This episode of NPR’s This American Life contains a prologue and four acts focused on superpowers and the interactions between real life people and the superheroes of their fantasies.
Listening to This American Life, I noticed a pattern in the tone of the show. Almost all of the segments started with very lighthearted touches before gradually shifting to the more serious unifying element of the piece. Act One, for example, had comedian John Hodgman pose a seemingly whimsical question to friends: Would you rather have the power to turn invisible or to fly? Interviews with unnamed friends talking about sneaking into places, stealing, going to bars, or not having to ride the bus are interspersed and there is a fun, easygoing attitude to it. The unifying narration of John Hodgman, though, drives the piece forward and soon the characters start to examine the underlying human desires that drive their wishes for invisibility and flight. At which point the interviews revealing the darker explorations people had of the powers: voyeurism, spying, arrogance, etc. This shift in tone over time through carefully planned voice over narration and the arrangements of conversations seems to be an excellent way of getting an audience’s attention before leading them to a serious exploration of who we are as people.
These tonal shifts appear in the other acts and act four especially uses a number of sonic techniques to shift from the comedic to the serious. Glynn Washington’s highly conversational tone and use of slang devolve serious comic tropes into the absurd. One example that had me laughing was when he said, “So I trailed Superman in my special seein’ everything machine.” In a comic book I’m sure that would have a long imposing name, but his more practical, true to life title provides an ironic contrast to super-villain severity. Moreover, he also employs sound effects to parallel his narration. Crowd noises will appear when he talks about crowds, a shriek plays in the background when Superman shrieks, and other parallels appear in his broadcast. So along with music and the various feelings that music can excite in an audience, Washington’s diction, voice, and paralleling background sounds converge to create shifting moods in the audience as his piece moves from lighthearted comic book jokes to an analysis of the darker aspects of the Superman character.
I want to keep these uses of sound in mind when I make my sound project, because they can make my project engaging for audiences by creating subtle changes in mood and emotion that ultimately lead to my point.
Question: I wrote at length about sound paralleling narrative, but what effects do you think sound contrasting the narrative could have? For instance, what if someone took serious love poetry and interspersed it with crowds laughing? Does something like this fit with your project?