Audio Narrative Project: Wild Weekend
by Jonathan Grall (MIT '05) []


Listen to the Project

Overall Concept

The concept of this project was originally to do a modern-day remix of Walter Ruttman's piece Weekend. However, the original Weekend narrative, and other remixes of it since, have been very heavy on the use of sound effects, and weak on narrative content. I wanted to create a similar soundscape that spans a weekend, but that has a greater storytelling component to it. I decided that to do this without requiring significant imagination and guesswork on the part of the listener, that I would have to make greater use of sound clips containing actual dialogue between various characters in the assembly of the narrative. Ruttman and his followers seem to have steered away from using human voices as much as possible, whereas I am embracing the idea of using bits of speech to make a story, rather than relying mostly on sound effects. Another important aspect to this project is that I wanted to explore the importance of background music in the context of a soundscape, and what its effects might be on the narrative and the listener's interpretation. Thus I make considerable use of background music that is carefully chosen and interwoven with the other sounds.

The narrative itself is about a typical weekend in an American city (I chose Los Angeles) that starts at the end of the work week, with a boring office environment as the setting for the first scene. We hear many familiar office sounds, and the first scene is intended to create a sense of familiar dread of corporate America in the listener's mind. From there, the weekend progresses with a definite tendency to explore the more depraved aspects of adult behavior - namely alcohol and drug abuse, and promiscuity. I wanted to show the stark contrast between the civilized, controlled office environment and the wild social lives that many people have during their weekends. I wanted to explore this duality of adult behavior in the context of a soundscape that could effectively show the changes in mood, responsibility and emotion associated with such behaviors. Much of the 'party-hard' lifestyle I was trying to portray lends itself readily to being conveyed through a purely audio format, and thus I am able to create quite vivid scenes in the listener's mind.

Questions of Narrative That I Tried to Address

Some questions I thought about and tried to address are:

For the most part, I obtained some insight into these questions. First, I found for myself, and from listener-feedback, that background music was a very effective way of establishing mood in a soundscape, and sometimes the best way to convey various emotions such as loss/despair/excitement without having to rely on spoken words as crutches. Music can be crucial to the telling of an audio story, even more so than in movies, and the listener is able to focus a lot more on the music than they would in a movie, because their brain is not busy processing visual information. Music can greatly enrich the listening experience and provide a solid foundation on which to construct the other elements of an audio narrative.

I found that using just sound to tell a story can be very limiting. It can be hard to show certain objects or describe certain events or actions without using crude sound effects that are not nearly as elegant as a picture. It is also near-impossible to convey the vast array of emotions that humans are capable of. Only some emotions translate readily to sound. The lack of facial expressions and body language as visual cues, puts a much greater and perhaps undue reliance on what is actually spoken by the characters. Another thing about using characters, is that the audio medium puts some limitation on the number of characters you can use. Characters must first have distinguishable voices, and for this to hold and not put a strain on the listener to figure out who is speaking, the number of characters should be limited to less than six or so (for most people), unless their voices are very familiar or contrast well, or unless you explicitly introduce people via a narrator or other device.

I also found that even if we use 100 sound clips, just moving a single one can completely change the listener's sense of time and location, or even change the story significantly. Such a clip can be long or even very short, and contain no music or spoken words, and yet still have a tremendous impact simply by its position relative to the other sounds. Simple examples might include the sound of an airplane taking off/landing, or a car crash, or a gun firing. It also turns out, I found, to be much easier to tell a sad story than a happy story. This is largely because it seems that the human mind has a much larger number of associations of sounds to unhappy/tragic/disastrous events than to happy/exciting events. I speculate that this may be linked to evolutionary developments and the mind putting a greater emphasis on auditory warnings of dangerous events than on pleasurable/happy events.

One last discovery I will mention here, is that it can be quite easy to change the timescale of an soundscape, or jump around in time, without needing specific sound cues to keep the listener informed, and still keep the listener engaged and not totally confused. Listeners will infer a lot from various sounds, and build up their own version of the narrative in their imagination, filling in the blanks where necessary. It becomes redundant to deliberately insert sounds associated with specific times of the day for the purpose of keeping the listener informed.

Tools I Used

Non-Exhaustive List of Sound Sources

Over 100 sound clips were collected from the following sources:

Envisaged User/Listener Experience

I am hoping that listeners are able to form many associations with the sounds they hear in the Wild Weekend soundscape, and that they are able to follow the plot of the story running through it. I expect that quite a few people, especially movie buffs, will recognize a fair number of movie-related sound bytes used in the soundscape's construction. Wild Weekend is fairly long for an audio piece (about 12 minutes), and I envisage listeners getting the full benefit from it by listening just a single time. It is my hope that listeners will be able to vividly imagine the Wild Weekend portrayed, and that the mixing of sounds will not detract from this narrative. I tried to mix and fade sounds as cleanly as possible, so that the soundscape appears to be one continuous track, even though it has many layers of sounds playing at the same time. I hope that the listener will enjoy the story, and also be moved by the at times humorous, but mostly sad, portrayal of the lives of drug-abusing, work-loathing, promiscuous 30-something year-olds in modern-day America.

Lessons Learned

Interesting Limitations