@peterhowelltalk mediawriteprojects@gmail.com

Your Music on Film (the eBook for aspiring film composers) - New Music (recent compositions mixing the acoustic with the electronic) Lecturer at the NFTS - BBC Composer 1973 to 1998 - Early Compositions (Music for Collectors) - Still to Come (the writing)

January 26, 2012

In Two Minds

Our brains have already been cleft in two; but luckily there is a bridge between the halves

For some of us, the bridge seems more robust than others. If you are one of those whose bridge between the left and right brain is in danger of falling into the ravine; where the only way that the data can make the trip from imagination to method is by using the services of an elderly peasant and a rickety old cart, then this is for you.

Our brains simply don’t work properly without that bridge, despite some who dispute the true function of each half.

I remember writing the music for a documentary series on the Human Brain which contains a sequence about a woman who suffered from extreme epilepsy. It had been decided, and this now seems a severe solution, to disconnect the bridge between the two halves of her brain. An operation was performed and was, in their terms, successful. As a result of the operation the woman stopped suffering from epilepsy but was left with some curious side effects. There was a scene in which she was choosing clothes to wear for a night out.

She would go to the wardrobe, pick a top and skirt, return to the bed where she laid them on the bedspread to decide whether she had made the right choice. But instead, without pausing, she returned to the wardrobe and selected two more items. This sequence repeated itself over and over until all the clothes from the wardrobe were on the bed, and no choice had been made.

The explanation for her strange behaviour was that the left side of her brain, responsible for the organising, was dealing with the fetching and carrying, and the right side dealing with the aesthetic decisions about colour and suitability was in charge of her preferences. Both sides were working as normal, but because there was no link between them, the left side never got the message that the right side had made a choice, and so continued to fetch more clothes.

It seems fairly conclusive to me, different types of decision are divided between the two hemispheres of the brain; and this ‘division of labour’ seems never more pointed than in the creative arts.

We clearly can create ideas on the right, but cannot deliver them without the skills handled by the left, the nuts and bolts of making the ideas a reality.

If we turn our attention to the audience, something else is happening.

They are really only using the right sides of their brains to experience a movie. After all, the movie is simply a projection, everything they see and hear is an illusion, but it has meaning. Apart from a minute amount of left brain activity dedicated to keeping them upright in their seats, and managing their popcorn, the whole experience is a right brain one.

As creators of the movie we are having to compute on two levels, intuition and craft. This is why we so desperately need to consider the means of delivery as well as the idea, otherwise we will end up like the poor woman in the scene above, constantly making choices but never knowing when we have finished, never meeting a deadline.

An excerpt from my eBook 'Your Music on Film'...
available now from Amazon

Here's the spoken version of this post

January 20, 2012

Looking Back, Keeping Your Balance

Was analogue really better than digital.... that depends

Way back amongst the jack cords, the vinyls, the hums and the buzzes, when tape hiss enveloped everything you did, things had a physical presence. You stood in a room full of bits and pieces, some of which made good sounds, others just good trip hazards, hoping that in this 'take' nothing would fall off, and that the man next door wouldn't start using his lawn mower and add an unwanted drone to your recording. Your audio life was lived on the edge, making use of whatever was to hand.

Howell and Ferdinando recording 'Alice'

For example, in 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' from the 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' album of 1969 (yes really 1969),  we used everything lying around the studio, including an old telephone receiver, seawash effects played off an old gramaphone, speeded up voices for the oysters, and some early reversed sounds achieved by turning the tape upside down and playing it backwards.  Pretty rough, but clearly a good time was had by all!

Much later Dr John Chowning, the inventor of FM synthesis on a visit to the Radiophonic Workshop, talked to us about the need for a sense of effort in synthesized sound, to avoid it becoming just glitz without substance. No problem, Doctor, just go back to the old ways; to the dirty tape heads, the edits held together with sticky tape, the feeling that maybe you should have stuck to the desk job after all, or just played the harmonica.
H&F's Vintage Site
Despite all the obstacles, there was something special about that era, the sense that once you had the idea, there is a good chance of being able to hear it, however roughly. Everything that made a sound was at your fingertips. It is tempting to suppose that it has always been the case but sadly there was a period when our means of expression was severely limited, and many people were often frustrated because their subtle ideas were being compromised by a lack of facilities. 

The digital revolution was sold to those who worked in audio as a great new dawn. The end of tape hiss alone would convert millions, but this new era was not all plain sailing; it brought with it many baby and bathwater related problems. For example, it's difficult to believe now but for several years there was no digital ring modulator; that would mean no Dalek voices, no end of episode stings, no electronic music as we knew it.  We wanted to be enthusiastic digiphiles, but our toys had been taken away from us. I'm no great supporter of plugins when used as an alternative to recording the right sound from the start, but a world without them, that world of early digital audio, was a barren landscape.

How times have changed. Enter a bright new era where everything is possible. I have as much on my laptop as the Radiophonic Workshop had in twelve rooms; but the ideas still need to feed the machine....

Listen to the excerpt above from a new piece of mine, 'Yours Today'. Plenty of digital manipulation at play here, as well as the wonderful plugin module 'The Mouth' from Tim Exile and Native Instruments.

Here's the spoken version of this post with the examples included