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Reviewed by:
  • Sound Design & Science Fiction
  • Jay Beck (bio)
Sound Design & Science Fiction by William Whittington. University of Texas Press 2007. $55.00 hardcover; $22.95 paper. 280 pages

In Sound Design & Science Fiction, William Whittington provides a fresh perspective on one of the most underdeveloped areas of sound studies: the intersection between film sound and genre. The book offers a persuasive argument regarding the interplay between the rise in popularity and status of the science fiction film in American cinema and concurrent changes of sound practices in relation to cinematic construction. In the balance between genre and sound, the book is less a genre study and more an exploration of the function of science fiction in the development of cinematic sound techniques since the 1960s. By simultaneously examining the rise of multiple notions of sound design in narrative cinema and the growth of science fiction’s popularity, Whittington reveals the interdependence between genre codes and film sound while analyzing the constructed nature of both. His central argument hinges on the way that the development of new sound practices allowed for an emphasis on spectatorial engagement in the science fiction genre, while the genre served as a platform for both the conceptualization of sound design and the launch of new sound technologies. [End Page 150]

The book chronologically charts seven major science fiction film projects while tying each to a specific theme associated with sound design. Whittington acknowledges that the concept of sound design is a loaded term with multiple diachronic meanings. Specifically, he defines sound design in four major ways: as the construction of new sounds, as the conceptual design of the overall sound-track, as hardwired multichannel theatrical sound formats, and as a model for critical analysis. It is this last definition that functions as the book’s prime operative.

The book succeeds by placing canonical critical writings on science fiction studies into dialogue with film sound theory and history. For example, Whittington anchors the first part of his book—“The Dawn of Sound Design”—in the late 1960s and uses Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as his first case study. There’s no argument that Kubrick’s film was pivotal in redefining the science fiction genre, and Whittington connects contemporaneous changes in American cinema and audio culture with the exploration of the soundtrack as a new means of engaging spectators. By contextualizing his analysis of American film sound practices in relation to case studies, he develops a structural framework that introduces key pragmatic concepts regarding the evolution of sound design. Starting with score and source music, the analysis emphasizes the programmatic use of music in 2001 as a method for constructing new relationships between established musical pieces and narrative and formal contexts. In this way, Whittington reveals points of synchronization and counterpoint between music and image (as well as dialogue and sound effects), rather than simply replicating traditional models of musical analysis.

As a model for analysis, sound design directs our attention to the totality of the soundtrack—dialogue, music, effects, Foley, and ambience—rather than just to singular elements. The original definition of sound design—the conceptualization of the soundtrack as an interrelated whole rather than industrially and ideologically segregated divisions of labor—has its roots in the work of Walter Murch, who chose the term “sound montage” to describe his contribution to George Lucas’s feature-film debut, THX 1138 (1971). Working as one of the San Francisco–based filmmakers at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studio allowed Murch to function as sound recordist, editor, and mixer on the film—three jobs normally kept segregated by the sound unions in Los Angeles. Whittington devotes his second section to how Murch broke down these traditional barriers in order to create “suggestive fragments” of sound that resisted codes of realism, naturalism, or effacement in relation to the images. In his analysis of Lucas’s film, Whittington points out the functional aspects of sounds in their interplay with narrative details and thereby provides a model of formal analysis that emphasizes the functionality of the soundtrack rather than its construction.

Subsequent sections refine this analytical approach and categorize the various operational aspects of sound design...


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pp. 150-153
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