Static in the System: Noise and the Soundscape of American Cinema Culture - Meredith C. Ward. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019


by Neil Verma 


For the first volume in the University of California Press’s new Studies in Music, Sound, and Media series, co-editors Jean Ma and James Buhler scored a coup with their acquisition of Meredith C. Ward’s first book, Static in the System: Noise and the Soundscape of American Cinema Culture, based on a dissertation that won the 2016 Dissertation Prize from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Ward’s capacious and lucid 2019 volume is a vivid effort to reboot cinema sound history, a topic that has had no shortage of groundbreaking scholarship in the past decades, but which, after reading this book, I realize has also long stood in requirement of rejuvenation. Static in the System provides that revitalization, not by offering a flurry of rebuttals to the well-known paths charted out by authors such as Donald Crafton, Rick Altman, Claudia Gorbman, James Lastra, Douglas Gomery, and others, but rather by doing something arguably more difficult: resituating cinema sound not as a research object adjacent to sound studies, but as an object contained entirely within the perimeter of sound studies. In this way, the book makes cinema sound into a kind of “something else,” and thus represents an auspicious way for Ma and Buhler’s California list to begin.


Ten or fifteen years ago, the leading books in sound studies by authors such as Jonathan Sterne, Fred Moten, Michele Hilmes, Michel Chion, Veit Erlmann, Jacob Smith, Michael Bull, Karin Bijsterveld, Emily Thompson, and others were characterized by great intellectual depth, transdisciplinarity, and innovation in research. Thanks to these attributes, key books of the period touching on sound were arguably some of the best books in the humanities about anything. What they lacked, as a result of the fact that the authors came from different disciplinary traditions (history was obviously a common touchpoint), was a sense of convergence, of interdependence. “Sound students,” as Sterne called scholars working in this area in his 2012 reader, often spent more time talking to those who weren’t sound students, and so arguments were often addressed to sound-skeptics, which made the “voice” of the field feel qualitatively centrifugal. The genealogical line of sound studies that comes from cinema history is a case in point. While dabbling in acoustic ecology, musicology, or gender studies and other forms of sonic alterity, the history of film sound that began with Rick Altman’s special issue on the topic in Yale French Studies in 1980 and culminated in his Silent Film Sound (Columbia University Press 2004) might also have proceeded on its own force. Had no other scholars been pursuing sound studies, cinema sound history would have gotten along just fine, since most books out there brought sound to the ears of cinema history rather than bringing cinema history to the ears of sound studies. 


Static in the System turns that relationship inside out. It is a book more fully nested in the systems and proclivities vivifying sound studies than most of its predecessors, and in this way it responds to a landscape of sound studies that is larger and denser than it was just a decade ago. Like Helen Hansen’s Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft and Production in the Classical Era (BFI 2017), Ward innovates film sound with the crucial move of adopting the analytical category of the “soundscape” rather than “soundtrack,” and as a result the cinema and its sonic life are transformed into one among many sound spaces, rather than a singular privileged space. She draws lightly from the terminology of soundscape studies, insisting that her use of R. Murray Schafer’s term “soundscape” is intended to bring its musical concerns to “the level of social analysis” (p. 11). From there, Ward borrows from discourses of sound in the arts, in urban and social studies, in acoustics and gender studies, in histories of aurality, in mobile media studies and more. Reading the book, specialists will recognize that although much of it would have been possible ten years ago, each chapter would probably have been found in a different book, and their collocation here is quite an achievement.


What holds it all together, in this case, is noise. In offering “a rich alternative to the conventional history of film sound,” Ward asks how “the history of noise in cinema culture recounts how we have listened to cinema within its varied environments, and what forms that listening has taken […] Cinema sound is under these circumstances not the films themselves but the sound culture that surrounds them and allows cinema to be heard in the way it is” (p. 2). Ward audaciously inverts the usual fascinations with cinema’s “purposeful sounds,” calling attention to what’s been missed in histories that focus on “incidental forms of noise, the creation of sonic rules for listening, the cultivation of sonic aesthetics and ways of listening that condition our experience of cinema, on the understanding that each of these affects the way we listen in the auditorium” (p. 5). In an evocative passage, she likens the history of cinema noise to a flowing river underneath the well-mapped city of film sound. In order to unearth it, Ward proposes four historical narratives. The first two are narrow, exploring the shift from noisy to quiet audiences in the 1910s and the shift from nonsynchronized sound to sync sound in the late 1920s and early 30s. The second two, the transformation of auditorium design in cinema and the shift from cinema spaces to the “mobile cinema” of the smartphone, take place across longer arcs. In all four cases, Ward has a notion of “noise” rooted in Douglas Kahn’s insight that discourses about noise tend to signal productive confusion as well as in Jacques Attali’s insistence that noise is always embedded in processes of social ordering. “Noise is a sign of alterity,” she puts it, “of differences in gender, class, modes of listening, and listening cultures within cinema culture” (p. 14). In this way, noise is an avenue toward a history of listening – “Noise tells us more about its listeners,” Ward writes, “than it does about itself” (p. 9). 


Using an analysis of etiquette books and of articles in Motion Picture World, the first chapter unfolds a narrative about how middle-class reformers of the 19th and early 20th century quelled audience noise in the cinema. As a medium that began with a carnivalesque, amusement park-like atmosphere in which noise was everywhere and associated with sexuality and danger, the cinema transformed our sonic comportment in response to an anxious “social conflict over the body” in middle-class entertainment culture focused on how bodies ought to be heard, culminating in the inculcation of a habit of personal silence (p. 17). In Ward’s words,


Cinema inherited a set of problems with the body as well as sonic biases against its noise from an entertainment culture of the mid-nineteenth century, whose sonic priorities in turn arose from the aural cultural beliefs of the rising American bourgeoisie. Theirs was an aural culture deeply marked by personal silence, restrained public comportment, and the necessity of downplaying the corporal body in public. (p. 20)


Audiences were silenced by the separation of arts and by changes in terminology, as well as by arbiters of taste in the press who wrote about how to behave at the movies in Illustrated Manners BookLadies Book of Etiquette, columns in New York Mirror and Harper’s.In such publications, Ward shows that promiscuity of sound was deeply imbricated with promiscuity of the body, and reformers sought to transform “audiences” into “spectators” who would be aurally passive rather than a sonic participant in a social scene. Both this anxiety and remedy were strongly linked to gender and class. Magazines and manuals emphasized that for young working-class women in particular, attending the cinema meant “Entering into commercial culture […] entering into a sexual barter system in entertainment culture that was akin to, if not the same thing as, prostitution. The siren song of the ballyhoo horn, calling spectators in from the street, invited them into an erotic milieu” (p. 42). It is in that context that Ward frames Motion Picture World’s advice about selecting appropriate sound effects and music, a middle-class moral code of “suitable marriages” between sound and image that signified broader suitability in the sexual economy (p. 47). In this way, Ward’s story of the turn to silence in the 1910s, in which the audience’s social energies were extinguished in favor of a concentration onto the film object itself, is the story of a patriarchal regime manifested as restraint and self-control.


The first chapter draws on archives of popular entertainment, but Chapter 2 changes approach, offering a narrative rooted in the approaches of science and technology studies and in corporate history. Examining the importance of the idea of noise in the rise of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in the late 1920s, Ward calls attention to the unsung role of the organization in the history of sound standardization. Before AMPAS, outside acoustical engineers held a monopoly of knowledge about noise, often using it as a talismanic “secret” to which film workers had little access. Studio staff felt that engineers refused to explain why a recording couldn’t be captured, hiding key information in arcane physics and exploiting Hollywood’s ignorance of acoustic instruments (p. 70). This secrecy threatened studio autonomy, so revealing the “secret,” as Ward shows, “was AMPAS’s gift to the industry, thereby ensuring its own relevance but also securing the industry’s future” (p. 57). First charting the rise of corporate research cultures in the United States at places like Bell Labs and General Electric, Ward zeroes in on the archives of the AMPAS research council, showing how the rise of synchronized sound systems in the 1920s needed AMPAS, but AMPAS needed the rise of sound, too. Citing meeting minutes, talks, and internal communications, Static in the System relates the narrative of how AMPAS seized power through knowledge, researching technologies of sound capture, assessing implementation, disseminating results among the studios, and launching a program of education. AMPAS brought attention to acoustical treatments that had practical use, minimizing the sound of cameras and arclights, while it also recruited faculty from UCLA and Bell Labs to teach at its own School of Sound Fundamentals, which had some five hundred enrollees in 1929. As Ward explains, “a new era of cinema sound was beginning in which the film industry produced its own technical knowledge and no longer needed to import it” (p. 82). Fulfilling the promise to demystify noise made AMPAS’s reputation and launched its role in standardizing industry practices across the studios, eventually including approaches to lighting, preservation and cinematography.


Chapter 3, “Machines for Listening,” focuses on the history of theater architecture and its role in the changing expectations and functions of aurality in the cinema soundscape. Beginning with a discussion of filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s 1970 Invisible Cinema project, which put listeners into individual sonic envelopes fully focused on the screen and aurally isolated from one another, the author investigates how, throughout history, acousticians have worked to suppress noise in order to encourage the cultivated contemplation with cinema, and perforce inculcated the goal of a “transcendent relationship with film sound […] A clear, unblemished soundscape without noise was an ideal tool for creating a transported spectator in a state of bliss, swimming in sound” (pp. 96–97). Rooting this history in -century acoustic theory and opera design – there is an interesting subsection on the “aural funnel” of Wagner’s opera house at Bayreuth and the 19th-century rise of “new listening” with its strikingly familiar watchwords of immersion, absorption and “pure” listening – Ward focuses on the paradoxical ways in which bodies were tamed and at the same time tasked with the erotic registration of musical sound. “The concert hall itself,” she writes, “took on a new role in the context of performance culture’s new focus on listening. It provided the structure for a new sort of auditor to be cultivated. Bodies were separated in space and encouraged to listen individually in their own private imaginary capsules” (p. 93). Accomplishing this for cinema in later decades meant new approaches to ventilation and heating, along with new studies of reverb and sound decay, elements that could confuse sounds already present in the soundtrack by multiplying them. Over decades, from the jazz age to the age of THX and Dolby Atmos, cinema design encouraged an aesthetic of absorption (in Michael Fried’s sense) of a listener with the text, ignoring all other sounds, at first through the use of architecture and later through the use of speaker arrangement. The result was the displacement of the physical body in favor of a “transcendental subject” experiencing the text in a phantasmal way (p. 112). Kubelka’s experiment in 1970 is thus merely an exaggeration of a general tendency to create private listening at the expense of social connection. The chapter concludes with a meditation on Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s 2001 installation The Paradise Institute, which exposes many of the features of cinema listening culture by inverting them, using binaural headphones to give visitors nothing but the hushed voices, smacking snack noises, and rustling pockets of other cinemagoers, precisely what a century of acoustic design wanted to discard from cinema’s soundscape. If for post-Wagnerian auditoriums the sound of the spectacle is everything, then Cardiff and Miller’s work shows an alternative idea, one in which the medium isn’t the cinema, but the body itself. 


The final chapter zooms forward with the insight that in the 21st century, our habits of cinema listening are changing again. Whereas 20th-century listening had been mediated by theater, opera, symphony, and multiplex aesthetics – all carefully engineered to remove bodily and other noise and generally narrow the listening experience – contemporary listening through mobile devices has become suddenly “privatized, individualized, and mobilized. Now it is possible to carry our film venues with us” (p. 118). In three subsections, Ward explores qualities of personal negotiation with the sound of smartphones, considers their ramifications for cinephile culture, and finally argues for smartphone listening as a versatile tool that can surprisingly help us “consciously engage with our environments” in a way that the more disciplined cinema listening of the past precluded (p. 122). Nesting her engagement in the work of Michael Bull and others interested in mobility and urban space, Ward complicates purist discourses of film listening that seem threatened by smartphone viewing. Her primary resources here are industry reports and media stories as well as a survey of the habits of her own students. Some key insights include the way that the protocols of musical and podcast listening habits are beginning to inform how we listen to films, indicating an “overlap” or even “convergence” between audiovisual and aural media, and the insight that all the machinery that had regulated aural contemplation at the cinema is upended – “with our personal mobile devices,” she writes, “we draw these boundaries for contemplation for ourselves” (pp. 131–137). While it seems to me that this sense of personal autonomy comes with its own rituals and mystifications (see Mack Hagood’s recent Hush: Media and Self Control for a rich argument), from Ward’s perspective of the long history of disciplining the cinema listener, this change surely feels like the loosening of constraints. “Headphone listeners glide through public space with a semipermeable membrane surrounding them,” Ward explains, and we haven’t listened to cinema in such a social way for a century; listening has become conspicuous, full of noise and interruption, a form of “self-presentation that dances between the public and the obviously private aural experience” (p. 139; p. 145). When we carry the cinema with us, the sound of our everyday world is transformed into noise, but the everyday world also becomes a space in which we can perform our cinephilia.


The latter argument will no doubt have productive friction with other mobile sound theorists; that is one of the ongoing discussions in sound studies that this book most clearly joins. In other areas, this book borrows discourse and terminology more than it advances them. Readers of recent work rethinking the underlying presumptions of soundscape theory by Milena Droumeva, Randolph Jordan, and Mitchell Akiyama, for example, will find less here; the same is true for recent noise theorists. These may have been strategic tradeoffs for a book more focused on rebooting the study of cinema sound. Other issues readers may have with this book have to do with omissions and some of the argumentative strategies. A volume that focuses so closely on etiquette, comportment and absorption, on organizations seizing power through knowledge, clearly has a Foucauldian subtext about discipline and knowledge that is underexplored here, as well as a racial dimension that deserves greater attention. Static in the System’s chapters also tend to be a little over-framed, sometimes with eight or nine pages before we get to the main sections, which is surprising considering the clarity and confidence of Ward’s prose. On the other hand, much of her structural framing is also incredibly inspired, particularly in the third chapter with its bookending in the work of Peter Kubelka and Janet Cardiff. For this reason and many others, Ward’s book is one of the first in a generation to give us a new place to start when it comes to cinema sound – not by discarding the research of the past, but by resituating it in new conversations. To return to her metaphor of the subterranean river of noise, Static in the System effectively tunes the ears of those living in the well-mapped city of film sound studies to a sound that was always there, underground. That accomplishment alone suggests an exciting and auspicious start both for California Press’s new list and for its first author.