Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the cinema of music

"There's a role that music plays in just filling up the screen. You don't necessarily hear every detail, but it's behind all the action, it's around all the action -- in the front of it, on the sides."

"One thing you don't want is for the music to become self-conscious, for the music to draw attention to itself. It really needs to be in the film, not sitting on top of the film."

"It really takes the right notes, the right gesture, the right amount of activity at the right time..."

- James Newton Howard

Musicians and filmmakers who intuitively grasp their art form have a way of tapping into the mysteries of perception, movement, and memory, and how they relate to each other. There are striking remblances between music and cinema. One can even say that cinema is a kind of musical expression, or that music has a cinematic-like motion.

These were thoughts I had while watching Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, a movie about law, corporate corruption, and social responsibility. Involving from start to finish, the film has a consistent line of quality regarding formal details, such as writing, acting, lighting, etc. I was surprised with the amount of very distinct moments in Michael Clayton that were like little cinematic universes to themselves. By that I mean the kind of moments that breach that elusive momentary sublimity that the best cinema constructs. These moments creep in, out, and around the movie, despite never really defining it. Sometimes it's a simple composition of a darkly lit street or office building corridor, or a well-acted and crisply-written exchange between two actors. Other times it is an intangible abstraction within seemingly simple movements. These moments often occur when the movement of sound and image interact together.

One of these moment occurs at end of the film, as Clayton (George Clooney) walks away from Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) as authorities swarm the premises. He walks directly toward the camera in a simple, evocative shot of hotel lobby area. As Clayton walks from the lobby to the escalator, the musical score enters into the image with just the right sound, speed, and rhythms to imbue the images with nobility and finality. A subtle piano chord accompanies these long shots of Clooney exiting the hotel and getting into a cab. It's a simple theme, consisting of only a few notes, but it compliments the images and the catharsis of the movie's climax to an extent that they breathe outside the typical Cathartic Climax you so commonly see at the end of a film. Until that point in the movie, the score is hardly noticeable. It features eletronics and ambient sounds, and builds subtle motifs for various moments and characters. But at the end, despite it still remaining quiet, it enables the climax a kind of fresh catharsis, one that hits the right note without overstating it. The sustained string chords and the extended shot of Clooney's face in the back of the taxi cab make for one of the more memorable film endings of 2007. Both the image and the music to "fit" each other. Neither would be right without the other.

The music was written by James Newton Howard, one of the more prominent composer of American film scores today. Howard seems to grasp not just musical theory and composition, with a strong knowledge of classical tradition of both the western orchestra and film scores as well as a keen ear for contemporary arrangements and electronic ambiance. Yet unlike many prominent film composers who write for Hollywood studio films, Howard understands the role of music in cinema. Music itself is a kind of cinema. In a recent video interview, Howard discussed the frequencies of music, noting that certain notes have particular textural and sensual properties. Many musicians have noted this in the past, but Howard's explanation of this notion of particularly interesting. He says:

"I've always felt that all music comes from the same source. I visualize a gigantic shpere --maybe it's a universe itself-- and from that sphere is basically everything that already exists. Because let's face it: everything in music already exists. It's just a matter of unravelling certain things and uncovering certain numbers of layers and finding things that were there. We're not inventing any frequencies. The frequencies exist in physics. They have always existed; they're there. The patterns of frequencies, the relationship of frequencies to each other, the timbres involved -- they're all pieces of some wonderful puzzle that a composer takes and puts together in whatever way [she or he] is able to to form a musical idea. But the salient idea for me is that its already there; it's there floating all around us. it's just a question of getting out of one's own way and letting it kind of come to you. That's really all I do. I spend most of my time trying to get out of my own way."

James Newton Howard would make a very good film critic. His understanding of music stretches beyond music, and seems to have more to do with the plane of sensory perception, i.e. experience. When we evaluate movies or pieces of music as cohesive wholes, all we have to go on is our memory if the chain of moments. These moments don't have specific starting or end points, but are instead multi-varied, ambiguous, and constantly bouncing off of each other. Our experience of perceptual stimulii of any kind seems to come down to how we arrange those moments, how we pluck them from the plane of experience and structure them to make sense, to mean. They cannot be reduced to mere linearities, boxed into symptoms or descriptions, but instead function assemblages of sound, memory, and emotion. The specific sensation of one single note or image is difficult to isolate from the rest of the experience and examined; it is changing along with the image and/or music.

In art, or narrative in general, we arranged images and sounds in recognizable patterns according to visual or musical vocabulary so that the viewer/listener may perceive them and situate them according to the pre-established clusters of visual and musical information. But the essence of cinema, and music as well, is in the experience of those sensations. It's not about understanding or interpreting, but seeing, hearing, feeling. The most effective cinematic and musical compositions are about moments that we experience in unison with various other moments, which we then reconstruct in our memories to form a greater sense of a shot, a scene, or a film, or a note, a bridge, and melody. The only difference is that we see images and hear music. But do we not also hear images and see music?

Although we have been socialized to experience and understand perceptual stimuli in a heavy categorical manner—i.e. sight, touch, taste, etc.—one could argue that sensual perception is a far more fluid process, and that we only condition ourselves to separate and distinguish between them. Artistic expressions like cinema or music employ all of the senses to construct and consume. Some would argue they even incorporate different ones. To "see" a film is to hear it, to touch it, to smell it, to taste it.

This idea is the greater basis for a more Deleuzian definition of cinematic movement, in which the movement-image is not exlusively a visual phenomenon, but also an auditory one, a musical one. Images—even those without sounds—are rhythmic, auditory, even musical. By the same token, cinematic sound deeply embodies the aesthetics of fluid motion and movements in an image. Movement and sound are entwined together. And that's the beauty of each. Cinema and music are the same expression insofar that they each dive into the senses and innate processes of sensation, thought, and lived experience.

We can analyze cinema from a particular theoretical perspective, e.g. Lacanian psycoanalysis or Bordwellian cognitivism, but as useful as it is learn about a film's thematic meaning or systematic relations, perhaps cinema creates a new kind of sensual experience that goes beyond the universalization of experience, which many of said bodies of concepts purport. Maybe it's difficult to recognize how perfect cinema really is because we've broken it down via theoretical or empirical means. But the Deleuzian cinema is right there in front of us. Maybe we just need to know how to see it.

What are some other movies or movie moments that capture this fleeting wonderment of sound and motion?


Joe Baker said...

A few pieces that instantly pop into my mind include Georges Delerue's lush, evocative scores for films like "Contempt" or even "Platoon". His scores are pretty much characters of their own. I also thought Alezxander Desplat's score for "Birth", especially the opening long take, compliment the images quite well.

Damian Arlyn said...

Great post, Ted (as usual). :)

It's funny that you should write today about the music of Michael Clayton because I finally saw it just last night and one of the first things that struck me about it was the music. From the film's opening sequence (a montage of shots showing a building an empty law offices at night with the sound of Tom Wilkinson's voice passionately spouting nonsense) I was already beginning to feel "thrilled" by the film and as I think the music heard during that whole sequence--an slow-building, almost "action-style" cue--played a big part of it. Incidentally, I don't recall one other cue from that film that reached the same level of excitement until the climactic "car chase," to which, interestingly, the outcome had already been revealed.

I've long been a big fan of James Newton Howard. While he is, for me at least, not quite in the same league as John Williams or Danny Elfman perhaps, he is nonetheless one of the better filmmusic composers working today. His wonderful score for the Ivan Reitman film Dave--frequently heard in other movie trailers and TV spots--is one of my personal favorites. I also like The Fugitive and the work he does for M. Knight Shyamalan (particularly Unbreakable).

This will probably come as no surprise to you, but whenever I think about the way a symbitotic relationship between a movie's sound (particularly music) and images can, as you say, create "fleeting wonderment," I always tend to come back to the "map room" scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I wrote (and yes, I was the one who wrote it) in my analysis of Raiders last year:

The following sequence where Indy is lowered into the map room in order to use the staff of Ra to determine the location of the Ark's hiding place is an inherently cinematic scene. There is no dialogue. The methodical process by which Indy figures out which hole to place the staff into is done all in pantomime and as the music builds (prominently featuring Williams' memorable "Ark theme") so does the audience's anticipation of what will occur. Finally, at the appropriate time a beam of light (another Spielbergian trademark) strikes the spot that Indy was looking for. It is a marvelous marriage of images and music and, like a lot of the set pieces in Raiders, functions both in context of the story and as its own "mini-movie."

That's what most strikes me about that sequence whenever I watch it to this day. Without Williams' music it's an extremely mundane, almost boring, collection of shots... that is, until the beam of light hits and we get a sudden burst of visual splendor. The images are entirely reliant upon the music for their visceral impact. It's almost as if the music were expressing Indy's state of mind, his growing anticipation of the relic's revelation. He knows he's on the verge of a great discovery and as he patiently ivestigates the clues and follows the prescribed rituals set down for him, his excitement (and by extension, the audience's) continues to build until we have the final cathartic "release" that you mention. It's interesting to me that while Raiders is filled with so many wonderful, incredible, memorable, funny and thrilling scenes, what may perhaps be the single most purely cinematic sequence in the entire film is hardly ever mentioned.

Anyway, this comment is already too long, so I'll end it by confessing to some ignorance regarding this "Deleuzian" theory of cinema that you have mentioned, but you have intrigued me to the point that I now know I shall have to stuyd it further. From what little you have described here, I think it sounds like it makes a lot of sense.

Benjamin Wright said...

Another fine post, Ted. Your insights on Howard's work on Michael Clayton have spurred me to reconsider the music in the film. I initially dismissed the music as filling the function of "sound design" -- a trap of many contemporary scores. You can read my comments at my blog (

But your notion of music and movement seems to make real sense in this case.

I found John Powell's scores for the Bourne series to be very effective at capturing the tension and constant movement experienced by Bourne. Even "happier" or "lighter" scenes, including the beach scene at the beginning of Supremacy, contain driving, rhythmic motifs that keep pace with the lightning-fast editing.

Again, nice work.

WelcometoLA said...

I hate to be the contrarian (sort of), but the blandness of James Newton Howard's work is EXACTLY what is wrong with film music today. It is not memorable in a general sense. Nobody hums it. Nobody makes a Top 40 hit out of the theme. It is not melodic. It is just background filler and swelling strings or strung-together dramatic notes. It is not music. There was a time, and not so long ago, when movie music, even the cues, could be expected to be much more than that. In fact, the only people you ever hear talking about film music are film fanatics. That is not good. Today's film music does not translate beyond the confines of the film itself, and that is what is wrong with it. Film music used to add another layer to a film. Something you could take with you outside the theater. It doesn't anymore. It has obscured itself in plain sight, become just another part of the palette instead of defining it. Too bad for all of us.

Ted Pigeon said...

Joseph: I've heard a lot of good things about Birth, both the film and score. And Desplat is one of my favorite "new" composers. I'll have to bring this film up a few notches in my queue.

Damian: Great summation of the Map Room sequence in Raiders. Of all of Spielberg's films and movie moments, that one may be his most defining when it comes to the marriage of sight and sound. I love the deliberate slowness of everything: the editing is sparse, the camera moves very slowly, and there are is a rhythmic variation between close-ups, mid-shots, and long shots. Williams imbues the speed of the motion with a very slow piece of music; not a lot of notes. But like the images, the music is absolutely wondrous. Perhaps the most evocative "simple" piece of music I've ever heard. It's trumpet rolling climax is stirs me to this day.

Benjamin: I can't comment at length on your observations about Powell's Bourne scores, but I hope to do so soon. I will say that the visual and auditory aesthetics of these films is fascinating, and Powell's score functions more as aiding the rapid ryhthm of the images rather than melodic accompaniment.

Larry: Contrarian perspectives are always welcome! I definitely understand your complaint about contemporary film music being quite bland. I wouldn't disagree with the general sentiment and I wish film scoring were looked upon more positively in film criticism circles and film journalism as a whole. Even in the filmmaking community, film music seems to be somewhat devalued. The days of Herrmann, Tiomkin, Waxman, and Steiner are certainly long behind us.

But I think there is still a fair amount of decent, even very good film music out there. It's just dispersed mostly from mainstream Hollywood. It lacks a recognizable centre like it once did, but then again, doesn't all of cinema. In the digital age, in which linearities have been fractured into a growing diversity of film styles, genres, and types, it's hard to say there is a unifying core of ideas binding anything together, Moreover, film aesthetics now have gradually moved away from film music styles that would allow big thematic development or familar motifs like in the Golden Age.

I understand this is your criticism, essentially, but I would argue that there is now a plurality of really interesting film music that bridges older more symphonic and leitmotivic styles with more subtle approaches, or electronically-based ambiance. I agree that there is a lot of sameness and blandness in many film scores, and that much of it is filler background material, but I wouldn't make the judgment that because something is subtle or quiet, that it's merely abiding by standard conventions of filler music.

James Newton Howard for example, almost never writes background music. He writes in a style that often doesn't call attention to the music as music, per se, but as a musical embodiment of the moving image. He honors classical traditions of film scoring, but at the same time he deviates from them, at least in my perspective.

He writes bombastic orchestral music, e.g. King Kong, Vertical Limit, Waterworld, but also finds a strong role for music, i.e. adding a new layer over a film you wouldn't think calls for it, in many of M. Night Shyamalan's films, wherein the music really breathes a unique atmosphere and life into each movie, most especially in Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village.

The interesting thing about Michael Clayton is that it's mostly a background type of score, aiming more to aid in building atmosphere than imbuing the film with an added layer. Which I think is what the film calls for. It's not a overtly musical film, at least from a composer's standpoint. That's why I was so surprised with the ending, when Howard quietly brings his score full circle and elevates it into a status that it didn't seem to be building towards, but actually was (in subtle ways).

WelcometoLA said...

Boy, I really hate his score for King Kong. It's the Muzak version of symphonic scoring. In my opinion. And, yes, I do like Desplat here and there (The Upside of Anger theme, some of his music for Syriana.) But there's just no muscle to this generation of music, though my desire for that might simply be my preference. I don't care for quiet interludes when it comes to film music. I'm not sure I'm buying this genre splitting argument. It's just a way of working around the glaring lack of melodic strength. But you make a very good point that it mirrors the general weaknesses across the board in mainstream films today.