Sounds of the City with Filmmaker Sam Green
In 32 Sounds, New York filmmaker Sam Green explores the beautiful and uncanny presence that sound has in our lives. Green’s style of live cinema means there’s a performance aspect, like narration or—when I saw 32 Sounds at Film Forum—live sound mixing. I spoke with Green from his studio in Greenpoint.
You have so many beautiful things on your walls!
Sam Green: It’s a good way to procrastinate: put something on the wall.
Before 32 Sounds, you made a film about the Kronos Quartet that they would accompany live. When did you first decide to mix performance and movies like this?
SG: I made a kind of experimental documentary about utopia [Utopia in Four Movements]. It was four stories, completely unconnected—I’d really loved Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, the Errol Morris movie. I showed my film to people, and everybody said, “This makes no sense whatsoever.” Then somebody asked me to do a talk about my project. And I said, okay, I’ll show some clips, and I’ll talk, and I’ll get my friend to do some live music. It’ll be like a fancy lecture. So I did that, and it really made sense to everybody. Everybody had a good time and hung out afterward talking about utopia!
So you kept doing it.
SG: We did it at Sundance, and we traveled all around doing this live documentary. I just became really interested in the form, because it’s using a vast palette. I thought, well, I’ve never heard of a live movie, but maybe that’s what this is.
Are there performers in New York that you’ve admired over the years?
SG: Many years ago, David Dorfman was getting in touch with me about a dance piece about the Weather Underground. My girlfriend is a choreographer and she said, “He’s legit, an O.G. New York choreographer!” I was completely skeptical, and I said, good luck to you, but how are you going to do it with a dance piece?
And then a year or two later, I went to see his performance in San Francisco. And it was amazing! There were no facts, no historical context, all the stuff I’d wrestled with. It was dance. It was light and shadow and music and movement and mood and it was so powerful. It really opened my eyes to how there are many different languages, many different ways that art can communicate. Documentary film was one of them, and it’s a very literal one. People really need clarity, and it’s one reason I’ve loved live cinema. People don’t have any expectations about the form, so they’re very open.
And you can work in a more open way.
SG: Yeah. You’re right about New York and performance. It’s an amazing performance town. And it’s funny how the film world and the performing arts world are right next to each other, but very separate. It’s a rich world and there’s so much history here—you know, people from the Judson movement from the ’60s are still performing. It would be as if Amos Vogel was doing a show at Cinema 16.
Annea Lockwood, the experimental composer, is a star in 32 Sounds. She’s a legend, connecting with over half a century of music.
SG: She’s so smart about sound, and she’s been multidisciplinary from the beginning. I made that Kronos Quartet movie, and I really started to think about how you get people to listen in the context of cinema which is predominantly visual. When the pandemic happened, I had all these screenings with the Kronos Quartet that were suddenly canceled. So I had all this time and was reading a bunch of books about sound. I read one about Annea Lockwood. I emailed her and said, “Hey, I’m interested in sound. Could I talk to you sometime?” And she wrote back, “How about this afternoon?” We just started talking on Skype and email and had this ongoing conversation.
She has this lovely concept of “listening with” rather than “listening to” the world. What’s the soundscape of New York like for you?
SG: John Cage had this idea that all sounds can be pleasurable. He said, my favorite sound is the sound of traffic outside my window on Sixth Avenue. I love that, and the thing I get from Annea Lockwood is being very open and engaged with your ears. It brings you back to the present and back to your body. It’s deeply calming and reassuring and centering, but it also allows you to experience the pleasure of sounds. I mean, a jackhammer can get painful, but most of the time the cityscape can be wonderful.
What are you hearing right now?
SG: I heard the birds just now because right across the way is a building that has this tremendous roof garden nobody uses. There was this incredible squawking which surprised me. The musical soundtrack of the streets of New York is so rich and dense and spatial.
What else do you hear during the day?
SG: In Greenpoint, on Friday around dinnertime, you hear the Hasidic siren that goes off in the neighborhood and lets everybody know it’s Shabbat and they gotta go home. And then in the river right by my house, there are seaplanes taking people out to the Hamptons that are landing. It’s like these two parts of New York, these sonic signifiers. It’s great!
You moved to New York about 12 years ago. What keeps you rooted in the city?
SG: New York is the greatest. I came for the summer with my girlfriend, and we just stayed ever since. I’d lived in San Francisco for 20 years. The things that keep me in New York are the incredible people, and going out and doing things. I could have four lives and I’d be happy. One of them I would just see people and hang out and run around. One of them I would go to shows and see movies. One of them I would work really hard, and one of them I would get rest. The only challenge of New York is there’s too much of it!
WORDS Nicolas Rapold