“32 Voices”: Sam Green presents his latest “Live Documentary” to PAM CUT
When Al Jolson exclaims “You haven’t heard a thing yet!” in 1927 Jazz singerThe audience was amazed at the union of image and sound. However, it wasn’t long before the audio component of the cinematic experience relegated to the background. Of course, there were exceptions (who remembers “Rumble-Rama” in the ’70s Earthquake?), and the advent of multichannel audio and giant amplifiers certainly made the movies louder over the past few decades. But it’s rare to find a movie that invites its viewers to fully invest listeners also.
Director Sam Green aims to change that through innovation and immersive 32 votes, the new “live documentary” he will be presenting with composer JD Samson (from the riot squad “Le Tigre”) at PAM CUT this weekend. Green has been working in this “live documentary” mode for more than a decade, showing films accompanied by live narration and musical performance, and 32 votes It’s kind of the icing on the cake. Audience members will be given headphones to wear during parts of the presentation and will be instructed at times to close their eyes and focus on what is hitting their eardrums.
The film will also exist in a ‘normal’ format for theatrical engagements and eventual live streaming, but it is meant to be seen in a community setting where each show is unique in some way. I spoke with Green, who was in New York City working on a video for the 50th anniversary of his frequent collaborator Kronos Quartet. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Oregon Arts Watch: Thanks for letting me see the movie. It was a great experience, and I’m glad you insisted on wearing headphones. However, I am a little jealous of the people who will see this live. Can you describe some of the differences in that theatrical version, not just logistically, but experientially?
Sam Green: Someone gave me an analogy, which I think is useful. You can buy a record (I date myself using the term “record”), listen to it, like it, and then go see the band in action. It’s the same music, but the experience is different. The sound will be very big and you will feel it. Not to spell it out for New Agey, but it’s a vibrationally different experience. Also, with live performances, there’s always this idea that everything could fall apart, and they could fail.
oo: You are walking on a high wire.
Sam: I also started making live documentaries many years ago, and I’ve worked with a lot of musicians. The first thing that really struck me was what you did with Yo La Tengo. We actually did this in Portland many years ago. When they came out, you could feel the energy shifting in the room because people loved them. People love bands more than ever they love filmmakers. JD Samson is in the room with you, that’s good.
or or: Not even in a New Age way, but there is a section on subwoofers in the movie, and the best headphones in the world won’t make your sternum vibrate.
Sam: exactly. We’re going to have a big subwoofer that people can get their hands on.
or or: What inspired you to move into the live documentary space or what frustrated you about the limitations of the traditional format?
Sam: (laughs) It’s kind of a combination of both. I was doing a documentary about Utopia after I made (the Oscar-nominated documentary in 2003) underground weather. It was a complicated movie. It was four different stories about utopia that weren’t connected at all, and I just hoped people would watch them and fill in the dots. I edited this movie together and showed it to people as a rough piece, and everyone said, “It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t get it.” I was crushed and paralyzed. Then someone asked me to talk about the project. And I said, “Okay, I’m going to show some clips and I’m going to talk, but it sounds really boring, so I’m going to ask my friend to play live music for it.” This was actually Matt McCormick many years ago at the PDX Festival.
I did it thinking it was going to be a one off. We did it at Sundance and then people all over the world said, “Hey, are you coming over to show this live documentary here?” What I was racing against was that was the beginning of people watching movies at home on their computers. I do too, so I’m not going to take a moral high ground on this, but it’s definitely a diminished way to experience the movie. It’s great for ted Lasso, But live streaming intrigued me because it’s like going to church: you turn off your phone, sit down, and give yourself up to the experience.
or or: Events like this are a great way to get people back into theatres, which is important economically and culturally right now. Switch the gears a bit, all of the sounds, or nearly all of the 32 sounds in the movies are what we would call analogue in origin. Like a ringing bell, or like waves crashing, or like a stick moving in the wind. Now, when we (or AI) can create virtual images and even digital sounds that are indistinguishable from the real thing, how does that play into the concept of sound, the way sound connects us to the world, something that you can see? talking about?
Sam: There are many voices I’ve worked on that don’t appear in the movie for one reason or another, and one of the voices I wanted to do was synthetic speech that mirrors normal speech. You know, I can record you reading a couple of paragraphs and then make you say all kinds of things that you didn’t say.
sign: The deep fake voice, sort of?
Sam: Yes. I’ve never found the right way to insert it, and also, this technology is very fast moving, so I was a little worried that if I did it now, in a couple of years it would be outdated. But it’s profound because before Edison’s phonograph, you couldn’t hear a dead person’s voice. You’ve never heard any music that wasn’t playing right in front of you. The phonograph has fundamentally changed the way we experience the world, the way we experience time, the way we think about life, and over the past 100 years and so on, one thing that was part of that was that the recording was real. If you ever hear something, a recording of your mother who is no longer alive, you know it’s real, and in this new age that we’re entering, that’s changing.
or or: As you say in the movie, there was no way to preserve the voice of someone who was no longer alive before the phonograph existed, but even before that, we had a way of preserving visual images of people who had died. What is it about the sound or, as at the beginning of the film, the bird call that seems to create a deeper connection to something that is no longer even an image?
Sam: It’s a good question, and it’s kind of a mystery. I don’t have a good answer. If you have a painting on your wall, when you come back tomorrow, it will be there. There is a kind of stability to the visual phenomenon that we depend on and understand. The sound is different. It is fleeting and transient. It comes and goes, and you can never put your finger on it, literally or figuratively.
There’s also the way it goes directly into our brains. I’m not a neurologist or anything like that, but visual phenomena seem to pass through the rational part of your brain and then into your thoughts. I feel that the voice goes directly to your emotions. For example, if I hear the sound of my phone calling, which I remember from my childhood, it will trigger a lot of emotions. I’ll remember I was a crush in middle school and I called someone and I was really nervous. The sound is very evocative and emotional.
No need to go on, but sounds are very complex. They communicate a lot. It’s just a rope in your throat vibrating, but no two people sound the same, and we can extract a lot from the sound. It’s miraculous in a way, how rich the voices are and how contained they are. It is all an attempt to answer your question, but I don’t know if there is any real answer.
oo: With a project like this, is there an added challenge of crafting sound design? Is there a basic virtual hearing range you’re designing this for?
Sam: Yes. You’re right about sound being more subjective. Much of the sound experience is what you bring to it. One of the sounds I didn’t include was this thing called the Orgasm Library. It is a Spanish company that sells products for adults, and on their website you can upload audio recordings of yourself as you come, and you can listen to many other people. I wanted to include it because it’s such a powerful voice. Almost everyone reacts to it, but there is a wide range of reactions. Some people are really embarrassed and upset, some people are turned on, some people are annoyed, some people are curious. It’s the same sound everyone hears, but we all bring different things to it.
oo: I wish you included that! Maybe there will be some deleted scenes in the future that you can put there.
Sam: Yes, 32 more votes.
oo: It is recognized that the audience has this unique experience during the live documentary. What You Are your collaborators out of it? It takes a lot of work to make a movie and then follow that up by going out on the road with it. What makes that worthwhile to you?
Sam: I love him. It’s such an honor to be able to screen the film and be there and have people respond to it. Some filmmakers make a movie and they just want to give it to someone else to let them show it and go back to making another movie, but I really like being in a room with people and seeing them test work. You create something so that it resonates with others. Joanna Fang, the foley artist we interviewed, says something similar in the movie. Say something like, “Isn’t that what art is for? To make something and make people feel what you feel too? Being in a room with an audience, especially doing a live performance.” 32 votes, is the greatest thing in the world because we hope people feel things and it’s a collective experience. Not everyone is watching it at home on their computer and browsing Facebook. We do something together, and there is magic in that.
or or: You mentioned some of the sounds I chose not to include, which makes me more aware that the number 32 may have been a conscious choice, and is that 32 short films about Glenn Gould reference?
Sam: Yes, that was a reference to Glenn Gould The movie I’ve always loved. He took his number from the Goldberg Variations, which is kind of Gould’s signature work which has 32 sections, so I felt like it was a lot of allusions.
or or: And then, in turn, inspired one of the best Simpsons episodes.
Sam: What is this?
or or: it’s called 22 short films about Springfield. It’s classic.
Sam: Oh my God, I have to see that. I did not know. It is amazing. (laughs) The Simpsons is always one step ahead of anything I do.
(32 votes On display Friday and Saturday, September 8 and 9, at the Portland Museum of Art. Tickets are available here.)
(marks for translation) 32 votes