The Woe Trumpets

The Woe Trumpets is billed by its makers as an “audiovisual album”, signaling that sound and visuals are on equal footing here. The piece lives up to that label: it is a series of video vignettes that are set to purpose-made music and then strung together, all taking disaster movies as their inspiration and study object. The prevailing videographic strategy is that of the supercut. Most “tracks” of this album single out one particular aspect of a disaster film and string together examples of it. Most importantly, the actual cataclysms are always relegated to the background while moments of calm and scenes of quiet apprehension become the main attraction.


One of the most interesting aspects of The Woe Trumpets is its firm focus on the soundtrack. This is a fine example of performative criticism in that it is built around a soundtrack composed specifically for this purpose by Matthew Tomkinson. (In fact, the project started off as a critical study of cinematic soundscapes but then veered in another direction). Much like supercut editing brings out generic conventions and tired tropes, the soundtrack here calls attention to scoring conventions. The synthesizer soundscapes appropriate the typical instrumentation and effects that we know from classic disaster movies.


Tomkinson’s music is paired up with found footage from 1970s disaster movies, compiled by Josh Hite. Those visuals bring specific generic narrative conventions into focus. Take the many shots of scientists pushing buttons in The Andromeda Strain. It’s a straightforward and playful montage that stresses the absurdity of this ritual that is common in disaster films aiming to come across as science-based. In other cases the edit concentrates on a stylistic element (such as the popularity of crash zooms in disaster movies) or it isolates instances of a visual trope until they resemble abstract art (the many microscope shots, also from The Andromeda Strain).


Taking shots from their original context sometimes changes their tenor from tense to comic. A good example are the shots of an ailing dog, lifted from The Cassandra Crossing. The ponderous looks of the scientists watching the dog become almost preposterous. (Although, to be honest, most critics already deemed The Cassandra Crossing wholly preposterous when it was released in 1976). The video completely veers into comedic territory when it includes excerpts from another 1976 disaster movie, the parodic The Big Bus. Clearly a film that didn’t take itself seriously, this video essay still gives it the same treatment as the self-important disaster movies it features. That makes these scenes a strange fit, also because the music works differently here than in the other segments. The melodic drones no longer evoke a sense of dread but seem to ironically ridicule the (already ridiculous) Big Bus antics.


By far the strongest are the scenes that are supercuts of characters waiting in anguish for a disaster that has been relegated to the cutting room floor. The source of their distress remains unknown, but the sense of foreboding is stronger for it. Cutting out the anecdotal (the specific catastrophe, which often supplies the title of the film) makes these reaction shots more poignant, not less. Forget about that meteor hurtling towards earth or the inferno in the high-rise: when these characters are looking at each other in desperation, they seem to perform Sartre’s dictum that hell is other people. By removing the disaster, the dread becomes existential. It’s in these moments that The Woe Trumpets pays homage to what constitutes the lasting appeal of these disaster movies: not the calamities and catastrophes, but the perpetually recognizable angst for the unknown.