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The Form of Sound

July 26, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Forms have recognizable shapes. Typically we speak of visible forms, such as the difference between smoke and a cloud. These two share commonalities, but also have some very recognizable differences. Sound also has a shape of its own, though it is rarer to discuss forms of sound than visual forms. Musicians, however, are tasked with the goal of modeling sounds which create recognizable forms for the listener. I love to listen to film scores in order to gauge the shape of a movie. These scores give hints about the emotional content of the film. More than that, however, they often shape the film for the viewer – as if able to encapsulate roughly two hours of content into a single melody. In order to better understand how this is possible, I will focus on the way that musicians have demonstrated the form of water.

By identifying some of the key features used to imitate water I realize that I am ignoring the fact that sound can represent many things simultaneously. I do this only because I wish to trace a single thread, namely, the way that sound literally shapes an idea. Furthermore, the shaping of an idea (such as water) carries emotional connections which music ably conveys. While I focus on contemporary music due to time and space limitations, I do also understand the very healthy and necessary historical understanding of why and how sound evolved. If this topic interests you, I encourage you to look into the more historical elements of sound for cinema, the form of sounds, and emotional response to sound. Finally, I just want to note that the many links embedded in this post may appear tedious, but the soundbites are worth the time if you are at all interested in my argument, sound, and/or film scores.

First we must ask about water’s essential characteristics. Water is often moving, it is liquid, elemental, often depicted as blue, though we also know that water can be dark, muddy, green or sparkling. We sometimes describe water as: tinkling, running, falling, rushing, rough, swollen, winding, flowing, gushing, gurgling, brackish, fluid, murky, etc. In order to visualize water, we think in terms of waves and crests, rivulets, riverbends, droplets. Water can also be calm, choppy, ferocious, salty or fresh. Different types of animals live in freshwater versus saltwater. This abbreviated list alone demonstrates how water can be many things. If it assumes so many forms, how is it possible to know - and represent - its form?

And yet, water does have an essence. The following movies focus on water’s force in one way or another, as is reflected in their soundtrack. I made a few notes about the musical elements that caught my attention, but it is interesting to listen to these songs back to back in order to hear a possible version of the shape of water.

1] James Horner’s “Hymn to the Sea” from Titanic

It begins with a peaceful, calming human-like voice. The bagpipes indicate the tradition of a funeral hymn. Why is it titled Hymn to the Sea? Was the Titanic a sort of offering? Does this hymn personify the sea? Is the voice meant to be human or sea or ship? Is it meant to be female? The bagpipes incorporate the melody, and then many voices sing out in chorus. There are no words. This is a burial at the hands of the sea.

2] Alan Silvestri’s “Main Title” to The Abyss

It also begins with siren-like voices similar to the beginning of Horner’s “Hymn.” The voices gain force crashing into drums. What do the drums represent? Horns end this main title, accumulating into a clash of elements. It feels unsettled and gives the impression of the heartbeat. How does the music move from one element to another? How does this one incorporate ideas of water? Is water tied to fear?

3] Roque Banos’s “A Thousand Leagues Out” from In the Heart of the Sea

Intense from the beginning, a little percussion underscores the intensity and action. Ideas of size, perhaps of the whale, are implied. The music moves through all sorts of depths very rapidly, demonstrating change of water, emotions, situations. The music is meant to convey the spirit of depth, the unknown, mystery, fear and perhaps power, moving in and out like waves.

4] Johann Johannson’s “Into the Wide and Deep Unknown” from The Mercy

Piano music over a driving beat demonstrates both action and emotion. Then higher notes tinkle across the top, much like in Finding Dory, which implies a bit of love, hope, light, or whimsy. It ends with the lower notes on the piano and a sense of foreboding.

5] Thomas Newman’s “Main Title” to Finding Dory

Often watery sounds are expressed by the higher notes on the piano and/or keyboard, as heard here. The tinkling piano sounds seem to imitate the way that sunlight reflects off of water. The music also includes a structure that may refer to a whale song, or the sound of things that live in deep water.

6] Mark Isham’s “Haunted by Waters” from A River Runs Through It

Strings underscore a back and forth movement. Does the sound move over these strings in the way that water runs over rocks? It is as if the strings carry us, willingly, across the terrain. Does the fly fisherman’s hand and string move in a way that resembles water, and if so, are the sounds of water literally connected to the fisherman? The haunting of this song feels much less dangerous or fearsome than with some of the others, perhaps that is an essential difference between deep ocean water and rivers. The track title mentions haunted, but perhaps it is a necessary or beneficial haunting, as in the way that rivers define human lives.

7] Alexandre Desplat’s “Main Score” from The Shape of Water

An electronic human-like voice washes in and out of the melody. It comes and goes, not quite an eerie sound, but not fully human either. Voice and piano move up and down the scale in tandem for a short section of the score.

What is the essence of water? Does this list help to understand the way that humans see (or hear) water?


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Whiplash

April 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Whiplash is a film from 2014 both written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows the life of Andrew (played by Miles Teller), a young, brilliant and ambitious drummer, through the trials and errors of college life. Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) is a strict, difficult music instructor who asks for as much as his students can give and more. Not only is Fletcher’s rehearsal routine physically demanding, but he often plays mental games with the students as well. Through these two characters, Whiplash deconstructs what it takes to achieve greatness and how ambition is portrayed socially.

This movie is unsettling because it is entirely without a hero. Both student and teacher vie for the heroic roles at times, but both are fantastically flawed, of course. The viewer may connect with Andrew, who wants to be a great musician, but his actions do not warrant our affection. He pushes himself to extremes both physically and mentally and sacrifices everything in order to achieve greatness. The pursuit of art for arts sake often appears noble or heroic, but this film demonstrates the ugly underbelly of ambition. Furthermore, I am not entirely sure that Andrew’s sacrifice was a necessary step in his education.

Early in the movie, Andrew is interested in a girl. After mustering the courage to ask her out, they go on a number of dates which seem successful. In the end, however, he tells her that his career is more important than she is, which upsets her and she stops seeing him. Later in the film, he calls her again only to find out that he has missed his chance. Andrew’s relationship with his own family is even more disturbing. When Andrew returns home for a family meal and tries to explain how well he is doing in school, they do not understand him, and he, likewise, does not understand them.

The dinner scene offers excellent analysis. During the meal, an aunt asks Andrew about school and when he tries to answer he is interrupted by the entrance of one of his cousins. His uncle loudly greets the newcomer by shouting, “Ahhh, Tom Brady!” which completely cuts off Andrew. Andrew tries again to voice his accomplishments, but the others at the table are clearly not familiar with the “best music school in the country” and have no common language with which to ask any questions. To me, this represents the way that art defies classification. Without understanding the history of the field, art can seem arbitrary and luck-driven. Sports, however, offer easy discussion. They are less intimidating and more casual, as demonstrated in this scene. The cousin notes, “Well, in the music competition, isn’t it subjective?” Andrew simply replies, “No,” because, of course, an art form (and therefore an artist) is not arbitrarily great. Rather, they have studied, practiced, performed and contemplated the history of their field. Andrew’s uncle then inquires about a job and Andrew must explain that currently his musical pursuit is unpaid which reinforces the family’s opinion of Andrew’s music.

The family then turns to celebrating his cousin’s football awards. At the end of this exchange, Andrew is clearly frustrated, so, he voices the irony of celebrating a football career which will not go beyond Division III college. While belittling everyone else at the table, Andrew proclaims that he would rather die as great musician at the age of thirty four rather than live a life like anyone else at the table. Throughout the movie, Andrew’s father walks the fine line of supporting him, but also trying to keep him from falling off the edge into madness. In this scene too, he begins by supporting Andrew, but when Andrew tells his cousin that he will “never hear from the NFL,” Andrew’s father replies, “Have you heard from Lincoln Center?” Of course, he has not, which pulls the wind from his sails, and, mid-dinner, Andrew gets up and leaves the table.


J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher and is the opposite of the nurturing father. Fletcher utilizes incredibly harsh techniques in order to inspire greatness from his musicians. The relationship that develops between Fletcher and Andrew is complicated. In this scene, Fletcher has just given Andrew a great compliment, only to belittle him, throw a chair at him, and humiliate him in front of the rest of the band. Andrew’s fall from grace is quick and extremely painful.

I struggle with this movie on so many levels, which is a great testament to the authenticity of emotions that the film presents. I wonder, why does Andrew really leave the dinner table, shame or disgust? Does a great artist always and necessarily feel superior to those around them, and therefore lonely? Does this superiority inform their work in a positive or negative way? What level of ambition strengthens achievement, and what amount spirals into misery or madness? On a side note, I wonder if the lack of women in the film reflects actual ratios of men to women in music schools. While I thoroughly enjoyed the minimalism of Whiplash and its adherence to only a handful of characters, but I would have also liked to see more women in the band or as additional characters.

Whiplash is compellingly carried by Fletcher and Andrew. It raises tough, uncomfortable questions that society has yet to answer.

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Baldwin’s Unfinished Notes

February 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

James Baldwin was working on an unfinished manuscript when he died in 1987. Baldwin’s family recently gave this manuscript to filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck, who then turned it into a 2016 film entitled I Am Not Your Negro. While a text of the same name accompanies the film, it is worthwhile to seek out the film which includes a stunning array of archival footage. The book, too, includes some photographs, but nothing in comparison to the film itself. Baldwin’s notes deconstruct personal relationships, historical events, and popular films, making it impossible to simply read his notes. It is immensely helpful to see the images and places that Baldwin discusses. Truly, an image contains so much to analyze. In one section, Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s discussion of the violence in Birmingham, while video images of Mars plays. This creates a strong image-to-text association, but also shows the great disparity between the barren world of Mars and the overheated passions of Birmingham. Baldwin writes: “White people are astounded by Birmingham,/ Black people aren’t./ White people are endlessly demanding to be/ reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars./ They don’t want to believe,/ still less to act on that belief,/ that what is happening in Birmingham/ is happening all over the country./ They don’t want to realize that there is not one step,/ morally or actually, between/ Birmingham and Los Angeles.” (34) The film also presents footage of Baldwin’s lectures and talk show appearances. Baldwin’s face speaks volumes. While the same is true of his written word, his presence enhances the documentary.

The notes that Peck received from Baldwin’s family were meant to draw parallels between three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These very different men were on the front lines of racial discussion and action. While the film gives some details and contains some footage of these men, I truly wish that Baldwin’s voice were able to tell us more about his relationships and interaction with them. There is so much left unsaid.

The film interlaces present day material with images from Baldwin’s life and from films and documentaries. In other words, Peck and Baldwin demonstrate the nation’s complexity. Baldwin’s focus on the arts helps to elaborate a number of points. He begins with questions of beauty, the notions of a young boy who saw equal beauty and likeness in Joan Crawford and a “colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly/ like Joan Crawford.” (25) Then, he moves into ways in which African Americans have been depicted onscreen, most of which played into stereotypes. Peck’s video montage offers a strong reminder of Baldwin’s voice through letters, lectures, analysis, and texts.

Below I have copied a few notes from the text which stood out to me. I recommend seeing the film in its entirety in order to better understand the discussion of race relations both past and present.

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“To watch the TV screen for any length of time/ is to learn some really frightening things/ about the American sense of reality.

“We are cruelly trapped between/ what we would like to be and what we actually are./ And we cannot possibly become/ what we would like to be until we are willing/ to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead/ on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame,/ and so ugly.

“These images are designed not to trouble,/ but to reassure./ They also weaken our ability to deal/ with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.” (86)

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“For a very long time, America prospered:/ this prosperity cost millions of people their lives./ Now, not even the people who are the most/ spectacular recipients of the benefits of this/ prosperity are able to endure these benefits:/ they can neither understand them/ nor do without them./ Above all, they cannot imagine the price paid/ by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life,/ and so they cannot afford to know/ why the victims are revolting.

“This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s/ decline, for no kingdom can maintain/ itself by force alone.

“Force does not work the way/ its advocates think in fact it does./ It does not, for example, reveal to the victim/ the strength of the adversary./ On the contrary, it reveals the weakness,/ even the panic of the adversary/ and this revelation invests the victim with patience.” (90-1)

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“History is not the past./ It is the present./ We carry our history with us./ We are our history./ If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” (107)

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“Not everything that is faced can be changed;/ but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (103)


Film: I Am Not Your Negro. Directed by Raoul Peck. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Text: Baldwin, James. I Am Not Your Negro. Edited by Raoul Peck, Penguin, 2016.


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Manifesto

November 9, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Manifesto, directed by Julian Rosefeldt, disorients the viewer. Locations change without warning, as do characters. The speaker is a sometimes character and sometimes narrator. So many things happen simultaneously that it would be difficult to express them all. I will wander through a few of the things that caught my attention, though I am, unhappily, missing the majority.

The precision of this movie astounds me. As an introduction to the puppeteer, for example, the camera begins with an aerial view of the puppeteer working on a puppet that we soon come to meet quite closely. The viewer is yet unaware of this puppet’s meaning. It is only as the puppeteer rises from the desk and leaves the scene that the viewer is introduced to the the rest of the room. As the camera slowly pans across a small, brick room filled with puppets, we begin to recognize famous or historical figures. Some wear shocked expressions, some bored, some guilty, some blank. Sirens and street noise sound in the background. The collection includes figures such as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Hitler, and the Planet of the Apes. My favorite is Marilyn Monroe, who lies face-up on a dingy, toy sofa with a man’s hand suggestively patting her exposed knee. The expressions on these two linked figures do not correspond to each other. Marilyn Monroe looks pained, while the man smiles joyfully. This quick snippet implies significant action. Small details such as this connect the viewer to the image in a way that creates life. Furthermore, the room contains such a dense amount of history, that the viewer is bound to connect with the overwhelming feeling of the passage of time. As with all the other scenes in Manifesto, Rosefeldt overloads the scene with sensory information. Therefore, by the time the camera returns to the puppeteer, the viewer has formed an emotional attachment to the puppets. (Emotional regard in any sense forms an attachment.)

Rosefeldt excels at a minimalism that forms some emotional bond between viewer and screen. This perplexes me, particularly in this scene with the puppeteer, whose hands we see and whose voice we hear, and yet we have no real knowledge of this figure outside of the hundreds of dolls placed about the room. The things I know about the puppeteer: the person is intense, passionate, exacting, precise, and interested in history or characters. The viewer is reasonably startled, then, to find the puppeteer pinning a wig onto their very own puppet. This most startling event astonishes us because, in my mind, the puppets have become hyper-real. They express emotion, and therefore, they must themselves convey some sort of “real” emotion. They are the placeholders of our emotion, and to see (and hear!) their creation is grotesque and surreal. Moreover, this particular puppet enters creation only once hair has been added. This grants an identity. Now the viewer connects with the puppet by labeling it. Therefore, the viewers themselves restrict the doll’s freedom. This is, of course, the intended effect. These hyper-real puppets exist in this box-style room, piled on top of each other in some sort of eternal limbo for the voyeurs’ eyes. They represent an act of creation, but the viewer agonizes over their apparent lifelessness coupled with their inability to die.

This reinforces the larger narrative in Rosefeldt’s film: that a manifesto is born out of a particular moment. It explosively responds to specific cultural content. What, then, is the next generation to do with it? What is the viewer, who likely feels no connection to the particular character of a movement, to do with the incongruities and absurdities presented by a manifesto’s anger? Is the manifesto to be shelved among others, dismissed from its specific argument, but unable to die? Should it be removed from view altogether? However, if we dismiss the manifesto as completely irrelevant, then perhaps we overlook some important cultural revelations.

Rosefeldt masterfully incorporates incongruous images. Cate Blanchett brilliantly plays all of the characters and delivers all of the manifestos. In each scene, she also slips into a monologue, delivered in a different pitch from the character’s voice. She plays both men and women, young and old. She plays rebellious, ridiculous, hallucinating, strict, poor, wealthy and conservative characters. She incorporates accents and body language. Meanwhile, Rosefeldt pays particular attention to sound and image. Each scene offers some startling revelation, such as we saw and heard with the pinning of the puppet’s hair.

Irony rules this movie. I offer a few examples of scenes which struck me, though there are many to speak of. First, I found the CEO at a fancy party particularly ridiculous. We meet them at a beautiful house, located along a gorgeous body of water, during a cocktail party. The horizon dominates the viewer’s gaze. While the viewer contemplates the horizon and natural beauty, however, the party-goers never even glance in the direction of the water. Furthermore, they discuss beauty in such abstracted, idealistic and theoretical terms as to make it unobservable. They literally miss the point. In another scene, a woman rises to a podium above a gravesite to give a speech of mourning. Instead, she desecrates the body and offends emotion. Standing over the corpse, she claims that “to sit still is to risk one’s life” and that “one dies as an idiot or a hero, it’s all the same.” The movie ends with a teacher instructing her students to steal and plagiarize. She claims that “nothing is original.” She does warn to steal only the things that speak directly to the student and that connection validly makes it their own. She then walks the room indoctrinating the children while erasing their ideas.

Part of Rosefeldt’s point is that manifestos become absurd when taken out of context. They burn brightly for a moment, but cannot last in an ever-changing world. Rather, if they do last, they become ridiculous. He achieves this through a balance of image, sound and speech. Rosefeldt compiled the script from actual manifestos written from the early 1900s through the early 2000s. During the span of 100 years, we see a variety of ideas demonstrated through art, architecture, drama and impersonation. I have only mentioned a few of the scenes in Manifesto. I encourage you to watch the scenes (or the whole movie) and post your thoughts. What does it say about art? About history? About characters or artists? Prepare for a disorienting experience, which is well worth your while. Visit Julian Rosefeldt’s website to view the film scene by scene.

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