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

tag: voice

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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The Fractal Heart

A live performance by Erika Nesse

“You broke my heart into a million pieces,” sing-says the voice. The voice is itself divided into many pieces, if not a million then certainly hundreds, perhaps approaching thousands. At a macro level it is a fifty-fifty split between sung and spoken. The phrase, however, is splintered further, courtesy of a musician seen seated in this video with her laptop perched on a folding table. The location and date, plus her name, provide the context in the form of the video’s title. It’s Erika Nesse at Firehouse (firehouseworcester.com) in Worcester, Massachusetts, on January 1, 2018, New Year’s Day. (The YouTube channel is that of Samual Hadge, who recently uploaded a slew of live sets from Firehouse, as well as from venues in Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere). Judging by the winter date and the puffy outerwear of the members of the audience, it is also very cold. Nesse is a poet of sonic fractals, of not just splintering sound into little piece but having those piece play out in patterns, systems, and processes, all of which entice the ear’s imagination. If we’re used to pop songs where the chorus takes on new meaning as it is repeated, one verse after another, here the phrase — “You broke my heart into a million pieces” — becomes its own meaning: the more the voice is disturbed by Nesse’s digital intrusions, the closer the listener comes to experiencing its truth.

Video originally posted at Hadge’s youtube.com. More from Erika Nesse at fractalmusicmachine.com and erikanesse.bandcamp.com.

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Listening to le Carré

Key moments of sonic telling in Our Kind of Traitor

Surveillance is both a phylum and an order of sound. It is both a context within which sound occurs, and a subset of the way sound functions. We listen intently, and we overhear; we overhear on purpose, and by chance. Our ears are focused by what we want to hear, and by what, as the pristine familiar phrase so succinctly summarizes, catches our ear.

There is very little overt, carefully detailed attention to sound in Our Kind of Traitor, the 2010 thriller by master spy novelist John le Carré — despite the fact that throughout the book, secrets are documented on little tape recorders, and phones are tapped, and everyone with the slightest bit of skin in the game is paying fierce attention at all moments, deciphering words and the tonality in which they are couched. With the exception of a few key moments, that action goes unexamined. However, when le Carré does choose to apply his scalpel of a pen to discerning the act of listening with the same consideration he applies to manners, posture, class, the intersection of international and personal politics, and all things sartorial, he of course excels. Here are five such instances from Our Kind of Traitor:

1. In the Wind:

He could hear the three winds battling round Dima’s glistening bald head. He could see the treetops above him shaking. He could hear the crashes of leaves and a gurgle of water, and he knew it was the same tropical rain that had drenched him in the forests of Colombia. Had Dima made his recording in a single session or in several? Did he have to brace himself with shots of vodka between sessions in order to overcome his vory inhibitions?

The “he” here is a second-tier spy — nth tier in the circles of hellish bureaucracy that define the modern intelligence service, but second in the small crew that make up the book’s team. The spy’s name is Luke. Here he is listening to a tape recording by a would-be defector, a Russian money launderer by name of Dima. We witness Luke’s craft and shortcomings, his perceptive skills and his self-pity, working hand in hand as he listens to, and projects his own experience onto, a recording Dima has made. The recording is Dima’s entreaty to the British spy service. In a way that a written document might not, the sound both provides additional detail about Dima’s situation and transports Luke, momentarily, into his own troubled past. (“Vory” is the term for a Russian crime syndicate of fierce loyalty.)

2. For Ears Only:

“Has Hector been listening to us?”

“I expect so.”

“Watching us?”

“Sometimes it’s better just to listen. Like a radio play.”

The Hector mentioned here is the book’s spymaster. The interlocutors in the bit of dialog are an inquisitive source and the mid-level spy Luke, who is under Hector’s command. Luke reinforces the unique power of sound when taken on its own, devoid of other sensorial data. He also posits a connection between the story being told by le Carré and the concept of the characters experiencing their own lives as if in a scripted drama, touching on matters of fate, and of Luke’s emerging notion of having less control over his own than he would like. (Elsewhere in the book we learn that Luke fails to enjoy the Harry Potter books — an anhedonia that reinforces his separation from his young son. There’s enough fantasy, we’re told, already in his life. There’s something especially British about John le Carré describing a British spy’s inability to appreciate Harry Potter.)

3. For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Perry pressed the bell and at first they heard nothing. The stillness struck Gail as unnatural so she pressed it herself. Perhaps it didn’t work. She gave one long ring then several short ones to hurry everyone up. And it worked after all, because impatient young feet were approaching, bolts were being shot and a lock was turned, and one of Dima’s flaxen-haired sons appeared.

The person who does the listening in this moment is also the one with the least agency of the assembled protagonists. Gail is the girlfriend to Perry. Perry is the book’s initial hero, except in the moments when it lets Luke, Hector, and Gail be the heroes of their own threads of the narrative. Perry and Gail are caught up in Dima’s negotiations with British intelligence. Here, they have gone to collect the family of Dima. Gail’s legal experience often comes into play when she pitches her voice one way or listens to someone else’s. Here her listening skills are brought to bear on her not uninformed paranoia.

4. Go to the Tape:

Then quite suddenly — it was in the evening of the same day — the weather changed, and Hector’s voice rose a notch. Luke’s illicit recorded played the moment back to him.

Luke again here, now in seclusion with Perry, Gail, and Dima’s brood. He has been taping audio late in the book, both his own notes about goings-on, and phone calls with his boss, Hector, who is calling in with updates regarding how he is navigating the halls of power in Dima’s interest. Here, for the first time, Luke revisits a tape, to confirm a suspicion he noticed in the conversation he just had only moments prior. The instance ratchets up Luke’s anxiety, and projects the isolation they all are experiencing.

5. Left in the Cold:

And either there was someone inside to close the door on them or Luke did it for himself: an abrupt sigh of hinges, a double clunk of metal as the door was made fast from inside, and the black hole in the plane’s fuselage disappeared.

That fifth and final sonic moment occurs pages before the book ends. It’s a fateful moment. The book has returned to the point of view with which it originated, the novitiate Perry — Perry, who has learned much as the book has unfolded, including how to listen, and what to listen for. And then it’s a full stop. What happens next is simply, to use one of le Carré’s favored terms, a void. It’s a void for the reader to fill in. The answer may be left to how well the reader has been listening.

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Out of Body

The sleight of hand of Hatis Noit's live looping

There’s nothing like the moment when the disconnect appears between action and effect. It’s a moment that happens with live looping and live processing, when the audience becomes aware that the concept of cause and effect has shifted, sometimes subtly, sometimes aggressively. This uncanny valley of live electronically mediated performance varies by musician, technique, and instrument. In his early work with processed guitar, you could watch Christopher Willits play something you didn’t hear — and then wait for it to surface in the mix. Turntablist-watchers are used to distinguishing between when the DJ is playing and when the DJ is cueing something yet to be played.

This video shows Hatis Noit, the Japanese vocalist, in an excerpt from a longer performance on the music platform NTS. Noit records for Erased Tapes, which earlier this year releaed her recent EP, Illogical Dance, featuring a fantastic Matmos remix. In this video, she starts off elegantly insinuating vowel tones. At 12 seconds you see the sync between lips and sound. Some 20 seconds later, the sync is no longer self-evident. (Later still, a minute and a half in, the camera shows where Noit’s downard-cast gaze has been looking — at a pedal-controlled looper at her feet.) That moment at 20 seconds is the signal of intent. From there the vocals layer further. Noit moves from tone to melody to spoken to something nearly operatic. It all coalesces into a single piece, a performance that is both recorded and live in the same moment. When Noit plays with twin microphones held in her extended, intertwined arms it is a bit like the sleight of hand employed by sidewalk magicians. She is also telling the audience something: “There are several of me present.”

The video itself is edited in a manner that emphasizes the asynchronous matter of her style. The short gives an additional atmospheric, out-of-body nudge because the video opens with shots of her doing things that don’t involve performing at all, just lingering in a window with Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths, though all the while we already hear her voice.

Video originally posted at YouTube. More from Hatis Noit at hatisnoit.com.

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Layers of Voice

From California-based Noise Jockey

Part of the beauty of using vocal sounds as the source for electronic music is simply just how far you can push the source tones and yet, to the human ear (which is so attuned through evolution to recognize the human voice), that vocal-ness remains self-evident. A case in point is “The Groan Machine” by Noise Jockey. It’s a layering of a dozen mouth utterances, each processed through a range of equipment listed in the accompanying note. The full breadth sounds are somehow both otherworldly (cast sweeps of white noise, thick stacks of elements, wide expanses of texture) and tellingly human.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/noisejockey. More from Noise Jockey, aka Nathan Moody of the San Francisco Bay Area, at nathanmoody.bandcamp.com and noisejockey.net.

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