New Disquietude podcast episode: music by Lesley Flanigan, Dave Seidel, KMRU, Celia Hollander, and John Hooper; interview with Flanigan; commentary; short essay on reading waveforms. • Disquiet.com F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #field-recording, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

The Non-Balladic Sounds of Buster Scruggs

There's a singing cowboy, sure, but don't forget to listen between the songs.

(Spoilers don’t bother me, but they bother other people, so I’ll say at the outset: Spoilers throughout.) I caught the recent Coen brothers film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, during its its initial theatrical release. The movie — an anthology collecting six short stories — is available right now at home for free, or at least for the cost of a monthly Netflix subscription, but seeing it in a theater had its attractions, including the presence of a pretty good ramen shop around the corner. There were also demerits inherent in a public viewing — for example, the fellow matinee attendee, likely a Watchmen fanboy, who recognized the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley emanating from one character’s mouth and felt the need to not just speak them aloud, but to do so in advance of the character himself.

The key benefit, though: the theater’s speaker system. The Coen brothers craft everything in their films except probably the craft service, and that goes as much for the sound design as it does for the costumes, dialog, and camera angles. My living room’s TV doesn’t hold a foot-candle to a proper theater, and that’s as true of the sound as it is of the picture. Taking the film in in a theater made its sonic aspects all the more audible.

In classic Coens manner, Scruggs is a heavily mannered film, as much an anthology about westerns as it is a collection of westerns. There is no narrative connection between the six Scruggs stories aside from the framing structure of a storybook, which the film returns to between each “chapter.” The plots range from wagon train to stage coach, desperado to prospector, and singing cowboy to a tragic traveling entertainment troupe, if the word “troupe” can be applied to just (barely) two men.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes its title from the opening story, a humorous tale of a gunslinger as keen on singing as he is blasé regarding the trail of blood he leaves behind. Later, we’re treated to additional songs, including Tom Waits, at the end of “All Gold Canyon,” singing in his trademark barroom growl (albeit amid nature so beautiful it feels like a Disney film come to life), and in “Meal Ticket,” to Liam Neeson’s minor-league theatrical impresario doing drunken injustice to “The Sash” around a campfire. In addition to which there is, as always, a rich score from the Coens’ regular composer, Carter Burwell.

But there’s as much sonic ingenuity between — and in one key moment, within — the songs of Buster Scruggs as there is charm and narrative heft to the songs themselves. The film’s sonic imagination is exemplified but not restricted to these four key moments:

1. Hollow Sentiment: In the tile story, which opens the film, the singing cowboy, played by Tim Blake Nelson (often resembling Gary Busey from the 1978 The Buddy Holly Story) is treated to increasingly absurd arrangements of his ditties, right up to the posthumous duet that closes the piece. For one instance, early on, we hear and see him from inside his acoustic guitar. The echo is simultaneously deeply artificial — witness the marvel of the sound-hole eye view — and natural, in that it has the muffled echo of a small wooden box. That balance between utter artificiality and naturalness is a hallmark of the Coens’ lengthy filmography, and this is probably its single greatest occurrence in this movie …

2. Audio Book: … but it’s not the only one, not close. Another example: When the camera pulls back at one point from the filmed drama to the interstitial moment of the book that contains each of the film’s stories, we not only see the page turn, but we hear the creaking of the chair in which the reader is seated. Like the acoustic guitar mentioned above, the instance is both artificial and natural: meticulously choreographed, and deeply folksy.

3. Bucket List: When a cowboy played by James Franco comes upon a lonesome bank in the middle of nowhere, in “Near Algodones,” we see and hear a bucket hitting the inside of a stone well. The presence of that thud marks the sheer emptiness of the location — and, as it turns out, sets us up for another stretch of rope later in the film.

4. Fowl Play: In “Meal Ticket,” perhaps the darkest of six often quite dark stories, Liam Neeson plays a traveling theater owner, whose sole actor, played by Harry Melling, is a haunting, indelible image: a man with no arms or legs, and yet the magnetic presence of a romantic poet. Neeson is the man behind the scenes, doing every other thing involved in his mobile theater except performing. He drives the coach that doubles as their stage, he collects tickets, and he feeds his star attraction. He also makes noises to accompany the performances (what came to be known as foley sound in the age of broadcasts and, later, filmed entertainment). We witness him at one point using a sheet of metal to summon up biblical thunder. Later on in the film, Neeson finds that his audience has been tempted away by, of all things, a novelty attraction featuring a “calculating chicken.” One thing we see the chicken do is peck at small bits of metal. In the O. Henry twist of the story, Neeson brutally ditches his young actor in favor of the chicken. In a deft moral touch, the movie forges this connection between Neeson and the chicken both being seen banging on metal to entertain crowds. The association — the way it makes Neeson so small, through the comparison — is almost as brutal to Neeson’s character as he is to his young, limbless actor.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tag: / Comment: 1 ]

One Comment

  1. Andrew Culture
    [ Posted February 5, 2019, at 5:37 am ]

    I now wish I had seen Buster Scruggs at the cinema, although I’m not sure it ever got a theatrical release here in the UK. I get the feeling that theres’ plenty of meat on the bones for the Coen brothers for this type of short story format.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*

Subscribe without commenting

  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

  • Field Notes

    News, essays, surveillance

  • Interviews

    Conversations with musicians/artists/coders

  • Studio Journal

    Video, audio, patch notes

  • Projects

    Select collaborations and commissions

  • Subscribe



  • Current Activities

  • Upcoming
    • December 13, 2022: This day marks the 26th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
    • January 6, 2023: This day marked the 11th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.

  • Recent
    • April 16, 2022: I participated in an online "talk show" by The Big Conversation Space (Niki Korth and Clémence de Montgolfier).
    • March 11, 2022: I hosted a panel discussion between Mark Fell, Rian Treanor and James Bradbury in San Francisco as part of the Algorithmic Art Assembly (aaassembly.org) at Gray Area (grayarea.org).
    • December 28, 2021: This day marked the 10th (!) anniversary of the Instagr/am/bient compilation.
    • January 6, 2021: This day marked the 10th (!) anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
    • December 13, 2021: This day marked the 25th (!) anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
    • There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
    • A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)

  • My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, was published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury. It has been translated into Japanese (2019) and Spanish (2018).

  • disquiet junto

  • Background
    Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.

    Recent Projects

  • 0544 / Feedback Loop / The Assignment: Share music-in-progress for input from others.
    0543 / Technique Check / The Assignment: Share a tip from your method toolbox.
    0542 / 2600 Club / The Assignment: Make some phreaking music.
    0541 / 10BPM Techno / The Assignment: Make some snail-paced beats.
    0540 / 5ive 4our / The Assignment: Take back 5/4 for Jedi time masters Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.

  • Full Index
    And there is a complete list of past projects, 544 consecutive weeks to date.

  • Archives

    By month and by topic

  • [email protected]

    [email protected]

  • Downstream

    Recommended listening each weekday

  • Recent Posts