In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Sound Library:A Motion Picture Event
  • Chris Kubick (bio) and Anne Walsh (bio)

In our recent works, including Spirit Array, Full Metal Jackets (Fig. 1) and Flesh ++ Blood (all 2005), we worked with and investigated libraries of sound effects. These sound effects have names such as:

  • • Globe Pulse Electronic Purr Element

  • • Ghost Voice—-Spirit in a Bottle—Electronic_Unpleasant Feeling

  • • Evil Spirits Rise, Version 2

  • • Eerie Descending Voices as Angels from Hell Gather Together

  • • Disembodied Souls Scream and Whoosh Around for Bordello of Blood

  • • Gliss Made from Charm Very High Endy

  • • Dark Spooky Jungle Ambiance

The libraries that are collections of these sounds are both products of and tools for the film industry. They exist as catalogs of previous productions or as collections made specifically to support the making of films.

The library that we are working with is a large, searchable digital database of more than 300,000 discrete files. This is a rather mind-boggling number, quite a bit larger than the "10,000 things" that ancient Chinese literature used to refer to all of the physical world. Then again, this library is not limited to this world alone: It is also full of the sounds of distant galaxies, dream worlds, the future—-and, of course, ancient China too. It is an archive that seeks to represent the entire spectrum of sound and to put that world at the easy reach of sound designers who use these sounds to make sneakers squeak in chase scenes at a theater near you.

Are these sounds, however, sounds at all? It cannot be denied that there is something pejorative in the term sound effect. The term seems to suggest that these are just the shadows of sounds, effects that serve as stand-ins for real sounds. They are stand-ins, in a sense, because they are recordings, and perhaps still more so because they are sounds removed from context, camel screams appropriated for new lives, whether as voices for other camels or as an element to be used in combination with other sounds to create the voice of King Kong. The fact that the creators of these sounds are generally not credited and retain no creative control over their work is more evidence for the lack of respect these sounds command as aesthetic objects.

Since the early days of sound cinema, the potentialities of the sound effect have been reviled and degraded. René Clair was skeptical, writing that "the usefulness of such noises is often questionable. . . . After we have heard a certain number of sound films, and the first element of surprise has worn off, we are led to the unexpected discovery that the world of noises seems far more limited than we had thought" [1]. The Russians, led by Eisenstein, further articulated the avant-garde's distrust of synchronous sound, adding that "sound recording will proceed on a naturalistic level, exactly corresponding with the movement on the screen . . . to use sound in this way will destroy the culture of montage" [2]. That was then, however, and this is now—-how could they know, in 1930, that the humble sound effect would actually change the way we hear the world and, in so doing, change the world itself ?

Hollywood productions these days are much, much bigger than life. No

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Fig. 1.

Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh, Full Metal Jackets, a multichannel, generative sound and text installation, 30 × 12 × 12 ft, 2005. The sounds and texts are pulled from a large commercial database of Hollywood sound effects and are output using proprietary software over a 32-channel array of 1-inch neo-dymium speakers [3].

© Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh. Photo © Anne Walsh.

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longer content to show us the world, they participate in creating the world we live in, as well as the ones we imagine. The sum of one's understanding of the sound of the Saharan desert is contained in one's cinematic experience. What does South Central Los Angeles sound like at midnight? Ask Hollywood. Even simple things, such as the squeak of a sneaker being chased some paragraphs ago, are superenhanced, ultra-vivid and ultra-present in today's...


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