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Why Sound? – by Joel Knopf


We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Why Sound? – by Joel Knopf

Root Barrett

One fall morning, I step outside my door and listen. I’m amazed by how many sounds I hear. A bird calls; another answers. A gaggle of school children moves left to right, full of laughter and overlapping conversation. A dog howls and a woman says to a stranger, “Sorry, she’s really into squirrels.” And how could I have ever thought there was only one wind? This morning, the wind is a pastiche of rustles, slow and fast.

Recently, I’ve been thinking – okay, obsessing – about sound, and how it can draw us into a story. 

Terry Tempest William’s Sycamore opens with a shot of a majestic sycamore. The sound of trickling water places us at the kitchen sink, establishes our point of view, and takes us back in time. It helps us imagine Terry’s grandmother, washing the dishes as we listen.

In Running to Stand Still, the storyteller trains for a marathon while working on an oil rig off the coast of Malaysia. As he trains, running around the helicopter deck twenty laps to a mile, he listens to the band U2 religiously. Interspersed and overlapping sounds – the rig, the helicopter, the morning call to prayer – provide context to a world that is likely foreign to us. When the storyteller chooses the job over the marathon, the U2 lyrics "…and you give yourself away” ask us to consider at what cost.

Music does heavy lifting in other stories, too. The melancholy violins in Lenka, RIP set the tone. The beat in Dancing on Woven Carpets sets up a story about movement, on the dance floor and between cultures.

I’m still figuring out how it all adds up. There are lists of sixteen different ways to use sound in your story, but they just pique my curiosity. Generalizations like, “Sound can heighten realism or diminish it,” or, “Sound can connect otherwise unconnected ideas, characters, places, images, or moments,” beg to be explored. And as sound designer Randy Thom says, “sound often does multiple jobs at once.”

As I discover that morning when I step outside to listen, there are so many sounds, and each one has a unique source, location and meaning I’m only beginning to understand. “Why sound?” may not have a definitive answer, but it’s a wonderful question to explore.

Come explore with us at the Story and Sound Workshop, November 22, 2014!