Ominous Sound

Take the intense, suspenseful, ominous, scary music and sound effects from the climaxes of a bunch of movies.  Put them as background to a 10 minute podcast.  And there’s the Lament for Joe Hall.

If I had been reading the script instead of listening to the performative sound piece, I would have been effectively pulled in.  The story itself is suspenseful and I’m sure would have stirred up most of the same emotions that the sound piece does.  But the difference is that Matt Gray made terrific decisions about how to have the sound amplify the emotions.  At the end, my heart is racing, I’m scared, and the weight in my stomach refuses to go away.

Let’s start with the very beginning.  The listener hears an ominous screech.  It says something went wrong.  Something terrible happened.  I don’t know why, but I’m personally reminded of a heart monitor beeping that the person’s heart has stopped.  Then we hear the “voice” of Joe Hall.  The choice to have a child read the lines was a great one; there’s something about a child’s voice that makes most people immediately sympathize with the child.  But there’s another quality to it that made me feel sorry for Joe Hall: the echo.  Everything “Joe” says has an echo-y sound to it.  For me, it creates the feeling of a dark, dark room.  There’s a sense of dark finality about it.  It’s the echo of the past that will always be ringing into Joe Hall’s future.

Moving ahead a bit to about 57 seconds, we hear the music enter.  It’s the type of music you would expect to hear during an intense movie scene.  It’s ominous.  It has a clear, steady beat in it that’s faster than your heart rate, but something about it makes your heart speed up to match it.  The quickened pulse makes you on edge as you listen to the rest of the story.  And the music recurs many times in the piece, often actually as a signal of the end of one “scene” and the beginning a new one.  At 57 seconds, it’s the switch from talking about his mom to introducing his dad.  Using such ominous music to bridge scenes builds the intensity of the story; you hear one horrific thing and then the music enters, making your heart beat faster, making you dread what you’re about to hear because you know it’ll be worse than what preceded it.  But you can’t possibly stop listening.  Just like the way you can’t tear your eyes away from the TV screen during a scary scene, even though you know you don’t want to see what’s coming.

I don’t think we always realize the impact sound has on our emotions.  It’s been a few minutes now since I listened to the part of the podcast at 57 seconds so I could accurately describe the music above, but I still feel a weight in the pit of my stomach.  But Matt Gray really utilized the affordances sound offers to its fullest extent.  When I’m paying attention to specific authorial choices like the ones I described above, it normally distances me from the emotions the author is trying to invoke.  I’m analyzing the emotions, not feeling them.  But that’s not the case with this piece.  The sounds echo in my ears, recreating and recreating the feelings.  His choices flow seamlessly together.  The screech at the beginning doesn’t immediately go away when “Joe” starts speaking.  It stays there.  It burns into us the association between that screech, that terrible, terrible screech, and the story of Joe Hall.  Matt Gray is retelling a memory that will forever echo into the future of Joe Hall.  The sound flows with the story and the emotions of the story perfectly.

My own sound project is actually also going to be about a shooting.  My one uncle’s great-great-grandfather (or something like that, I have to nail down the exact relation) was the sheriff of a small town in Ohio in 1933 when he was shot and killed during a jailbreak.  Three men were convicted for the murder, and one of them was my other uncle’s great-great-uncle.  Small world moment, right?  Well, I want to paint the story of the shooting in a light similar to the Lament for Joe Hall.  I want it to be ominous and final, to create dread.  And the sound effects he used like the screeching and echoes and the music are good examples for me to learn from.

Question: What other noises do you think Matt Gray could have used to create the affect in the Lament for Joe Hall?

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