The Sound of an Android’s Soul
Music, Muzak and MIDI in Time Of Eve
published in Cinefile Vol.7 No.1, Vancouver, 2011; reprinted in full extended form in The Palgrave Handbook of Sound Design & Music in Screen Media, Palgrave/Macmillan, London, 2017.
At a crucial reveal halfway through Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Time of Eve (Evu no jikan, 6-part OVA, 2008-9, compiled into a feature film in 2010), teen Rikuo remembers a past conversation with his best friend, Masaki. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they innocently stand at crossroads. Masaki will continue his studies in law; Rikuo is uncertain, having given up his aspirations to be a concert pianist. Masaki ridicules his decision, for Rikuo has rejected his aspirations after seeing a robot perfectly perform a piece of music on the piano. Rikuo doesn’t mention to Masaki what was most disturbing about the performance: only at this point in Eve’s back-story do we realise that Rikuo was truly moved by the robot’s performance.
This is not your usual existential dilemma – a field in which teen-oriented anime excels, more than most western photo-cine attempts at the same. Here in this near future (sardonically tagged as “probably Japan” in a pre-title card), the teen Rikuo has his world inverted because a robot achieved not a technically perfect actualisation of a piece of classical pianoforte music, but because to Rikuo’s advanced listening sensibilities (dedicated to encountering and hopefully generating such moments of actualised perfection) this robot’s performance emotionally moved him. Japanese cinema and anime has consistently told stories in manifold genres that evidence this inversion, wherein everyday life is accepted to be ‘existential’ until one day a ‘humanist’ moment occurs and transforms things. Anime’s preponderance of ‘androids with souls’ is thus less likely to be formally motivated by generic machinations of science fiction, and more likely to be culturally determined by philosophical enquiries of dramatic fiction.
In Eve, we never get to hear that robot’s performance, yet it weighs heavily in Rikuo’s head, softly ringing with emotional gravitas. With acumen and sensitivity, sound and music in Eve – an acute meld of sound effects design, spatial environment mixing, musical arrangement, phonographic reproduction, and compositional performance – function like a ‘meta-score’ moulded by concave and convex undulations of the inner surface of Rikuo’s head. Belying an aptly Japanese sense of how dramaturgy and psychology are represented in and expressed by narrative moments, arcs and formations, Eve’s conduction of sound and music precisely maps the story’s key themes of consciousness (a boy realising androids have feelings, while a ‘girl’ android realises her feelings to her ‘master’ boy) and in the process gives rise to a bounty for musicological signification.
While sound and music are easily foregrounded in Eve due to Rikuo’s character, the aural issues it raises are particularly well presented by the anime world, wherein considerations of the minutiae of post-human behaviour (as both social interaction and internal motivation) have been a staple meme ever since Osamu Tezuka’s ground-breaking manga, Tetsuwan Atomu (Astroy Boy, serialised between 1947 and 1963, then made as an animated TV series in 1963, 1980 and 2007). Atomu is the definitive ‘android with a soul’, questioning not only his own existence, but also interrogating Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics from a robot’s point-of-view. (Not by coincidence is Asimov’s logic similarly interrogated throughout Eve.) More so, just as the anime form gives rise to considering how appearance and simulation constitute a self-reflexive given (i.e., a realm where graphically rendered images of humans include identically rendered androids who within the fictional world are perceived as being indistinguishable from actual humans – but which to us watching anime appear equally ‘unreal’ due to their shared status as drawings), so too does its soundtrack give rise to how we perceive differences between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ renderings and performances of music.
Emblematic of contemporary futurist speculative anime, Eve defines a world within which characters are populated in situations designed to illustrate the formation of that world. Here, we have a time when androids have become so ‘visibly realistic’ that whenever in the presence of humans, they are required by law to activate a spinning holographic data-band which rotates above their head like a horizontal halo. The seamless fanciful technology which enables this vision of a well-designed world is undercut by its terse anthropological decline, as we witness the prejudices these ‘near-perfect’ human machines endure once they have been thoroughly integrated into the industry and exchange of everyday life. A nebulous Orwellian organization – the wonderfully monikered Ethics Committee – is a ubiquitous media presence with messages like “Would you eat a tomato created by machines?”, while tabloid TV features confessional exposes on ‘android-holics’ (in Japanese, dorikei, suggesting something slightly sexual) – people who harbour affections for their ‘houseroid’ robots.
An oasis in this troubled world is the Time of Eve café, which stipulates only one rule: “… there is to be no discrimination between humans and robots. Customers, please co-operate. Obey the rule and have a fun time …”. Specifically, this covert café sends a cryptic Japlish message (“Are you enjoying your Time of Eve?”) to androids who make their way to the café in order to – of their own volition – experience an absence of prejudice. In a way, the café is a stage within a stage of the story’s drama; a space for its characters – android and human alike – to query, reflect upon and ultimately come to terms with how they as individuals relate to the social complexion of their emotional contracts with each other. As such, the café space is also a figurative auditorium which symbolically and materially audits and ‘auralizes’ those same relationships. While Eve’s speculative themes and visual design deservedly invite sophisticated analysis, its soundtrack warrants special attention as it is directed, organised and realised in ways profoundly different from photo-cine films oppositely concerned with reductivist emoting and human-centric motivation.
* * *
As a giant screen simulates the tracing of an illegal data transmission from an unknown source to a random network of androids in the opening of Eve, background music plays – or to use the Japanese acronym, BGM. It sounds electronic, computerised, current (glitched ambient techno of a Japanese melodic bent, to be more precise). To musicologists who proffer rationalist qualitative views of how ‘great’ film scores operate, this would likely appear to be ‘non-signifying’ music: something simply ‘playing in the background’, devoid of dramatic purpose or thematic function, lacking in the craft of composition. How sad a reading that would be here in anime. How perfect a place to demonstrate why music in any audiovisual form is inescapably ‘signifying’: there will always be effects generated from the production, generation, rendering and placement of music regardless of any qualitative criteria forced upon it.
The music in question here is born of a techno ethos, wherein MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequencing and multi-tracking, analogue/digital synthesis, timbrel simulation, and anacoustic post-production effecting and mixing, all combine to confer a deliberately alienating computerised patina. Within a Japanese cultural context, the hi-tech veneer of Eve’s music here is a given: a non-divisive, non-polemic application of music as it contemporaneously exists in the broader social world (from night club immersion to CM broadcast to download consumption). Eve’s introductory proposition of how music exists now serves to orient a forthcoming series of more real or less real forms of music composition, production and performance in the film’s story.
The ‘glitched ambient techno’ also figures music can be an entirely non-human enterprise – birthing itself from an ‘anacoustic realm’ where melodic occurrences are inherited not from actual instruments, human playing and real-time recording, but from MIDI’s ability to position temporal events and harmonic nodes on a neural grid, matrixing music rather than composing it. While this is a standard reading of the pleasure drive of techno since Kraftwerk’s pioneering work in the late 70s, such a matrixing of events here is synchronised to the large screen’s display of a network of androids separately attaining a moment of consciousness (activated by receiving the mysterious Eve message). Profoundly, this entirely ‘non-human’ and ‘non-signifying’ BGM represents not how humans bellow their humanism, but how androids attain consciousness. Diverging from Kraftwerk’s (and in a sense, Asimov’s) celebration of programmed mechanics and automated robotics, this music is not ‘machine-like’ (an oft-bandied criticism of techno in general) but suggestive of how machines can innately and animistically ‘self-generate’ their own musical language.
One might interpret this reading as disproportionate to its effect and purpose in the film. But Japanese cinema has long employed a type of ‘interior/exterior inversion’ to govern where, how and why its musical moments occur 1. Eve’s opening music requires scrutiny precisely because it seems inconsequential, offhand, insubstantial. Just as emotional tenor in anime is transmitted through the most subtle of line work in the characters’ faces (a central aspect of characterization inherited from traditional theatre forms like Kabuki and Noh), so too is psychological symbolism conveyed within the music’s minutiae, operating not at a nominal linguistic level, but at the threshold of micro-material occurrences. The act of listening to the music of Eve is predicated on a contemplative awareness of this operational threshold – one decidedly more complex and subtle than the faux-European orchestral scores which have assailed the listener in western CGI animation movies over the last decade.
Eve’s next musical moment occurs when we are introduced to Rikuo and his ‘houseroid’ Sammy. They sit side-by-side in the lounge room, a haze of afternoon sunlight bleaching their quiet space. Both are motionless; Sammy has her abdominal cavity exposed, showing us cables connected to Rikuo’s keitai as he reads a log of her neural activity in the preceding month. We see the scrolling data on the keitai screen: it’s all computer code except for an English line “Are you enjoying your Time of Eve?”. At this moment the music - initially a sparkling web of sweet marimba – surges into a chordal progression laden with rich keyboard textures and a soaring female wordless aria. Simultaneously, another chordal passage sweeps across this, inducing a multiplied polyphony from the passages’ conflicting keys. It totals only about 20 seconds, but its combination of brevity and compaction follows Japanese hierarchical distribution, wherein the most important points are delivered with the silent slicing of a precision blade rather than the explosive boom of a cannon blast. As we hear this musical moment and register its euphoric, uplifting, transcending tone, we see Rikuo’s eyes widen slightly. But it remains unclear what he is thinking or feeling, despite the clarity of its impact. This musical refrain is repeated twice more in Eve, and only at those later moments can we deduce the aggregated implications and syncretized effect of the music.
One of these moments involves Akiko – a girl Rikuo meets at the café whom he later discovers to be an android, but who like all the undisclosed androids there behave devoid of their difference to humans. Rikuo is thinking of what she said once at the café: that no matter how similar humans and androids appear, they remain completely different on the inside. Rikuo now replays that thought as voiced from an android, not a human, and thus realises that androids are capable of feeling difference between themselves and humans –in contradistinction to Asimov’s robots who could not achieve this sort of consciousness. The music’s ‘multiplied polyphony’ then represents the bilateral consequences of human-android co-existence. Furthermore, its formidably irresolvable harmony is itself a symbol of accord and ‘harmony’. We as humans would presume the concept of harmony to be unilateral, when android logic – as it functions post-Asimov in Eve – would more likely render it a comforting noise of contrasting voices and tones. The root of Eve’s radicalism lies in its subversion of musical language as it has developed along Eurocentric thematicism.
* * *
The world depicted in Eve – that is, the ways in which private/public, personal/communal, domestic/official spaces are rendered – is one common to anime irrespective of where and when its story occurs. Everything looks clean, refined, distilled, essentialised. While anime can make both the urban hub or the suburban domicile look like how their architects imagine their ideal designs (photo-cinema would necessitate ‘cleaning-up’ reality to be so pristine), this buffed sheen of interior and exterior design is typical of Japan in reality. Foreigners are sometimes uncomfortable with the way things can appear clinical and sterile in Japan, especially if their home turf looks used and abused in comparison. But this near-perfection in the Japanese appearance of public spaces is an aesthetic based on affording the individual the feeling of being in a space by themselves rather than with others. Like the Japanese body cleansed in pure hot water only after soaping up and washing down the skin, the Japanese citizen moves through public space in a similarly isolated and ionized way. The reason for outlining this aspect of inhabiting cleansed space is to qualify the importance and relevance of ‘muzak’ in Japan.
Again, we encounter another topic which in the west is treated with derision. Few musicologists would bother with the signifying wealth of muzak, and when it appears to be happening in a film score, there is the assumption that the score is vapid, empty, pale, thin, ‘soulless’. Muzak of all sorts plays in many public spaces in contemporary Japan (as it has ever since the post-war period) and especially so in spaces designed for rest, respite and relaxation. Eve’s choice of a café for the stage of its themes is a pointed choice, as cafes – or the kissaten as it developed in Japan in the 70s – is a place where one can feel especially relaxed by enjoying a momentary yet complete detachment from society. The kissaten is an infamous site for muzak: to many a westerner it’s like a nightmarishly numbing internment straight out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Much of the score in Eve deftly assumes a muzak guise in varying degrees of diegetic presence, never straying far from the type of’ light instrumental music which one might hear at a kissaten, café or kouhii chain like Doutor or Excelsior.
When Rikuo and Masaki make their way down the secluded stairwell to the café, the music mimes their excitement as they nervously approach the place for the first time. It starts with vamped chords played on simulated mellotron (i.e., a digital version of an archaic analogue tape instrument designed to emulate the sounds of strings, flutes and/or voices). Once they open the door to the café and see the sign of its ‘rule’, the music blossoms into a bouquet of wordless female voice, electronic keyboards, bongos, shakers and acoustic guitars. This arrangement is typical of the ‘retro-bossa-nova’ high-style pop of Omote-sando and its hip designer cafés, so its musicological referencing is quite precise within the Japanese context. If one were to ‘read’ or evaluate the music here outside of its context, one would miss how it deliberates muzak as a vernacular mode of music tied to the environs depicted in Eve. But most importantly, the ‘soulless’ aspects of muzak – its wilful emptying of human presence in stark contrast to the highly emotional human presence encoded within Japanese enka ballads and tunes – reflect not only how androids might find pleasure in listening to music which absents humanism, but also how humans – Rikuo especially, but also Masaki as we discover later – can become capable of registering emotional depth in such music precisely because it displays no human presence.
The anacoustic real of MIDI production – its absence of actual audible spatial occurrence (such as a piano playing in a room) – would seem a perfect modus operandi for the matrixed simulacra of anime. Just as nothing pre-exists in anime due to its world being engineered and actualised rather than photographed and captured, MIDI generates music that in a sense never happened. Most of Eve’s score is MIDI generated, yet this is so because the ‘spaces’ in Eve constitute a topography of non-existing zones: from the Ethics Committee’s insistent regulations about how androids co-inhabit human space, to the de-sanctioning of those rules within the walls of the Eve café, to the piano practice room which Rikuo no longer frequents, to his own interior head space wherein he harbours unmentionable feelings toward the houseroid Sammy. Eve is a dense cartography of no-go zones, and the unactual nature of MIDI aptly reflects Eve’s dramaturgy.
Postmodern theoretical precepts would hold simulated and virtual instrumentation in line with the notion of the simulacrum, presuming that the instruments’ affected sound and audible mimicry (such as the sampled marimba or bongos in Eve’s score previously mentioned) are meant to reference, replace or replicate their originating instruments. But that would presume that there is neither depth, density nor congestion between the original and its simulation, as if the dynamic flux of history, technology, musicology and culture somehow freezes between two binary states of musical occurrence and existence (the oft used ‘real’ and ‘fake’ dichotomy). The MIDI construction of music (a notion unaddressed by the scopic and linguistic parameters of postmodern theory) has for half a century not been concerned with naturalist or realist binaries. When the sampled marimba sounds sampled, that is its identity. When the bongos are stridently quantized and devoid of pressure-modulated tone, they are accepted as not being played by a human. The dramaturgical device of androids attaining consciousness in Eve defines a non-binary arena for considering new and alternative ways of considering human pleasure principles. Put bluntly, people like techno because it sounds nothing like The Neville Brothers; it is not as if techno artists are trying to sound like The Neville Brothers and failing, in place delivering a ‘soulless’ sound. Eve’s androids and humans – plus its composer and its audience – momentarily inhabit the unactual space of its musical drama, to vicariously experience how androids hear music.
Note: this article is excerpted from a longer in-development piece analysing the complete score and sound design of the film.
Director: Yasuhiro Yoshiura
Script: Yasuhiro Yoshiura
Character Design: Ryuusuke Chayama
Key Animation Supervisor: Ryuusuke Chayama
Animation Studio: Studio Rikka
Sound Effects: Kazumi Ohkubo
Sound Mixing: Masashi Furuya
Music Composer: Tohru Okada
Music Producer: Tom Nagae
Insert Song Performance: Rie Tanaka ("Time of Tenderness")
End Theme Song Arrangement: Yuki Kajiura
End Theme Song Composition: Yuki Kajiura
End Theme Song Lyrics: Yuki Kajiura
End Theme Song Performance: Kalafina
1. See my discussion of Toru Takemitsu’s score in Arashi ga oka – The Sound of the World Turned Inside-Out in Japanese Horror Cinema, ed. Jay McRoy, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2005