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Four Things I Learned At The School Of Sound 2015

(The School of Sound International Symposium 2015 took place 8-11 April, 2015, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.)

1. Game audio is a craft that is still developing its own artistic identity

The games panel on Day 3 was in stark contrast to all that had come before (and all that would come after) during the event. Whilst it’s no bad thing to be different, the absence of ‘art’, or of ‘otherness’, or ‘the unexplained’, as a creative reference point of any of the speakers gave me cause to ponder on game audio as a craft vs. game audio as an artistic practice. 

It lead me to the following conclusion: despite the protestations of John Broomhall and Joanna Orland to the contrary, game audio has yet to fully develop an aural language of its own, one that moves beyond cinema. Cinema has its own language which makes reference to - and sometimes very often - photography, or literature, or dance, or music, etc. Game audio seems always to be silently thinking, ‘what would cinema do?’ in relation to its sound design. I say this as someone who isn’t terribly familiar with game audio design (but is a little bit). What I would say, though, is that the School of Sound was an opportunity par excellence, to demonstrate that there was something more esoteric at work in game audio. A concert hall full of eager, interested and willing participants, ready to be inspired. The fact the opportunity wasn’t seized upon serves to prove my point. 

There are those who say that game audio has no reason to develop an artistic identity. Why not? Because it is a very, very profitable industry. My view is that the guardians game development are, principally, technicians, and not artists, so that it where the focus lies. It’s not a proclamation of doom on my part, more an observation made clearer given the general environment in which the panel took place. The sands of time may shift the balance more in art’s favour, and the presence of Limbo sound designer, Martin Stig Andersen on the panel seemed to be evidence that there is scope for game audio to find that authentic voice it so desperately needs. 

To end, I’d just like to say that I’m not saying that game audio is terrifically creative, that those who do it aren’t supremely talented (I should hope that’s obvious). My criticism is based on the fact that because game culture is helping to change the way we view stories, game audio should be referencing more rather than mimicking in its creative design applications, and in that way new meanings and new experiences will be created for the gamer experience. 

2. Sound is a major influence on A LOT of non-sound people

it was amazing to experience how sound and music have so greatly influenced so many artists and creators. Ignorant little me, off in my own world, am often oblivious to how sound affects others. Often, I’m more struck by how everyday sound doesn’t affect other people. Imogen Stidworthy, Rana Eid, John Akomfrah and Piers Plowright are just a few examples of speakers who demonstrated that sound is a profound artefact for many, many people, and that this is a wonderful and powerful thing. 

3. Knowledge is one thing, but what you do with it is even more important

Nowadays, of course, all knowledge is at the end of our fingertips. A small amount of online research can yield amazing results. In such a climate, it is not what we know that counts, but how we apply what we’ve learned and, perhaps, how we leverage that against what we don’t know.

The sheer weight of volume of knowledge and applied innovation on display was immense, and it’s a paradox perhaps that those people who are most curious in seeking to apply knowledge, do educate themselves and, in so doing, become very knowledgeable people. However, the fact remains that knowledge itself is not the point. Using it  - for entertainment, education, well-being, creativity, etc. - is the objective underpinning it all. 

4. Don’t talk to a sound designer about trial and error

Among a number of amusing and light-hearted moments during the four days, one of my favourites was when Kristian Eidnes Andersen was asked, during the Q&A at the end of his presentation. whether his best work was a result of ‘trial and error’. With an almost imperceptible slackening of the jaw, Andersen replied, simply, that no, his work was part of a concerted objective that he was attempting to realise. He said it absolutely with good nature but, equally absolutely, one was left understanding that ‘trial and error’ is not an angle he wishes to draw attention to in his creative work. I do half suspect that Nicolas Becker (who gave a presentation on Day 1) might share Andersen’s perspective.