When the Wachowskis first unleased The Matrix in 1999, the ideas and theories it posited blew mainstream society’s collective mind. Despite being around in one form or another for centuries, its hyper-stylized, expertly executed and Keanu-infused presentation of simulation theory injected new life and energy into the hypothesis. As conversations around the idea have continued to gather steam and outspoken celebrity endorsers over the last few decades, what was once dismissed as science fiction and nerdy internet chatter has developed into something more. Blurring the lines between philosophical musing, entertainment and social psychology, this idea of a false reality is as fascinating as it is terrifying. It is also the subject of director Rodney Ascher’s (Room 237) mind-bending new documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix.
More than just a simple discussion of red pill vs. blue pill, Ascher dives head first into simulation theory’s real-world ramifications and implications. An unsettling and captivating journey, this dark, digital dreamscape expedition was one that Ascher did not embark on alone. To assist with the film’s sonic palette, Ascher once again tapped frequent collaborator Jonathan Snipes. Not only did Snipes create the incredible, cyber dust encrusted score for A Glitch in the Matrix, he also worked as the film’s Sound Designer, Sound Supervisor and Re-Recording Mixer. An amazing talent, Snipes’ impressive resume of projects allows his passion for music, electronics and immersive soundscapes to shine through with ease. Along with composing for film and TV, Snipes teaches at UCLA, is a frequent sound designer for live theater productions and is also a member of the experimental rap group clipping. Oh, and he’s also a huge horror fan.
In celebration of A Glitch in the Matrix‘s recent World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and VOD release, I sat down with Snipes (virtually) and we chatted all about the film, clipping., working with Daveed Diggs (Snowpiercer series) and the recent watches that he can’t seem to shake. For even more information on the film, make sure to check out Jonathan Dehaan’s review of the film, here!
“My initial impulse was to make a bunch of what I call ‘hacker techno.'”
Rachel Reeves for Nightmare on Film Street: Given the subject matter of the film, it makes sense to me that it would have an electronic score. However, your score seems to touch on a very particular era of electronic music and displays a fantastic array of sounds and styles. What were some of the influences and inspirations that impacted your approach to the film?
Jonathan Snipes: When I heard the title of the film it was hard for me to shake the idea and immediate connection to the 90s blockbuster compilation electronica soundtrack albums like The Matrix, Go, Spawn, Hackers and Blade II. And particularly the soundtrack for Pi was hugely influential for me. To pretentious teenage high school me, that felt like the answer to all of these big blockbuster soundtracks that I was embarrassed to admit that I liked. ‘Oh, I only like art films like Pi and Terry Gilliam movies.’ That was my version of a high art film. (laughs) But, I still love that Pi soundtrack and I remember reading an interview with Darren Aronofsky about the movie and going to Clint Mansell’s house to work on the score. It was described as a dank garage filled with half-working synthesizers that generated this music from the wires. I thought that seemed like a pretty cool person to be. That and my fascination with NIN, Aphex Twin and Autechre led me to the dank synth-filled dungeon I’m sitting in right now. So when I heard the title A Glitch in the Matrix I thought, ‘Oh yeah. This gets to be my version of one of those soundtrack albums.’
My initial impulse was to make a bunch of what I call ‘hacker techno.’ Music that you would imagine is on your mini-disc player while you’re surfing on the tubes of the internet. There’s a very particular genre of ‘electronica’ and what Americans thought techno was in the 90s that I love—Orbital, Fat Boy Slim, Photek, Midfield General, Sneaker Pimps, Prodigy. They were on all these soundtracks. And even though they were vastly different genres of electronic music, it was the stuff that made it here on MTV. Thirteen year-old me had no idea about the subtle distinctions that made a house, techno or a drum and bass record. It was just all electronic music. So I wanted to do a soundtrack that felt rooted in that misrepresentation that reached suburban white people like myself. It was this weird commercialized version of it that I still kind of love.
However, it became clear very quickly that a big beat, aggressive, breakbeat and acid line score for a talking head documentary was pretty wildly inappropriate right? So, I ended up in this realm where it’s probably the score I’ve done that has the least in common cue to cue. There aren’t really themes in this score. Each cue is its own universe. I was writing these almost process music pieces. That’s how a lot of the music was made, almost more academic music like Alvin Lucier, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros or even William Basinski. Kind of more like, set up a process, let it happen, see what happens and record the results. If it’s beautiful, it’s a cue and you put it in the movie. If it’s not, you throw it away and don’t talk about it. That’s where my head was at. Starting in the crass commercialized Hollywood techno of the 90s with those sounds and techniques and then making them really stripped down and minimalist.
NOFS: The film has a lot of interviews that were conducted virtually and not surprisingly, there are familiar sound glitches, distortions and such. But what was surprising is the way you infused those digital errors into your music for the score. How did that idea come about?
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JS: I’m glad that comes across because that’s the sort of thing you never really know how it’s going to work. Music in general, but electronic music specifically, has a history of finding errors and ways that gear is broken and then capitalizing on that. The whole genre of acid is misusing the 303 synthesizer. And IDM [Intelligent Dance Music] in general is like, ‘Oh! This synth is broken! Let’s record with that.’ So much of electronic music is finding the eccentricities in the gear and capitalizing on that as opposed to trying to iron it out. All of those tricks that late 90s British IDM kind of capitalized on, those tricks have now been replicated in gear. There’s software and hardware that is now designed to sound like that. So I thought, the audio errors I don’t like, that I don’t think sound good, are streaming errors and compression artifacts. Like the way our voices sound to each other on cell phones and Skype and Zoom; and the way music sounds when you lose your bandwidth on Spotify. Or the way everything sounds on SoundCloud. (laughs) Shots fired.
We’re just confronted with a lot of really poor quality audio. It’s funny. As the technology gets better, our demands are increased to the point where we still can’t support our demands. So the quality is quite bad for most of the things we hear and that’s become the norm. In the same way that vinyl hiss and crackle, and tape warble and hiss, that’s desirable. I think those sounds are beautiful. I have plug-ins to emulate breaking cassette machines, and I use them all the time. They sound amazing to me. In 10-15 years, maybe sooner, as audio technology gets better and we have some new set of fucked up errors that are omnipresent, are people going to be like, ‘Awww. Remember what Zoom sounded like in 2020?’ There’s going to be something warm and comfortable and nostalgic about these particular digital audio artifacts. Maybe not for me because I’m too old, but for someone who’s a teenager right now, in 15 -20 years when all this stuff gets ironed out, they’re going to miss them. So even though I hate those sounds I thought, what can I do to speed this process along? How can I push through my immediate aesthetic and emotional reaction to these sounds and find something beautiful and musical inside them? And it was easier than I thought. I think there’s a good lesson in that. To examine if something is the wrong sound, why that’s the wrong sound and what your reaction is to it.
“So much of electronic music is finding the eccentricities in the gear and capitalizing on that as opposed to trying to iron it out.”
NOFS: This is not your first rodeo with the film’s director, Rodney Ascher. What’s it like working with him and how involved is he with the music on his films?
JS: Somebody asked him at a party once, ‘Is Jonathan working on the next project?’ And he said, ‘Oh, we’re married now.’ And that’s about right. I just assume I’m working on whatever he’s doing and I think he does too. I love having that kind of closeness. Room 237 was the first one we did and I wrote a lot of that music very quickly. At the time I was on another bigger project with more money involved, a made-for-TV miniseries that I think literally no one has ever seen. I thought it had gotten shelved, but I actually scrolled by it on Hulu the other day. So, I almost turned down Room 237 because Rodney was a friend of a friend. It was like, ‘My friend’s making a documentary entirely from found footage so I’m sure nobody will ever release it and it’ll go up on YouTube and by the way, his budget is zero.’ So I was like, ‘This seems like a thing to pass on.’ (laughs) But then he sent me the movie and I knew I’d be an idiot to pass on it. This was actually the kind of movie I would watch.
And at the time I wasn’t in the position where I was getting brought movies that were really my taste. So, I did it really quickly and I think he felt that because I wasn’t getting paid…I don’t recall getting any notes on that music. I think he was just grateful and excited to hear it in the movie. And that kind of changed on the next one. It became more of a typical composer-director relationship. He’s very good at feedback. I always know what his notes mean and they’re always about making the picture better. They usually inspire things in me which is exciting. And that’s kind of the way our relationship works. If he gives me a note, I don’t treat it like a to-do list. I treat it as a talking point for the next round of inspiration. It’s really fun and we have such a shorthand and shared set of influences.
NOFS: Hypothetically speaking, if we choose to buy into the idea that we’re living in a simulated reality, where does the role of art and creative process play into this idea? Or does it?
JS: Boy, that’s an interesting question. I’m not sure that it matters whether or not we live in a simulation. And there’s some people in the movie that kind of say this too. So, ok. We live in a simulation. But we’re probably never going to find the edge of it. And if we never find the edge of it, what is it a simulation of? What is reality in that case? We experience everything through our senses, but our sight doesn’t actually tell us what an object looks like, right? It just gives us feedback from this object. And if that’s the case, if that’s the only thing we can ever receive, is there a reality? If we’re talking about Plato’s Cave, maybe the shadows on the wall are all that exist. Maybe there’s not actually anybody casting them. There’s a value judgment attached to this idea of something being real that’s easy to do. Oh, we’re living in a simulation? Then we need to get out of it and figure out what real reality is because we’ve been blind this whole time. We’re in They Live before they put on the glasses. Or potentially like WandaVision, but I’m a few episodes behind. (laughs)
But that kind of idea that there is some set of assumptions or things that people should know outside our senses or experiences. And if we’re denied that, we are somehow being controlled or manipulated and are less than human. But that ‘ignorance is bliss’ idea gets kind of a bad rap. I don’t know that I care about reality. Unless there’s some new sense we’re going to unlock, then I’m all in. But I’m always fond of saying that there is no such thing as the metaphysical. Because the second the metaphysical exists, it becomes the physical. The second magic exists, it becomes science. So magic is a lovely idea and it is in fiction, and maybe that’s the role of art—to expand our definition of the world. The idea of magic could be thought of as a kind of art; an explanation of these things and an exploration of a potential future. I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy. Almost all the art that I consume is not about our reality. It’s speculative in some way and that’s what appeals to me. And that feels like part of its purpose. To imagine things outside of the scope of our reality in the hope to push the boundaries of our reality. That’s certainly what I think music does. Music is an abstraction of sound in a way that we don’t encounter in our everyday lives. We are trying to find ways to make sense out of sound in very ordered, tonal and rhythmic patterns.
“Music is an abstraction of sound in a way that we don’t encounter in our everyday lives. We are trying to find ways to make sense out of sound in very ordered, tonal and rhythmic patterns.”
NOFS: On top of your composing, teaching, and theater work, you are also a member of clipping. with Daveed Diggs and William Hutson. And Daveed has certainly been having a moment lately! As a longtime friend and collaborator, what is it that you love about working with him and how has that relationship changed? Can we still expect more clipping. music in the future?
JS: clipping. seems like the sort of thing we’ll do until we’re not friends anymore for some other reason. It is just the thing that the three of us do. The three of us were friends years before clipping. and Daveed and Bill have known each other since they were in third grade. Then, Bill and I met in college and Daveed would come down and crash on our couches when his school had ended. I’ve just known them forever. Daveed and I had dabbled in making music before clipping. and Bill and I had done some stuff, but clipping. was the first project where we defined a bunch of rules. Then we sat down and worked on that until we had an album’s worth of stuff. It really felt like we had hit upon something that we couldn’t quite define and hadn’t run into. It was exactly the way, based on our tastes, we wanted this kind of noise, experimental music plus rapping combination to work.
Daveed has always been the hardest working, most naturally talented and charismatic person that I’ve known. And the most deserving of this kind of fame and adulation. In a way that almost never happens for anybody. It happens for people that don’t deserve it all the time, but it only happens for people who do deserve it occasionally. And he happens to also be immensely talented. It’s amazing to see people recognize that and for him to reap the reward of that finally. For years and years he was one of our only friends who continued to find work as an actor, but he was also our hungriest friend. He would deliver catering to pay rent in the mornings, then go to a commercial read through, then a rehearsal for a play and then here to record a clipping. song. Then he’d get up at five in the morning again to drive catering down to Orange County. Nothing has really changed creatively except for the natural things that change when you’re working with a body of work you’re now working in response to. As opposed to making something new, right? When we’re in a room together working creatively, he’s very much the same. He’s just very good at writing rap songs, incredibly good. And it’s still fun to do that together. The only that really has changed is just finding time to do it.
NOFS: There’s a lot of horror influences in the music of clipping. so I have to ask, are you a fan of the genre? And if so, is there anything you’ve seen recently that you’ve really enjoyed?
JS: We all love horror movies. Bill is actually really annoying because whatever thing you like and you think is your thing, he knows more about it and can talk more eloquently about it. (laughs) He has a PhD, he’s one of those, and he’s literally taught classes on horror and horror fiction. Saying that he is the horror fan of the group does a disservice to mine and Daveed’s pretty encyclopedic knowledge of horror. But also, in comparison, we don’t know anything. It’s actually how I feel when I talk to the two of them about rap music also. I feel like I know literally nothing about rap music when I’m in the room with those two guys. I’m just barely scraping by. But then I’m in the room with someone else and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m doing fine.’ They’re just so encyclopedic.
But yes, I love horror movies. I watched a bunch of stuff at Sundance this year. I really loved this Swedish movie called Knocking. It was a COVID movie, so it’s very much this one woman and sound design. It was so beautiful and so elegant. And not in any way cheap. It’s really sweet and really dreadful at the same time which is awesome. I also saw Censor which I thought was really great. It’s such a smart idea to make a horror movie about a film censor. It’s such a great idea that I’m amazed I haven’t seen it before. So smart. And the monster in the movie is our own fear about how media can control people. The monster isn’t really an evil horror movie that controls people’s minds, it’s just about the belief that that could happen.
I’ve been watching a fair number of horror anthologies too. I watched that Severin Films documentary about horror anthologies [Tales of the Uncanny-The Ultimate Survey of Anthology Horror] and there was a ton of stuff in that I’d never seen. I’d never seen Spirits of the Dead and it’s nuts! I’d never seen the 70s Tales from the Crypt either. I’ve been blowing through that Afrofuturism channel on Criterion too. There’s so much on there I’d never seen before. The film Supa Modo that’s on there is one of my favorite things I’ve seen in a long time. Also, T by Keisha Rae Witherspoon is the thing that I’ve seen in the past few years that I think about the most. I think about it constantly. It’s stunning and a really impressive film.
“[…imagining] things outside of the scope of our reality in the hope to push the boundaries of our reality. That’s certainly what I think music does.”
A Glitch in the Matrix recently celebrated its World Premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available in select theatres and on-demand. You can find out even more information on clipping., Jonathan and his vast array of work by checking out his website, HERE. Have you checked out A Glitch in the Matrix? What are your thoughts on simulation theory? Let us know over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord!