever, but a compliment to Green, highlighting how sound, in all its complexity and ethereal power, can also make someone feel entirely at peace. (At this moment of writing, I’m listening to a Lifescapes CD I bought at Wal-Mart years ago, “Scottish Moors” by Jeff Victor, itself a mixture of natural sounds and instrumentation, and picturing myself on what I’ve always imagined are the magical shores of Scotland.)
32 Sounds is unlike most documentaries. The talking head interviews aren’t lectures or lessons, they involve the subjects doing things that they explain. The footage used is always in service of a greater story that we may not understand until the end. The sounds range from complex human harmonies to traditional melodies to merely natural sounds that we’re encouraged to listen with. As much as I felt myself drifting in a fit of relaxation, I also wanted to lean in, to discover what Green discovered, to acknowledge and explore in the moment. Green’s 32 Sounds is a gift, whether in the form of a dance break or prolonged silence. Be still. Listen with.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Friday, March 11th, Screening @ 10:30p CT, Paramount Theatre
*Saturday, March 12th, On-line Screening @ 9a CT
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.