Sounds Heard: Mike Vernusky—Music for Film and Electro-Theatre

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Music for Film and Electro-Theatre
by Mike Vernusky
(Quiet Design)

Sometimes “soundtrack” CDs can invite a degree of skepticism, in that often the music composed for film or video does not stand alone as effectively as when paired with its accompanying medium. However, the second release from Austin, Texas-based composer and sound artist Mike Vernusky is an example of such a format that does not suffer from being presented as audio alone. This is a collection of music composed both for film and “electro-theatre,” defined as music for live actors with electronic sound, which creates a vivid radio play-like journey through sculptural forests of sound.

The music composed for film includes the work Nylah, for filmmaker Scott Nyerges, which creates an arc, beginning as a smooth, metallic drone that is punctuated with slowly increasing droplets of percussive sound, transitioning into layered washes of what could include processed guitar and helicopters, and traveling back to the initial sonic world, ending with a single scraped metal guitar string. Missing combines an especially otherworldy mix of electronic sound with archival musical material that was created for filmmaker Daniel Maldonado. The triptych of short, intense pieces that comprise the work Hidden, also created for Maldonado, are sprinkled throughout the recording.

Thou, parts one and two—also presented separately—are thickly layered variations on primarily pipe organ recordings. Part 1 is more of a darkly ambient wash that builds to a frenzy and features two dramatic “false stops” in the middle of the work, while Part 2 explores the more rhythmic side of processed organ that nimbly morphs into field recordings of birds.

The largest work on the disc (in both scope and theme) is Dallas, which relates a surreal tale based on the biography of Clint Hill, the secret service agent who rushed to the body President John F. Kennedy immediately after he had been assassinated. Under My Coat is the Truth, is the shortest work, a bite-sized ride in an elevator from a strange, hazy dream.

Music for Film and Electro-Theatre would be perhaps best enjoyed with headphones, or very high-quality speakers, to fully take advantage of the musical gestures throughout the stereo field that help emphasize dramatic elements in the works. The sonic material, which is extremely well-recorded, thoughtfully orchestrated, and deftly mixed, is consistently rich and made of varied textures, ranging from smooth and silky, to bright and shimmering, to gritty and extra crunchy.

Although I found myself wishing for more information in the form of liner notes about the works and the media with which they are paired, there is an advantage to not having access to this information. Dramatic through lines are not at all forced, and the listener is free to let imagination take over the interpretation of the progression of musical events. And even though many of these works were originally created for presentation in tandem with other art forms, they have absorbing tales to tell on their own.