Sonic Elongation: Extended Listening in Documentary Film

Holly Rogers (Goldsmiths, University of London)

While many nonfiction film directors strive for an unmediated representation of what lies in front of the camera, others believe that the difficulties of presenting a truly unguarded view pave the way for imaginative responses to reality. Such responses begin to close the gap between the aesthetics of observation and those of interpretation. When a documentary includes creative sound design or music, the distinguishing parameters of documentary become more porous still. This article investigates moments when real-world sound captured from the location shoot has been treated more creatively than the captured image; in particular, instances when real-world noises pass freely between sound and musical composition. For many directors, dramatic music has no place in the ‘reality’ of the documentary world. Sonic elongation from sound to music, however, allows the soundtrack to keep one foot in the image, thus allowing the film to retain a loose grip on the traditional nonfiction aesthetic. With reference to several recent documentary feature films, I argue that such moments rely on a confusion of real-world sounds and music; and between hearing and listening. In this way, sonically-elongated documentary film embraces the very nature of its own form as something caught on the hoof, without completely abandoning the narrative shape we’ve become familiar with in our fiction film going.

This simultaneity gives rise to a transfigured impression of the original material. When the creative flow of sound outstrips that of the image, documentary moves away from the representation of unmediated ‘reality’: rather, as natural sound becomes hyper sensitive and heightened, it permeates and enlarges it. Here, I explore the ways in which attentive listening to this elongated reality opens up a coherent space for audio-viewers to navigate the tensions between the recorded and the presented, real-world sound and music, objective and subjective representation and, perhaps most significantly, the documented and the document.

Holly Rogers is senior lecturer in Music at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her primary interest lies in the relationship between sound and image in experimental film, video art and music video. Holly is the author Visualising Music: Audio-Visual Relationships in Avant-Garde Film and Video Art (Verlag, 2010) and Sounding the Gallery: Video and the Rise of Art-Music (Oxford University Press, 2013). She has also edited three books on audiovisual media: Music and Sound in Documentary Film (Routledge, 2014), The Music and Sound of Experimental Film (with Jeremy Barham: Oxford University Press, 2017) and Transmedia Directors: Sound, Image and the Digital Swirl Music (with Carol Vernallis and Lisa Perrott: forthcoming). She is a founding editor for the Bloomsbury book series New Approaches to Sound, Music and Media.