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

tag: captions

We Belong to the Sound of the Words

A vacation week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Over the past 12 months, I’ve slowly undergone a quite unexpected later-in-life conversion, specifically to the works of William Shakespeare. Especially unexpected if you happen to have known me in the insufferable ages between 18 and 21.

Once upon a time, I got my degree in English at a good school having managed to wend my way through its curriculum, both overt and hidden, while severely limiting my Bard input. I didn’t take a single course dedicated to Shakespeare’s work, requiring some caginess on my part, given that many of the school’s buildings were designed to look like we actually were in Great Britain, and that one of my more famous professors would later, enacting exactly the sort of arms-race overstatement that turned off a young student such as myself, attribute to Shakespeare the very “invention of the human.”

And yet, several decades later, the plays and poems (the characters and the tales, the words and the culture, the institution of the theater and the mechanical opportunities of iambic pentameter) are all new and alive to me. (The how and why of it comprise a separate story.) I got to see a gender-swapped “Hamlet” at the Globe in London last July, featuring a deaf Guildenstern, a casting gambit that resulted in a cascade of ingenious minor text and staging decisions (bonus: Pearce Quigley of The Detectorists as Rosencrantz), and it closed with a choreographed jig (an Elizabethan norm, which Takeshi Kitano fans will recall from the ecstatic end of his 2003 Zatoichi remake) so emotionally overwhelming that I found myself not just clapping along but … crying. Crying? The only tears I previously associated with Shakespeare were the rare moments in college when, despite my course-catalog subterfuge, I was forced to read the stuff. That same England trip I got to visit the Bard’s home turf of Stratford-upon-Avon. Now, don’t worry. I didn’t go all Jerusalem Syndrome. Or Arden Syndrome, or whatever the horrible Anglophile equivalent might be. I just took a bunch of tours and ate a lot of savory pies.

And then this past week I spent three nights watching as many evening productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the lovely, if dense with pollen (the true serpent underneath those innocent flowers), town of Ashland: first “All’s Well That Ends Well,” then “Macbeth” (lacking a jig, sadly), and finally “As You Like It.” The music and sound were strong with this festival, these highlights in particular:

“All’s Well That Ends Well” (directed by Tracy Young) took place in a mix of period and present day, the sets and characters a steampunk-lite combination of courtly and current. One musical through line was, of all things, Pat Benatar’s mid-1980s pop hit “We Belong,” a sample of which was looped and used as a background cue, before the song itself erupted from the mouth of Helen(a), as performed by Royer Bockus. The multi-talented Bockus has so much music in herself, her skills perfectly fit director Young’s many stratagems: feminist upstart, class-system defier, adolescent fantasist. Amy Altadona is credited as both composer and sound designer, so presumably the Benatar bits were a collaboration between Altadona and Young. In addition, Maudlin, played by Jane Lui in an expanded role, performed mid-scene accompaniment from a keyboard visible up in one of the faux-Tudor set’s balconies. If Helen’s penchant for breaking into song (part Glee, part Dennis Potter) brought to the production a fully fleshed character shuffling off the bounds of both eras’ societal and gender strictures, Lui’s performance (veering humorously between diegetic and non-diegetic, between duties on-screen, as it were, and off) tied the whole thing together.

Roughly one half of the musical revelations in “As You Like It” are Palmer Hefferan’s; the other half are Rachel Crowl’s. Hefferan is the production’s composer, serving director Rosa Joshi’s apparent desire to draw a stark distinction between the stultifying rigors of the court and the free-flowing nature of, well, of nature. The production opens with incredible clockwork ensemble choreography, essentially the exact opposite of the Elizabethan jig: rather than closing with catharsis, it opens in bondage. The daunting ticktock of the superb clock-like music (think The Prisoner or Watchmen as scored by Michael Nyman) finds its alter ego with large, loose-hanging chimes in the trees of Arden, the forest where Rosalind, now disguised as Ganymede, runs into Orlando, her life-altering crush. While their romance unfurls comically, it is Crowl whom the audience falls for. She is credited as both the banished duke (on-stage) and music captain (behind the scenes). Her considerable authority, all generous grinning swagger amid the makeshift woodland family, finds purpose in the guitar-strumming leadership of the misfit characters’ musical troupe.

I’m guessing this won’t be the last time my newfound affection for Shakespeare will bleed into my writing about sound. I have photos, for example, to post of the door knocker of the church where the Bard was buried. There’s an interesting story (a relic of sonic culture) associated with it, one that doesn’t require moving bones to excavate. That’ll have to wait, though. This journal entry has reached its necessary end.

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Diegetic-Like

More on the subtle musicality of Issa Rae's great HBO series

The musicality of the HBO series Insecure took a bit of a hit when the character Daniel exited stage left earlier this season, the series’ third. A love interest for Issa, Insecure‘s main protagonist, the aspiring music producer Daniel helped, simply through his presence, to transform the show’s wall-to-wall backing tracks into plot points, whether he was busy at work, or arguing with another musician about the arrangement of a new composition, or seducing Issa from behind his production desk.

With Daniel now gone, we still have composer Raphael Saadiq’s score and Kier Lehman’s music supervision to artfully thread the needle between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, between what’s happening on-screen and what Insecure‘s writers want us to think and feel at any given moment. But this past week’s episode, “Obsessed-Like,” the season’s penultimate, leveled things up during one brief, spectacular moment.

Insecure has always played with Issa’s inner monologues, which often occur when she’s alone in the bathroom. Those moments are tender not just because they are private, but because they show a more forthright and secure Issa than she generally acts in public. They often come in the form of short bursts of fledgling rap lyrics, part poetry slam, part self-aware stand-up comedy. They hint at where Issa the character may be headed. Perhaps — as with the Jerry of Seinfeld — the character Issa will become more like the actress Issa who portrays her.

In the episode “Obsessed-Like,” as its title suggests, Issa is anything but secure. She’s reeling from another recent relationship, with a guy named Nathan, one she didn’t herself choose to conclude. Much of the episode is a battle between her somewhat deranged inner thoughts and what’s happening around her. Many of the scenes are filmed as if through her eyes, to emphasize that she isn’t seeing things clearly. (It’s the first episode of the season written by Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, who perhaps has the most freedom to push beyond the show’s narrative toolbox.)

At one climactic point we see Issa in Nathan’s bedroom, where she is frantically trying to guess his laptop’s password. Her best friend, Molly, walks in on her, and to signal the way this moment presents an emotional rock bottom, Issa’s inner and public voices finally converge in an expression of utter shame — the “uh” of her internal monologue and the “uh” of her verbal response to a question from Molly harmonize with each other. They’re seen here in captions, the italics having, throughout the episode, signaled when Issa is talking to herself inside her head. Issa hasn’t recovered fully, but the delusions with which the episode opened seem to have been reconciled with — come into harmony with — reality.

This evening, HBO will air the final episode of the third season of Insecure (which has already been renewed for a fourth). It is directed by Regina King, who played a lead character in the series Southland, the rare hour-long TV drama to air, for its full five-season run, without any background score. I wrote previously about the character Daniel’s presence on Insecure as a nuanced secondary figure we see making music.

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This Week in Sound: 3D Crimes + Posthuman Postrock

+ caption studies + [email protected]#$ patents + Google metronome + iPad conducting + seismic listening

A lightly annotated clipping service:

3D Crimes: The hum of a refrigerator may not be enough to allow identification of its make and model, and the electric car may have let us to make our engines sound like something else entirely (see the SoundRacer), but more consequentially the rumblings of a 3D printer may contain sufficient detail for the someone “to reverse-engineer and re-create 3D printed objects based off of nothing more than a smartphone audio recording”: 3ders.org, via Barry Threw.

thirdarm

Posthuman Postrock: There is now a “wearable third arm” for drummers, which brings to mind both the opportunities for posthuman postrock, and the kit developed for Rick Allen of Def Leppard after he lost an arm in the mid-1980s. Above photo shows Tyler White accompanied by Gil Weinberg: gizmag.com, via twitter.com/showcaseJase.

[Heavy Breathing]: Last year, Sean Zdenek published Reading Sounds, a book about captions, about how the audio of filmed entertainment (dialog, diegetic sound like a passing car, and non-diegetic sound like a score) is represented with words superimposed on images. Now there’s a two-day “virtual conference” on captions (Caption Studies) scheduled for August 1 and 2 of this year. If you’re the sort of person, like me, who thrills to “[dramatic music]” and “[ninjas panting],” then I’ll see you there. Well, that is, we’ll be online simultaneously: captionstudies.wou.edu.

[email protected]#$ Patents: This sounded like an April Fools joke, but it appeared on Business Insider on March 31, and appears to be the case: Apple has technology that automatically removes the curse words from songs. Filed in 2014, the patent is titled “Management, Replacement and Removal of Explicit Lyrics during Audio Playback.” Keep in mind that two years prior to that, in 2012, the Apple Match service — which adds to your cloud the albums you already own, saving you the perceived hassle of ripping and uploading them — accidentally replaced people’s NSFW versions with the “clean” edits that play in fast-food restaurants and on cautious radio stations — via factmag.com, Scanner, and King Britt

metronome

Google BPM: Well, Google the word “metronome” and you’ll be provided a functioning metronome that allows you to select an integer between 40 and 208 and hear what that click track sounds like: androidpolice.com.

iClassical Pro: Alan Pierson, of the adventurous chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound, has uploaded to Medium an article first published two years ago on the group’s blog, but it’s new to me. It’s Pierson talking about how he moved from using paper scores to digital scores when conducting. His take: “And while conducting off tablet is safer in many ways, it’s almost certainly more prone to catastrophe on any particular gig than working off of paper scores: a PC crash is probably more likely than music falling off a stand or out of a binder and harder to recover from. But the plusses seem to far outweigh the minuses.” At least now Google can help with the BPM.

Ear on the Apocalypse: “Seismologists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Volcano Network have developed a refined set of methods that allows them to detect and locate the airwaves generated by a volcanic explosion on distant seismic networks.” That is to say, scientists are listening for earthquakes: “This study shows how we can expand the use of seismic data by looking at the acoustic waves from volcanic explosions that are recorded on seismometers”: uaf.edu.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the April 5, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Tangents (minimalism, youtube, Superman)

Quick Links, News and Good Reads: (1) Steve Reich‘s “Music for 18 Musicians” has been posted for free download by the BBC as part of (yeah, you guessed it) a remix contest. The winning track, to be selected by Reich, will appear on a Nonesuch release, along with remixes by Four Tet and Alex Smoke. Unfortunately, as with the 1999 Reich Remixed album, the individual parallel tracks of the “18 Musicians” recording have not been made available to the remixers; only the final mix has, as a single file (MP3). More info at bbc.co.uk (via Robert Gable‘s aworks blog). … (2) Roundup of a new generation of young British artists, many with an interest in sound, including Jem Finer, Matthew Bourne, Vicki Bennett, Dreams of Tall Buildings, Claudia Molitor, Alex Bradley and Charles Poulet (guardian.co.uk). … (3) Trimpin‘s large-scale sound art tribute to Pythagoras is at Suyama Space in Seattle, Washington, through July 28 (suyamapetersondeguchi.com). … (4) Review of Lucas Fowler‘s art film about composer Cornelius Cardew (nytimes.com). … Synaesthesia is the theme in an exhibit of Wassily Kandinksy paintings at the Tate Modern: (5) telegraph.co.uk, (6) guardian.co.uk. … (7) The Sound Travels series of events is running in Toronto through October 1 (naisa.ca/soundtravels), and it will include “guerilla sound art” events that “that draw attention to the contemporary urban soundscape.” … (8) Interview with Hefty Records founder John Hughes III (chicagoist.com): “We kind of live by file transferring over chat programs or uploading a file to an FTP and kind of swapping it back and forth until it’s finished.” … (9) Interview with Amanda Stewart as part of the annual Liquid Architecture festival in Australia (smh.co.au): “When you are cutting up voices all day,” she says of her time as a radio producer with ABC, “you hear different things.” More info at (10) liquidarchitecture.org.au and (11) couriermail.news.com.au. … (12) Interview with Janet Cardiff on her audio walk at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC (hirshhorn.si.edu): “Sound has an innate ability to transport you out of your body, so if you give an audience various soundscapes, you can transport them through their imagination into many different places.” … (13) Cardiff and George Bures Miller‘s installation The Paradise Institute is part of And Therefore I Am at Skidmore’s Tang (tang.skidmore.edu). … (14) Squarepusher‘s next album, Hello Everything, is due out on October 16; a track off it, “The Modern Bass Guitar,” is currently streaming from the home page of Warp Records, warprecords.com. … (15) Alex Ross on Morton Feldman at newyorker.com, plus a follow-up at Ross’ blog, (16) therestisnoise.com. … (17) Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke talks about his new, electronic-infused solo album (boston.com). … R.I.P., Gyorgy Ligeti: (18) nytimes.com, (19) bbc.com, (20) guardian.co.uk, (21) washingtonpost.com.

… YouTube Treats: There’s an absurd wealth of video available at youtube.com. These are just a handful of suggested viewings, most under three minutes. (1) A minute and a half surreptitiously taped at Janet Cardiff‘s 40-Part Motet exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan (youtube.com). … (2) Brian Eno pays tribute to Can (youtube.com) and (3) talks about the making of Music for Airports (youtube.com). … (4) Robert Fripp performs a soundscape live in Japan in 2003 (youtube.com). … (5) Fan of Cliff Martinez for his ambient scores to Solaris and sex, lies and videotape? Check out this footage of when he was the drummer for the punk-funk band Red Hot Chili Peppers (youtube.com). … (6) Video for David Holmes‘ “Don’t Die Just Yet” off Let’s Get Killed (youtube.com). … Lots of live DJ Krush: (7) dark with skateboard clips (youtube.com), (8) at the Sonar festival (youtube.com) and (9) rockin’ some “Tubular Bells” in Tokyo (youtube.com). … (10) And via Google’s similar video service, footage (video.google.com) of that drum game for the Nintendo Wii that I mentioned in my E3 overview (“Synaesthesia at E3”; footage link via digitalmusicmag.blogspot.com). … Oh, and there are also at least four versions of John Cage‘s “silent” piece, 4’33”, on (11) youtube.com and (12) three (one of them “abridged”) at video.google.com.

… Quote of the Week: “Gentle theme begins.” That’s the text description you’ll see of a scene’s background music toward the end of the new movie Superman Returns if you use the Rear-Window Captioning system (or equivalent). I noticed this because the fellow in front of me at a screening this weekend was using the system, which involves a wide mirror that reflects text that’s displayed at the rear of the theater. When music is playing and there’s no voice over, the screen would occasionally display a pair of quarter notes.

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