SXSW Film Review: 32 Sounds

Probing the line between sound and memory

32 Sounds

In the essay documentary 32 Sounds, filmmaker Sam Green (The Weather Underground) explores the intersections between sound, hearing versus listening, memory and loss.

In the past Green and musician JD Samson have presented the film as a live and in-person experience, narrating and scoring in the moment. At the film's Paramount Friday night, neither was present. But in order to present the movie as a binaural listening experience, the audience was provided with headphones, so the soundscaping's fullness could be appreciated in true detail. The result was an experience both collective and personal, perhaps a reflection on the nature of listening itself.

Narrated by Green, 32 Sounds reflects on all sorts of soundmaking and listening. Sometimes the audience was asked to close their eyes; at one point, they were asked to dance (two people did -- I hear tell this bit is much more effective when the filmmakers are there asking you to dance in person).

Green explores all sorts of sound, from the primal nature of being in the womb to the wonderfully artificial world of foley arts via the totally excellent Joanna Fang (if a tree falls in the forest, are we actually hearing a tree fall in the forest?). The film pops to a new level of life when Green chats with experimental musician/ artist Annea Lockwood, whose most famous piece, "Piano Burning," is a Fluxus legend. Lockwood, now in her 80s, is a hypnotic presence, a woman devoted most truly to the hows and whys of sound (her theory of "listening with" rather than "listening to" should be taught in schools). There is also a brief section on her life with partner and fellow composer Ruth Anderson, who died in 2019. (An entire film on those two would be more than welcome.)

32 Sounds is an intriguing, often deeply satisfying experience. There are moments when one wishes certain themes had been developed more (if you're going to use Glenn Gould in the soundtrack, wouldn't it be cool to discuss why his personal noises made his recordings so singular?) but on the whole, it's a satisfying meditation on how we organize, think about and process what we hear.

32 Sounds

Festival Favorites, Documentary Feature
Online: March 12, 9am-March 14, 9am

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