The Miracle of Television

And the marvel of Lissajous figures

These images are the logo of a 1949 book titled The Miracle of Television. I wasn’t sure if the logo was specific to the book, or was more broadly that of the publisher, Wilcox & Follett Co. Two friends (Deb Chachra and Jason Richardson) explained they are Lissajous figures, meaning they’re almost certainly specific to the book.

The Miracle of Television was published in 1949, or 21 years prior to Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat, which could have been titled The Misfortune of Television (“ours has become a society where shadow and reality intermix to the final elimination of any degree of rational selectivity on the part of those whose lives are manipulated”).

The Ambient Craft of Spy Dramas

Case in point: Berlin Station

The clock is nearing 11pm on a Saturday, and another episode of Berlin Station cycles up, following immediately on the end of the previous one. Season three of the TV series, a spy drama, is underway, set in a brightly lit, contemporary Estonia under a creeping, old-school Russian curtain — or at least so things seem. It’s still early on.

There has been a break in the week’s heavy wind and rain this evening, and the house is especially quiet, little to any sound inside or out. The show’s own audio, as a result, is all the more present in the living room. The actors’ voices are hushed, anxious. The stereo spectrum of European café scenes brings the steam of espresso machines within reach. The echoes of hospital hallways on the screen are on loan to the dimly lit room in which the TV hangs.

Spy dramas, like horror movies and romances, are filled with extended sequences containing little to no dialog. Unlike the other two, spies often never reach a climax. At their best, such thrillers are often all suspense — which is to say, all suspension: not action, but the holding off of action.

Striving honorably for a proper audience to get it to another season, Berlin Station has its share of fisticuffs and explosions, but it also has a lot of attenuation — the mapping of questionable territory, enough skulking to max out a Fitbit, detailed surveillance maneuvers (the above image is from the show’s opening credits: ears are everywhere). The thing built up to by the ever-heightening if still deeply sublimated drama might simply be a piece of paper folded and handed from one palm to another surreptitiously, or a fragment of chalk being used to mark a wall in an innocuous neighborhood, or a file disappearing suddenly and almost imperceptibly on a network.

And such sequences are where the show’s composers — Reinhold Heil, who first came to prominence with Run Lola Run, on the first two seasons, and then Joseph Trapanese (Shimmer Lake) on season three — are at their best. There’s only one collection of Berlin Station music so far, from the first season, released back in 2016. Early on in it is a track titled “Dirty Laundry,” segments of synths and strings and muffled percussion that suggest something big is about to happen — and it may, but it never sounds big. (Bizarrely for 2019, this track by Heil doesn’t appear to be on YouTube, which is why I haven’t embedded it here, but it is on all the major streaming services.)

This is all a roundabout explanation — following my own recent realization — why I so enjoy watching spy dramas and related thrillers, and why I so enjoy listening to their scores. It’s why as much as I love Cliff Martinez’s music for Solaris, it’s his The Company of You Keep and Arbitrage scores that I listen to most often. The sublimated intensity that these narratives call for in their soundtracks is exactly what can make for excellent ambient music. The genre is often conflated with new age or spiritual or relaxing, but it can be very tense, as well. And like a good spy, Berlin Station‘s Heil and Trapanese do their best work in the shadows.

Update: A little over a week after this was posted, I learned that while Heil did the first two seasons, the show’s showrunner changed with season three, and with the new showrunner came a new composer, Joseph Trapanese. The article now reflects that.

Diegetic-Like

More on the subtle musicality of Issa Rae's great HBO series

The musicality of the HBO series Insecure took a bit of a hit when the character Daniel exited stage left earlier this season, the series’ third. A love interest for Issa, Insecure‘s main protagonist, the aspiring music producer Daniel helped, simply through his presence, to transform the show’s wall-to-wall backing tracks into plot points, whether he was busy at work, or arguing with another musician about the arrangement of a new composition, or seducing Issa from behind his production desk.

With Daniel now gone, we still have composer Raphael Saadiq’s score and Kier Lehman’s music supervision to artfully thread the needle between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, between what’s happening on-screen and what Insecure‘s writers want us to think and feel at any given moment. But this past week’s episode, “Obsessed-Like,” the season’s penultimate, leveled things up during one brief, spectacular moment.

Insecure has always played with Issa’s inner monologues, which often occur when she’s alone in the bathroom. Those moments are tender not just because they are private, but because they show a more forthright and secure Issa than she generally acts in public. They often come in the form of short bursts of fledgling rap lyrics, part poetry slam, part self-aware stand-up comedy. They hint at where Issa the character may be headed. Perhaps — as with the Jerry of Seinfeld — the character Issa will become more like the actress Issa who portrays her.

In the episode “Obsessed-Like,” as its title suggests, Issa is anything but secure. She’s reeling from another recent relationship, with a guy named Nathan, one she didn’t herself choose to conclude. Much of the episode is a battle between her somewhat deranged inner thoughts and what’s happening around her. Many of the scenes are filmed as if through her eyes, to emphasize that she isn’t seeing things clearly. (It’s the first episode of the season written by Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, who perhaps has the most freedom to push beyond the show’s narrative toolbox.)

At one climactic point we see Issa in Nathan’s bedroom, where she is frantically trying to guess his laptop’s password. Her best friend, Molly, walks in on her, and to signal the way this moment presents an emotional rock bottom, Issa’s inner and public voices finally converge in an expression of utter shame — the “uh” of her internal monologue and the “uh” of her verbal response to a question from Molly harmonize with each other. They’re seen here in captions, the italics having, throughout the episode, signaled when Issa is talking to herself inside her head. Issa hasn’t recovered fully, but the delusions with which the episode opened seem to have been reconciled with — come into harmony with — reality.

This evening, HBO will air the final episode of the third season of Insecure (which has already been renewed for a fourth). It is directed by Regina King, who played a lead character in the series Southland, the rare hour-long TV drama to air, for its full five-season run, without any background score. I wrote previously about the character Daniel’s presence on Insecure as a nuanced secondary figure we see making music.

“Unknown SoundCloud Producer Dead”

The rich ambiguity of music on Insecure

If you watch Insecure, Issa Rae’s excellent HBO series, you know the music of Raphael Saadiq, who has scored it since it debuted two seasons back. Part of the impact of Saadiq’s work on Insecure is how the back beat of the show works seamlessly with whatever the characters might themselves be listening to. The latter is the craft of music supervisor Kier Lehman. Sometimes the distinction is entirely unclear, much to both Saadiq and Lehman’s credit. And this season of Insecure, its third, music production is becoming a narrative tool of interpersonal ambiguity.

Part of what makes the character Daniel — whose role has expanded significantly of late — so important to Insecure is that while music was already important to the show from the start, now there’s this nuanced secondary figure we see making music, and stressing about making music, and building a career in music — and, this past Sunday night, fearing his own eventual obituary’s headline if he doesn’t get his act together: “Unknown SoundCloud producer dead.”

Just moments earlier, Daniel had beatboxed into the ear of Issa’s character at a nightclub. His stated intent was to layer his sense of what would enrich the music of the performer they were witnessing at that moment, were they to every collaborate. However, in order to be heard over the club, Daniel had to lean extra close to Issa to do his beatbox impression. It’s a rare feat for beatboxing to signify subconscious intimacy and compositional refinement, even more so for those to occur simultaneously.

An especially artful moment came at the close of the episode (“Familiar-Like,” the new season’s second). Daniel is at his production desk. Issa walks to him from the living room while music plays. It’s the music Daniel’s making, but it’s also the moment’s music: relaxed, sophisticated. The ambiguity is rich. Is he doing work or sending a message? Is she helping or replying? The show doesn’t tell us directly, because the characters don’t know either, and that’s the point. Music in filmed entertainment all too often tells the audience precisely what to feel. Here it’s accomplishing something much more complicated.

Law & Order’s “Chung Chung” Turns 25

And stretched to as many minutes by John Kannenberg

Every pop-culture sound-design element gets its 15 minutes of fame, and sometimes even more. On the 25th anniversary of the Law & Order TV series, the show’s famous “clang,” or “chung chung,” has been stretched to 25 minutes by sound artist John Kannenberg. Kannenberg is pursuing a PhD focusing on the role of sound in the museum, but he’s clearly aware the that the court is just as fertile a bed for audio research as the art gallery. To listen to this stretched to such a length is to go inside the sound and peruse its details. The shimmery lattice of sound is akin to The Matrix‘s bullet time crossed with an electron microscope. You get a sensory experience of every tiny undulation.

The original is archived at Wikipedia.

Here as a bonus is a 20-minute talk Kannenberg gave recently on “Why Listen to Museums?”

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/johnkannenberg. More from Kannenberg, who also runs the fine Stasisfield label, at johnkannenberg.com.