With the rise of the internet, texting and social media and a sense of impersonality has overwhelmed communication. Even most cellphone users are more keen on texting than answering calls, which most often hit voicemail rather than being answered by a person. Tony Shaff’s documentary “Hotline” looks at this shift in communication through the still prevalent and important tool of help hotlines, where a personal, intimate touch is everything. The film screened at DOC NYC recently and is now available on iTunes and VOD, Shaff and his composer Jess Stroup (“Camp X-Ray”) got together for The Playlist to talk about the doc and their approach to music as such. Their conversation is below.
Tony Shaff: After years of production on “Hotline,” being immersed in the relationships that people have with talking with strangers on the telephone, I knew that the score would be so important because of the emphasis on the power of the voice —and sound in general— we explore in the film. The jumping off point for working on the score for “Hotline” came after I listened to a Radiolab piece about phone phreaking that featured a blind boy with a difficult school and home life who said that he found comfort in the sound of a telephone dial tone. In his recorded diary entries he said “the soft hum of a dial tone, it was always there. What a wonderful thing the telephone is…especially during those long nights.” There was something very beautiful, simple and melancholic about the image that was painted by the podcast, and I took the idea right away to Jess.
Jess Stroup: Having used only a cellphone for the last ten years or so, I hadn’t given much thought to an analog dial tone in a while. After Tony mentioned the Radiolab episode, I found a few samples of dial tones and checked them out. I immediately found that there is indeed something comforting about the sound of the traditional dial tone. It’s made up of the notes F and A, a major third interval, and the root of a major F chord. I thought maybe I could do something with it musically, with a chord progression made up of all major thirds. I found something simple, just three chords made out of dial tone samples. It was pretty, a little sweet and a little sad, but overall positive, much like humans in crisis connecting with each other. From there, I added guitar, piano, bass, drums, and ran them through audio plug-ins that made them sound distant and crackly, as if they might be coming over a telephone.
Deciding on the Style
TS: I knew that Jess was a very talented composer, and his background in electronic music composition as well as his skills as a multi-instrumentalist gave him the ability to bring a real human touch of analog to a minimal electronic score. When he brought “Dialtones” back to us after just a few days of work, I knew that we really had something great —he captured the tone perfectly and avoided gimmicks. We exchanged more ideas about where the score could go, and while he went off to work his magic, the editor Charlie Dugan and I began laying in Jess’s music as temp tracks to our cut scenes. We would play scenes for Jess as we were cutting and have discussions about what the score was doing emotionally and where to scale back or build more. It always felt like Christmas morning when Jess would bring more tracks that he was working on —especially with music wrapped beneath titles like “Switchboards,” “Late Night Glitch,” “Through The Wires,” or “Call Me Now!”— an homage to one of our featured subjects in the film, the famed spokesperson for a psychic hotline, Ms. Cleo.
JS: Early on, Tony mentioned that he liked what’s called “found sounds,” sounds that can be found in everyday life, maybe the sound of a drill press or a tape measure being closed, even telephone sounds. I loved the idea right away. Not only was I given a chance to think outside the box and do something different, I was also presented with a challenge: how could I use these sounds in a way that made sense musically and still served the film? I found that what ended up working the best was to use them unobtrusively, especially the telephone sounds. I would make a lot of my rhythms out of found sounds: a rotary telephone dialing in time to provide the backbeat for a cue, or the dot matrix printer that plays a percussion part in “Dialtones,” or the pitch that comes from pressing in a phone number used to play a small melody. I wanted just enough to where it might catch someone’s ear, but not too much to where it was distracting or on-the-nose.
JS: “Hotline” is about human connection through telephones, a technology that has been around for a while but is still relevant and still evolving. Tony had a pretty clear vision for the score: he had found that electronic-based music was working well as temp score, but didn’t want the film’s music to sound digital and polished, like a lot of electronic music can. Humans aren’t perfect and the score shouldn’t be either. In addition to found sounds, he suggested incorporating digital glitches, noise, and distortion. I loved this idea —once again, I was given a chance to think outside the box and do something I’m not usually asked to do. I started creating electronic music as I usually would, with synths, electric pianos, and drum machines. But instead of relying solely on these elements, I began using live instruments such as cello, guitar, and piano, and recording them badly or through distortion pedals. The goal was that the listener wouldn’t know what was a synth and what was a live instrument, that everything would sound like it had passed through human hands. Once I had everything recorded, I put it through the digital process Pro Tools, making edits and loops to make things even more imperfect. I also used a lot of audio processors that would make them sound distant, like an analog telephone would, or mangled by bad digital technology, like an early cellphone would. The result is a score that I hope reflects the characters and themes of the film: musical and non-musical elements that are imperfect and a little broken, working together to create moments of sadness, beauty, hope, and inspiration.
For more of Jess’ music check out the Camp X-Ray soundtrack album on iTunes or visit fiveoceansmusic.com
“Hotline” is now available on VOD and iTunes nationwide.