Theatre and Aural Attention: Stretching Ourselves - George Home-Cook. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015


By Falk Hübner

The act of listening is never alone: Theatre and Aural Attention

Sound and sound design in theatre have, in general, not received much attention within academic discourse. Only recently, due to educational developments in this area, has the field received more scholarly consideration. One of the authors who emerges here is George Home-Cook with his first book, Theatre and Aural Attention. Home-Cook is a scholar with a versatile background in acting, drama, and performance; his research interests are grounded in phenomenology and focus on theatre sound and aurality on the one hand and performance and philosophy on the other.

Theatre and Aural Attention begins with some intriguing questions: What is the nature of theatrical attention? What happens when we pay particular attention to theatrical sound? Using these and other questions surrounding theatre and listening as his points of departure, Home-Cook dives into four specific aural phenomena that constitute the four chapters of the book: noise, designed sound, silence, and atmospheres.

Chapter One pays attention to noise, “those (seemingly irrelevant) sounds that lie outside the frame of intended significance” (p. 166). By paying attention to these sounds, Home-Cook challenges a number of commonly understood binaries, such as listening versus hearing or – a discussion which proves particularly intriguing – attention versus distraction. In so doing, the concept of “attending,” in particular, is understood and reconsidered as dynamic rather than being an ”on/off” state depending on whether something is “worthy of receiving attention.”

In the second chapter Home-Cook investigates sounds that, in contrast to Chapter One, are specifically intended, or “designed.” Based on interviews with leading British theatre sound designers (alongside his own experiences), Home-Cook dives into phenomena in which sound may direct the audience’s attention, e.g. through creating sounding environments or movements. Certainly one of the most beautiful accounts here is the author’s experience of a swarm of birds flying from the stage to the roof of the theatre, achieved solely by means of sound and advanced amplification systems in the British theater company Complicite’s production Shun-kin.

In Chapter Three Home-Cook broadens perspectives on silence. As a logical step from the discussion involving designed sound, “designed silence” can play an important role in theater productions. Sound designers may use so-called “false sound beds” (as in Ether Frolics by the theater company Sound & Fury) in order “to manipulate the workings of aural attention and the audience’s perception of theatrical silence” (p. 114). The author discusses and conceptualizes silence not so much as the absence of sound, but that which is explicitly perceived as “being present” or compelling presence. Silence is understood as something that forces the audience to listen more closely, more attentively, and through this, finally, to oneself. Compelling is Home-Cook’s notion that “silence also has a tendency to make us readily aware of our own existence, as attending subjects” (p. 99).

In the fourth and last chapter Home-Cook takes yet another step forward, continuing the discussions of Chapter Two and Three, by investigating “designed theatrical environments” collectively, which he refers to as “atmospheres.” In order to conceptualize the experience that is connected to the question “[w]hat does it mean to sense, or make sense of, the designed theatrical environment or ‘atmosphere’?” (p. 130), this last chapter explores the notions of “immersion” and “soundscape.” I will get back to this below, but first I will direct my attention to the general aspects of Home-Cook’s writing and his methodological approach to this study.

Already from the opening chapters of the book, it is clear that the author understands the methodological approach of his research as practice-based: he regards attending theatre as a practice and identifies processual nature as essential to this approach, seeking to “investigate what arises from and in the process of attending theatre” (p. 15). So, rather than opting for a well-designed series of case studies chosen to support a preconceived hypothesis, Home-Cook provides a fascinating insight into his own process-based research practice. This contributes to the pleasant narrational nature of the book, continuously diving deeper into the topic of attending theatre through the act of listening.

Concerning style, the book manages to offer a fluent, flowing experience to the reader despite the complexity of the subject and the density of information presented. The author remains very close to the practice and aesthetics of contemporary theatre, understood as polyphonic, performative, and co-creative between audience and performers/creators/makers.

As regards the structure, in many cases a brief conceptual introduction frames the topic at hand. Accompanying his own ideas, Home-Cook draws on an impressive range of scholars to frame important concepts. This initial exploration is followed by one or more “experiential examples,” phenomenological accounts of practice, most of them theatrical performances attended by the author. He examines these works very closely and provides a detailed and intimate insight into the various aspects of his experiences, thoughts, and associations during the performances. Extending from this, several deepening questions lead the reader into thorough and profound investigations into the above-mentioned four central concepts surrounding aural attention.

Home-Cook investigates these main concepts from rather atypical points of view. Not only does this keep the reading interesting and surprising, but, more importantly, it allows him to shed new light on the discussions at hand. One of these surprising “moves” is the investigation of “unwanted” noise in the theatre, which the author conducts by opening his attention to the noise of mobile phones. In this way, the reader is immediately able to connect to an experience of hearing noise during a performance and can relate it to theatre and aurality even if she doesn’t know the performance that is discussed. In another example, Home-Cook directs his attention towards a genre that seemingly has little to do with theatre and performance: radio drama. However, he is able to draw remarkable connections, managing to use radio drama as a vehicle to inform his narratives of listening, as the dramas, according to him, provoke visual imagination in a special way, even and exactly when there is actually no visual information.

This leads me to one of the most interesting and largest “moves,” which occurs slowly but steadily throughout the book: the conceptual overlaying of the aural into the visual. From the very outset of his text, Home-Cook criticizes the binary opposite between the two in existing discourses; their conceptual merging constitutes one of the most important threads throughout the book. Home-Cook applies the aural experience and approach of a “moving sound design” to the term “scenography,” thereby extending scenography towards incorporating the modes of seeing and hearing, and conceptualizes terms such as “stage set” and “staging” in both visual and sonic terms.

Before ending with a few final observations, I would like to allow the voice of the author himself make a clear point about the position of the audience:

There is, therefore, a great deal more to listening than meets the ear. Listening is not only something that we do, but is an ’act’ that does something: how we listen phenomenally affects our perception of what we hear. Listening, moreover, is never alone: vision, or the act of looking, even in the case of radiophonic reception, plays a key role in shaping the phenomenology of auditory perception. Indeed, it is by means of looking that listening is activated. (p. 168)

 My concluding thoughts regarding this book concern its potential readers. Without a doubt this book is interesting for practically everyone seriously interested in the relation between theatre and sound. Next to this obvious readership, the re-imagined conceptualization of terms such as atmosphere, scenography, and immersion makes it particularly interesting for theatre and scenography professionals, both scholars and practitioners; the latter may appreciate the (re-)conceptualizations, as they might lead to fascinating artistic impulses. Furthermore, students of music, sound design, stage design, and scenography are well-served with this book, specifically by virtue of the rich insights it offers on visuality and aurality while always remaining close to the artistic reality. Scenography, as a still young and highly developing artistic discipline, will be able to draw on very inspiring and important information, insights, and conceptual challenges.

As mentioned before, relevant contributions to this field are still scarce. Home-Cook’s study is much more than just a welcome addition; it sparks enormously important discussions and sets a course for future explorations.