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

Women in the field

Slightly reluctantly, I found myself investigating women in sound and music for audio-visual media, as a university assignment.

I say reluctant, as these discussions of low representation – and why it’s low – always make me feel a bit scrutinised and defensive, being a woman myself.

I come up against the ‘boys and girls are just different’ thing again and again whenever the subject is approached, and deep down the (unintended) message registers that having two x chromosomes means I don’t naturally belong in this world.

And although this is surely not what people intend, some small voice in me also wonders whether I will have the natural gifts of my male peers – or perhaps that I’m some kind of freak if I do get into it!  I also have this nagging sense that if I am not instantly amazing at the work, I confirm in people’s minds that it’s not a girl’s game, rather than just thinking “ah well, on with the learning”.

I know, I know, it is ridiculous…!  I’m at liberty to pursue whatever career interests me, even if it is a highly competitive world dominated by the xy types.  But whenever you’re a minority in anything, it is impossible just to be yourself doing the work, no matter what people will say.  Whatever it is that makes you different is also visible.

However, things became a bit more positive as I went on.  I have had some fascinating and – actually – very encouraging interactions as a result of this work, and plan to extend it a little for my own interest.

I enjoyed my communications with Caro Churchill of the Delia Derbyshire Day charity based in Manchester, who has been privately sharing her experiences of teaching electronic music in primary and secondary schools and introduced me to the project Female Pressure.  She firmly believes that visibility is the key, that girls see women working in electronic music and draw their own conclusions.

Caro pointed out that Delia Derbyshire herself said “Women are good at sound and the reason is that they have the ability to interpret what the producer wants, they can read between the lines and get through to them (the producers) as a person. Women are good at abstract stuff, they have sensitivity and good communication. They have the intricacy – for tape cutting, which is a very delicate job you know….”  See here for the interview the quote came from!

I received a very supportive message from the good people of Spitfire Audio.

I have had some really interesting, nuanced answers from Dr Andy Hill, writer, film music scholar, former senior music supervisor for Disney and teacher of some very well-known names, about the culture in the entertainment business and to what extent it holds women back.

I had a fascinating chat with Donna Lynas of Wysing Arts Centre, a thriving ‘arts research’ hub that has a particular focus on being a platform for the less heard voices.

Many people are interested and concerned about this issue, this is quite clear; I think change is eminently possible.

Uni wanted a 13-minute video essay and I was under severe time constraints (both in terms of time allowed for the work and video length).  This meant that I was not able to include the breadth of content I wished to, nor to make the video as slick and professional as I would have liked.

I may yet make a longer version, with more input from other people in the field and maybe with a score by myself and/or other women. I’m still in conversation with quite a few people about that.

It also led to a new Facebook community after I privately shared it with some online peers, ‘Women Composers’ Collective,’ which has been fantastic – bringing together lots of hyper-creative women from all sorts of different areas of sound and music making!

This was a bit of a personal journey too, then, given that I began the process reluctantly!

For the time being, here is what I have produced so far:

 

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.

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.

Islands – a choral piece

I thought it was worth mentioning another project I’ve been working on.  While this is not a soundtrack work but a free-standing piece of music for performance, it does draw on several of the themes I’ve been exploring here too.

This was a commission from my parents to mark their 40th anniversary and the holiday they took to mark it.  They travelled to St Kilda, the Scottish islands famous for having been the home of an isolated and entirely autonomous people until the mid-20th century when in the end the people had to abandon their way of life and community and resettle on the mainland.  My mother in particular has held a fascination with their story for a few years now.

One – also well-known – story to emerge recently from St Kilda is the almost-lost folk tunes that have been re-discovered.  You can read the story of a man in an elderly person’s home playing them on the piano there, having been rote-taught them as a child, and them being captured by a local musician and eventually turned into a successful recording of arrangements by leading British composers here.  There is also a recording of the original piano version on the home page.

My parents suggested that they would like the piece maybe to draw on themes of the sea, St Kilda and the story of the people, but gave me a free creative hand to see where my imagination took me.  They also said that if I liked I could make it suitable for their local community choir and also, if I liked, I could use one of the tunes from St Kilda as a starting point.

So I set myself the parameters of making this musically straightfoward to perform, but conceptually I could allow myself a little complexity if I wished.

The melody ‘Soay’ (named after the island) has enjoyed some popular success and I also found myself latching onto it.  In contrast to composer Rebecca Dale, whose response was to ‘grow’ it into a kind of cinematic fantasia evoking natural landscapes in the tradition of Vaughan Williams, I found myself focussing on what I felt was a rather introverted quality in the music (though of course I may have been influenced by my awareness of its origins).

More and more the themes of isolation emerged as I played – personal isolation in all its forms; community isolation; ideological polarisation; geographical separation; discrimination of minorities; nationalism – and – inevitably for me, as I do seem to keep returning to it – autism.

Thus, the Soay melody, with its simple Ionian/Major modality, became the basis of a layered collage of voices which I gently nudge with the other layers to imply otherness, within what an amateur choir can handle.

Layer 1

In my research I came across the now famous poem ‘I Am Odd’ by a young man from the US called Benjamin Giroux, which began as a school project and now has achieved international fame for its ability to capture and communicate the isolation and misunderstanding that can be engendered by autism and neurodivergency.

Benjamin’s public Facebook page

I now have his permission to use the poem, which is very kind of him!  His poem is the central feature of the piece now and is sung by a soprano solo, spacially isolated in performance.

Layer 2

I wanted to have as many dimensions I could in such a small-scale piece, to add a kind of perspective texture of thought.  To me there is a paradox about isolation in that in a way we all share it.  We are born and die alone in our own consciousness and the time in between is lived together but retaining that single perspective only.  However, this is a thing we all share, so it unites us!  I used a section from Psalm 102 – ‘I am like a desert owl…’ to get an arc over history and draw out the universality of alone-ness.

This is also sung by a woman, spacially separated.

Layer 3

I have produced a backing track that is simply four layers of rhythmical sea waves sound I have built.  The dream would be to mix and perform in surround sound, but this seems unlikely in a village church!

Layer 4

The chorus have an aleatoric section.  Slightly at odds with the melancholy, serene atmosphere, they are each singing a repeated fragment of an assertion taken from people contributing to a ‘standard issue’ argument about Brexit.  I took these quotes directly from social media.  They are not hard to find, as I’m sure you all know!

I wanted to introduce the notion of ideological isolation and just lightly allude to how people with different personalities or backgrounds can see an issue so differently from each other. The more specific issue of how a small island like the UK relates to the rest of the world also adds another layer.  I hesitated to do this, though, as I was not sure if it would fit, but the murmuring effect prevents any of the jarring words or phrases from dominating the audience’s ear, I hope.

Here’s what my dad (as a client!) said when I put it to him:

I think that if you want the political message in the background, it could work…

So they stayed.

Layer 5

This final layer is the chorus, humming first an accompaniment to the first soloist, then finally bringing in the Soay melody at the end.  I hope that their voices joining the texture can provide a bit of a ‘yep, me too’ to the words of Benjamin Giroux’s poem in particular.

I will post the score and mock-up recording of this piece shortly.  (Here they are!)

Leitmotif of Noise?

Welcome to my research and enquiry blog!

I have decided to start by looking afresh at my recent work in the light of our studies at University of Hertfordshire.

We have been given an overview of the varied and interdependent functions of soundtrack in the context of a film in the past fortnight.

A few ideas leaped out as being techniques I have used in some way before, and that might be worth developing.

I’m going to take them one by one and give them a post each.

So, the first one that I started thinking about was…

‘Leitmotif of Noise’

We looked in our first week at the creatively fruitful phenomenon in film that happens when diegetic sound fulfills the traditional role of non-diegetic music.  We were shown a little of Forbidden Planet, with its ground-breaking electronic soundtrack by Louis and Bebe Barron.  We noted that the soundtrack seems to occur in the narrative space and also to comment on the characters’ states of mind simultaneously.

As we examined this, I thought about traditional film scoring’s heavy use of leitmotif to cue audiences into the big themes of the story and the characterisation.  However, contemporary scoring seems to be rejecting this, focusing on acting as the general subconscious of the story.  I wondered if, as a kind of substitute signpost, diegetic sounds crossing into the non-diegetic realm could essentially act as a ‘leitmotif of noise’.  So, associating a certain recurring sonic event with a theme or character.

This would, I thought, need a conscious and deliberate focussing of the use of sound.

Trains!

I tried to think of examples of where this has happened.

I decided as a starting point, I would have a look at Brief Encounter.  Because the film-makers had chosen to use Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, there was no purpose-built film score to manipulate melody for its own purposes, even though the Rachmaninoff is used effectively to reflect the general mood and emotional arc of the story.  I felt this alone might make it easier to pick out the role of the non-musical, designed soundtrack.

Could this ‘leitmotif gap’ have been filled by the equally iconic train sounds that we all associate as closely with the film as the use of the piano concerto?

(I would have to add, I’m sure this has been examined before, so I will also go on a quest for relevant writing on the subject.  All suggestions gratefully received!  However, it was an interesting exercise for me to do.)

I watched the film again and documented each time we hear the high-pitched, frantic whistle of the express train.  Every time we hear it, seems to represent a moment of psychological danger and/or disarray in Laura’s mind.

Here are the key moments where I spotted it (times are approximate):

  • Just as the music of the opening credits climaxes (at about 1’45); the music is lost in the sound and this moment segues into the opening dialogue.  It seems to serve as an introduction to this particular sound and the music tells us subconsciously, perhaps, to associate it with high feeling.
  • 6’05 – we are told the ‘express’ is going through and the alarming noise obliterates the inconsequential dialogue about chocolate purchasing among secondary characters.  This is the first time we walk through this moment – the second time, at 1’23’30, we know Laura comes close to committing suicide by throwing herself under the train here.
  • 12’11 – Fred makes a joke about the children and Laura starts to cry.  Interestingly, this time we hear it outside of the place within the story where the sound originates – the station.  Although it is possible we are meant to assume that it could be overheard from the nearby railway, this use seems really deliberately non-diegetic to me.  Laura senses the danger of losing control of herself and inadvertently doing irreparable damage to her marriage and home.  This use of it at this early stage in the narrative cements it in my head as being something we are to associate with ‘danger’ – especially in Laura’s mind.
  • 17’53 – we see Alec in the background and it is the first time within the storyline we see him (because I’m not counting the first account of the final scene that we see at the beginning).  Alec looks up and notices Laura just as the whistle sounds faintly.  It is easy to miss but looks very carefully placed when you are paying attention!
  • 18’12 – Laura gets the grit in her eye, thus providing the vehicle for their meeting – fate providing the next step towards infidelity.
  • 59’48 – we hear it quietly as (it turns out, moments later) Alec is making the decision to return to Stephen’s flat with the expectation that she will follow.
  • 1’00’07 – Alec announces his intention baldly – Laura refuses to follow, but we know her tortured ambivalence.  This time, the whistle is long, loud and alarming; the danger of infidelity is now so great.
  • 1’03’39 – after apparently escaping temptation, she changes her mind at the last minute and gets off the train again to go back to the flat.
  • 1’23’30 – we hear the ‘suicide’ whistle for the second time and this time we are fully aware of its meaning.  It is the climax and I believe the longest and loudest instance of the whistle.  The camerawork backs it up this time around.  We do not hear any more train noises after this last, final, greatest danger to her and her family.

So – in conclusion! – I do feel I can justifiably describe this as leitmotif of noise.


As to where this takes my work?

I’m really interested in how different people experience the world differently and how this can be portrayed through visual media with the help of sound.

The ‘dream’ is to use visual + aural media to counteract the polarisation of views and tribalism I’m seeing more and more on social media and to help people identify more strongly with people who seem different to them.

Autism is an obvious way into this, as there are sometimes dramatic differences in an autistic’s perceptions to that of a neurotypical brain, partly due to sensory processing differences.  Autism is also close to me as there are several important people in my personal life who are on the autistic spectrum.  However, I should like to refine these ideas to look at more subtle differences too, in due course.

Earlier this year, as an exercise for myself in storytelling with music and sound, I wrote a soundtrack to accompany a series of stills.  The pictures were rudely snatched from a manga book about raising an autistic child, called ‘With the Light,’ by Keiko Tobe and I combined very traditional orchestral writing for the neurotypical protagonist with sound design for the autistic child protagonist’s point of view.

I was attempting to use music to retell the story along with my own response to it, so the music is in the foreground, and the sound has both diegetic and non-diegetic functions.

Here it is:

For this project, I had some really informative and interesting conversations with adults on the autistic spectrum about what sensory overload feels like, in order to represent little Hikaru’s meltdown – but I’ll discuss that more next time.)

For now, here are the things I did in this soundtrack that could at least partially be described as leitmotif of noise, if further developed in a longer piece.

Hikaru’s Stones

The sound of little Hikaru playing with the sound of stones on a drain in the final segment of the piece is significant.

The book is mostly told from Sachiko’s point of view, but there are odd moments in the illustrations where we observe Hikaru observing.  Many autistic people will tell you that as children – and in some cases into adulthood – they are well used to perceiving a lot more than people around them understand that they do.

I didn’t want Hikaru’s own loneliness and his observations of his mother’s unhappiness to go without note; I didn’t want him just to be a vehicle for Sachiko’s story.

The stones interrupt the music that represents Sachiko’s crisis periodically to help us remember that Hikaru is there – and listening, and, through the corner of his eye, watching.

The stones are the sound of a mother and child impeded in communication with one another, and they persist into the fade-out as the relationship continues not quite to function.

The stones work in conjunction with Hikaru’s own actual leitmotif, which is a diminished fifth resolving inwardly to a major third repeatedly.

(This is something I stole from a real-life little boy with autism, who had discovered and play this figure over and over again at a piano.  It had interested me greatly at the time, having studied diatonic function, as it appeared from this that the dominant-tonic relationship might be something intrinsically meaningful to this child’s ear at least.)

The musical motif is used throughout the piece including as an intrusion in the more sound-based middle section – and represents Hikaru himself.

The knock of the mother-in-law

Perhaps rather ‘cheesily’ I appropriated the unfeeling mother-in-law’s imperious knock on the car window and turned the rhythm of the knock into a rhythmic motif of sorts, signifying the character.  So what began as diegetic sound indicated an unwelcome intrusion, a harsh judgment, incomprehension of the difficult journey, then continued to indicate that meaning throughout.


 

Future uses?

What is relevant about this?  Why does it matter that I’ve happened upon this device?

Well, if I do go with my initial plan and research and help portray in sound what affects cognitive and sensory world view, as a long-term device this would seem quite useful.

So often formative experiences determine how we respond in later life.  I wonder if this device might be useful to signify this?  A character behaving unreasonably could retain the sympathy of the audience if a sound associated with a formative experience recurs to remind them of the context for that behaviour.

In the example above, the books do continue to chart the progress of Sachiko and her family and (as is usually the case) life gets easier as the parents learn how to support the child’s development, and as the child gets older.

However, there are many difficult times along the way.  What if the sound of the stones returned whenever Sachiko feels as though she and Hikaru are failing to relate to one another, when he feels lonely or misunderstood, or when they are both feeling bruised by an episode of sensory distress?

What if they returned when it seems her behaviour is overly defensive or touchy and she as a character becomes harder to like, helping the audience to recall the sadness of the early days and how it changed her?

I will look for examples of film or animation where this is used and will think about how I might like to use it in due course.

 


In my next post, I should like to refer again to With the Light, but looking more at the concept of ‘point of audition’ and how it might be exploited to examine different experiences of the world (due to neurology, perhaps, or other differences) some more, and how I can build on this with more subtlety.