Listening Back to American Graffiti

I wrote about Walter Murch’s legacy and worldizing for JSTOR Daily

I wrote for the daily publication of about Walter Murch and the sonic aspects of George Lucas’ American Graffiti in advance of the movie’s 50th anniversary, which comes ’round this coming August. (This article was published on Tuesday, at, a day after Pitchfork published my review of Oval’s superb new album, Romantiq — so, it’s been a pretty fun week.) 

One great thing about writing for JSTOR is that any articles I cite are automatically de-paywalled, and this slate of articles (listed at the bottom of the piece) includes an excellent interview Michael Jarrett did with Murch many years ago. My editor at JSTOR even put together a Spotify playlist of tracks from the movie, though of course those versions don’t include the spatial processing that Murch employed.

Here are the first two paragraphs of my article, which is titled “The Sonic Triumph of American Graffiti”:

Almost a half century ago, American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas, hit the big screen. Sandwiched between the quiet THX 1138 (1971) and the blockbuster Star Wars (1977), Lucas’s second feature peered back a decade earlier, taking place at the tail end of the summer of 1962. The movie is filled with images of an era already experienced as bygone — roller-skating diner waitresses, souped-up jalopies cruising the streets — and, just as critically, with its sounds. The latter were accomplished thanks largely to Walter Murch (“Sound Montage and Re-recording,” the opening credits state opaquely), who helped revolutionize the role of sound in film. Age thirty at the time of its release, Murch had just completed similar work on The Godfather, directed by American Graffiti producer Francis Ford Coppola, and would soon move on to Coppola’s The Conversation. Born and raised in New York City, Murch fell in with the California movie mavericks during graduate school at USC.

Nearly twenty years after American Graffiti’s release, literary critic Fredric Jameson, in 1991, singled it out as a central example of what he termed “nostalgia films,” citing it as nothing less than the “inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse.” The movie’s fiftieth anniversary — this August — provides an opportunity to look back, just as Lucas’s movie itself did.

You can read the full article (no paywall) at

One thing I didn’t get into in the JSTOR article is the difference between “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” sound. Something I wrestle with when writing about concepts is how to best employ the language that has developed to encapsulate those concepts. Sometimes it helps to just write about the concepts, because language intended to clarify can, in fact, obfuscate. I felt that focusing on “worldizing” (see the article for an explanation), a word that is central to my piece, let me do just that: focus. Now I can back up a bit and note that “diegetic” sound is, in essence, sound that happens as if it was emitted on or just off-screen, whereas “non-diegetic” sound is sound that is apart from what happens on-screen. Movie (and television) sound is often at its best when the difference between the “diegetic” sound and the “non-diegetic” sound is blurred. This is the case throughout American Graffiti when the editor moves between a Platonic ideal of a song (pristine as a movie theater or living room TV might allow) and the way that song would sound in the context of the scene where it is playing, say on an AM radio just as Ron Howard’s Steve Bolander and Cindy Williams’ Laurie Henderson are about to make out. 

One gauge of how remarkable the role of sound was in the film is how unprepared film criticism was, at the time, to note let alone analyze its sonic components. Michael Dempsey’s review in Film Quarterly at the time barely mentions the music, except as part of the overall setting.

And three more notes, not related to sound:

  1. There is so much Star Wars (or proto–Star Wars) in American Graffiti, the film George Lucas completed just prior to Star Wars (or what we now call Star Wars: A New Hope). In particular, there is a scene with Williams’ Henderson sitting next to Harrison Ford where their bickering (goody two-shoes versus rake) is a blueprint for what would constitute the relationship between Princess Leia and Han Solo. And such influence would continue for decades. There’s a moment between Paul Le Mat’s John Milner and Mackenzie Phillips’ Carol when Milner gives Carol the exact sort of thing that, in the TV series The Mandalorian, Din Djarin gives Grogu (colloquially “Baby Yoda”). Also, the scene I mention in the article where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt Henderson sabotages a police car has been replicated in Star Wars.
  2. While I identified many of the actors from the film in the JSTOR article, I couldn’t find a natural way to note that the idealized blonde woman in the Thunderbird is, in fact, Suzanne Somers. Like so many actors in the film, she went on to fame, but unlike many there was nothing retro about where she was headed, nor did the character she play in the film really connect with the wonderfully goofy Chrissy Snow she would, for lack of a better word, embody on the sitcom Three’s Company. But that is her.
  3. To this day, I experience cognitive dissonance when I look at the above poster that the late Mort Drucker drew for the film because, unlike his work in Mad, it’s completely un-ironic. It’s not a parody. It’s straightforward, though his wit is still evident. 

Sorry those last few notes are off-topic, sound-wise, but they’re fun and I wanted to share them. As with so much writing, the material that didn’t make the published article was longer than the article itself.

Disquiet Junto Project 0594: Threemix

The Assignment: Remix an asynchronously produced trio.

Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto music community, a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership in the Junto is open: just join and participate. (A SoundCloud account is helpful but not required.) There’s no pressure to do every project. It’s weekly so that you know it’s there, every Thursday through Monday, when you have the time and interest.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is the end of the day Monday, May 22, 2023, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

Tracks are added to the SoundCloud playlist for the duration of the project. Additional (non-SoundCloud) tracks appear in the discussion thread.

These following instructions went out to the group’s email list (at

Disquiet Junto Project 0594: Threemix
The Assignment: Remix an asynchronously produced trio.

Please note: While this is an immediate, follow-on sequel to the recent three-part project “trios” sequence, you can participate even if you haven’t previously.

Also: Please post just one track for this weekly Junto project. If you choose to post more than one, and do so on SoundCloud, please let me know which you’d like added to the playlist. 

Step 1: You’re going to make a remix of a track from the most recent Disquiet Junto project, which was a collection of trios constructed over the course of three weeks. Listen through the playlist, and check out any additional tracks in the discussion forum:

Step 2: You might elect to use some of the constituent parts of the series, so do seek out the solo and duet that led to your chosen trio and feel free to employ those, too. Check out the respective threads:

Eight Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0594” (no spaces or quotation marks) in the name of your tracks.

Step 2: If your audio-hosting platform allows for tags, be sure to also include the project tag “disquiet0594” (no spaces or quotation marks). If you’re posting on SoundCloud in particular, this is essential to subsequent location of tracks for the creation of a project playlist.

Step 3: Upload your tracks. It is helpful but not essential that you use SoundCloud to host your tracks.

Step 4: Post your track in the following discussion thread at

Step 5: Annotate your track with a brief explanation of your approach and process.

Step 6: If posting on social media, please consider using the hashtag #DisquietJunto so fellow participants are more likely to locate your communication.

Step 7: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Step 8: Also join in the discussion on the Disquiet Junto Slack. Send your email address to [email protected] for Slack inclusion.

Note: Please post one track for this weekly Junto project. If you choose to post more than one, and do so on SoundCloud, please let me know which you’d like added to the playlist. Thanks.

Additional Details:

Length: The length is up to you.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is the end of the day Monday, May 22, 2023, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, May 18, 2023.

Upload: When participating in this project, be sure to include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto. Photos, video, and lists of equipment are always appreciated.

Download: It is always best to set your track as downloadable and allowing for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution, allowing for derivatives).

For context, when posting the track online, please be sure to include this following information:

More on this 594th weekly Disquiet Junto project, Threemix (The Assignment: Remix an asynchronously produced trio), at:

About the Disquiet Junto:

Subscribe to project announcements:

Project discussion takes place on

This Week in Sound: A ‘Phonon’ Is a Sonic Particle

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the May 16, 2023, issue of the weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

QUANTUMANIA: “Near absolute zero, the weird rules of quantum mechanics start to apply to vibrations. If you think of a guitar string, you can pluck it to vibrate softly or loudly or at any volume in between. But in crystals cooled to this super-low temperature, the atoms can only vibrate at discrete, set intensities. It turns out that this is because when vibrations get this quiet, sound actually occurs in discrete units known as phonons. You can think of a phonon as a particle of sound, just as a photon is a particle of light. The minimum amount of vibration that any object can harbor is a single phonon.” — Wired’s Sophia Chen on what she (or at least the magazine’s headline writer) describes as “the quietest sound in the universe.” (Side note: Articles on quantum physics can be rated based on how often they employ the word “weird.” This article got a 3.) 

SKY HIGH: “[W]hen researchers launched solar-powered balloons up 70,000 feet, they detected a hidden acoustic world — including mysterious noises without a known origin.” No story in the past couple months has caused more people to forward it to me more than this one. Reports Carolyn Y. Johnson in the Washington Post, “The noises are ‘infrasound,’ inaudible to the human ear — just as light in the infrared spectrum is invisible to the human eye. When recorded with specialized instruments and sped up a few thousand times, they sound like muffled, staticky whispers.” (Thanks, Kristina Nguyen, who sent it to me first.)

TALK TALK: A 52-year-old with ALS “preserved his voice with a company called Voice Keeper, which is one of several companies using artificial intelligence to ‘bank’ people’s voices while they are still able to speak and re-creates those voices for text-to-speech software. … Voice banking used to be expensive and time-consuming, but AI has made it more accessible to people with conditions that could impact their ability to speak, such as ALS, throat cancer, cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode!) 

CABLE GUY: Researchers have sorted out how to use pre-existing, fully functioning, ocean-spanning fiber-optic cables as cetacean detection devices: “The system the researchers used for this work is called Distributed Acoustic Sensing, or DAS. DAS uses an instrument called an interrogator to send laser pulses into a fiber-optic system and records the returning light pulses, essentially turning the cables into a series of hydrophones.” (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)

HEAR HEAR: “A raft of new hearing aids have hit the market in recent years, offering greater appeal to a generation of young adults that some experts say is both developing hearing problems earlier in life and — perhaps paradoxically — becoming more comfortable with an expensive piece of technology pumping sound into their ears” — Neelam Bohra in the New York Times writes about changes in the hearing aid landscape.

EIGHTEEN WHEELS BAD: A report on the impact of “last-mile warehouse facilities” on residential areas: “A sound meter charts noises that are twice as loud as background levels every three minutes during daytime hours, and four times as loud every 30 minutes, on average.” That data is from the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, where residents have teamed up with Consumer Reports to monitor the issue: “[M]embers of the community installed traffic, air-quality and sound sensors purchased by Consumer Reports, and are now gathering data throughout the neighborhood. Consumer Reports teamed up with the Guardian to analyze the first several months of data.”

ON DASHER: April 27 was Morse Code Day, which I missed. It’s Morse Code Day because April 27 is the birthday of the namesake Morse, Samuel Morse (1791-1872). Esteban Touma of National World makes a case for More’s revival: “Like listening to vinyl records, communicating in Morse reignites a sense of romanticism.” The main data point is a South Korean band, named TXT, using Morse Code to signal news. (Side note: A dorm named after Morse was adjacent to the dorm I lived in for two years during college, but I don’t think I registered at the time that that Morse was that Morse. I’m due for a visit for my imminent college reunion, and I’ll do a bit of sonic reconnaissance while I’m in town.) (Thanks, Daniele Fantini!)

QUICK NOTES: Let’s Get Loud: Between 1946 and 2020, the relative volume of singers on recordings of pop music has declined ( — thanks, Rich Pettus!). Perhaps we’ll get to instrumental parity by 2050? I can dream. ▰ Mic Drop:Despite heated recent anxiety on social media about over-attentive microphone usage in WhatsApp, the issue may actually be “a [logging] flaw in Google’s privacy dashboard software” ( ▰ Music of the Spheres: I remain somewhat skeptical about “sonification” in its broader uses, wondering if much of the time it’s just PR stunt noise, but NASA, one of the prime proponents, has shown a greater depth of engagement by teaming up with composer Henry Dehlinger for a performance by the National Philharmonic ( — thanks, Mike Rhode!) ▰ Bat Signals: I first mentioned this back in July 2021, when it was in the works, but the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas, in Austin, now has the new Butler Sound Gallery, “one of the few spaces in the world dedicated solely to sound art.” (Thanks, Bruce Levenstein!) ▰ Go Pro: The cover story of Wildlife Professional, for the May/June 2023 issue, explores “how human-generated noise is affecting a range of species, from prairie dogs to blue whales.” ▰ Green Scene: Kudos to Cambridge, Massachusetts,  sonification artist Skooby Laposky, who “is careful not to say that plants can ‘sing.’ ‘The artistry,’ Laposky explains, ‘is connecting a certain kind of sound palette that represents the data accurately.’”

TWiS Listening Post (0002)

A review, a haze, and a video

This issue is just for paid subscribers of This Week in Sound. It’s an experiment, intended to supplement the usual Tuesday and Friday issues.

This past week I asked what readers, in a highly unscientific poll, what might encourage them to pay to support This Week in Sound, and the results strongly weighed in favor of ambient music recommendations and an extra email. This format accomplishes both those ideas. We’ll see how it goes. I’m enjoying it.

Today, we’ve got: (1) a review, (2) a haze, and (3) a video.

I wrote a bit more about Oval’s recent album, Romantiq, which I reviewed for Pitchfork on Monday, plus a pice of jagged ambient music by the Japanese producer Corruption, and a live (defined broadly) video by Ukrainian synthesizer musician Igor Yalivec.

Oh, and one additional quick note about last week’s issue: Those voices in the Karen Vogt remix by Yolanda Moletta were in fact Moletta’s own singing, not simply samples of Vogt’s original track — so, “echoes,” yes, but not literal echoes.

Sound Ledger¹ (Hearing Aid Edition)

Audio culture by the numbers

30: Age at which 1/5th of Americans have suffered damage to their hearing

12.5: Estimated percentage of Americans experiencing hearing loss between age 6 and 19

14: Rise between 2017 and 2021 in percentage of new customers of Phonak hearing aids between ages of 22 and 54

. . .