Friday, July 11, 2014


this soundscape was part of the characters' non-verbal communication and was part of the way we were going to convey ideas when we couldn't say them out loud - Shane Carruth (

This film score is quite different from the previous entry we looked at/listened to. Jim Jarmusch's use of Rza's music in Ghost Dog is a little sparse, whereas Shane Carruth uses his own music quite a bit throughout Upstream Color. In fact, from an EQ-ing/mixing standpoint, there's moments where the music almost distracts from/overshadows some of what’s being said in the film which is something I normally HATE. But Upstream Color isn't the most straightforward movie and it doesn't rely on dialogue in the same way that other movies do, so I give it a pass...

(fast forward to 01:16 on...)

Obviously there's a more abstract reason as to why we're touched by instrumental music as opposed to music with lyrics. Even music with abstract lyrics becomes more literal when compared to music with no words at all. The same thing applies to the actual film itself. If you asked me why I really loved Upstream Color I don’t know if I could give you a concise/coherent answer. It just brings up certain emotions in me. If you've seen it you know the film deals with love, loss, vulnerability, identity, etc. These are all things we relate too, but there's still an unexplainable reason why I love the movie so much. It's all pretty overwhelming & abstract. I know this sounds cliche as hell but I guess it touches me on a subconscious level. 

When you have a dreamy/surreal film with a plot like Upstream Color (a mysterious figure makes a hypnotic drug out of a parasite that he uses on unsuspecting victims in an effort to exploit them) it's understandable that viewers & critics get more caught up in the strange story than the music that's playing in the background. It's a layered film.
But after one or two viewings, you move beyond the plot and start to notice how important of a role audio plays in Upstream Color. There's all these scenes where the characters are wearing giant headphones and zoning out to some type of music or ambient sound...

Shane Carruth even distorts & enhances certain audio elements in the film, and there's some jump-cut/'98-'02 Soderbergh era moments where the audio intentionally doesn’t sync up with the visuals (like in the second audio clip used earlier).
Carruth's use of audio in Upstream Color reminds me of David Lynch's post-Fire Walk With Me work. Have you ever watched Lost Highway or Inland Empire with the volume turned up fairly loudly? If you haven't, I urge you to do so. You'll hear stuff you've never noticed before (long droning sounds, bottom-heavy industrial noises, etc) and it'll make the viewing experience even better.

Music in film has a slightly deeper meaning to a guy like me who not only loves, analyzes & writes about film, but also makes music (whenever I'm motivated these days). But you don’t need to be that deep in to music to feel the effects of Shane Carruth’s score. You just need to have an appreciation for modern, somewhat progressive, ambient music. You can even enjoy this score independently from the film. Listen to this clip below (specifically from 00:06 on when the strings kick in) and tell me you aren’t moved in some way...

These days any kind of slow modern ambient electronic music, like the score to Upstream Color, is going to draw some mindless unjust comparison to the ambient soundscapes of Brian Eno. But Shane Carruth's work is actually worthy of that comparison. Both Eno & Carruth have the same dreary, chilling, emotional, bottom-heavy, full-sounding style. Even their composition techniques are similar. It's no mystery that Brian Eno has worked with full orchestras & bands before, but some of his best work was recorded alone in his home studio with just a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and a mixing board. Nothing else. In this documentary below, we get a glimpse in to Eno's minimalist home set-up (fast forward to 01:52 in the video)…

When you hear full sounding music like Eno's, we subconsciously imagine a group of people in a big studio with a bunch of instruments. But if you know anything about technology & sampling (which Eno does from time to time), you'd know you don’t always need a traditional set-up. All Shane Carruth used to score Upstream Color was his laptop, logic (a music programming/editing software), various manipulated samples and a simple midi controller (probably the same midi controller we see one of the characters using in Upstream Color).

The worst thing about the rise of music technology & software is that it allows ANYONE to call themselves a producer these days. It's gotten to point where if you have certain music programs installed on your laptop, all you need to do is read part of a manual or watch a tutorial video on YouTube, and you can compose something in under 30 minutes and call yourself a producer. This has been my gripe with outlets like Soundcloud, YouTube & Bandcamp since day one. There are way too many musicians & producers and not enough listeners. This might explain why I so rarely promote my own music that I make. Who ISNT a music producer or musicians these days? I just don’t want to be grouped with the millions of overnight music-makers/bedroom producers.

But there's an upside to the easy access of today's music software & equipment. Some people may want to make music but don’t have the budget for studio time, multiple instruments and/or big clunky mixing boards. Some everyday people just have a love for music and a good ear for making it. Every once in a while music software ends up on the laptop of a talented/motivated "bedroom producer" like Shane Carruth and we get the score for Upstream Color.


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