Music is sound and sound is music.
That’s how it is for me. I’m a big fan of all kinds of music and music really influences all aspects of my work. I wanted to share with you some different songs and talk about how they’ve inspired my work. It’s by no means a list with all the artists I love – there’s no Kraftwerk, no Fela Kuti, no Miles Davis, no Slayer, no Philip Glass, no Nina Simone, no Boards of Canada, and, shame on me, no Radiohead. But nevertheless, here are 10 tracks (well, the last five) that have meant a lot for my work with sound:
I love manipulating with the human voice. It’s such an awesome instrument in itself and you can make the most amazing textures with it without losing emotional impact. I’ve been listening to a lot of the early voice experiments by Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier and I’m also a big fan of the unique way the voice is used and manipulated by very different artists like Juana Molina, Mike Patton, Burial, The Knife and even Michael Jackson, who was a true master of advanced vocal arrangements.
This track has a special place in my heart. Underworld has worked on several soundtracks and for good reason – there’s something very cinematic about their atmospheric soundscapes, even when the duo is riding high on a beat. This track, “Skym”, is very low key, though, with no drums at all. Instead it’s based on a few tones and, first and foremost, the way singer Karl Hyde’s vocals is manipulated and echoed. Often the reverb comes in before the actual voice and at times just one word is cut out of a sentence he’s singing and repeated in extremely musical ways.
I was listening a lot to this track when I worked on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. There’s a very intense POV scene towards the end where the main character is drugged and he wakes up while the murderer is speaking to him. For this scene, all the sound elements you hear on the soundtrack were created from the villain’s voice using a lot of weird processing, reverb and reverse effects. It was my salute to Underworld.
The Books: The Story of Hip-Hop
Old sounds become new sounds in the hands of The Books. This New York-duo has a truly unique vision: Their songs usually consists of folky, acoustic instrumentation – guitar, cello, banjo and more – combined with a diverse range of found sounds and samples obtained from cassettes and other recordings found in thrift stores. If that description sounds a tad boring, it’s very misleading, ‘cause The Books’ collage songs are usually wonderfully playful, humorous and groovy in a charming, laidback way.
All of The Books’ albums are great but I picked this song because it just cracks me up each time I hear it. Besides that, it’s also just a brilliant example of The Books’ sound and how elegantly they weave different sound bites in and out of their tasteful instrumentation. The way they work with textures, sounds and weird voices is really something to behold. The Books’ sound has segued quite a bit into the way I deal with flashbacks and other sequences where time dissolves. I love it.
Animal Collective: Loch Raven
Throughout the last few years, Animal Collective has been one of the most consistently fascinating groups working in the more avant-garde part of the pop scene. It’s an extremely playful and adventurous band and it seems like their creativity is pretty much limitless. When listening to their albums in headphones you keep on finding new elegant details. It’s almost sparkling music and whenever I listen to their albums I always get highly energized and feel like sound is just one big playground.
I think their latest album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, is their high point until now but this track is actually taken from one of their previous albums. It’s more quiet and subdued than a lot of their other songs and this means that the many, many elegant details are even more obvious. I also love how the sounds feel both organic and digital. In film, we quite often want everything to sound very organic and are trying to avoid all digital artefacts but these electronic sounds can have a poetry of their own. Animal Collective have often talked about how they’re constantly recording new sounds on small handy recorders and I bet that’s one of the reasons why their soundscapes always have an amazing richness.
Listening to Animal Collective makes you wanna be more creative. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Neil Young: Walk With Me
There’s soooo many marvellous producers out there at the moment: Nigel Godrich, Rick Rubin, Matthew Herbert, Timbaland, ?uestlove (also a top notch drummer), Jon Brion (also a top notch film composer) and Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips and the extraordinary Low-album “Drums and Guns”), just to mention a few of those I adore.
This track by Neil Young is very much the work of producer Daniel Lanois, who is another mindblowing maestro. This song is the opener on Young’s album from last year, “Le Noise” (what a title!), and it’s one of the tracks I’ve heard the most in 2010. It’s just Neil Young and his guitar and a lot of studio tricks from Lanois whose use of weird, spaced out echo turns this into a kind of dub-version of Neil Young.
This song is quite a trip. The sound has been called “explosively intimate” and even if that seems like a contradiction in terms, I can relate to that: It feels like you get very, very close to Young but at the same time is entering a new psychedelic, sonic dimension. First time I heard the opening of the song on really big speakers I got quite surprised – the sub-bass is massive! There’s also something very weightless about the soundscape, though, especially in the song’s most abstract sequences.
There’s a special warmth to Lanois’ sound that’s very seductive. His use of reverb is tasteful and masterful. When I worked on a voiceover for a film recently I tried out some of the tricks that Lanois is using on Young’s voice to add a kind of dreamy texture to a sequence. It worked quite well. Nobody can touch Lanois, though. He’s one of a kind.
James Blake: The Wilhelm Scream
With that title, I just had to include it!
Well, of course it’s not just that. In my opinion, James Blake is one of the most exciting artists right now – his “Klavierwerke EP” was my favorite release last year. He’s rooted in the British dubstep scene – deep sub-bass, quick-click rhythms and cut-up vocal hooks – but his new album is so much more, containing elements of soul, gospel and blues.
“The Wilhelm Scream” is one of the highlights of the album (the scream itself doesn’t figure, though, as far as I can tell): The lyrics about being unexpectedly overwhelmed by love are gradually submerged beneath crackling static and chords that start out echoing blues and gospel but turn increasingly dissonant. It’s really interesting that at the climax of the whole thing, Blake removes almost all sounds and the track is peaking at that exact moment. It reflects a feeling I often get when I’m mixing – that the most significant moments occur when I remove almost all sound. Cmd + M is probably one of the short cuts I use the most when I’m mixing. Silence empowers the impact of sound. Amen.