4. Window, Balcony, and Terrace
Windows, balconies, and terraces afford curiosity for the outside world within the environs of an interior space. This curiosity leads the protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) to witness a murder in an apartment opposite his. The elaborate set of an apartment complex as seen from a window was constructed at Paramount Studios. A wide range of ambient sounds bleed into the room. The constant intermingling, reflections, and residue effects shape the room tone of the indoor setting, where the protagonist, a photojournalist, is confined after breaking his leg. The interior reflections of the outdoor ambience include street sounds, music from record players, a piano, cats and dogs, and rain. These interact with the private conversations, the house phone, and the sounds of the radio. This coalescence of private and public settings via the medium of sound in a narrative driven by curiosity places the listener right in the middle of the setting and compels them to engage with the unfolding drama. The cumulative setting sounds true to life, as clear and palpable as lived experience.
Windows, balconies, and terraces are also transitional spaces – located between indoors and sites that are relatively more public. Going out onto a balcony means leaving a room’s interior comfort to experience the outdoors. In my final talk at the American University of Beirut as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, I began the presentation with a recording from my balcony. I wanted to open the audience’s ears to the splendors of everyday sounds present on the thresholds of home environments and to raise their awareness of the daily events in which we play an indirect part. The Mediterranean Sea was not far from the balcony and could be heard through the array of buildings. The day was so clear that I could see individual waves. A distant ship passed by, and I could almost read its name. Sounds appeared as if part of the sunshine. Each voice reflected off the many surfaces of the city and resonated with clarity. Traffic, a drilling machine, an electrical hum, and a surveillance helicopter landed crisp and distinct on the microphone membranes of my recording device.
How many film sequences shot on a balcony or terrace manage to capture such an all-encompassing sonic presence? A few filmmakers, such as Satyajit Ray, go beyond the obvious sounds to capture and include multilayered ambiances in their sound design. Take, for example, the rich layers of sound from Kolkata that intrude on the silence of two lovers peacefully together on the terrace of a house in Pratidwandi (Competitor 1970). The sounds of a vast city overwhelm the lovers’ intimate moment, and yet they resist losing themselves in the clamor through their personal silence, in which only their breathing can be heard. Author Amit Chaudhuri points out Ray’s capacity for in-depth listening, “not just to what his characters are saying but also to the unfolding of life in the next house and street, to the negligible ramifications that the camera can’t record but the soundtrack can.” He suggests that this is “something he learnt from Renoir’s The River, an underrated film that captures the simultaneity of Indian existence through its extraordinary soundtrack, which is constantly alive to the interrupted flow of what’s happening elsewhere” (Chaudhuri 2013). Ray was present when Renoir was shooting The River (1951) in Kolkata and assisted him with the filming. Through this crucial encounter, Ray learned to listen to and develop the context of an auditory setting rather than allowing sound to succumb to the pressure of the visual images.