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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Sep 21, 2022
For this episode, we have a conversation with Sam Green, the subject of a monthlong retrospective at the Wex beginning September 28 and featuring the Ohio premiere of his immersive new documentary, 32 Sounds, September 29. As he explains, Sam’s relationship with the Wex goes back to his first film, 1997’s Rainbow Man/John 3:16, and includes an Artist Residency Award for A Thousand Thoughts, his 2018 collaboration with Kronos Quartet.
Sam also discusses his inspirations for 32 Sounds, including the wonderful 1993 movie 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, his work with soundtrack artist JD Samson, and why he asks audiences to wear headphones for his latest.
Melissa Starker: So my first question is, what was the inspiration and genesis for this project?
Sam Green: Well, almost all the films I've made have come out of the last film or put a different way. The film I make usually leads to another film. So I think a lot of 32 Sounds actually came out of A Thousand Thoughts, the movie I made with the Kronos Quartet. And that movie, one of the huge challenges with that movie is how to get people to really listen, because usually with movies. You listen in a very passive and almost lazy way. You know, the sound washes over you. I started to notice myself that if you really pay attention to listening and engage your ears, things are a lot better. If you sort of like, just tune in a little bit. What you hear is much more meaningful. So I thought with the Kronos Quartet, if I could get people to really listen, that would make the movie so much better. Then you'd be like, Wow! This is great. But if you just hear it as background noise, it's like, whatever.
It got me thinking a lot about movies and sound, how people listen, how to get people to listen. And with that movie we had a certain moment in it where it was sort of invoking John Cage. I asked everybody to listen to the sound of the room, and that's a really weird thing to do In a movie. You never do that. And also, if you're paying attention to the HVAC system in the theater, like, the movie's ruined, you know? The spell is broken. So in some way that movie, I think there was a little intervention in that It got people to really listen. So that got me thinking a lot about sound and listening, and reading about it, and it kind of snowballed from there. But the genesis is really just in a thousand thoughts.
Melissa Starker: So obviously there are more than thirty two sounds in the film that you focus on. But how did you settle? I mean, I can imagine there would be endless possibilities with this. How did you decide what to focus on?
Sam Green: That was sort of the challenge. Because there are millions of sounds. There's millions of great sounds, and in a way, it's a very arbitrary way to put something together. I did, really. I was inspired by the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. So it sort of needed a number, and I I like that number. But what was in and what was out was like a struggle, a challenge, but fun. You know there was many, many sounds that I love that didn't end up in the piece for various reasons. I mean, I think in some ways it's a random assortment of sounds, but at the same time they all have to hold together and make a kind of bigger, a bigger story in a subtle way. So often people will watch it. And just think it's a random assortment of sounds. They all have to work and sort of like play off each other, and there's certain themes that get developed.
There was this great sound. I really love John Cage wrote an organ piece called As Slow As Possible—you might know this. So when people play it, it takes like three hours or something. The prompt is, you're supposed to play it as slow as possible. There's a church in Germany that's taken this literally, and they're playing it, this organ piece, over the course of four hundred and fifty hours, nine years, or something like that. And so every couple of years a note changes, and it's a big deal. People come from all over the world, and they, you know, change notes, and I just love the idea of that. And the sound of it is really cool, because it's a sustained note for several years. And so that was one I really love, but I tried working that in in a ton of different ways, and in the end. It never could stay, so it's just sort of an editing thing. What ended up being in it, and what didn't?
Melissa Starker: Well, you brought up 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. And as I mentioned to you, I I love that film. So I'm curious, your thoughts about that film and how that worked into this project.
Sam Green: It's one of my favorite films. It's a film about Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist, and it's funny because one of my least favorite kinds of films is the biopic I hate biopics for the most part, because they're so formulaic and so cliche. It’s always like, it starts off with the scene; you know the Johnny Cash one in Walk the Line. I love Johnny Cash. It's even a good movie, but it's a perfect example. It starts off at a scene, and then flashes back to his whole life, and then finishes at that scene, you know. And there are so many films that do that.
I really love 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould because it's this film that just is made up of bits and pieces as little vignettes, and some of them are documentary. Some of them are a fiction film, some animation, and so you never know. It's always a surprise. You're always off a little bit and watching it, you don't know what's coming next. And also more than that, it acknowledges that a person is way too complicated to be summed up in a neat narrative, and that's profound, I think, and real, and I completely agree, and part of the reason that biopics irk me is that they do take a messy, complicated life and reduce it to this sort of, I would say boring formula.
And so sound is similar. There's no way you can make an authoritarian, or authoritative documentary about sound. Any attempt to say anything about sound is my subjective feelings about sound, and can be best done through bits and pieces. Not through a, you know, big doc on sound. And so I I just like that model, to do it and make something that's little pieces, and you’re constantly surprised by them. What's this? I think that's one of the great experiences in film watching is to be surprised, to not know where it's going to go. So that was the inspiration. I also like that the filmmaker of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould took his inspiration from the Goldberg Variations, a piece of music that was in 32 parts. And so I like this idea of things reverberating and influencing each other over the years.
Melissa Starker: I love that, and I totally agree with you in terms of biopics. You mentions that scene in the Johnny Cash biopic and all I can think of is Walk Hard. The Dewey Cox Story. [laughs]
So, your films are always a unique experience, and with this one there's the added factor of everyone being collectively in a room, but also individually in their own heads through the use of headphones. And so I'm curious at what point you realized that that was going to be a necessity.
Sam Green: That's a great question. I was, you know, when I was starting to work on the film. I was like, How is this going to work? Movie theaters are all over the place. Some have like great Atmos systems, and some have like really terrible sound systems. How am I going to make a consistent sound experience with this? It was really puzzling to me.
And then Josh Penn, who produced the film, said, “I got an idea. You're gonna hate it. But what if everybody wears headphones?” And I was like Wow! That's actually a really good idea, because also i'd seen this Broadway play called The Encounter, which really was a successful play, and a lot of people saw it, and everybody wore headphones in the audience. And it used a lot of binaural sound, which only works with headphones. It doesn't work in speakers. And so that really stuck with me. In fact, I probably saw it 10 or 15 years ago. And I remember the headphone experience like it was yesterday. I can't tell you what the play was about. It was in some ways the gimmick of it. The technology was way more impactful. And so I remembered that thought. Wow, Headphones actually is a great idea, because not only can you make a consistent sonic experience for everybody, you can use binaural sound and have this spatial magic that films can't use yet, because they don't know how to do it. But a lot of gaming does, a lot of VR uses that technology. So that was neat.
And then also, I really like the idea of like, switching between modalities. You know, there's the experience of being in a movie theater with a bunch of people and seeing a movie. We know that, we love that. That’s the magic of cinema. You know, you're in this weird collective experience. You're alone with other people, and then headphones is its own odd modality, where you're totally alone in the world. Listening to something on headphones is so intimate. You’re in this magic place of being alone. And so I liked mixing those two odd experiences together.
Melissa Starker: That's a great way of putting it. I'm. Also curious about how JD Samson got involved in this project.
Sam Green: The great JD Samson. I made a piece for the Whitney Biennial a couple of years ago, and it was a live cinema piece, and It was a portrait of a guy named Jim Fouratt, who was like a film critic and a person around town in New York City, and he's just super interesting. So I made a live cinema portrait of him and I was thinking of somebody to make music, and my friend Matt Wolf said, “What about JD Samson?” And I'd known JD's work for years. I'm a fan. And so I said, “Oh, my God! That'd be amazing because Jim Fouratt was like a nightlife pioneer in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, and so their sound sort of works with that. And so I got in touch with JD and we really hit it off, and made a piece that we both were really thrilled with.
And so I had already started thinking about the sound piece and said, “Hey, would you want to work on that?” I think JD said, sure, assuming it'd be like a month or a couple of months. And that was several years ago, and we're still touring around. JD I think loves the piece, but also like, did not know what she was getting into.
Melissa Starker: So I just have a couple of last questions that work together, and this may be a tough one to answer. Do you have any favorite sounds? And how has this project impacted your own relationship with sound.
Sam Green: Wow! Favorite sounds is hard. That's like if people ask me what my favorite movie is. I’m always disappointing in that I don't have, you know, I don't have like, oh, A or B. You know, I sort of hem and haw.
Well, I do really love water sounds. I got interested in Annea Lockwood, who's this sound artist and composer who’s sort of one of the central characters of the film, because I read a reference in a book that Annea Lockwood had recorded the sound of rivers for 50 years. And I just was like, Wow! I love the sound of rivers and somebody recorded the sound of rivers for 50 years. I'm interested, you know. So I really was kind of taken with that detail. She's made several records that are just sound portraits of different rivers, and it's not just like some random recording of a river. You know, it's very carefully considered. She records things super meticulously and puts together a kind of collage. But these are amazing to listen to, you know, just beautiful works of art. It's music, you know. So I really like that, I guess.
To answer the second part of the question, working on this piece, it made me much more sensitive to sound, in a good way. I get a lot more pleasure from sounds, and I also am more aware of using sound, the power that sound has to root us in the present. You know, there's a lot of things in our lives that take us elsewhere: Your phone, movies, all the things we have to do, TV. We're constantly like, not in your body in the present moment, in a strange way. And sound, because it is very… It exists in the present moment. It's in the air all around us, and it's working on our bodies in some weird way if you pay attention to it. It brings you back to being here right now, and being a person in a body. And so I just find that very both pleasurable and reassuring, and grounding. And so my relationship with sound has completely changed. And so then, to go back to the first question, what are my favorite sounds. Often I'll just really like the sound of the world outside my window, or just in traffic or just, there's a lot of sounds. John Cage, he always had this thing like, the traffic outside his window on Sixth Avenue was his favorite sound in the world. And you know, it's just noisy traffic. Anybody else would say, God, that traffic is so annoying, but I think he's a great inspiration in just thinking of sound as pleasurable, a pleasurable phenomenon, and not thinking about it more than that. So anyway, that's a long-winded answer.
Melissa Starker: No, that's a great answer. And I have found that after watching your film that it has made me more conscious of the sounds around me. Even just recording this, I've been, you know, selectively muting to keep the sounds from outside my window coming in. But at the same time, those sounds are are very pleasing and reassuring to me.
Is there anything else that you would like to add at this moment?
Sam Green: Just that I’m excited to come back to the Wexner Center, And I’ve said this to Dave many times. Just, you know, at the risk of sounding sappy or cheesy, I just really appreciate having such a long-term relationship with the Wexner Center. When I wrote to Dave originally, when we were talking about doing this retrospective and showing other things, I said it because it made me think, you know, I came and worked on Rainbow Man, the first film I ever made. I made this weird film.
Back then, it was really hard to make a film. Like, even equipment was very out of reach, and somebody had told me, there's this place in Ohio, if you fax them a letter about your project, sometimes they'll let people come work on things, and I did. I faxed a letter. That shows how long ago it was. And I came and made this film, and I probably would not have been able to do it without that. And then I later came and worked on Weather Underground. I've worked on a million different films. I've shown films. I have gotten a Residency Award to work on A Thousand Thoughts. So I just can't say enough how appreciative I am, and also just like, it's been a pleasure too. I love Columbus. I love the Wexner Center. I love that apartment [for residency filmmakers], you know. I've been there so many times. I have so many fun memories, and I'm excited to come back.
Melissa Starker: We are very excited to have you back, I can tell you. There's all around good feelings about you coming back, and i'm personally excited to catch up with your shorts, and to experience 32 Sounds again.
Sam Green: How about the Rebecca Solnit essay? That lady can write.
Melissa Starker: Oh, my gosh! Thank you so much.
Sam Green: Thank you.
Top of page: Sam Green in 32 Sounds, image courtesy of ArkType