- Theatre and Aural Attention: Stretching Ourselves by George Home-Cook
In Theatre and Aural Attention, George Home-Cook argues that listening to the sound(s) of theatre is a dynamic activity that demands attention, and that to attend as a listening subject is a fully embodied experience that “requires effort,” regardless of one’s physical stillness (3). Each of his four chapters highlights what he sees as a “core aural phenomena” in the theatre: “noise, designed sound, silence, and atmosphere” (3). In particular, Home-Cook draws from and expands upon work done on theatrical sound by Ross Brown; perception, sound, and theatre by Tim Ingold; and P. Sven Arvidson’s scholarship on attention. His case studies include radio plays by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and shows by Robert Lapage, Complicite, Romeo Castellucci, and Sound & Fury. Arriving in the midst of contemporary theatre’s increasing focus on sound design, this book is timely and raises a number of challenges to the way noise, silence, sound, sight, and hearing are often framed as distinct experiences.
In chapter 1, “Paying Attention to (Theatre) Noise,” Home-Cook lays the groundwork for his use of phenomenology and his contention that clarifying what [End Page 134] we mean by “attention” is as important as clarifying what we mean by noise or sound (or really any perceptual experience). Arguing against a binary distinction between meaningless or distracting noise and meaningful or designed sound, Home-Cook examines two instances of cell phones interrupting a performance and how, in one case, his attention blended the sound into the attentional theme of the designed sound (while the other was just as distracting as one might expect). In chapter 2, “Paying Attention to Designed Sound,” Home-Cook explores designed sound in Samuel Beckett’s radio play All that Fall as well as a number of theatre productions that manipulate attention and spatial awareness of sound. Acentral conceit in this chapter is that listening and seeing are not inherently separate processes. By attending to the ways in which visual and aural systems are dynamically experienced, Home-Cook posits that theatre scholars can better understand how we experience theatre as embodied subjects rather than spectators or listeners.
Taking up the argument that silence is never simply silent, chapter 3, “Sounding Silence,” explores how silence is always a contextual experience. Here, Home-Cook contends that silence is often more than “mere soundlessness,” but is instead “manifestly perceived as a thing in itself” (110). Focusing on the listening experience of two radio plays (Samuel Beckett’s Embers and Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache), as well as a production of Sound & Fury’s Kursk, the author demonstrates how silence can take on an almost material presence and not simply be marked as an absence of sounds. In the closing chapter, “Sensing Atmospheres,” Home-Cook challenges the limitations of soundscape as a metaphor for experiencing complex sets of designed sounds. He argues that the term implies a too-simplistic phenomenological experience and one that is often considered passive, even with—and perhaps because of—its association with the terms “immersive” and “immersion.” Drawing especially on Tim Ingold’s notion of sound as far more analogous to experiencing weather and wind than the term’s parallel with looking at a landscape, Home-Cook returns to his experiences attending Sound & Fury’s Kursk in order to demonstrate that the atmosphere of a production is not passively experienced but is “generated, maintained, and mutated through the intersubjective enactments of embodied attending” (163).
Throughout the book Home-Cook uses a phenomenological methodology to closely examine his own listening attention to a variety of productions. He admits that this “particular mode of reception-as-perception” is “unequivocally extra- ordinary,” and that these different case studies present a kind of assemblage of “different experiences . . . hewn from a range of theatrical events woven together with the same thread in mind, namely the act of listening as attention” (19–20). While such a method has its limitations, Home-Cook’s skillful, evocative, and detailed descriptions of his experiences...