Audio Research

Here are several tracks from Paul Bowles’ spoken word album, Baptism of Solitude. The title track is not available, and I’m not finding it online anywhere. I suggest “The Delicate Prey” and “The Circular Valley.”

http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/Baptism+Of+Solitude/2350898

 

 

There is also this . . . collaboration. Both the music and sound (outside of Bowles’ voice) and the video are additions to the original track (from Bowles’ album). It seems that the team (post Paul Bowles) who made this stripped out the orignal sound, leaving only the oration. On the original track, the music and sound are much more like the others you can hear on grooveshark, above. I suggest listening to this version of “Baptism of Solitude” without the video the first time through. Tonya Hurley’s video is cool, but it is a supplement, and risks warping your reception of the language:

 

And Scott Walker, unparalleled weirdness, “Psoriatic.” Very good with good headphones.

I like miko1975guitar’s comment of eight months ago, “Music to shit yourself by.” Really.

The lyrics are a little off, and (thank you, openskiesmedia) it is “thimble rigger,” one who works a shell game, not “nimble rigger” — though I like that mishearing and the image it conjures.

 

 

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Some Mostly Unorganized Thoughts on Twisted Christianity in Blade Runner . . .

 

Deckard's vision of hell

Deckard’s vision of hell

 

I haven’t looked (time constraints), but I’m sure there must be numerous tracts on the Christian symbolism (and likely, hopefully, how it is complicated) in Blade Runner. The bells anticipating Deckard’s death (when he dangles from the rooftop in the climactic sequence of the film) would be one of these.

 

Another strong symbol is J. F. Sebastian, the only human friend the replicants find on Earth. Sebastian, of all the main players, is the only one who acts with compassion, and he is unarguably human (while Deckard, hunting the replicants, is not unarguably so)—soul-possessed, we might say. He is also genetically defective, suffering from methuselah syndrome (premature aging—a condition worse than albinism (to which I’ll return), I’d venture). (Methuselah is the longest living person in the Old Testament: “and all the days of Methuselah numbered nine hundred and sixty-nine years.”) Sebastian’s condition is played upon clearly when he explains to Roy and Pris, “There is some of me in you,” meaning, ostensibly, that he helped design the Nexus 6, but taken more literarily, that they, like him, suffer premature aging.

 

“J. F.” recalls Kennedy—and that whole mythology of sinful Protestantism, humanitarianism, and premature death—and Sebastian is the name of a Christian saint martyred some 1700 years ago for criticizing Diocletian, a Roman emperor most famous for persecuting Christians. Sebastian, the saint, was famous for surviving the first execution miraculously; but his acts included conversions and healing of the sick, especially those stricken with plague. Sebastian, the rapidly aging geneticist, leads Roy to Tyrell (the god figure and maker), and we might think of this as a dark kind of conversion story.

 

Back to that rooftop and bells . . . when Roy appears on the rooftop he has a dove in hand. A moment before, when we see him running through the interior of Sebastian’s building, he does not. This might be read as a diegetic gap, an event (significant not for the plot but for its symbolic content) that we do not see but are shown the effect of.

 

Vangelis’s score here contains tolling bells (natural or synthetic is difficult to tell by their sound alone), which sound funerary enough, solemn and ominous, Deckard’s death knell perhaps, a mourning song for the life he is about to lose. We could read the bells as diegetic (perhaps a few blocks from here they’re holding midnight Mass), but the most straight forward read would be that the music, bells and all, is nondiegetic, serving Chion’s value-added function, the sound and the image working together so that they each inform the reading of the other and, synergistically, their combined effect is stronger than the sum of their parts. Bells are a conventional Christian instrument, used to call the faithful to worship (among other things).

 

But the main thing here, for me is that Roy, in his last moments, is holding a dove. Jesus, upon baptism and his becoming the Christ, is visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The Dove of peace is a common enough symbol, and Noah (like his Sumerian and Hindu predecessors, Utnapistim and Manu) releases a dove to find land following the purifying flood. Here we might also note the ever-present rain in Blade Runner, perhaps the most common and consistent background in the film, both ocular and sonic: The world is on the brink, it seems, of another deluge. Better, the world is sinking back into the abyss from which it came (which both the Old Testament and Milton figure as oceanic, and Milton equates with chaos), the boundary and distinction of earth and water dissolving . . .

 

Avians in general play a big role in both creation and destruction stories from around the globe; they often play significant parts in the cosmic drama, and there is a cross-cultural suggestion that the bird is somehow the proto-animal and the apex of nature, or the creature that bridges the divine and earthly realms. Milton seems keen on this, and in his reprisal of Genesis he envisions the Holy Spirit that

 

with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant

 

inseminating and incubating chaos like an freshly laid egg (that’s right up front, during the first invocation of the muse in Book I).

 

There are other Christian symbols as well, perhaps more gnostic than orthodox, with Tyrell playing the defective demiurge (he’s nearly blind, this creator, judging by the size and amplification of his eyeglasses) and Roy, Deckard, et al acting as his even more flawed creatures (Latin creatura, “created thing”). Roy (like his comrades) is a bit of living death, a kind of artificial zombiesque being who searches not for immortality (Christ’s given), not even for longevity, but for an average lifespan, a pursuit that turns the concept of resurrection inside out and gives it a good nipple twist.

 

Roy warps the Christian mythos again when he pulls a nail from a floorboard and shoves it through his already dead hand to revitalize it. This is the same hand he will later use to catch Deckard when he (Deckard) nearly falls several dozen stories to his death. The crucifixion, the stigmata, is the mechanism by which both Christ and Roy Batty (whose name might play on something like “insane king,” another defective godlike being—Roy from Latin Rex, “king”; and Batty like batty) are able to save.

 

Returning to the dove, this bird is prized as a symbol of spirit, spirituality, peace, hope, and the Holy Spirit. The dove is honored in Islam because a flock of them fell upon and distracted the enemies of Mohammed in a decisive battle. For all that, the dove is columbidae, genetically identical to the pigeon, one of the most common birds in the world and often considered a pest or blight upon the landscape, especially the urban landscape—which Blade Runner portrays in all its decaying, toxic, late-age beauty. The dove, image of the Holy Spirit, is an albino pigeon, and while the dove seems to do more or less fine in nature, albinism in general tends to be a genetic flaw, a maladaptation, often accompanied by general weakness or unhealthiness, susceptibility to damage from the sun and high temperatures, and increased visibility (which means an increased likelihood of being eaten by a predator).

 

 

Roy is holding it when he pops onto the rooftop to which Deckard has retreated, trying to escape Roy. He is holding it when he successfully jumps from one rooftop to the next, where Deckard dangles, hanging on for dear life, having attempted (and not quite succeeded at) the same jump a second before. He is holding it when he saves Deckard, hauling his otherwise street-pancaked ass back onto the roof. He holds the dove when he gives his final soliloquy, and only releases it when he expires.

 

The dove flies up and away into the soot-colored and pissing sky. When we see the first blur of its wings, we get the Foley sound, “flapping wings” (indexed only by the vision of the flapping wings—otherwise the sound would, I think, be quite unrecognizable), but the sound lasts only a fraction of a second and is replaced (or drown out) by a rapid twinkling of bells, a unique sound in the nondiegetic music, harplike and angelic, a sonic artifact that has since been clichéd, indexed in the popculture mind as “magic” or “miracle” (or perhaps it was even when Vangelis composed the score). The symbolism, without the sound, is heavy handed enough: Roy, just before his own demise, attains a soul (and the timing corresponds nicely to the explanation of the Nexus 6’s built in, and short, lifespan: After a few years, the replicants develop sophisticated, confusing, messy human emotions) and therefore is able to imaginatively empathize with the imperiled Deckard. Also, again, we do not see Roy get ahold of the dove—and this diegetic gap might suggest that we cannot see when or exactly how a being comes to have a soul, even if we can see that the being does in fact have one. We could note that Roy has the dove, the spirit, the soul, in his grip—it is a clutched and clutched after thing, like a normal human lifespan—then, upon dying, Roy’s soul is released.

 

I don’t think the soundtrack has aged too well, and the interjection of these harpish bells when Roy’s bird takes flight is about as corny-clichéd as it gets. But I love the film itself (and all of its incarnations, from the theatrical to the final cut, have their own charms), and I can get behind the implications of Roy’s weird salvation story: The savior must fight to be human before he or she may save anything—and the human might seem divine, but in the end, soul possessed or otherwise, it is mortal.

 

 

 

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Audio . . . Book

The working title of my under-construction novel is Whalelight: A Sounding. Both parts, title and subtitle, are inspired by poet Dylan Thomas. Or not exactly. The title was inspired by a mistake of memory. Although I wasn’t reading Thomas when the title arrived for me, The title that arrived some years into the work was The Moon by Whalelight, which I took to be a line out of one of his poems, and I was reading him heavily when I had the originary conceptions of the novel. It came first as a voice, a sick whisper that babbled sinisterly in and out of sense, the voice of a murderer who would depopulate a city. Then, his name came, scratchy jack cutter.

 

I searched for the Thomas line, first with the tools of the age, and then I did the analogue thing, rereading all the Thomas poems and plays I could recall having previously read, and reading several I had not read before. The only thing I uncovered I uncovered immediately—like, googlefast—at the beginning of the search—The Moon By Whale-Light is a title by Diane Ackerman (also a poet), a popular science or a collection of essays on the author’s encounters with animals. I haven’t read the book, and Ackerman’s title still feels like a line out of Dylan Thomas to me, as if she were channeling the Welsh bard (or one of his word-warped and sea-roving characters).  What Thomas did write is a poem titled “Alterwise by Owl-Light” (~1937), from which comes this:

 

Hairs of your head, then said the hollow agent,
Are but the roots of nettles and feathers
Over the groundworks thrusting through a pavement
And hemlock-headed in the wood of weathers.

First there was the lamb on knocking knees
And three dead seasons on a climbing grave
That Adam’s wether in the flock of horns,
Butt of the tree-tailed worm that mounted Eve,
Horned down with skullfoot and the skull of toes
On thunderous pavements in the garden of time;
Rip of the vaults, I took my marrow-ladle
Out of the wrinkled undertaker’s van,
And, Rip Van Winkle from a timeless cradle,
Dipped me breast-deep in the descending bone . . .

 

 

Which is crunk with religion and dense bodies, like you could lick the sweat, rough-tonguing these animal shapes you nearly can’t see. It’s a beautiful poem, its hands never leaving the earth. Interestingly, too, the kinds of compounds and neologisms Thomas makes (along with my misattributed “whalelight”) perhaps function like the serial objects in an Ian Bogost’s Latour-Shore litany-ontograph (35-60). That is, the compounds seem to highlight the stark separation of the elements that make their terms (marrow and ladle), drawing us into their discrete concreteness, and simultaneously raising a question about the elements’ mysterious intersubjectivity.

 

It may be that Ackerman riffed her title off of Thomas’s, but that’s only speculation. I’ve glanced at her poetry, and I get a just-so-sour taste. Her verse runs too safely for me—pretty at times, at times almost heavy, but mostly it quietly exhibits a middleclass piety, the kind of reverence founded on a pre-executed notion of religion and funded by money in the bank. (Martha’s Vineyard and Krishnamurti, anyone?) I am unkind (and an envious bastard)—I suggest you look her up for yourself. In the meantime, a slice:

 

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 1.59.05 AM

 

So I dropped the first title I had (it being Ackerman’s original), but I kept returning to the compound whalelight. It spoke to several visions endured by one of the novel’s three focal characters. It did more. “Whalelight” sonared what I felt only as the unexpected elasticity of the novel. Huge vacancies like a hollow earth. Oceans drained of sea. Am I making sense? There has always been another side to the novel. And this word moved through the other side like a wave through water. Outlining dark objects.

 

Also fitting, I did most of the drafting according to constraints I drew from the works of Joyce and Thomas: Free indirect discourse is the narratological nickname for the Uncle Charles Principle. Eponymous with Uncle Charles, a character in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915), the principle describes the effect of the narrating voice taking on speech patterns (vocabulary, rhythms, thought processes, objects of attention) of a story’s character. For instance, describing the actions of one character, the narrator might say, “He hid out in the crapper”; but describing the same actions performed by a different character, “Uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse.” The third person narrator (which is not an intelligence, not a character in the diegesis proper) is taking on the language and sensibility of whichever character it is “closest” to at the time.

 

Thomas’s Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices (produce first as a radio play in 1954, and later adapted to the stage) pushes the Uncle Charles Principle further than Joyce ever did. Under Milk Wood has a cast of narrator-like voices, First Voice, Second Voice . . . but primarily the voices are the characters themselves, and they tell their own stories. Although Under Milk Wood was performed by multiple voices when it first aired, its voices are so distinct that the play could have been read by a single actor, a single voice, and a listener would have had no problem discerning between characters. Its voices are this strong and distinct: Read Under Milk Wood aloud for twenty minutes and you’ll feel like the jaw-clacking guest of honor at the Depraved Ventriloquists’ Biannual Circle Jerk. But in a good way.

 

Here is a sample, two narrating voices, both entrained to the sensibilities of the character currently focalizing the play:

 

First Voice

Captain Cat at his window thrown wide to the sun and the clippered sea he sailed long ago when his eyes were blue and bright, slumbers and voyages’ ear-ringed and rolling, I love You Rosie Probert tattooed on his belly, he brawls with broken bottles in the fug and babel of the dark dock bars, roves with a herd of short and good time cows in every naughty port and twines and souses with the drowned and blowzy-breasted dead. He weeps as he sleeps and sails.

 

Second Voice

One voice of all he remembers most dearly as his dream buckets down. Lazy early Rosie with the flaxen thatch, whom he shared with Tom-Fred the donkey-man and many another seaman, clearly and near to him speaks from the bedroom of her dust. In that gulf and haven, fleets by the dozen have anchored for the little heaven of the night; but she speaks to Captain napping Cat alone. . . .

 

And you can hear samples of it beautifully read here (performed by Richard Burton and others):

 

Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices. Not a play for eyes, not for actors, not even for an audience. Elsewhere, I wrote, “Whalelight attempts to disembody voices as a gesture towards nothing—the senseless ache of senselessness, the haunting—from and to which our ghosts, sad or angry or radiant, call us.” I wrote that in part to ask for money (Martha’s Vineyard, anyone?), but it’s a fair description of what I think the novel is attempting to do.

 

A Sounding . . . So I took the technique of free indirect discourse from Joyce. From Thomas I got the idea of pushing the technique even further, but unlike Thomas, my characters never narrate their own stories. Whalelight, to be clear: I wrote this while ventriloquizing myself, while in possession of and possessed by the voices of the primary characters. In attempting to push Uncle Charles Principle, something else started happening though, a result of that constraint as I conceived it: At times, the narrating voice was so completely taken over by the characters’ voices that all that remained for the conflation to be complete would be to add an occasional “I” to the narrative voice—which I did. Thus there are moments in the text which raise metaphysical concerns about whose story it is, which voice belongs to which entity, and the energetic or noetic relationship of these beings. What kind of subjectivity do they have if their voices take over the world-voice and occasionally each others? The subtitle, then, speaks to the title, to the sonar-like feeling that the title performs on the mystery, diegetic and otherwise, of the novel (if only for me). It also speaks to the technics of the novel directly, and I hope it will alert the reader, suggesting that even if the book is read silently, for a full effect, it is meant to be heard.

 

Recently, I have been considering making an audiobook of Whalelight. In my initial considerations, I thought I would wait until the book was thoroughly polished. But I find myself currently in the company of several sonic researchers and sound artists, and while some parts of the book need a lot of work yet, this is a unique opportunity to think about and discuss some of the technical and aesthetic questions I have (and I’m sure more will arise) as I attempt to translate parts of this very sound-driven book into the actual medium of sound recording. Those questions are to come . . .

 

Reference

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It Is Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

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Robby, the Genderbent Robot, or What’s So Forbidden About this Planet?

If you were to stand facing Robby, the Robot, his antennae would be oriented like a Theremin’s. (A Theremin—conspicuously?—was not used in the production of the soundtrack or sound effects of Forbidden Planet.)

But Robby only plays himself.

(That video is nice for the re-mediation—the visual aesthetic grind of filming a television set and how it pitches the sound. The video is lousy for the extra-extradiegetic drumroll at the end, letting us know, just in case we had any doubts, that, yes indeed, this scene is comical, thank you very much.)

But, by Robby’s own admission, Robby is sexless and genderless.

This happens early on, immediately following the saucer, United Planets Cruiser C57-D, landing:

The name Robby, as of 2010, is “relatively popular,” though it ranks much higher for male babies (especially human ones), 780th of 1220, than for female babies (where, in a survey of 4276 names, it does not rank at all). Here are some charts to prove it:

Image

Image

(Credit to thinkbabynames.com)

Which means that if we were to guess based on the sound of Robby’s name alone, we’d likely err on the side of maleness. I emphasize the sound of the name because in the storyworld we never see it written, even if it is blazoned large as the stars’ names on the film release posters.

Image

A minute ago, I referred to Robby as “himself,” even if I did so hesitantly. Part of that is the poverty of the English language—our gender-neutral pronouns are second and first person, “you” and “I,” which have limited syntactical use. We do have a third-person-plural gender-neutral pronoun, “They”; but we have no third-person-singular gender-neutral pronoun. Other languages (and countries) might be more sensitive to the nuances of this kind of naming:

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/04/hen_sweden_s_new_gender_neutral_pronoun_causes_controversy_.html

I’m 99% sure Commander Adams never refers to Robby as male or masculine, and neither do Alta or Dr. Morbius. But the space yokels do—several times. Given my own inclinations and my feelings on gender politics, I wouldn’t want to get on board (United Planets Cruiser C57-D or much else) with these guys, but they are following what we might call a natural impulse, given that Robby the Robot’s voice is unmistakably masculine.

So, I guess the question is, why is his voice masculine? Bebe and Louis Barron could do all those crazy sounds, and they or the director (Fred Wilcox) clearly had the idea of manipulating voices to indicate technological mediation or environmental conditions—manipulating the voice Commander Adams when he speaks over the saucer’s intercom, and even Robby’s voice sounds like it comes out of a big tin bucket—and if as, Robby itself says, the question of gender is “totally without meaning,” then why does Robby sound male?

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Louis & Bebe Barron Circuitbending the Forbidden Planet

1950s techno.

=Forbidden Planet=

39:35: Two crew members of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D stand guard outside their saucer in the middle of the night. (This correlates with 10:40 on the soundtrack.)

—Funny to see two moons in the sky, isn’t it?

—Funny how quick a guy gets used to it.

—Yeah.

—Joe.

—What?

—Do you hear something?

—Like what?

—Like a sort of big breathing.

—No.

—It’s funny. I did.

As this conversation takes place, the camera tracks past the two guards at monster’s-eye-view, three or so feet taller than the guards, looking down at them. The camera smoothly pans away from the crewmen to the entrance of the saucer. This is the same kind of effect we get in a shot–reverse-shot sequence, typical of two person dialogue in many films, but better, as the camera is moving, and the eyeline match feels more solid, visceral, and complete. We are moving through this space, flattened to become a part of the 3D image projected onto the 2D surface of the image screen.

Forbdden Planet - invisible monster (Here’s my freehand of the scene — invisible monster-audience included.)

A “monster is nothing but a combination of elements” (xii), Jorge Luis Borges tells us in the preface to The Book of Imaginary Beings, and furthermore, that we recognize them, possibly recognize ourselves in them, because we are of one “essence” (xi).

This “combination of elements” might not be a bad way to think of the sound-image sync in film generally, or what Michel Chion calls spatial magnetization (247-249) or the “carnival of synchronization” (222).

In Forbidden Planet, we in the audience do not hear the breathing either, until about 40:13. This “sort of big breathing” is quiet in the film, introduced—and rhythmically synced—with the presumably nondiegetic soundtrack, and it is in no way audibly distinct from it. The breathing doesn’t play over the music, but seems to be a part of it. (Yet, the big breathing is not a part of the soundtrack music.)

Lois Parkinson Zamora, in her essay, “Borges’s Monsters,” sees “monsters” as “metaphors of being” (48), that “slip suggestively . . . between real and imagined” worlds, opening “the way to chaos, deformity, and dream” (59). The point, both everywhere and here (In Forbidden Planet) is that a monster is a conceptual or actual hybrid—the collapse of disparate significations into a single signifying space.

One of the crewmates of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D hears the breathing while we do not. We hear the music while the crewmates do not. And we, with the camera, creep past the crewmates. Then we hear the music and the breathing while the crewmates hear neither. We magnetize the mentioned sound (“Do you hear something?”) to the camera’s POV, our POV—from where we hear the music—and a moment later we associate the breathing sound to the mentioned sound, which gives the sense that the monster was holding its breath (it could, like us and the other crewmate, not hear itself for a moment). And through the synchrony of the sound (the breathing with the music) and the synchrony of the sound with the moving camera, we—the clearly nondiegetic audience—cross the diegetic line, invisible, and climb into the saucer with mal-intent. This is how, for just a moment, Forbidden Planet hybridizes us into the film and we become the monster.

Groovy.

References

Borges, Jorge. The Book of Imaginary Beings. Trans. Peter Sis. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Chion, Michel. Film, A Sound Art. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Wilcox, Fred. Forbidden Planet. Music, Louis Barrob and Bebe Barron. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956.

Zamora, Lois. “Borges’ Monsters: Unnatural Wholes and the Transformation of Genre.” In Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco. Ed. Jorge Gracia, Rodolphe Gasché and Carolyn Korsmeyer. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. 47-84.

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