As engaging and impressive a documentary as you’re going to see, 32 Sounds starts with a kind of obvious––yet eminently under-asked––question: why do most of us take sound for granted? Director Sam Green quickly reminds us of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. He tell us a newspaper at the time “predicted the machine would actually stop death.” Only moments later there’s a playful investigation into how we hear, spurned by a digression about the Whoopee cushion. Which is to say this is not only a documentary of interest, but entertainment. Consider a cute moment in which we watch a tree fall in the woods, though we hear nothing. The press notes acknowledge the clear inspiration, from the title on down: the masterpiece Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould by François Girard.
Green collaborates with composer JD Samson to examine sound through 32 different “specific sonic experiences.” The film is both scientifically and personally determined to help its viewer appreciate the importance of the auditory world. Green narrates the making of the movie while we watch it, offering a comfortable, conversational energy that guides us through its more heady sequences. Every so often he’ll ask viewers to close their eyes and let their hearing do the work. As simple as it sounds, it’s revealing and emotional. So much in our life, both past and present, is dictated by what we’ve heard and what we are hearing.
There is an extended sequence that recalls a meeting with the late American revolutionary Nehanda Abiodun, who listens to a recording of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and is transported back to her activist past. We see the longing in her face. We see the joy, maybe a little bit of the regret. That memory is now Green’s memory. And while context is completely different, the song remains the same. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the film, and one this writer will remember for a long, long time; and in that way it’s become my memory too.
Accomplished sound designer Mark Mangini elevates the overall experience, building a mix that envelopes your eardrums. There are familiar sounds of nostalgia (a father and child in the backyard, snow gently falling), an aside that celebrates the foley artist (“art can elevate a truth,” she says as she smashes different elements in her studio to create a world), and a lonely recording of a bird calling for a mate who is no longer there. Oh, and there is a much-needed dance break halfway through. One of the central subjects throughout is Annea Lockwood, the experimental composer. She offers some advice that reveals itself to be a core tenet of what Green is trying to do here. Lockwood is determined to “listen with, not listen to.”
32 Sounds is a meditation on life through sound. And though that sentence reads a bit lofty, it’s incredibly true. So often do we account for the images that shape who we are. All the while, the audio is right there, doing the same if not more.
32 Sounds is now in limited release.