TWiS x 3: "'Seeing' Music from Manga"
Plus a new Reznor-Ross score, and an update on the brutal silence of Andor
TWiS x 3: “‘Seeing’ Music from Manga”
November 18, 2022
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Welcome (back) to my (usually twice weekly) newsletter about the role sound plays in culture, technology, politics, science, ecology, storytelling, warfare, art, society, and anywhere else it might jingle.
This coming Thursday, November 24, will be Thanksgiving here in the United States. So, will there be the usual issue (or two?) of This Week in Sound next week? Possibly no, as I’m taking a solid vacation from work, the first in some time. And yet possibly, as I’m taking a solid vacation from work. We’ll see.
As for today, we’ve got: a study, a horror, and an absence.
And thanks for your ongoing support. Recent paid upgrades by readers have partially covered a research subscription and an online course I’ll take. Also, a reply to this newsletter is a good way to get in touch — or reply in a comment on Substack, to turn it into a conversation. My name is Marc Weidenbaum and I live in San Francisco and at Disquiet.com.
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1. A STUDY
SYNESTHESIA THESIS: Many years ago, I spent a solid half decade publishing manga, eventually becoming the editor-in-chief of the U.S. edition of the magazine Shonen Jump. It was an amazing experience, one I treasure to this day. However, my work on manga rarely overlapped with my interest in sound.
Traveling to Japan for work over the years did give me the opportunity to attend concerts at Tokyo venues I’d otherwise never have even heard about. Also, there were times while preparing an issue of the magazine when we got to debate how to translate sound effects, or how to effectively help a young reader (this was back from 2004 to 2009, before manga was as mainstream as it became outside Japan) understand things like the vertical ellipses that signify an extended silent pause. Most of the shonen comics I worked on were about fighting (e.g., Naruto, One Piece), the main exception being, as one reader put it, “the one about moving stones around a board.” (The latter was a joke at the expense of Hikaru no Go, which was one of my favorite things we published.)
And so it was with great interest that I read a new academic study from two authors based at National Taiwan University, Taipei: “‘Seeing’ music from manga: visualizing music with embodied mechanisms of musical experience.” The article looks specifically at how music is represented in manga (for the uninitiated, the word is both singular and plural, as is the norm in the Japanese language) that take music as their subject. Iju Hsu and Wen-Yu Chiang, the article’s authors, study such highly recommended series as Nodame Cantabile (about a classical music student ) and Detroit Metal City (the title is self-explanatory), among others.
The article, which came out in the recent volume 21 of the journal Visual Communication, explores visual metaphors for sound in various manners, notably the Visual Metaphor Identification Procedure, or VISMIP. Another approach explores “six embodied mechanisms that induce emotion.” In the words of the authors: “this study sheds light on our overall understanding of audio-visual cross-modality, musical experience, metaphor and embodied experience.” It’s dense stuff, and I’m still making my way through it for a second time — and beginning to explore the trove of articles and books cited as references. (Thanks, Gene Kannenberg Jr. and Bart Beaty!)
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2. A HORROR
FOCUS ON THE PAIN: There is a new movie score out from the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: Bones and All, the “coming-of-age romantic horror road film” by director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria) and screenwriter David Kajganich (The Terror, Suspiria).
Early on in Reznor’s film-score career, 20-plus years after the debut of his band, Nine Inch Nails, he made a comment about how he didn’t intend to do many scores. I need to find the reference, but he was quoted as saying something along the lines of not necessarily having enough “ideas” (I believe that was his word) to do more than maybe one a year, if that. Fortunately, his ideas have flourished, and we’ve had another 14 scores — all with Ross, who has numerous of his own, as well — since the breakthrough that was 2010’s Social Network.
Bones and All is an hour and nearly a quarter of characteristically exquisite attention to detail. The melodies are simple. The textures are rarely muddied. The motifs are persistent. And it’s all committed as if the microphones are inside the instruments. Just when you think a particular string part is getting routinized, you realize the sheer variety of nuance with which Reznor and Ross are working.
And then there is “Unfinished Business,” the 22nd of the Bones and All soundtrack album’s 24 tracks. It is hypnotic, even darkly psychedelic, with its industrial noises, plucked strings, warped vocals, and shimmering faulty-circuit feedback. And then those voices come fully into sonic view, and they are, by all appearances, lifted straight from the movie itself. Diegetic and non-diegetic — on-screen and off — converge emphatically. These are horrific sounds (it is a horror film; it is about cannibalism), all gnashing and moaning. The voices peek out of the thick noise bed like arms violently grasping for prey.
And then they disappear. At one point in “Unfinished Business” there’s a gap, a pause, a near silence, just the quiet of what I presume to be the dark of night, and then the score comes back strong. It’s a startling moment in a score that otherwise hints at rather than underlines the goings-on. I’m not a big horror-movie viewer, even though I do count George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as one of my favorite movies of all time, but I’ll be watching Bones and All at some point soon for sure.
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3. AN ABSENCE
VACUUM TUBE: When I wrote about the sonic torture in the “Nobody's Listening!” episode of the Star Wars TV series Andor back at the start of the month, I postulated that before opting for the audience hearing nothing at all while rebel-adjacent character Bix succumbs to imperial punishment, the creative team on the show perhaps might have tried “to recreate — to imitate — what Bix hears.” And of course, leaving it to our imaginations, which is where the episode landed, was the best of all possible decisions.
And it turns out that, indeed, the Andor crew did try to fill the void first. This is per an interview at slashfilm.com, which spoke with David Acord, the supervising sound editor on Andor. Acord explained:
“When that scene came up, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, well...’ It’s daunting, for sure, that we had to come up with a sound that is, ‘What's the sound that would literally be used to torture somebody with?’ So we came up with a lot of ideas of, “What do these creatures sound like that they’re emulating?” Or maybe it’s, we come up with a more surrealistic thing of, ‘What does the sound make the characters feel like? What is that sound?’ And ultimately, it was Tony who said, ‘No, we don't want to hear it. The audience doesn’t hear it, and let Adria Arjona carry that scene.’”
In Acord’s anecdote, Tony is the series’ creator, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Rogue One). Arjona (Good Omens, Irma Vep) plays Bix. And carry it — abetted by the silence — she certainly does.
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