Immersion and proximity: music, sound, and subjectivity in The Memory Dealer

Sarah Hibberd and Nanette Nielsen

Film music has long been recognized as a powerful tool with which to shape the audience’s viewing experience. A soundtrack works on multiple, complex levels: it can support or disrupt narrative direction, evoke a particular emotional response, serve as a memory jolt, offer coherence from scene to scene and between points of view shots, and provide the very building blocks of a film, from atmosphere, through mood, to character and beyond.[1] When successful, a soundtrack deepens the spectator’s engagement with the film and plays an essential part in guiding the perception of an alternative fictional or imaginary reality.

Given the inherently narrative status of pervasive drama, the creation of music and sound for The Memory Dealer (TMD) was from the outset informed by narrative film music theory (e.g. Claudia Gorbman 1987; Kathryn Kalinak 1992). New music was composed, employing traditional techniques and tailored to the new, interactive, experiential dramatic space. The aim was to construct a soundtrack that would pay close attention to characters and moods, but would also demonstrate novel ways in which music and sound, even when conceived simply, can contribute to complex audience immersion in this new interactive genre. In this article, we argue that TMD provides pioneering theoretical and practical avenues for guiding and constructing subjectivity (both real and imagined) via a soundtrack, influencing player immersion and engagement through music and sound, and pointing towards further developments for the genre and its sonic scope.

I. From narrative to immersive sonic construction


In the classical Hollywood narrative tradition, music is crucial to creating a rapport between viewer and onscreen character(s). The camera can establish a point of view, whether the gaze of a character or that of the omniscient narrator, and music can help to develop the characterization through the film and facilitate switching between subjectivities. Moreover, the atmosphere in which the drama unfolds is shaped by the music: it can pace the action, create a sense of expectation, invoke specific emotions in relation to what is seen, provide a sense of continuity and direction. In other words, music mediates image, in subtle and less subtle ways, and has a strong impact on the way in which the narrative is interpreted by the spectator. The experiencing subject of a traditional film is essentially passive: the narrative environment with which he/she engages is a fixed location in the real world, e.g. a cinema or a living room. But even while being restricted to working within this (physically) passive state of subjective experience, a soundtrack can define the space and location of the fictitious world of the film and create atmosphere that reaches well beyond the four walls. Exotic music might denote a specific cultural landscape, for example, or the sound of gunfire on a battlefield or animal sounds in a jungle might be heard. Alternatively, common musical signifiers (tremolos, fanfares, the use of minor or major key) might excite fear, relief, joy – or signal approaching danger or resolution. Such sonic references can work on very subtle, barely noticeable levels, as an inherent part of the film’s fabric, transporting the spectator to new imaginary realms.

Players of TMD, familiar with the convention, recognized some of these filmic cues in the soundtrack: “it was slightly unsettling […] it helps you get into the mood of the piece” (FRC1); “we both seemed to think that Eve was a bit dodgy, so I don’t know whether the music had, had some subtle way of leading us, making us think that, ‘cause it was quite sinister, wasn’t it, the music, so you know it’s more classically associated with baddies, I think, that sort of music.” (FRC4). For one player it was even “Hitchcock-like” (FRG5).

Alex’s theme for “sinister Eve”

Although film music often operates in a straightforward relationship to what appears on screen, sound can become an effective means of affective and semantic manipulation (Chion 1994: 33–4). Thus, music can take on a scene’s rhythm, tone and phrasing, reinforcing the emotional climate onscreen in a fairly straightforward way. Or it can act in counterpoint, using contrast or juxtaposition to highlight an aspect of what one is seeing, or change the frame and offer a mise en perspective, or imply a different viewpoint or subjectivity. Given the fixed eye of the camera, it is possible to deploy sound in quite complex ways without disturbing the immersive nature of the narrative experience.

Some players, conversant with the possibilities offered by film music, suggested that the TMD soundtrack might have been more challenging and complex in order to maintain aural interest: “I think it would’ve been good if […] there was a bit of development […] that would maybe help kind of raise the tension in the whole piece as you go along” (FRC1). However, the open-ended nature of pervasive drama – the pacing and narrative experience is specific to each individual – means that it would be difficult to achieve this without restricting the choices and experiences open to the players or without disorientating them to the point that they fall out of the narrative. Indeed, some found the simplicity and repetitious nature of the music crucial to their flow through the drama: “It mostly gave the whole thing structure […] it strung all the bits together, gave it consistency […] if there was no music, it wouldn’t have worked. It was totally essential to the experience” (FRA4); “because it was looping around […] there’s a certain degree of uh, trance, space, which is, oh just going to help suggestibility” (FRD1). It was striking, however, that players generally did not believe that the music contributed to the narrative (as opposed to the atmosphere and characterization) as it might do in a film; the simplicity of its construction and repetition seemed to militate against this, though at the same time it provided the firm grounding required for a more interactive and personal experience.

The players’ perceptions of the ways in which music did not function as a contributor to the narrative reveals a key element of pervasive drama, namely that the soundtrack to a great extent guides the players’ submersion into subjective experience. Instead of working as a predominantly narrative aid, the soundtrack seems to support players’ understanding of their own agency in the drama. So, at the same time that the players recognize that the soundtrack does not work as it would in film, they also recognize how it contributes to the atmosphere, thereby shaping their experience as agents in the narrative. In other words, it is not surprising that the soundtrack’s narrative function is only perceived as a secondary element: the primary subject is the player – their active participation is key to the story – and the narrative is dependent on their involvement. What is clear from this perception, then, is that the soundtrack plays a critical role in establishing an awareness of agency and construction of subjectivity by enabling players to carve out a sonic sense of self, rather than working only as an aid to a linear narrative.

Although the comments confirmed that the players did not generally perceive the soundtrack as supporting the narrative, it is striking that they nevertheless had observations to make about the music. As is familiar from film scholarship, one of the unspoken rules of narrative film music is that it should not be noticed (e.g. Claudia Gorbman 1987). But TMD players most often had very clear ideas about how and when the music contributed to the experience and their immersion. An important reason for this is precisely the less linear narrative that TMD offers: anything can happen, so the players need to be alert in a different way than when watching a film passively, where the timings are predetermined.

This alertness is crucial for true immersion and highlights a novel kind of engagement that (to our knowledge) is unique to pervasive drama. While each player will need to partake in a sonic interaction where communication of information occurs, they also need to submit to a sonic openness, a kind of fragility, where they become physically and mentally immersed in a story for which they themselves act as contributors to the narrative direction. This kind of engagement is a good example of what Kassabian in her discussion of “ubiquitous listening” has also recognized as an erasure of the familiar distinction between listening (as conscious and attentive) and hearing (as physiological) (Kassabian 2013: xxxi): all listening in TMD necessarily involves all of these elements at the same time. In other words, the TMD experience is one for which mental, emotional, and bodily capacities are fully alert. The soundtrack does not show its effectiveness by making the audience passive recipients (film), but by guiding feeling and atmosphere and by supplying cues through its sonic fabric. And it is due to this alertness that narrative (again) becomes secondary while construction of the player’s subjectivity through the soundtrack remains a primary pursuit. If this kind of immersion appears to yield substantial reflection from individuals on their subjective experience and how the soundtrack contributes to immersion, it also yields novel results regarding self-reflection through sound, as we shall see.

[1] In their respective contributions in this issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies, Elizabeth Evans and Eva Giraud discuss narrativity and immersion in more detail.

II. Subjectivity and subjective experience in pervasive drama

Broadly speaking, any idea of subjectivity indicates a perspective, a particular point of view. Regardless of context, it entails a consideration of the subject’s placement in the world within which it is positioned, whether this world is real or imagined, physical or psychological. Subjectivity is first and foremost about the experience of the “I”, the first-person perspective, and (if needed) can secondly involve the relation of the subject to other subjects, taking the area of investigation into analyses of intersubjective interaction. Pervasive drama like TMD is primarily a personal, subjective experience: the player is wearing headphones most of the time and is immersed in the narrative and soundtrack, blending real and imagined worlds as the play continues to inhabit both the real sphere of the physical surroundings as well as the unreal space of the fictional narrative and the player’s own imagination. Towards the end of the drama, as players are asked to debate and make a (moral) choice regarding their own fate and that of Eve, the experience can be seen to move towards the sphere of intersubjectivity, as players extend self-reflection to involve consideration of others.

A striking aspect of TMD is the possibility – indeed requirement – for subject displacement and the related demand to engage both real and imagined selves. When preparing for the event, players will have watched the introductory trailer to the experience and learnt that participating is “like you are you, but you are someone else at the same time.” This pre-experience experience will have alerted players to the fact that some degree of subject flexibility is needed and that a merging of subjectivities through an aspect of role-play is part of the game. The instruction is furthermore indirectly repeated in the first, narrated, part of the drama, as the player is gently “submerged” into the story, learning what “Memming” is. To the player it is clear, then, that the subjective experience in TMD involves a (self-) conscious extension of subjectivity (assuming both the role of the real I and an imaginary other), a knowing manipulation of the center of consciousness. Although this might be likened to a spectator identifying him- or herself with a character in a film, a crucial difference is that the boundary between the real and the imagined is blurred in pervasive drama: it is unlike watching a film, when the direct experience of reality (i.e. sitting in the cinema) is necessarily suspended in order for the film viewing experience to be fully immersive and successful. In TMD, at the same time as being a fictional story involving flashbacks and memories, the narrative also happens in real time, is guided by recorded verbal communication and a musical soundtrack, steered by real, present actors, and located in a physical space. The experience therefore requires both (self-) conscious rational engagement and deep imaginative involvement on the part of the player in order to be successful. In addition, apart from involving a flexible, modifiable subjectivity where there is a requirement for (self-) conscious awareness of events, clues, directions, and narrative, the player is also physically active, moving between locations, and the subjectivity at play is therefore to a great extent a self-reflective embodied subjectivity. Given all these factors, it is clear that a pervasive drama experience has the potential to be all-encompassing and fully immersive, both physically and mentally.

Understanding the nature and power of, as well as the possibilities related to, this immersion is key: when fully immersed, the player’s perspective can be fully guided, and the subjectivity – real and imagined, experienced and perceived – successfully shaped and constructed. In other words, the player’s subjectivity and perception of (or experience of) subjectivity is dependent on successful immersion. For our purposes here, the crucial question that follows is: how can subjectivity be constructed through music and sound?

There are effectively two levels of subjectivity in TMD directly related to the role of the player: his/her characterization as a friend of Eve and his/her subject position as Eve herself. These fictional personas are then kept in tension with the player’s own “real world” subjectivity. The soundtrack is critical in establishing an understanding of the nature of the friendship with Eve, and Eve’s character, and in facilitating an easy shift between these subjectivities. The merging of real and fictional worlds is encouraged from the start: “when he was talking about when he first met her himself, you kind of, you kind of try to tally up with your own memories […] they kind of merge into the tune” (FRC1). Real and fictional subjectivities quickly mingled: “it was almost a theatrical experience because it was one-to-one live. With what the memory dealer was doing, I was going in and out in my head” (FRG4).

Music’s non-specificity and allusiveness mean that it can effect such shifts quite subtly, most fundamentally by establishing the evolving mood within which the relationships operate. Thus, trust is established in the opening section: gentle nostalgia and drifting thoughts are encouraged by the music, which players described as “dreamy” and “trance-like”.

Section from the opening

For many, this section of TMD was the most immersive part (a point we will return to again below). The undermining of this sense of trust and a feeling of developing paranoia – and thus further immersion in the fictional world – is encouraged by more dissonant, spare textures, as one player commented: “Well it’s paranoia I guess … paranoia because it was dun-dun-dun-dun. I mean it’s a, it’s [terse]” (FRG1). These narrative themes, then, musically supported, are confirmed by the audience responses to the soundtrack, which keep the different subjectivities in play.

Moments of geographical or logistical transition are the points when players are most likely to become disorientated and come “out” of the narrative, and thus are the points when they may look to the soundtrack to help them re-immerse. As one player remarked, “when I was moving from place to place, it kept me within the experience” (FRD1). Furthermore, subtle tools – the use of major or minor key, dissonance or choice of instrument, tone of voice – were often enough to nudge a receptive player onto the right track, into the frame of mind for the next step in the drama. Such transitional points in TMD included moments immediately after interaction with an actor, or receipt of instructions via a text message, or when entering a new space. A good example was the dentist’s waiting room. The occasional introduction of ambient music – played on a laptop by the receptionist at the desk – helped encourage some players to inhabit Eve’s experience, to stand up and shout that they wanted to see the dentist when instructed to do so on the soundtrack playing through the headphones. Indeed for some players this was the most interesting point in the drama: “I was in real space and in fictional space at the same time” (FRB1); “I became Eve and found myself going ‘yeah’ and living the part just for a second” (FRH1).

Section of the narrative which includes the instruction

Subjectivity and space and/or location are areas that have been firmly interrogated in film and TV scholarship, not least via the idea of a “Point of Audition” (POA), which is a useful tool for understanding ways in which subjectivity can be constructed in and by the TMD soundtrack. POA is traditionally recognized as a highly problematic term: Rick Altman calls it “clumsy” and criticizes it for being too dependent on the idea of the cinematic “point-of-view” (POV) shot, without delivering much value in its own (sonic) right (Altman 1992: 60). And the non-specificity of POA has led Michel Chion – to whom POA is a “particularly tricky and ambiguous” notion – to speak of a place or a zone instead of a point: the nature of both sound and listening is omnidirectional, and POA communicates as a term a precision it does not encompass (Chion 1994: 90–91). Such writers (Kassabian 2008; see also Høier 2012) have in common the recognition of two primary meanings of POA:

  1. “From where do I hear?” The spatial position that the audience “hears from” within the diegetic world presented, i.e. the space experienced.
  2. The subjective aural experience of a character, where a character “hears what I hear”. (“Subjective POA”)

Cinematic POV and POA can be briefly explained as follows. If we watch and listen to a musician play in a given space, our view can easily be determined precisely, whereas the slight difference in acoustics for each spectator will result in diffuse POA without easily discernable “points” (Chion 1994: 91). As for subjective POA, this is most often dependent on the cues we receive from the POV, e.g. a close-up of a face, or a visual representation of somebody speaking on the phone, in which case we would hear what a character hears, i.e. a subjective POA.

Although cinematic POA is problematic, it gains renewed relevance for a pervasive drama like TMD. First, the spatial POA is always tied to the direct experience of the player, and therefore has the potential to be fixed, enabling controlled guidance via the soundtrack: in the simplest (spatial) sense, the POA is located in the headphones (although this is easily made more complex, as we shall see). Second, because the spatial sense of POA is relatively static, the subjective POA can be constructed according to the particular subjectivity the player assumes, i.e. the role he/she plays. Unlike traditional cinematic POA, the two senses of POA become intertwined in TMD: the direct experience of the narrative and soundtrack through headphones ensures an already established subjective POA (e.g. we hear what the character hears because we are already part of that “inner world”), which can then be manipulated through sound as and when needed (e.g. when the player needs to merge subjectivities and “become” Eve). Moreover, the player’s POV is more often than not guided by POA, rather than the more traditional converse situation.

The merging of the two senses of POA occurs very clearly at the beginning of the drama. For the first twenty minutes, there is no direct communication with the outside world, as the players hear the storyteller (Rik Lander) offer information about the setting, the past, the present, Eve, and the player’s role as a friend of Eve. Various visual cues emerge via the sonic narrative (POA steering POV), as the following extract exemplifies:

How many times have you walked here? Now you find yourself really starting to notice things around you. Familiar things. Things you never noticed before. And now that you think about it you realise you often walk around without even seeing where you are. Rushing on with your life, the fabric of the world all but invisible.

The players are given time to become immersed in the drama, the narrative being (as several players noticed) “hypnotic” in the sense that individuals are encouraged to pay particular attention to first person perspective. Prompts are offered in a suggestive but imprecise way, thus facilitating the crossing between subjectivities, opening up the space for immersion. The narrative is also physical, encouraging an embodied subjectivity where the whole body is involved, e.g. with prompts to draw breath and, at one point, to stop walking:

You stop walking. What made you wander here? It’s the exact place you first met her. She was standing and looking up. You were hurrying past, not really aware of the world as usual, but you glimpsed her and found yourself looking up to where she was looking. All you saw was the top of the building. You look again now, still unsure what it was she was looking at so intently. Someone in a window? A bird on a roof?

You look around at where you are. Up into the sky. You take a deep breath. [breath in] For you feel very alive. [breath out]

When interviewed, several players noted that it was via the spoken narrative and the underlying repetitive, narrative-supporting, “atmospheric” soundtrack at the point of this steady POA, without any interruption from outside engagement, that immersion was particularly successful in this first part of TMD. “Like a story tape music”, one player commented (FRJ2). The immersion was also described spatially, and it was highlighted how the introductory section “was thoughtful, and it [the soundtrack] created a space actually to think about those things in a kind of relaxed fashion, where you actually are engaging with the thoughts, kind of like reading a book.” (FRI3) Although the subjective experience and immersion was successful for most here, the real/unreal boundary was for one player so pointedly blurred that memories from his own past life came back far too vividly, thereby in fact lessening the immersion:

There is really a small thing I noticed, ‘cause I, I thought it was quite good, and actually I was starting to think about memories, about when I’d been in Bristol the first time, nice memories of bringing my daughter there for my first time. But then, I think the narrative tried to make me think I was supposed to think of my very first memory, which wasn’t in Bristol. So that’s kind of took me away from the center, so I just, you know, I didn’t know … I mean, it just kind of broke the chain of memory thoughts, because I thought “oh no, well, that was back, you know, what is my very first memory, and that wasn’t here,” so, it kind of dislocated me from the place after actually starting to, after initially kind of getting my memories going about where I was, I was then kind of forced into a different area, so. (FRC4)

Apart from pinpointing how powerful it can be to merge subjective experience through sound, this challenge brings us to another facet of TMD: successful immersion is dependent on a fine balance between self-reflection and self-consciousness, and an imbalance can lead to (a less immersive) subject displacement. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the dentist’s waiting room. As mentioned above, some players noted how this was a very successful part of the drama for them as they merged their subjectivity with Eve’s, feeling part of a real and a fictional space at the same time, and also following the instructions on the soundtrack (to stand up and shout, thereby moving sound from inner experience to outer expression). But for others, it became a fragile moment of self-consciousness, precisely because they had to displace their subjectivity and perform (also physically) as someone else, and this broke their experience. As one player noted: “For me, the only point where I thought I was losing this was in the dentist’s, when I had to become Eve. … I wasn’t sure how much agency I had and how much I was supposed to just receive. … Up until that point I felt I had enough agency to be immersed.” (FRD1) Once elements of possible insecurity are introduced in relation to subjective engagement, players run the risk of becoming too self-conscious: this bears witness to the deep level of subjective experience and self-reflection involved in TMD.

While POA gains renewed relevance, it also brings to the forefront some of the challenges inherent in the subjective experience of a pervasive drama like TMD. A particular challenge relates to the extent to which TMD on one level so successfully blurs the boundary between real and unreal, while on another level remains fragile when it comes to establishing fluidity in the navigation between inner and outer worlds, thereby securing deep immersion. The soundtrack can be a tremendous aid here. But the “controlled guidance” of the POA is wholly dependent on both technology and the successful use of mental and physical space, and when players are “brought out” of the drama, it is most often sound-related (e.g. whether to keep headphones on or take them off during communication with actors). Here, the final part of the drama – with the transition from the dentist to the jeweler’s, which are located on the same floor of a building, in the same room without walls – offers a case in point. Many players observed that this part contributed to a less immersive experience, either because it was difficult to hear, or because the sound carried across the spaces, thereby contaminating the atmosphere between scenes, creating confusion in semantic purpose and narrative direction (e.g. the groups interviewed FRI 15.00; FRI 16.00; FRI 16.30; SAT 11.00; SAT 14.00; SAT 14.30).

On the one hand, then, the soundtrack guided players towards a subjective experience where the immersion would hinge on the right balance between a reflective self-awareness and a more disruptive self-consciousness, leaning more towards the former. To this effect, the soundtrack was frequently described as “dreamy” (FRA2), bringing about “trance” (FRH6), or “helping to develop a trance-like state” (FRA1). On the other hand, the construction of subjective experience via the soundtrack also took the form of an embodied subjectivity. A hypnotic effect aside, this was expressed by reference to music having a direct impact on movement and action, like for the following player who noted these two distinct effects of the soundtrack (psychological impact and physical encouragement):

I quite liked the change in tension in [the music], because it was like, for the first part where you’re wandering around, it was quite, um, reflective, or managed to put you into the head space, and then it got more into a bit of a, kind of, you’ve got to hurry, you’ve got to kind of move it along, so I think the music really helped do this shift in … Your action as a person within the story. (FRB1)

When asked whether they noticed the music, one player answered: “Yeah absolutely, especially when it got sort of a little bit more urgent, and then I found myself walking faster a little bit” (SATI4).

Similarly, a different player noted that:

I thought [the music] impacted on my behaviour, I mean I quite liked it. At the beginning it was just very … it added to the richness of the experience. I was wandering around listening to this music that was quite repetitive, and it was lovely, but then it became a part of the action, so when we were sort of walking quickly, a sort of quick walking music. (SAC2)

The TMD soundtrack transgresses several familiar boundaries, then, covering both mental and physical aspects, constructing subjectivity in a broad variety of ways, thereby securing deep immersion, while in some cases revealing those fragile moments where the player “falls out” of the narrative. It is also noticeable how the soundtrack and TMD challenges notions of personal and public space: the players’ experience of direct listening through headphones, and through the personal device that is a mobile phone, takes place in spaces that are unavoidably very public (the street, the hotel, the café etc.). To this extent, TMD contributes to recent attempts within sound studies to try and map the interaction between the private and the public, the personal and the social, not least through technology. The player has to navigate these sound worlds and make sense of the surroundings in new ways, mapping the trajectory of the storyline by actively responding to sonic cues. When wearing headphones, the player is occupying a “personal sound space” (Fluegge 2011) in which their mind and body are attentive and alert to the immediate sonic territory: this helps to create an imaginary realm which sets itself apart from the outer world. As one player noted: “That is part of why the music is good, because it shuts out the peripheral stuff that isn’t part of the story” (FRJ5). When communicating with actors, or entering a hotel room with different sonic aspects, the player must activate an “auditory spatial awareness” which is not just about judging a new space, but also incorporates the player’s emotional and behavioral involvement (Blesser and Salter 2007). In those moments, the player remains equally mentally and physically alert, but the sonic territory has been expanded, and in some cases, the listening attitude needs to be converted into an expressive one (e.g. in the dentist’s waiting room). Unlike any other artistic form, it would appear that a pervasive drama like TMD requires complex mediation between these different kinds of sonic environments, enabling new dynamics to emerge. As we have seen in this section, pervasive drama is at its most effective when the balance between the real and the imagined is upheld and moments of self-consciousness carefully guided via the soundtrack, keeping in check the tension and play between awareness and immersion; the soundtrack plays a crucial role in blurring and re-shaping the boundaries between the real and the imagined and the various senses of self.

III. New theoretical and practical possibilities presented by The Memory Dealer: some brief conclusions

Although the techniques of the classical Hollywood narrative tradition were our starting point when creating the score for TMD, pervasive drama offers richer possibilities for guiding subjectivity, as we have seen. However, the relative success of such possibilities is difficult to predict, owing to the degree of “real world” interference (including a “real world” soundtrack) and player individuality and agency. The very nature of the genre means on the one hand that immersion is more difficult to achieve and on the other that new means of keeping players “in” the drama need to be sought. In order to understand the possibilities offered by the soundtrack, moreover, it is important to consider how it operates in relation to the visual – film’s dominant mode of communication – and to new technologies.

One can hear many sounds simultaneously, and so when the aural sphere is dominant, perspective becomes plural and permeable (Connor 2007: 207). In other words, the self – defined in terms of hearing – can be understood as “a channel through which voices, noises and musics travel” (207). For some players, the permeability of the soundtrack was key: “what I really liked about it […] as you’re walking, is that it enables the sounds of the real world to fold into it” (FRG1). Steven Connor and others have taken this idea a step further, suggesting that the experiential quality of sound is a means by which to promote the qualities of the affective and phenomenological against the rationality associated with visual representation (Barns 2014: 5). Indeed, Sarah Barns suggests that the synaesthetic qualities of sound heighten the listener’s awareness of his or her own point of reference (13). In other words, there is a productive interplay between the auditory and the visual – and indeed with the other senses – that influences emotional and personal responses. By this means, then, the soundtrack of TMD offers freedom and space for the multisensory self to develop within the framework of the narrative and for an individual relationship with the fictional character of Eve to be forged. Although the narrative is tightly controlled (in contrast to, for example, that of a video game, in which the players may be able to interact and influence the story), the experience is open-ended and unpredictable, and the soundtrack encourages this freedom. Ultimately, TMD reverses the idea of a cinematic soundtrack, in line with theory on soundwalks: “The material world becomes a quasi-cinematic ‘image’ to the mobile soundtrack” (Barns 2014: 11): “when we came out of the dealer bit, it was sort of quite edgy, threatening music […] it was almost like you’re in a thriller and it’s getting to the scary bits” (FRD2).

Awareness of the experience is a key component of pervasive drama: it seems to enhance absorption in the narrative, the two modes being in constant play. Indeed rather than simply “layering” fiction onto the real world, an oscillation between the two is encouraged – with a space for imaginative reflection and construction of the experience. A different way to regard this exchange between the real and the imaginary is as a mediation of disbelief: if suspension of disbelief is a regular occurrence in a traditional genre, like film, where it needs to be maintained as a constant imaginary leap, this leap becomes a process in dynamic flux for pervasive drama like TMD. A fluid appreciation of auditory space, and of inner and outer worlds, creates a particular kind of immersion that seems to have been one of the defining elements of TMD. Jonathan Sterne (Sterne 2004) has encouraged us to resist understanding technology as the agent of change in our listening practices and, instead, to consider technological innovations in a more dialogic relationship with the shifting listening practices they precipitate. We might, for example, consider how headphones have become a tool for enabling us to tune out the sounds of the external world. This becomes central to the player’s relationship with the soundtrack for a pervasive drama such as TMD: some reported finding it difficult to maintain an awareness of the world around them or to interact with the actors in the drama while keeping the headphones in their ears. Other players, however, reported a blended experience, more aligned to Connor’s “channel”, whereby the music and voices on the soundtrack were permeated by the sounds of the outside world – sometimes serendipitously enhancing the narrative, e.g. “There were bits where I kind of liked the fact that near the beginning as well where the bells were ringing of the cathedral, and I was like, ‘is that part of it?’ I quite liked those bits where you weren’t quite sure” (SAA4). Moments where there were ambient sounds – delivered via hidden speakers rather than through headphones – seem to have enriched this blurring of inner and outer worlds: at one level, “I liked the sound under the pillows. … It really did feel like there were little memories floating around in the air, and you had to listen hard, ‘cause they were quite difficult to hear … So that bit was really good” (FRB1); but at another level, “it was the same music, so it kept me immersed in the same virtual [world]” (FRD1).

As noted above, it was striking that players tended to be more aware of the music and the variety of ways in which it shaped the experience than cinema audiences, which points to the productive balance between absorption and awareness that seems to mark this particular form of drama. They emphasized five functions of the music: 1) it created the atmosphere in which the narrative unfolded – notably moods of reassurance and paranoia; 2) it facilitated immersion in the narrative space, in part by helping to tune out (some) distractions of the outside world; 3) it provided continuity, which was seen as particularly valuable in such a disparately delivered form of drama; 4) it offered reassurance that one was still “in” the game, when many of the players reported not being sure whether they were doing things “correctly”; and 5) for a few players the music signaled reflective time to think about the narrative.

It was also revealing what the players did not note: at the same time that the soundtrack facilitated a particular kind of awareness, it also supported new developments for the guidance and construction of subjectivity through music and sound, an aspect that players were not necessarily fully aware of, even if the result revealed a successful effect. So whereas the players did not generally consider the primary function of the soundtrack to be a contributor to the narrative, it was clear from their comments that it facilitated a heightened awareness of their own placement in the drama. The soundtrack did this by inspiring particular moods, enabling deep immersion, and generally making the experience as fluid and unhindered as possible. A key point here is that a pervasive drama like TMD appears to offer a new kind of interaction between a soundtrack and a given subjectivity – either in construction or experience – not hitherto encountered in other narrative musical genres.

Underlying this new form of interaction is the novel kind of engagement required by TMD. Players need to be actively involved, physically and mentally, be flexible with regard to choosing between subjectivities (themselves, or the fictional Eve), and balance both private and public spheres while navigating their way through the drama. A particular challenge for maintaining immersion lies in not becoming too self-conscious (as some players experienced at particularly fragile points in the drama, e.g. at the dentist): the soundtrack can help mediate between the real and the fictional and facilitate the attentive involvement needed. Here, an improvement for future iterations of TMD would be to nurture carefully those places in the drama where such self-conscious moments might occur and construct the sonic fabric accordingly. It was for example noticeable that the final part of the drama would have benefited from better demarcation of space (both visual and sonic): this would have helped secure not only the physical sense of moving between clearly delineated rooms but also avoided the problem of sound travelling between spaces, muddling the meaning and direction of the narrative. What is needed at such points is a securely-communicated soundtrack that can dissuade self-reflective and immersed players from becoming too self-conscious and thereby distracted.

The knowledge that emerges from our work with TMD relates in enlightening ways to phenomenology in that it engages with larger questions about selfhood and the experiential, even didactic, nature of the particular “play” involved when assuming different identities and shifting between subjectivities. Having established that the TMD soundtrack works less like narrative film music and instead appears key to enhancing the player’s self-positioning in the drama, TMD player comments tally with a distinction familiar from phenomenology between the self as a narrative construction and the self as an experiential dimension (Zahavi 2005: 104–106). Rather than viewing the self as being first and foremost constructed socially and through time in and through narration (e.g. as argued by Ricoeur, Flagan, and MacIntyre), the experiential sense of self provides – for a phenomenologist like Dan Zahavi – a “core self”, i.e. it serves (and should serve) as the very foundation for reaching the truth about what it means to be a self. On this phenomenological notion of self, Zahavi writes:

[T]he self referred to is not something standing beyond or opposed to the stream of experiences but is rather a feature or function of its givenness. In short, the self is conceived neither as an ineffable transcendental precondition [e.g. the notion offered by Immanuel Kant], nor as a mere social construct that evolves through time [i.e. the narrative, or hermeneutical, concept of self]; it is taken to be an integral part of our conscious life with an immediate experiential reality. (Zahavi 2005: 106)

Inherent in this is a central argument that phenomenology offers an approach even more fundamental than a hermeneutic one, which focuses on narrative. The move towards the phenomenological notion of self is a move towards asking the question “what is it like?” rather than restricting the analysis of human experience to more narrative-oriented questions such as “who did this?” or “who is responsible?” (Zahavi 2005: 107). While TMD players are fully aware that they are participating in a story and are part of the narrative, our analysis of their responses to the soundtrack has shown that it is more important to the depth of their experience that they feel able to situate themselves as subjects playing an integral part in the drama; by shaping mood, emotion, atmosphere, and by defining sonic space, the soundtrack seems crucial in enabling this experiential approach and helps in asking players what it “is like” to be part of TMD, a question which is partially (and crucially) answered in the key instructive sentence which reaffirms the focus on subjectivity: “It’s like you are you, but you are someone else at the same time.” The more the (either fictional or real) self is directly experienced and the more the soundtrack contributes to this kind of undistracted immersion, the more successful the experience will be. In this way (and arguably many more not covered here) TMD can be seen not only to confirm the philosophical complexity of “self” but also to support the argument that the self is more thoroughly understood through an examination of the structure of experience from a first-person perspective; TMD thereby provides new avenues for exploring the experiential aspects of selfhood so crucial to the pursuit of phenomenology. In ways quite specifically related to the soundtrack, the players of TMD unwittingly appear to confirm Zahavi’s critique of narrative personhood, as he argues that it presupposes experiential selfhood, saying: “it takes a self to experience one’s life as a story” (Zahavi 2005: 114).

Questions about selfhood in connection with soundtrack construction yield particular kinds of knowledge: they enable us to analyze and interrogate the possibilities and limitations with regard to knowing who we are, at what points in our experience we are aware of our selves (fictional and real), and the extent to which music and sound can guide and construct this knowledge. As mentioned in the 'Preludium,' TMD contributes in important ways to the recent development within sonic studies to interrogate particular “sonic forms of knowledge” (Cobussen, Schulze and Meelberg 2013): as a novel sound world, prompting new responses and critical avenues, TMD has offered different kinds of engagement with a variety of sonic spaces, opening up further avenues for research.


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