Here is a link to the audio drama mini-series, The Tower, by Tin Can Audio. It was also described by its producer, David Devereux, as an experimental ‘audio drama concept album.’ I worked alongside David very briefly at Rusty Quill – the end of his time as editor of Stellar Firma coincided for a month or two with the start of mine producing the same show. But I enjoyed his approach to sound, and so I vowed at the time to check out some of his other work.
I was interested enough, as a musician and sound designer with an interest in psychological storytelling, to want to go deeper into this particular show, and I share my thoughts about it with you.
As we follow the protagonist, Kiri, on her journey of discovery about herself and about humanity, we are tacitly invited to look back on our own recent past of listening within the drama as we do. There is some kind of symmetrical co-experience as we observe Kiri’s own retrospective reflections and mental growth.
It is deeply introverted and full of symbolism (though it works equally well at face value, as a kind of a daydream). Typically, in audio drama and other media, it’s expected that audiences will have to invest attention and careful thought into the quieter, more introspective stories; it’s kind of part of the deal. But here it’s different: the internal, psychological drama and careful narrative pace are made more compelling by the chiselling of music, sound and words, and by the performances. Not a moment is excessive or wasteful, and I didn’t need to concentrate really hard before I wanted to listen on.
By the end, I think I understood this: we’re exploring what it may be that makes us lost, without identity, and desperate to ‘escape,’ and how it may be far more to do with the way society consumes us than it is about our own shortcomings. David puts it like this: ‘a lot of The Tower is about wanting to fix things, but not quite knowing what it is you’re trying to fix, let alone how to go about it.’
In the earlier part of the season, we become aware of some unknown agency or power that’s observing Kiri in, and is in charge of, The Tower, but we don’t know what it is. But the final chapter has us asking fresh (and livelier) questions, about the fabric of The Tower itself. Read on to learn what I think they are.
Prelude and The Staircase
Kiri speaks to people on telephones along her journey. They are, obviously, a natural-sounding way to narrate in audio. Their rings, filtering and static become a signature sound of the series very quickly.
I like to think that there may be symbolism even in this – something about connections: reaching out. In that light, it is significant that the series begins with the ring of a phone. When I remarked on this, David told me that during recording, he ‘had the actors face away from each other so that they only had the other’s voice to bounce off. Exploring ideas of isolation, both imposed and chosen, was a big part of what went into the story.’
The first music cue is introduced at the apex of Kiri’s row with her friend Chris (chapter 1, 1:34), when she announces her decision to climb The Tower. At the height of their discord, the music is immediately interesting, because the theme has a calm, pacific quality to it. Do we hear the reaching out for escape in the music even as she shouts – an impulse which Chris himself, we hear later, fully understands?
This decision is the first step on her journey. All of the music in the whole mini-series implies perpetual motion. David says that he never properly considered this piece of musical semiotics, although he did deliberately use the repeated notes D/C/G/A as an underlying motif. All the same, I do wonder if there might have been a subconscious intent there. He mentions that he took a lot of influence from Ryuchi Sakamoto, who has been so influential in the electronic music world. (I know him best myself from the score to the film The Last Emperor, in which the music concentrated the kind of sad, rather empty, expansiveness for me.)
In any case, as Kiri restates her determination, she is already on her way, mentally. The music is always walking, always climbing. The rhythmic character is gentle, with quavers bobbing along, and no strong, overt beat. It is so hypnotic that after sustained listening the music sits somewhere in the semi-conscious, playing out even when there is no underscore; it feels like the series is whispering it under its breath.
I think the music also has a slightly mystical quality.
The second cue arrives when we learn that Chris has been reading about the Tower all day (chapter 1, 5:19). For me, this introduces The Tower as a ‘character,’ gives it personality, with the cementing of the connection between the main theme and The Tower.
The music wanders on the pentatonic scale, largely – David says ‘you could say this about literally all of my music’ 😊 – but the expression is different here. The homophonic chords are a little more decisive, solid – there is more of a definite voice. I found no definite resolution in this consonant sound-world – it is more like we are floating, exploring, there is no real dissonance or sharpness. There is always a chance there could be a resolution to a final chord at any moment, but it is infinitely held off, which occurred to me may be a way of drawing an apparently infinite tower (or one, a least, where the ending is unseen). David confirmed to me that this was a deliberate choice, and something he had in mind to experiment with when he began scoring The Tower.
However, I discovered at the very end of this season that there is eventually a change to this irresolution, and it comes right at a climactic moment in the plot. I’ll mention the conclusions I drew about this when I get there! But this is one really good example of the audience being shown something of Kiri’s panoramic self-discovery within the musical (and, symbiotically, the narrative) structure that we listeners ourselves trace as we listen. By “panoramic self-discovery”, I mean, looking back and forwards in time, looking inside herself at times while also forgetting all about herself at other times, looking down to the ground and up to the unfolding structure).
Note – in terms of audio production choices, the dialogue is heard in Chris’s point of audition at the start of this exchange. When we segue to Kiri’s point of view, the music ends and the mist sounds – alien, slightly dwarfing, intimidating – begin. Why? “The person you are trying to reach is unavailable,” it says, a familiar message to anyone from the UK… The music seems to be about connections quite a lot – Kiri is reaching outwards, or perhaps reaching backwards in time – and the absence of it here perhaps feeds into this.
The “calling mum” music feels slightly less stable (chapter 1, 7:40). David says it’s his favourite bit of the score. In his correspondence with me about this section, he concluded that
‘they’re inverted m11 chords but phrased weirdly: for example, the first chord is F# and C# on the left hand, and G# and D# on the right, so it’s a G#m11/F#… I think? It’s an ambiguous, cinematic chord sound that I really like.’
As ever, there is a rather unstable tonal centre; when I listened, it felt like we were heading for C#, but then it settled as seeming to have an F# tonic. Then we shift sideways to Eb6 as Kiri hangs up. All of this, to me, suggests uncertainty, irresolution in the character, as she wrestles homesickness for childhood.
When talking to the mysterious Ike at the end of this first chapter, both points of view in the dialogue are filtered for the telephone. We sit between them – on the wire, as it were! The music returns to the F centred key world, which for me helps to bookend and shape the episode. David pointed out that F is ‘very much the central key’. This is absolutely something that I felt strongly as I listened.
There is lots of the white noise in this episode – the tower mist, the phone crackle. It sandpapers the ear regularly! It seems like David is setting up the discomfort to help us inhabit Kiri’s, and, of course, also setting that up so that the moment it clears, the absence of a sound has as much impact as possible.
The Little Church
This section explores doubts, low self-esteem, and the feeling of a lack of progress.
The opening chord D5 (9) comes into focus during the arpeggiation, in a music box-like patch.
Then we hear a C chord underneath – then B – then A…
These chords feel a little circular, which I imagine is mimicking the (apparently futile, or at least dispiriting) walking around with little or no progress. Kiri tells about her dispiriting experiences via her phone calls, but we experience them ourselves via the music (and sound).
David said that he was least pleased with this this section of the score, overall. However, as a media composer myself, I know that when the narrative is depicting staleness, wilderness, lack of progress, I invariably find myself feeling stale, uninspired and mopey in my scoring! I would even suggest that it is a sign of being well-attuned to a story. Perhaps I am making excuses for being an artistic parasite there, though! Regardless, I think that the circular function of the music in this section carries meaning, even if it wasn’t that satisfying to compose!
The music returns just before ‘How’re you holding up?’ (episode 2, 3:16): an F9 chord here. And there are some parallel harmonies. David told me that he loves chord extensions and suspended chords… you and me both, David!
I notice a lot of descending bass in these cues. It’s like she’s reaching back for the ground in her moments of anxiety about her decision – but then the bass moves up again, like there’s a kind of balance over a pivot between her resolve and her trepidation. If you are listening as you read, one example is when she says ‘I really appreciate it’.
“What are you doing?”
Towards the end of the episode, the narrative turns darker. Kiri’s misgivings are manifested and concentrated in an intrusion on the phone line by a voice that challenges her in an alarming way: “what are you doing?” repeated again and again (episode 2, 5:50).
The “what are you doing” moment is the first time I feel that we have some really prominent transdiegetic work, and I love that! The loud static has a ping pong delay placing it on the beat, which makes the psychological space, as depicted in the music, get invaded by whatever external forces are there in her journey, depicted in the sound design.
This is so fascinating in this context, because there is surely one level of meaning that has The Tower be an aspect of Kiri’s psyche. If we follow this particular thread (but I don’t think this is the ultimate point of the story) then she climbs inside an aspect of herself for a journey, but there is also something hostile in there (possibly the internalising of experiences of a hostile society). So the music is her, but is invaded by the sound of a space that may in one way be shaped by her, which becomes fashioned into something musicalized. And so there’s a kind of ‘blood bond’ between the music and sound – and it becomes irrelevant to try to find the function of each independently.
David confirmed that it was an intentional choice to keep slightly abstract any notion of what the tower actually might be. And that the listener’s experience is very much with Kiri throughout this and future seasons, meaning that there may always be an interpretation of events that has some of it coming from her.
The transdiegetic device leaches into that final chord (which I heard as a version of Gm11 but with a beautifully unstable voicing, but David corrected me on – it is Fm9/11 – in his words, “vaguely unsettling”!). The chord uses the same ping pong delay. The arpeggiation bouncing around in there is in the middle of the voicing (A – Bb – F) puts more emphasis on the neutral harmonies – 4ths, 5ths, 9ths. This makes for a definite progression from the pentatonic mood in the opening – far less of the cosy consonant intervals snuggling together – and the voicing of the chord accentuates this effect. It feels like the first time The Tower is reaching into her mind’s space, the way it invades the music.
The Ruined Watchtower
We find Kiri answering the unknown, scary, voice with her doubts. What does the church represent? What does the ruined watchtower represent?
I like the footsteps at the end of this sequence. They have a great texture, right in my ears, and are very vulnerable-sounding. And I love how it leads into “you’re still alive!”
Ike then calls. His presence is a temporary exorcism, but who the hell is Ike?
Apparently, this is a ‘good question…’ 😊
As they talk, we hear more of chords iii and ii in Kiri’s music than we did before (episode 3, around the 3:00 point). These chords are more emotive than those that previously dominated, and the whole impression is a little more sombre as a result. Meanwhile, the mist sound effects nicely emphasise the desolate feeling when Ike breaks it to her that the journey ahead is impossibly vast. This section is personal, vulnerable, sad. It sets up beautifully the arrival of Kiri’s mum – it’s just lovely storytelling.
(episode 3, 5:22) The Kiri’s mum music moves through a chromatic descent towards F. Once we reach home, in F, we’re also definitely back to the pentatonic sound world. The highly consonant pentatonic scale is associated with blissful desert islands, heaven, safe spaces and David’s intention is quite clear there.
At the same time, the sound design is dancing with this progression towards comfort that we hear in the score. I really love the change of tone in the ambiance as mum comes on. Somehow, it makes the same space, same fire, which was at first acting as a sound to interact with vast space to remind us of it, sound like a cosy fireplace temporarily. Very clever. Then a fire crackle is once again given more reverb at the very end, which brings us back to the vast, desolate space, and also feels slightly super-real, moving into emotional space for the end of the episode. This was so nicely done!
The Fog Clears
Do listen to this episode of the How I Make Music podcast, for a more in-depth discussion of this section from the composer.
To me, this is our first distinctive melody. It feels to me like it has by far the strongest sense of identity that the music has had so far. It is as though Kiri doesn’t know it yet, but she’s already progressed beyond her state of mind where she began, and developed more resilience as she takes her past (her mother) with her.
It feels like a descending leaf or feather. Can the fog descend towards the ground/the past, like a falling leaf? There is a feeling of shedding as it gathers energy. The repeated quavers entering at 2:06 are the most overt rhythmical gesture we’ve had so far.
It is as though the music is her resolve gathering momentum as she climbs: as the circular harmonies move down, she’s letting go, as they move up, she’s ascending too, leaving the ‘fog’ behind.
Like The Little Church, this opens in D, with perfect intervals initially – the emptiness – which becomes filled as the f# appears. Her music feels more grounded, with that tonic pedal, the simple major chords. The bass sound is lovely (some kind of warm, fairly simple sine-based thing). I always adore a I – v progression. So bittersweet, always!
“There was nothing wrong with me. I was just very small,” says Kiri, remembering weighing “too little” as a child. This ties in with her previous observation about electrons, and how they only exist under certain conditions, and wink out of existence quite easily.
To me it is interesting that these observations about being made to feel insubstantial coincide with the music shifting to (and remaining in) the subdominant chord of G, and being stabilised in that key by alternating between that and F (new chord vii). To me, a move down the cycle of fifths towards the subdominant key feels more solid. The shift also coincides with the with the bass entering, to ground the music further.
Is this the music disagreeing with – Kiri rebelling against – what she’s telling us about being ‘too small’, barely able to be registered by gravity? Or is it trying to create that weightless feeling – the gulf between the bell-like treble floating and the distant ground below? Are we thinking about the distance she puts between herself and gravity as she climbs? She speaks of gravity just after this musical development.
For me, this monologue hits hard, emotionally. It is a privilege to listen to this, and be allowed into this intimate world. “Dancing and shouting as loud as I could, but felt smaller for it”. The Tower is big. “I don’t have to shout anymore; I just have to climb.” This is like a complex introvert’s mantra!
There is a really significant harmonic progression when she says this. It has been a musical cloud around G9/F6 – lots of very pretty stuff – but then we hit that Bb chord, which moves to Am.
This is, then, further into the F major world, but these chords are unambiguously emotive, perfectly reflecting that moment when, having been thinking on something, we come to a point of realisation, of arrival: that significant idea or recognition that brings the tearful feeling. Of relief, in this case. “I don’t have to shout anymore.”
I love the cascading triplets at this moment. They pick up the triplets that appear when she says “dancing and shouting as loud as I could”, but this time we’re emphasising the pivot in the harmony – and, again, underlining this simultaneous ‘surging upwards but throwing burdens downwards’ mood.
The organ sound around the edges of the mix, dancing around the notes a, e, and d, is an interesting sound, as it merges with the ambiance in The Tower, far more than do the bell-like patches in the foreground of the mix.
Kiri sums up to Chris what the music and monologing has already told us in the next conversation. There is a variant on the opening of the ‘Fog Clears’ music, and that bittersweet alternation between chords I and v once more. Chris is sort of saying what she was saying. But then he moves on to his own insecurity and she can say “other people don’t validate your existence; you do”.
The validating music gets quieter when Jessie is mentioned! At the beginning of this post, I speculated that the perpetual motion in the music could reflect her continuous journey; at this moment she stops ‘walking’. The music cuts suddenly as she feels what he’s not saying about her running away. (episode 5, 7:47) Who ‘Jessie’ is, and what happened is only implied and not further explored at this stage, but it was included, and so it seems important to note.
And then we reach a door… Above it reads “stop, for this is the land of the dead” (which David tells me is borrowed liberally from the Paris catacombs!) The music makes a new statement, in, for the first time, the Aeolian mode (episode 5, 9:22). There is a sparser texture and a new patch.
The Tomb (Part 1)
As Kiri enters the tomb, the steps feel more prominent. The crackling sounds close to the ears. I noticed that my ear pricked up at the sound of a flame torch at the opening, a thing that becomes significant to the story soon – I like how the sound dangles a fair way before it is mentioned in dialogue. This is a good example of one of the many devices in this series that force the audience to look back, and make our understanding of what’s going on mirror that of Kiri.
We have the same barer, G Aeolian music. It seems to be painting the trudge; the journey continues, but it’s slow and heavy. The maze she described is maybe reflected here. When she shouts “I stopped seeing the bones?” at 3:32, David introduces a new sound, a choir preset which he says sounds ‘very Nintendo 64, but there’s something haunting about it’.
When we hear the words “then I guess you throw it down the pit,” at 5:18, the audience’s point of audition (with the telephone filtering) is moved from Chris to Kiri, in preparation for her shock, and to indicate the space she’s about to see. She thinks that the pit is just space all the way to the ground. In a different way, this what it actually transpires to be: an apparently infinite sight of death, which is a different kind of void.
I love the repeat of the “what are you doing” music after she observes that the torches have been lit for her. There is a pleasing symmetry drawing together these unsettling moments of awareness of being observed by something.
Ike calls… again, who is he? (lol!)
The new patch there with the “what are you doing?” music was added (in David’s words) ‘to add an extra level of being haunted and just generally creeped out’! We return to Kiri’s point of audition right at the end there, with the sense of the space around her. I do love how long the fire (torch) sound goes on, reminding us of another presence.
The Tomb (Part 2)
Kiri’s steps open the chapter once more. The steps, and the torches lighting as she reaches them, for me, are part of the ‘score’. Maybe, or maybe not, significantly, the music in this repeat is not in time with the steps, though. The dark thoughts that Kiri is articulating seem at odds with the rather hopeful tone in the music (and there’s a new chord sequence – see below, re. Pink Floyd). Is this in tune with her carrying on, progressing through the waste, the loss, rejecting the hubris, stating her determination to remember the sacrificed workers? An affirmative political statement. (Also, I do love a good bass slide…)
I’m told that during the recording, actor David Pellow remarked that this was the author at his “most Doctor Who”!
There is a bonfire that burnt out, and Kiri says that people have “funny ideas about eternity.” That scared/sensible people don’t tend to be in charge. This feels, also, really affirmative, proud, and it is absolutely significant that it coincides with the return of the ‘The Fog Clears’ melody (episode 7, 3:30). I agree with what’s being said, too!
The symbolism of re-lighting the bonfire (4:42) and the sudden fierce blaze is about respecting the working classes, the unnamed dead, treated as disposable in the name of the vanity of arrogant king. And this leads to…
The musical climax
The new musical gesture at this climax is redolent of the chord sequence from ‘Breathe in the Air/Great Gig in the Sky’ by Pink Floyd, and this becomes more apparent as she lights the bonfire. I spotted the similarity straight away, but now I see that David spoke of Dark Side of the Moon as an influence. He also says that he was ‘definitely trying to make my own Great Gig In The Sky’.
These words from that song sprang to my mind:
“Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down
It’s time to dig another one
For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave.“
The machinery sounds are amazing, and slightly terrifying. This piece of sound design is very nicely timed! “The Tower is awake.” In his PodUK talk on sound design, David talked about where he got the sound from (it is a good story and, as someone with an interest in sound design, I recognise the magpie-like sound hoarding instinct that he clearly also has!).
This moment is one answer to my constant question on audio drama: “instead of looking for alternatives to visuals, there must be more stories out there that can be based around what you hear, not what you see… but what are they?”.
It is even more interesting than that, though, because there is ambiguity in the sound, at the moment of onset. It is jarring, formidable, slightly alarming, and makes me think of how people must have felt in the first industrial revolution, to find themselves dwarfed by somewhat nightmarish machines. And then the subsequent dialogue paints it as being impressive in a more uplifting way…
The sound is dark in tone, then, but the sight, we learn, is alight. This is a wonderful exploitation of the ambiguity of sound. In nature, we hear things and we are alerted to their presence, and then we look for them. But the initial moment of hearing, the alertness, and whatever feeling the sound independently makes us feel, is in itself an experience, before there is any reference to the visual answers. This makes the narrative experience in audio drama more complex and, I think, often more visceral, than visual media. It exploits that underbelly of unease we feel when any powerful or uncontrollable thing happens, no matter how magnificent or revelatory.
I really like the way the score sort of gets subsumed into the machinery, but then rises out from it again, which, to me, concentrates the effect of this alarming sonic onset. I was told that this was a difficult section to mix, but David also told me that he is proud of this moment, and loves the chaos in it.
The music here is wonderful – the most dramatic moment, of course, for the end of the series. The chord sequence starts by invoking Dark Side Of The Moon again (Gm – Gm/F – C/E) but then it circles round and we seem to use a ii-V-I sequence! This the first really prominent use of dominant function and, because of having been held back till now, feels really different to the more floaty, exploratory, irresolute harmonies we’ve had so far – strong, determined. Something in Kiri – and something in humanity – is responding powerfully to being heard.
(Regarding the use of the ii-V-I chord sequence, David says ‘I was going full prog rock finale here, not going to lie.’ 😉 )
The piano figuration, the first ever use of drums – which, by the way, were sampled from the opening of Pink Floyd’s Time! – the duplets against triplets (which always feels like fluid machinery to me), all of this is so very visual. We see the awakening in the music.
And with the energy in that music, I find a sense of wonder and a hint of triumph there, which overcomes the dark foreboding that was built in the majority of the final two chapters.
The final few bars – the rippling of the music box, bell-like arpeggiation – are also really visual for me at the very end. They give me an image of looking up and seeing all those mechanisms pass the energy up, start moving one by one, into the sky. There are many little twinkles of light, going up and up.
All of this, and what it brought to mind, moved me. It led to the thoughts that I alluded to at the beginning.
This, it turns out, is about the fabric of ‘The Tower’ being of the people who actually built it, just as in society, when you pay attention. I had assumed that the personality of The Tower was about some scary, unseen power. And I think we were supposed to! But it is way better than that.
Or perhaps… is it both? Are they in conflict? When is season 2? I have it on good authority that they are working on in. 😊
So for me, at this point in the tale, this a story about alienation. The conflict between societal constraints/repressions, and our selfhood, and how that links to smothered identity and subsequent mental illness. How much can our identities ever not be part of ‘The Tower’, can The Tower not be part of us? But as I said at the start, at face value, as a simple fairy story, or an atmospheric dream, this story totally works.
Finally, I have a quote from David as a response to my observations:
The intent with The Tower was that it would be standalone, as I wasn’t sure the idea of an audio fiction concept album podcast would work in practice. All the things that I wanted to talk about with this series and all the themes and meanings are there in the first six episodes, and will continue to be explored as we make more (and we are making more).
As much as I have my own meanings and interpretations of what it all represents, I’ve found it much more interesting to hear what other people took from the series as I think that’s honestly more important to me. One of the things I love about music is that everyone filters it through their own experience to make their own connection to it, and I think that’s what I was trying to do here.
Images are artwork from Tin Can Audio, and from the following users at pixabay.com:
Peter Dargatz, Felicity_Kate11, geralt, StockSnap, barthelskens, Ichigo121212.