Three Atmospheric Soundscapes Based on Nineteenth Century Novels

About

These three atmospheric soundscapes were written as the second main project of my Masters degree and incorporate electronic, instrumental and recorded sounds.

For this set of three atmospheric soundscapes, my intent has been to capture the atmospheres of the 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1866) by Lewis Carroll, The War of the Worlds (1898) by H. G. Wells and Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville using a blend of harmonies, rhythms, electro-acoustic and recorded sounds, and quotes from the novels to maintain a narrative drive.

Personally, I find these three novels are filled with imagery and ignite my imagination of the scenes which they present. They are descriptive enough for me to adapt them into my own audible renditions of the scenes, which take direct inspiration from the original texts and interpret them in my own way.

By having these novels guide my compositions, they give a basis for my work and some direction, rather than just writing ‘a soundscape based on aliens, the woods, or the sea’ etc. The novels are able to give me a bit more motivation and some grounding for the work, and have given me a firm compositional path from the very start.

I am avoiding researching modern adaptations of these three novels and choosing not to observe them, for example the modern films of Alice in Wonderland, The War of the Worlds and Moby Dick, so that I can avoid extrinsic influence on my compositions and stick true to the original sources. This is due to modern adaptations already inputting their own interpretations of the novels, which is understandable in modern media, but a negative point of research for my own compositions, because I then risk basing my work on the modern adaptations and not the original novels.

My methodology has generally been to research and record the original quotes, then implement them into a DAW where I place them against software instruments and ambient sounds which I input with a MIDI controller. The atmospheres are built by using synthesisers and software instruments, and the recorded ambient sounds are mostly recordings of birds, water, wind, and trees etc. which are from my own personal library of field recordings.

Using panning automation in the DAW, I have made an effort to surround the listener with the sounds, which will make the pieces more compelling and enthralling. The three atmospheric soundscapes are to be listened to through headphones (preferably studio headphones) for the best listening experience. There are no scores for these pieces – they are to be listened to and enjoyed as an audio-only experience.

The pieces are through-composed, with many of the quotes being repeated but placed into a different context. For example, a sentence may be played clean at one point in the piece, then at another it may reappear as a snippet with processing applied and with different atmospheric undertones.

This changes the perception of the quote, where in one sense it could sound like a normal speaking voice (played clean) in the scene, then in another it could sound mysterious and psychological (with delay, reverb etc.) as if it is a thought that the character is having.

Down The Rabbit Hole

Down The Rabbit Hole is the most cinematic and musical of the three pieces in this set, and reflects themes of mysticism and wonder, yet it also contains moments of fear and uncertainty.
It explores the journey that Alice takes in wonderland, focussing on the environments she is within and how her psyche affects her perception of sounds in the scene. As Alice is in an unexplored land, she is curious, afraid, overwhelmed, and fascinated. This piece explores how the sounds are perceived from Alice’s point-of-view.
There is a combination of instrumental acoustic music and the mystical synthesised sounds of wonderland in the piece, with orchestral segments being treated as diegetic music blended within the soundscape.

The orchestral segments are played with vintage-style processing effects added, which are juxtaposed by the fantastic and unusual sounds of the wonderland. This duality is central to the piece, which should keep the listener wondering as to which sounds they are familiar with and which sounds are unidentifiable.
To highlight the narrative and journey taken in this piece, a recording of trudging through muddy woods is played to symbolise Alice venturing through wonderland’s forests, which appears throughout. At the start, the track plays alongside a rhythmic drum to keep the movement constant as the piece develops into thicker textures.

Towards the end of the piece, the grand thick textures of the middle orchestral segment are reduced drastically as Alice engages in conversation with the White Rabbit at the Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party, who begins by telling her to ‘Have some tea…’. The monophonic textures in this moment brings focus to the speech of the characters, who’s voice lines play in individual left and right speakers. This simple method allows for the listener to feel surrounded by the characters and engaged in the scene, and I have used this spatial idea for the vocal lines throughout the piece.

The variety of quotes for Down the Rabbit Hole are taken from different characters and are played with no structural parallels from the novel, i.e. they are scattered at random, with the intent of furthering this sense of chaos in wonderland, and also to condense some of the more iconic quotes into the composition.

Scenes from the War of the Worlds

The underpinning concept of the ambience of this electro-acoustic soundscape was to portray a scene where the martians from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds are first witnessed in the novel and begin their attacks. Primarily, I have taken my inspiration from the first few chapters of the novel, and introduced quotes from the unnamed narrator’s perspective in which the novel is written. The quotes are processed to sound vintage with some slight distortion, as if they are being played through a radio or TV set within the scene.

The scene begins with aeolian harp and a rhythmic synthesiser, which fades into the sounds of passengers on a train. The moment then transitions into more distorted and sci-fi sounds which imitate an abduction and a martian ship’s mechanical sounds. The rhythmic drive is then re- introduced following this, and spoken quotes add more exposition to the scene as it continues.
I wanted to focus on creating an unnerving scene with use of low growly synthesisers, cosmic- sounding sci-fi synths and sound effects, scraping of low piano strings and manipulated audio of dogs growling, amp feedback and static, and a pipe organ. The aeolian harp is prominent in this piece, as it is effective at sounding loud and frightening.

I have aimed to unify the combination of diverse sounds in the piece to create a unique atmosphere which really captivates the sense of horror in the scene, and highlight the unknown, fear and dissonance of the events in the novel. Towards the end of the composition, an improvised atonal piano movement is introduced, which furthers the theme of dissonance and disjunction.

The White Whale

Based on the 1851 Herman Melville novel Moby Dick, The White Whale paints a scene of the whaling ship, the Pequod, out on open seas with crew-mates walking about the deck and muttering quotes from the novel being throughout the piece.
I wanted to capture a sense of unease in this piece, and focus on creating depth to the music by using low droning synthesisers and crashing waves, yet also maintain a rustic 19th century atmosphere. This is achieved through the use of atmospheric strings, minimal piano and rhythmic drums throughout, and authentic mechanical sounds, coins, matches, wine bottles and creaking wood scattered in amongst the scene.

When composing this piece, I drew upon the general narrative of the novel but condensed some of the moments down into a piece lasting ~5 minutes. I recorded some of the more notable quotes from the novel and applied minimal processing. Care was taken to avoid over-processing the voices and create sounds which were too far removed from the scene. Voices were kept dry, pitched them down and treated with a small amount of delay. Some quotes are intentionally vague or unidentifiable to prose the question of whether the voices are within the minds of the characters on the Pequod or actually diegetic in the scene.

There are constant string tremolos throughout The White Whale, and moments where bass drums and upright basses create a pulsing rhythmic drive, which symbolise war drums and create some movement in the piece.
Narrative is presented through use of the aforementioned rustic sounds reflecting the interactions of crew mates on the ship, and through low synthesisers representing ‘the unknown’ and depth of the sea below the Pequod. At 4:00, the low roaring synth sound is imitative of the whale lurking below the surface of the water, which only fully appears unexpectedly at the end after being hinted at throughout the piece.

Bibliography

Bookroo, ‘Moby-Dick; or, The Whale Quotes’, Bookroo, <https://bookroo.com/quotes/moby-dick- or-the-whale>, last accessed 8 May 2021.

Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1866). Elzie-Tuttle, Patricia, ‘36 OF MY FAVORITE ALICE IN WONDERLAND QUOTES’, Book Riot,

24 January 2020, <https://bookriot.com/alice-in-wonderland-quotes/&gt;, last accessed 8 May 2021. Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851).

Parking Garage – Walla, Man Scream. Freesound file. Posted by soundadvices, 2 May 2013. <https://freesound.org/people/soundadvices/sounds/187290/&gt;, last accessed 3 May 2021.

Wells, H. G., The War of the Worlds (London: William Heinemann, 1898). Wood_Creak_02.wav. Freesound file. Posted by dheming, 10 February 2013. <https://

freesound.org/people/dheming/sounds/177779/>, last accessed 23 April 2021.