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The Torch: In the crux — Sounds and scores

13 May 2008

The Torch: In the crux — Sounds and scores

…and then, what’s music to my eyes? A single strong theme in a movie will hardly see you through the entire length of a feature, but it can add so much. A sound-track can be the best inroad to your heart and become a highway for sensitive, intelligent entertainment that affects, moves and enlarges ourselves — and the picture so transformed.

thetorch.jpgThe acoustic experience you have with a movie is what sets this art form apart from non-sound projections, installations and even photography. We are gripped and led by what we hear, to follow a movement or a voice, a report of something beyond the visual, an emotional argument probably; in any case, sounds and scores in the medium of film manipulate the viewer in many a profound way.

There is a capacity to transcend in music, which is genuine and constituently part of its very nature: a promise of completion, the complimentary destiny to each particle tapping into the essence of things. And this we call a harmony. No other art form or medium of human expression yields itself better to being so directly and instantly internalized than does music. It is shaped by that unfathomable pool of pre-established accord, which it always aspires to and reminds us of when missing. Therein lies its generic affinity to maths, that rational twin of hers among the arts. Beauty, of course, is never invented but remembered in life, shining forth as it unfolds — and music has the capacity to evoke, to channel this experience with every single receptive individual. That’s also why there is no other power more apt to join: the people and masses around the world across all boundaries — music can reverberate through millions sans exception. So it is a force indeed, this universal language, and one that can even be overbearing; particularly so in combination with the visual realm and its inherent suggestiveness.

At this point, pardon me, I must be blunt in my statement: generations of viewers around the globe have been forever spoilt by (mostly, but not solely) American soaps and TV dramas in this respect, that they have been deliberately and cruelly un-learned of how to truly listen to a motion picture. Those mass-produced series with their uniform jingles have ruined this crucial capacity in most. Uncounted millions of ostentatiously harmonious bridges to unmistakably indicate a “smooth” transition or simply plaster over a brutal and entirely un-telling cut have had their effect and deafened the ears of viewers. For this entertainment industry output a musical accompaniment works in the very same way as canned laughter does in sitcoms: patronizingly assisting us to catch even the most remotely funny line. They are the very opposite of art, these specimens of consumerist mentality, not intent on creating something out of an original need and authentic impulse of a soul in profound movement, but plainly reproducing a standardized set of preconfigured emotional reactions, pushing the right button just in time to produce the required response: trigger and shoot, right on target! And we are just too willing to obey the rules…

That there can be more to the score of a motion picture is a fact which has been proven only on the rarest of occasions, like in “The Third Man” for instance or, more recently, with “Tuya’s Marriage”, where either a highly recognizable tune simply proved irresistible or, as was the case with the latter film, a sound sequence with a very place-specific, a very local instrumentation served to evoke a complete cultural backdrop all by itself every time it came on. But then, examples abound, despite their rarity; and that’s because we treasure them, because their impact is just so strong that it makes us want to own the soundtrack, so that’s what we do: we stock up on music which is visually enhanced by our memories. Obviously, we are receptive to this tangent embellishment, which is mutual and interrelated and, thus, memorable.

What then, are we supposed to remember Cameron’s “Titanic” for, I ask? In the end it sinks, okay, and spectacularly so, I give you that — but didn’t we know this in advance? Nonetheless, and apart from an astonishing array of unintentionally laughable dialogue, the most memorable thing about it may very well be that momentous power-kitsch ballad, which sure does go on and on and on… But there can be quality in this as well, a striking quality at that, which draws upon the target audiences’ capacity to contextualize properly and in that way allowing for a more meaningful appreciation (or reading) of a film. It is in this sense precisely that 881 will be forever remembered for its fabulous score alone, and rightfully so, by its very own home audience in Singapore especially.

But when it comes to broaden the power to affect and convince by pointedly investing in the sound aspect of a movie, the respective merits aren’t to be gained in music alone. For one, there’s the fact of how paying attention to incorporating the specific sounds of things lends quality to your film, shows your attention to detail and the love you have for what you’re telling; also, it can be successfully employed to tighten a movie, to give it a “feel” by making it distinctive in its sound, adding a layer. The diversified intake so achieved deepens any cinematic rendition of that multisensory space we live in, because it challenges the straightforwardness in what we usually perceive of a movie. When the exposure is not just focussed on propelling us forward on the narrative line, but opens up to each moment through an intensified reception thereof, then we will be able to attain a higher level of awareness of each single scene (or even frame) that is heightened this way. Therefore, obviously, an acoustic portrayal (as opposed to your action-packed noise concussion) tends to slow down the pace of a movie in order to concentrate on objects, things and surroundings as well.

Interestingly, such a treatment of the sound dimension in your film provides you with one more tool for creating meaningful contrast or opposition: it is the primitive viewpoint only, whereby natural noises are there to accompany or authenticate the image; in fact, the sound layer is an element in its own right and doesn’t have to be slavishly tied down to the leading visuals. Instead, when operated independently, it will develop its very own flow, intensity and focus. And that focus doesn’t have to match the frame, but can be located elsewhere, some place outside the confines of the picture, wilfully missing the point to bring in something else — to eventually challenge the image voice itself. However you do it, all this doesn’t necessarily make for realism as some would have it. Rather, it is a more basic technique, which lends itself to different modes of representation; it is one more option the experimental filmmaker has at his disposal.

As I’ve stated above, music manipulates the viewing experience, gears you towards a targeted emotional attitude, leads you by the ears directly and short-cutting the brain, more or less; and this might be offensive to some of our more intellectually inclined among the audience in particular, so be careful with your sound direction/design. The musical surface adds a layer either way; so it is a task of calibration to tone it down where needed, and put emphasis on things we see: acoustically spotlighting something of importance — even, if afforded, by giving (i.e. by sounding) contrast.

With scores in particular I see a very old and established notion still dominating film composition as it is most commonly practiced. According to which (in my view conservative) notion any composition for film would have to operate and relate it all on the music’s own surface plain and not get lost in its self-referential intricate design (as higher learning of course affords “real” music to allow for and be open to). Like Adorno and Eisler jointly declared in their collaborative book “Composing for the Films” in 1947, it is meant to be descriptive, supportive of an image, which it should not try to compete against and thus gain credit and independent profile at the expense of the viewing cascade (which they understood to be a top-down emotional apparatus always issuing from the visual). Today, some sixty years down the road from when their joint work for that historical “Film Music Project” was first published, I argue we should (and indeed can) move beyond such self-imposed restrictions and let music come into its own and into the picture: the sound image that is film. This is because there always is a way to pushing the boundaries and create something original!

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