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The Chernobyl Effect

Scores that draw sonic material from the environments in which they're set

The first few years I taught my sound course, I found it interesting to observe which topics each new semester were natural to fold into the syllabus of the previous semester: a fresh employment of sound in product design, a further development of domestic surveillance amid the Internet of Things, a new advertising campaign aimed at pricking up consumers’ ears. Hildur Guonadottir’s excellent score to HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series provides a very different source of pedagogical intrigue: which once-abstract topics have, along the way, become normalized.

This is because as time has gone on, it’s become even more interesting (to me, that is) to observe which once-new (“new” to students, that is) topics have become familiar, even commonplace. And then, in turn, to probe how such familiarity alters the subjects at hand.

Each semester in my sound course I have taught, side by side, the scores to two very different thrillers, both of them set on submarines: Jeff Rona’s for the movie Phantom and Robert Duncan’s for the TV series Last Resort. Both scores draw from submarine field recordings as source audio for the music. The composers recorded sounds of the antiquated environments, capturing claustrophobic room tones and banging on equipment, and then tuned those tracks and turned the resulting sounds into digital instruments.

The similarities and differences between the Phantom and Last Resort approaches to submarine source audio are highly teachable, surfacing (pun!) various matters, such as how they extract sound, as well as the inherent musicality of everyday listening.

Of particular value during class discussion is the manner in which this approach manages to blur the distinctions between the diegetic (i.e., sounds with an on-screen source, like machinery and conversation) and the non-diegetic (i.e., sounds external to the action, such as score and voice-overs). And better yet: how the end results differ between films, despite the shared approach.

That last bit is important, because if the end results were the same, if Phantom and Last Resort sounded the same, the aesthetics would be reduced to something causal, and the technique to a matter of mechanics.

The films, however, do not sound similar at all. Duncan’s Last Resort is very much a classic, epic, retro-orchestral vibe, whereas Rona’s Phantom is more ethereal, bearing a Fourth World influence, perhaps from his time as a collaborator with Jon Hassell. Even more interestingly, the old-school music of Last Resort serves a story set in the present, whereas the highly contemporary, even futuristic, music of Phantom serves a story set way back in Cold War. As a result, in class discussion we can talk about how the approach of sampling the environment serves varied narrative needs, about expectations of genre norms, and about how the composers’ (and directors’) proclivities come into play.

There are mini-documentaries on both Phantom and Last Resort, and they’re worth watching for the parallels and divergences. Here’s the Rona/Phantom:

And here’s the Duncan/Last Resort:

They’re valuable to watch in tandem, great in the classroom as concise encapsulations of the technique.

Now, however, thanks to the well-deserved acclaim for Guonadottir’s work on Chernobyl, by the time next semester of my sound course begins, come February 2020, the students will be all “Oh, like Chernobyl,” when the subject arises of using place as source audio for the creation of music and atmosphere. Of course, I won’t know until class begins where students’ thoughts are, what they’ve collectively and individually taken as the new normal, versus what they see as “gimmick” (skepticism is a common response, and can be a healthy one), versus what they are, in fact, not familiar with. No doubt, though, I’ll show or assign in class something like this interview with Guonadottir, where she talks about working with Chris Watson to capture the sounds of one nuclear reactor in order to tell the story of another, much as Rona and Duncan did with submarines:

At a structural level, this “score” segment of my course usually occurs during the third week, toward the end of the sequence on “Learning to Listen” (it’s a three-part course: weeks four through 10 are “Sounds of Brands,” which is also the title of the course, and weeks 11 through 15 are “Brands of Sounds”). Perhaps I’ll move this part earlier, or perhaps it’ll make sense to move it later. I don’t know yet. Certainly, though, the praise for Guonadottir’s Chernobyl score will encourage other composers to adopt the process, and alert non-specialist newspapers, magazines, and blogs to composers also doing such things. Which is to say, there will almost certainly be even more material (call it the Chernobyl effect) to slot into discussion by next year. It’s a long eight months between now and the next semester. I have time to plan, and to listen.

Just as a side note, because Twitter can be an excellent place if you tweet the Twitter you want and work to avoid the rest, when I first explored these topics on Twitter, I ended up in conversation with Rona himself. Among other things, he described the compositional process as exploratory: “I think with my score, and I’d like to think it’s similarly true with the others, is that the genesis of it is a ‘what if’ process. I had no idea what it would sound like to sample a submarine and use it as the primary ‘instrument’ of a score. And as it happened it worked. That’s not always the case. I took it as a challenge to my process to use the various sounds I could get and somehow come up with a way to make them not only musical, but cover a fairly broad range of emotions.”

Asked if he’s explored approaches that haven’t panned out, he replied, “Literally every score I’ve done begins with an experimental phase with several casualties prior to the one path chosen.” He also drew an interesting connection between the mechanical source audio of Phantom and one of his solo albums: “Certainly the project that showed me a different way to find that musical path on any given project. My solo album Projector is done very similarly to Phantom in that it relies heavily on manipulation of organic sounds – in this case field recordings of the upper Amazon river.”

By Marc Weidenbaum

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