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This Week in Sound

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Imperial Death Rattle

A sonic weapon on Andor

It’s worth noting the title of the ninth episode of the first season of Andor is “Nobody’s Listening!” Andor is part of the ever-expanding Star Wars storytelling enterprise, and it’s some of the best Star Wars to date, up there with the first couple of movies, the Rogue One film, the Mandalorian TV series, and the Clone Wars cartoons.

Part of what makes the show work is its score, by Nicholas Britell, which in its precision, its emphasis on drones, and its dramatic percussive elements, marks a stark comparison to the old-world orchestral grandeur of nearly all previous Star Wars, which bore the imprimatur of John Williams even when he wasn’t the lead composer. I don’t know if Britell’s work on Andor is memorable unto itself, per se (the most striking bit thus far may have been a moment on the all-city planet of Coruscant that sounded, purposefully, like an outtake from Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner), but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the music’s impact on the story — stories, plural, because there are so many threads to Andor.

Music sets the tone for what happens on screen. It also sets the tone for the sort of stories that can be told. By emphasizing situational atmosphere over mythical characters, Britell’s score is true to the newly democratized nature of Andor, which is not about dynastic power struggles hinging on bloodlines or about the senior members of a quasi-religious order of inhumanly powerful space wizards, but instead about near-anonymous ordinary individuals who, as part of a nascent rebellion against galactic imperialism, strike blow after blow to counter tyranny.

Inevitably, and true to the norms set by Star Wars creator George Lucas, the depiction of tyranny comes in the form of Nazi-adjacent imagery — and so it is that, when a woman with tangential connections to the rebel movement is due to be interrogated, she come face to face with someone with the pale complexion and hollow cheeks that bring to mind Ronald Lacey’s Major Arnold Toht — he of the melting face — from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Lucas co-wrote. This interrogator’s name is Gorst — Dr. Gorst — and in the episode “Nobody’s Listening!” he delivers one of the most memorable speeches in recent science fiction — up there with Charlotte Hale’s “God’s music” rant in the fourth season of the (just canceled) series Westworld.

The episode’s title is a direct reference to a different scene, one involving the titular character, who is currently imprisoned and learning, the hard way, just how little care the empire has for human life.

Where Gorst is concerned, however, people are listening, indeed. It’s Gorst’s job, as assigned by Dedra Meero (who is from the imperial equivalent of the Gestapo), to extract information from Bix, a black marketeer who is an old friend of Andor, who in turn is being hunted by the empire. (It’s an irony on the order of Catch-22 that the empire is unaware that it already holds Andor in one of its prisons.)

Gorst stands in a dark, windowless chamber, preparing to torture Bix. He wheels over a tray, its contents out of view, shades of Marathon Man’s famed dental scene. However, it turns out all the tray contains is a box with a pair of headphones.

Gorst explains why while Bix is strapped to a chair:

“The restraints are nothing to be feared. It’s much safer for you to be tethered as we engage. There’s nothing intrinsically, um, physical about this process, but we’ve had some early trials that were a bit chaotic. There’s an Outer Rim moon called Dizon Fray. There was a sentient species there — quite unusual. Extremely hostile to the concept of an Imperial refueling center that was being planned. I say “was” because they created such a stir that the local commanders were granted permission to use any means necessary. And, um, well, what’s important for our purposes here today is that the massacre of the Dizonites was broadcast and recorded as proof of mission. They make a sound as they die — a sort of choral, agonized pleading. It was quite unlike anything anyone has ever heard before. There were three communications officers monitoring the documentation, and they were found hours later huddled together in various states of emotional distress, in a crawl space beneath the ship’s bridge. We’ve taken the recordings and modified them slightly — layering, adjusting. And we found a section of what we believe are primarily children, which has its own particular effect. Doesn’t take long. It won’t feel that way to you inside. But, um, let me know when you’re willing to cooperate. Oh, and if you’re having difficulty speaking, just shake your head from side to side.”

At this point Meero chimes in with unwelcome assistance: “It’s repeat listenings that cause the most damage.”

Gorst’s speech immediately brings to mind one of Alec Guiness’s finest moments in the movie we’ve come to call A New Hope, when his Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker, “I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” That occasion is the destruction of the planet Alderaan, home of Princess Leia (this article has already gotten deep enough into Star Wars lore, so suffice to say that the connection from Andor to Alderaan is self-evident to anyone who’s seen Rogue One).

The mirror image is the thing: In A New Hope, the screams evidence the vast empathic powers of Jedi: deaths can be sensed across the universe. We witness the destruction, but the main satisfaction we witness on the part of the empire is simply that the Death Star functions: it’s a mechanical victory in A New Hope, a beta test, a violent proof-of-concept exercise. In the more intimate realm of Andor, we witness how the cries of the slaughtered can be turned into a weapon — not on the scale of a planet-killer like the Death Star, just one fragile human mind at a time. We don’t just see a mere lack of empathy — we see its cold, heartless, self-congratulatory antipode.

And to the show’s further credit, we in the audience ever don’t hear what the tortured Bix hears. Sometimes the best sound design option is no audio at all. Perhaps attempts were made by Andor’s sound production crew to recreate — to imitate — what Bix hears, but in the end we hear nothing. We just see Bix’s eyes and forehead as the alien audio’s impact hits her. Seconds pass. And then Bix screams.

(And thanks to Bruce Levenstein, who guessed correctly that I’d be writing about this scene.)

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website 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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