Silent Night, ScareHouse Night

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2012 by deliriumdog

Warning: No Children Should See This!!

This is the second of two videos we shot on a warm Summer day to promote a Christmas-themed haunted attraction that will run through the Fall. Make sense? No? Good.

As before, the performers you see are actually lip-syncing to scratch tracks recorded by my wife and I. Then we hauled them upstairs after the shoot to capture their voices in small groups to get that choir-like sound. The final mixed track synced up magically with their creepily vacant, animatronic performance. Why? Because if you wish for something with all your heart, it must come true.

It also helped that the guide mix that they lip-synced and sang to had a prominent drum track to keep everyone together. Without it, it the organ alone was difficult for them to sing to in unison. Adding drums tightened things up considerably. Removed for the final mix, nobody’s the wiser. Except you, because you read this.

The last song we twisted was a fairly safe, secular holiday piece, and it received very little in the way of blowback. This take on the more sacred Silent Night…also has not produced any controversy that I know of. Obviously, we’re not trying hard enough.

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70 West by Lunatic Dog

Posted in Delirium Dog, Music, Music Making on August 5, 2012 by deliriumdog

Just a few weeks before I jumped down the rabbit hole that became Delirium Dog, I released an album under the name Lunatic Dog called “70W.” I quickly became too busy with Delirium Dog to promote what was my first fully solo album. It took me nearly a year to record, mix, and master, so by the time it was out I was already ready to move on. (I suspect many artists feel this way about their records.) I willingly dove into Delirium Dog, initially as a small side project from Lunatic Dog, but DD’s music quickly became more popular and overshadowed its predecessor, and here we are.

If you only know my work from the driving industrial edge of Delirium Dog, then you may be surprised. Those who know me personally–and how I listen to just about everything–probably won’t be.

I recently listened to the album for the first time in a long while and realized that I still liked it. I think it still sounds pretty fresh, even if the eclectic mix of songs hang together only loosely. I was still discovering electronic sounds at the time, and still had one foot solidly in my band work. So you’ll hear jangly guitars up against noisy synths.

Thematically, it’s a road trip album inspired by a number of cross-country trips I made, mostly to Burning Man. I’ve always loved road trip movies and felt that a road trip album was a natural thing for me to take on. That sort of justifies the different sounds you hear–the journey from rock to electronica to country and back. The final track, “Cotton Mouth,” is my favorite and somehow manages to meld all those genres.

Please have a listen and let me know what you think. If you’ve never heard it, it’s a new release to you! Right now, you can buy the download for a mere $2.99.

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Sleep No More Episode of The ScareHouse Podcast

Posted in Performance, Scarehouse with tags , , on July 24, 2012 by deliriumdog

Here is the companion post to the episode of The ScareHouse Podcast in which I interviewed Careena Melia and a panel of Sleep No More “experts.” Click the link to listen, then click around this post for more info.

Please heed the WARNING I make during the introduction about spoilers and the value of first seeing the show knowing NOTHING about it!

The panel members (Kathryn, Allison, and Evan) were among the first people I noticed blogging about Sleep No More last year when I first became interested in the show. After connecting with and following them online for a few months, they all struck me as just the sort of witty, intelligent types you’d want to listen to in a podcast. And I was right! I’m happy to be able to share our discussion with you all.

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Careena Melia (above) was incredibly gracious about granting the interview. It took a few volleys between the Punchdrunk media outreach arm and I, and some persistence on my end to schedule it, but I think that’s a good thing. Glad they were doing something to make sure I was serious and not just some hapless dude with a microphone. As far as I know, nobody has done an audio interview at any length with a performer in the show, so I’m very proud to be able to bring this to you.

I recorded all of this in the first week of July 2012, when I visited the show three nights in a row. My conversation with Careena happened a couple hours before the July 3rd performance. The interview with the panel was recorded two days later, which was nice because we could all listen and respond to Careena’s interview.

Your handy guide to the podcast:

See Careena Melia‘s personal site for more background and photos. She’s also on: Facebook | Twitter

Evan Matthew Cobb’s blog, “Scortched the Snake,” is a great aggregator of all things Sleep No More. For newbies and experienced viewers alike, it’s worth a daily visit. Also on: Facebook | Twitter

Allison Meier has covered Sleep No More in “Allez, Allie!” her wonderful blog about art and travel in NYC and abroad. She’s also on Twitter.

Kathryn Yu is a photographer who frequently tweets and tumblrs about Sleep No More, food, cocktails, and other things hip and novel.

Unless it directly relates to sound, I have been posting my Sleep No More experiences on my Tumblr blog of the same name.

Most Sleep No More blogs (and there are many) have gravitated to Tumblr, so a search for “Sleep No More” there will turn up many other sources, voices, and stories all singing the show’s praises.

If you’re looking for a more official introduction, here is the New York Times review that drew a lot of us in.

Studio 360 spoke to the show’s director Felix Barrett early in the show’s run. Worth a listen.

Then of course, there is the show’s official web site. And naturally: Facebook | Twitter

Music heard in this podcast: Vortex and Delirium Philharmonic by Delirium Dog.

If you see the show, drop me a line somewhere (see below) and let me know what you think!
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So How’s That News Break Working Out For Me?

Posted in Creativity, Digital Culture, Life Hacks on June 6, 2012 by deliriumdog

In January of 2011, I wrote that I was going to greatly reduce the time I spend reading about news and (especially) politics and divert that time into my serial obsessions. The idea was that news (especially politics) was generally a downer and had very little to offer me other than sadness and anger. There was nothing I could act upon, other than to be more sad and angry. If I instead spent that time learning something new about music or video or social media or any number of other topics allowed me to put that knowledge to work right away. In that earlier post, I detailed (bullet points and all) the changes I made to steer myself in a more productive direction.

How am I doing with that now?

It was working out great for several months. I would start the day with an article or two about music marketing or learn something new about the software I use for audio or video, and then settle into the day knowing I had already done some small thing to move my work forward. During any break time I had, I would dive into the large list of bookmarks I’ve gathered about multimedia production and pick up some new tidbits. I did the same at all times that I would have reached for a news fix. It helped me in a lot of ways. I didn’t feel stuck–I felt empowered. I knew that whatever I learned that day may not change my whole world, but that  after a month or so I could look back and see actual progress. And I did.

At some point I sort of fell off the wagon. While I did a great job of keeping politics off this blog and the other social medias, I did think about it a lot. The events of  the presidential primary became so darned entertaining that I got sucked right back in. It was not nearly the same level of saturation as in the past, and I did make progress with my music, but it was still too much. I know it was too much because I have so little to show for it now.

Perhaps I’m doomed to learn that same lesson over and over. BUT things are better now. Really. When the election settled into a “wake me up when it’s time to vote” phase, I saw an opening to shift back to a news-light lifestyle.

I’m also re-learning that I do not need to follow the minutia of the news in order to stay informed. In fact, I barely need to follow it at all. I find that the important news finds me no matter what. I do work in DC, after all. The people around me are very informed. Friends ask “have you heard?” and we have something to talk about. I can check in to the two weekly news programs that I enjoy and hear information that is actually new to me rather than a recap of what I already know. And of course, spending any time on the internet, news is always bubbling up through the social medias.

So now I pause every time my muscle memory goes to tap out “washingtonpost.com” into my browser and try steer by brain towards better nourishment. It feels a little like I’ve had my head above water for the first time in a while. It’s like I’ve moved around some tubes and wires that had fallen into disuse and fashioned them into a positive feedback loop. It feels good.

There is one thing the news consumption habit was good for: it was a habit that involved reading and ingesting new ideas on a regular basis. That is one habit I’m going to keep.

‘Tis the Season to be Creepy

Posted in Music, Music Making, Scarehouse with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2012 by deliriumdog

Please make sure that no children are in viewing range or earshot of the video below.

This was a fun project for me because it was driven by the music, which means I was involved early in the process. The concept for this new ScareHouse trailer was that we’d have a creepy chorus (made up of ScareHouse regulars) sing a twisted version of a classic holiday tune followed by your favorite clown, Creepo, in a Santa suit. Creepo is a pretty frightening dude no matter what, but the Santa suit raises it to a new, inexplicable level.

I knew right away that keeping it simple (good advice that I often ignore) was clearly the best way to go. Anything getting in the way of the fact that they are singing “Deck The Halls” with different lyrics could only hurt the message. I also knew that the chorus would have to learn and perform the music in a very short period of time–like thirty minutes while they were being costumed. So I stuck with a simple piano arrangement and two-ish part harmonies with the basses and sopranos branching out to hit a couple notes in their specific ranges.

The lyrics, while few, did not come easy. Five of us bouncing emails around finally arrived at two rhymed couplets that told the story, fit the melody, and also rhymed.

It had to all be “musically correct,” which is to say that I needed to put it down in actual notation that a music reader would understand. Years of using the far-superior piano roll method of composition has made regular notation seem alien to me. Those little black dots now feel like a quaint and arcane way of doing things, but it all came back to me pretty quickly. Logic Pro made it easy to create and print out some nice readable sheet music for the chorus–one reason I still compose in Logic rather than Live.

During the video shoot, the chorus lip-synced to a scratch track sung by my wife and I. There were many takes from many camera angles, so the chorus had a chance to mouth the words over and over. Afterwards, we recorded them in two’s singing over the scratch tracks. The voices of my wife and I were mixed in with the eight chorus members and just a wee bit of editing in post was needed to clarify some of the diction.

I haven’t noticed yet anyone getting angry about this form of blasphemy, but “Deck The Halls” is a pretty secular tune to begin with. Maybe that will come once we mutate a more sacred song.

As @ScareHouseScott recently tweeted, “I wonder if this will still be funny when I’m in hell.”

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Sleep No More Soundtrack (Cont.): THE ANSWER

Posted in Creativity, Music, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , on May 23, 2012 by deliriumdog

Ok, this new discovery pretty heavily colors my previous analysis about Punchdrunk’s approach to the soundtrack to Sleep No More.

My earlier posts were all based on the assumption that Punchdrunk began their development process as any other play or film production would: first with story, action, visuals, and pretty much everything else and then lastly the sound. Sure, there are some smart producers who know that sound is actually the most important element (only slightly exaggerating here) and who bake it into the whole process, but those folks are rare in my experience.

This is not the case with Punchdrunk. At a recent talk at Storycode  in New York, Pete Higgin, one of the shows originators said that the ideas in Sleep No More originated with the soundtrack!

Here is what Higgin said, in the Q&A portion of their talk, which was mostly about their experiment with a digitally enhanced version of the show:

The sound is a very very important level within our shows. The history of Sleep No More as a project–it actually came from sound, it came from old classic film noir soundtracks that actually was a birth for a lot of ideas originally. As a company, we’re very much led–I’m kind of an ex-DJ and Steve [Dobbie] who does our sound design is an ex-DJ and an amazing sound designer. I think we all have a huge appreciation for music as company.

Got that? Not only was the soundtrack integral to the development process from the start, it was the start. Well, that certainly clears up a few things!

At least I now feel justified for spilling so much digital ink on the matter. And I still stand by what I’ve written, but all my speculation about what Punchdrunk was thinking is summed up pretty clearly in Higgin’s remarks.

Now excuse me while I go write updates on my three other posts…

A video of the talk can be found here. The Punchdrunk segment starts at 01:03:00 and the sound comment is at 02:14:55

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Digging Deeper Into the Sound of Sleep No More

Posted in Creativity, Music, Soundscapes with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2012 by deliriumdog

I’ve received some interesting responses to my first two posts about the Sounds of Sleep No More. The SNM community are a thoughtful, reasonable bunch and have inspired me to dig a little deeper. (Special thanks to Kathryn Yu, who updated her set list of SNM tunes and helped me place a couple tracks, which gave me a chance to spend some quality time with the music while writing
this.)  With the prospect of writing an entry for a journal article on the subject, this gives me a chance to thrash around some ideas. Fair warning to those who get angry when reading analysis and interpretations of artwork that they have enjoyed.  Rest assured that your own experience is perfect and personal and this should in no way steal or diminish that. Oh, and I’m sure there will be spoilers of varying magnitudes. Okay? Good.

Dueling Frames

Just as no two viewings of SNM are the same, allowing for an individual to place a subjective “frame” around the experience, there are other frames we can apply to the use of sound in the production.

My earlier posting was framed by my perspective as a sound designer and composer who has used both original and “found” sources to create soundtracks for haunted attractions. I observed that Sleep No More uses entirely pre-existing music and sound for it’s soundtrack. (I also described how the sources are manipulated in many ways, and the overall effect is brilliant, but nonetheless derived from existing sources.) This surprised me because the overall production impressed me as so completely unique and ground-breaking that I expected the sound to be as well.

[Update: I have since posted a response of sorts from the producers themselves in which they explain how the music itself inspired them.]

In my obsession over how the soundtrack comes from borrowed origins, I passed over other criteria that also provide useful frames for what you hear when exploring SNM.

In emphasizing SNM’s uniqueness, I missed the fact that the rest of the production also borrows a lot, so maybe a soundtrack that borrows is not so odd. @ematthewcobb of Scorched The Snake tweets: “Personally I think borrowed music is necessary. Whole show is citation and appropriation, soundtrack included.” And quoth @AllezAllez of Allez, Allie : “Do you think…maybe since it is like a dream with borrowed characters, the music must be borrowed as well?”

Then there is the play’s dream-like quality derived from a sense that you are roughly seventy years in the past, but not sure exactly which year or decade at any given moment. @ematthewcobb pointed out that the production “needs hints at familiarity, even if audience doesn’t know where they’ve heard cues before.” @AllezAllez “It does give it a sense of place, distorted memories of songs we may have heard, with a time period & noir vibe.”

Comparisons To Other Works

To give this some perspective, let’s take a look at the use of appropriation, dream-like qualities, and time slippage in other works. Unfortunately, there are no other experiential performances like SNM that I have seen that merit any comparison (other than haunted attractions you are unlikely to have seen), so I’ll have to stick with movies and games. The video game Bioshock and the works of David Lynch such as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive enter the same territory as SNM in several ways.  They were genre-busting unique experiences when they were released and convey dream states and a vague sense of time referencing past decades.

To briefly summarize the era projected in SNM’s soundtrack, the popular song selections in SNM cluster most strongly in the 40’s with some gems from later decades as well. The movie soundtracks used date from the mid-50’s to early 60’s. One recent electronic tune is a prominent exception, as is the use of the Mulholland Drive soundtrack, both for scenes that contain visions ripped from time: the witches’ prophecy and MacBeth’s altered state as he sees Banquo post-death. (See my first post on the subject for more detail.)

Bioshock: Something Old, Something New

Bioshock may be the most appropriate comparison to SNM because it is an immersive and partially non-linear experience. The Bioshock producers created a retro-futuristic steampunk aesthetic that borrows directly from the same era as SNM. In their case, the producers made a distinction between the popular music taken from the “real world” and the original score written specifically for the game. Popular songs from the 30’s-50’s are heard throughout the game world, whether directly from a visible source like a radio or playing through a PA system somewhere and reverberating through the area. Similar to SNM, the soundtrack comes in at times of heightened drama and cues key moments in the action.

In Bioshock, then, the popular songs from the past are used as diegetic sound while the original soundtrack is entirely non-diegetic. In SNM, I would say that the music is almost all non-diegetic, or at best ambiguous. Unless you imagine there is always a radio nearby, you tend to not see sound emitting from a specific object. In the graveyard you can hear crickets and some thunder in the forest, but that’s about it for in-world sound. One musical exception is during the ballroom scene when you can more easily imagine a band just “offstage” playing the music because everyone is obviously dancing together in a ballroom.

Even the two scenes in SNM that feature characters lip-syncing, the source of the music is notably absent–the performers are conspicuously alone on stage near musicianless instruments. This adds to the haunting quality of their performances. Are we hearing the music in their heads? Is the music piped in from the ghost world? No easy answer is available. In the mezzanine overlooking the ballroom, a piano and record player also remain inanimate as the music plays.  If SNM were simply following the rules of a musical, in which the source of musical accompaniment need not be justified, the inanimate instruments near the performers are making that leap difficult. In most other cases, it is unclear at best whether the characters can hear the music.

One might interpret the music in SNM as emanating from the head of the dreamer who’s dream you are wandering through. (That would at least explain some of the time slippage: perhaps the dreamer lives in the 60’s era of the soundtrack recalling an earlier time. Not too far-fetched considering in deep integration of Hitchock’s Rebecca, which is wholly a flashback is a flashback.) In this case it could be argued that the music is either or both diegetic and non-diegetic. Rather than quibble over those terms, the very possibility that SNM is completely a dream differentiates SNM from Bioshock in a significant way. Bioshock‘s world may appear surreal and dream-like, but it also achieves a level of functional realism that can be logically explained in science fiction terms. SNM plays by no such rules and confounds any simple narrative interpretation.

Considering this, Bioshock‘s distinct and tidy separation between the period music and original soundtrack is true to the effect it is trying to achieve. It is a first-person-shooter, after all, and certain bedrock consistencies need to be in play for the game to work.  SNM’s less tidy distinction between period music and soundtrack serves a different end–to further disorient and dislocate from a tangible reality. This leads us to the work of David Lynch who also creates works with little apparent need to define where the dream begins and ends.

Lynch’s Dreams

I’m not certain if Punchdrunk/Emursive are referencing Bioshock at all with SNM, but they are definitely referencing David Lynch. The most direct evidence is the use of a blending of tracks from the Molholland Drive soundtrack during the creepy banquet scene when the actors literally perform out of time (in slow motion) and dreamlike visions take over the action. Most of Lynch’s films go in an out of dreamspace (or dreamspace-to-dreamspace) with complete fluidity. Like SNM, you may ask yourself if it was only part dream or completely so. No David Lynch wannabe filmmaker has evoked that distinctive Lynch-like feeling in me more than I get from being in SNM.

Lynch’s films often appear to take place in what I would describe as a “present-day 1950’s.” That is, we are at once to think that events are taking place in the present day and yet the sets and costume and music are stylized to that earlier period after WWII and before the escalation of Vietnam. (You know: those “sweet, innocent” years both fetishized and skewered by Mad Men.) Blue Velvet was titled after the 1963 Bobby Vinton tune, which makes an appearance in the soundtrack next to Roy Orbisons “In Dreams” (hello!) and other vintage pop songs. At the same time, the movie featured Lynch’s first of many collaborations with composer Angelo Baldamenti who incorporated orchestral, jazz, synth, and pop stylings of his own creation into the soundtrack.

As the story goes, Lynch played the music of Dmitri Shostakovich on the streets of the Blue Velvet movie set to summon his desired atmosphere during filming. He then pointed Baldamenti toward Shostakovich’s works as starting point for his soundtrack. Baldamenti’s take wedded so nicely with what Lynch was going for that the two men collaborated several times since. Like Shotakovich himself, Baldamenti created a hybrid sound that borrowed from a selection styles. The result is an unsettling dislocation from time and space. It’s fitting that the movie begins with a shot of a severed ear and ends with the camera pulling out of the ear of the movie’s protagonist. Just as Lynch’s inspiration, Louis Bunuel, was literally and figuratively slashing eyeballs, Lynch seeks to do the same with our auditory senses.

A prolonged comparison between Lynch’s works and SNM would be fun (at least for one of us) but let me just reach for one more example. In Mulholland Drive there is a scene in which the two female leads attend a show at “Club Silencio.” There, the announcer on stage tells us “There is no band. And yet we hear a band…It is all an illusion.” A woman comes on stage and appears to sing a cappella Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, then faints and is carried off as the music continues. (If you’ve seen SNM, I’ll leave you to pick out all parallels between that scene an a number of SNM moments.) Lynch–a director who personally labors over the details of his soundtracks much more than most–is overtly toying with the formal aspects of the soundtrack I’ve discussed so far. Where is the sound coming from? Who is controlling it? Why is the music familiar yet foreign? Why are we hearing thunder inside a theater? I wonder: could it all be dream?

Reasons For Borrowing

If you grant Lynch and Baldamenti’s success at creating original soundtracks that weave original music and sound with pre-existing works, then it is possible that Punchdrunk could have attempted the same to achieve similar ends. There are, however, many reasons artistic and practical not to take that route.

SNM does borrow more directly from previous works than any of the above examples. It is ostensibly (and substantially) Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hitchcocks’s Rebecca is also quoted extensively. However, the characters engage in a great deal of action not detailed in the play or movie, so that alone would not justify a purely quoted soundtrack.

It is not as if Punchdrunk is a stranger to original music. The author of the Sleep No More Crossover Fan Fiction Blog pointed out that “Original music was composed for the Punchdrunk show The Duchess of Malfi and performed live by an orchestra that moved around the building.” One reviewer recalled having difficulty keeping up with the orchestra’s conductor, but when she did she was pleased: “Their music stands had little crosses on them, conveying the sense of being in a graveyard, but the music could not have been more alive: the brass was ominously vivid and, together, the players preached a dark sermon.”

Sounds wonderful, but certainly there were logistical issues with taking such an ambitious step. The first being that in order to have an orchestra play every night, you have to hire a large group of musicians. The second involves visions of aimless guests smashing into musicians holding delicate instruments. Having a house band play jazz standards in the bar (our little way station between the hotel and the outside world) on the safe confines of the stage adds a nice touch of live music without those hassles.

Then there’s the fact that SNMNYC is spread out over seven large floors. Some reviews suggested that Punchdrunk had spread themselves too thin with Malfi over three floors of the production. Not so with this newer production. In the NYC venue, Punchdrunk needed an approach that would allow them to cover a huge amount of space. Many more hours of sound is needed than exists in a typical movie soundtrack. Curating a soundtrack of that size is a daunting task and making one from scratch may have been simply impossible unless you had a year or more of development time.

And of course original does not always = “good.” In fact, there is no correlation at all. Going with tracks that you already know are individually great gives you better odds that the end result will also be worth listening to. If you believe as I do that the big-band era was a rare time when the most popular music was also the most artistically satisfying, then you would be hesitant to try to best the original tunes. And to what end? As our Crossover Fan Fict Blogger observed: “Despite [the original soundtrack], Sleep No More completely eats Duchess of Malfi’s lunch.” He did not say that the Malfi soundtrack was lacking somehow, but he does appreciate SNM’s overall effect better.

One more artistic concern that may have that come into consideration is the careful modulation of tone and creepiness SNM maintains. The show never comes close to haunted house territory by going for big scares. Or even medium scares. It’s a long, slow, lightly simmering kind of creepy. The familiar music often adds to the pleasant side of the experience rather than trying to constantly unsettle you. I said earlier that SNM invokes in me the feeling of a Lynch movie like nothing else has, but it does not terrify me the way Lynch often does. If it did, I could not remain in that world for three hours without running out in a state of total panic. Who knows extra detail it would take to tip me over the edge, but a little more of a Lynchian soundtrack might do it.

Framed By Red Curtains

Which brings me back to the personal experience–the “frame” you put around your time in SNM. Neither a movie nor a video game, no matter how immersive, compares directly to the real-world physical experience of SNM. I have made an attempt to discuss it using the terms of film analysis, but of course it is not a film. It is not happening in the safe confines of a screen sitting out in front of you. It plays by an additional set of rules that involve physical constraints, timing, angles of view, smells, the choices you make, etc..  Still, none of this frees it from the meaning-making that viewers will inevitably bring. Like any work of art, there are a finite number of meanings that can be defended and communicated to a larger group. Adding the extra layers of personal experience, memory, and variability involved single viewing, and that makes the job a good deal more difficult than a work that is fixed in time. Fortunately, SNM has enough structure built into that I believe it stands up to this level of scrutiny quite well.

Even movies can have a layer of personal experience specific to a particular viewing. The first time I saw Mulholland Drive, I was sitting alone in a large theater with red seats, red curtains, and red drapes on the walls. On man entered and sat many rows ahead of me, disappearing from sight. Another entered and sat several seats behind me. I felt like I was in a David Lynch movie! During one of the closing scenes (in which a painfully happy old couple chases the main character down a hallway) I remember thinking that if the scene was going to continue for a few seconds longer I would have to leave the theater rather than go insane. That is one movie-going experience I will never be able to duplicate.

There is no doubt that Punchdrunk could have created a soundtrack that pushed more buttons and was more unsettling and disturbing. I think most of us are glad that they did not. One of the great achievements of SNM is how its producers manage to strike the right balance between unsettling and alluring. A good deal more people are drawn in than are sent away screaming. By staying on the more familiar side of things, the soundtrack surely plays a strong role in that.

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