Michel Chion and the acousmêtre

Sound theorist Michel Chion invented the word "acousmêtre" to describe a particular type of voice-being that exists in film. "Acousmetric" is an adjective used to describe floating, omnipotent voices that are not connected up to bodies.  This sound effect unsettles audiences by manipulating a metempsychological effect of voices without source. For Chion, it seems, these voices are destined to return to their source, and when they do, their power is immediately lost. His most frequently cited examples are from The Wizard of Oz, Psycho, and 2001: A Space Odyssey in which, by the end of the film, the origination of the voices of the Wizard, Norman's mother, and the HAL supercomputer respectively are revealed. 

I want to take issue with the 2001 example, in order to introduce the radiophonic as another possible term (already operative for radio art) in the grammar of film sound. While Chion does talk about radio voices in his work (the "on-air" voice), he does not talk about voices that, without being "on-air" officially (originating in a station), are "on-air" in more obscure ways. The particular ontology of acoustic events mediated by radio technology extends the field of the voice-off to include events such as radio-telescope static and ionospheric fluxuations. This expanded field can usher in crises of interpretation that are more deeply challenging than the search for the lost voice. 

Clip 2001.MPG

For example, in the end of 2001, when the last remaining astronaut dismantles HAL, and we see the mainframe, HAL looses some sort of power. Then HAL looses his voice. For Chion, this gradual centering of the source of HAL's acousmetric voice, and its eventual dismantling, marks the end of the unsettling effect of the omniscience of HAL as sound-being beyond the visible actors. But after HAL becomes silent, a television voice comes on. The astronaut looks in all directions. Another elusive source has been introduced, if only momentarily, until he spins to focus on the monitor. The official on the video monitor then tells the astronaut that the reason for the mission to Jupiter was a mysterious radio signal emitted from the monolith found on the moon which is transmitting to somewhere on Jupiter. In effect, this entire mission was based on a signal of which nobody knew the meaning. More than any acousmêtre could, this radiophonic chaos (introducing a drama both of cryptography and religion) points to reality beyond even HAL's control, a mystical reality with which Laura tarries.  In 2001, this mystical reality is signalled by the simple song HAL sings before he is turned off, a song which, while transmitted through knowable circuits ("Professor Langly" who programmed it) is nevertheless an emblem of the mysterious motivations behind the transmission of information.  No less part of the mystical, radiophonic event is the ensuing overlapping voices of the Ligeti music in the section of the film titled "Jupiter: Beyond the Infinite." 

Radio artist Gregory Whitehead has coined the term "schizophonic" to describe just such an overload of multiple voices that is a close representation of an ether over-saturated with signals. Schizophonics is practiced by anyone who takes this excess of information seriously enough to interpret it. One can use the term schizo- or radiophonic to describe cinematic endevours as disparate as Robert Altman's radio-microphone facilitated montages (which, in Nashville, give one a sense of the schizophonic body politic that underlies electronic democracy) and the more digitally-enabled celebration of the romance of the radio and its affiliations with religion, code-breaking, and radio astronomy, in Zemekis' Contact.

Think of Casablanca. Is it chance that the film enters the sublime every time one hears the words "'Allo. 'Allo. Radio tower" spoken in the soup of low visibility?