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El Caracol: A Stroll through Space and Time in Mexico City

A sound art multimedia piece by Anthony William Rasmussen

Funded by the UC MEXUS Dissertation Research Grant

Map graphics by Julie K. Wesp

Additional Footage by Oswaldo Mejía

The megalopolis of Mexico City is experienced by many who live there as a network of “known” places, laden with both personal memory and collective meaning. Sounds provide inhabitants with a powerful means of navigation: the unique calls of street vendors, song fragments, speech, and protest chants echolocate the listener within a vast spatiotemporal grid. The title of this piece (“the snail/the shell”) refers to the prolific spiral motif in Mesoamerican cosmology and alludes to a nonlinear vision of time and space.

El Caracol, Sounding Board Installation, 2015, Image by Leo Cardoso

The piece consists of four journeys, each beginning at the outskirts of the city and ending in or near the Zócalo—Mexico City’s central plaza and the symbolic heart of the nation. The video element consists of footage captured while walking through various sites in Mexico City and represents the phenomenological present. The audio element provides a counterpoint to the visual: sounds meander and drift from the visual field; occasional ruptures of historical sound expose layers of this audible palimpsest.

Sounding Out! is thrilled to host a virtual installation of “El Caracol” right here, right now:

Featured Image: Screen Capture from El Caracol

Anthony W. Rasmussen is a musician, educator, and postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Currently, he is investigating the transformation of whistles from a rural system of long-distance communication to an aesthetic/symbolic practice in Mexico City. In 2017, he completed a PhD in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside with a dissertation on sound culture and urban conflict, “Resistance Resounds: Hearing Power in Mexico City.” His work can be found in Ethnomusicology ForumAnthony also holds an MFA from UC Irvine where he studied Persian classical music, music composition, and interactive arts technology. He has composed for film, a range of traditional and experimental ensembles, and is singer/songwriter for the pop group, The Fantastic Toes.

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Standing Up, For Jose–Installation Piece by Mandie O’Connell

SO! Amplifies: Sounding Board Curated by Leonardo Cardoso-Jay Loomis

SO! Podcast EPISODE 24: The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivor’s History–Sharon Sekhon

Voices at Work: Listening to and for Elsewhere at Public Gatherings in Toronto, Canada (at So-called 150)–Gabriela Jimenez

detritus 1 & 2 and V.F(i)n_1&2 : The Sounds and Images of Postnational Violence in Mexico–Luz María Sánchez



Aural Guidings: The Scores of Ana Carvalho and Live Video’s Relation to Sound

If you were to choose to watch live video composer and performer Ana Carvalho’s work silent, your brain would be easily guided into a synesthetic experience, assigning sounds to each rhythmic change in color, pace, frame. Her images oscillate…they dance, they breathe. As you experience this, there might be a sense that you have lost your ability to hear the outside world, as these images are clearly attached to, woven with, a part of sound.

There is a history of composers such as Iannis Xenaxis and Cornelius Cardew using graphic scores and notation in place of traditional methods and symbols, as a way to reach a deeper expression through allowing greater interpretation, chance, and improvisation with their musicians. They concentrate more on conveying information on how a work is played, rather then what notes to play when. Carvalho uses the graphic score much in the same way, but also as a method of communication between live audio and live video performances, instructing a dialog between two disciplines that are often side-by-side or leaning on each other, but rarely woven together in the manner I have experienced both as audience, and as an audio composer, with her work.

The following interview has been edited for style.


Maile Colbert: Hi Ana, how are you today? And what are you working on currently?

Ana Carvalho: I am good. I’m working on a performance to present at the solstice, with Neil Leonard, and a text about the possibility of expansion of the mind through performing and fruition of being in an audiovisual performance.

At the moment the performance is still involved into misty possibilities of what we know of each other’s work, and what we have been developing individually and talking about. There will be saxophone, electronics, and visuals made of strange landscapes.

MC: At this stage in the process, when working with a sound maker such as Leonard, how do you think about the images’ relationship with the sound?

AC: Images come to be as they appear on the screen in two ways: first there is the introspection about what have I learned from the previous performances, what I want to explore further and what I don’t want to repeat. Secondly, there is the encounter with the other person and his or her work and how do I translate their sound into moving image. At some point my ideas change through the exchange and becomes something else, a visual performance that could only be presented with that sound, with that person, at that place and time.

Regarding the sound in particular, sometimes I propose a structure, or a score, to be followed by sound and image. Other times it is improvised. As I enjoy very much the process, I tend to like to make structures for the performances, which develop along drawings and texts.

MC: ana-livrete02Your scores of text and image are quite beautiful, and of course I am personally lucky to both have some of the published ones, and have had a chance to work with them as well.

As a sound maker, I find they have a flow and almost narrative that feels both intentional and intuitive, no matter how abstract. When you make these, how much of a clear idea of how the audio would sound in relation to the images is in your mind? Do your images always or often follow the same score? Do the results surprise you?

AC: My state of arriving at the point of starting to make a composition is very much the same I described about working with a sound artist towards the presentation of a performance, that is, what do I want to develop further and what I want to leave behind? Then, what is particular to this new situation/performance/collaboration? The composition is a sort of a vehicle that connects process and performance, and that connects sound and image.

The composition is for the two mediums, sound and image, and they are considered in terms of composition as a unity made of two parts. They have to work in a conversational way. Imagine two close friends and how they would be talking to each other. I have in my imagination how it would be ideally two people in that position. That is how sound and image relate on the composition. I think in the most generic terms, more of intensity and flow rather than sonic results. For this reason any musician, with any possible (or invented) instrument, with whichever image or sound database, is able to play a score. It’s required though that the performers take time to reflect, that the composition is understood and incorporated in the way each one plays their instrument. The results are always a surprise.

MC: What inspired you to start working in this way with the scores, and when?

AC: My interest in making compositional scores, and from them documents related to my performance, has been inspired by conceptual and process based art and by my research on documentation of the ephemeral. The focus on the process highlights the need for other representations that are not the finished art object per se. These other ways of representation use available media to describe the making and the reflection while making. Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-79) is a very interesting example of what I am describing. She is expressing her feelings, the growing process of a child and an external perspective through visual objects displayed both as an exhibition and in book formats. Within audiovisual practice, I have been researching for the past five years on creative ways to make documents of the process. My attention was directed to composition in music. The influence of the composer Cornelius Cardew has been great, especially his work Treatise and his idea of directed improvisation. John Cage was also very important for his structures (in talks, texts and music), the use of the I Ching, and for bringing chance into composition.

Simultaneously, while studying and reflecting on these and other subjects, I realized that intuitively I make drawings, texts, and take photographs as a way to detach from the everyday and immerge into a creative process which eventually will lead to the concept and content of a performance.

book-photoSystematic Illusion – The Subtle Technique in an Earthquake Detector Construction has been so far the most complex project to include a score, as well as a series of photographs and the performance. It was presented in its complete form just once in the curatorial project Decalcomania. Organizing these elements as composition, creating a score, and from all this to make little books has been a way of putting into practice my research interests.

A result from the construction of the score has been that the process doesn’t stop with one performance, as I then use the same scores to perform with different artists. For example with the score from this project I created the Earthquake Detector performance series within which we presented the performance together in São Paulo in 2013 at the event Arranjos Experimentais.

MC: As you speak about your work, I keep thinking about Robert Bresson’s Notes on Sound and how most of his notes refer to variations of not letting sound or image take over each other, but to weave them together within the composition. In his Notes on the Cinematographer, he also wrote number “10. not to use two violins when one is enough”. What might this mean to you in relation to your collaborations?

AC: One very inspiring event in the attempts I make to construct a formal grammar and way for me to address collaborations has been to see the film Passage Through: A Ritual by Stan Brakhage. The film was screened at Serralves Museum, here in Porto, Portugal, in June 2011. The event addressed the collaboration and improvisation of music in relationship with cinema from the work of the composers Malcolm Goldstein and Philip Corner and their music in the film work of Daïchi Saïto and Stan Brakhage.

The most amazing thing in Passage Through: A Ritual was to watch such a beautiful film made of an abundance of black screen, that is, an absence of visual form, of light and movement. Each appearance of image was a precious moment. What I learned is that the visual emptiness, and sonic as well, contains information when stimulated through glimpses of image, making the experience of seeing and listening very deep. (In his Notes), Bresson sums up this appropriateness of means and complex connections in a simple and clear sentence.

On the scores I make most of the information can be used for both sound and image. On the Refractive Composition, the scale of greys is for image. That was its purpose when the score was performed the first time. But if someone decides to play from the score without knowing anything about it beforehand, and lacking this intention (which was relevant when it was made, but afterwards there was the decision to not leave it as a declared instruction), that person can also interpret the same information as sound.

MC: Alchemy has been described as: “…the chemistry of the subtlest kind which allows one to observe extraordinary chemical operations at a more rapid pace; ones that require a long time for nature to produce” (Paul-Jacques Malouin, Alchimie). Looking from a history of cinema, there is a tradition and pattern of picture coming before sound, a hierarchy that is both in process and production. You often feel this as an audience. Your work and collaboration have a quality of sound and image having been born together. Having worked with you using your scores, I was likening it to being given a recipe where you have before you ingredients and suggestions, but there is room for your own improvisations and reading. Perhaps that is where that feeling of both disciplines coming together in a manner that feels like they are one part of a whole, rather then separate but leaning on each other, comes from.

Is there an alchemical element to this work, or are you seeking one out? And in that regard, are your scores like a recipe?

AC: What I am seeking with my work can relate to alchemy as experiments and attempts in the quest for depth in all things at the point where differences and frontiers become undefined and irrelevant (in communication between beings, in areas of knowledge, between matter and energy). This quest for depth is based on stubborn curiosity towards evolution as a person, and as part of the world. Perhaps there isn’t an alchemical element to the work, but rather a connection with alchemy, in the ways scores relate to the experiments as recipes to be shared with others in construction and change. This takes me to another aspect of composition. It is difficult for me to understand live image as just accompaniment to a music performance, and vice versa. This is perhaps central to my composition, and the reason why I am doing it for sound and image, to be able to perform that intertwined.

If we look at compositions as recipes, it aim will be to set the performers in tune with each other in the construction of a performance, to set sound and image in dialogue, and to permit a multisensory experience. I have been trying to get other artists interested in performing my scores. To perform from another artist’s score may be very common in music but is unheard of in live visuals. I have as an objective to make a change in that, but for now I perform the scores with sound artists. With the Earthquake Detector series I asked sound artists to read from the score and perform with me. So far, I have presented this as performance with Jeremy Slater, Ben Owen, and with you. Because each artist has a very different approach to the score and reads it in its own way, the processes have been very different. For example, Ben Owen made visual reinterpretations of the structure, and you experimented with and without voice (reading of the text in the score), the results are therefore equally different.

MC: Aside from your scores, you could speak about your relationship to the sound you work with, and sound makers you work with, in the live moment of performance?

AC: Looking for a sound artist to work together on a specific piece or to interpret with me a composition comes from a need to transcend my individual perception of the world and to perceive it with others. It is, again, the curiosity to know the world. The only time I made a complete sound piece on my own was for the performance Vista II – Montanha presented last May (as part of Semana Andrómeda, in Maus Hábitos, Porto). Aside from this really interesting experience, each collaboration is different, every process is different, because each musician is a different person with different skills and sees the relationship between sound and image in different ways.

I am very thankful for everything I have learned with each collaboration and all the intensity with each performance but, as always, it’s the curiosity and the need to explore new frontiers that makes me move from previous project to next project. It is also the possibilities that intuitively present themselves as challenges and the “what if…” in variations.

Ana Carvalho is a live video composer and performer, and writes on subjects related to live audiovisual performance. She is a doctor of Communication and Digital Platforms from FLUP (Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto). Her thesis is “Materiality and the Ephemeral: Identity and Performative Audiovisual Arts, its Documentation and Memory Construction.” Currently, she holds a position as invited lecturer at the ISMAI (Instituto Universitário da Maia). For more on her work, visit:

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

All images courtesy of the author.

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Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview with Sound Artist Andrea Parkins — Maile Colbert

Sound as Art as Anti-environment — Steven Hammer

Live Electronic Performance: Theory and Practice — Primus Luta

Resounding Silence and Soundless Surveillance, From TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again

home training

Sonic Beyoncé5This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny.   Last Monday, you heard from Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers) who read Beyoncé’s track “No Angel” against the New York Times’ reference to Michael Brown as #noangel. You will also hear from Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé).  Today, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) gives us full Beyoncé realness, from TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again,–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever    

Less than six months after Beyoncé released Beyoncé, she was momentarily silenced on the small screen when the gossip site TMZ released silent elevator security footage of a fight between her famous husband and sister. Doubly framed by the black and white of a surveillance video screen surreptitiously captured on a security guard’s camera-phone, the video’s silence left plenty of room for speculation. But the footage also revealed a woman conscious that her life is on record: Beyoncé’s body seemed to elude the camera’s full view and she emerged from the elevator with a camera-ready smile.

Like Kevin Allred in his powerful reading of “No Angel,” I could not help but rethink Beyoncé in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. I already read Beyoncé as a sophisticated response to the visual and aural policing of black female bodies, but the closed-circuit images of Beyoncé on TMZ (and in Beyoncé) made me reconsider silence as a damning convention of video surveillance; like Aaron Trammell in “Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surveillance,” I questioned (the lack of) sound as a technique of control. When the camera-phone recording of Kajieme Powell’s murder, photographed and narrated by a community member in real-time, was released with silent surveillance footage of the alleged theft, my appreciation of Beyoncé—as a response to those silent damnations—took a new turn.


“Resounding Silence and Surveillance” argues that Beyoncé returns the media’s visual-aural gaze. Because of its pop package, the album’s artistic composition and socio-cultural merit are often underestimated. Like the silence of surveillance footage, omitting any one sensory element from Beyoncé distorts the holistic meaning. To untangle this critically complex interplay of audio and video, I analyze the visualized song “Haunted” and briefly address the single “***Flawless” to show how the artist’s triple consciousness anchors Beyoncé. She is on to us: Beyoncé is the culmination of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her. Temporarily silenced by footage that she could not control, Beyoncé resounds that “elevator incident”—and our sonic/optic perceptions of her feminism—with a flawless remix.

“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear,” declares Beyoncé. Her voiceover runs over the black screen that opens the promotional video “Self-Titled.” Released the same day Beyoncé premiered on iTunes, “Self-Titled” directs audiences to “see the whole vision of the album.” By design, Beyoncé is an immersive experience—like watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a television event on MTV.

Because Beyoncé was born the same year the cable music channel MTV premiered, she has never known a world without the ability to “see music.” In many ways, her visual album reinvigorates the early spirit of MTV: after Beyoncé, we will “never look at music the same way again.” Though music videos exacerbate the pop single obsession that Beyoncé explicitly resists with Beyoncé, they also produce a unique kinetic connection with the listener-viewer, whose experience of sound is visually registered by the body as it processes shots and edits. This is especially true when strong imagery, rhythmic editing, and dance movements are expertly employed, as in Beyoncé.

Beyoncé deftly critiques the beauty and music/media industries that have been central to her pop success. If taken piecemeal, these critiques can be easily dismissed: the sustained gloss of her image works all too well. There is much to say on a video-by-video basis, but I focus here on the specific aural elements of “Haunted” that articulate Beyoncé’s refusal of the music industry’s status quo. This visualized rejection reveals the layers of racism and sexism that nonwhite female artists (even Beyoncé, even today) must negotiate.

haunted 2

Because of my personal and professional interest in music videos, I consumed Beyoncé as she intended: a sequence of MPEG-4 videos rather than AAC audio files. But it was not until I solely listened to the album that I could discern Beyoncé’s maturation as a black female multimedia pop/culture artist. One refrain from “Haunted” was especially effective:

I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you/ Onto you, you must be on to me

The song’s ethereal quality is amplified by Boots (Jordy Asher), one of Beyoncé’s (then-unknown) collaborators with whom she shares “Haunted”’s writing and producing credit. The track builds slowly, supporting Beyoncé’s “stream of consciousness” delivery with layers of reverberation and waves of synth sounds like “Soundtrack” or the Roland TR-808 kick drum. Punches of bass accelerate the beat until Beyoncé riffs her explicit desire to create something more than a product:

Soul not for sale
Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well
Reap what you sow
Perfection is so, mmm

The music winds to a halt, but the song is not over. Breathy, reverberating vocals transition the track and a piano is delicately introduced:

It’s what you do, it’s what you see
I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me
It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you
Onto you, you must be on to me

ghostAt this point, the song “Haunted” is split into two videos: “Ghost” (directed by Pierre Debusschere) and “Haunted” (directed by Jonas Åkerlund). The videos’ visual differences exemplify the various points of view—from active subject to object of desire and back again—employed across Beyoncé. “Ghost”’s hypnotic visuals underscore the song’s sentiments: close-ups of Beyoncé’s immaculately lit visage soberly mouthing lyrics are intercut with medium shots of her still body swathed in floating fabric and wide shots of her athletic movements against sparse backgrounds. The ar/rhythmic cuts of “Ghost” enunciate an artistic dissatisfaction with the industry: visuals build against/with the synthetic beat, mixing Beyoncé’s kinetically intense movements with her deadpan delivery.

Haunted GifThe fiery agency of “Ghost” sets up the chill of “Haunted,” a voyeuristic tour in which Beyoncé watches and is watched. The “knowing-ness” of her breathy refrain (“I know if I’m haunting you”) is heightened when the tempo accelerates in the song’s second half. There is much to say about “Haunted”—from the interracial family of atomic bomb mannequins to Beyoncé’s writhing boudoir choreography. Most significantly, she is the video’s voyeur and object of surveillance: her face appears on multiple television screens and her voyeur-character is regularly captured on closed-circuit footage. The “Haunted” video soundtrack features the foley and stinger sounds of a horror film, but these surveillance shots feature the low whirr of a film projector rather than silence. The silence of a moving image is so jarring that it compels us to watch differently, so much so that “silent” film scenes utilize a recorded sound of “nothing” (“room tone”) to focus the audience.


When Beyoncé finally resounded the silence of the “elevator incident,” she chose to do it through “***Flawless,” her explicit response to anti-feminist accusations. While the multifaceted anthem gained attention because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s audio, the song is uniquely infused with a kind of docu-visuality thanks to Ed McMahon’s well-known voice and the Star Search jingle. These bookends cite a young Beyoncé losing to an all-male rock band, the kind heavily programmed during MTV’s early days. The clips reinforce the album’s critique of racial and gender hierarchies while questioning the double-edged “work ethic” required to surpass them. Of course, Beyoncé pre-emptively frames this discussion for us in “Self-Titled,” a necessary step that helps audiences appreciate the many moving parts of her tour de force, including her creative business mind.So when Beyoncé swapped the audio of Adichie and McMahon for Nicki Minaj, it was no less of a feminist move. Instead, Beyoncé silences TMZ gawkers:

Of course sometimes shit go down/
When it’s a billion dollars on an elevator

She then offers herself as a medium of empowerment. Beyoncé may be part of a billion-dollar empire, but she willingly shares that pleasure with us:

I wake up looking this good
And I wouldn’t change it if I could
(If I could, if I, if I, could)

And you can say what you want, I’m the shit
(What you want I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
(I’m the shit, I’m the shit, I’m the shit)

I want everyone to feel like this tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn!

Beyoncé’s last word is an image. She and her creative team remixed the visuals of the “elevator incident”: the remix single website features black and white photos of Beyoncé and Minaj, simultaneously evoking surveillance footage and the photo booth images of a girls’ night out. Beyoncé is the work of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her: this minor moment exemplifies Beyoncé’s multimedia resonance as an artist whose power is visible and audible across iTunes and TMZ screens alike.

Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj mugging for the camera

Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj mugging for the camera



Thanks to Elizabeth Peterson, Charise Cheney, Loren Kajikawa, André Sirois and Jennifer Stoever for providing research and intellectual support for this essay

Priscilla Peña Ovalle is the Associate Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Oregon. After studying film and interactive media production at Emerson College, she received her PhD from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television while collaborating with the Labyrinth Project at the Annenberg Center for Communication. She has written on MTV, Jennifer Lopez, and Beyoncé. Her book, Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 2011), addresses the symbolic connection between dance and the racialized sexuality of Latinas in popular culture. Her next research project explores the historical, industrial, and cultural function of hair in mainstream film and television. You can find her work in American Quarterly, Theatre Journal, and Women & Performance.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of “Latina-ness”-Priscilla Peña Ovalle

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences–Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson


Sculptural Dissonance: Hans Zimmer and the Composer as Engineer

Sculpting the Film Soundtrack

Welcome to our new series Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, which brings you new perspectives on sound and filmmaking. As Guest Editor, we’re honored and delighted to have Katherine Spring, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Spring is the author of an exciting and important new book Saying it With Songs: Popular Music and the Coming of Sound to Hollywood Cinema. Read it! You’ll find an impeccably researched work that’s the definition of how the history of film sound and media convergence ought to be written.

But before rushing back to the early days, stick around here on SO! for the first of our three installments in Sculpting the Film Soundtrack.

– NV

It’s been 35 years since film editor and sound designer Walter Murch used the sounds of whirring helicopter blades in place of an orchestral string section in Apocalypse Now, in essence blurring the boundary between two core components of the movie soundtrack: music and sound effects.  This blog series explores other ways in which filmmakers have treated the soundtrack as a holistic entity, one in which the traditional divisions between music, effects, and speech have been disrupted in the name of sculpting innovative sonic textures.

In three entries, Benjamin Wright, Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, and Randolph Jordan will examine the integrated soundtrack from a variety of perspectives, including technology, labor, aesthetic practice, theoretical frameworks, and suggest that the dissolution of the boundaries between soundtrack categories can prompt us to apprehend film sound in new ways. If, as Murch himself once said, “Listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently,” then the time is ripe for considering how and what we might hear across the softening edges of the film soundtrack.

– Guest Editor Katherine Spring

Composing a sound world for Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder’s recent Superman reboot, had Hans Zimmer thinking about telephone wires stretching across the plains of Clark Kent’s boyhood home in Smallville. “What would that sound like,” he said in an interview last year. “That wind making those telephone wires buzz – how could I write a piece of music out of that?” The answer, as it turned out, was not blowing in the wind, but sliding up and down the scale of a pedal steel guitar, the twangy lap instruments of country music. In recording sessions, Zimmer instructed a group of pedal steel players to experiment with sustains, reverb, and pitches that, when mixed into the final track, accompany Superman leaping over tall buildings at a single bound.

His work on Man of Steel, just one of his most recent films in a long and celebrated career, exemplifies his unique take on composing for cinema. “I would have been just as happy being a recording engineer as a composer,” remarked Zimmer last year in an interview to commemorate the release of a percussion library he created in collaboration with Spitfire Audio, a British sample library developer. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to stop me from mangling sounds, engineering, and doing any of those things, and actually getting me to sit down and write the notes.” Dubbed the “HZ01 London Ensembles,” the library consists of a collection of percussion recordings featuring many of the same musicians who have performed for Zimmer’s film scores, playing everything from tamtams to taikos, buckets to bombos, timpani to anvils. According to Spitfire’s founders, the library recreates Zimmer’s approach to percussion recording by offering a “distillation of a decade’s worth of musical experimentation and innovation.”

In many ways, the collection is a reminder not just of the influence of Zimmer’s work on contemporary film, television, and video game composers but also of his distinctive approach to film scoring, one that emphasizes sonic experimentation and innovation. Having spent the early part of his career as a synth programmer and keyboardist for new wave bands such as The Buggles and Ultravox, then as a protégé of English film composer Stanley Myers, Zimmer has cultivated a hybrid electronic-orchestral aesthetic that uses a range of analog and digital oscillators, filters, and amplifiers to twist and augment solo instrument samples into a synthesized whole.

Zimmer played backup keyboards on “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

In a very short time, Zimmer has become a dominant voice in contemporary film music with a sound that blends melody with dissonance and electronic minimalism with rock and roll percussion. His early Hollywood successes, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Days of Thunder (1990), combined catchy themes and electronic passages with propulsive rhythms, while his score for Black Rain (1989), which featured taiko drums, electronic percussion, and driving ostinatos, laid the groundwork for an altogether new kind of action film score, one that Zimmer refined over the next two decades on projects such as The Rock (1996), Gladiator (2000), and The Pirates of the Caribbean series.

What is especially intriguing about Zimmer’s sound is the way in which he combines the traditional role of the composer, who fashions scores around distinct melodies (or “leitmotifs”), with that of the recording engineer, who focuses on sculpting sounds.  Zimmer may not be the first person in the film business to experiment with synthesized tones and electronic arrangements – you’d have to credit Bebe and Louis Barron (Forbidden Planet, 1956), Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, 1981), Jerry Goldsmith (Logan’s Run, 1976), and Giorgio Moroder (Midnight Express, 1981) for pushing that envelope – but he has turned modern film composing into an engineering art, something that few other film composers can claim.

Zimmer Studio

Zimmer’s studio

One thing that separates Zimmer’s working method from that of other composers is that he does not confine himself to pen and paper, or even keyboard and computer monitor. Instead, he invites musicians to his studio or a sound stage for an impromptu jam session to find and hone the musical syntax of a project. Afterwards, he returns to his studio and uses the raw samples from the sessions to compose the rest of the score, in much the same way that a recording engineer creates the architecture of a sound mix.

“There is something about that collaborative process that happens in music all the time,” Zimmer told an interviewer in 2010. “That thing that can only happen with eye contact and when people are in the same room and they start making music and they are fiercely dependent on each other. They cannot sound good without the other person’s part.”

Zimmer facilitates the social and aesthetic contours of these off-the-cuff performances and later sculpts the samples into the larger fabric of a score. In most cases, these partnerships have provided the equivalent of a pop hook to much of Zimmer’s output: Lebo M’s opening vocal in The Lion King (1994), Johnny Marr’s reverb-heavy guitar licks in Inception, Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down (2002), and the recent contributions of the so-called “Magnificent Six” musicians to The Amazing Spider Man 2 (2014).

The melodic hooks are simple but infectious – even Zimmer admits he writes “stupidly simple music” that can often be played with one finger on the piano. But what matters most are the colors that frame those notes and the performances that imbue those simple melodies with a personality. Zimmer’s work on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy revolves around a deceptively simple rising two-note motif that often signifies the presence of the caped crusader, but the pounding taiko hits and bleeding brass figures that surround it do as much to conjure up images of Gotham City as cinematographer Wally Pfister’s neo-noir photography. The heroic aspects of the Batman character are muted in Zimmer’s score except for the presence of the expansive brass figures and taiko hits, which reach an operatic crescendo in the finale, where the image of Batman escaping into the blinding light of the city is accompanied by a grand statement of the two-note figure backed by a driving string ostinato. Throughout the series, a string ostinato and taikos set the pace for action sequences and hint at the presence of Batman who lies somewhere in the shadows of Gotham.

Zimmer’s expressive treatment of musical colors also characterizes his engineering practices, which are more commonly used in the recording industry. Music scholar Paul Théberge has noted that the recording engineer’s interest in an aesthetic of recorded musical “sound” led to an increased demand for control over the recording process, especially in the early days of multitrack rock recording where overdubbing created a separate, hierarchical space for solo instruments. Likewise for Zimmer, it’s not just about capturing individual sounds from an orchestra but also layering them into a synthesized product. Zimmer is also interested in experimenting with acoustic performances, pushing musicians to play their instruments in unconventional ways or playing his notes “the wrong way,” as he demonstrates here in the making of the Joker’s theme from The Dark Knight:

The significance of the cooperative aspects of these musical performances and their treatment as musical “colors” to be modulated, tweaked, and polished rests on a paradoxical treatment of sound. While he often finds his sound world among the wrong notes, mistakes, and impromptu performances of world musicians, Zimmer is also often criticized for removing traces of an original performance by obscuring it with synth drones and distortion. In some cases, like in The Peacemaker (1997), the orchestration is mushy and sounds overly processed. But in other cases, the trace of a solo performance can constitute a thematic motif in the same way that a melody serves to identify place, space, or character in classical film music. Compare, for instance, Danny Elfman’s opening title theme for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer’s opening title music for The Dark Knight. While Elfman creates a suite of themes around a central Batman motif, Zimmer builds a sparse sound world that introduces a sustained note on the electric cello that will eventually be identified with the Joker.  It’s the timbre of the cello, not its melody, that carries its identifying features.

To texture the sounds in Man of Steel, Zimmer also commissioned Chas Smith, a Los Angeles-based composer, performer, and exotic instrument designer to construct instruments from “junk” objects Smith found around the city that could be played with a bow or by hand while also functioning as metal art works. The highly abstract designs carry names that give some hint to their origins – “Bertoia 718” named after modern sculptor and furniture designer Harry Bertoia; “Copper Box” named for the copper rods that comprise its design; and “Tin Sheet” that, when prodded, sounds like futuristic thunderclaps.

Smith’s performances of his exotic instruments are woven into the fabric of the score, providing it with a sort of musical sound design. Consider General Zod’s suite of themes and motifs, titled “Arcade” on the 2-disc version of the soundtrack. The motif is built around a call-and-answer ostinato for strings and brass that is interrupted by Smith’s sculptural dissonance. It’s the sound of an otherworldly menace, organic but processed, sculpted into a conventional motif-driven sound world.

Zimmer remains a fixture in contemporary film music partly because, as music critic Jon Burlingame has pointed out, he has a relentless desire to search for fresh approaches to a film’s musical landscape. This pursuit begins with his extracting of sounds and colors from live performances and electronically engineering them during the scoring process. Such heightened attention to sound texture and color motivated the creation of the Spitfire percussion library, but can only hint at the experimentation and improvisational nature that goes into Zimmer’s work. In each of his film scores, the music tells a story that is tailored to the demands of the narrative, but the sounds reveal Zimmer’s urge to manipulate sound samples until they are, in his own words, “polished like a diamond.”

Zimmer at Work

Ben Wright  holds a Provost Postdoctoral Fellowship from the University of Southern California in the School of Cinematic Arts. In 2011, he received his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University. His research focuses on the study of production cultures, especially exploring the industrial, social, and technological effects of labor structures within the American film industry. His work on production culture, film sound and music, and screen comedy has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is currently completing a manuscript on the history of contemporary sound production, titled Hearing Hollywood: Art, Industry, and Labor in Hollywood Film Sound.

All images creative commons.

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