For the collaborative media art project San Lorenzo (2008), I worked with artist Matteo Marangoni to record ambient sounds in a historic area of downtown Florence, Italy, for an installation of still images made by students and teachers from a local photography school. The project was about personalized approaches to viewing and listening to certain local, urban sites. In downtown Florence, a few immense buildings had been abandoned in the throes of urban development. One of them had been proposed as a possible space for art installations. I went there to record the site. It was a multistory building with four floors above ground and three below. The total area of the building was almost equal to half a football pitch. Inside, there were only remnants of construction materials – quite an interesting place for a site-specific recording. I tried to engage with the site, listening intently to the sounding space. Soon I realized that the environment was divided into different atmospheric zones, and in order to record them well, I would need to remain within the zone and forget my own presence. I soon disappeared into the darker corners of the Florentine building. While exploring its subterranean floors, I found an area of incredible beauty in the deepest basement – a cavernous foreground of silence was punctuated by dripping water in the background, and the floor was covered with ancient fungus drowned in a semi-flood of water. The floor exuded a low frequency. I attuned my ear to the fundamental tones. The basement ambience constituted of water dripping onto water. As a sound practitioner, I believe that my religion is listening, and I belong to the sounding space that I can hear – that is my personal ideology. I laid down on the floor to be able to hear more and absorb the sound into my body. I began to hear sounds from the water that radiated toward the wall before being reflected back, forming an endless series of soft, mellow reverberations. It was at that moment that I remembered to use my binaural microphones to make a registration of this unique setting. Listening to the recording later, I felt the lack of some of the embodied experience I had had at that enclosed, indoor, basement site in Florence.
I wonder how well sites such as basements can be depicted in film sound production. As Michel Chion points out: “Cinema systematically exaggerates the contrast of intensity. This device of exaggerating contrast is a kind of white lie committed even in films that use direct sound” (Chion 1994: 113). Rendering in film serves to underscore and augment the narrative elements in the service of aesthetic consumption. Timothy Morton suggests that rendering “is technically what visual- and sonic-effects artists do to a film to generate a more or less consistent sense of atmosphere or world” (Morton 2009: 34), modifying and often limiting the potential of ambient sound and its capacity to convey a nuanced sense of reality. The cinematic rendering of basement-like sites, which are architecturally non-intimate and often sonically claustrophobic, may offer insights into the human mediation of built ambiance as reflecting darker human emotions.
In films, indoor sites such as basements are usually rendered to represent primal human emotions or states such as fear, depravity or degradation. In the South Korean film Parasite (Bong Joon Ho 2019), two indoor settings, socially and economically distant from one another, meet through a convoluted narrative as the characters from the one come to work at and slowly occupy the other. The first setting is a banjiha, the semi-basement home of an impoverished family in one of the last shanty towns near downtown Seoul, while the other is the bright and spacious home of an affluent family situated in a wealthy neighborhood. The outcome of this meeting is disastrous, resulting in the murder and physical and psychological damage of several characters. While the basement, from which its inhabitants constantly dream of escaping, sounds messy and claustrophobic (the room tone includes the intruding ambient sounds from busy streets), the other household sounds clean and sanitized (articulating the crisp texture of voices and smaller audible sounds) and almost lifeless. The basement of the second indoor site, however, contains the narrative’s underbelly, a hidden and subconscious setting in which the parasitical seeds of the film’s climax develop into a full-blown violent conclusion. The film is mixed in Dolby Atmos, which helps to spatially delineate and accentuate the different room ambiences created for the narrative’s different settings. However, the rich musical score drowns out much of these details. One might ask why the non-diegetic soundtrack was deemed necessary.