Return of the Nablopomo!

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The nights are drawing in, the leaves are off the trees and the clocks have gone back, it can only mean one thing. It Nablopomo time again.

For new readers, the forgetful, or the merely curious NaBloPoMo is a sibling challenge to Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where instead of writing a novel during the month of November, bloggers post every day for the month of November.

At this point I’ve now taken part in the challenge often enough that it’s become a bit of an annual tradition. Last year I managed to write almost 10,000 words over 15 posts (12 here and another 3 on the food blog) so this year I’m aiming for 15,000 words during November. I made my, now traditional, list of writing ideas, and came up with 13 so far, which is rather hopeful! Given the nature of my work, it’s not going to be possible for me to post every day – I already know about a handful of days when I won’t get near a computer, let alone my own computer – but if I can manage to write enough posts that it averages out to one every other day, I’ll consider that a victory for the challenge.

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Remixing Riga

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Earlier this year I made – and contributed – my first remix for the Cities and Memories project. Having successfully completed one remix I was keen to try to some more. But it’s been a busy old year for me professionally, so even once I’d gathered a new collection of field recordings in Riga and Helsinki in June, it was a while before I had the time to sit down and experiment with them. That is something I’ve found that I need a lot of when I’m remixing a sound, I need a lot of time. Once the idea hits me then the actual execution of the idea doesn’t necessarily take a long time – a couple of hours over a couple of days – but I definitely need time to sit with the recordings, to listen back to them in different ways until they’ve become familiar and slide back out the other side into strange again. Also I feel that this particular remix benefitted from being left to rest for a while – I built the core of the remix in mid-September, then left it to sit for a good fortnight, before coming back to it fresh and being able to see what needed done to make it better. At this stage in my ‘learning to remix’ process, I definitely cannot work to a deadline, perhaps that will come in time, but for the moment nothing shuts down the creative processes more conclusively. However, I have enough deadlines at my day job so I’ll try not to worry about applying them the art I make for fun and the challenge.

As I noted in the blurb I wrote for the website, the original recording was made either standing in front on the National Theatre or on the traffic island in front of it. (I took recordings of the trams from both places, but by the time I came to edit the recordings I’d forgotten which were which.) The original recording felt quite prosaic and ordinary, but I was playing around with reverbs and another of my recordings from Riga to create different effects and thought I’d try it on the Tram recording too and ended up with something that sounded like a ghost tram. There’s a lot of history in Riga, the obvious older history on the surface, and the more recent history lurking just below the surface. It felt like the tram had just rumbled out of the past and if I dared to get on it, it might take me off to another time entirely.

I tried to be a bit more adventurous with this remix, then I was with my first remix, so this one went through a couple of iterations before I settled on the one that I submitted. As I learn how to make these remixes, I’m trying to push myself a bit further each time. First time out I just experimented with layering sounds to create a realistic, although entirely imagined soundscape. This time round I built a more illusory soundscape, experimenting with both reverbs and loops to create something where the strangeness hopefully sneaks up on you. It’s also somewhat longer, both than the previous remix and than it’s original recording, which was a little bit daunting at first, but has also left me feeling like I have a better idea of how to push the envelope even further next time.

Ada Lovelace Day: (My) History of Coding

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It’s Ada Lovelace Day once again, and given that I actually remembered it was today in time to write something to mark the occasion, I really had no excuse not to. But what to write about? Then, inspiration struck, what have I been doing recently, as my down-time at work project? I’ve been learning to code. What better way to honour the first programmer, than to talk about coding? I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a programmer myself, but I am learning to code. So my contribution to the day, this year, is a history of coding, not in general, but in the specifics; the history of my own encounters with coding.

The first time I ever tried to code something, I was eight or nine years old and had no idea that was what I was doing. It involved an old Acorn BBC Micro and a Turtle. (Googling now reveals that what we actually had was the Roamer, not the Valiant Turtle, but we always called it the Turtle.) It was a maths practical exercise, involving collaborative working and calculating angles to make the Turtle draw shapes. It didn’t teach me to love maths, but it did teach me that there was a lot more to computers than word-processing and games.

My next encounter with programming was appropriately enough in Computing class. After years of disappointing IT classes where I mostly learned how to touch-type and how databases were structured, it was a delight to finally get to actually code things. But even then it was mostly writing little programmes that did basic maths or drew ASCII art. It was too little, too late in many respects, as most of my classmates who were interested in programming had already figured the basics out themselves and the rest of us had lost interest.

As a student I discovered the joys of the internet, and figured out enough html (and good old BBcode for forums) to get by, until Myspace came along with its accidental customability, at which point it was time to break out the big guns. I borrowed a book from the library, made learning html my summer project and went to town. It was an ideal first playground for html, tinkering within a pre-existing structure, learning what worked and what didn’t, both in terms of practical coding and design principals.

Over the last decade or so, as website user interfaces grew steadily better/more layperson friendly, what few coding skills I’d picked up over the years, slowly atrophying as I needed them less and less. I still defaulted to the ‘text’ or ‘html’ options on blogging sites and other content management systems, partly to keep my hand in, partly because the pretty ‘visual’ or ‘rich text’ interfaces are still not quite as clever as they think they are.

And probably, that would be that, I would never have bothered to acquire more coding knowledge than was necessary to make life easier/prettier on the internet of the early 00s.

Except, well, robots.

I love robots. Above all things those afternoons lying on the floor with my classmates, a turtle and a really long roll of dot matrix printer paper, taught me, was that robots are awesome. My practical adventures in robot building started as a fun way to learn more about electronics, but the more I built robots the clearer it became to me that there was a definite limit to what I could do with a robot without programming it myself. (I literally stood in the middle of the Small Boards Club meeting and announced in doom-laden tones, “I’m going to need to learn to code properly, aren’t I?”) If I were the sort of person who believed in fate, I would have suspected the universe of giving me a nudge.

The nature of my work as a tech, is that the work goes in phases, with lulls and rushes. Related to this, we have a variety of ‘bespoke’ tools at work that one of my colleagues has built over the years in lulls. Which are great, except that, well, what if the person that coded and built them gets hit by a bus. So they’ve been encouraging the rest of the team to get a better understanding of coding to help maintain them. And well, I wanted to learn to code, didn’t I? Who was I to turn down a work approved excuse to do so. So here I am with a work downtime project – it’s in my annual review paperwork as an objective – that is currently, nebulously labelled, ‘learn to code’.

The main problem I’ve come against in my attempts to learn to code is that an awful lot of tutorials fall into one camp or the other, of either being the absolute basics for absolute beginners or presuming that you already know one language well and are just learning a new one. (I’ve encountered this in many areas where I’ve been trying to learn something new as an adult, especially languages where all too often, resources are geared to either absolute beginners or the practically fluent, with nothing in the middle for the intermediate learner.) So I went back to basics and did an intro to HTML course – about 75% of which I either already knew, or realised I had known that at one point – but the other 25% was vitally useful, giving me the structural knowledge that I’d never previously needed. I’m working on CSS at the moment, and while it still occasionally melts my brain, and Java Script (my original goal in all this) remains even further down the road, it now seems like an achievable goal.

C++ still gives me the heebie jeebies, but one day, I may eventually be that kind of sound person.

Summer Documentaries

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We’ve steamed straight past the half-way point of the year, which means it’s high time for another documentary review post. I started off the year quite well seeing a documentary a month, but that somehow fell by the wayside, so with the return of the Storyville strand, this summer has been all about catching up with the backlog.

Over the Limit
There’s something about certain types of sports documentaries that I find strangely compelling. Something about the kind of person who pushes their body to such extremes that makes for a compelling protagonist. Rita (Margarita Mamun, main representative of the Russian Olympic Gymnastic Team and gold medal winner at Sochi) is no exception.

Her main coach Irina Viner, makes much play about Rita’s eyes, about her sad eyes working in her favour, and they really do. For a documentary in which the protagonist almost never speaks directly to camera, she tells us a great deal with only her eyes. She has trained the muscles in her face not to give her away just as strictly as she has trained the muscles in the rest of her body. But her eyes always give her away, which both makes her training harder, and makes it far easier for the viewer to empathise with her. We can never forget how young she is, how much of her young life has been devoted to this work, and how much of an emotional and physical toll that has taken on her. That she is not a robot to be programmed to perfection, but a person with thoughts and feelings, desires and fears and ambitions.

There’s something about the mixture of care and cruelty in the way her coaches treat her, that is at once utterly compelling and deeply disquieting. There’s something quietly triumphant about the end title that tells us that she’s retired from rhythmic gymnastics, a satisfying feeling of closure knowing that she got out on her own terms. That she was truly working towards the end of her career and that whatever she goes on to become is in her own hands.

City of Ghosts
At the end of last year, I talked about changing my focus on documentaries from the Oscar winners and nominees to the Bafta equivalents. So this was the first of this year’s nominees – other than An Inconvenient Sequel which I saw on its release – I’ve managed to track down. I’m glad that I did. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. It follows the work of the young citizen journalists behind the website Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. Originally started to counter the narrative coming out of Raqqa after ISIS invaded in 2014, it has transformed into the major focus of internal attempts to resist within the city. Almost all of the original members are either dead or in exile, but the continuing determination of Daesh to try to hunt them down even in Germany, speaks to the impact and importance of their continuing work.

The film makes a fascinating comparison to Rouge Parole about the many other untold stories that have unfolded from the Arab Spring. (It’s so strange to be back there at the start of the film. It all feels so long ago, yet less than a decade has passed, there seemed so much more hope in the world back then.) But the most deeply unnerving part of the film for me is watching the propaganda war unfold in Raqqa. The evolution not only of a bunch of rebellious students, from citizen journalists into what is essentially the main alternative news media for their city, but also watching ISIS learn the value and power of propaganda, and the terrifying slickness and professionalism of their own media output. (Not just recruitment videos shot with all the slickness and budget of an actual country’s military, but also execution videos shot like Hollywood blockbusters.) Working in news media, I’ve grown accustomed to their triumphalist propaganda, its uses and dangers, but this was something else entirely.

Rumble: The Indians that Rocked the World
This one wasn’t a Storyville documentary, instead it happened to be screening at my local arts centre last month as part of a ‘new Canadian cinema’ strand. (Despite being a music documentary and, based on the blurbs, the film I would have most expected to be well-attended out of the whole strand, I was one of a whole two people in the audience. I blame the weather.) It’s a documentary on the role and influence of Native Americans on the wider North American musical culture.

It’s a lovingly detailed documentary about the role and influence of various musicians, both those whose native ancestry was known and those were it wasn’t. The contrasting approaches of those who hid their identity in order to get work and those whose identities were erased for political reasons. (One Canadian musician puts it best when he talks about being taught from a young age to ‘be proud of who you are, but be careful who you tell’ which I think sums up the experience of being part of any ‘minority’ culture even today.) A story of forgotten, hidden and erased histories, and some really good tunes.

One Deadly Weekend in America
Is a documentary about gun crime in the US, focusing in tightly on gun crimes that took place over the course of just one weekend, and the impact of those crimes on both victims and perpetrators. The variety of crimes considered – from self-defence to cold-blooded murder, attempted suicide, police violence and one awful accident – and the uneven and seemingly arbitrary application of justice, is quite the eye-opener.

(There is something terribly, unarguably damning about listening to the testimony of one of the victims, one failed suicide attempt behind him, attempting suicide by cop. This is America, if I’m armed they’ll kill me. Made worse by the knowledge that its not the cops that shot him that are doing twenty years in prison, but him for ‘attacking’ them.)

I think the most effective part of the documentary is the way it flips the perspectives back and forth, aligning the viewer with different parts of the stories, so that everyone involved becomes a person to be empathised with, rather than an outline to be judged. The repeated sentiment that the presence of guns had accelerated situations, to make bad decisions worse – arguments that might have been settled with a fist-fight, ending in death. It’s a remarkably un-polemical film, determinedly non-judgemental in its narrative voice, giving its subjects space and a voice to give their testimony. A gentle rebuttal if you will, to the polemical and fear-mongering voices objecting to any revision of gun laws in the states, with the reminder that where there are rights, there need to be responsibilities too.

Sounds of Other Cities

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After the success of last year’s location recording adventures in Budapest, I felt duty bound to take my little recording device away with me. I’ve recently been debating replacing my recorder with one whose age isn’t actually in double-figures, but the wealth of options available these days means that it kept getting pushed down the to-do list. I’d tried getting a bigger memory card for it, but it proved too old to accept the shiny new card I bought for it, and when I put the old one back in ahead of my holiday, I found that it now claimed to only have space for about a three minute recording, despite all the recordings from my last location recording adventures having been cleared off it.

Thankfully it occurred to me that I could just reformat the memory card, so I tried that, and it worked! I now had over three hours of recording space on my recorder rather than the thirty minutes of more recent history. I didn’t need a bigger memory card at all! (Cue much embarrassment that I’d missed such an obvious solution.) Realistically, I do actually need to replace my recorder as some of the buttons are starting to stick and become unresponsive at inconvenient moments, however, I have a reprieve that means I can still make recordings while I thoroughly research the replacement.

Recording in Riga was a very different experience to recording in Budapest, and not just because the weather was substantially wetter in Riga. While in Budapest sound recording in public made me oddly invisible, in Riga I felt thoroughly conspicuous. I’m used to the compulsion that lots of people here have to associate people with a mic and big headphones with radio vox poppers and come up for a natter, but this was different. I’ve never been stared at so much when making sound recordings. Perhaps public transport is considered something more normal to record, but having stumbled across a pedestrian crossing that made some distinctive sounds, I found myself subject to many, many strange looks. Maybe it was just because the passers by were stopped too, so they had a proper chance to take in what I was actually doing, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so many people stop dead, nudge their companions and point, or look obviously baffled by my actions. Listening back to my recordings my own audio labels even sound hesitant and whispered. I’ve got some nice recordings from Riga but not as many as I’d have hoped because frankly I was feeling a bit self-conscious about the whole thing.

I had no such problems sound recording in Helsinki. The friend I was visiting found my hobby fascinating and assured me that even if passing members of the public thought what I was up to was weird, they would be far too reserved to say so! She was correct; I was once again invisible making sound recordings in Helsinki, though most of my recordings were public transport based, so I can’t be entirely certain that that isn’t a factor more generally. Public transport and church bells do seem to be the common theme among my location recording adventures, likely because they’re the kind of sounds that are easily captured if you’re in an unfamiliar place. All to often I would hear an interesting sound – a siren or a bird – and either not be in a position to capture the sound or for the sound to be too transitory, having been and gone before I could get my recorder out to capture it.

Despite my fondness for recording public transport, I utterly failed to get any recordings during the not inconsiderable time I spent in airports while I was away. There’s something about airports that mean, despite the plethora of interesting sounds they contain, that I never seem to manage to get any recordings when I’m there. I suspect it’s something to do with the strange liminal nature of airports that you always seem to have both too much and not enough time all at once. Also there’s the whole crossing borders thing, which I think causes a certain level of unconscious stress – a low level existential angst – you’re never entirely certain what you are and are not allowed to do.

At the Foot of the Stone: Art films @EdenCourt

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At the Foot of the Stone is the first of what promises to be a bi-monthly series of screenings of short art films and visual arts pieces presented by Lux Scotland at Eden Court in Inverness. (Lux Scotland is a visual arts agency focusing on the archiving, development and support of visual and moving image art in Scotland. They’re currently attempting to engage with the subject outside of the usual centres in the Central Belt.) Forthcoming screenings will have different curators and – while I enjoyed Lux Scotland director Nicole Yip’s talk about their work and the selections she’d made – I’m looking forward to seeing how different a perspective we get from screenings curated by artists and curators living and working in the Highlands.

Almost all the films in this collection seemed caught between styles and genres, and more importantly from my perspective, between being purely abstract or being tied to a narrative. (For me, Midgie Noise from Video Artefacts worked best – it was the shortest and the film I could most have wished for a longer running time – because it was a purely abstract work, not trying to be anything else. It could therefore be enjoyed for what it was aesthetically, a brief but beautiful and mesmerising moment.) With the longer films – BRIDGIT and to a lesser extent April whose last gorgeous couple of minutes caused me to forgive instantly any confusion I’d suffered before – it took a while to establish whether, and how, the images and the voiceover related to each other. Did they exist in harmony with or in contradiction to, each other? Was the relationship purely abstract or was there some deeper symbolic or metaphorical meaning that I was missing. Patterns and rhythms certainly emerged but mostly they worked better when I stopped trying to assign meaning and narrative and just let them flow over me.

Other than April and Plum the films didn’t seem to resolve at the end. There was no narrative conclusion, leaving me somewhat bereft, struggling to assign meaning and message to the works. Was that the intent? Is that fundamentally the point of the art film, to leave you to draw your own conclusions rather than lead you to any one answer or message? I found this particularly frustrating with Sorry not Sorry as the film which seemed to have the most interesting things to say of the collection, but left me feeling that it had an insight that was just about to emerge, but the film ended before it could break the surface.

The films themselves are bound together by the thread of the artists all having been awarded The Margaret Tait Award – and it is perhaps her role as a writer and poet, rather than her pioneering film-work that best sheds light on all of these films. Her concept of visual art as essentially a visual, moving-image poem is particularly helpful – to me at least – in understanding these films. They owe much less to short stories, and the narrative quirks and charms of those, and rather more to poetry. They are experiments in form and expression, and while there may well be an overarching narrative, that’s not necessarily the point of the exercise. Instead they explore and manipulate their own central ideas, turning them around to look at them from different perspectives, tearing apart or playing with them, as the artist sees fit.

The Sound of A Quiet Place

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Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a bit of a fan of horror movies that make good use of sound. So when I heard that A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018) made both good and plot significant use of sound I absolutely had to see it on the big screen with – most importantly – a stonking great sound system.

I would definitely recommend seeing A Quiet Place in the cinema if you can, and failing that with a bunch of other people. This is a film that definitely benefits from the collective experience, of being alone in the dark with lots of other people. I saw it in a packed screening on a Friday night, and more than the sound system or the big screen, it was the building claustrophobic tension both on screen and in the room that made the film such an enjoyable experience. The soft susurration of sixty or seventy people inhaling sharply or softly gasping, as they valiantly try not to scream has it’s own strange power.

The idea of the genre-savvy horror film has become so over-used that it’s become a cliché – practically a sub-genre in its own right – in and of itself, but A Quiet Place is a very different kind of genre savvy. It is a horror movie that knows all the audio tricks that are much beloved by horror films and their fans, and uses them to its advantage. The film is effective without that extra knowledge, but for those in the know, there is an extra layer of subtext and enjoyment as the film-makers play with our expectations.

A surprising number of modern horror films still revolve around the screaming point, that cathartic female scream of horror. (Amusingly, for all Chion’s talk of masochistic pleasure in identification, the most ‘iconic’ and arguably overused scream sound-effect of recent years – the Wilhelm Scream – is in fact a man’s scream.) But for this film it is instead the absence of the scream that provides the tension. In this film to scream is to bring certain death, so that even the archetypal scream of life, that which accompanies birth, is denied to us, being masked by an – intentional – explosion.

The screaming point of A Quiet Place is a man’s scream rather than a woman’s scream, but no less powerful or raw for it. The moment is only lightly foreshadowed so while we see it coming, the realisation comes when the action is already inevitable, events are already in motion, an act of desperation yet one entered into deliberately. Yet the moment that breaks the tension is the conversation that precedes it, a moment of profound emotional catharsis, conducted entirely in sign language. An intimate and tender moment, between two characters, underwritten by the tension as both the audience and the other half of the conversation come to understand what he’s about to do. The scream we’ve been longing for has its thunder stolen, serving instead as cover for an escape and as stand-in for the grieving that must necessarily be conducted quietly.

(As an aside, this is the second film I’ve seen this year with significant portions of the dialogue being delivered in ASL with subtitles and seriously, why is this still an issue? The young actress playing Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is brilliant, a really compelling young actress. I want to see Wonderstruck (Haynes, 2017) purely on the strength of her being in it. Her performance neatly turns audience expectations of mute characters in horror movies on their head. She is no blank sheet or cypher for meaning to be inscribed upon or onto. Instead she drives plot and conflict, expressing herself clearly, not only in ASL but her wonderfully expressive face, indicates her ‘loudness’ and ‘silences’ that have nothing to do with the amount of sound she’s actually making at a given moment. And while she might indeed hold the secret to their survival, as soon as she realises it she has no problems communicating it. The film itself ending on a – deeply satisfying – moment of shared understanding between mother and daughter that requires no words.)

Otherwise the film uses sound, both in plot and practical terms, in both clever and consistent ways. The big plot significant revelation that we get, feels both earned and believable, with the clues that were left for us along the way combining to leave us feeling as though the answer has been lurking just out of…hearing range.

March of the Podcasts

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A couple of years ago I started doing a regular feature here, where I wrote about the sound-based content (whether sound art and installations, podcasts, radio plays or radio documentaries) I consumed that month or that I made that month. As well as being an enjoyable project, it was a great motivator to both listen to and create more sound-based content. There are far too many deadlines at my main freelance gig for me to enjoy them outside of it, but accountability is always helpful and motivating.

I’m breaking myself in gently this month with a review of my recent non-fiction podcast discoveries.

First up I’ve taken up yet another language based podcast. The Allusionist is a podcast that looks at the oddities and idiosyncrasies of the English language. Unlike the linguistics podcasts that I also follow, this podcast is less about the mechanics of language – the syntax and grammar – and more about the cultural and historical influences and impacts of the language. It’s a podcast that appreciates the essential weirdness of English and likes to pull those strange bits out and examine them.

I’ve been bingeing the entirety of 2017’s episodes over the last few weeks, and have been left with the desire to go back to the start of the podcast in 2015 and listen to every single episode, which I always feels bodes well for the staying power of a podcast. If it holds up to binge listening, it’s likely to stay the distance in my affections.

Next up there’s Twenty Thousand Hertz. I actually came across this podcast thanks to The Allusionist as they did a guest episode on accents. Though as I’ve been working through their archive I discovered they’d also done a guest episode of 99% Invisible on the NBC chimes. It’s one of those podcasts that I come across and have to wonder how I didn’t know about it before. I feel sure that someone I know who’s also into podcasts must have recommended it to me before, as it’s the most relevant to my interests podcast I can imagine existing. (Basically, if I were going to make a podcast, it would be this podcast.) However it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve left an interesting link open in a tab and forgotten about it. I used to use twitter as a bookmarking device for that sort of thing but there’s far too much content on there these days for that to be effective.

Anyway, the podcast itself is a delight to listen to, it’s beautifully produced and mixed – you’d hope so from a sound design podcast – and, while it took them a wee while to get into the swing of things, they manage to strike a good balance of being general enough to engage a non-specialised listener, but detailed enough to keep a more dedicated sound design geek like myself coming back for more.

Finally, we have the Hammer House of Podcast, which is a much newer series – it only started at the turn of the year. In which two writers – and sci-fi geeks – watch and review their way through Hammer Films backlog of horror films. As longer term readers of this blog will know, I have strong feelings about Hammer Horror films. (For newer readers, when I first graduated from university I spend some time writing academic film reviews for a now defunct film review website Montage films. As my specialism at university was sound in horror films, I ended up with all the horror films to review, and there were a lot of Hammer Horror films released on DVD in that period. As such, I know more about late 60s – early 70s Hammer Horror films than I ever wanted to.) I’m enjoying the reviews so far – very funny, and honestly I hadn’t realised how much I wanted more podcasts where someone has a Scottish accent – but I strongly suspect that as we get on to the ones I know best I will spend a certain amount of time shouting ‘you’re wrong’ at my computer. Which, in fairness was a considerable part of my enjoyment of the Wittertainment podcast – 80% nodding in agreement, 10% cackling gleefully, 10% shouting ‘you’re wrong, Mark!’ at my radio.

1. The Shape of Water

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The Oscars made their arrival last weekend. For all that the entertainment press in the UK sporadically make their regular cry of ‘The British are Coming’ that never actually seems to be the case. However, looking at the winners of the Best Director category over the last few years, it would perhaps to be fair to make the claim that ‘The Mexicans are Coming’, with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu – twice – and now Guillermo del Toro having all got the nod recently. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the Oscars these days, without at least cursorily addressing the diversity issues that have been raised about it. Which in turn reminded me that I’d intended to have another go round at the 12 films project and an unexpected Oscar winner would be a good place to start.

Having been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s films since I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth over a decade ago, I was both surprised and delighted to find both The Shape of Water and its director nominated for so many Oscars this year. (Just because I happen to think that del Toro is one of the best and most interesting directors working today, that doesn’t mean I expect the Academy to agree with me!) Having now seen the film itself, I’m no less baffled but even more delighted. It’s so rare to see genre films do well at the Oscars, especially ones as unapologetically strange and political as this one.

The Shape of Water is a delightfully strange and beautiful film, a cold war fairy tale with all the whimsy and darkness that ought to go along with that. Fundamentally, it’s a story about love – both romantic and platonic – and hope. It’s a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, embodying both the optimism and creeping insecurities – not to mention explicitly displaying the casual bigotry of the times – of both the films and wider society of the US in the early 1960s. In particular both the diner and the car show room, embody the duality of those Atomic age B-movies and the time they were made, with the shiny futuristic surfaces and the bubbling undercurrents of tension flowing just below it.

(Arguably, you know you’ve spent too much time in the horror and science fiction genres, when you hear Theme from a Summer Place and understand instantly its dual role in both comforting and quietly creeping out the audience.)

There’s something a little Amelie-esque about the theme that Alexandre Desplat has given to Elisa, but more widely the score and the soundscape in general arguably owe more to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier work with Marc Caro, Delicatessen. There’s both a tenderness and a nightmarishness to both films, a sense of something pure and good struggling to survive in the face of terribly mundane evil.

It’s a film to warm your heart and remind you that, even in these troubled times; people are still capable of great kindness and bravery. So while it may have been an unexpected to choice for the Oscar, it was not, I think, an undeserved one.

Sounds of the City Part 2 – The Cities & Memories Remix

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For a couple of years now, I’ve been watching with interest as the Cities and Memories project has expanded in scope and public awareness. I also joined their mailing list a while back and have been enjoying poking through the sounds that they’ve been looking for people to remix. But until now I haven’t actually taken part in any of their projects. There are some brilliant and clever remixes and re-imaginings up on the site and I decided that I ought to have a practice with my own sounds before I experimented with the sounds of anyone else. As much as they insist that there’s really no wrong way to tackle the re-imaging of the sounds, I’ve never done any remixing in the conventional sense before, so throwing myself head first into a collaborative project seemed a bit too much like running before I could walk.

I decided, for this first re-imagining, to start with what I know best. As a sound designer, the bread and butter of my work is taking sounds recorded on location, in the foley studio and out of the archive and putting them together to create a sonic landscape that is entirely constructed but that feels believable as the soundscape of the location. I would start with a single field recording (in this case the sound of the fountain outside St Mattius church in Budapest) from a place, and combine it with other sounds recorded nearby to create a soundscape that was entirely imagined and yet was true to the spirit of my memory of the place.

Back in July I posted about the location recordings I made in Budapest when I was there in the summer. I have a whole collection of recordings that I made while I was there, that were collected not for any particular project but instead just for the fun of recording sounds in an unfamiliar place. Each recording paints a picture in my mind with an aural photograph, reminding me of how I felt and what I experienced when I was making the recording.

The soundscape of this reimagined sound is entirely imagined. For one thing, two of the recordings that make it up were made in Pest and the other two were made in Buda, but that seemed an entirely fitting combination to reflect the way the twin cities combine to create a greater whole.

Having made this first foray into re-imagining sounds, I’m itching to do more, to try something more adventurous and experimental. I’ve got the seeds of an idea germinating at the back of my mind, and I’m looking forward to see what sprouts in the coming weeks.