Director Sam Greene’s emotional and experimental documentary 32 Sounds makes the viewer or listener feel gloriously bathed in sound for over an hour and a half. It is a meditation on its power. The film allows and invites you to consider sound in ways perhaps, unless you’re a sound technician or sound artist, you haven’t considered it before. It cycles through 32 unique auditory experiences that bend and manipulate perception as only sound can.
The movie was designed to be seen in one of two ways. Green created one version for a live audience, with each member given individual headphones, featuring Green’s live narration with original music performed by JD Samson. The other is designed for an at-home experience, and Samson’s music is weaved into and through the film.
For those seeing it at home, it is absolutely essential, or certainly is completely different and way more experiential, using headphones when watching the film, which is meant to be an immersive experience. The visuals and the soundscapes work together, are manipulated, or contextualized to bring new understanding of the power of sound.
There are many moments during the experience where you are asked to close your eyes. In one, a box of matches feels as if it is touring around from top and then encircling your entire head. It’s just one of a number of sonic trips Green takes you on, all of which are fascinating. Green also doesn’t mind leaving the screen empty when we are meant to concentrate on what’s happening with and between our ears.
There are auditory experiences that are altered emotionally by the information we’re offered during hearing them. A woman speaks with sincerity and passion, and we discover is no longer alive. Another scene is informed by knowing beforehand that the bird we are about to hear is the last that exists of an extinct species. The recording is of him singing to his mate, a female that had died in a hurricane. It is truly heartbreaking and almost impossible to listen to, even as beautiful as it is.
There are also joyful sounds, of course. A small excerpt is played of an 18-minute piece of music that captures the laughter and occasional words of 2 people. It is famed sound artist Annea Lockwood and her partner of over 46 years Ruth, falling in love.
One of the 32 sounds is some guy who drives around New York playing the same song, ‘In the Air” by Phil Collins, over and over again. Yet another is a 5-minute interlude by JD Samson, accompanied by incongruous scenes of dancing. Green tells us to get up and dance along with the music.
It felt like only a matter of time before John Cage’s piece “4:33” is highlighted. It’s a performance piece in which someone sits at an instrument in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The point that first Cage and then Greene is trying to make is that silence is also a part of the auditory experience. As deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim tells us shortly after, “Sound means much more than just ‘sound’ itself”.
So much of the film is about the philosophy of sound and its place in our lives and emotions, or even how it goes beyond human life. Most people, like me, have a recording of someone from before they died. They are still alive, or they still exist in the world in a way, in that sound. None of the 32 are trivial. They are all very powerful, regardless of context. In 32 Sounds, Sam Greene reframes not only recorded sound, but what we hear every day, as elemental and deeply connected to our own humanity. It is mesmerizing and transformative.
5 out of 5 stars.