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Neil Verma

Wall of sound: listening to


Game of Thrones

Loopholes
With a coiled horn hanging by a restless chain behind them, the two brothers
of the Nights Watch kill time at the precipice of the Wall discussing what
else? sex. The interesting thing is, our vows never specifically forbid intimate
relations with women, Samwell Tarly points out to Jon Snow, pleased for
having noted the loophole with his keen ear. Facing long odds against Mance
Rayders army, Jon and Sam pace crenellations that recall Great War trenches,
speaking of Snows tryst with the wildling Ygritte.

Jon: Theres this person, this whole other person, and youre wrapped
up in them and theyre wrapped up in you, and you . . . for a little
. . . for a little while youre more than just you. Youre . . . oh, I dont
know. Im not a bleedin poet!

Sam: No, youre really not.

As Sam descends to Castle Blacks library (where he meets Maester Aemon,


another keen listener), we see an owl spying for a telepathic warg at the edge
of the camp of a gang of raiders nearby. The owls screech is heard in a
subsequent shot at the camp, conveying proximity with scant interval, lending
an airlessness to the episode that is confirmed twenty minutes later with a
birds-eye shot that situates the Wall as the diameter of an imploding circle of
attackers from twin arcs north and south, and then reiterated by a showpiece
forty-three-second pan of swordplay around the periphery of Castle Black. In
the camp, Jon and Sams colloquy is repeated as a farce, as wildling leader
Tormund boasts of copulating with a bear (No, she was no ordinary beast),
prompting Ygrittes ridicule. Next, we see refugee Gilly and her baby listening
just outside the camp, a second eavesdropper fleeing to the castle. Nearly
turned away at the gate, her voice carries into the courtyard where Sam catches
it and insists on taking her in. Off-screen cries from above (Make haste!
Prepare!) resound, as well as the peal of an unseen horn just like the one we
almost didnt notice hanging dead centre atop the Wall.
That is the prologue to Watchers on the Wall, the ninth episode of the most
recent season of David Benioff and D.B. Weisss HBO series Game of Thrones,
based on George R.R. Martins A Song of Ice and Fire.1 For all its visual excess,
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it is a sequence in which circuits of watching (and watching of watching) are


braided with nonvisual actions and elements: loose talk, eavesdropping,
surrogate listeners, vocal projection and mobile earshots. What has been
depicted so far is a sound loop that descends and ascends the Wall, and, in a
parallel geometry, circles from north to south and back again. Close your eyes
for the remainder of the episode and you will hear similar sonic shapes and
vectors, including spirals of voices and swords, gates straining against
groaning mammoths, the grunt of a giant drowning out an hysterical
recitation of the Nights Watch oath, the cries of defenders stretching off
toward vanishing earshots, the audioposition (where we are according to what
we hear) of Jons wolf Ghost charging into battle.2 Our apprehension of all
this sonic geometry is somewhere between the unconscious and the automatic
as Rick Altman has explained, our ears are frequently doing narrative
analysis of sonic information even if we are not aware of it.3
What I want to call attention to is the fact that along with many other
episodes of Game of Thrones Watchers seems wrapped up with a certain
sonic mystique, a matter that has gone almost unnoticed in discourse on the
programme in the press, online and among fans. Indeed, despite intellectual
booms in sound studies and television studies in the academy for which a
programme like Game of Thrones is a logical point of convergence, there is
almost no critical listening out there when it comes to this series. This is a
shame, because as the most-watched programme on a leading network in the
new golden age of television, Game of Thrones is a laboratory for habits of
auditory imagination and for the critical equipment with which we might
engage them. In an attempt to unpack that, this essay draws on sound theory
and philosophy to explore a few sonic habits in the series, offering not quite a
study of the sound design of Games of Thrones but rather a study of Game of
Thrones with sound in mind, an effort to think the series as keenly as an ear.
My hope is that the result will not only call sound to the centre of discourse
about the programme, but also summon discourse of the programme to its
aesthetic edge, a point at which the show can be considered vernacular sound
art. As Mladen Dolar has argued, sound is in many ways an entity of the edge
something between sleep and waking, between inside and out, between the
one and the multiple.4 This essay catalogues a few of the ways in which Game
of Thrones inhabits such an edge, employing it as barrier and lure, a shelter
and alibi.

Edge and axis


Game of Throness outsize commitment to sound precedes its imagery. Three
of the four seasons awaken with a brief sound effect that functions as what
Altman calls a sound advance: a rising portcullis in a tunnel under the Wall,
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a battle at the Fist of the First Men, the sound of a smiths forge.5 The title
sequence with Ramin Djawadis stylised score is dappled by another excess,
as objects on the map of Westeros and Essos emit sounds whose great scale
contradicts the size of the miniatures to which they visually correspond,
including rustling branches, thudding islands rising from the sea, and the
great arms of the colossus of Braavos falling into place. Prominent sound
events also mark the edges of episodes. Garden of Bones (2:4) begins with a
guard passing gas, and ends with Melisandre giving birth to a wet shadow. The
first season ends with the cry of a baby dragon lingering three seconds in the
darkness after the image cuts, dissolving into a reverberation between
storyworld and credits. The latter is often used expressively. Credits feature
both the oddest musical selection in the series with a bright bar-room
rendition of The Bear and the Maiden Fair immediately after Locke hacks
off Jamie Lannisters hand (3:3), and arguably the most sonically beautiful
moment with Shireen Baratheons a cappella Its Always Summer Under the
Sea (3:5). Within episodes, sounds link separated storylines suggestively.
In Garden of Bones the cry of a prostitute being tortured in Joffreys
bedchamber turns into to the whinny of a horse in Renlys war camp, while in
The Lion and the Rose (4:2) the sound of Tyrion smashing a cup in
frustration as he discards Shae turns into the sound of a woman screaming in
a sacrifice bonfire on Dragonstone.
But a tendency to lay prominent sounds at the edge of an episode, a scene
or a love affair stands in tension with a countertendency to plot those same
events along open axes within and through episodes, much like the sound loop
in Watchers. Consider the most aestheticised scene in that episode, when
Ygritte spares Jons life in a moment of sentimental pause hasnt this blood-
soaked episode been about sentiment all along? then is fatally shot. The
sound of singing arrows and crashing steel bleed away in the otherwise
detailed background soundscape, as sub-glottal noises issue from Ygritte and
the lovers remember the moment of their passion in a northern cave. This
quiet nucleus of the episode dignifies the bleeding poetry of love, of two
people wrapped up together until only one is still alive. But that very same
pocket of hush can be understood otherwise, as a predictable sonic detail
common to every season, which may be surprising for a series known for
instability.6 In Baelor (1:9), the beheading of Ned Stark begins with a
cacophony of the crowd, but concludes with only Neds breathing and the
sound of escaping birds. In Blackwater (2:9), the battle outside the gates of
Kings Landing suddenly goes half mute as we see Loras Tyrells forces arrive
to turn the tide. In The Rains of Castamere (3:9) a boisterous bedding
ceremony and diegetic band score featuring Sigur Rs fades as Walder Frey
calls for silence in a sequence that ends in Robb and Catelyn Starks deaths.
Not only do these three hushes take place at the just same moment in their
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seasons all are the ninth episode, just like Watchers but they occur near
the same minute within the episode in question (54, 50, 49 and 42
sequentially).
In this way, Ygrittes quiet death belongs equally to the arcs of the episodic
text, the seasonal text, and the series text, a swirling eddy in what Raymond
Williams famously called televisions flow.7 The hush, in other words, serves
as a metadiegetic feature that links several levels in the streaming seriality of
the programme, to borrow Michele Hilmess terminology.8 With that in mind,
think of Watchers as depicting three axes emanating from a single point in
time and space. One runs the lateral dimension in a line from Rayders army
in the North down to the wildling camp in the South. Another axis runs
orthogonally to the first up the vertical axis of Castle Black from the tunnel
underneath to the Wall aloft. And near the interstice of these two axes is the
silence of Ygritte and Jon, whose sound aesthetic prompts a third direction
that flows backward through time to Neds death, the trigger from which the
programmes core sentimental mode mourning flows outward, only to
return.

Sticky, slippery, smooth


Suppose that we distribute all sounds in Game of Thrones to the body to which
it is most firmly lodged, beginning with vocal marks: Viseryss whispers;
Baelishs growl; Melisandres droop when she utters the night is dark and full
of terrors; Robert Baratheons bulbous laughter, the lightest note in the entire
show. Game of Throness underscore also contains dozens of themes and
leitmotifs. There are the otherworldly strings accompanying Jaqen, the low
synth of the cannibal Thenns, and the urgent drum of Stannis Baratheons
martial theme that disappears after Blackwater and returns with the rout of
Mance Rayder seasons later. Many other sorts of sounds attach to characters.
Think of the tenderness of Ser Loras shaving Renly Baratheons chest, of the
muted sound of Tywin gutting a stag in his first appearance on screen, of the
creak of Walder Freys wooden throne. In each case, sounds exit the actions
they illustrate with an affective surplus that decants into the characters they
involve. Sounds like these are doubly sticky. Just as Joffrey is more present
thanks to his association with the sound of the bowstring ratchet on his
crossbow (the device with which he secures his first kill), his ghost adheres to
that sound when Tyrion drags the device down the hall (4:10) to kill Tywin
with the weapon most redolent of the incest of his house during a debate over
the meaning of paternity.
Other sounds are less sticky, lending themselves to a play that makes Game
of Thrones a little like a composition for the extended techniques of unusual
instruments. Note how the series works out sonic properties of the human
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head. We hear the head of Viserys sizzle and thump in molten gold, the head
of Catelyn spill and drop, the heads of Polliver and Kurt being skewered
slowly, the head of Prince Oberyn burst, the head of Styr crunched under a
hammer, to say nothing of the dozens of beheadings all sounds built by Foley
artists using cow skulls and watermelons, couch cushions and old surf boards,
mud, chicken bones and bamboo.9 Listen with headphones wrapping round
your own skull or with earbuds lodged within it, and these sounds acquire a
certain inherent black humour. Fire sound is another example. The fire in
Brans bedchamber holds on like a persisting life, while the fireplace at
Harrenhal never seems to keep anyone warm. The fires in Gilly and Sams
camps struggle to breathe, while the pyres on Dragonstone spurt in ecstasy.
In the cave of the Brotherhood without Banners, the fire hums lightly in one
episode (3:5), then roars alive in the next (3:6) during Sandors trial by combat.
The large braziers that wrap the pillars in the throne room at Kings Landing
burn silently in dozens of scenes until the opening of Blackwater when their
roar fills the suddenly vulnerable room. The wildfire with which Tyrion burns
the Baratheon fleet in that episode is gorgeous, sounding like a stampede when
taken from far off and like sizzling butter when taken from nearby; the sound
of the dragon fire is just as compelling, water-like and bursting. A slipperiness
also characterises many songs, especially The Rains of Castamere. Rains is
whistled by Tyrion playfully (2:1), sung by the Brotherhood ironically (3:2),
and played in the underscore in triumph at the conclusion of episodes (2:10).
It is played exuberantly at the Red Wedding (3:9), and also appears briefly in
the underscore when Cersei admits her incest to Tywin, mocking the house
whose glory it signifies (4:10). However closely it is attached to the Lannister
story, its sheer promiscuity suggests significantly more elasticity than do the
themes of Baratheon, Stark or any other house.
Perhaps by logical necessity, sticky and slippery sounds exist among a third
class of sound scattered throughout Game of Thrones, phrases emptied of
previously held energy, hashtag-ready platitudes such as By the old gods and
the new, What is dead may never die, and A Lannister always pays his debts.
The prominence of these phrases belies the irregularity of their settings.
Winter is coming is uttered only seven times in season 1 and twice in season
2; Valar Morghulis is said just nine times in all forty episodes. Yet when any
single platitude is repeated it seems to amplify all the others, as does the
tendency of speakers to use the phrases only out of habit. The denizens of
Qarth never seem sincere when they call their city the greatest that ever was
or will be, and the proliferation of that cynicism toward these smooth,
impregnable phrases lends Game of Thrones a low ironic vibration, which
affects any lofty element. In the most recent season, for example, justice is a
major narrative objective: Oberyn seeks it for his sisters murder (4:7); Tywin
promises to arrive at it in the trial of Tyrion (4:3); Jon swears to bring it to
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Mormonts killers (4:4); Daenerys tries to answer injustice with justice in her
dealings with the slavers of Essos. But the term is empty from the get-go.
Promotions for the programme season show Tyrion laughing at the very idea,
If you want justice, youve come to the wrong place.
The last scenes of The Mountain and the Viper (4:8), are reflexive about
many of these issues. Awaiting his trial by combat in the dungeon, Tyrion
reminisces about his intellectually disabled cousin Orson and his obsession
with crushing beetles, one after another, while sitting in a garden. Tyrions
curiosity itself became compulsive, as he explains to Jaime while turning a pill
bug over in his fingers, The first thing I did was ask him. Orson, why are you
smashing all those beetles? He gave me an answer Smash the beetles. Smash
em. Kuuh, Kuuh, Kuuh. Tyrion decided to observe him, sure there was
something to it,

I would eat my lunch in the garden, chewing my mutton to the music of


kuuh, kuuh, kuuh. And when I wasnt watching him, I was thinking
about him. Father droned on about the family legacy and I thought
about Orsons beetles. I read the histories of Targaryan conquests, did
I hear dragon wings? No. I heard Kuuh kuuh kuuh. And I still couldnt
figure out why he was doing it.

Does Orson represent the capricious gods, the programme itself, perhaps its
audience? An answer comes in the next scene, with its combat between the
suave Prince Oberyn and the percussive Ser Gregor Clegane. During the fight,
Oberyn repeats an accusation, You raped my sister, you murdered her, you
killed her children, attempting to make Ser Gregor admit an old crime, to
make a phrase achieve justice in resonating Im going to make you confess
before you die, he vows. Oberyn repeats the phrase six times, dancing his way
through it, each line punctuating a daring twirl or lunge, underscoring the
rhythm of the line; like Orson, Oberyn is a kind of musician. When the felled
Gregor reaches up to trap Oberyn, dashing his teeth across the arena, he
repeats the accusation with a difference. I killed her children. Then I raped
her. Then I smashed her head in, like this. With this anti-confession, Gregor
mocks the accusation, justice and the very mechanism that secures force to
vow. It is one of many instances of an aesthetic of self-cynicism in the series,
in which an event related sincerely is immediately doubled with a mockery of
itself (think of Tyrions rousing speech to the defenders of Kings Landing
recreated in Theons buffoonish speech to the ironborn at Winterfell). In the
arena, Clegane crushes Oberyn like a beetle, substituting true justice with le
son juste. As Tyrion haunted more by the sound of Orsons beetles than by
Orson or the beetles ought to know, it doesnt mean that it means, it means
that it sounds.
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Topography and stratigraphy


Let us move through the surface sonic topographies of Westeros with our ears
more attentive than our eyes. Beyond the haunted forests, with its hints of
electric guitar, comes Crasters Keep, filled with the sound of rooting pigs and
childbirth. Mance Rayders camp is nearby, with its sounds of children at play,
laughter and giants. At the Wall we arrive at a key sonorous entity. Listen to it
sing in The Climb (3:6) as it bears grunts, axes, fabrics in wind, vague
creaking, snapping cords and cracking crevasses. The Wall is depicted in a way
that synchronises visual and auditory distances. In the almost identical
opening sequences in the very first episode (1:1) and the most recent (4:10),
the camera follows a Brother of the Nights Watch moving out from the Walls
tunnel, then cuts to a long shot from an oblique angle in which the wallscape
diminishes as if now recorded from the very distance that the camera has just
traversed. This hybridises what James Lastra calls the normative enunciative
and the perceptive levels of cinematic narration; although there is no
character whose perception we can imaginatively share, we hear within a
perceptual field that would fit such a person in an objective earspace of the
storyworld.10 The Wall thus feels both near and distant, both immersive and
remote. It is a geographic feature and a sonorous idea, calling to itself both the
guttural trickle of Tyrion pissing off the end of the world and Gillys reverent
gasp of wonder, the ridiculous and the sublime.
Continuing south, Castle Black showcases off-screen metalwork and
swordplay, while the forests and empty castles of the Gift provide some of the
most reverberant interiors in all Westeros. You could draw a line from these
forts and mills to the Great Sept in Kings Landing, and thereby trace a grade
from wild echo to sacred quiet that is also a drift from exposure to repose, from
lawlessness to control, from supernatural horrors to political horrors.
Winterfell is quite different from the true North, featuring the warm sounds
of young laughter, of tin cups and dozing dogs, of conversations in the close
earthen crypts, of raucous feasts, of bedchambers strewn with heaps of
muffling pelts, and the silent godswood. Footsteps in Winterfell fall on wood
or earth, while they tend to fall on stone in Kings Landing, and on pebbles at
Pentos. Game of Thrones Foley art keeps character footfalls remarkably
consistent across surfaces and lands wherever he goes, Sandor traipses
through Westeros in firefighters boots, while Cersei wears a brides shoes.11
The sound of animals is at the heart of Game of Thrones, with animals
present in many scenes (almost no exterior scene in the first season lacks a
horse), and animal sound contributing to supernatural creatures dragon
voices, for instance, are composed of an amalgam of dolphin, tortoise, seal and
lion. Certain locations have special connections to these sounds. The Dothraki
horde is closely associated with horses, Winterfell has sleeping baby wolves,
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Pentos often has cicadas, the Dreadfort has dogs and Harrenhal has flies.
Birdsong links all these soundscapes in the first two seasons. Northern scenes
foreground crows, eagles, owls and ravens in contrast to the songbirds and city
flocks at Kings Landing. Qarth sounds similar, but with denser and more
melodious birdsong, perhaps reflecting the soundscape of Croatias Lokrum
Island where those scenes were shot. In season 2, Kings Landing adds the
sound of gulls bleeding into all interiors, a relentless reminder that the city is
a seaport, one about to be attacked. The sound of birdsong at Kings Landing
has a strange resonance with its characters: we often hear of Lord Varyss little
birds bringing information; Baelish takes the mockingbird as his sigil; and
Lady Olenna spends her visit ensconced in a garden behind her foolish flock
of hens (3:2). So much in this world depends on the possession of Sansa Stark,
whom everyone calls little bird and little dove. It is no surprise that she will
eventually fly from the nest-city with Baelish to the Eyrie, with the howling
Moon Door, a ravenous hole of sky. As R. Murray Schafer has pointed out,
birds tend to make sounds for many of the same reasons humans do
pleasure, fear, territorial-defence, nesting, flight, flocking, feeding.12
These sonic topographies are not always flat. Some urge themselves upward
and toward our attention at key moments, jutting into the principal action of
the drama, like changes in stratigraphy. Early scenes at Winterfell, for
instance, feature a high degree of porousness between sonic foreground and
background. In her first appearance on screen (1:1), Arya Stark listens to
archery in the courtyard when she is supposed to be stitching indoors, a sonic
gendering of space that she transgresses. Later, the sound of exterior horses,
howls and murmurs carry to Brans chamber during his convalescence,
suggesting he is hardly safe there. Acoustically speaking, the House of Stark
is rickety; it will be sacked after the sound of a relentless unseen horn player
from siege forces beyond its walls drives Theon mad (2:10). If some characters
are undermined by soundscapes, others remove them. Consider the Purple
Wedding sequence preceding Joffreys death (4:2), which features three tiers
of sound: a hubbub of guests, an unseen guitarist, and the foreground of
primary characters sniping at one another during the festivities. As Joffrey
loses patience and takes over proceedings with his tawdry War of the Five
Kings farce, a solemn underscore rises, seeming to emanate from Sansas face
and drowning out the floor show. Soon the diegetic score reduces to mortified
silence. While the king pours wine on Tyrions head, we hear insects and birds,
along with shifting and coughing among the guests. Joffrey chokes the
soundscape before poison chokes him, a fitting death for the young king, one
of whose earliest regal acts was to order a satirists tongue cut out (1:10).
Game of Thrones also sexualises its soundscapes, blurring the edge between
fore- and backgrounds by dint of libidinal energy. In season 1 we are often
listening to King Roberts giggling orgies alongside Jamie Lannister stationed
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outside his bedchamber, or catching the theatrical moanscape of Baelishs


pleasure house. On arriving in the city, Shae leans off a balcony of the Keep to
hear a cloudy din of commerce, love and work, likening it to smell. I love the
stink, I love the noise, she says. Cities make me want to fuck (2:1). A key
moment takes place in You Win or You Die (1:7). Early in the episode, we see
Petyr Baelish with Ros and Armeca, tutoring the two prostitutes in pleasing
customers. Baelish treats his new acquisitions as hacks: Is that what they
teach you up in the North? And you wherever youre from, do you have any
idea how ridiculous you sound? As the women continue under his direction,
he tells us something of his early life, focusing on his rejection by Catelyn Stark.

I was her little confidant, her plaything. She could tell me anything,
anything at all.
She told me about all the horses that she liked, the castle she wanted
to live in and the man that she wanted to marry, a northerner with a jaw
like an anvil.

The sexposition scene, as Myles McNutt has felicitously dubbed it, is easily
criticised Emily Nussbaum has pointed out that in learning to fake
lesbianism for Baelish, the women are also faking it for us, in an Uroboros of
titillation.13 As a soundscape, however, it is Baelish who sounds ridiculous,
losing his upper position by becoming auditory background, seeming very
much the pitiful confidant relishing the feigned flattery of Ross interest in his
sob story, his voice struggling to keep up with the overdone moaning, his head
cocked as if seeking attention and failing.
Womens voices can indeed command sonic stratigraphy, organising the
shape of the near and the far, the dominant and the supine. Consider the
Blackwater sequence, which begins with two aural worlds about to collide.
With Stannis, Ser Davos and their forces out on the waves, we hear straining
wood, rope, footsteps on deck and vomiting soldiers. In Kings Landing, we
hear chimes, poured wine, and a boozy rendition of the Lannister song. These
environments penetrate one another when the ringing of the great bell in the
Keep signals the arrival of the attacking fleet. They want to play music with
us, lets play. Drums! cries Ser Davos. Thereafter, the two initial sonic
topographies unite into a male-coded battle serving as background audio for
female-coded scenes in the interior of the Red Keep, where Cersei, Sansa and
the women wait. Drinking heavily, the queen speaks frankly about the
reduction to sex objects facing women, for whom she has only contempt. I
should have been born a man, Cersei declares. Id rather face a thousand
swords than be shut up inside with this flock of frightened hens. In the Keep,
the battle sounds become louder and more detailed with each segue over the
course of the episode, until we can nearly pick out individual words from the
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invading soldiers. Just as all seems lost, Cersei brings Tommen to the throne
room to poison him before the enemy comes, telling him of a cub whose
mother promises all the beasts would bow to the lion. Her haphazard fable
becomes voice-over, usurping all other sonic materials as we cut to the
battlefield as fresh Lannister forces arrive and Stannis flees. Soon, the off-
screen cacophony bursts in to the throne room. The long-dreaded union of the
sonic worlds has come, but as a happy irony, bringing the face of Lord Tywin.
As a narrative matter, victory has come through Tywins strategy and Tyrions
cunning. As a sonic matter, however, it is Cerseis voice that has faced the
thousand swords and summoned a lion.

Over, off, away


Cerseis voice-over in Blackwater is one of only four sustained instances of
this technique in Game of Thrones, all of which begin as on-screen speech,
then become acousmatic, a sound studies term popularised by Pierre
Schaeffer referring to sound whose source is unseen.14 In the first (1:10), Jeor
Mormont speaks over shots of men mustering for the Great Ranging beyond
the Wall, speaking as the actions he proscribes are being carried out. The same
is true of another instance that takes place in the North, Yara Greyjoys speech
to her sailors on their way to rescue Theon (4:6). Lord Baelishs voice-over
monologue from the third season (3:6), by contrast, works more like Cerseis,
by moving in space rather than time. As an ascending musical phrase plays,
Littlefingers philosophy Chaos isnt a pit. Chaos is a ladder is laid out over
a scene of Joffrey walking away from the body of Ros (Many who try to climb
it fail and never get to try again. The Fall breaks them.), then a scene of Sansa
Stark weeping as she watches a ship sail away (And some are given a chance
to climb but they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love.
Illusions.), before we finally turn to Jon and Ygritte climbing the Wall (Only
the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.). Voice-over consecrates each
character uttering it, but only for Cersei and Baelish is there a corresponding
extension of consciousness across the landscape of the fiction, a supernatural
feel that makes them godlike acousmtres in Michel Chions sense.15
Voice-over may be rare, but off-screen sound is not. Game of Thrones
amplifies the scale of its visual materials by featuring never-seen hammerers
who make on-screen events seem vaguely busier, never-seen skirmishers who
die off-screen for the sake of scaling up the battles, never-seen horn-players
who signal danger and are no more, never-seen witnesses who over-narrate
visual events Theyre coming up the wall at Blackwater (2:9), Hes gone,
our king is gone at Joffreys death (4:2). Chion calls this type of sound son
hors-champ, sound whose source is unseen but which we imagine to emanate
from something contiguous with visual materials that we do see.16 In a scene
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in The Wolf and the Lion (1:5), for instance, Ned Stark comes to King
Roberts tent to convince him to forgo competing at a tournament. We hear
horses somewhere outside of the tent running back and forth along a jousting
pitch, action that is completely invisible yet still remains in the scene as an
illustration of and pressure on Ned and Roberts debate. A more curious
example takes place during Daeneryss visit to the House of the Undying, with
its many illusions the false throne, the living Khal Drogo, her unborn child.
Daenerys and the audience are aware of the sound of dragons in the
background, their supernatural calls standing for the real outside from which
Daenerys has strayed into a land of dreams. Many of the most dreadful
moments of violence are shown only through sound. The killing of Lady,
Sansas direwolf, happens just barely off-screen at the knife-edge literally
of the shots border (1:2), as does the killing of King Roberts illegitimate
infant (2:1), and the bursting of Oberyns head, which only splatters into the
frame (4:8). The sexual violence at Crasters Keep (4:4) is narrated by half-
volume voices of unseen women (Dont, youre hurting me) making it more
graphic rather than less so. If a voice-over consecrates, off-screen acousmatic
sound disturbs, perhaps because it reminds us that, as Dolar has argued, no
sound fully resolves all its contradictions, suggestions and discrepancies just
because its source becomes visible, leaving us with a vague sense of being
tricked.17
On the other hand, the failure of a sound to reveal its source can be
sickening, particularly in a medium which has long been characterised by what
Altman calls a sound hermeneutic, which assures us that when we hear a
sound, we find its source on the screen, thus giving us a sense of presence, of
resolution.18 With that in mind, consider the episode (2:4) when Arya, Hot Pie
and Gendry are first taken to Harrenhal. As the camera pans the grimy face
of the prisoners at the cursed castle we hear an off-screen man pleading,
Please, please. No, no! Then we hear something turn, a chain rattle and a
series of screams, as the camera settles on the face of an old woman. There is
another final scream that cuts off. A chain drops, along with something heavy,
as the woman stares forward, numb. Hes dead. He was my son. My sister was
three days ago, my husband the day before that. Amazingly, the scene has
occurred without visible illustration of any kind, as a radiophonic supplement
to the televisual space. As the episodes proceed, we learn that the tortures at
Harrenhal are inherently acousmatic, involving a rat hidden somewhat off-
screen inside a bucket as it tears apart the bodies of the accused, an acousmatic
sound that eats you alive.
Voice-over is about power while son hors-champ is about terror.
Increasingly, Game of Thrones has been employing a third technique about
affect, deepening visual experience with wordless or near-wordless scenes.
Walk of Punishment (3:3) begins with a comic scene of Lord Edmure trying
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to land an arrow to set a funeral barge alight, until he is pushed to the side by
Brynden the Blackfish. The next scene is similarly wordless, with Cersei and
Tyrion arriving at the Small Council to find their seats missing, then dragging
their chairs up to their preferred location at the table. Both scenes are
comedies of status. In The Children (4:10), more recently, verbophobic
technique is used for several scenes of loss. We see Jon burning the body of
Ygritte north of the wall, in silence; Varys loading Tyrion on a ship, then
joining him after hearing the sound to the bell of the Red Keep; and Daenerys
chaining two of her dragons in a dungeon as a pantomime, mournfully. The
voice can be at its most powerful, it seems, when in silence.

Ear traps
Early in And Now His Watch is Ended, Tyrion Lannister enters the chambers
of Lord Varys for counsel on how to manage an ongoing plot to kill him. Varys
references his own history, relating how as a boy he was sold to a sorcerer who
drugged him, emasculated him and burned his parts in an opaque magic
ritual as the helpless child listened, The flames turned blue and I heard a voice
answer his call. Varys opens a large crate as he explains his haunted
fascination with the voice that he heard that day: Was it a god, a demon? A
conjurers trick? I dont know. But the sorcerer called and a voice answered.
From the anecdote, Varys relates the story of his rise from street thief to
spymaster, advising his troubled friend to suffer Cerseis manoeuvres with
patience. Soon the box opens and the lessons of the two stories entwine.
Influence grows like a weed. I tended mine patiently until its tendrils reached
from the Red Keep all the way across to the far side of the world where I
managed to wrap them around something very special. And when the lid of
the crate is removed, the light finds the terrified face of the sorcerer himself,
gagged and trapped. Hello, my old friend, says Varys. Its been a long time.
The scene ends before we know if Varys is successful, if his influence can truly
recover the voice or the lack behind its lack. One imagines that this is
impossible, that there is only a deferral always beyond the reach of the
spymasters tendrils, a lost organ now become Lacans objet petit a.19
The core of the scene lies in a mounting awareness, mediated by shots of
Tyrions face, that a talk between the two men is in fact a performance for a
third listener (the sorcerer), whose stream of ongoing perception bursts upon
the dramatic space. That sequence of events is especially forceful because
despite the fact that Game of Thrones is a large and sprawling fiction, it is
actually mostly comprised of two-person dialogues. Think of the many quiet
conversations that take place between two plotters as they stare at the empty
iron throne, of the key sequences of confrontation with Cersei her final
intimate talk with Robert (1:5), her verbal duels with Ned (1:7), Lord Baelish
WALL OF SOUND: LISTENING TO GAME OF THRONES | 83

(2:1) and Prince Oberyn (4:5), and their memorable lines (You win or you die,
Power is Power, Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls). Many of these
scenes involve the contemplation of a void, from Varyss voice of flame and
Roberts memory of Lyanna Stark, to shots of the empty throne and Cerseis
lost daughter Myrcella. The prevalence of the dyadic form lends a surprising
minimalism to the fiction.
Eavesdropping is the contingency whereby the omnipresence of the dyad
makes sense as a dramatic structure because it disturbs the economy of
information and affects that the dyadic form tacitly vouchsafes. Just such a
disturbance triggers the whole narrative, when Bran Stark climbs the tower
at Winterfell and overhears a private exchange in the upper chamber,
stumbling upon what we can truly call Game of Throness primal scene
between Jaime and Cersei, and being castrated by it. The threat of third
presence is sometimes visible Arya eavesdropping on Tywins war councils
at Harrenhal, Olyvar seducing and spying on Loras Tyrell but it is more
often only hinted at, a textural feature. We are forever hearing of whisperers,
seeing attentive servants and squires in lingering cutaways. I know the walls
have ears Lady Olenna remarks, but apparently the shrubbery does, too (3:4).
The remark comes in the same episode as Varyss tale, as does a relevant
moment in Astropol, where Daenerys is an eavesdropper hiding in plain
sight, aware of the underhanded remarks of the slave-masters speaking a
foreign tongue during her negotiations with them. The moment when
Daenerys reveals that awareness comes dramatically, when her dragons attack
the slave-masters and she remarks Valyrian is my mother tongue, a statement
signed by dragon fire. Her rise to power involves a related tactic. Whenever
she seems to speak to the masters in the cities of Essos, cutaways show that
her vows are actually intended for nearby slaves, whom the camera catches
hanging from upper galleries. In speaking her mother tongue, Daenarys
becomes their Mhysa, snaring the ears of the slavers by persuading the ears
of the enslaved.
Of course, ultimately the third presence in this or any broadcast is the
audience at home; the mysterious creatures beyond the wall of the fiction are
we. Our experience can vary tremendously from one platform and one context
to another, as Game of Throness fires, columns of cavalry and battle sequences
sound quite different in surround sound, on headphones or from tablet
computers. However, we are also often audiopositioned within spatio-
temporal contours by choices that do not vary significantly, as when we hear
events as if from the ears of wolves or beside flying dragons. This positioning
can both provide and restrict information. During the third season, for
instance, as Bran learns about the powers of warging from Jojen Reed, many
of their conversations happen just barely outside of earshot (3:2 and 3:7), in
scenes miked to focus on bickering between Meera Reed and Osha, thereby
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keeping Brans emerging role intentionally unclear to us, a vague character


always occupying vague spaces.
A powerful moment of trapping the listeners ear comes at the end of
Oathkeeper (4:4), in which we watch a White Walker carry one of Crasters
sons out into the frozen lands, the remotest geographic reach in Game of
Thrones. The sequence is musical, with steady wind and even paces on the
Walkers undead horse, a bridle rattling like wind chimes as we cross a frozen
lake. Following the silent dyad on their otherworldly journey how long does
it take? the camera also takes unusually high- and low-angle shots from the
Walker and babys points of view, a tender visual strategy. Soon they approach
a circular altar of ice as distant bells and vague machines enter the highly
abstract underscore. The child is touched and transformed into something else
by the finger of a mysterious Night King. Three times in this brief ceremony
the camera and the audio leave the airspace entirely, and we watch and listen
from a foot below the baby, impossibly inside the ice of the altar itself, as
helpless as Varyss sorcerer-in-the-box, while the babys eyes turn blue and
crystallise in our ears. Whether singing into ice or speaking from fire, it seems,
Game of Thrones has us right where it wants us, just beyond the edge of sonic
experience.

Notes
1 The Watchers on the Wall, Game of Thrones, prod. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, dir.
Neil Marshall, prod. HBO (8 June 2014). All episodes of Game of Thrones henceforth
cited as (season:episode).
2 See my discussion of audioposition in Neil Verma, Theater of the Mind: Imagination,
Aesthetics and American Radio Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012),
3356.
3 Rick Altman, The Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound, in Sound Theory, Sound
Practice, ed. Rick Altman (New York: Routledge, 1992), 22.
4 See Mladen Dolar, The Burrow of Sound, Differences, 22:2 (2011), 11239.
5 Rick Altman, Afterword: A Bakers Dozen of New Terms for Sound Analysis, in Altman,
Sound Theory, Sound Practice (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2512.
6 See John Lanchester, When Did You Get Hooked?, London Review of Books, 35:7 (April
2013), 2022.
7 See Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Hanover NH:
Wesleyan, 1992), 72112, and Carolyn Birdsall and Anthony Enns, Rethinking Theories of
Television Sound, Journal of Sonic Studies, 3:1 (October 2012).
8 Michele Hilmes, Television Sound: Why the Silence?, Music, Sound, and the Moving
Image, 2:2 (October 2008), 159.
9 Katie Calautti, Game of Thrones: The Secrets Behind All the Stabbings, Screams, and Sex
Scenes, Vanity Fair (12 June 2014); http://www.vanityfair.com/vf-hollywood/game-of
-thrones-sound-effects (accessed 25 June 2014).
10 See James Lastra, Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception,
Representation, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). 1412.
WALL OF SOUND: LISTENING TO GAME OF THRONES | 85

11 See Calautti, Game of Thrones.


12 R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World
(Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 1992), 33.
13 See Emily Nussbaum, The Aristocrats: The Graphic Arts of Game of Thrones , New
Yorker (7 May 2012); http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/05/07/the-aristocrats
(accessed 10 June 2014).
14 See Pierre Schaeffer, Acousmatics, in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed.
Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004.), 7681.
15 See Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1999), 1530.
16 Michel Chion, Film, A Sound Art, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia
Universtity Press, 2009), 249.
17 Dolar, The Burrow of Sound, 131.
18 Rick Altman, Television/Sound, in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass
Culture, ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 467.
19 See Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006), 3457.