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

tag: score

Broken Media and Entering the Past

Two reminders of technology's mediation

Two blasts from the media past in one day: a CD and a dongle.

(1) I purchased a CD of the score to Breaking and Entering, the Anthony Minghella film, on eBay because the music isn’t on Google Play Music (which I subscribe to), or on Spotify, or on any equivalent I’ve found. I’m a big admirer of Underworld and of Gabriel Yared (all the way back to Betty Blue), and after listening to rips of the Breaking and Entering tracks on YouTube I wanted to be able to listen to it in full. This is from 2006, the year before Underworld scored Sunshine for Danny Boyle, who a decade earlier had helped inculcate them into the vocabulary of film with Trainspotting (true, “Cowgirl” was in Hackers the year prior).

The Breaking and Entering CD arrived still wrapped in its original prophylactic cellophane, affixed with a price tag of nearly $14, or more than twice what I had paid, including shipping, to some semi-anonymous eBay “store” (aka someone with a packed closet or garage across the country from me).

The CD came with a 12-page booklet containing a lengthy essay by Minghella about the role of music in his creative process (it opens: “I find it very difficult to write the screenplay for a film I’m directing until I can hear what the film might sound like”), and about how he brought Underworld together with Yared, much as earlier Minghella films had led to other pairings for Yared (with trumpeter Guy Barker for The Talented Mister Ripley and T-Bone Burnett for Cold Mountain, not to mention the role Marta Sebestyen’s voice played in The English Patient).

Were Breaking and Entering on a streaming service, none of this material would likely have been present (the essay’s length would push the norms even of Bandcamp), nor the detailed credits, including an attribution to Martin Cantwell for “Atmospheres,” which I’m a bit desperate to know more about. Currently Google has all of seven returns in a search for “‘Martin Cantwell’ atmospheres ‘breaking and entering'” and it will have eight as soon as I hit publish on this post. (There are more returns for a random subtitle from a TV show I mentioned in my previous post.)

If the universal-jukebox promise of streaming services and Google searches had already failed me, trying to rip the CD to my computer’s hard drive was another reminder of the gaps that technology inserts into our knowledge. A service did manage to populate the tracks’ titles, but in the process listed Underworld as “artists” and Yared as “composer,” which has no basis in reality, as Minghella himself recounted. He joked they became a fully collaborative trio: “Undergab” or “YaredWorld.”

(2) The other item is a little converter dongle that will let my jack-less mobile phone (currently an Android Pixel 2 XL, though users of iPhones and other devices know the same pain) use cabled headphones. “Cabled headphones” is a retronym, in light of the rise of the Bluetooth variety. Bluetooth has its uses, but the fact is that at some point during a long day, my earbuds’ batteries are likely to run out. Also, I have a really nice pair of cabled headphones at home.

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[investigatory synth music]

The joy of non-diegetic subtitles

This is a screenshot from the third episode of the fourth and current season of The Expanse. That’s Amos, one of the series’ main characters, with his back to the screen, surveying the wreckage of a spacecraft that came hurtling down to this questionably habitable planet at the opening of episode one. We already know something is amiss, and if you’ve read Cibola Burn, the book on which this season is largely based, you know the anger and heartbreak yet to come.

As is often the case, mere note symbols aren’t used in the subtitles to signal what the score, by Clinton Shorter (District 9, Colony), is offering up in terms of emotion and narrative. Here, even the standard “[moody music]” apparently wouldn’t do. At some point along the production Gantt chart, someone wrote and presumably someone else approved a description, “[investigatory synth music],” that is so literal (the characters are, indeed, investigating, and the music is, indeed, quite evidently performed on synthesizers) that it transcends its own literalness and suggests a whole new genre. (One that would retroactively include, for example, the entire run of The X-Files.)

The moment also reminded me of a comment by one of the two writers who, under the shared pseudonym James S.A. Corey, write the Expanse books and collaborate on their translation from page to screen. This is Ty Franck speaking, and the Daniel is Daniel Abraham, Franck’s co-author: “I know Daniel had a real epiphany when he realized that all the prose tricks to convey the emotional state of a scene could be replaced with a good musical score. And I love finding ways to lay a scene out for the camera instead of a reader. Cameras are very literal. It’s a completely different way to think of story.”

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Hilobrow Action Films

A piece to come on Michael Mann's Thief

I’ll have a second hilobrow.com piece out later this year. My earlier piece was on a prized object, as part of the site’s Fetish series (“Dummy Jack”). My new one will be about Michael Mann’s first feature film, Thief (he’d previously directed a TV movie, The Jericho Mile), for a series of essays on “action movies of the Seventies (1974-1983).”

Yes, I took a parenthetical moment to note the Tangerine Dream score, but I focus more on the tension between action and inaction. Which is to say, the aesthetics of ambient music are core, even if the subject is broader (and visual, and story-based). Meanwhile, check out the amazing lineup of Hilobrow authors and topics in this series:

Madeline Ashby on BLADE RUNNER | Erik Davis on BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA | Mimi Lipson on CONVOY | Luc Sante on BLACK SUNDAY | Josh Glenn on THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR | Lisa Jane Persky on SORCERER | Devin McKinney on THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | Adam McGovern on QUINTET | Mandy Keifetz on DEATH RACE 2000 | Peter Doyle on SOUTHERN COMFORT | Jonathan Lethem on STRAIGHT TIME | Heather Kapplow on THE KILLER ELITE | Tom Nealon on EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE | Mark Kingwell on THE EIGER SANCTION | Sherri Wasserman on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK | Gordon Dahlquist on MARATHON MAN | David Levine on PARALLAX VIEW | Matthew Sharpe on ROLLERBALL | Ramona Lyons on ALIEN | Dan Piepenbring on WHITE LINE FEVER | Marc Weidenbaum on THIEF | Carolyn Kellogg on MAD MAX | Carlo Rotella on KUNG FU | Peggy Nelson on SMOKEY & THE BANDIT | Brian Berger on FRIDAY FOSTER.

The first few are already up, and you can read editor Joshua Glenn’s introduction now.

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The Chernobyl Effect

Scores that draw sonic material from the environments in which they're set

The first few years I taught my sound course, I found it interesting to observe which topics each new semester were natural to fold into the syllabus of the previous semester: a fresh employment of sound in product design, a further development of domestic surveillance amid the Internet of Things, a new advertising campaign aimed at pricking up consumers’ ears. Hildur Guonadottir’s excellent score to HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series provides a very different source of pedagogical intrigue: which once-abstract topics have, along the way, become normalized.

This is because as time has gone on, it’s become even more interesting (to me, that is) to observe which once-new (“new” to students, that is) topics have become familiar, even commonplace. And then, in turn, to probe how such familiarity alters the subjects at hand.

Each semester in my sound course I have taught, side by side, the scores to two very different thrillers, both of them set on submarines: Jeff Rona’s for the movie Phantom and Robert Duncan’s for the TV series Last Resort. Both scores draw from submarine field recordings as source audio for the music. The composers recorded sounds of the antiquated environments, capturing claustrophobic room tones and banging on equipment, and then tuned those tracks and turned the resulting sounds into digital instruments.

The similarities and differences between the Phantom and Last Resort approaches to submarine source audio are highly teachable, surfacing (pun!) various matters, such as how they extract sound, as well as the inherent musicality of everyday listening.

Of particular value during class discussion is the manner in which this approach manages to blur the distinctions between the diegetic (i.e., sounds with an on-screen source, like machinery and conversation) and the non-diegetic (i.e., sounds external to the action, such as score and voice-overs). And better yet: how the end results differ between films, despite the shared approach.

That last bit is important, because if the end results were the same, if Phantom and Last Resort sounded the same, the aesthetics would be reduced to something causal, and the technique to a matter of mechanics.

The films, however, do not sound similar at all. Duncan’s Last Resort is very much a classic, epic, retro-orchestral vibe, whereas Rona’s Phantom is more ethereal, bearing a Fourth World influence, perhaps from his time as a collaborator with Jon Hassell. Even more interestingly, the old-school music of Last Resort serves a story set in the present, whereas the highly contemporary, even futuristic, music of Phantom serves a story set way back in Cold War. As a result, in class discussion we can talk about how the approach of sampling the environment serves varied narrative needs, about expectations of genre norms, and about how the composers’ (and directors’) proclivities come into play.

There are mini-documentaries on both Phantom and Last Resort, and they’re worth watching for the parallels and divergences. Here’s the Rona/Phantom:

And here’s the Duncan/Last Resort:

They’re valuable to watch in tandem, great in the classroom as concise encapsulations of the technique.

Now, however, thanks to the well-deserved acclaim for Guonadottir’s work on Chernobyl, by the time next semester of my sound course begins, come February 2020, the students will be all “Oh, like Chernobyl,” when the subject arises of using place as source audio for the creation of music and atmosphere. Of course, I won’t know until class begins where students’ thoughts are, what they’ve collectively and individually taken as the new normal, versus what they see as “gimmick” (skepticism is a common response, and can be a healthy one), versus what they are, in fact, not familiar with. No doubt, though, I’ll show or assign in class something like this interview with Guonadottir, where she talks about working with Chris Watson to capture the sounds of one nuclear reactor in order to tell the story of another, much as Rona and Duncan did with submarines:

At a structural level, this “score” segment of my course usually occurs during the third week, toward the end of the sequence on “Learning to Listen” (it’s a three-part course: weeks four through 10 are “Sounds of Brands,” which is also the title of the course, and weeks 11 through 15 are “Brands of Sounds”). Perhaps I’ll move this part earlier, or perhaps it’ll make sense to move it later. I don’t know yet. Certainly, though, the praise for Guonadottir’s Chernobyl score will encourage other composers to adopt the process, and alert non-specialist newspapers, magazines, and blogs to composers also doing such things. Which is to say, there will almost certainly be even more material (call it the Chernobyl effect) to slot into discussion by next year. It’s a long eight months between now and the next semester. I have time to plan, and to listen.

Just as a side note, because Twitter can be an excellent place if you tweet the Twitter you want and work to avoid the rest, when I first explored these topics on Twitter, I ended up in conversation with Rona himself. Among other things, he described the compositional process as exploratory: “I think with my score, and I’d like to think it’s similarly true with the others, is that the genesis of it is a ‘what if’ process. I had no idea what it would sound like to sample a submarine and use it as the primary ‘instrument’ of a score. And as it happened it worked. That’s not always the case. I took it as a challenge to my process to use the various sounds I could get and somehow come up with a way to make them not only musical, but cover a fairly broad range of emotions.”

Asked if he’s explored approaches that haven’t panned out, he replied, “Literally every score I’ve done begins with an experimental phase with several casualties prior to the one path chosen.” He also drew an interesting connection between the mechanical source audio of Phantom and one of his solo albums: “Certainly the project that showed me a different way to find that musical path on any given project. My solo album Projector is done very similarly to Phantom in that it relies heavily on manipulation of organic sounds – in this case field recordings of the upper Amazon river.”

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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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