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.

Beyond her Frequency Spectrum

I’ve made a new year album. Last year I made one, so I thought that I should make another one this year.

Happy 2019 to everyone!

“Clavilux”, short story by Robert A. Wait (1929)

The audience stirred in an uneasy manner. The curtain should rise in one minute. The absence of music seemed to bother a few. Others raised their heads expectantly from the bright colored programs in their hands. The buzz of an excited audience suddenly stilled as the rose velvet curtains before them parted, revealing a dapper gentleman in evening clothes smiling down upon them.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” began the blond young Frenchman. “I am Monsieur Du Bois. That is only by way of introduction, for it has no part in this evening’s entertainment. Behind me you observe my instrument of pleasure.”

He gestured toward the main stage. Upon it stood a huge box-like arrangement much like the console of a theatre organ with a regular organ bench and keyboard and pedals, very similiar to the ones found in most pipe organs. It was gorgeously done in gilt and spangles, and the spot lights from above shifted over the machine, as the Monsieur continued his interesting monologue.

“At the back of the stage you will observe a screen so situated that any light rays from my color organ will be reflected to you directly. “In physics we would say the angle of incidence is such that you are in line with the angle of reflection.”

So saying, he reached back to the console of his organ and touched a key. Instantly the theatre was brilliantly flooded with a cool green glow. The screen seemed a bottomless sea of emerald.

“No doubt many of you wonder how the whole audience may be thrown into the line of angle of reflection. I have back there an unusual screen. It is what is known as parabolic in shape, which means it is concave in a very definite mathematical curve. The source of light from my machine throws a diverging beam of light at this peculiar curve and, because of its shape, the screen reflects all of the impinging rays in nearly parallel lines; thus each one of you receives a few rays reflected directly from the light source with no confusing cross interference of one ray with others.”

Seating himself, the young man signalled the spot lights out. Only a dim bulb lighted his keyboard.“The house was as still as a summer calm while greens flowed into purples, flashed into scarlets, and faded to soft yellows and blues.

“You note I do not have any music. I find that music is detrimental to the moods I desire to carry my audience through. Anyway, light and color correspond very closely to noise and musical notes. Color is primarily a function of frequency, not of wave lengths, just as high musical notes are produced by frequencies as high as 15,000 vibrations or more per second. Low notes may go as low as twenty vibrations per second and still be heard by the ear.”

“Reds are light waves of extremely slow vibrations while violets approach the extremely rapid vibrations such as those of ultra-violet light which you all know to be present, yet invisible to the eye. Corresponding to these ultra-high frequencies we have the infra-reds or colors of such low frequency that our eyes will not detect them. Our senses feel their warmth, however, just as they feel the warmth of red rays if either kind is focused by means of a burning glass.”

He turned to his organ with the announcement that his first number would be an overture in color, built up much as an overture is written for music. Before him was a peculiar type of score, similar to, but different from, musical scores.

With a crash of color, if such can be conceived, the overture began and for ten minutes the audience watched breathlessly while colors flooded the screen; reds danced through blues; circles of green sailed through and behind pink and white clouds; black thunder clouds melted to golden mists; blue sky showed through with the flashes of purple and scarlet of birds. Abruptly the theme changed. A cool dark; green with moving lines of brown and patches of greys and blues took on through the woods where birds flickered among the trees. A streak of rusty red across one corner of the picture showed where sly br’er fox had slipped through—a flare of yellow as the traveler again came into the bright sunlight of the open field. Soon the multi-colored roofs of a village floated by and hazy clouds of dust rose from a herd of sheep scampering down the lane.

As the piece ended, the audience sighed in ecstacy. Never had it had that particular side of its nature stirred. As Du Bois rose, applause broke forth, and the spot lights searched out the smiling artist.

“You enjoy it, yes?” He fell into the broken English of his earlier days in the States. “May I explain, friends? This is my color-organ, my clavilux. I revel in its playing just as a pianist revels in his musical masterpieces. In music the artist must skillfully combine pitch with pitch at a certain tempo to produce a harmonious series of sounds. This constitutes a work of art if properly done. I combine color —red, blue, and so on—with form—clouds, circles, squares, and others; this combination I move in a graceful way at certain speeds. Thus the clavilux combines color, form, and motion to delight its player and audience. Even more skill is necessary to play a clavilux or color-organ than is required for a piano. By these consoles of keys I can secure 100,000 combinations of color and form which I can move at will— up, down, around, across. You have all heard sad and doleful music, I am sure. Now I ask you to listen with your eyes to this tragic piece of color—shape.”

Seating himself, the artist again secured darkness and began to weave magic colors and shapes before his spell-bound audience. Predominating were blues and reds, the more somber reds, and finally the very deepest reds or those of extremely slow vibration. Faster the colors flowed, melted into one another, flashed suddenly out—scarlet, then azure, cobalt, cerise, and somber dull grey. Frenzied they boiled and splashed about the screen, shapes jumbling about chasing each other, dissolving into nothing, racing toward the front of the field, speeding off into that blue grey void beyond, slipping into that fierce fiery border of reds. The trend was more terrifying than sad.

The audience was on edge. Hard-headed men breathed quickly and clutched their hats with destructive force. Faster the colors flared and streamed. The screen was nearly devoid of definite visible color now, yet a devilish warm glow played about the flashing forms of pale yellow and green. Perspiration streamed from the brows of half the audience; children cried, men and women shifted uneasily, murmuring and whispering. Still the musician played madly at his keyboard. A scream of terror split the air as the upper console of the clavilux splintered. The screen flared a terrific series of reds and burst into genuine fire.

Clavilux Clavilux short story illustration from Amazing Stories

It all happened in less than ten seconds, and Monsieur Du Bois stood aghast at the turmoil. He shouted for quiet, wildly gesticulating, and falling into French in his excitement. The audience hesitated, whimpered, and slowly sank back to its seats, muttering and gazing at the ashes of the ruined screen. Stage hands had soon extinguished the fire.

Mesdames, monsieurs, I beg of you to calm yourselves. No harm can befall you. I am to blame for your fright. Two things are to blame. First, I have played for you one of the new modernistic compositions entitled ‘Collapse of the Cosmos.’ It has never been played before and is evidently too violent for a beginning audience. The emotion I stirred in you was a blind fear of catastrophe. Many musical compositions produce anger, some fear, others laughter—so it is with the clavilux. Compositions may be written for producing any desired mood. Very little is yet known about the effect of concerts in color on audiences, so you will please forgive if I have frightened you. We are none of us educated in the art of enjoyment of combination of color, form, and motion. May I relieve you with a light composition full of sunshine and laughter? A new screen has been placed by the stage crew. Please?”

Seating himself he ran his fingers over the keys not affected by the splintered console, and the colors flashed out once more. This time bright gay forms danced and floated; warm blues, cool greens, delightful yellows, and fluffy pinks chased about the screen, ever shifting, ever changing in shape, melting and flowing about. Children laughed happily and clapped their hands. Women smiled again and men relaxed their grim features to pleasant enjoyment. Evidently the simple sketch of light color was having its soothing effect.

“May I play my newest composition for you, ladies and gentlemen?” The performer looked expectantly at the calm faces turned up to him. No dissenting voices arose, so he proceeded.

“Musicians are able to distinguish a single pitch from a group of sounds. Notes usually are accompanied by groups of pitches called overtones. Few of you have heard a single pure pitch. Nearly every instrument, has its overtones. “I wish to play for you a piece in color, form, and motion in which I emphasize the “overtones” of those three phases. Doubtless you have heard church organs whose lowest note was a “16 foot,” as the deep tones are called. These may be played by a skilled operator in combining several of the lower and middle notes to give the effect of a very low note which is known as a “64 foot” note. Naturally this has a very low vibration. If an 128 foot note could be produced, it would be apt to wreck the building in which it was played.”

“It is my ambition to produce an extremely low vibration in color by the same general method used in obtaining the low organ note and with the overtones. With this in mind, I wish you to be my judge.”

Colors began to flow as they had never been seen before. Colors that man had never before witnessed splashed and ran across the screen. Forms that the wildest imagination had never before conceived of, jumped and skulked about through the maze of color. Gradually the trend was more and more to the red, and motion and form slowed to a few regularly appearing pulses. Men grew warm about the collar. Women fanned themselves with programs. Children moved restlessly. Still the color flowed. Perspiration trickled down the organist’s face; his features became distorted, his eyes wild. He had glanced at the screen whereon his composition glowed. Too late he realized what was going on. Overtones, to be sure. He’d give them plenty! What was that buzzing in his ears? Drat these hot nights! Where was that heat coming from? That chord again—it was immense! Feel that thrill and wild exultation it sent through you. What was that tumult—the audience felt it too. Well, let them—give them more. That low vibration—what was the combination he had figured would produce it?

Oh, yes, press all the reds and all the violets to cause sufficient interference of vibrations. There, it was done!

The screen flamed. The back stage smoked for a second, flashed into a mass of fire and with a roar the audience rushed for the exits, fighting, screaming, scratching.

He had done it! What was that awful ache in his head—they were wild—the building had caught fire— must have produced that low vibration—heat ray below the infra-reds. Ah, it was well—damn that buzz in the ears—snap, flash—blackness.

Morning found an article in the paper concerning a peculiar performance of the color-organist in which the electric wiring seemed to have caused a fire and frightened the audience. None of the audience could give an accurate or connected account of the affair.

The performer, so the news item said, had fainted under the extreme heat, but he was doing nicely in the local hospital.

“Clavilux”, short story by Robert A. Wait, Amazing Stories v04 n03 [1929-06].