Category Archives: Reviews

About That Sword. . .

The sound of a lightsaber was the first of a series of earworms that Ben Burtt would invent, entering the culture as a sonic benchmark.

One classic piece of Hollywood lore is how the fabled sound designer Ben Burtt created the sounds of “lightsabers” slashing through the air. The distinctly electronic noise from the Star Wars series is now burned into our cinematic memories as much as Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox Fanfare (1933) or Jim Henson’s voice for Kermit the Frog. Before he was known for his work on such innovative films as WALL-E (2008), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and American Graffiti (1979), Burtt was a graduate student at the University of Southern California and a new hire at Lucasfilm. The idea of the lightsaber was born when George Lucas first conceived of the Star Wars saga, partly a traditional space fantasy and partly the result of his interest in hero-making myths. The sword was to be a beam of light a bit longer than the medieval variety, but even more lethal. In Lucas’ story the sabers were the preferred weapons of the future, but also a throwback to the swashbuckler films of the 1930s and 40s. Every film needed a master dualist who could intimidate and slice his way to dominance with villains like Darth Vader. The first film in the series was actually Episode IV: A New Hope, released in 1977 to audiences who became instant fans. If you somehow missed being around bedazzled youth at the time, it is enough to know that the plots of the series regularly featured face-offs on the edge of space, where lightsabers were potential tools of instant death.

What makes a lightsaber so interesting? Without its auditory buzz it is a bright but not-very-intimidating flashlight. Its lethality was in how it sounded. Working out a way to give the beam a fearsome presence was the first challenge. Burtt came up with a blend that included sounds of an old projector motor at USC, in addition to a nasty interference hum he discovered when his microphone got too close to an old television set. Back then, a household filled with radios and televisions was an endless source of spurious electric interference that could make a living room sound like Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory. That intrusive hum up picked up by the microphone gave off a noise of bleeding electrons not so different from what someone might hear standing near a high-voltage substation. But a lightsaber was not fixed. It’s sound needed to change when it sliced through the air. Burtt found that if he took the recorded sound from his two sources and played them back, he could then wave another mic around and near the speaker, creating a Doppler effect where the pitch slightly raises and lowers as the mic passes by. It’s the same auditory sensation a person experiences when a train or plane rushes past them.

The saber was the first of a series of earworms that Burtt would invent which would enter the culture as benchmarks, including Darth Vader’s labored breathing, Chewbacca’s expressive howls, and the beeps and whirrs of the faithful droid, R2D2. This was five years before he gave E.T. its voice in the later Steven Spielberg film. Burtt picked up an Oscar for “special achievement” in Star Wars, and it has since gained the status of one of the most influential films ever released, even receiving the rare honor of its own U.S. postal stamp in 2007.

–Excerpt from the forthcoming The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens (2021)


Retreating to a More Tranquil Place

[If there was a time to find a natural escape from the relentless news cycle, it is now.  And a trail in the woods is a good place to start.  Most of us are lucky to have a forest refuge nearby.  In fact, state parks accessible to most of us offer a welcome respite in protected woods.] 

In his recent best-selling book, The Hidden Life of Trees (2016), Peter Wohlleben explains why he is so passionate about the verdant world of the forest.  Mostly he wants to marvel at a kind of biological intentionality that has trees “talking” to each other, aggregating in communities, nurturing the weakest and the wounded, and finding ways to protect themselves from invaders. In Wohlleben’s world “mother” trees keep their nearby offspring small by denying the light they need to grow quickly.  The slow growth mandated by the sun-blocking canopy of the parent has the effect of hardening the wood structure in the offspring.  That will add years to its life when the older tree falls and allows a direct path to the sun.  Like so much in the biological world, trees are “smart” in the ways they need to be smart.  And while I would quarrel a bit with a language of intention that works better for sentient beings than plants, we can’t help but share his admiration for these living structures.  Trees are the heroes of the planet for their longevity, their towering height and beauty, their life-giving  oxygen, and their capacity to regenerate even when abused by animals and humans. Thankfully, not all humans.

For decades some Japanese have engaged in a practice of “forest bathing.”  This is less a form of exercise than a simpler act of pausing to absorb the wonder of a wooded hillside.  This involves, as they say, “being in the moment,” lingering in a setting that offers psychological breathing space.  In addition, the transpiration-infused air of a forest is said to have its own restorative attributes.

For some time my family has lived on several acres within an expansive wooded valley in New Jersey.  But only recently have I fully appreciated the 100-foot tall poplars that stand as sentinels along the pathway to our house. Their tall trunks are ramrod straight, with branches and leaf canopies too high to fully appreciate from the ground. I marvel at how they’ve managed to endure all that human encroachment has thrown at them.  We rarely take the time, but more often we should stand at their bases in a conscious tribute to their magnificence.

Treks deep into the woods obviously function for the simple pleasure of spending time in the cool shade of these giants.

trees Pixabay

Perhaps pausing at the foot of a tree is a start in the direction of forest bathing.  Americans have other names for it as well. Fishing, hunting and camping come to mind. The ruddy gamesmen loaded to the teeth with various armaments would probably reject the label of “tree hugger.”  But hug them they do as they make their way along angled forest floors. Treks deep into the woods obviously function for the simple pleasure of spending time in the company of these giants.

The relevant communication lesson here lies in the perspective we regain when we withdraw into the natural world.  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau famously observed. For him the company of others was too much of a distraction, as were the new products of the information age delivered by the rapidly expanding telegraph. He acted on a premise that many of us also know: silence offered by a retreat into a forest offers a chance to rebalance, to reawaken selves diminished by the clutter of  messages that ceaselessly intrude.

And, of course, a forest’s presence is its own reward. It’s lushness, smell and density give us an existential lift. In the natural world we are again of a place and not just in it.  We are home with the elements of life-support we already know.  I sense this easily after what is usually brief rain shower in the Rockies, where lodgepole pines add an indescribably clean scent to the thin air. Fortunately for nearly all of us, communities of trees are usually nearby. Standing among them is to acknowledge that we are but one biological form paying homage to another, each extraordinary in their own ways.