- Sound: A Reader in Theatre Practice
This book is the first in a new series that aims to "gather together both key historical texts and contemporary ways of thinking about the material crafts and practices of theatre," thus bridging the mooted theorist/practitioner divide (xii). Ross Brown, reader in sound and dean of studies at Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, and a professional theatre sound designer, ably accomplishes these aims in this volume, providing the first general account of theatre sound that attends to theoretical, socio-historical, and philosophical concerns. Brown presents a varied assortment of texts and perspectives, collating excerpts from practical manuals, academic monographs and presentations, journal articles, magazine essays, historical texts, plays, and websites, in addition to the author's own contributions (two framing essays and a central chapter), and a commissioned essay by John Levack Drever. Rather than merely reproducing extracts, Brown has arranged them into an edited narrative that synthesizes them and then adds critical commentary and opinion.
The book is organized into two main sections, framed around the headings of "Dramaturgically Organized Noise" and "Theatrically Organized Hearing." Brown uses a rather expansive definition of dramaturgy to mean the overall process of making sense (as both intelligence and sensation) in theatrical production. In part 1, the author investigates the "dramaturgy of sound." He surveys and historicizes the literature on theatre sound since the beginning of the twentieth century (mostly textbooks); offers a potted history of theatre sound design from early modern aurality (exemplified by Shakespeare) to the sonic dramaturgies of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Maeterlinck; considers the relation of sound to ritual practices, magic (trompe l'oreille), and [End Page 706] silence; and concludes with author-led interviews with five sound designers.
Part 2 is equally eclectic. It begins with a chapter written by the author that outlines the difficulties in classifying sound as scenography, using an overview of the aural phenomenology of theatre. Following that is an account of theatre sound design that stretches back to the Stone Age and thence to Vitruvius's writing on architecture and to Shakespearean acoustics (referring here and elsewhere to the work of Bruce Smith in particular). A third chapter examines the capacity of theatre sound to create "alternate" perceptions of time and space by (psycho-)acoustic means. These chapters, which are quite short, typically follow the pattern of editorial introduction, interspersed quotation, and summary commentary. They may be read in either a linear or nonlinear fashion and invite being selectively "dipped into" as the reader chooses.
The number and range of texts that Brown incorporates are considerable, drawing on the growing body of work on theatre sound by historians, theoreticians, and practitioners, as well as relevant works in anthropology and sound-culture studies. This book is the first to knit together the hitherto fractured and dispersed discourse on theatre sound, outlining its complexity and significance, and showing how much there is to say, hear, and understand about the operations of sound in theatre. The author also considers how theatre sound responds to—and is a product of—particular auditory cultures and social and technological developments. He suggests that theatre is especially suited to the task of engaging with societal soundscapes, and posits that the "acoustemology" of modern theatre—its "culturally reflexive sonic repertoire" (47)—may offer audiences the possibility of acquiring critical distance on the "sonification" of everyday life (5).
This book is valuable not only for the textual extracts that it includes and for Brown's commentary and arrangement of them, but also for the standalone essays written by the author, which offer unique insight and provocation. Brown's description of sound as a potential "scenography of engagement and distraction" is especially interesting (132). Theatre sound frustrates the semiological "reading" of signs, he notes, because it is in totum an immersive environment: "One cannot stand back from it and see the entire picture; one's aural attention does not have the equivalent of sightlines; the theatrical mode of listening does not gaze uniformly...