I Heart Hydrophones

Ever since I first had access to the internet, one of the great pleasures that it’s had to offer me, is the ability to accidentally stumble upon utterly fascinating discoveries that you never knew you were interested in. Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of the algorithms that seek to give us ever more ‘accurate’ search results, it remains possible make these strange discoveries and fallen fascinating tangents. Like most things in life, sometimes you want to keep to the beaten track and other times you want to grab a map, a head-torch, and go spelunking.

When I was a student wiki-walking was a known phenomenon (XKCD have an illustrative strip on this) and a colleague of mine will often start watching a technology demo on youtube and fall down a rabbit hole that could end up with him watching the latest discoveries from NASA’s probes or learning how to make ASMR videos. Another friend of mine calls it falling down a hole in the internet. (And now we’re back to spelunking.) Personally, I tend to find myself listening to oral histories recorded in the middle of the Navajo dessert in the 1960s or reading up on how to build my own hydrophone. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve fallen asleep listening to location recordings from Sri Lanka or had to give myself a stern talking to about how much I don’t need an Otamatone.

Some discoveries prove to be only passing distractions, but others I come back to over and over again. Hydrophones, are definitely one of the latter.

My real interest in hydrophones, started in a somewhat unexpected location. It was a bright, brisk September day in which I was attempting to finally fulfil and completely different notion. Several years previously I’d read an interesting article on repurposed lighthouses and developed a hankering to go to the top of one. The quest seemingly growing in significance and importance – as these things tend to – the more I was thwarted in my attempts to carry it out. On the day in question, I’d spotted a chance to finally succeed – Cromarty Lighthouse was included in that year’s Doors Open Day events. Cromarty Lighthouse, is actually a retired lighthouse – and is now properly known as the Lighthouse Field Station, a part of Aberdeen University’s School of Biology.

The lighthouse itself is of the short squat kind that mark harbours rather the tall sentinel variety that mark lonely outcrops, which in practical terms means that only a limited number of people can climb its tower at any one time, so they had an exhibition in the base of the tower for those of us waiting. As part of their research, floating in the Moray Firth are a small number of hydrophones, recording the sounds – both natural and industrial – of the Firth for the purpose of passive acoustics analysis. (Some of the research station’s specialisms include the impact of marine noise pollution – from oil drilling, to marine renewables to ferries – on marine wildlife.) They had a variety of recordings and a kid-friendly game set up where you matched the recordings to their sources.

It turns out that there’s a world of difference between knowing, logically, that sound travels differently through water, so the underwater soundscape will inevitably be completely different, and putting on the giant headphones and immersing yourself in that other world while standing on dry land. Even better, they’d not long since had an artist in residence in working with some of the recordings which in turn lead down it’s own strange and wonderful rabbit hole.

I suspect I love hydrophones for the same reason that I love contact microphones, because they open up a whole other dimension in sound. Listening to the world through either of these type of microphones makes it explicit and undeniable how rich and complex the soundscape of our world truly is, and how much of it we ignore in day to day life.

The Sound of Arrival

Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016) is one of the cleverest and best executed big budget science fiction films I’ve ever seen. To me it is science fiction in its purest form, taking an idea or a theory and extrapolating the consequences.

Arrival is a film that lives in the hinterland where language and science meet. The fascinating mysteries of how our brains are affected by the languages we speak. Thousands of words have been expounded on whether and how our way of seeing the world is influence by the languages we speak. (Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages by Guy Deutscher is a pretty accessible look at the subject if you’re interested.) And the answer is currently, mostly, we don’t really know. Or at least we can’t actually prove anything. Subjectively, I can say that yes, I absolutely do think and see the world differently in Gaelic than I do in English – whether that difference is merely in perspective or an actual neurological change is one for the scientists to argue over, but nonetheless it’s a large part of why this film worked for me on an intrinsic level.

What I wasn’t expecting was to be blown away by the sound design. I have a long established pet-hate of the ‘turn it up to 11’ school of blockbuster sound and while some of that can be mitigated by a bit of common sense in the projection box of your cinema – I recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD and can now appreciate why it won prizes for its sound editing, but in the cinema my ears were ringing too much for me to notice – there is very rarely any deftness or subtlety to enjoy.

The sound department for this film appear to be mostly French and entirely brilliant. I love that they devoted two separate Sound Designers to the aliens. One for the alien’s themselves and one for their shell ship. The world inside the Shell Ship felt utterly sonically alien, the sense of a sealed environment, an initially claustrophobic but later quite sheltering – womb-like, is presumably what they were going for – soundscape, draws the viewer into the subjective view of the scientists. The aliens are rather cephalopod-like and their vocal language owes a great deal to their Earth bound equivalents. A kind of alien whale song that presumes that the gaseous environment that they inhabit would work like water does for sound here on Earth. (A small niggle, our vocalisations, designed for Earth’s atmosphere, and should surely therefore be as incomprehensible to them as their language is to us?) Strange, yet believably, organically so. The soundscape around them feels, rich and complex, yet spare and subtle. It envelops us yet never overwhelms, in a film so much about language it is necessary that there is enough space given to the dialogue and it manages that with such deftness that you barely notice it – a sure sign of the skill of the sound team if ever I saw one.

A related, but arguably odd observation I couldn’t help but make is that the sound felt French. I spent a lot of time expecting people to break into French. I’m not sure quite how to explain why it felt French, given that I didn’t realise that it was directed by Denis Villeneuve going in – and he’s French Canadian anyway – but I wasn’t remotely surprised when I watched the sound credits and saw all those French names scrolling by. Perhaps it was the restrained yet passionate performances from the cast. Perhaps it’s just that film like this could only have worked being filtered through a bilingual director’s vision. Whatever the reason, the film feels like its being experienced through the filter of a language you’re almost fluent in but not quite. A gorgeously alienating experience. The film in general feels like it should be a much smaller film than it is, having the general ambience of a mid-budget sci-fi film – one big enough to afford decent CGI but small enough to actually be about something. It feels like the kind of film you see by accident or have to hunt down one of the only three screenings it gets anywhere near you. (The closest film to it in terms of atmosphere, that I can think of, is the Korean monster movie The Host/Gwoemul (Joon Ho Bong, 2006) which has the most organic use of CGI I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.) Not the kind of thing that will be showing every night for a week and the usher will tell that they’re extending the run for because its been so popular. It’s a rare gem of a film and I’m glad that it’s getting a wide distribution because it absolutely deserves to be seen widely; I’m just a little surprised.

Under The Skin

It’s been awhile, a really long while actually, since I’ve seen a film as genuinely beautifully weird as Under the Skin. I mean that as a compliment too. I was utterly engrossed, enthralled is perhaps the better word given the subject matter, by this film. I’ve seen a lot of self-consciously strange indie films, painfully self-aware screaming ‘look how weird I am’. I like weird films, but my goodness you have to wade through a lot of dross to find the good ones. This one though, this one feels like a reward for a thousand terrible arty ‘weird’ shorts that I’ve sat through over the years. This one isn’t trying to be strange or kooky or off-the-wall, it just is full-heartedly weird. It’s decided to portray the viewpoint of our world through the eyes of an uncomprehending alien and its committed to the task utterly. Alien is what the film is, nothing is ever explained, and everything we know about Scarlett Johansson’s character we’re shown not told. We see our world through an alien lens and eventually, like her we come to see the beauty in the mundane alongside her.

I suspect that the film works better if you’re Scottish, there’s something about Scarlett Johansson puttering about Glasgow (walking through the Buchanan Galleries, driving a white van through scabby bits of the suburbs) that gives it an extra surrealness that I suspect you lose if those places (those terribly ordinary faces) aren’t familiar to you. Perhaps not though, perhaps the places they picked are sufficiently ordinary and anonymous that they could be anywhere but I suspect knowing Glasgow gives it a certain extra frisson. It was the closing film of the Glasgow Film Festival – I wanted to see it then but it was sold out, and I can completely see why, such a fitting film to premiere at GFF.

The sound design is excellent. Scratch that. The sound design is amazing. Strange and alienating, it commits to creating a detached and disconnected soundscape. When she’s out hunting the sound feels like it’s coming from outside a bubble, as though she’s listening from a distance, safe and untouchable, utterly in control. By the time the tables are turned on our alien protagonist, the sound is utterly in the place, she is reachable, touchable and very much a vulnerable part of this world and the soundscape reflects that. Most of the time you don’t even notice the sound design (always a good sign) its so subtle, but in the quiet, introspective moments it shows its true colours, reflecting her mood and adding to her character development. It adds to her thrall. The score may signpost threats in the narrative – to both other people from her, and of other people to her – but it’s the sound design that draws us into her world – there’s very little dialogue for large swathes of the film – makes us forget that she’s actually a serial killer, and makes us root for her survival. I need to see this film again purely to examine what the sound designer Johnnie Burn was doing at various points, because I was too wrapped up in the film to pay attention to it most of the time. Burn is not a sound designer whose work I’ve noticed before (IMDB tells me he was ‘additional sound designer’ on Glazer’s previous film Birth, but this appears to be his breakthrough film), but I’m in awe of his skill here, it’s the kind of sound that makes me go: that’s what I want to achieve when I grow up, something that strange and beautiful. Magnificent.