Sound is Touch at a Distance

May 22, 2009

Silent fireworks are boring. Photo of fireworks over Miami by Marc Averette.

It’s next time again.

There is sometimes great reward for the intellectually curious. Engaging with your comments and the discussion here lately about audio is a blast. I can honestly say the self-assigned investigation into the vagaries of sound has become truly fascinating, and like a great detective story, one thing sorta leads to another.

For a visually-wired filmmaker, the invisible world of sound is more difficult to explore. It’s like trying to write about bumping into things in the dark. I discussed some of this stuff with one of the audio geniuses in my office, Jeff Gates (who is a brilliant 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound mixer). He pointed out your awareness of sound is the last sense to fall asleep. This makes total sense to me. I have visions of early man trying to fall asleep, lying there all vulnerable and exposed out under the stars. It is pretty important to keep that early warning system up and running to determine if that ominous rustle of leaves, in the dark, is friend or foe. The ears are always trying to make common sense out of abstract chaos. More about this later.

Jeff talked about how much he loves to listen to the radio so he can create his own images in his head. He described how sound in film (especially with new technology) adds depth, resonance, feeling and mood. Modern soundtracks are designed. They are like a mood ring for the movie. He thought one of the reasons action movies are so popular and absorbing is because the soundtrack, with its ricochets, surround-staged explosions and low frequency assaults can become as pyrotechnic as the visually exploding special effects. Silent fireworks are boring. In fact, it takes a great sound track to make the visual effects believable, otherwise they have all the credibility of a clumsy slight of hand card shark spilling the deck and spoiling the trick. Cloud Atlas (9780375507250): David Mitchell: Books

The brilliant Cloud Atlas was made into an OK movie but the read is much better than the watch.

I feel inadequate to describe these things but David Mitchell, the brilliant young British author of Cloud Atlas (highly recommended) is not. He evocatively connects sound to the horror of war in this (hyper-cinematic) description of WWI from a composer writing about his brother on the battlefield.

“Adrian’s letters were hauntingly aural. One can shut one’s eyes but not one’s ears. Crackle of lice in seams; scutter of rats; snap of bones against bullet; stutter of machine guns; thunder of distant explosions, lightning of nearer; ping of stones off tin helmets; flies buzzing over no-man’s-land in summer. Later conversations add the scream of horses, cracking of frozen mud; buzz of aircraft; tanks, churning in mud holes; amputees, surfacing from the ether; belch of flame-throwers’ squelch of bayonets in necks. European music is passionately savage, broken by long silences.”

Recently watching Kubrick’s 2001, for the umteenth time, much of this pinged for me with a crystalline clarity. Great films sell big ideas with great soundtracks. There is almost no dialog in 2001, Kubrick gets all of those cosmic concepts across with the larger-than-life music.

One of the aerial scenes from The Aviator was conceived from the Music. The Aviator is property of Warner. Click the picture for a taste from YouTube then get the film from Amazon or Netflix

One of the aerial scenes from The Aviator was conceived along with the music. The Aviator is property of Warner. 

Another, more recent, example of music-in-cinema genius is Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2004. Scorsese was in love with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony’s recording of Bach’s Toccata & Fuge. He actually played it on set and made the Director of Photography and the crew listen to it over and over as they shot this sequence where Howard Hughes crashes one of his experimental planes in Beverly Hills. The sequence above is filled with great music (in the first half) and gorgeous surround sound effects editing (in the second) but you really need to see this on the big screen with a good audio system to appreciate the mastery.

What better way to explore the nature of sound than with sounds themselves?

If Podcasts are already in your life you probably already know about Radio Lab, but, for me Radio Lab is a delicious find. I implore you to take the time to listen here. These podcasts explore the neurological roots of feelings in sound and they discuss, with amazing new research, why and how the sounds constructing language are related to music. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about these Podcasts, they are chock full of great ideas. Here are some highlights:

Radiolab podcasts are a treat. Filled with ideas and great production.

“Sound is touch at a distance.” Says Infant Studies researcher, Anne Fernald, at Stanford. She examines how mothers, in all cultures, soothe their babies with their voices after they set them down. As their touch leaves – sound comes in to comfort. Huge implications here for why music effects us so deeply; not to mention poetry.

Igor Stravinsky with 'Dancers' by Matisse [collage NPR Today]

Igor Stravinsky against a painting of dancers by Henri Matisse. Photo of Stravinsky Library of Congress. Painting courtesy The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

When it premiered in Paris in 1913, why did Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring cause such a riot? New research connects this infamous acoustic moment to our brain’s hard-wired impulse for pattern recognition. Turns out the “Shock of the New” may, in fact, have a neurological component. We look for order in the acoustic world. Remember that need to determine whether sounds signal friend or foe? This research says dissonance and strange sounds create biochemical stress, but the caustic effect wears off with repeated listening. This is an amazing idea when you connect it to aesthetics and acceptance of the unfamiliar in all the arts.

7 Science Communication Trends We Love | nextrends

Click the photo of the Radio Lab announcers to go to the absolutely superb podcasts.

Don’t take my word for it. Like anything else, the original is always better. Please listen to these Podcasts! They are gorgeously produced with a full stereo soundstage. They will sound awesome in headphones. If you have any problems with the link or the mechanics of this, just shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to help. I hope you are curious enough to listen, I really can’t wait to hear your ideas about all this.

Until next time with much love,



  • Joshua Smith says:

    I just wanted to throw in that I absolutely love Steve Ellis’ realization about opera. Not only does this apply to what I said about music here a few months ago (it’s not so much about expecting to like it, or knowing anything specific about it, but just about being open to how it moves you), it also very much relates to what we’re all talking about this month (color in sound = emotional range of expression in music). My image of you diligently learning all you can about the various ways of how to come closer to “Figaro” (which certainly doesn’t hurt) but then finally rejecting all of that only to allow yourself to be pulled into the emotional realm is exactly…. wonderful.

    Joshua Smith is the Principal Flutist of The Cleveland Orchestra. Find out more about Josh (including his wonderful blog) at –TB

  • Fred Ball says:

    Dear Tom :

    Thank you for the March Telos Blog. It is always good reading. It reminds me of my favorite poem about silence by John Keats the last stanza of which reads as follows :

    Then felt I like some watcher of the the skies

    When a new planet swims into his ken,

    Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes,

    He stared at the Pacific – and all his men

    Looked at each other with a wild surmise –

    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

    Each time I read this poem, I have a mental picture of the Spaniard soldier-explorer astounded at the immesity of what he had found which left him speechless.


    Fred Ball is a former mayor, a very wise attorney and celebrated his 90th birthday last week – TB

  • steve ellis says:

    Two completely unconnected thoughts: First, I remember virtually every pop recording from say 1965 through 1972, and can typically name a song after maybe four notes. Once the shard of a melody triggers a recollection, I can “la la la” the entire tune, even mimicking the musical embellishments of the original artist. And I can’t remember more than three words of any lyric. Music seems to naturally find its way into our long term memory; facts on the other hand, need to be consciously muscled in there. Here’s a thought experiment to prove it: say the alphabet backwards. Virtually no one can- because unlike numbers, which we drilled with flash cards and all the rest, we never learned the alphabet. When we were three we learned the “ABC” song and that was the end of our mastering the order in which the letters appear. Quick- what letter comes two letters before “K”? Most of us start through the song until we get to the K part.

    Second- went to “Marriage of Figaro” with the Cleveland Orchestra in the pit- an overwhelming performance; I’m still sorting through all the impressions. I’d spent the prior weeks familiarizing myself with the music to the point where I could grandly direct my car orchestra. I knew the melodies cold and found myself being swept away on a daily basis. I then listened again the night before the performance, reading along with an English translation. I realized maybe a half an hour into the exercise that the act of following the story word for word stripped the music of virtually all it’s impact. Not sure about this (I’m fairly new to opera) but it seems opera gets a lot of it’s impact from watching and listening to another human who has raised to an art form the ability to produce sounds that resonate perfectly with our shared human understanding of pathos, joy or longing. The words are there because they need to be saying something, but I think the Countess’ aria would have had us all holding our breath, throats aching ,even if it had no words at all. The Podcasts are great. Thanks.

    Steve Ellis is a highly valued contributor here and a partner in the law firm of Tucker, Ellis and West – TB

  • Thomas Lee Randleman says:

    I am reminded of the filmaker Stanley KubricK’s careful consideration of music as a “component” to his films.

    Many of us conjour up the images of “2001 A Space Odyssey” when we hear Richard Strauss’s ” Also Spracht Zarathustra.” Its futuristic and otherworldly elements were a perfect fit for the film. The edgy music used for “A Clockwork Orange” helped sustain the uncomfortable out of control aspects of the scenes taking place.

    It is with “Barry Lyndon” that I find a particularly interesting Kubrick joke or “conceit.” The music chosen for the film was authentic to the period. Original Irish melodies, Bach, Handel and Mozart works were fitted seemlessly with images and dialoge from the screen. The most dramatic piece was Shubert’s Opus 100 Piano Trio which played hauntingly as Lady Lyndon left the gaming table to go outside and “take the air.” It is this scene in which she meets in an intimate situation and setting, her future husband and in some ways, “nemesis,” Barry. The music is haunting and the scene is “quiet” in the sense that words spoken are almost whispered. It is the music we are most affected by in some ways. So after all of this scholarly thoughtfulness for fitting music to the film, this particular piece had not been written in the eighteenth century when this story is taking place. It was written in the early nineteenth century. But it was the “perfect” piece! And this is what I found so delightful about Stanley Kubrick and his approach to film with music as an additional “character.” He did not “embalm” this film with pedantic attitude to the point of extreme boredom but threw in the little “bit” that would have an edge. Even if you didn’t know about the music and date and particulars, some underlining element “feels” different and you watch this scene with a keen attention. Oh well, at least I did.

    Thomas Lee Randleman is a superb design consultant with an international practice. – TB

  • martina says:

    “Sometimes behaves so strangely” is a delicious little sing-songy melody, by Diana Deutsch, on the podcast. The sound is crystal clear, and it is good to listen to it again. I have a good memory for childhood nursery rhymes, and sing-songy poems. If they had set all the things I needed to learn in medical school to music, I would have been able to learn them more easily, and perhaps without actually knowing it, I did create a sort of melodic, incantatory way of remembering things. It is quite exciting to think about the way sound invites us into an interior landscape, or more intimacy, as opposed to “looking at” something. Truly, the podcast is worth listening to again!

  • I have always been interested in the interrelationships among the arts. About 30 years ago, I taped the discussions among artists trying to create a single work (music, dance and visual art). I was particularly interested in what they explored in terms of sound, kinetics and visual imagery and the process they developed in order to create a perforrmable whole. What did they explore, what portions did they keep, extract–and most importantly, when were they able to stop so they COULD invite an audience to respond. They could have tweaked forever but were controlled only by the fact that there was to be a moment of performance. The works in these discussions have been public –buildings, landscapes, walls (not exhibits.) Exhibits only available in a timeframe; music only performed in concert format are controlled by place and time. That is the beauty of being able to share experiences through the various technologies. Is that the same as being there?

    Nina Freedlander Gibans is a retired arts advocate, administrator, author, poet and teacher. Among the many organizations she has served on are the Ohio Arts Council and the predecessor board of the Americans for the Arts. – TB

  • martina says:

    Dear Tommaso,

    Mind-bending, mind-boggling, and marvelous! WOW! As you know, I love to sing, and I played the violin as a girl, and then the guitar, which I still play, but not classically. I play simple chords for folksongs. I love all kinds of music, and also I studied several languages, and actually became fairly fluent in 5 of them, although now I am rusty in all but English and Spanish. I took a course in Mandarin in my freshman year of college, and because I can sing, I got further along with it than most of my classmates, and now I understand why. The introduction on (the podcast) website to the psychology of sound is fascinating. I also found out that one of the composers they mentioned is actually here in Santa Cruz – David Cope. And also one of my patients was on the team which designed the Kindle – so she will be excited to read your report about your delight with it, and the potential for using it while travelling. You are a whole Christmas tree full of presents for me! I LOVE what you post on this blog, and it is such a marvelous feast for thought and ongoing curiosity! THANKYOU!

    Martina Nicholson an OB/Gyn who is also a poet. She lives in Santa Cruz – TB

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