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.”

Lia Kohl’s Weather Report

That the cello at the start of “Sit on the Floor and Wait for Storms” might be mistaken for processed voice says something about musician Lia Kohl’s modus operandi. “Sit on the Floor and Wait for Storms” is the first track to be made available from Kohl’s forthcoming album, The Ceiling Reposes, due out in late March. The music initially layers sawed strings and buzzing kazoo, the various waves like threads in a thick fabric that’s being woven in real time, right before the listener’s ears. When a voice arrives, a snippet of a weather report, our senses have been primed: the man’s tone fits in with the soft coarseness of what’s come before. The storm does appear, in that the music gets more and more erratic, the processed sounds fragmenting and frazzling, while also congealing — all until the man’s voice is lost in the enveloping, consuming mix — perhaps disappearing entirely. Perhaps becoming one with the other sound sources.

https://liakohl.bandcamp.com/album/the-ceiling-reposes/

More from Kohl, who is based in Chicago, at liairenekohl.com. The album comes out on the American Dreams label (american-dreams.zone) March 10, 2023.

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.)

https://evenhellhasitsheroes.bandcamp.com/album/even-hell-has-its-heroes-original-motion-picture-soundtrack

▰ 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.

https://cinchel.bandcamp.com/album/how-will-i-know-this-will-make-a-memory

▰ 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: Guðnadóttir, Frisell, Rathrobin, Rplktr, Colombo

Recent favorites

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.

This is a screenshot from Jorge Colombo's Instagram page, showing a train passing

This Week in Sound: A Sonic Health Exam from 1857

A lightly annotated clipping service

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so there may not be a TWiS email on Friday, November 25th.

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the November 22, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: thisweekinsound.substack.com.

FINANCIAL HEALTH: In “Coin-Sound, or the Bruit d’Arain of Armand Trousseau,” Dr. Jesse Kraft describes a sonic “diagnostic test” involving coins “to determine whether or not an individual suffers from a punctured lung.” Here’s some detail:

“[A] coin is held flat against the side of the patient’s chest that is thought to be punctured, and tapped with a second coin. … With a stethoscope on the direct opposite side of the patient, if there is fluid or air in the pleural cavity, the practitioner will hear a sound resonate, as opposed to quickly mute. … The sound itself is not produced by the pressure of the air or fluid that has entered the pleural cavity, nor is it the sound from the coins themselves. Rather, the sound comes from tension that is created on the bounding walls of the pressurized cavity.”

The Trousseau reference in the title is the individual credited with having first “observed and described coin-sound,” around 1857. Trousseau (1801-1867) called it “bruit d’arain” which translates as “brazen noise.” Kraft, who earned a PhD in Americana Studies at the University of Delaware in 2019, is the Resolute Americana Assistant Curator of American Numismatics at American Numismatic Society. (Thanks, Mike Rhode!)

WAYNE MANOR-ISMS: When I worked in Japanese publishing, my duties and natural inclination involved manga, but I collaborated regularly with the anime side of the business. One thing that always struck me was — due to the industry’s prominence in its country of origin — just how well-known were the Japanese voice actors, stars in their own right. American anime fans — and more broadly animation fans — have steadily raised the profiles of voice actors here, even if few have achieved the national notoriety of their Japanese counterparts in terms of name recognition (putting aside movie and television stars who are hired by studios like Pixar to lend familiar voices to animated roles). One individual who stood high on the list of major talents was Kevin Conroy, who died earlier this month at age 66. Conroy portrayed Batman for 30 years in TV series, feature-length animated films, and video games, starting in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series. As James Whitbrook notes, “Conroy even went on to play a live-action version of Bruce Wayne in the CW DC TV show crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths.” (And he was great in it.)

ACT NATURALLY: “BookBaby, one of the leading players in the audiobook segment announced it has entered into a collaboration with Speechki to create audiobooks using artificial intelligence-powered synthetic voice narration. … Speechki said they support 77 languages at the moment along with up to 50 synthetic voice actors.”

BAD ROBOT: The FCC has a plan to deal with “ringless voicemail spam” that goes straight to one’s voice mailbox. Writes Jon Fingas: “The Federal Communications Commission has determined that these silent voicemails are covered by the same Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) rules that forbid robocalls without consent.”

ENTRY LEVEL: Now YouTube has its own start-up cue, or sound logo, developed by the agency Antfood: “The initial idea behind the sound was to have something vibrant, engaging and easily recognizable, so that as soon as you hear it – even if you’re turned away from your TV or device – you know that something’s about to pop up on YouTube.” There’s more detail about the process at the official blog of YouTube in a post by Andrew Lebov.

DEAD RINGER: We’ve pretty much all seen some thriller where a dead person’s eye or fingerprint is used to help the hero (or villain!) access something important. Real life has caught up with fiction, and is generally the case, things aren’t anywhere as easy as they seem. In fact, quote the contrary. Allison Engel writes on the difficulty that loved ones have accessing the accounts of their dead relatives: “Face recognition, voice recognition and fingerprint recognition speed up access when someone’s alive but present tremendous barriers for survivors trying to wind down accounts.” (You can read it for free, thanks to my gift link.)

VOLUME CONTROL: Spotify has continued to broaden its scope by adding audiobooks and podcasts to its app, making the service about more than “just” music. “Now, Spotify is rolling out an update to the dedicated Anchor app on iPhone with a new feature it says can drastically improve the audio of your podcast with just one click,” writes Chance Miller. It’s called “Podcast Audio Enhancement” and it can “reduce background noise and level your audio – supposedly so much so that podcasts can now be ‘recorded in a loud coffee shop, on the subway, or with babies crying in the background.’”

BAD VIBES: Our phones can sense a bridge span’s “unique vibrations” and help reveal “hidden structural problems,” writes Matt Simon. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!)

Every bridge has its own “modal frequency,” or the way that vibrations propagate through it—then subsequently into your car and phone. (Tall buildings, which sway in the wind or during an earthquake, have modal frequencies too.) “Stiffness, mass, length—all these pieces of information are going to influence the modal frequency,” says Thomas Matarazzo, a structural and civil engineer at MIT and the United States Military Academy. “If we see a significant change in the physical properties of the bridge, then the modal frequencies will change.” Think of it like taking a bridge’s temperature—a change could be a symptom of some underlying disease.

ALL HANDS: “Microsoft has made it easier for users of its video conferencing platform Microsoft Teams to use sign language through a new meeting experience called ‘Sign Language View.’