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Hannibal: This is my sound design

This is a translation of an article that I wrote in 2014. If you speak Spanish, you can find the original article at Makimono.

Nowadays, there is a television series that stands out in terms of sound design: Hannibal. Its special attention to sound is glaringly obvious from the first scene, in which for almost two minutes without dialogue we listen to a disturbing mix of field recordings, electronic music, pulses, glitches, static, etc. that introduces us to the mind of the main character: Will Graham.

During these first minutes, the soundtrack oscillates between the real and the hallucinatory, echoing the ghostly influence of John Cage and Morton Feldman, of whom Brian Reitzell, composer and musical supervisor of Hannibal, says: “I’m a big fan of John Cage and Morton Feldman. I love when you have big washes of sound that come out of nowhere and leave tons of space behind them.” [Film Music Magazine].

Hannibal makes it clear from the first scene that here you are not going to find a classical orchestral soundtrack. The soundtrack knowingly confuses diegetic and non-diegetic sound using drones, dark ambient, and industrial music. “Reitzell’s work unmoors the viewer subliminally, forgoing the classical bombast of Shore or Zimmer’s Lecter scores for ambient clashes of sustained tones.” [A.V. Club].

This attention extends also to images. From the beginning, the directors decided that they wanted the audience to be “totally immersed in the world of the show: sound and vision.” [Minnesota Public Radio]. The Guardian said a few months ago that “it’s unlike anything else on TV. The camerawork is stunning … Colours are muted or oversaturated, characters appear shrouded in shadow, or even in silhouette. It’s also a treat for the ear, with Brian Reitzell’s score blurring the line between music and sound effects. The sound design here is better than most movies.”

However, the most interesting thing is that this treat for the ear is not just about aesthetics. The first personal trait that we know about Will Graham—a somewhat asocial professor who collaborates as an analyst with the FBI—comes from a conversation about the power of listening. When Jack Crawford—an FBI agent—points out that it is funny that someone as asocial as him works as a teacher, Will answers, “Well, I’m just talking at them. I’m not listening to them. It’s not social.”

When, minutes later, we meet Hannibal Lecter, we hear classical music for the first time, a piano that takes us to a more structured, elegant, and clean world than the criminal madness of the FBI and Will’s mental instability. The music is not any piano piece, it is the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. I don’t know if what we hear is Glenn Gould, but he is Hannibal’s favourite pianist, and also an obsessive-compulsive maniac as perfectionist as he is.

The two main characters are presented through sound, contrasting intricated sound textures with the impeccable control of the Goldberg Variations. Although the sound surrounding Will is complex, dark, and closer to noise than music, it is never chaotic. Will himself says a few episodes later that spaces speak to him “with noise and clarity”. This apparently contradictory description defines well the soundtrack of the series, a structured noise that relates to the idea that chaos does not imply disorder, but an order that we do not understand.

When Hannibal enters Will’s house for the first time without him being present, he plays the piano, as if he was trying to take over Will with his own music. What he plays are the first notes of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a piece related to the form and content of the series. On one hand, it is a work that received adverse criticism for its games of tonality and dissonance. On the other hand, it focuses on primitive rituals that include the choice of a sacrificial victim.

Will’s dissonance… Hannibal’s sacrificial victims… Stravinsky himself said that his piece was about “the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring” [Wikipedia]. As we will see later, the relationship between Will and Hannibal will lead to a great tension that involves the creative power of Hannibal and the ‘blooming’ of Will.

Will and Hannibal come closer when they share a secret related to an FBI case. This introduction of Will to something ‘fishy’ is underlined using the soundtrack. The scene opens with Hannibal listening to opera in his office, when Will enters the room accusing him of withholding information, the opera mixes with the abstract sounds that always accompany Will. As Will’s anger increases, the opera disappears, we only hear ‘sound’. When Hannibal begins to convince him that it is better to keep the secret, the opera reappears, eventually triumphing over the ‘noise’.

Reitzell states that “There are many layers in the soundscape and very little sound design in the show.” [Film Music Magazine]. He means that, despite the complexity of the sound, they did not want to be dramatic, but to add meaning. “I’m interested in music psychology and applying that to the score as much as possible.” [Minnesota Public Radio]. Bryan Fuller, the creator of the series, says that “so much of what Brian Reitzell does isn’t scoring; it is sound design. It is psychological sound design” [A.V. Club].

The opening credits are the first element that plays with the viewer’s subconscious, using a short piece that musicologist Tim Storhoff describes as a mixture of “dissonance, distortion, and non-Western percussion instruments.” [T-Stor]. The richness of the atmosphere of this and other sound pieces has levels of complexity and low-pitched audio frequencies impossible to hear using standard television speakers. The series’ soundtrack is as elusive as Will and Hannibal.

In the seventh episode, there is a series of shots that take us from the vibration of the vocal cords of an opera singer to Hannibal’s inner ear. Hanibal is almost crying. Sensitivity, what moves us, enters through the ear. But not only what moves us, but also what sustains our reality and our life. When Will begins to confuse imagination and reality, he says “I can see and hear better afraid. I just can’t speak as concisely.” He is opening up, the problem is that the more he opens up, the more difficult it is for him to express with words what he feels.

In Hannibal, mind and life always pass through the ear. Will says to a disturbed woman, “If you can hear me, you’re alive.” This sentence is later related to the ear of Abigail Hobbs, an ambiguous character—victim and executioner—with whom Will and Hannibal develop a parental relationship. When Hannibal supposedly sacrifices Abigail, all that is found of her is an ear—Lynchian overtones. If Abigail has no ear, she cannot hear. If she cannot hear, she must be dead.

Abigail’s ear also represents an epiphany, it is linked to Will’s awakening, to the awareness of what is really inside Hannibal. The awakening/ear relationship is evident. Hannibal inserts Abigail’s ear into Will’s throat while he is unconscious. When Will comes to his senses, he throws up the ear, an ear that then appears again and again in his hallucinations.

When the ear motif reappears in the second season, it does so as a link to life. Will, accused of crimes he did not commit, sees an opportunity to save himself from the death penalty when someone sends the court an ear that indicates that the real killer is still free. “This ear you were sent is an opportunity,” says Hannibal. In the same episode, the tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds claims at the trial that Abigail died because she did not listen to her, “I should’ve listened to her”.

Non-listening kills, but also amplified or misdirected listening. When Will feels guilty about the death of one of the characters, he says, “Beverly died because of me. Because she listened to me”. Also, when psychopath Abel Gideon tells Dr. Alana Bloom that Will is not a murderer, but that he could soon be one, she is not concerned because it is impossible for him to kill anyone while locked up. Gideon replies, “Not with his own hands, but if he only had a little birdie to whisper ‘murder’ into a sympathetic ear…” The adjective sympathetic is used in the musical field to speak of ‘sympathetic vibrations’, resonance, an issue to which I will return later.

When Will whispers to a little birdie to murder Hannibal, Hannibal’s reaction after being saved is to compose a piece for harpsichord. “I’m metabolizing the experience by composing a new piece of music.” The harpsichord means control over his space and circumstances, he is recovering his structure. Hannibal is not able to finish his composition until he regains control over his life and his game.

And then, they both eat the little birdie. The bird is not Will accomplice, it is an ortolan that he and Hannibal eat after drowning it alive in Armagnac. This is another scene that uses the Goldberg Variations, this time mixed with the crunching of the bird bones. Now both are in control.

The amount of dialogues that refer in one way or another to sound is fascinating, perhaps because sound is formless and ethereal, two conditions related to the enigmas of the human mind. Will usually explains his feelings using terms related to sound, “I can feel my nerves clicking” or “All I heard was my heart, dim but fast, like footsteps fleeing into silence.”

Sound references are even used as a humorous resource. In one of the first episodes, when Alana shows up at Will’s isolated house by surprise, Will says that he has not heard her car. She answers, “Hybrid. Great car for stalking.” Noise reveals, silence observes.

This metaphorical discourse on sound reaches another level in the eighth episode. The murderer of the week is a musician and the whole episode is full of sound references. It is an episode that talks about music and its relation to control, death, and the mind. Play means to perform music on a musical instrument, but also to be involved in a game. Hannibal reflects: “Every life is a piece of music. Like music, we are finite events, unique arrangements. Sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant. Sometimes events not worth hearing again.” The victim as an instrument, life as a score.

In this episode, we discover that Hannibal is a theremin virtuoso. If the harpsichord has to do with control over oneself, the theremin has to do with control over others, functioning as a simile of how Hannibal handles everyone who comes into his range. Hannibal states that with the theremin one does not compose, but discovers, because you “can’t impose traditional composition on an instrument that is inherently free form”.

In this same episode, we see an unexpected fight to the death between Hannibal and the killer musician. When Hannibal kills his rival, he plays a few notes of “Aria” on the harpsichord, a sound detail that represents his extreme dependence on refinement and control. Hannibal is a killer, but his modus operandi is never improvised or dirty, all his movements are calculated, he cannot stand improvised, rough or sloppy things.

When the theremin reappears in episode 10 of the second season, a much clearer relationship is established between sound, vibration, and control. Hannibal and Alana speak, “A theremin is an instrument that can create exquisite music without ever needing to be touch, but it requires the rare gift of perfect pitch to play properly … Feel the vibration moving through you. … It’s like composing in thin air. Thin air is the musician’s canvas. … It’s a very psychological instrument … We work with people the same way. Never touching … but guiding them from dissonance toward composition.”

Alana stresses to Hannibal that people are not instruments: “Whatever it is you’re playing (playing, with the double meaning of playing music and playing a game), Hannibal, you have to listen very carefully to what you are creating.” Hannibal’s response is a direct reference to the haptic and vibratory power of sound: “You and I went so long in our friendship without ever touching, yet I always felt attuned to you. ‘Attuned’, a term that means ‘in resonance’ or ‘on the same wavelength’.

‘Attuned’ refers to the notion of ‘sympathetic’, already mentioned, and relates to two Eastern concepts, the Japanese ki ga au and the Chinese ganying, which have much to do with the interaction between Will and Hannibal.

Ganying (‘resonance’) means stimulus and response, in the sense of an interaction that transcends the limits of time, space, and ordinary linear causality. Resonance implies a stimulus that generates a simultaneous effect on another element without direct contact. According to The Huainanzi, this connection is related to qi, energy, and is never arbitrary, because elements are more sensitive to the resonance of other elements that share the same form of qi. It is exactly the same phenomenon of musical resonance, which causes one guitar string to vibrate when another is played, for example.

Ki ga au is a Japanese expression that means to get along, but its literal translation would be more similar to ‘our qi match’, that is, ‘we resonate’, or ‘we vibrate on the same wavelength’. Hannibal and Will share a common wavelength, but while one allows himself to vibrate and resonate, creating perfect music, the other tries to conform to the score written by society, morals, and laws, living in constant dissonance.

The second season of the series opens with an episode in which Will is already fully aware of this resonance: “I used to hear my thoughts inside my skull with the same tone, timbre, accent, as if the words were coming out of my mouth … Now my inner voice sounds like you [Hannibal].

This resonance is not only evident through words, Will and Hannibal’s soundtracks are beginning to blur. When they have a first dinner more or less frank about what they are playing at, Will’s dissonance drifts into the “Adagietto” of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor, a love song that ends on a disturbing shot, again with dissonances, in which their identities are confused using a simple audiovisual trick that points in more than one sense to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.

In this second season, not only does the resonance between Will and Hannibal become more evident, but also the identification of silence with death and noise with life. In the same episode in which Jack’s wife, who is sick with cancer, describes death as an inevitable silence, one of the FBI’s forensic scientists mentions that drone—the bee—ejaculations are so explosive that they are audible to the human ear. Here we find the idea suggested by Jacques Attali in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, “life is full of noise … death alone is silent … Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise”.

If in life nothing happens in the absence of noise, neither does in Hannibal. The soundtrack is there even when you’re not hearing it, with low frequencies lurking in the darkness beyond the frequency range of your speakers. Hannibal is a feast for the ears, a morbid fascination, a feeling that dances on the sublime… and, I insist again, on the ear.

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