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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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Beyoncé Makes Lemonade

February 15, 2018

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

“Beyoncé doesn’t release albums; she creates cultural events.” - Daphne A. Brooks

According to Wikipedia, Beyoncé is the most nominated female singer in the history of the Grammy Awards (and she has also won 22 of them). Furthermore, Wikipedia cites: “In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history and was listed among Time's 100 most influential people in the world for a second year in a row. Forbes ranked her as the most powerful female in entertainment on their 2015 and 2017 lists, and in 2016, she occupied the sixth place for Time's Person of the Year." In 2016 she made an album entitled Lemonade. It is known as a concept album and accompanied a one hour film by the same name. In it she narrates, dances, includes clips of family, and has many guest artists. She slips between genres such as reggae, hip hop, country, gospel, and blues.

Very few of us will ever have the chance to touch the whole world at once. I use dialogue for a living, but I do so in small groups and small venues. This allows for nice, intimate discussions which ensures that everyone can participate. Musicians, on the other hand, broadcast a message to the world instantly, quickly, and passionately. They embrace technological change in a way that questions how we use language effectively, potently, masterfully. Music is certainly not new, but music has begun to embrace a number of ways to increase its potential.

Lemonade is an ambitious project which addresses race, gender, and love. In it, Beyoncé unapologetically defends herself, her experience, and her right to be a strong, proud African American woman. By extension, her work inspires other women in tough situations. More than inspiration, though, she reminds us that we can (and should) aim higher. Beyoncé sends the message through lyrics like those found in “Freedom” where she says she breaks chains all by herself.

The album is not meant to show her perfections or even to tell the world that her experience trumps anyone else’s. It seems more closely aligned with owning the full complexity of experience. Life is full of decisions, and she tells all women to make their own decisions but also to own the past, not disregard it. Daphne A. Brooks, critic and scholar, writes, “The album encourages black women, in particular, to examine the wholeness of their beings and the complexities of their identities.”

While some dismiss her work as diva-like behavior, journalist Arwa Mahdawi reminds us that that would be a mistake. Beyoncé runs a business and knows it. Mahdawi suggests that we cannot ignore Beyoncé’s intentional branding. In fact, branding yourself is often expected of male artists, but dismissed in women. Mahdawi writes: “It’s a mistake to call Beyoncé’s notorious attention to her image ‘diva’ behaviour; it’s businesswoman behaviour. Beyoncé understood that she couldn’t let Beyoncé-the-person encroach on Beyoncé-the-brand. So she stopped saying much, and rarely gave interviews. In 2013, she made waves by appearing on the cover of the September issue of Vogue without deigning to give the customary interview that went with it. Her silence made her voice even more powerful, and reinforced the mythology she was creating.” She also surrounds herself with strong women. In music videos, she often dances among a group of women in step, herself at the front but always in step. The group dynamic is important, as is realizing that Beyoncé is a tour de force.

Lemonade begins with her grandmother’s 90th birthday in which her grandmother says, “Life gave me lemons, and I made lemonade.” Throughout the rest of the film, Beyoncé gives us the literal and figurative recipe of lemonade. I love to see an album that poses tough questions. This project made me wonder in what ways I interact with or participate in the world onscreen. What are the right questions to be asking? What does it mean to be female, powerful, and ambitious? How do we reconcile not just the past and the present, but the future? How can we address race relations in a healthy, powerful, and positive way? And, am I living up to my potential?

While not all critics think highly of Beyoncé (see bel hooks on the subject), so many people identify with her or her music that it would be impossible to dismiss her work. While she is talented, people often do not succeed based upon talent alone. Beyoncé has something extra that many people want to access. Taking a deeper look at her work has been a very worthwhile endeavor. She is sending a message and I, for one, am curious as to whether we are all receiving the same message, or if her work resonates for many reasons.

Contemporary success must attach to some objective desire whose impulse stems from the past. Success combines past reality with future visions in a way that seems visionary, but also still locates us in the present. Beyoncé participates in the past as much as she does in the present and future. In a way, progress always involves a stasis - the transcendent moment arrives only from an understanding of the forces which give rise to it. Beyoncé participates in the present by giving us a sense of opportunity which she has collated from history, experience, emotion, and public response. And for a few moments, the world moves in rhythm with her vision, her words, and her ideas, which are also our own.

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Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

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

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

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