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ASMR + Zoom Backgrounds = Star Wars: Biomes

It's May the 4th, didn't you hear?

Today was a holiday in the most commercial of senses. May the 4th is the punny annual rite in which people around this globe praise the franchise that unfolds a galaxy far, far away — and they do so with no small amount of support from the … what’s the correct reference? The mothership? No, that’s Close Encounters. The mother lode? That’s more Indiana Jones. Let’s just say that Lucasfilm and Disney do not disappoint. This year this meant the debut of a new animated series, and a one-off Simpsons tie-in, plus various toys and online activities.

Among the latter is an 18-minute video — more to the point, an audio-video feature — that is among the most rarefied artifacts ever produced as part of Star Wars. Titled Biomes, it is a sequence of CGI scenes from various settings, among them Hoth, the ice planet first seen in The Empire Strikes Back; Tatooine, the twin-sunned desert that Luke Skywalker fled in what later became known as A New Hope; and Crait, the red-streaked salt fields that made for a picturesque battle in The Last Jedi.

The sequences are all atmosphere, which is to say they are devoid of plot, and to a good regard of action, as well. We hear no voices, at least not intelligible ones, though there are some beeping probe droids passing by in the opening scene and, later, some noisy tauntauns, heard from far above. When we get to Tatooine, we witness the stranded R2-D2 and C-3PO before they’re separated, and R2 does let off a little trill.

The point of view is entirely that of the director. There is no character, no vessel, whose experience or vantage the scenes depict. There is just landscape and figures, and there is sound. Each sequence is rich with its indigenous noises: wind across the desert of Tatooine, birds and beasts around the village on Sorgan from The Mandalorian, porgs squawking above the ocean world Ahch-To. This gets at the “biome” aspect of the scenes. These aren’t quite full-on naturalist National Geographic scenes, because they do feature key moments from the stories that have been set here. For example, we don’t just see Ahch-To; we see see it as the Millennium Falcon takes off. We don’t just hover over Crait; we do so amid the battle.

Likewise, we don’t just hear the noises inherent in the places. We also hear bits of the musical themes familiar from John Williams’ scores. These aren’t triumphant. They work hard not to do what the scores usually do so exceptionally, which is to telegraph story and to build momentum. Here, they’re all transitional themes, interstitial ones. They are, in other words, as close to environmental sounds as the music might get.

It would have been great if Biomes had gone full biome and dispensed entirely with music. As it stands, though, they are a beautiful thing to behold, and an interesting development, seeming to have resulted from a recognized kinship between the phenomena of ASMR (which has trained audiences to appreciate closely heard sounds) and of animated Zoom backgrounds (which have let people transport themselves to other places during conference calls). Biomes is more than a collection of screensavers, thanks in particular to the immersive nature of the audio. These are environmental set pieces, like an expanded version of the Ralph McQuarrie portfolio from the first Star Wars movie. They are part of the beauty of the Star Wars storytelling mode, with the story itself kept at a remove.

Star Wars: Biomes streams at disneyplus.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • 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

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