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At the core of Alison O’Daniel’s film The Tuba Thieves is a mysterious series of tuba thefts that plagued high schools across Southern California between 2011 and 2013. O’Daniel first heard about the robberies on the radio while driving around Los Angeles. The news story inspired what would become her first feature film, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. An apt metaphor for loss and disempowerment, the story of the tuba thefts allowed O’Daniel (who is d/Deaf1) to explore individual and subjective relationships to sound. Rather than beginning by writing a script, O’Daniel centered sound, inviting artists Christine Sun Kim, Ethan Frederick Greene, and Steve Roden to compose musical scores from a variety of visual and textual prompts.
What followed was an 11-year project that O’Daniel refers to as a “game of telephone,” wherein the world of the film expanded beyond the thefts as each emerging anecdote prompted a successive scene. Due to O’Daniel’s winding explorations along the way, The Tuba Thieves is a wholly unique and unexpected film: part documentary, part ode to the city of Los Angeles, part imagined history. The film is firmly planted in the L.A. soundscape in both overt and subtle ways: We observe city traffic, hands caressing chain-link fences, a helicopter hovering over a crackling wildfire. Vignettes about fictional characters navigating L.A. through the texture of sound are interspersed with scenes based on the responses to O’Daniel’s prompts and real elements from the story of the instrument thefts. O’Daniel subverts the traditional narrative structure of a feature film by layering these stories, building suspense and momentum through sound.
Alongside subtle and brilliant editing, O’Daniel employs succinct and vivid open captions to set tone and propel the action. In one poignant scene, the camera shakily makes its way through the crowd in a concert venue. A figure onstage is blurred. The phrase “[A MORE VULNERABLE MELODY]” appears onscreen as audience members turn around and toward the camera to stare. Finally, we see musician Patrick Shiroishi alone onstage, blowing into the saxophone. The melody that plays is indeed yearning and plaintive.
I left a screening of The Tuba Thieves in April with a profound understanding of the film as a truly physical, sensory experience. I had already seen select scenes over the years; O’Daniel and I first worked together in 2018 on an exhibition for Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), where a single-channel installation was played in one room while the accompanying score was played in an adjacent one. O’Daniel probes the possibilities of the film medium, stretching the audience to consider the textures of sound and the materiality of storytelling. She relishes the challenge of asking what a film can be and how her different audiences might perceive it. She doesn’t demure from conversations on accessibility, insisting on the importance of representation in film and championing ubiquitous captioning.
I recently met with O’Daniel to learn about how The Tuba Thieves had grown and evolved since the LAND exhibition. We discussed breaking film rules, the influence of Los Angeles on her work, and her approach to “listening untethered to the ears.”
Irina Gusin: I’ve heard you talk about how you were driving in your car and listening to news stories on the radio. You were able to track different tuba thefts at different high schools over an extended period. The fact that you could track this story in your car as it unfolded over several years is such an L.A. story. The Tuba Thieves literally started with you listening.
Alison O’Daniel: The radio thing is so specific and I like that you pick it up, because whenever I talk about that, in some ways, it’s a nod to Angelenos. There is such a specificity to Angelenos’ relationship to being in the car, and what you listen to in the car. I was thinking about the sounds of L.A., and included in [that] for me are these voices that are guiding all these people to work or whatever they’re doing. I have this total dream—I just want to be able to hear [KPCC host] Larry Mantle talking about The Tuba Thieves and his feigned surprise and delight at himself being in the film.
IG: That would also be my dream. I love how you have described The Tuba Thieves as a listening project. Can you explain what that means to you?
AO: I knew I wanted to make a film, [but] I didn’t know what it was going to be…. I had this desire after working with [Ethan Frederick Greene, the composer of my first film, Night Sky (2011)] to see if it would be possible to flip the script and have a composer be in the role of a director, and a director be in the role of a composer. A composer is traditionally watching all the footage and then conjuring up sound that’s supposed to guide the audience emotionally through the work. [But] I have a lot of skepticism about the emotional guiding that happens in so many movies.
I had this amazing realization when Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) came out. I watched that movie in a theater, and I was crying, and I hated the movie. I was sitting there so conscious of this split within me—of being able to emote with something that I didn’t care or want to care about. I was like, my god, music is so manipulative and so powerful, and I had this awe about what was happening in my body, and how much I didn’t want it to be happening—feeling like the composer was totally in control of me. That felt remarkable. So, a part of me was thinking: How can you make a film that is a participant in acknowledging that role of manipulation, and try and rewrite the script? Be on the journey of the film with the audience. I wanted the audience to have listening agency. I figured that if I could have agency in the process of making the film, then that would maybe transfer.
IG: I think you’re right. When you’re watching something like a Hollywood film, the music gives you these particular cues that you think are intuitive, that you don’t necessarily notice right away. But watching The Tuba Thieves in terms of the audio component—it’s not like somebody in the background, sending out covert signals. It actually feels like another person in the room.
AO: There [are] two interesting things about this. In the section with Patrick [Shiroishi] playing his music, it already existed. He didn’t make that for the film. It’s really emotional music: It’s about his grandparents having been interned in [Japanese internment camps] outside of L.A. I was trying to have him describe his music to me so that I could use that in the captions. Patrick kept using the word “vulnerable,” [but] I never wanted to tell the audience through captioning, an equivalent of what I think happens in Bridget Jones’s Diary, where it’s slamming you over the head with “vulnerable.” Patrick’s music doesn’t do that at all. You can feel Patrick’s sorrow in [this moment in the film]. So, I was like, I’m going to use his words. That feels right to me. This is how I feel listening has written the project. And then the other thing is that the music is not dictating. Half my audience is d/Deaf, so I’m not going to do something in the music that is leaving out half of the audience; it needs to be reflected in some other part of the film.
IG: You’ve created a portion of your website that encourages people to use open captions in their films. Could you talk about the journey you’ve been on with captioning this film? Can captioning be an art form?
AO: Something that has been put out there in the last few years is this idea of [creative captioning]. I really think it is the cart before the horse. We have problems where it’s not [a lack of] captions, but captions being shitty. I think I’m good at describing sound because I’ve studied it so intimately. It’s not [that] I’m good at it because I’m an artist. I’m good at it because I’ve been forced to think about sound my whole life. It’s important to me to make that distinction, because what I absolutely don’t want is to read hearing subjectivity.
Everything we’ve experienced is lazy captioning, like a music symbol, or saying “exciting music.” That is not a helpful caption. That’s just an annoying caption. But then to do something where it’s artistic or creative, and it gets far away from the thing you’re hearing and starts to become somebody’s poetic license…I find that confusing too. And maybe this will be a non-conversation at some point, but we haven’t even gotten to the point yet where you can trust captioning. I’m actually over here a little bit hesitant about this idea of artistic creative captioning. I don’t totally trust that yet. I just want people to do a really good job of captioning. Even if it’s an afterthought, and you’re adding it at the end, just do a good job, full stop. Full stop.
IG: My father was a professional cellist. When I was growing up, he was always trying to communicate something to me about how you feel when you hear sound or music. And he’d use images—like, this string note is a waterfall. Or, this base note is like a mountain.
AO: I love the base note as a mountain, that makes deep sense to me. When I started this film—I think this is how I just make work in general—I pose a question and I’m not that worried about whether I solve it. One of the early questions [was] about it being a listening project and what that means, but specifically it being a listening project untethered from the ears. It was the thing I proposed at the beginning of making this project, and it’s the thing that has carried me all the way through. It’s been an inquiry the whole time. I learned something so valuable in cultivating curiosity and cultivating interest, and I think that has sort of become my personal, artistic goal: not just being interested, but the act of cultivating that interest, the act of cultivating listening. The fact that I could, as a d/Deaf person, on some level cultivate listening—cultivate what that means beyond something biological, or beyond something medical.
IG: Do you mean conceptual?
AO: Sometimes, but I mean, it also feels really physical. There’s the medical, the biological, and the social model of d/Deafness or disability. I think all three of those are part of this conversation. But the artist in me is like, what [else], beyond those? And that is where the question lies. What [is] beyond these limitations? I still love the idea of breaking the sound barrier. Like, even my own sound barriers, just breaking them. And film barriers, and everything. I just feel very little patience for rules, confines, or constraints.
IG: Do you feel that the multifaceted aspect of your art practice creates the confidence of allowing a question to open up another question, and so forth? Do you think it allows you to sit in this way of making a film rather than being like, this is exactly what it is going to be?
AO: Yeah. Actually, I’ve thought a lot about my undergrad degree. It was in Fibers and Material Studies. I went into that department because people were doing performances and videos—it was kind of the weird department where anything could go. But, what I loved from my education was the Material Studies part, because what that meant was, if you were going to silkscreen with peanut butter, [you had] responsibility towards knowing and being able to talk about peanut butter and its social and historical [implications]. That’s part of the work. That’s how I feel about film. Part of why I like interrogating these rules is because it’s the material of the film. It’s the material of cinematic language. Like, why and how does film inherently carry with it a sort of misogyny? It’s because it’s a medium that’s constantly being formed by not enough women and not enough people who don’t fit into that clear binary. The material of cinema and its history have been formed by very particular whims and desires.
IG: That’s interesting, because I walked out of The Tuba Thieves processing how I was feeling, rather than the different sounds that I heard, or the different things that I experienced visually.
AO: My hope is to cultivate a sensitivity. I think that’s what I mean by “listening untethered from the ears.” I always had two goals in making the film. One was to experiment [with] an experience where people are somewhat frustrated—where people don’t know how things are coming together—to make people curious. I [wanted] to put people in a position where they’re compensating, which is the thing you’re tested for in hearing tests. My life is catching parts of things and having to quickly fill in all these gaps. And sometimes I’m right—most of the time I’m right—but sometimes I’m not, and it’s funny, or bad. I wanted that to be the core structure of the film, that “figuring out” was welcome. The other goal was to make [a] film that was sonically just all over the place, really loud in parts or really quiet in parts, and took you on this multi-aural experience, but that you would walk out and feel quiet.
IG: I want to go back to this idea of sitting in a place where things aren’t necessarily fully resolved. Could you talk about embracing complexity?
AO: Part of it comes from just seeing the treatment of stories of d/Deafness. In my experience, [these stories] have just been a little too basic. To try and fit the complexity of these experiences into some sort of more theatrical narrative…it’s not that simple.
L.A. is such a phenomenally interesting city because you’re just constantly in this sedimented experience of sound. I love that I cannot tell the difference between the sound of traffic and the sound of waves. Traffic sounds are actually soothing in L.A.: Nobody uses their horn in L.A., so it has this passivity. Everybody is resigned to traffic in this city. I think that resignation comes through aurally as a kind of soothing sound. And how fucked up is that—something that’s such a contribution to our lack of well-being is actually soothing? Or, if I’m driving and a siren goes by, I can’t tell what direction it’s coming from, so it’s usually a really scary moment. But if I’m sitting with people and a siren goes by, and everybody is in so much pain, I’m not in pain. I find it super curious. It’s a fascinating moment to watch a norm that I’m not experiencing and recognize this almost funny poetic justice. I get to be hyper-observational in those moments. There’s nothing for me about sound that is uniform to other people’s experience. Something that people find soothing or painful, [for me,] it just is what it is. The two things can exist together. Birds singing and a siren going by, to me, can become accompaniment. Or the ocean and traffic can accompany one another, where they become soundscapes.
Alison O’Daniel is a d/Deaf visual artist and filmmaker who builds a visual, aural, and haptic vocabulary that reveals (or proposes) a politics of sound that exceeds the auditory. O’Daniel’s film The Tuba Thievespremiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. O’Daniel is a 2022 Disability Futures Fellow and a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow in Film/Video. She is represented by Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles and is an Associate Professor of Film at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 33.