CULT - Emergences et évolutions des cultures et des phénomènes culturels

[ECrire l'Histoire de l'Oral]. The Emergence of Modern Orality and Aurality. Phonic Movements in Scenic Images (1950-2000) – ECHO




ECHO was born out of the idea that the study of Western theatre, despite its vocal, sound and acoustic aspects, was no exception to the overvaluation of the visual. The research prolonged an initial project titled “Theatre Sound (19th - 21st centuries)” with a refocusing on three aspects: on France, on the second half of the 20th century, and on the spoken voice. The ECHO project approached theatre as a space organised by and for the spoken voice, thus returning to the commonly accepted definition by modern acousticians of the theatrical space (end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th), which seemed to be less suitable: technologies (from microphones to tape recorders) had transformed the sound of the theatre; significantly, the relation to the text, to the verbal, to the language (here, the French language) had experienced major transformations. Based on the hypothesis that, in the vital domain of language, transformation does not denote disappearance, the team explored how artists and technicians, from post-World War II to the end of the 1990s, have renewed the conditions and forms of the stage spoken word and its listening. In doing so, ECHO has allowed the reintegration of the theatre, an art which has contributed to structure Western society, within today’s crucial reflections on our relationship to the art of practicing (listening, reading, memorising, vocalising – singing) a written or elaborated language.

Benefiting from the strong interdisciplinary culture of Performing Arts and Sound Studies, the ECHO team, comprised of scholars in theatre studies with a background in history, anthropology, architecture, literature, music and aesthetics, of researchers in sociology and philosophy, of librarians specialised in theatre and audio-visual media, of sound practitioners and technicians, and of acoustic researchers, has articulated in this research a collection of very different methods: listening and description of audio recordings of performances (between 1947 and 1997), in accordance with a gradually developed protocol; reconstitution of the architectural and acoustic history of the two theatres where these recordings were made (Palais de Chaillot and Théâtre de l’Athénée); 3D virtual reality auralisation of the Athénée theatre with actors’ voices moving on stage; the study of radio programs and records as theatre memory; an ethnographic survey with audience members who had often visited – among others – these two selected performance venues as well as a collection of stage managers and sound engineers testimonies; analysis of discourses and models according to which the theatrical sound space can be considered.

In order to share its results, ECHO has designed an educational multimedia website, “Hearing the Theatre”, which includes approximately one hundred sound archives accompanied by a methodology of listening, available on the BnF website. The acoustic simulations, resulting from the historical studies, will also be included, thanks to new virtual reality platforms available to the general public (youtube360, facebook360). These works have contributed to the ANR2018-RASPUTIN project, which employs acoustic simulations in VR to assist the visually impaired.
ECHO has thus drawn wide attention to theatre sound archives and scientific techniques of auralisations of performance spaces. It has also contributed to a rethinking of the theatrical art and its place within the genesis and social circulation of poetic forms of orality. Collaborations with the National Archives and Ormete (Italy) are evidence of this dynamic.

ECHO's productions include reusable methodological models: forms documenting performance recordings at several levels; comprehensive reports on the architectural and acoustic history of the theatres; 3D auralisations; specific analyses of records and radio documents; new oral archives resulting from the survey of audience members and the collection of testimonies from sound engineers. These productions have already led to a better consideration of sound by preservation institutions. The project has also shed light on its underpinning cultural issues: the 1950-1990 period did not experience a weakening of the verbal in favour of the visual or non-verbal, as today’s History of Theatre tends to assert, but rather, reinventions of the stage spoken word and its listening, involving or accompanying new uses of the microphone, the foundation of several language conservatories/laboratories, and, from the 1980s, the demand for proper acoustics. The research also revealed the importance and durability of sound in the spectators’ memory, particularly the spoken voices of some actors but, even more so, the sung voices and music, as well as the audience/stage aural situation. The place given by ECHO to the theatrical space and its technical characteristics (neglected in the analysis of performances) should lead to a rethinking of the theatre as a place of listening in the urban “cartophonies”. This is one of the avenues opened for further research, as well as the articulation of the visual and auditory for the spectator, the evolution of sound professions, and the refinement of the oral/aural history of Western theatre.

The list of publications is characterised by a high volume of specialised papers linked to the auralization task beginning in 2014; from 2015, by a significant number of collaborations with other institutions; by the choice of digital media for the two major collective publications of the project; and by an articulation of the academic papers with the educational multimedia website, designed for a range of audiences.
Quantitatively, ECHO has produced several multi-partner publications (each involving almost all partners) on an international level: three peer-reviewed journal issues – two «Revue Sciences Lettres« («RSL«), published by ENS Editions, and one «L’Annuaire théâtral« in Montreal – as well as a book (CNRS Editions). It has also produced a large number of single-partner publications, both international (twelve articles, including numerous contributions to «Journal of the Acoustical Society of America«, and six book chapters published in France as well as in Germany, Canada, and the USA) and national (with three journal issues, two books, five articles, and fifteen chapters). In addition to the two symposia and three international workshops organised by ECHO, there are twenty-two international single-partner papers (including many presentations by the acousticians at international conferences). In France, two one or two-day workshops (with the Théâtre de l'Athénée, with the National Archives and the Théâtre de Chaillot) involved several partners, in addition to nine single-partner papers, given in conferences or research seminars.

Complete list of publications:

Much literature has described the modern Western world (19th-21st Century) as predominately visual, marked by a “passion for seeing”. A wide array of studies have been devoted to the image, which sharply contrasts with the negligible research and reflection on the aural and listening — musical listening excepted. In our opinion, it is the study and practice of theatre that has suffered most spectacularly, and paradoxically, from this focus on the ocular: especially, if one considers how the Western stage has organized itself around an oral text, sometimes accompanied by (sung or instrumental) music, how the Greek stage rapidly took acoustics into account and how the Greek model has played a large part in theatre theory. Yet studies on theatre as an auditory place are largely absent – in contrast to the plethora of works on the performance’s visual aspects (scenography, stagecraft, lighting) and its relation to visual arts, painting and film. Hence, theatre studies seem based on the idea that the space of theatrical performance is organized principally by and for vision. Research effectuated on the orality of plays and on the actor’s voice has not impacted this model as they appear to be exiled in totally different theoretical fields. Thus, at the heart and root of the oversight of theatre’s sonic nature, one can foresee the overshadowing of the human "phônê", which is not only vocal, but verbal, as illustrated by Paul Zumthor’s description of “orality” in one of his last works (1994): a performed, possibly mediatized orality, engaging a socially significant aurality, because, as ethno-poetics well show, it finds its meaning in the event, but also because this event is in its very structure a linguistic event.
Philosophers in particular have addressed the space given to the “invisible” in the world of images, notably through the status of listening, as well as of verbal expression and memory. The theatre, as discussed above, constitutes a privileged place and object for such an examination. The ECHO project emerged from this statement, as its interdisciplinary research team (from theatrical studies, acoustics, history of science, intermediality, ethnology, musicology, philosophy) adopts theoretical perspectives that break with dominant discourses focused either on (mute) images or on (vocal but non-verbal) bodies. From this new perspective, Western theatre is an acoustic space organized by and for the “spoken” voice. This definition was embraced by modern theatre acousticians of the turn of 20th Century, then questioned and rearticulated according to transformations in the representation of phonation (its production and its acoustics) due to evolutions of medical, linguistic, psychoanalytic knowledge, and acoustic science and to developments of new sound technologies—microphones, phonographs, telephones, loudspeakers. Such a perspective unlocks and opens a theoretical space that allows for a dual study of stage practice and the spoken voice. Thus, one aspect of our project consists in examining “modern scene” creations (1950-2000), documented by Giovanni Lista’s canonic survey, and describing the genesis of novel oral and aural forms related to new phonic worlds and modes of vision. This will be achieved mainly through reconstituting the acoustic history of two auditoriums, developing listening analyses of theatre audio archives (just as the “theatre of images” is full of textual echoes), and conducting surveys with audience members of past performances. ECHO will, thus, contribute to the rewriting of Western theatre’s recent history as well as to the elaboration, through the case of theatrical performance, of a truly modern theorization of orality – one that is freed from the two current seductive and reductive dominating models: the vocalized ritual and the technologized stage.

Project coordinator

Marie-Madeleine MERVANT-ROUX (THALIM) –

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


CRIalt Centre de recherches intermédiales sur les arts, les lettres et les techniques
UVA Universiteit van Amsterdam Theaterwetenschap
LIMSI-CNRS Laboratoire d'informatique pour la mécanique et les sciences de l'ingénieur
BnF Bibliothèque nationale de France

Help of the ANR 385,799 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2013 - 42 Months

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