What is sound scenography?

When someone asks us what we do at TAUCHER, can you imagine that, after a decade, I still struggle with an answer? One of the two frequent replies I use is, "I do sound design." However, sound design works great in situations when I'm not particularly eager to engage in a conversation about my work. It's quite a catch-all term that embraces a felt everything. "I am a consultant" would do a similar effect. The other reply that I frequently use is, "I do sound scenography." And I can be sure that this answer triggers a follow-up questuion, so it perfectly works in situations when I like to spark curiosity about my work. Only then it usually becomes tricky: explain what it means.

Why would I frequently try to avoid elaborating on my work? Well, the term sound scenography perfectly outlines my work, and I absolutely love that term. We even decided to put that term on our flag and incorporate it into our studio's name! Reality is, it sits uncomfortably in my attempts to make understandable to others what it practically means because virtually nobody has ever heard about it. In the small community that engages in sound scenography, we hardly share a vague definition, and we even use different terms interchangeably.

But still, sound scenography is a distinct discipline. It's distinct because it embraces a different set of activities compared to other disciplines such as mixing engineers, recording engineers, film sound designers, composers, dialogue editors, foley artists, or sound supervisors — only to name a few. And the discipline is linked to a specific field: staged spaces. But what is sound scenography concretely? What is the purpose of sound scenography? Does it have to do with emotion? Is sound scenography relevant to communication? Is it a philosophical approach? What is the connection between sound and scenography? What are the instruments of sound scenography? In the scenographic practice, why does sound matter at all?

At that point, this blog series begins. Here, we will explore the idea of sound scenography. We will reflect on how our work relates to exhibition design practice, museum studies, communication theory, media theory, philosophy, learning theory, the construction of meaning, dramaturgy, and related fields. While — as in this initial note — we might find more questions than answers, this blog series is an explorative journey through the underpinnings and foundations of our work, open to discussion and critique, and aiming at bringing light into the yet shady realm of sound in staged spaces.

What is sound?

Sound, as we understand it in the context of sound scenography, is what we experience through our ears; everything we can hear when being present in a given space.

In a museum exhibition, for example, every single sound potentially shapes our experience in and of the space. While the sound of a person talking in a video might be presenting interesting information, an ambient soundscape might help us to mentally focus on that information by providing meaningful context to it.

The same goes for music which provides additional associations and thought-links to the topic. But the music from the café in the adjacent lobby and the explanations of a tour guide next to us might distract us with competing information.

And while the long reverb of the architectural room acoustics might not be relevant to the exhibited content at all, the reverb nonetheless makes us aware of the building.

The hum of a video projector makes us aware of the technical apparatus behind the actual content presented by it. And while the footsteps and conversations of other visitors give us the comforting feeling we’re not alone, the beeps and the shatter of radios signalize that we are being watched by the patrolling museum staff.

Even the sounds that are intentionally excluded from an exhibition are creating the space. How? Even the (admittedly rare) complete absence of sound shapes our interpretation of a space.

Every single element mentioned above can change the way how we experience and interpret the presented content in the exhibition, can change our focus of awareness, the extent of being immersed in the topic, or distracted from it. This complex interplay of all the different sounds, interwoven in time and space, is not so different to what is self-evident in music: it is the selection of sounds, their positioning in time, the rhythm, and the mix that makes a composition.

Sound scenography is about composing space. And since sound is what we use to make a place out of space as visitors, we need to cultivate a holistic understanding of sound in staged spaces from the perspective of the visitor.

What is space?

In the context of sound scenography, space is everything we can perceive with our senses to make sense of our environment. Space is the relationship between the things we can touch, see, hear, smell. Based on this phenomenological perspective, space is not the container, but that which constitutes it. As the 13th century Zen Master Dogen said: “To put the matter in broader terms, the universe has no gaps to put “space” into.” (Dōgen, On The Unbounded (Kokū), Shōbōgenzō).

Space is objective. As physical environment, space exists regardless of someone being actually present in it. Its physical characteristics can be measured with various methods. In this sense, space is objective. But as such, we are not capable of experience space itself because we can perceive only a fraction of space directly with our senses at one point in time. Over the course of a time period, we construct space in our mind by moving through it, by taking different perspectives. When we get to know a space, we create a deeper understanding of it. But our understanding of a space will always be subjective, and incomplete. Rather than space being directly exposed to our senses, we construct an individual representation of it in our mind through experience[1]. Despite being something very objective and concrete, space remains a subjective and abstract idea.

To distinguish between the abstract thing space and that what we individually construct in our mind, another concept is required: place. As the human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan said: “Place is a center of meaning constructed by experience”.[2]By moving our body, and by applying our existing knowledge about the world, we build an understanding of where we are, and of the relationships between us and the objects and subjects around us. We look, we see, we touch, we smell, we feel: When we explore space to make sense of it, to interpret it, to get to know it, then we experience space. Through experience, we make a place out of space. A place often is just a part of a space. In fact, we can experience different places in one space. A space is an invitation to be explored, and when we follow that invitation, we build a mental map of a that space. And we also build an understanding of the potential for exploring the parts of a space we don’t know yet

[1] “Place is created by human beings for human purposes. Every row of trees or of houses originally existed as an idea, which was then made into tangible reality. A building, a park, or a street corner does not, however, remain a place simply because it is tangible reality and was originally design das a place. To remain a place it has to be lived in. This is a platitude unless we examine what „lived in“ means. To live in a place is to experience it, to be aware of it in the bones as well as with the head. Place, at all scales from the armchair to the nation, is a construct of experience; it is sustained not only by timber, concrete, and highways, but also by the quality of human awareness.” (Tuan, 1975, p. 165)
[2] Human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in Place, An Experiential Perspective, Geographical Review, Vol. 65, No. 2 (April 1975), pp. 152

Space, a sound art?

Space is sound. And everything else. Because we experience the world holistically with all our senses, and not with the eyes or ears or nose alone. Just as spaces are designed for the eyes, they are designed for all the other senses as well. Sound is one component of what constitutes a space. No one distinguishes between a church and it’s contemplative silence, between a busy street and its noise of people, cars, sirens, footsteps, and music, between a theater play and its dialogues, between a film and its soundtrack, between a person and its unique voice, between a train station and its soundscape, between any place and its characteristic sounds.

It is impossible to ignore one of our senses. It is impossible to not design the sound of a staged space. A space cannot be designed only visually — or without taking into account its visual appearance. When we change its visual appearance, of course we change the space and our experience of it. And when we change the sound of a space, we also change our experience of it. As long as we have normal hearing and seeing capacities, we will never experience the space just with our eyes, or with our ears. As space is everything, space is sound, too.