Another Conversation Ends

RIP, Cindy Williams (1947-2023)

Cindy Williams, best known for her role as the latter half of the comedy duo who comprised Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983), died last week at age 75. For those especially attentive to the way sound is employed by filmmakers, she is perhaps more specifically niche-famous as half of a quite different couple, the one at the center of the intrigue that was Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation (the other half is the gentleman wearing a tie in this still — not the mime). To watch The Conversation is to hear their conversation over and over, each time the phrasing gaining new meaning, thanks in large part to the ingenuity of sound designer Walter Murch, who worked right around the same time with Williams on George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973).

It was in American Graffiti that Murch put what he called “worldizing” into effect. This meant that the sound of, say, a car radio was heard as if it were right there in the car seen on-screen, lending new realism to the storytelling, bringing the viewer ever more into the sensorium of the characters. In The Conversation, the potential of sound as a narrative tool emerged fully formed, at the behest of the character Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman. To watch The Conversation is to hear the same sentence over and over — a sentence spoken to Williams (who infused the role, as Ann, with an essential tenderness), and scrutinized to distraction by an obsessed Caul: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

To “Gear” or Not to Gear

Emerging video norms

I think it’s pretty funny that people sometimes slam, as “gear videos,” synthesizer videos in which the instruments are prominently displayed. Most of the time that term of disparagement is not a meaningful articulation of what’s going on. What’s going on is you have the opportunity to witness a connection between the sounds you’re hearing and some of the means by which they’re produced. In the best of cases, such as when a single synthesizer is involved, they can even serve as contemporary études. There’s plenty of “gear” video out there (tutorials, reviews, “reviews,” tips, walk throughs, and various forms of often not remotely self-aware consumer fetishization — and then there’s perhaps the vilest of streaming infirmities, the “unboxing”). But just because you can see the gear doesn’t make it a (pejorative) gear video.

When I mentioned this online, I was asked if it weren’t the case that those complaints align with when the gear is expensive, and that either way, you have to admit that there are a lot of videos that put visuals (“even the cables”) first.

I’d say that sometimes the expense isn’t inherent in the critique (a couple used Pocket Operators can trigger the haters), but when it is expensive, the critique is more likely, for sure — though often the gear is still way cheaper than the guitars and pedalboards you see in other videos.

I definitely agree that’s the case about many overly designed videos, though I’d also argue that a lot of critiques, which verge on inside-baseball chatter, about evolving music norms don’t take into consideration similar circumstances outside of music. If you’ve dipped into bicycling, photography, or any number of other gear-oriented pastimes, you’ll find similar modes of activity. I think that’s just part of the post-hipster, over-designed, Instagram’d world we’ve woken up in.

So, yeah, some are prettier than they need to be, and some are pretty for pretty’s sake. And then some of the not pretty ones are probably not pretty to make a point — which is to say, they’re reactive while trying to appear not so.

On Repeat: Sakamoto; Kasten-Krause + Pavone; Longobardi

Recent favorite listens

I’m getting back in the habit of posting brief mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

▰ It’s hard not to think about death when listening to the new Ryuichi Sakamoto album, 12, since the Japanese legend has been fighting Stage 4 cancer, and his recent livestream has been described as potentially his last concert. In addition, earlier this month his fellow co-founder of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Yukihiro Takahashi, died at age 70 (Sakamoto is a year older). It’s a gorgeous album, and a somber one, as well, with echoes of Erik Satie, Angelo Badalamenti, and even William Basinski, thanks to frequent elements of glacial soundscapes, notably on the opening cut. Sakamoto has at least one more release due out this year, his score for the film Monster, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (whose Shoplifters was scored by the third co-founder of YMO, Haruomi Hosono).

▰ The first track to appear from the upcoming collaborative album, Images of One, by Tristan Kasten-Krause (double bass) and Jessica Pavone (viola) is the record’s final of four, “On Axis.” Despite the instrumentation’s broad range in timbre and audio spectrum, it becomes admirably difficult to tell where one part ends and the next begins, so simpatico is their exploration of such contemporary classical modes as stillness, atonality, and silence.

▰ Luca Longobardi, based in Italy, mixes widely spaced tones with crackly sound design in this understated live performance. I recommend his Instagram for glimpses into his creative process, including work that went into his forthcoming album, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – Recomposed.

On Repeat: Earth, Wind, and Conceptual Guitar

Recent favorites

I’m getting back in the habit of posting brief mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

▰ The opening of the new Earth album, Even Hell Has Its Heroes, the soundtrack to an upcoming documentary (directed by Clyde Petersen) about the band, is the perfect way to celebrate Droneuary. And then it evolves into something revelatory, as only an Earth performance can. It’s just Dylan Carlson, guitar, and Adrienne Davies, drums, though several other musicians do appear later on the album, including Mell Dettmer on Moog (what Moog specifically I’m not sure). Even by Earth’s subharmonic standards, this is an often rewardingly subdued collection. (Oh, and the striking cover art, featuring Carlson’s profile, is by Richey Beckett.)

▰ This cover of “I Put a Spell on You” by Alice Smith is an incredible rendition (veering-on-minimalist reduction when it starts) of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song, heard here as channeling the accusatory syllabic insistence of Nina Simone’s classic recording (Smith herself recorded it previously for the various artists compilation Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone, back in 2015, and it’s clear that subsequent years of consideration have given her insights into every nook and cranny of the composition). It’s part of the Gagosian gallery’s ongoing video series (which included a Bill Laswell / John Zorn team-up I mentioned here last week). Smith is supported on piano by Dennis Hamm, who manages to stay out of her way without being utterly erased by the sheer power of her voice. It’s quite something.

How Will I Know This Will Make a Memory, the latest from Cinchel, is gorgeous both sonically and conceptually. The title/opening track is a live concert recording from back in the middle of last year: layers of processed guitar achieving a cloudy, looping ambient quality that extends for three quarters of an hour. Two other tracks rework that material into even denser, at times downright orchestral, splendor. And the final track is a test run that precedes everything we’ve heard thus far: it’s Cinchel’s recording of his rehearsal for the concert performance that constitutes the first track.

▰ The Golden Gate Bridge has gained unintended renown in recent years because of how recent re-engineering has led to it emitting singing-like tones when the wind picks up. I live less than three miles from the bridge, as the (numerous and territorial local) corvids fly, and I can often hear it from my backyard. This tweet from during the recent storms captures that drone from inside a car as it crosses the bridge — and for bonus cinematic flair, it features an overturned tractor trailer. The footage is like a clip from a Michael Mann or Nicolas Winding Refn film, score and all.

On Repeat: Schulz, Zorn, Seidel, Quayle

Recent favorites

The new year is still new, and I’m getting back in the habit of posting brief mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

▰ The prolific Jeannine Schulz closed out last year with three tracks of lightly abrasive ambient mist. Interestingly, the accompanying image shows a cassette, though the release is digital-only, so presumably some of this texture has to do with cassettes being employed as part of the recording process.

▰ John Zorn and Bill Laswell improvise in the richly reverberant space of the Gagosian gallery in Manhattan, responding to the array of paintings by artist Sterling Ruby. And it’s worth mentioning how well the filming and editing, by Lea Khayata’s Pushpin Films, function.

▰ Not only has Dave Seidel released a beautiful experiment in slow chord progressions, but he’s posted the performance — in this case using the free VCV Rack software synthesizer — with step-by-step annotation:

▰ I’ve never seen the 2022 TV series Gaslit, but I’ve listened repeatedly to its music, which was composed by Mac Quayle. Quayle worked on some of my favorite Cliff Martinez scores, including Arbitrage and The Company You Keep, as well as Drive, Contagion, Spring Breakers, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Only God Forgives. The track “Trash Can S’mores,” with its noir-ish use of horns, acoustic bass, percussion, and other jazz elements, is a standout.