Hittin’ the Airwaves!

I was on London Arts radio station Resonance FM yesterday, talking to fellow creative Jude Cowan Montague about personal stories, sound and music for audio media, layers of meaning in sound, her graphic novels and the unique function of memory, the Women Composers Collective and more!

It was really interesting to talk to Jude and hear my music played live on air, so I hope you’ll have a listen.

The News Agents, 23/02/19 – Personal Stories in Music

Introvert pose

Charity Films #2

The Charity Film Awards

Following on from this post, I’ve been going through some of these short films and noting any trends.  There is a bit of variety and one or two of them do some more interesting things.  Here’s a few I picked out.

The Shout

I was impressed enough with the use of sound and the choice and editing of music in this one to contact the production company, who have been very friendly and referred me on to the composer and an editor they recommend.  I really like the opening with acousmatic wave sounds against the title on a black bacground, introducing the sense of danger and power in the sea at night and immediately drawing us in.  I think the choice of music works well to get the heartbeat going – even, maybe, simulating heartbeat.  Ben Winters’ article in the journal Music, Sound and the Moving Image, Corporeality, Musical Heartbeats, and Cinematic Emotion explores this phenomenon in a very interesting way. (Winters 2008)

In addition, the way the ‘story’ the interviewees tell is structured and punctuated by the editing of the music.  Sound design and foley also brought us closer to the ‘action’ in our bodies.  It had me imagining what it is like to work as a volunteer in sea rescue and got my pulse raised as a result (while sitting in my cozy living room with a cup of tea…).


Found Something

This is an awareness video for men, who, it is well known, find it harder than women do to discuss physical problems or to visit the doctor, especially if they are of an intimate nature.  The orgnisation use a light, colloquial tone (you know, that ‘laddish’ thing…) and humour as a way to broach the subject of being aware of testicular changes.

No music is used in here – which I think is a good choice, personally; it replicates the casual, ‘down the pub’ kind of mood and keeps the soundtrack clean, neutral and unthreatened by anything remotely resembling ‘suspicious’ subtext.

The two choices they do make are the choice of the narrator – someone who, by his accent and delivery of the matching script,  could be someone we, the audience, know personally – and colourful, slightly comedic sound effects throughout to enhance key moments in the animation, a key part of the identity of the film.


What seems to be the typical model in this genre?

Many of the films’ soundtracks were simply confined to edited interviews or voice-overs with some very generic ‘background’ music behind them.  This music is generally looped figures in a major key, not more than four chords, extremely repetitive, typically featuring piano and perhaps sustained synths or strings behind it, maybe a little light percussion – drum kit or higher-pitched instruments on repeated ostinati.  So it is extremely generic, ‘feel good’, and the definition of wallpaper music.  If a more sombre mood is required, then simple, three-four chord ’emotional piano’ is often used.

Here’s a good example of a bland underscore:

And here is one where pure interview + ’emotional piano’ + strings is used, and in this case I think it is absolutely right for the subject matter.  It actually made me a bit teary, so it did its job.

I think we have to be careful in this genre not to let our egos intervene too much or to look like we’re trying to manipulate anyone.  However, equally, these films are competing for attention on social media.  So I wonder if the soundtracks could be a bit more innovative sometimes.  This is something I would like to look into further.

(1) Winters, B., 2008. Corporeality, Musical Heartbeats, and Cinematic Emotion. Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 2, 3–25.

Practice to Research and Back Again…

What is my methodology?

The question of ‘methodology’ has been exercising me a little since it was discussed in lectures. I often feel that in my work, scoring, or sound-sculpting, the approach is something I invent to meet the needs of the project each time.

For example, currently I am scoring an audio play for Pulp Pourri Theatre called The Bird and the Snake. It is an adaptation of a story set in the Polish community in 1950s Chicago and is in the ‘noir crime’ tradition. The producer specified seedy jazz (it is a dark story involving sexual exploitation) but I wanted to hint at Polish heritage in the scoring too.

I have produced a series of short sketches with a combination of punchy, uneasy big band for the main theme which can be reduced to tense walking bass or small jazz combo for underscoring, and also Polish traditional music to mark the all-seeing mother of the cop who is telling the story, which can be reduced to just accordion as required for quiet underscore. The harmonic structure is written in such a way that all the themes could be linked and combined, so we might have the mother’s music on a fiddle against the Chicago music in the piano, for example.  Here, the final scene, as the son considers his mother’s unique wisdom, segues back into an (even more!) energised version of the theme for the end credits:

I have done all of this in advance of receiving the final audio file from the producer.  I’ve read the script and the producer has approved the main theme already, but I will not find out exactly how to slot in my work, or whether any different material is needed, until I hear the final take from the rest of the team, at which point I will be expected to add my music in a matter of days.

Clearly, this way of working – adaptive, flexible – is very different from how I wrote the choral piece from first principles (discussed here) or how we have been carefully sculpting the sound design for the ‘Intruders’ short film assignment in our studies.

Scoring is by its nature rather a responsive process. There is much creativity involved, but what I love about it is the way it pulls you deep into other people’s visions and lets you discover along with them what the voice of a piece sounds like. There is an element of translation in it, as well as adding to the material. We always end up in our Digital Audio Workstation, pulling together audio files and/or MIDI, but where and how we start building can vary hugely. If conventional music is needed, I find I often have to start at the piano and then transfer over to the DAW for best results. But if it is more experimental, as it is here, working from timbre and texture upwards, then there can be a process of ‘uncovering’ what emerges from sonic play.

Research Practice

Regarding my reading, listening and viewing, I feel I have approached the subject of empathy and world-view in a way that is closer to the ‘sonic experiment’ model: I have cast my net wide, assimilating neurology, sociology and psychology as well as musicology, film studies, more general film music aesthetics and finally honing in on the scholars like Karen Collins, Robynn Stilwell and Ben Winters who are grappling with the issues I wish to explore within the context of soundtrack.
From these multi-disciplinary meanderings a picture begins to emerge of sound as a sense deeply and inextricably entwined with the psyche, emerging from the very beginnings of consciousness (Webb et al 2015), that interacts with and influences the areas of our brain responsible for primal reactions and dreaming, subconscious and intuitive thought (Stilwell 2005), that can produce instant associations with times in our lives (Cizmic 2015) and that the experience of hearing is very, very subjective and influenced by our neurological make-up (DePape et al 2012).

I have begun to explore work that deliberately sets out to portray subjective experienceindoctrinate or influence (dangerous and immoral though it may be) and/or engender empathetic reactions, and noted technical or conceptual devices that may be useful in the future for my own work as I go.

Perhaps the one method of examining the subjects that I can apply to all these paths of discovery is semiotics: it seems to be in my nature to look for meaning in things, and I automatically find myself seeking out the elements than can reveal meaning.

I am looking to where to apply all this constantly in my own work.  I am in the early stages of talking about making a short film for the charity I helped found, Herts Welcomes Syrian Familes, about how the organisation came about, what they achieved and perhaps telling some of the stories of refugees who now live in Herts because of HWSF.  This should be a really exciting project for me, where I can really start to make use of some of what I am observing and pondering.

Webb, A.R., Heller, H.T., Benson, C.B., Lahav, A., 2015. Mother’s voice and heartbeat sounds elicit auditory plasticity in the human brain before full gestation. PNAS 112, 3152–3157. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1414924112

Stilwell, R.J., 2005. Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape, in: Screen Methods Comparative Readings in Film Studies Ed.Furby, J. and Randell, K. Wallflower Press, London, pp. 48–58.

Cizmic, M., 2015. The Vicissitudes of Listening: Music, Empathy, and Escape in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Music, Sound and the Moving Image; Liverpool 9, 1–32,98.

DePape, A.-M.R., Hall, G.B.C., Tillmann, B., Trainor, L.J., 2012. Auditory Processing in High-Functioning Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. PLOS ONE 7, e44084. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0044084


Soundtrack and Indoctrination

A friend who is passionate about gay rights drew my attention to this cartoon by the American Jehova’s Witnesses:

I think my friend was inviting me to join him in abusing this piece of child indoctrination, and was therefore quite surprised when I came back with “mind if I analyse the soundtrack?”

Through my explorations in this blog, I have become even more fully aware of the potency of sound in an audio-visual context to reach beyond the the conscious, cognitive understanding and manipulate us at a deeper level.

I have not engaged in much musicological discussion yet, as this is an area with which I have been more familiar for longer than sound design and so there would be less in the way of discovery.  However, of course, ‘non-diegetic’ music is a very powerful tool of influence on any audience.  It seemed to work a treat on several people I know in ‘Brexit: the movie.’

Take a look at the first few minutes and listen to the portentous, cinematic music – drawing heavily on musical tropes conventionally aligned with heroism in Hollywood – underscoring the ‘ordinary people’ speaking of overthrowing the ‘undemocratic’ European Union:

  • repeated, rhythmic string ostinati,
  • sustained brass melodies,
  • tonic pedal bass,
  • use of minor mode,
  • regular use of suspension generating tension as well as the illusion of musical propulsion in a tonally static context,
  • emphatic percussion hits, swells and ‘rises’ (I notice a particularly ‘foregrounded’ hit following a big swell at the end of the introduction at 2:29, synced with the animated title text, which interestingly drew my attention to the similarities between the logo, with the arrow emerging from the ‘x’ in Brexit, to the male symbol… what is it about masculinity that we being invited to associate this message with…? but I digress!).

Film composer Robin Hoffmann, who produces an ongoing advice series on various aspects of of the job, has discussed this very topic.  He says:

‘Remember that music has the power to manipulate emotionally and therefore alter the perception and eventually opinion of the audience. Very often this happens even on a subconscious level for the audience. This is why music has and is being used extensively on propaganda movies. So, while this can be a great tool, it also puts a bit of responsibility on the composer’s shoulders. As long as things stay fictional, such manipulation is often wanted and sometimes even necessary to “sell” the exotic locations/worlds sometimes depicted in fictional movies to the audience. But as soon as you’re scratching the surface of scoring real life events, especially on socially critical or political documentaries, you should radically tone down anything emotionally manipulative…’ (Hoffmann 2017)

The full piece, which is an interesting read, can be found here on March 14th 2017.

Anyway, back to the Jehova’s Witnesses.

The first thing we hear is the muted sound of children playing.  We hear it over the titles, giving us the subject of the ‘lesson’.  Then we see the little girl alone in a classroom, looking at the children’s drawings.  The sound of the children is distant and outside and she is inside – our very first message.  There is an outside world; it is separate and apart from the characters in this little story, the ones ‘privileged ‘ to be in ‘Jehova’s Kingdom’.  We never see it.  But inside, the girl is free safely to interrogate ideas presented to her by this other place.

Next we see the picture of the ‘two mummies’.  What do we hear immediately afterwards?  The school bell.  Now we do know that it is a school bell, but the sound is also redolent of an alarm.  There is a subtle hint about what we are supposed to think of the two mummies here.  It is timed to accompany the look of uncertainty and discomfort on the girl’s face.

The next sound is home.  Mum is clearly an artist.  Home is peaceful and industrious; we hear the sound of creativity as the girl arrives home (a fruitful place of creation – or Creation? – which by drawing ‘appropriate’ pictures herself she, the girl, shows she is being trained to belong to).

When the girl says “Kerry drew two mummies,” there is a fraction of a second of silence, the first silence we have heard, drawing our attention to the words.

There is no diegetic sound under this whole dialogue.  Sonically, the space is being cleared for the key point, “But what matters, is how Jehova feels.” (0:44).  And this moment is where the non-diegetic musical score finally begins.  (Is it non-diegetic?  Or is it the music of heaven found with the discussions of the woman and girl?  We shall see!)

The music, the organised, pleasing, regular sound, is clearly deemed to be Jehova‘s.  All the random, unstructured foley sound heard up until this point, happening as a by-product of human activity, is, by contrast, meant to be heard as ‘of this world’.

We have a brief moment of a held G played by strings, then a slight swell, as mum picks up the Bible at 0:43.  The music is anticipating something – and it turns out that this G is the dominant note, resolving into C major as the book is opened and we are transported into ‘Jehova’s’ world.  It underlines the change of visuals too, as the colour turns from grey to warm, sunset colours.

The music is played on flutes and strings: sweet, triadic, a descending sequential chain of suspensions leading to a settled place.  There is a fair bit of alternation between chords I and IV – the ‘amen’ function, if you like, and a movement that keeps the music stable within its key.

Note that the flute melody peaks at 1:01.  This is where the mother says the words “male and female” with some emphasis on those words.  A powerful bit of semiotics in this scoring here, making full use of the psychology of melodic structure; the anticipation and realisation of expectations as the arc of the melody crests provide something that feels like an answer to a question.

The music is very much in what I think of as an ‘American pastoral’ tradition.  In Hollywood soundtrack, this gentle, consonant, orchestral sound is so often heard with panoramic agricultural landscapes featuring warm sunlight and expanses of fertile land, or reminiscence, or stirring messages in the dialogue or voice-over.  We can roughly trace the musical language back to some of Aaron Copland’s most iconic work (Appalachian Spring may be the best known).  In my opinion, the USA has a markedly patriotic culture as a whole, and there is a tendency to associate that which is American with that which is wholesome in their mainstream cultural output.

The foley sound in this section reinforces the pastoral musical hints – we hear birdsong, burbling streams, things associated with that which is natural.  Can we infer an indirect comparison with what is not deemed to be natural here: a family built from a lesbian relationship?  Again, the subtlety of this message bypasses conscious thought potentially and, although the tone of this cartoon at face value might be thought to be measured, the subtext diving straight into the subconscious of the young viewer seems pretty extreme to me.

Now, this sound-design layer of the soundtrack gives us a little foreshadowing of the next part of the message.  While the sweet, pastoral music continues along its bland way into the airport images, the sounds above it turn to less appealing, man-made ones.  Straight away as a viewer I felt less comfortable.

This leads into the next bit of their message.  The things that you want to ‘take onto the plane’ that are ‘not allowed’.  As the man carrying the (red!) bag full of forbidden items steps through the airport scanning machine, the alarm starts (1:19) and the soothing music stops.  The girl’s voice, heard for the first time since mum started her ‘lesson’, says in a high pitch “he can’t go on the trip!” – the change in voice and in tone emphasises this plunging into a new soundworld.  The flashing lights (that lack any realism in a straight analogy with the airport!) are also red, like the bag.  The colour of danger, of fire, of blood.  The jerk of the effect is all the more enhanced for having been preceded by a minute or so of bland c major flute, harp and string underscore.

The ‘Jehova’ music returns almost immediately as we are reassured that Jehova wants us to be his friends and live with him “for ever“.  There is an interesting little bit of sound design in this next sequence (1:33-1:34).  As the camera pulls backwards over the heavenly hills back to the man with the offending red bag, there are two ‘swoosh’ noises to coincide with cresting the hills.  It is a sound of power and could possibly be intended to imply that Jehova (who wants us to make it to his paradise, it has just been stated) is now transporting us back to this gateway.  The gateway is situated this time within the natural, ‘paradise,’ scenes, which lays the analogy bare.  The ‘swoosh’ happens again as the camera zooms in on the errant man, as though Jehova is focusing his attention on him – and we see him, of course, consulting a Bible!

At 1:43 the scene returns to the present reality of home, and mum talking.  Nonetheless, the ‘paradise’ music remains.  Mum is saying “that means anything that Jehova doesn’t approve of.”  She is bringing the heavenly message into our world, the music is saying, with her refusal to accept homosexuality as legitimate.

Then, at 1:46 the man dumps his bag of ‘disapproved of’ things and there is a satisfying foley representation of the bag landing, before a glittering Mark Tree welcomes him to paradise.  These tinkles are magical sound, in Hollywood tradition, and are heard often in the Romance genre when the moment of resolution in the form of a kiss arrives.  The union of God and his children has long been spoken of using a marriage analogy; the Church as the ‘Bride of Christ’ is familar to most Christians.  The ‘magic’ tinkles of the Mark Tree are also commonly heard in Christmas movies when a child’s dreams are made true for us in moving picture form.

Thereafter, we return to the here and now – home.  The girl wants “everyone to get to Paradise” and “so does Jehova”.  Now the underscoring changes to another familiar Hollywood style.  It is gently busy and there is internal emphasis of the rhythm.  The texture in the orchestration is light and playful but still fuller, using pizzicato cellos, glockenspiel and clarinet.  Now we are purposeful: this kind of style is usually used in Romantic Comedy to accompany a narrative moving on, a goal has been established.  Often in Hollywood, we see people at work towards something positive when we hear this sound.

The composer employs harmonies that give a flavour of Mixolydian: 2 bars of dominant chord are followed by two bars repeating the melody sequentially, but springing up to the chord of the flat 7th.  The effect of this progression is friendly, and like moving up steps towards a goal.

What is the goal?  At 1:58 mum ask “what can you say to Kerry?”  The clarinet plays a little melodic sequence, taken up by other wind:

The Tune!

Again, both the structure of this melody, based on the neutral intervals of major 2nds and perfect 4ths and 5ths, and the choice of orchestration, remind me of Copland in nationalistic mode – the wide open perfect intervals like the stretching of the American plains.  They are, more obviously, reaching up towards heaven as the girl makes her plan to tell Kerry that she must reject her home and parents (essentially!).

A cute little tune, a bit like an advertising jingle, concludes the cartoon, as mum says “That’s awesome! Let’s practise!” and we conclude in C major with an added 6th.  The added 6th to me is the most static of the blue notes, as it has no burning desire to resolve to another note.  I attribute this partly to its being a member of the pentatonic family – it sits happily with a major triad as part of that scale of five semitone-free notes that sound consonant (even heavenly!) to human ears.

Major 7ths and 9ths (even though 9ths are also in the pentatonic scale) pull towards the tonic because of their proximity to it; minor 7ths potentially destabilise by pulling down towards the submediant note and even hint at a new tonic base on the existing chord IV; the more exotic or astringent added notes, such as a #11, have even more of a dissonant tendency to imply irresolution.  But the added 6th, while it could flop down to the dominant note, sits complacent and I always think lends a self-satisfied (and distinctly ‘cheesy’) air to any harmonic world!  The ‘JW’ logo appears as it lingers.

So, all in all, there are many messages to be found if you scratch just below the surface of this soundtrack.  I think that for being insidious, this is all the more potent.

I should like to say, though it is not relevant to this discussion, that I am religious myself, but in a very different way from this group.  I should like to find an example of spiritual ideas presented in a more honest, authentic and exploratory manner in audio-visual media as a starting point for open discussion of the ‘bigger picture’ and what gives our lives meaning.  I’ll report back if I find such a thing, and take a look for contrast!

Hoffmann, R. 2017 Daily Film Scoring Bits. [online] March 14th 2017.  Available from: http://www.robin-hoffmann.com/dfsb/daily-film-scoring-bits-archive-jan-jun-2017/.  [Accessed: 26th November 2017]

Two awareness-raising short films


I have found this project by a company called Creative Connection in conjunction with an organisation called The Worldwide Tribe.

They have made two short films with two refugees, each working with the animators to tell their stories.

Changing the narrative is the aim – a problem that is exercising everyone who is in any way involved with the refugee crisis.  I have been to various summits and meetings as a founder of Herts Welcomes Syrian Families (websiteFacebook page) and this is always a topic that preoccupies us: how to help people see it from the refugees’ point of viewwhen the loudest voices in the media are tending to vilify them with insinuations, leaving some people with the impression that the majority of people fleeing war are either opportunists or malignant enemies.

I thought these films were very good indeed.  The animation is lively; it draws and holds the eye.  The stories are concisely told, imparting a lot of information in a few words – and difficult to hear, too.

Also – the most unsettling part – there is heavy use of sound, to put the viewer inside the story being told.  I understand that this is no accident now, that sound by its very nature has a quality that can slip directly under our cognitive radar and operate directly on the dreaming part of our brains.

Some devices I noted in Zeinah

The first of these two little films, for example, uses the same trick of introducing the ringing in the ears (see 0:29 in Zeinah) that Robynn Stilwell examines in her analysis of Closet Land (Stilwell 2005).   This high pitched ringing sound has to be internal, inside Zeinah, triggered by the loud bomb and violent fall.  So immediately we know that it is subjective and that we are in Zeinah’s point of audition, which brings us closer into her world.

Then when the terrible incident of her friend being shot by a sniper as they do something as ordinary as buy food for her family happens, we are already connected empathically to Zeinah, already grateful to her friend for the support she is lending and I certainly felt a pang of shock and sadness when it was described and depicted.

Another device that I thought was effective was the choice to omit  something: the trudging footsteps sound.  At the beginning, we see Zeinah on the road of exile, in the now picture of familiar line of people walking away from Syria.  But we don’t hear the footsteps then – we hear a foreshadowing of her description of what she escaped from.  Then when we see her in an ordinary domestic place, somewhere we ourselves may be, doing the same activities she describes, the incongruity is already highlighted for us: we are already thinking of danger.

The final use of sound I liked was the noises of the refugee camp lingering in our ears at the end – a story without an ending – yet…  As we lose the picture, there is an internalising, a thoughtful quality that emerges, inviting us to dwell on the distress expressed in the last piece of the monologue.  It seems to me that the message we are asked to consider by this device is ‘Why do we assume that a refugee would rather not be at home?  Why do we think that someone would rather be in a foreign land, estranged from everything familiar and comfortable, everything entwined with their own history and experience, without language skills or access to work, education or services?’

Here is the other film, Yaman:

STILLWELL, R.J., 2005. Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape, in: Screen Methods Comparative Readings. Furby, J. and Randell, K. (eds.) Wallflower Press: London, pp. 48–58.


A Bit Of Video Art On A Saturday

I am enjoying watching some video art on this site today.

Here are two that I particularly liked.

‘Mound’, by Allison Schulnik

I loved the representation of the vicissitudes of human experience, somehow portrayed so succinctly through a bit of clay and paint.  Aren’t artists clever?!  Although there is no soundwork in this piece, I did appreciate the careful, thoughtful syncing of her animation with the song she used.  This song-synchronisation is a basic but very effective way of working the chemistry between sight and sound.

I realise it is what I was doing here – and the interesting thing was most lay-people of my acquaintance did not respond to the musical setting of the poem at all when I made it public, but when synced with pictures that told a contemporary version of the story Auden was exploring, the same people reacted very strongly.  Many, in fact, said the song made them cry.  But of course, it wasn’t just the song.  And it wasn’t just the pictures, as these images have been familiar to us all from the news for four years now.  It was the entire experience.

Closed Circuit (in the Middle of Sweden) by Mattias Haerenstam

Now the sound in this one is designed – by the artist himself, I think – and it is worth highlighting a few of the devices used.

  •  A low, rushing wind sound appears at the beginning (before we see the place, even), but this sound is not reflected in the very, very still, dank weather conditions depicted.  What then, is its function?  The place is rather desolate and the theme of the piece would at first glance appear to be about how we can be literally consumed by a place and a repetitive routine tying us there,  pulled deeper and deeper in by economic or social realities, or psychological state, binding us to them perhaps.
  • As the camera moves down the street, we do not hear footsteps or engine sound.  This first of all suggests to me that the place is more the subject than any observer within it.  We do, after all, hear background traffic and the footsteps of a man passing the end of the road (rather closer than we should, making it more claustrophobic).  Or, perhaps we are simply being asked to focus on the ambiance and the mood it lends.  Or, more likely I think, the space is being cleared sonically for us to hear and feel…
  • The impending event of consumption.  As the ‘gravity well’ [‘gravity well’ defined here!] of the hole is entered, we begin to hear the new ambiance associated with inside the hole/digestion, as though the sound is the pull of the suction towards it.  (Sounds like maybe a reversed stretched gong or something, but I don’t know!)
  • The internal sounds.  The heartbeat begins after we first enter the throat/gut.  The clacking teeth slightly set mine on edge!
  • Interestingly, the camera is not swallowed first time around, but moves over the epiglottis and passes through the vocal folds.  The street-mouth should have ‘choked’ – which is perhaps why we appear back at the start of another loop of the closed circuit, despite the street now being body-coloured and the continuation of the heartbeat suggesting we remain ‘inside’ the ‘creature’.  Anyway, I love the way the artist makes the vocal folds look so evil as we approach them – and the little hiss of air as we pass through is a great, evocative sound effect, echoed by…
  • The release of air at the end of the sequence inside the gut, when we pass through the rectum and the sphincter releases us.  Lovely little sound of a temporary vacuum being equalized and, of course, we immediately think of passing wind or fecal matter.

I really liked this one a lot and found I was able to watch it several times in a row to unpick the sound design without tiring of it at all.

Gravity wells – sonic Rossini crescendo – building a frequency tower

The sonic representation of a gravity well is something I should like to have an opportunity to explore myself.  It occurred to me that this could be used effectively as an emotional device – getting pulled (perhaps reluctantly) into a state of mind or situation or decision of immense emotional gravity.

This is often done in Hollywood with ‘whooshes’, ‘rises’ and the like.  There is always a crescendo involved.  I’d rather like to try a kind of ‘Rossini Crescendo’, adding sound systematically to create a sense of getting closer to something emotionally.

Or perhaps I could try deconstructing a sound rich in overtones to its constituent frequencies.  I could then build the noise back up from scratch like an edifice, revealing it as I construct.  I wonder if this would have a quality of revelation to it?

Image for this post taken from Closed Circuit (in the Middle of Sweden) by Mattias Haerenstam, 2011


Reading #5 – Forbidden Planet

The article Strange Voices: Subjectivity and Gender in Forbidden Planet’s Soundscape of Tomorrow, written by Stephen Prock and published in Journal of the Society for American Music, (Prock, Bick (ed) & Katz (ed) 2014) makes a few points that I found interesting:

  • That, originating from a kind of ‘semiotic limbo’ by using a kind of music that lacked the traditional heritage of orchestral film scoring, Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic score reflected a certain ideological ambivalence in musical modernist thought at the time.  There was a will among leading thinkers in the movement towards pure sonic autonomy; however there were tensions in such a music existing in a society based on commerce.  So these electronic sounds were a fresh start in film scoring, losing certain historical baggage, but also brought these new sound-worlds into a more functional role than previously they had been used.
  • That the film is ‘obsessed with the body’ and that bodies male and newly vulnerable, female and sexualised, mechanical, alien, detached from consciousness and invisible, pervade it.  It is argued that the Barrons’ sounds ‘tie their sonic representations more clearly and insistently to bodily representation, determining who or what is capable of being musically represented’.  I was interested in the idea of electronic music signifying disembodiment and unseen beings.
  • That the Barron’s themselves, Louis in particular, seemed to compare their sound-emitting circuits to sentient beings: “When our circuits reached the end of their existence (an overload point), they would climax in an orgasm of power and die. In the film, many of the sounds seem like the last paroxysm of a living creature.” (Louis Barron).   The author then compared their process in time of the circuits to the narrative arc of the film itself.
  • That sound itself seems to consume men at one point in the film – there is a moment of invisible energy represented by high-energy sound, during which the men’s bodies are simultaneously consumed.  The author speaks of the possibility of male rape in the subtext of the film.
  • Voice is explored a little.  Contemporary critics seemed to express their (strong) reactions to the sound-world of the score in terms of human affective or animal vocalisations.
  • That the only character with any kind of lyrical character music is the woman, Alta.  Her own ‘quasi-leitmotif‘ becomes the love music and concludes the film.  The suggestion here is that her personality is subsumed by the eventual entering into a traditional heterosexual union.

PROCK, S., BICK, S., KATZ, M. (2014) Strange Voices: Subjectivity and Gender in Forbidden Planet’s Soundscape of Tomorrow. Journal of the Society for American Music; Cambridge 8, 371–400. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.herts.ac.uk/10.1017/S1752196314000248

Reading #2 – Ratatouille

More rats!  I hope this isn’t a recurring theme as I’m not so keen on them…!

This article, Sonic Subjectivity and Auditory Perspective in Ratatouille (Collins, 2013), goes into satisfying depth about sound representations of individual perspective and the techniques used to achieve them.

It discusses:

  • Microphone placement.  For example a scene where two rats are in dialogue alters the perspective mid-scene to a visually distant point while not altering the microphone placement.  This apparent contradiction actually serves to keep us psychologically close to the characters while providing physical perspective to enhance our understanding of the story.
  • Loudspeaker placement and ‘proxemics’ – the study of distance between people as they interact.  This can be replicated by careful placing of sound within an auditorium and create natural sympathies by mimicking the various zones of intimacy interpreted by the human psyche from the space between ourselves and another person.  It occurred to me, as I read this, that this technique could equally be used to extend feelings of intimidation or violation when a person behaves aggressively and therefore could also build up feelings of antipathy towards a character.
  • Signal processing effects.  She gives the example of the use of a low-pass filter to replicate the experience of being underwater, which is effective in communicating the sensation even when the camera is not following the character in the water 100% of the time.  To me this suggests that what we hear can have – at the subconscious level at least – more dominance over our experience of the world than what we see, despite being such a visually-oriented culture.  I’m remembering here Walter Murch’s musings on hearing being the first sense of life – indeed, the only one, for the first nine months.
    (Murch, W. – foreword to Chion, M., Gorbman, C., 1994. Audio-vision: sound on screen. Columbia University Press, New York.)

To identify these techniques and name them explicitly, rather than relying on artistic intuition to happen upon them, is incredibly useful.  I don’t want the success of a project to rely on chance and depend on the presence of inspiration!

COLLINS, K. (2013) Sonic Subjectivity and Auditory Perspective in Ratatouille. Animation 8, 283–299. doi:10.1177/1746847713507164


Points of Audition 2 – Hikaru

What sensory overload is

“The thing about sensory overload is that it is the inability of the brain to filter out anything, because all things are information. Touch, sound, words, visual stimuli, light, dark, touch, even the body’s own systems such as heartbeat which is always in the background, the brain’s own electrical sound which is often received as perpetual tinnitus which most autisics/aspies listen through in order to hear their environment.”

“…it’s so loud, it’s deafening. Do not think in terms of volume as in loudness, but rather as in volume as in capacity ie. Too much information.”

“…multiple sounds from multiple objects/environment, immediate environment. All sound is at the same ‘volume’ as in level. So all sounds, regardless of level are received at the same ‘volume’ ie. there is no distinction between soft, light, quiet, loud, ear-shattering, ear-piercing…”

“Even though it is 7am and everyone else in the house is asleep, I can hear at equal volume:

  • 8KHz fuzz from my brain
  • The fan of my PC which modulates slightly
  • My neck making small clicking noises as I move my head
  • Some cars outside, even though the nearest road is about 100m away
  • An aeroplane flying overhead, it is quite high and has propellers
  • An external hard disk which has just “woken up” and the disk is spinning up
  • A cat scratching in another room.”

The effect it has

“…if I can give you a visual example (as Autistic I think visually) I would say this: a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, and then on and on and on until the original image is so degraded it cannot be understood … then [I experience the] blue screen of death type experience. This is the only way I can convey what it is like.”

“…remember analogue loop machine recorders where one would sample a sound and then loop it, and then be able to sample that and loop again?…”

“Sound becomes like finger nails going down a chalk board, which increase in intensity until it becomes one solid noise.”

“…distortion … a single phrase/voice saying something becomes repeated over and over again until it becomes so distorted it is unrecognisable and message is unable to be understood.”

“…think in terms of what a machine would do, or what would happen if a machine were overloaded, ie, a fuse blows, it heats up/overheats, things become distorted, computer gives blue screen of death…”

“Every vibration from them moving around in the flat above me, is as if someone is hovering directly over my head getting closer & closer. Until it literally feels as if they are walking all over my head. Yet others who are in my flat at the time & don’t have heightened senses usually claim they can’t even hear any noise.”

“When I’m at my computer & get sensory overload it can be like a glowing light is coming out of the computer. It quickly increases until it’s as if it’s going directly into my brain. That light beam becomes all that I can think about or see.”

‘Proximity Effect’ (autistic version…)

“A sound right in one’s face really isn’t very nice, it’s … like a needle under the skin, or a hostile attack.”

What abrupt noises do

“… [an] example: at a cafe, a waiter dropped a plate onto another plate behind the serving area. The sound was high piercing and sharp and physically experienced for me like a gun or a canon going off, it went right through my body, my whole being felt the sharpness of it. It made me jump. It jarred. It’s not nice. It feels hostile.”

What your own body sounds like if you experience sensory overload

“…the perpetual tinnitus, this sound is like the old TV’s when you unplug the aerial, but at a higher frequency. For me this frequency is about 8KHz.”

How it affects the day-to-day life of someone who experiences it

Perhaps the best example I can give you is if you have a bad hangover. You now have to go and do an IQ test whilst sitting in a children’s nursery full of playing / screaming kids. After 8 hours would you rather go home and sit quietly or go out to a party?

These are direct quotations from adults on the autistic spectrum.  They gave their time generously and patiently to help me understand as best I can what overload feels like.  This really helped me get inside little Hikaru’s head and I am very grateful to them.

Although, as one contributor pointed out, no one experience is the same, there is enough obvious common ground for us to agree comfortably that we can understand one another when we use the term ‘sensory overload’.

From these discussions, I isolated a series of aural-neurological phenomena:

  • a build-up of simultaneous sonic events, for someone who cannot filter aural information as a typically-wired brain can, will easily tip the brain into distress and it shuts down into panic mode: the ‘blue screen of death’.  There is no ‘cocktail party effect‘.
  • Many people with autism cannot filter out their own body sounds, so they hear their brains as a kind of tinnitus, as well as other sounds from inside the body.  A neurotypical person would only notice these things if in a place of unusual quiet.
  • Sounds close up feel like invasions – proximity is amplified.
  • Abrupt, sharp sounds are distressing and felt physically.
  • When overload is triggered, it can be hard for the brain to stop processing sound information, and it sounds something like it would if I could put a delay plug-in on real life!
  • Every day life with less neural filtering and different sensory information processing can be as exhausting as spending a working day in a room full of screaming children with a hangover while concentrating very hard on a difficult task.  If an adult, who is accustomed to this experience of the world finds it this jarring and draining, imagine how a pre-school child, who has neither the learning nor the brain maturity to find coping mechanisms, would handle it!

So here is how I replicated it:

  • The build up of events was generated by layering.  I used the same recording of ‘party hubbub’ five times over, one in each channel clean, and then three processed with various distortions (chorus; phaser; enhanced reverbs).  Each sound had a different EQ setting, automated to boost different frequencies at different times like a kind of sonic Mexican wave.  I also automated the panning to add to the confusion.  The distorted versions come in after the clean versions.
  • I underlined this confusing version of ambience with sine wave drones on C0 and C1 to try and replicate the physical feeling of being invaded by the sound.
  • The ‘tinnitus hum’ was easy, as someone had very helpfully given a description and even a frequency!  I simply used Cubase’s built in synth, Retrologue, to add white noise and distortion to a C7 (roughly equivalent to 8KHz), playing by ear until it sounded like a high-pitched version of a de-tuned television hiss.  This enters, you notice, as soon as we enter Hikaru’s point of audition and acts as a signpost.  Although he is holding it together in the first picture of him in the temple, we are still starting to hear what he hears and the music is perhaps foreshadowing the meltdown to come.
  • The abrupt and close-up sounds I chose to use were a loud man’s laugh and a chair being knocked down.  Both of these sounds were heavily compressed and artificially raised in levels with make-up gain.  They also both had some brutal EQ settings!  The man’s voice was heavily boosted in a shallow curve peaking at 1000Hz, which is where his most penetrating overtones seemed to sit.  
  • Using a delay-plug in on these sounds to replicate the inability to finish processing a sound when the brain is tipping into overload didn’t seem to work as well as layering these sounds manually, so that is what I did.  The chair had its lower frequencies enhanced in the repetitions of the sound, as though the brain is ‘dwelling’ on the boomy, thunderous quality within that sound.
  • The chanting that we see pictured was also a good cue to bring in a sonic event hard to process, that might seem frightening to a little boy nearly at the point of sensory meltdown.  I found a recording of Buddhist chanting and, again, I suppressed higher and enhanced lower frequencies as well as slightly time-stretching, to give a kind of submerged feeling to them.  I felt this made the sound more threatening, as though muffled by a panicking brain.  I also gave it its own special convolusion reverb.
  • The chanting was layered with a special adulterated cello section, boosted at around 100Hz, treated with a distortion plug-in and put through an algorithm reverb and quite viciously panned, automated between extreme left and right .  This was an attempt to pull out from the original sound something like what Hikaru might pick up from it after a moment, a sort of amplified, engorged, mechanised insect buzzing.
  • The final sonic event is some tinging bells, which appear in the illustrations and I have also heard on recordings of chanting.  I found a suitable bell sound, a brittle, high pitched instrument, then used a distorted piccolo to pick up the note and continue it, bending the pitch up and crescendoing towards the end of each one, like a piercing neural echo of the original, cutting, sound. 
  • This final event repeats with increasing rapidity, culminating in the climax that is Hikaru’s eventual meltdown.  I emphasised this rising panic with a reversed cymbal and reversed triangles joining the piccolo.

During the meltdown itself, the tinnitus hiss and the low-frequency drones continue, as they represent internal sound and unrest, but the other events cut in and out, simultaneously and randomly, as though Hikaru’s brain is now processing the distressing onslaught of sound information in fits and starts, like a car engine spluttering and cutting in and out, perhaps.  The music here features Hikaru’s inwardly resolving tritone motif: rapid, panicked, and played on a distorted piano sound.

I synced distorted, reversed taps on the mic with Hikaru banging his head to try and relieve the electrical storm inside it.  These, the low-frequency drone and the tinnitus hiss continue into the garden, as the brain activity calms down.  When the hiss cuts out, we know we are back to Sachiko’s point of audience.

Here is the entire sequence:

I think I learned more about sensory overload by doing this exercise than any of the reading I’ve done around the subject.  My helpful autistic allies, by the way, confirmed that this section of sound is an accurate representation of what they experience in sensory overload.

Points of Audition 1 – Sachiko

This time I’m really doing it!

I’m going to go through the two different viewpoints in the With the Light sound – Sachiko’s and Hikaru’s – and list what I learned from discussions with people on the National Autistic Society discussion forums, and how I reproduced what they were saying with the digital sound kit at my disposal.


Sachiko’s point of audition is represented with the non-diegetic music.  I would say that most of the music we hear is from her point of audition; even the bits depicting other characters are actually showing how the other characters affect her state of mind.  For example, the well-behaved little niece, Noa, is portrayed (very unfairly!) by the sickly sweet glockenspiel and cello, constantly rising in pitch as though eager to please everyone all the time!  Of course, this is not how the little girl is, but how Sachiko sees her in the midst of her agitation, exerting all her energy in her attempts to get Hikaru to ‘fit’ this mould too.

The only exception to the music being purely Sachiko’s is Hikaru’s little repeated inwardly resolving diminished 5th, previously discussed.

As a general rule, Sachiko’s music is in two halves – the tense first section as she keeps trying to make it work, and the deeply melancholy second section when she has failed to make it work.  They are divided by a moment of silence when it has just all fallen apart.  The silence allows the rain to start.

This is the first device that I should like to develop.

Absolute silence, without even ambient noise, always feels like a very internal thing to me on screen.

I know that absolute silence is actually not possible in real life.  When people are put in entirely sound-proof, dampened rooms where there is essentially no external sound, their own body sounds quickly come to the forefront of audibility.  Therefore, by definition, absolute silence in soundtrack must be a symbolic representation of something else in our consciousness.

It can be used to portray moments of shock or grief, those moments when adrenaline courses through veins and feels like it’s bleaching our bodies from the inside.  There is an alarming whiteness about absolute silence, I find.

You can then examine the interplay of internal and external worlds – what is invading the consciousness of a person.

Even alternating between quasi-silence with ambience presence and absolute silence could feel like an audience is dipping in and out of a character’s head.  Absolute silence is also like a new page that you can drop new words or colours onto and draw attention to these ideas.

The new idea that drops onto Sachiko’s page is the piano.  The ‘raindrop’ melody that the last section is built on from there was the first part of the soundtrack that I wrote and I think in writing it I did draw on my own memories of the early days of being a mum, when I often doubted the connection between my child and me.  (Of course, it turned out that my love was going in and in time my child learned to communicate love back, and the same happens for Sachiko.)  Having written that motif, however, it was easy to re-use the rising perfect 6ths at the beginning to imitate Sachiko repeating Hikaru’s name again and again, coaxing her son out of the car with that tense false jollity of the anxious mother!

The other thing to say is obvious – in this soundtrack, musical sound represents a mature brain that is neurologically typical and organised; amusical sound represents a young, unregulated brain that is also on the autistic spectrum and therefore finds it much more difficult to filter out or effectively process sensory information.

Juxtaposing these two sound worlds in a kind of sound sandwich is not a subtle way to map out the contrast for an audience, but I believe it can be done in a more fluid, immediate way, perhaps even within one dialogue.

This idea leads us on to Hikaru…