Garret Harkawik ~ Doom Vibrations

Doom Vibrations is a contradiction in terms: an ambient score to a documentary about intrusive ambient sound.  The 25-minute film was originally titled The Hum: The Unexplained Noise 2 Percent of People Can Hear and was posted by The Atlantic, who followed the video with a related print article alternately titled Why Is the World So Loud? and Why Everything Is Getting Louder.  In each instance, a man is plagued by a low level hum and goes on a quest to discover and eliminate the source.

Harkawik’s score makes a lot more sense with the film than it does without.  On its own, the perkiest tracks seem to tell a different story.  “The Chair That No One Can Sit In” starts with a slightly ominous hum, but then Harkawik introduces in turn a glockenspiel, then some clubworthy electronics, and all that foreboding goes out the door.  The same holds true for the ebullient “I Ended Up Taking a Bat With Me,” which struggles against its title by sounding more like the work of a Sunday morning bell choir, replete with resident whistler.  Even bouncier is “Repeatability,” which revels in the percussive possibility of pots and pans. While listening solely to the score, one thinks, “this movie can’t be too alarming,” but one is wrong.

In context, these tracks underline the seeming absurdity of the quixotic protagonist.  But as Steve Kohlhase begins to gather evidence, along with an impressive band of co-sufferers, the tone reflects instead the nonsensical dismissals of pipeline corporations and other executives.  Harkawik (who also produced the film) needs these tracks for balance, and they work well in context ~ although one might also argue that he just loves the glockenspiel, also a main character in his 2019 score for On This Rock.

The other tracks ~ in particular the closing 13-minute piece, which draws together bits of incidental music along with snippets of the score and selections from Harkawik’s oeuvre ~ are more indicative of the film’s central dilemma.  One of the first images in the film is that of a cowering dog, afraid to go upstairs.  There’s an obvious connection to Poltergeist and other films in which an animal senses an intruder, after which experts are called in with spectrometers.  The intensity grows as the terror is revealed.  While Doom Vibrations flirts with such levels, the audience isn’t quite there, as Kohlhase seems to go a bit too far in suggesting a link between the hum and the Sandy Hook killings.  We say seems because he turns out to be right about other things, so we’ll withhold our final assessment.

In the end, Doom Vibrations is a curious multi-toned album that straddles separate paths; only on the 41-second “Ominous Waveform” do the two converge.  Ironically, the disconnect works in the project’s favor, as the point is disconnection: between reality and perception, fact and reception, the personal and the communal.  The world is getting louder, but the prophets are few.  (Richard Allen)

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