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tag: video

Brackets Frame the Sound

What captions leave out

The brackets frame the sound. The brackets appear in subtitles to online videos. You select the subtitle option because you have no knowledge of Japanese or of Persian or of Polish, or because the actors’ British accents are simply too thick for your American ears, even in contemporary police dramas devoid of period linguistic idiosyncrasies, or because you’re keeping the volume down so as not to antagonize the neighbors.

Bracketed sounds can be diegetic or non-diegetic. That is to say, they can be on-screen sounds, like the squeak of a car’s break, or they can be apart from the scene’s physical activity, like the score’s musical theme associated with the entrance of a threatening anti-hero. Either way, bracketed sounds are not dialogue. Dialogue appears unadorned by brackets. Dialogue appears simply as text on the screen, occasionally preceded by a character’s name and a colon to provide narrative guidance. The only dialogue that gets bracketed is dialogue that serves a purely non-verbal purpose, dialogue that cannot be comprehended, dialogue that isn’t dialogue but is, instead, emotive sound: [mumbling], [whispers], [unintelligible sobbing].

Brackets tell you what the director is saying, not what the characters are saying. Brackets, however, are not decoder rings. They only go so far as to what they divulge. The brackets don’t explain the British class system to you. There’s no reference for an American viewer when the cut-glass enunciation is meant to signify a specific upbringing, or when regional utterances, from Cornwall to Glasgow, easily set the British viewer’s imagination while leaving unknown voids for those of us who haven’t lived in the culturally prolific island kingdom, or in one of its more longstanding colonies.

So much happens in a given moment of video, even a “silent” one, which is to say: a moment free of human speech but still intruded upon by sound. Only so much can be detailed between brackets. What’s left out is worth taking note of.

These two screenshots, by way of example, are from different episodes from the TV show Travelers, a solid time-travel series newly streaming on Netflix and created by Brad Wright. (If you are a fan of time travel stories, as I am, Travelers is at least as recommended as Continuum, with which it shares actors if not a timeline, and 12 Monkeys.) In both shots birds are, we’re told, chirping. It may or may not be meaningful that both shots focus on the same character, named Trevor, who, at the risk of giving too much plot away, is something of an old soul. Both shots are at the start of a new scene. In the first, Trevor is riding his bicycle home. In the second he is teaching meditation to its mostly unlikely novitiate, his mean-girl girlfriend. In the first, what’s missing from the bracket is the score’s drone, the sense of dread infused into the scene with just a few threatening sine waves. Perhaps the meditation scene, which appears later in the series, intends to reference the earlier one by presenting the birds free of their droning encumbrance. The hearing-impaired viewer will never know the difference, and the everyday viewer is left to wonder.

There is, true, only so much room on the bottom of the screen. More than a line of text is inelegant, and reading time might surpass a given sound’s appearance if the text’s overseer is inattentive to the chores at hand. Still, editorial decision-making only goes so far as an excuse for contextual excision.

What both sets of chirping birds have in common is that they are almost certainly sonic elements added from a library of recordings to flesh out the given scene during post-production. In other words, one might surmise, the bracketed sounds in a film or TV show aren’t what are “in” the scene so much as what was added to the scene.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 31, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Marcus Fischer Live in His Home Studio

A video shot last fall in Portland, Oregon

Marcus Fischer is currently participating in an artist residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva Island off the Florida coast. His Instagram feed is filling up with images and brief videos captured during his time there: Sugimoto-like pictures of the sea and a studio as white as a Rauschenberg painting. He’s suspending tape loops from the ceiling and quoting his fellow residents about the changes afoot in American politics.

The Instagram materials constitute beautiful slivers of his goings-on, but fortunately Datachoir is filling the void with a 17-minute video of Fischer alone in his Portland, Oregon, home studio — one continuous solo performance for electric guitar, synthesizer, pine cones, and other tools. The constituent parts are far more than the sum total of the sounds. He takes near-silent textures and generates light dustings from them. He strokes the guitar once, and then transforms the chord into something muted yet majestic. And while he plays, the videographer tours his studio, focusing in on his instruments, on a matrix routers and additional guitars, on cabling and boxes of spare parts.

I’ve worked on several projects with Fischer myself, and I recall an instance where someone we were newly working with asked what his primary instrument is. I struggled to explain there wasn’t a single focus of his music-making imagination. That studio is his instrument, and watching him employ it at length is a true pleasure.

It’s on the Datachoir Sounds YouTube channel. I’ve added it to my playlist of longform ambient performances. More from Fischer at mapmap.ch and marcus-fischer.bandcamp.com. Previous Datachoir videos have featured Summer Mastous, Nate Dalton, and Jeremiah Green, among others.

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“Avril 14th” from Above

A rendition by Josh Cohen

Back on January 14 I wrote about the Australian pianist Josh Cohen’s fantastic cover of Aphex Twin’s “Aisatasana,” the quiet closing track from the 2014 album Syro. Cohen captured not only the understated melody, but the way distinct silences frame and bisect that melody. Now he has put his nimble hands to a far more famous Aphex Twin piano work, “Avril 14th.” It’s a beautiful rendition, paced appropriately, to neither bliss it out nor rev it up. Cohen’s version hints at Erik Satie’s proto-minimalism as much as it does at mid-century (that is, mid-1900s) popular music. It’s parlor music: nostalgic, personal, touching. The real pleasure of the performance is the presentation. Like all of Cohen’s videos, it’s shot from above, his hands in full view, each of them playing its distinct part, the left doing its routinized duty while the right edges at various roles.

Video originally posted at Cohen’s YouTube page. More from him at joshcohenmusic.com. Cohen lives in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.

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An Aphex Twin Syro Cover on Piano

One of Josh Cohen's latest transcriptions

Perhaps Aphex Twin will follow Brian Eno’s recent lead and, as with Eno’s Reflection album, revisit if momentarily the art of long-form ambient recording. Since returning to action in 2014 with a birthday blimp, a well-received full-length (Syro), a live DJ set in the U.S., and a massive SoundCloud presence, among other activities, Aphex Twin hasn’t released much ambient music. On the recent Cheetah EP (2016), there were two short tracks, 27 and 37 seconds each, “CHEETA1b ms800” and “CHEETA2 ms800,” both segments of synthesizer drones that seemed like test runs of film-score sound design. Syro ended with “aisatasana [102],” a beautiful, plaintive solo piano piece that in its hushed quietude balanced the often frenetic beatcraft of the rest of the record. That’s about it.

Josh Cohen has built something of a YouTube following for his piano covers, and now he’s brought his powers to bear on the Syro closer. The song is lovely in its initial form, and unlike Cohen’s other covers (of Radiohead in particular, but also Beck and Father John Misty, among others), what he’s covering is essentially the original, rather than an 88-key reduction of the original. It’s an appropriately sensitive rendition, gentle and considered, reflective and tentative. You can see it in his hands in the video, how they pause between segments. I’m reminded of videos of instrumental hip-hop production on the Akai MPC, where you can see people crafting beats and tapping or, in their muscles, counting out the moments they want to leave silent. In the Aphex Twin piece as in those beats, the silence is part of the beauty; in the videos, the inaction is part of the performance. (The main thing the Cohen cover dispenses with is the sonic capaciousness of the original, how the recordings seems to take place in a large room, and how that dimensionality renders Aphex Twin’s playing softer than it might have sounded otherwise.)

There’s a telling back and forth in the video’s running comments. One individual, who appears to be the person who requested the cover in the first place, says, “The pacing on this song seems difficult to master. I imagine it’s tempting to rush through many of the long rests.” Cohen replies: “This is true. It’s very tempting to play the next phrase, however I’m actually counting in between phrases – it’s not just random silence. For some reason, I find the rests really challenging.”

Video originally posted at Cohen’s YouTube page. More from him at joshcohenmusic.com. Found via the We Are the Music Makers message board. Cohen lives in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.

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Surface Pro 4 Meets a Soft Synth

A little video about touch screen music software

I have a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for the next few weeks. I don’t think I’m going to keep it, but I may yet switch from my MacBook Air to the Surface Pro 5 when that device comes out, supposedly later this quarter (early 2017). This video is simply a glimpse at how the touch screen works for music, specifically in this case how the Aalto synth, from Madrona Labs, works. Aalto is running here from within Ableton Live. The sound quality is poor because I’m just using my phone for both the video and the audio.

The short version is that the screen is great for this sort of software, something with lots of virtual knobs and patch cords and buttons intended for touchpad/cursor use. Aalto is fine with a keyboard and trackpad, but it’s even better with the touch screen. (Less great was finding an angle that would allow me to play the instrument and yet have the screen fairly visible. This is the best I could manage. I’m not much of a videographer. I annotated the video using iMovie. My iMovie skills are pretty limited, so forgive the junior-grade typography.)

The main thing that happens once you start using a synth like Aalto with a touch screen is that things that aren’t touchable, such as the shape of an envelope, suggest themselves as touchable. Perhaps software will become more touchable as time proceeds, with some features only available on touch screens. As a friend said elsewhere, once some things are touchable, you want everything to be touchable.

Shortly after I posted the video, Randy Jones of Madrona Labs took note of it and said interface adjustments were possible: “Nice. Yes, I could probably do something with those envelope areas.”

In related news, late last year I started this modest subreddit for Surface Pro audio discussion: reddit.com/r/winSurfaceMusic.

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