Practice to Research and Back Again…

What is my methodology?

The question of ‘methodology’ has been exercising me a little since it was discussed in lectures. I often feel that in my work, scoring, or sound-sculpting, the approach is something I invent to meet the needs of the project each time.

For example, currently I am scoring an audio play for Pulp Pourri Theatre called The Bird and the Snake. It is an adaptation of a story set in the Polish community in 1950s Chicago and is in the ‘noir crime’ tradition. The producer specified seedy jazz (it is a dark story involving sexual exploitation) but I wanted to hint at Polish heritage in the scoring too.

I have produced a series of short sketches with a combination of punchy, uneasy big band for the main theme which can be reduced to tense walking bass or small jazz combo for underscoring, and also Polish traditional music to mark the all-seeing mother of the cop who is telling the story, which can be reduced to just accordion as required for quiet underscore. The harmonic structure is written in such a way that all the themes could be linked and combined, so we might have the mother’s music on a fiddle against the Chicago music in the piano, for example.  Here, the final scene, as the son considers his mother’s unique wisdom, segues back into an (even more!) energised version of the theme for the end credits:

I have done all of this in advance of receiving the final audio file from the producer.  I’ve read the script and the producer has approved the main theme already, but I will not find out exactly how to slot in my work, or whether any different material is needed, until I hear the final take from the rest of the team, at which point I will be expected to add my music in a matter of days.

Clearly, this way of working – adaptive, flexible – is very different from how I wrote the choral piece from first principles (discussed here) or how we have been carefully sculpting the sound design for the ‘Intruders’ short film assignment in our studies.

Scoring is by its nature rather a responsive process. There is much creativity involved, but what I love about it is the way it pulls you deep into other people’s visions and lets you discover along with them what the voice of a piece sounds like. There is an element of translation in it, as well as adding to the material. We always end up in our Digital Audio Workstation, pulling together audio files and/or MIDI, but where and how we start building can vary hugely. If conventional music is needed, I find I often have to start at the piano and then transfer over to the DAW for best results. But if it is more experimental, as it is here, working from timbre and texture upwards, then there can be a process of ‘uncovering’ what emerges from sonic play.

Research Practice

Regarding my reading, listening and viewing, I feel I have approached the subject of empathy and world-view in a way that is closer to the ‘sonic experiment’ model: I have cast my net wide, assimilating neurology, sociology and psychology as well as musicology, film studies, more general film music aesthetics and finally honing in on the scholars like Karen Collins, Robynn Stilwell and Ben Winters who are grappling with the issues I wish to explore within the context of soundtrack.
From these multi-disciplinary meanderings a picture begins to emerge of sound as a sense deeply and inextricably entwined with the psyche, emerging from the very beginnings of consciousness (Webb et al 2015), that interacts with and influences the areas of our brain responsible for primal reactions and dreaming, subconscious and intuitive thought (Stilwell 2005), that can produce instant associations with times in our lives (Cizmic 2015) and that the experience of hearing is very, very subjective and influenced by our neurological make-up (DePape et al 2012).

I have begun to explore work that deliberately sets out to portray subjective experienceindoctrinate or influence (dangerous and immoral though it may be) and/or engender empathetic reactions, and noted technical or conceptual devices that may be useful in the future for my own work as I go.

Perhaps the one method of examining the subjects that I can apply to all these paths of discovery is semiotics: it seems to be in my nature to look for meaning in things, and I automatically find myself seeking out the elements than can reveal meaning.

I am looking to where to apply all this constantly in my own work.  I am in the early stages of talking about making a short film for the charity I helped found, Herts Welcomes Syrian Familes, about how the organisation came about, what they achieved and perhaps telling some of the stories of refugees who now live in Herts because of HWSF.  This should be a really exciting project for me, where I can really start to make use of some of what I am observing and pondering.

Webb, A.R., Heller, H.T., Benson, C.B., Lahav, A., 2015. Mother’s voice and heartbeat sounds elicit auditory plasticity in the human brain before full gestation. PNAS 112, 3152–3157.

Stilwell, R.J., 2005. Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape, in: Screen Methods Comparative Readings in Film Studies Ed.Furby, J. and Randell, K. Wallflower Press, London, pp. 48–58.

Cizmic, M., 2015. The Vicissitudes of Listening: Music, Empathy, and Escape in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Music, Sound and the Moving Image; Liverpool 9, 1–32,98.

DePape, A.-M.R., Hall, G.B.C., Tillmann, B., Trainor, L.J., 2012. Auditory Processing in High-Functioning Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. PLOS ONE 7, e44084.


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