There are reasons I find myself reading thrillers that have less to do with the thrills, less to do with the vicarious, Walter Mitty pleasure of someone fictional doing outlandish things while I sit in my chair, of being transported momentarily to their circumstances, or with the tension of these death-defying pressures and conspiratorial motivations having been brought to bear for my casual entertainment — reasons instead that have far more to do with the simple fact that the characters in such books (and in the good ones their authors as well) spend a lot of time listening very closely to their surroundings, interpreting the world around them with their ears and wits.
This following bit is from the novel Take No Names by Daniel Nieh. In it, a character has just messed up badly, risking drawing attention to his presence and that of a criminal colleague. He has nothing to do but wait to see if has endangered his life. Since this moment occurs a few pages into the book, the likely answer is that no, of course, he has not.
What further elevates that instance is one that comes earlier. Even before this character, named Victor Li (who was also the protagonist of Nieh’s previous book, Beijing Payback), comes to fear that his clumsiness has cost him everything, we witness him simply listening — not out of need, but out of habit:
That paragraph comes toward the opening of the same chapter. It serves to prime the reader’s awareness of Victor’s awareness. I’ll be listening along as I read further. I’m 25% of the way through, according to my trust ereader.
It’s the start of a new year, and I want to try to get back in the habit of posting quick mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:
▰ Hildur Guðnadóttir already had committed some of the most remarkable film music of the year for Tár, Todd Field’s feature starring Cate Blanchett, and she’s followed it up with Women Talking (Deutsche Grammophon) Both scores veer dramatically from her often drone-based prior work (Chernobyl, Joker, Sicario: Day of the Soldado). Women Talking, in contrast, features a lot of staccato string work.
▰ If I had done a top favorites of 2022, guitarist Bill Frisell’s Four, his third album for the jazz label Blue Note, would have been on the list for sure. It teams him with Johnathan Blake on drums, Gerald Clayton on piano, and Greg Tardy on horns (saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet). The key word is “team,” as this is a jazz album with essentially no solos; it’s all about constant interplay.
▰ Beth Chesser and Pier Giorgio Storti collaborate as Rathrobin. Their album Ear to the Ground combines strings, voice, and unidentifiable textures, including field recordings, into a sometimes aggressive but often ruminative sonic spaces. It came out almost a year ago, at the end of January 2022, but I’ve only recently started listening to it.
▰ Rplktr (aka Łukasz Langa) recorded half an hour using the Awake script, which comes as part of the Monome Norns musical instrument. It’s sparkling and lightly percussive. Just listen as the patterning unfolds.
▰ Embedding here won’t do it justice, so if you do use Instagram, check out Jorge Colombo’s (instagram.com/jorgecolombo) — specifically the short films he posts. The “NYC2” batch, for example, are black and white snippets, shot in cinematic horizontal mode — field recordings that evidence the keen eye and ear I’ve admired for decades.
Carl Ritger closes the year with four large, encompassing, engrossing sound environments that get ever more brutalist as the album containing them draws the listener in. Their procession on Glance White into the Dark is, like the music itself, expertly glacial, profoundly still. This is slow-motion music for slow-motion listening. By the time Ritger gets to “Coiling the Golden Loop,” all boiling cauldron, melty warbling melody, and woolen feedback, the listener has already made way through simpler, more placid surroundings — the droning, whistling realm of “Aspen Phase,” the static-laden, watery, echoing facets of the suite-like “Linger at the Well,” and the transformed bells that resound throughout much of “Hail, Isais!” Ranging in length between nearly 23 minutes and just shy of half an hour, each of the four pieces is less a composition than a texture map, less a musical recording than an assemblage of layered elements left to find their own uneasy peace.
When I wrote about the sonic torture in the “Nobody’s Listening!” episode of the Star Wars TV series Andor back at the start of the month, I postulated that before opting for the audience hearing nothing at all while rebel-adjacent character Bix succumbs to imperial punishment, the creative team on the show perhaps might have tried “to recreate — to imitate — what Bix hears.” And of course, leaving it to our imaginations, which is where the episode landed, was the best of all possible decisions.
And it turns out that, indeed, the Andor crew did try to fill the void first. This is per an interview at slashfilm.com, which spoke with David Acord, the supervising sound editor on Andor. Acord explained:
“When that scene came up, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, well…’ It’s daunting, for sure, that we had to come up with a sound that is, ‘What’s the sound that would literally be used to torture somebody with?’ So we came up with a lot of ideas of, “What do these creatures sound like that they’re emulating?” Or maybe it’s, we come up with a more surrealistic thing of, ‘What does the sound make the characters feel like? What is that sound?’ And ultimately, it was Tony who said, ‘No, we don’t want to hear it. The audience doesn’t hear it, and let Adria Arjona carry that scene.’”
In Acord’s anecdote, Tony is the series’ creator, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Rogue One). Arjona (Good Omens, Irma Vep) plays Bix. And carry it — abetted by the silence — she certainly does.
While working, I often have something playing on a secondary computer screen just for ambient visuals, like a live airfield webcam in Chicago (which is silent) or a live watering hole in a Kenyan national park (which pipes in the wind and bird calls, plus occasional mammalian utterances), or the great Listen to Wikipedia, which both visualizes and sonifies (“sonificates”? — nah) occurrences, in real time, from the highly used communal encyclopedia.
Increasingly over the past three or four years, my secondary-screen peripheral viewing has consisted of videos from the burgeoning assortment of YouTube channels run by people who wander around cities (my preference), as well as nature, recording as they go. Unlike the webcams and live data sonification mentioned above, these YouTube channels don’t contain “live” videos. That is, they record live, but they don’t stream live (i.e., in real time). There’s something quite pleasing about having Seoul (on a sunny day) or London (during heavy rain) or the Black Forest (crunchy leaves underfoot, and planes overhead just as Gordon Hempton warned us) pass by as you sit in your chair attending to your computer-fixated duties.
These videos can be comforting in unexpected ways. This past year I’ve had to travel more than I expected, for family reasons, and sometimes sitting with the same familiar footage of Madrid at night by my side served as a digital mutation of Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a Third Place: it was neither my home or work, nor where I was presently, but another location I could virtually transport to easily from either. (And I’m fully aware that my bastardization of Oldenburg’s richer observation proposes a solitary venture rather than the intended social one. Forgive me. I’m just thinking out loud.)
At a low volume level, the sounds from these YouTube flâneur/voyeur videos become truly ambient: neither focus nor absent. Your ear may prick up to an unfamiliar emergency siren from a faraway land or to some pedestrians kibitzing while waiting for the traffic light to favor them, but by and large the sounds, like the visuals, are pleasingly secondary.
Sometimes, though, there is a true surprise, and a delightful one.
For example, something magical happens at the 58:16 mark (that is, just shy of an hour) in a newly posted video by Rambalac titled “Japan – Wandering in countryside Iruma, Saitama.” Rambalac is the name of a prolific (one of the channel’s playlists has nearly 600 videos) and popular (584,000 followers to date) exponent of this YouTube flâneur category. In the Iruma video (named for the city in which it was shot), Rambalac, as always out of view, wanders around slowly, capturing the local environment with a keen eye (and ear), here for back alleys and urban parks. We never see Rambalac, though sometimes we catch a shadow, complete with film equipment (timecode: 14:17), or a hand playfully holding up a bottle of newly purchased tea (54:12).
It may very well have been the sounds from that vending machine transaction that woke me from my work trance. This beverage stop occurs very close to the end of the video. Ramblac then begins heading back to the train station. At almost exactly 58:00, someone with a backpack comes into view after running across the narrow street ahead, and this person’s presence — at the risk of getting all film theory about it — seems to relocate the video’s point of view, briefly becoming a sort of stand-in for Ramblac. They’re walking down the same street, their paces evenly matched.
We hear footsteps and chatter, and then at 58:16, a repetitive tone emerges. It sounds like nothing so much as if the minimalist composer Philip Glass had been hired to score the closing scene for a willfully quotidian spinoff of Koyaanisqatsi. What it is (and I confirmed this with Rambalac via the video channel’s Discord, and with a friend who lives in Japan) is the sound of the train crossing signal. It gets considerably louder as Rambalac (along with the person in view) approaches the station, and then it gets almost entirely subsumed by rail noise and conversation.
I realized, when I went back to watch the video again, that this same sound occurs, briefly and more quietly, at the very opening — by all appearances when Rambalac first arrives in Iruma. As we learn from watching such videos — and considering field recordings as compositions unto themselves — the two appearances of the signal/Glass sound are quite distinct. At the opening, it’s happenstance, but at the end, it takes on a narrative quality. The whole video is recommended, but if you just want to witness (and appreciate) the music’s arrival, start a little earlier, at around 57:42. Doing so sets the room tone, as it were, for the city, before what might be thought of as the readymade score appears. I never actually thought this was music, but I did — and do — think that in the context of the video, it has been meaningfully transformed into something more than merely overheard locomotive-operation detritus. Which is to say: it’s quite beautiful.