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Immediacy And Non-Simultaneity: Utopia Of Sound
Diedrich Diederichsen & Constanze Ruhm (Editors)
Publications Of The Academy Of Fine Arts, Vienna Pbk 264pp

- Nina Power

In The Wire (UK), Issue 318, August 2010.

Immediacy And Non-Simultaneity: Utopia Of Sound Diedrich Diederichsen & Constanze Ruhm (Editors) Publications Of The Academy Of Fine Arts, Vienna Pbk 264pp

"Everyday life has become the scene of a continuous sonic semiosis," argues Constanze Ruhm in this excellent collection of reflections on sound, music, soundtracks, pop music, noise, time, politics and culture. Bringing together a cutting-edge array of experts and commentators, including Michel Chion, Terre Thaemlitz, Brandon LaBelle, Holger Schulze, Christoph Cox, Christian Petzold and Hildegard Westerkamp, Utopia Of Sound goes to the core of contemporary ideas and future possibilities for sound. Based on a symposium held at Vienna's Filmmuseum in 2008, this collection seeks to place the question of utopia at the heart of sonic culture. While at times the question of utopia drops out in favour of more empirical discussions of film soundtracks and recent technological innovation, it is hard to imagine a more well-rounded and useful anthology of current thinking about the vexed and complex link between sound and culture. Utopia Of Sound is also mercifully free of theory-babble, and the technological discussions are clear enough for a non-expert to understand.

While all of the essays are strong, the essays by Chion and Terre Thaemlitz are particularly memorable. Chion's short piece, "On Synchronism", offers a fascinating and convincing account of the human desire for synchronism, and the way in which it structures our perception of events in time, whether in cinema, music or everyday life. His essay, as well as many of the others, also demonstrates the role of construction in our supposed ‘natural' understanding of sound, cinematic or otherwise. It is this dimension that is perhaps the collection's greatest strength, forcing readers to rethink their understanding of the non-naturalness of ‘natural' sound in film, in particular. As Chion puts it: "The more we zoom onto a detail… the fewer chances there are that the image will coincide with the sound."

Thaemlitz undoubtedly wins the prize for best essay title: "Please Tell My Landlord Not To Expect Future Payments Because Attali's Theory Of Surplus-Value-Generating Information Economics Only Works If My Home Studio's Rent And Other Use-Values Are Zero". It is also a frequently hilarious but serious attack on Jacques Attali, author of the influential Noise (1978), and some of the theoretical elements of the conference (although, it has to be said, the essays here are by no means as opaque as those in many academic collections): "Our reckless extension of goodwill is ultimately an act of self-sabotage. The impassioned artist's stance, ‘art for art's sake' obfuscates a labour issue." Thaemlitz's piece concludes, "I hope they still pay me".

Other essays focus in on particular film makers and their use of music and sound. Caryl Flinn's analysis of Lars von Trier's Dancer In The Dark and Breaking The Waves, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music In The World is especially acute, suggesting that there is a "new myth of film music" staged in films that generate "either worlds of delirious excess or of grinding impoverishment".

The attention paid to the material and economic dimensions of sound is a common theme. The tension between the omnipresence of sound and the yearning for sound in its rare absences is another important strand in these pieces. Diedrich Diederichsen talks about "the permanent motivation and animation of over-challenged and essentially exhausted subjects in the face of the self-marketing of neoliberal culture", while Hildegard Westerkamp reflects on an experience she had in the ‘Zone of Silence' in the Mexican desert, where for three weeks she heard only two distant jets and the rare sound of a truck: "I discovered that the sparseness of sound and music in this environment and over such a long time span created a natural desire for sound." It is the desire to understand and appreciate sound in all its forms that proves to be the strength of this extraordinary and vital collection.