Michael Webster interviewed by Ethan Swan, April 2015

Michael Webster is a composer and recording artist based in Los Angeles. He is the composer and sound designer for “The Aphasia Poetry Club,” on view at 356 Mission as part of Kerry Tribe’s 2015 exhibition “The Loste Note.”

Ethan Swan: “The Aphasia Poetry Club” has a surround sound system, in which the narrative voices are angled right at the viewer, and the other sounds and music move through four speakers around them. How did you figure out this arrangement? Have you worked in surround before?

Michael Webster: No, I haven’t. It’s interested me for a long time, and when Kerry said she wanted to have three screens it just unfolded naturally. I needed a center speaker to carry the voices and left and right speakers to correspond to the screens. Once we really started looking at the space it was clear we needed more. In ordinary cinema the voices come from behind the screen, and everything is meant to draw you into the phenomenon of that plane, the surround sound is just a casual enhancement. Here we had a problem that partially came from the noise of the building itself – the speaker carrying the voice was going to be in front of the screen and not just a little but a long way in front of the screen. The idea became to have the voices happening midway between the images and the listener and the soundtrack to be centered on the listeners head, as if it were inside your head more or less. There were three zones – there was the image, which was an indefinite forward horizon; and the speech, which was between you and the image; and the sound, which surrounded you.

ES: So to work in surround you have to think very physically.

MW: Kerry talks about this a lot. She’s interested in the physical qualities of film and video – trying to model processes of consciousness in the physical things . Sometimes it’s the projection apparatus, or sometimes it’s just the arrangement in space. When engineers work in stereo, we’re usually creating an illusion of a “soundstage”: singers and narrators appear in a phantom center, and we use the whole left/right axis to spread things out and create structure. That didn’t seem appropriate here. I felt like, just making cinema wasn’t going to cut it as far as what was wanted in the gallery space. It was a kind of experiment.

ES: Does this have to do with 356 Mission specifically, or the space of an art gallery in general? You’ve performed at 356 Mission in the past, and had a hand in several other performances at the gallery. You really know how that room sounds and how to work with it. It’s such a specific room!

MW: The big reverberant space of 356 Mission was part of the motivation to make that narrow circle of speakers around the viewer. Intelligibility dwindles away as sounds travel. I think you also gain something in the feeling that the sound is pushed out from the speakers and it’s just in a specific, intimate area, like a floodlight. There’s something special there. Once you’re in the circle, you really feel like something is happening.

ES: What were the first challenges you anticipated when Kerry invited you to help with this project?

MW: The basic subject matter is challenging. You have to form some idea of where we should focus attention in the speech of people who have difficulty speaking. There’s a distance between sound and syntax and sense. The texture of the aphasics speech is also very delicate. The salient differences between normal and broken  speech can be so small – you have to be very alert so as not to destroy that. It’s easy to overwhelm.

ES: Where did the sounds come from? Are they literally the sounds of what you see on screen? For example, when you see a millipede onscreen is that the amplified sound of a millipede?

MW: That is a millipede walking! The insects were all from a government website where they collected samples of insects. It’s a funny site because it’s mostly for trying to find pests in food. There are all these recordings of bags of rice so if you listen with a stethoscope you can tell whether it’s one insect or another. The millipede appears during one of Dale’s sections, he’s the only narrator who has real sounds. He got real bugs, real waves, real splashing. I didn’t have any seal flippers handy but I would watch the screen and do footsteps with a potholder. I would go ‘flip flop, flip flop’ in time with the movement onscreen. That was Dale’s vibe.

In Chris’s sections the idea was to do ‘space music’ because of his vision of the very big and very small. So that’s all synthetic orchestra sounds that have been put through a digital model of resonating metal. It’s as if you’re hearing it through the wall of a big metal tank. It’s kind of indistinct, and it’s all spread out through space because that’s his vibe.

For Laura’s stuff, I used a very weird sound-mangling program made by these Norwegians called “Mammut” which means mammoth. It does this very large scale FFT which is “Fast Fourier Transform” – analyzing the whole sample in a single FFT window. The main wibbling sound heard during her section was made with this program using Laura’s voice, so it has a distribution of frequencies that are similar to her voice but they’ve all been smeared in time. In her case, the composition of sounds was all syntactic, all about how things are organized one after the other. The wibbling sound switches on and off, and there are other basic test tones: white noise coming from a single speaker, or a 440-cycle tone. or Shepard tones that just rise perpetually. These sounds are all analytical materials we might use in the studio to see if our speakers are working. You know, see if our speakers are working, [laughs]. An inside joke…

ES: It’s helpful that the three different subjects have three different sound treatments. This reminds me of one of the things Kerry has said a couple times in interviews: “if you’ve met one person with aphasia, it means you’ve met one person with aphasia.” There are so many variations on how aphasia affects people, you can’t project a single experience across this whole disorder.

MW: Kerry was very adamant about that. The troubles that the narrators have speaking are different and unique, and the ways that they have had strokes are unique. She did want those differences to be illustrated somehow. I met Dale early on, when Kerry was still pitching the idea for this film, so I’d had that firsthand experience. It’s interesting trying to negotiate with someone who’s aphasiac. I was also involved in all the dialogue editing, we had spent many many hours putting together those chunks of audio. We already had a macro rhythm, how long people were going to speak for at a time before it switched to another voice, it was kind of a musical arrangement from the get go.

ES: Speaking of Dale’s show and musical arrangements, can we talk a little bit about the song? I don’t have a relationship with kids’ TV, however I recently heard a few different songs from present day cartoons and I was surprised at how closely that song hews to the conventions of contemporary kids shows. It’s different from what I had as a kid, it’s very much of this moment. Was this something you wanted to do? Or Kerry? Or Dale?

MW: I have some experience in this world. It’s been awhile now but I did write about a half dozen songs for a Disney Channel show called Book of Pooh, and another half dozen songs for a show called Bear and the Big Blue House. My friend Brian Woodbury was the music supervisor on those two shows. So I’d had an experience writing with the Disney house style. Dale is older than I am, and he had mentioned jazz, but I just thought we should do it how it would be done if he were successful with a studio and got the show made. I thought we should just deliver the goods – unironically. That means it had to be totally cheerful, solidly cheerful. Despite the fact that we say all these heavy things.

ES: It’s heartbreaking. It’s such a brutal song.

MW: Thank you? [laughs]

ES: At first, I thought this kind of kids songwriting was just about cheapness. This is as cheaply as a song could be made, it’s something that one person can do at a keyboard. But I realize that maybe there’s something more to this style, not necessarily empowering, but it is exactly how kids sing, so it’s in their context. It’s less about an economy I guess and more about a possibility of participation?

MW: That’s an interesting thought, I played around with adding harps and tubas to make it more full and jolly and cinematic, but I just had the problem with it all getting in the way of the voices, and because the song is about “together” it had to be the sound of lots of people trying to sing together.

ES: I had such a strong emotional response the first time I heard the song in the video. The earnestness, the sense of trying so hard, the untrained voices but in a very nice way. It’s taken me a lot of listening to think through why it affected me so deeply. Certainly the lyrics have their part, but I’m sure I’d read the words beforehand and it took hearing them sung to really have impact.

MW: It’s the magic of music! [laughs]. But there is something simple in the pattern of the singing, it’s childlike and reduced, even short of pop or rock music. There’s a little bit of fancy harmony, just by the way, and there’s a French horn.  That’s your clue that it’s a sad song…  There’s a tradition of sad music and children’s songs. I’ve done it in the past when I had to write for Piglet, he had this song “Perfect Party” – poor Piglet tries to throw a party for his friends but it doesn’t work out. Maybe I’ve only imagined that tradition… It’s a little bit like weddings, how young people cry and old people cry but the old people are crying for a different reason. Knowing about life is a kind of bummer.

ES: It’s something inherent when adults singing to kids, right?

MW: There you go. But again for Kerry it began as a more intellectual pursuit and she got kind of whacked by these people and she really fell for them. Eventually she identified and understood that her problems might not all be so different even without this one really extreme piece of suffering. We’re all in the same boat, in one way or another.

ES: I always think of the song as the climax of the film but there’s one more segment after that where Laura talks about how she has a hard time expressing herself because of aphasia, and how Kerry’s having a similar hard time expressing herself as an artist. That’s a part where the sound treatment for Laura is especially effective, because it does problematize what she’s saying, this undermining force growing louder and messier.

MR: A lot of it is just me chasing the cutting rhythm. How Kerry interacts with the voice onscreen dictates what happens in the soundtrack. And at that point the editing is kind of insane, and images converge from all the different bits of the show. So in the soundtrack, I let some of Chris’s music leak in. Kerry wanted it to end on somewhat of a positive note despite the dire feeling.

There’s one little gag that never came through, sadly. One of the things that sounds really great when you listen to it in the studio is this little bit of room tone of 356 Mission. That opening countdown has that sound, but since that sound is there anyway since that’s where the show is installed [laughs]. Any of the scenes where you see people working it’s there, the sound of 356 Mission. I should have thought about that.

ES: It’ll be visible the next place the film is shown.

MW: It’ll carry a little piece of 356 Mission.