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
I read a chapter recently that covered a lot of what I’ve been considering in this blog: Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape written by Robynn J. Stilwell. (Stilwell 2005)
Stilwell briefly examines the association between sound and the feminine – something which has never occurred to me before and which I found quite fascinating! She does – as something of a disclaimer – allude to the tendency of Western thought towards the binary (sound = female; vision = male, or, objective = male, subjective = female, etc).
In the second half of the chapter, Stilwell uses the film Closet Land as a vehicle to explore the potential of soundscape in the cinema, proposing that it is the sound design in this film that takes the viewer beyond the experience of watching a play with one set and two actors (which, otherwise, it could be).
She picks out many interesting sound devices, firmly rooted in the psyche (the place strongly associated with the feminine in this story) as well as examining the use of the score.
I watched the film this evening – working backwards, as it often makes more sense to read the commentary after watching! – and noticed many of the things she alluded to. It certainly was a disturbing film! I did wonder as I watched if the organised sound that is Richard Einhorn’s score could be said to align with the paranoid, totalitarian fictional government in opposition to the more primal, perhaps more honest bits of non-musical sound design that originate clearly from the point of audition of the female protagonist being interrogated. That said, as the film progresses and the agent of government fails to invade the female protagonist’s clear mind, this alignment appeared to cease and it is a very different musical ambiance heard at the end. I may need to watch it again (great, more torture…!) to examine this first impression more closely.
STILWELL, R.J. (2005) Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape. In Furby, J. & Randell, K. (Eds) , Screen methods: comparative readings in film studies. Wallflower: London.
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
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.
- 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