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

My film!

I am leading production of a mixed-media short film for the charity Herts Welcomes Syrian Families.

I will be working with an artist on animated sections telling the story of a Syrian refugee, and with a young film crew on an interview montage of individuals who came together to form HWSF, before providing all sound and music for the film.

Here is the information video:

… and here is more information on the project:

https://igg.me/at/hwsf-film/x/19478006

Ideas #1

 

 

I’m going to write some posts about personal projects.

I’ve been undertaking lots of work lately for other people, or for my master’s degree course, which has been incredibly valuable for learning and establishing working relationships with other creative producers.

Because of this, my own areas of interest, as explored right here in this blog, have been slightly shelved during this time, even if the other projects feed into ideas and technical skills – so I felt it would be helpful to articulate some of what I want to have a go at, to ensure the ideas don’t ‘drift‘.

I have been thinking on about sensory subjectivity and autism, which continues to interest me, as at the heart of it, really, is the same old question ‘what is consciousness?’ (I just started reading this book, which promises to look askance at the same question, from a different perspective, and might fuel some interesting ideas for further work, though I note the reader reviews are pretty mixed.)

I had an online conversation with an autistic adult a few years ago, during which he told me a little of his childhood.  He was saying that his parents used to worry like crazy about what looked to them like a cognitive absence as he was visually ‘stimming’.  He wished to reassure other parents of children with autism that it is OK, the stimming is a useful thing, that autistic children will turn into interesting, capable autistic adults, but that they must be allowed to regulate their sensory processes.  It was a very kind comment.  But it was the description of what stimming looked and felt like that captured me.  He said that if he stared long enough at certain patterns, they took on a kind of iridescent quality that eventually pulled him into a peaceful, beautiful landscape, a place of mental repose for him – and also a source of delight.

One idea for a final major project for the degree is to produce my own animation, a highly-coloured artistic representation of this effect, and an accompanying sound-world that draws in natural sounds and transforms them, to try and replicate the neurological journey.  It would be flanked by two monochrome sections where a parent is trying and failing to engage a child in communication, failing to see that the child is clearly communicating that s/he needs right now to be doing exactly what s/he is doing and that this is no cause for sadness.

I was put in contact by a mutual friend with American artist Angela Weddle, who produced this digital sketch for me, from her own projection of what such a world might ‘feel’ like, drawing partly on her own experience.

Here is a video showing how the image was built:

And here is the finished image:

Spinning Tops A Weddle

As I am keen to be involved in producing the animation as far as my limited visual creative prowess allows, I am doing my best not to anticipate how it will sound too early in the process, tempting though it is!  But I already known the incremental layering of strands seen here must be present in the soundtrack, and that it must use the naturally occurring sound design and Foley with added sounds representing the child’s own internal processes, in order to present the child’s entire neural construct of the world, with all the elements that build it.

I’ll keep you posted on this work!

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.

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

http://withrefugees.ccmicro.co.uk/

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.

 

The Charity Film Awards

The National Autistic Society tell me they have just been awarded by the Charity Film Awards for this short but powerful little film about overload in autistic people:

 

I didn’t know about the Charity Film Awards, but this would appear to be a very good place to begin looking in this sector of the film industry, a sector made hugely important by the recent explosion in social media and one that is directly relevant to my interests.

The Charity Film Awards

I will watch those nominated films that interest me and report back on what I learn about use of soundtrack!

Given my interest in trying to use soundtrack in film to generate empathy, this may also be an excellent place to look for interviewees for next semester’s creative economies module, which requires us to find a senior figure in the part of our industry that interests us, in order to interview them about an up-to-date issue.

Little Interlude…

Just as an aside before I plunge back into With The Light and points of audition, my helpful tutor set me on a trail that led me here.

To me, it seems to be a meditation on the constant observing, self-observation and being observed that is a staple of existence as a woman, and on the feedback loop between these observations and our projected identity.

I have often thought about how the lines get blurred in our heads between this projected identity and the autonomous identity that we would otherwise derive from our core of personality.   I think Tai Shani might be looking at how the make and break of female identity depends on how we are observed – particularly the conclusions people draw solely from our appearance – and how confusing it can be to try to identify our authentic responses to what we experience.

In the end, the withdrawal of male scrutiny, the lack of identity bestowed, ‘kills’ the real being – and the watchers too!  And yet the scrutiny continues.

Difference in male and female experiences of identity, how we are respectively perceived and how we respond accordingly are definitely an area I could explore!

Strange and dream-like though this art is, I picked up a few concrete technical ideas that I really liked.

  • One is the way this artist deliberately blurs lip-syncs.  This to me conveys quite nicely the interruption of language communication by social anxiety, poor communication, disrupted social expectations, emotive states, people communicating with opposing agendas, or any number of interesting phenomena within dialogues.
  • Similarly, she often ‘mis-points’ the camera away from speaker to confuse who is the speaker and who is the hearer, whether the voice is external or internal.
  • Sometimes, the wrong person is issuing the words.   It is as though the man looking on the corpse (for example) has become a voice in the woman’s head indistinguishable from her own – another phenomenon I thoroughly recognise from personal experience.
  • Another device I liked is the alteration of the sound quality of the opening music as we switch between points of view.