Ten – On Rhythm and Timing in Soundscape Composition

Blog The Week, College, planning

As I’ve stated in previous blog posts, I believe the primary literary device used (for suspense and tension) in The Willows is pacing. The use of simple devices, like alliteration and repetition, build pace throughout the text, and the periodic mention of the river along with the reoccurrence of other sonic events create expectations, which can later be broken or adhered to in order to shock or terrify the audience.

Pacing and rhythm, to me, are two descriptions of different levels of the same thing: timing. Though pacing tends to be seen as the timing of an entire piece, and rhythm being timing within a line of text or a single shot – a shorter segment of the piece – they are fundamentally the same thing. This is much the same as the relationship between pitch and timing – though less extreme – in music; pitch is simply a pulsation that happens at a speed fast enough to be perceived as a solid tone.

For me, this way of looking at time has been incredibly useful when considering ways in which to use rhythm in my sonic piece. As I am going to be truncating the narrative (or rather, ’emotional arc’ or ‘atmosphere over time’) of The Willows, I have attempted to recreate the pacing – which is so powerful – using rhythm. For a simple example: we could take the opening of the narrative, the river building in intensity, and use a rhythmic musical device to replicate that building pace that launches us into the story – we could even use a drum increasing in tempo for this opening. By changing this opening from its role in pacing the story to establishing a rhythm, in the sonic version, we are able to take what would’ve taken about ten minutes to read, and pack that same narrative/emotional/atmospheric information into perhaps a ten second build in tempo. Of course, this is a very rudimentary example, and there are obvious flaw in diminishing this build in tension to such a short piece of sound – it probably doesn’t create such suspense, the listener could simply miss it, or it could set an unwanted pace in the sonic piece that doesn’t leave space to represent faster events with any contrast – but thinking about time like this can be very practical when translating what is usually a two to three hour reading experience to a short (under half an hour) sonic composition.

That’s all I was thinking. Thanks for reading.

Recording and Processing Vocals

College, experiments, planning, research

Due to my love of writing poetry – I would say ‘songs’, but I’m no singer – I decided to experiment with writing and recording some words inspired by The Willows. This (below) is what I came up with after about a day and a half.

Disregarding the rowing sounds at the end, and the flute – though it’s barely recognisable – this track is made up of six voice recordings. The recordings are each in a different location within my bedroom; they were recorded with a pair of Rode M5s, in a cross pattern (see sketch below), into a Zoom H4N.

Vocals setup one (full page)

I decided to record the vocals using several positions – there were eight recorded – for three reasons: one, I wanted to take advantage of the change in vocal quality from whispering near to the microphone and talking from a distance; two, I wanted to use the different acoustic qualities of the microphone positions to create a sense of space; three, I wanted to be able to analyse and compare these recordings in order to better understand the way in which source position effects a recording, so I may imitate 3D space more accurately in my finished piece.

Once I had my recordings I brought them into Adobe Audition, captured a noise print, then applied a batch noise reduction to all the files – just a very light reduction of the self produced noise from the Zoom.

Once denoised I brought them all into Ableton Live (below). Each voice was given a track, then I used an EQ to accentuate the acoustic qualities of each recording positionbringing up the low vocal frequencies in the close recording to accentuate the proximity effect, etc. Then each voice was given a position, the left and right recordings were pretty straightforward. Once this was done I warped each sound slightly, and cut pieces of silence between lines, until I found a synchronisation I liked – having the whisper first and the further recordings happen a little later, all in the hope of accentuating space.

ableton vocals one

Once a simple mix was established I then worked on each sound individually, I’ll take you through the process on the closest voice – the whisper – as that’s the sound with the most work done to it.

Firstly, this voice was positioned in the left of the stereo mix, I felt it needed to be predominately coming from one side to sound like an external voice, as opposed to a voice in your head. I also wanted to keep the voice sounding as though it was moving slightly closer; to do this I had the sound move from the left to the right, very subtly, and then resetting between lines. Secondly, I needed to EQ the voice with the movement I wanted it to make. As you can hear at the end of this test, the voice moves slightly overhead and from the left to the right. To achieve the attitudinal movement I used an EQ to bring out some of the higher tones as it moved from left to right, I also used a volume control to drop the level of the sound to give a sense of distance between the listener and the sound as it moved overhead.

As you can see, not a lot was done to each voice – no reverb or chorusing effects – but the method of recording in several positions allowed me to create an interesting effect, that could be easily manipulated just using the volume and panning of each track.

Eight – de/reconstructing ‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood (FMP)

Blog The Week, College, planning

My main goal for this week has been to get the narrative of The Willows – and by ‘narrative’ I mean the physical events, distinct mental changes within the characters, and the rough pacing of the story – from a 15,000 word novella to a manageable list/set of incidents that I can use as a starting point for my piece. Then, from this set of incidents, I hope to extract sounds that can be used as motifs for those incidents; the goal is to simplify the events of the story, to avoid an incoherent mess of sounds – as my compositional abilities are not really of a standard to be able to coordinate too many complex sounds.

The first step in this process was to refine the narrative into bullet points. I’ve called this my ‘Key Event Breakdown‘, it’s a series of sentences summarising the situation and/or mental state of the characters at each ‘key event’ in the narrative. The sentences focus on one specific occurrence at a time – be that an important piece of dialogue, a change in scenery, or just a change of heart – with specific attention paid to the events that might merit the introduction of a new sound, or the resurgence of an establish motif. There is a total of 62 ‘events’ in my current version of this breakdown, however I believe this is probably a more detailed breakdown than I will be able to achieve during my piece – but I thought I’d share it for the sake of those studying The Willows in any capacity, the document is linked above but I’ll also be releasing a separate post containing the breakdown.

With this event breakdown I plan to start mapping the volume/intensity, pitch, location and the timbre of certain ever-present elements – like the river, the humming later in the story, or the wind. My first port of call was to draw a simple graph mapping the intensity of the river over time, based on how close the river is – drawing ever nearer as the island is washed away – and the frequency and way in which it’s mentioned. I will be elaborating on this graph with other qualities of the sound embodiment of the river – I say ‘sound embodiment’ simple because I don’t plan for it to be a single sound, rather a series of sound that merge with one another to symbolise the river’s ‘attitude’. To create this graph (pictured below) I took the first 15 events (part I) in my ‘Key Event Breakdown‘ and, having them numbered, placed them onto the original text. Then I broke the original text into paragraphs, numbering each one. From there I could draw my time axis and roughly label it using these paragraph markers, in a hope to retain some of the pacing of the original text in my finished piece. I plotted each of my ‘key events’ onto this graph with reference to their location in the text, and used the secondary axis for the intensity of the sound. Again, all this was to help me visualise the flow of my piece, giving me something to plot my other sound events against – much like having a visual scene and using those cues to place the effects, something I currently feel I need to do as my mind can’t really ‘visualise’ sonic events in time without some other structure.

Part one river sound graph (both)

(As you can see, there is one point at which the graph has two lines, this was just to remind me the overall intensity of the scene shouldn’t diminish, despite the river doing so, something I won’t need once I have my other graphs and notational material.)

I imagine there will be many more posts on the way I deconstruct and reconstruct the narrative of The Willows, but that’s it for this post. Thanks for reading.

‘The Willows’: Key Event Breakdown

College, experiments, planning, research

As mentioned in my blog post (‘eight’), this is a breakdown of the key events in ‘The Willows’, with specific attention paid to the descriptions of sounds within the narrative. This breakdown is based on emotional changes, physical occurrences, and descriptive changes in the narration.

Also available as a Google document here.


Part I

  • The Danube Builds in intensity; from a mild trickling stream to a boisterous and humorous river, then a dark, deep flowing mass.
  • The flood waters rise and the men begin fighting the current.
  • They are faced with a choice of three channels, though some may only be sailable during the floods and may leave them high and dry to starve once the floods subside.
  • The men attempt to land their boat, fighting the current they begin to fear the power of the river. When they land, they recover and laugh off the affair.
  • The narrator explores the island; he finds it to be less than an acre. He goes from end to end of the island, finding downstream is a ‘crimson flood’ and upstream is a ‘sliding hill with white foam’. He gets close to the willows for the first time.
  • The disquietude sets in, they feel as though they are not welcome.
  • Pitching the tent in violent wind.
  • Collecting firewood by the shoreline the men spot what they believe is a body floating down the river. After a moment, their sensible selves realise it must be an otter, and their horror subsides and is replaced by laughter.
  • They are recalled to the river again and see a man standing in a boat crossing himself, he is shouting some warning furiously at the man, but his voice is carried away in the wind.
  • Mist is beginning to fill the air.
  • The Swede tries to reassure the narrator that the man was just frightened by them and didn’t mean anything, but the Swede is unconvincing.
  • They lay by the fire, talking of their adventure together and listening to the sounds of the night. ‘Curious sounds accompanied [the wind] … like the explosion of heavy guns … [that] fell upon the water and the island in great flat blows of immense power.’ However, they are comfortable and safe; their focus is on the past events and they avoid the present.
  • The narrator goes to collect firewood alone and find himself struck first by the silence and then by the voices of the willows ‘chattering’ amongst themselves. They crowd around the men holding their ‘silver spears’ ready to attack.
  • The willows seem to be creeping nearer, though they are almost certainly not.
  • ‘The melancholy shrill cry of a night bird sound[s] overhead’ and the narrator nearly loses his balance as the piece of bank he is standing upon topples into the river with a splash – he steps back just in time.

Part II

  • The Swede arrives, but his approach was covered by the elements and he is a sudden appearance to the narrator.
  • ‘Lucky if we get away without disaster!’ says the Swede.
  • They return to the camp, make sure all is in order, extinguish the fire then turn in. The tent is safe. Sleep takes over the narrator.
  • The narrator awakes and looks out of the tent, the Swede still sleeps. The narrator sees shapes he believes are somewhat monstrous, but is unsure.
  • The narrator leaves the tent to look closer and the sounds of the river and the wind burst upon him suddenly.
  • The figure disappears suddenly, after the narrator spend some time consider their reality – grounded by the fact he knows his senses must be working, as he can hear the wind and the river so clearly. Once the images are gone, and the narrator’s awe subsides, he is filled with cold fear.
  • The narrator calculates escape and is filled with terror.
  • The narrator returns to the tent, closes it to block out the willows, then buries his head in the blankets to block out the ‘terrifying’ wind.
  • The narrator drifts to sleep but is woken by a multitude of patterings outside the tent, and a pressure on the walls of the tent – he feels cold, though the air is warm, and shivers.
  • A shadow of a figure rushes past the narrator in this twilight morning and he almost loses his balance (the figure comes from in front and passes by his side, but almost through him). The narrator returns to the tent to sleep.
  • The Swede mentions ‘the gods are here’ and his manner is somewhat frightened though this is not mentioned by the pair.
  • They find that the paddle is missing, and the Swede mentions the tear in the bottom of the canoe; then they find the other paddle is damaged.
  • The narrator makes countless explanations for the damage to the boat and the paddle, but the Swede and his deeper self are both unconvinced.
  • The narrator has a moment of suspicious concerning the events and the Swede, but he quickly realises his fears are preposterous.
  • They begin melting the pitch to repair the canoe.

Part III

  • The Swede brings up the otter, doubting its innocence, but if rebuffed by the narrator. Tension is building between them, and the Swede is almost angry when a mention of the man in the boat is similarly rebuffed.
  • The wind, ‘for the first time in three days’ begins to drop, and with it the roaring lowers.
  • The sun sets and the ‘cheerfulness’ of the place is lost, and all becomes more sinister once more.
  • The narrator prepares a hearty stew for the evening. The pot bubbles. Then the Swede calls the narrator from the bank of the river, to ‘come and listen’.
  • They hear a deep note, like a distant gong. It happens at regular intervals, but it’s not a distant steamer, nor a bell, they know that much.
  • The narrator dashing back to the bubbling stew, mid-conversation with the Swede – half for fear of the stew, half to avoid further talk of the frightful sounds of the island.
  • The narrator asks the Swede too to get the bread for the stew. From the tree where there bag of supplies was hanging, the Swede laughs an unnatural but not forced laugh, after he empties the contents of the bag on the ground sheet but finds no loaf of bread.
  • The odd note, the gong, slowly becomes a ringing as the men wash up and prepare for the night; they smoke in ‘comparative silence’.
  • The fire begins to die, and the stock of wood runs low, but neither of the men replenish it and darkness closes in. The hum is in the air and the willows are shivering, but there is a deep silence nonetheless.
  • The narrator finally breaks, it’s all too much, he tells the Swede of all his worries and exclaims ‘If the other shore was different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!’ The Swede offers little hope, but says ‘Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us.’
  • The Swede goes on to say, ‘we must keep our minds quiet – it’s our minds they can feel’; the men now know they are being searched for and are beginning to consider ways in which they can hide themselves.
  • They know they have camping in the region where the veil has grown thin and ‘their world’ touches ours.

Part IV

  • The humming comes extremely low and stops the narrator mid-sentence.
  • The swede reveals he also heard the ‘countless footsteps’ – the patterings from the night before.
  • The narrator chances to look as his shoe and is – luckily – recalled, in memory, to the London shop at which he purchased them. This momentarily lifts the fear of this supernatural world, by the practically and mundanity of this past experience. He burst upon the Swede with accusations of superstition but is stopped by the humming overhead and leaves this comfortable mindset and returns to their predicament.
  • The Swede, now in pure terror, suggests leaving now, in the pitch dark, but the narrator sees sense.
  • They go to collect wood.
  • The Swede clutches the narrator upon noticing figures crowding around the dim glow of their fire, then he exclaims his fear as he sees them coming towards the men.
  • They men fall together and the Swede clutches the narrator in such a way to cause him acute agony.
  • After an uncertain amount of time the men regain composure and consciousness. The humming has stopped. The Swede explains the acute pain saved the narrator, and the Swede himself says he fell unconscious – removing his mind from their grasp.
  • ‘A wave of hysterical laughter seized [the narrator] once again, and this time spread to [the Swede] too’.
  • They return to the camp, stoke the fire, and see the tent has fallen down. They pitch the tent, but find themselves tripping in deep sand funnels.
  • They collect all their belongings as close as possible and go to bed fully clothed. The Swede is restless at first, but he sleeps, which encourages the narrator to follow suit.
  • The narrator is woken by a difficulty breathing, then he hears the pattering and notices the Swede is gone; the humming is audible once more – only far more intense, like ‘a swarm of … bees’ – and he leaves the tent ‘mad[ly]’ to find the Swede.
  • The narrator shouts for the Swede, running around the island frantically. But the willows and the humming smother and muffle the narrator’s voice.
  • The narrator finds the Swede with one foot in the river, about to take the plunge. The narrator drags the Swede back to the tent and hold him down until his trace is over and the pattering and humming subsides.
  • Everything has stopped, and the Swede remarks upon this and his feeling of safety. He didn’t remember his suicide attempt upon waking, but does when he bathes in the cold water.
  • They find a body washed up on the shore, tangle amongst the willows, it is evidently the ‘sacrifice’ that save the men; the Swede insists they give this man – a peasant – a ‘decent burial’.
  • Before the Swede can get to the body the ghastly humming begins again and the body is stolen from him by a torrent of water. They see the man’s chest is mark with the same funnel they saw in the sand, and the humming diminishes and leaves with the body.
  • The body turns ‘over and over on the waves like an otter’ before disappearing for good.