SOUND DESIGN - 3 Reasons Why Less is More

by Saul Edmonds

Artwork title: ‘If less is more’

The expression ‘Less is more’ was first written by poet Robert Browning in 1855.

The term was popularized by twentieth century german-american architect Ludwing Mies van der Rohe as a motto for his minimalist design credo.

‘Less is More’ elegantly describes the conscious pursuit of reductionism (‘less’)- where simplicity itself is a virtue. Meaning and beauty is sought in fundamentals and excess strictly eliminated. A greater experience (‘more’) ensues as truth and beauty is readily revealed in the absence of clutter.

Sound Design and ‘less is more’: How do we learn this simple lesson with regard to composition? What are some examples?

1. Silence is Golden

Sound. Silence. The Whitespace.

Whitespace is an essential design element. It is the empty space between. Resolution is achieved by balancing opposites : dark/ light , loud/ soft, action/ stillness. To the sound designer, silence is the aural whitespace. The absence of sound is particularly meaningful when juxtaposed with an opposite (ie-loudness). Silence is a powerful compositional tool by which to heighten viewer experience.

The video game ‘Dead Space’ (by Visceral Games) is such an example. Dramatic resonance is achieved by the near absence of sound (as the central character explores gloomy corridors) - that is unexpectedly punctuated by thrilling moments of loudness upon ambush.

2. Pressure Points are Power.

Music and the Art of War.

A ‘Pressure Point’ is a martial arts concept that refers to specific points of vulnerability on the human body. An opponent may be effectively immobilized when lightly struck or pressed. Attack upon a pressure point is the means by which to achieve maximum impact for minimal effort. The essential elements are effectively isolated.

With regard to sound design, to define a pressure point is to distill a fundamental. This is the point of maximum impact: where specific constraints yield creative response. Achievement is sought through concentration of focus.

An example of this is the Gus Van Sant movie ‘Last Days’. Sound designer Leslie Shatz used a combination of lo-fi acoustic and found sounds (recorded using only the most basic of equipment) to poignantly underscore the desolation of Kurt Cobain’s final days.

3. Life is Simple.

Consume less and live more. (‘Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated….’ : Confucius)

The final reason as to why ‘less is more’ places sound design firmly within our social context.

Minimalism as a lifestyle movement is gaining popularity. It is an increasing choice to use fewer commodities whilst striving to live more meaningfully in the process. Sound design functions as a creative response to this impulse as we seek to design the music and soundtrack for our time.

From the movie ‘Fight Club’:

“ Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.”

A fine example of simplicity in sound design - within the context of performance - is the ‘O Superman’ (1981) by artist Laurie Anderson. The uniquely sparse arrangement imbues the track with great layers of meaning.

Post your thoughts? Is ‘less’ really ‘more’ ?

by Saul Edmonds