Mediamatic | Special: Ear Issue

Whistling in the Dark

Pondering the cinéma d'hier, cinéma d'aujourdhui, early French director René Clair once attempted to conceive how the film music of the future would sound: "The sound-film will probably produce a completely new genre of music (–) one so closely connected with film that the two are practically inseparable." It took a while, but that genre has come.

It is as anonymous as the muzak which softens the hard reality of compulsive consumption in supermarkets, and works just as subtly. We hardly notice them anymore: the soft strings behind a kissing scene, the throbbing chords pervading a nightly shoot-out, the shrill tones over an open grave. But they are present and exist exclusively in films. Outside of the film, they would immediately shrivel, like a parasite without a host.

At first sight, it would seem that Clair’s hopes haven’t come true. The music commonly used in films and videos is not new: it is the spit‘n image of another, earlier music genre. Film music doesn’t have a musical definition. Film music tout court doesn’t exist, because it only becomes film music when it is heard in a film. When heard in a film, all music becomes film music. Outside of the film, it becomes music like any other, as good or as bad.

What might there be between the notes that makes some music inseparable from the filmed image? What makes all those pale imitations of Romantic program music, variations on schemes of Schubert, Mendelsohn, Wagner, Mahler and Strauss, cleverly lifted bits of Impressionists like Debussy, Ravel and Satie, attach themselves to the film image as though they really belong there?

Music can only broadly and bluntly emphasize what the image shows us in fine detail. Music is never more than a commentary on the image, it is never an organic part of a film, like set sound, voices, dialogues, or decor and lighting. The only exception proves this rule: when music is a part of the film – the radio is playing, someone is singing, a tape is being played – we don’t experience it first and foremost as music, but see it as a part of the action – someone turns the knob, the singer gazes longingly at the femme fatale, the brass band welcomes the heroes home.

Compensation of Silence
Music, in a word, takes up a place of its own when it gets involved with film. The most workable theory of the origins of the use of music in film is not based on its role as illustrator of the action, but on what two early theoreticians, Adorno and Eisler, called: whistling in the dark. A banal variation of this theory has it that the brothers Lumière hired a pianist for the very first film showing (28-12-1895) to drown out the disturbing racket made by the projector, thus softening the cold mechanical sounds of the process with more festive ones. A more sophisticated formula is the one which resulted in Adorno’s association: the piano’s main function wasn’t to drown out the projector, but to calm the fear of the audience. Because the first moving pictures were pervaded by an abnormal silence, which formed an astonishing contrast to the moving visual reality portrayed on the screen. The music was there to calm the audience, the same way a child whistles in the dark [Arthur Kleiner in Filmkritik no.255, 1978]. All soundless forms of theatre (pantomime, juggling, circus) are accompanied by music. There is something unmistakably threatening about complete silence on a podium or in a film, as if the eye becomes disoriented and tends to look about anxiously when the ear no longer hears anything. In silent film, just as in the silent theatre genres, the silence, commonly associated with immobility, had to be compensated for. [Zofia Lissa, Ästhetik der Filmmusik, Berlin, 1965]

An interesting expansion of this theory – if somewhat hineininterpretiert – has been offered by French film/music theoretician Michel Chion: It is commonly thought that the rhythmic chook-chook of the music accompanies and accentuates the emotion of the characters in the film. But is it not actually the forward rolling of the film images which is provided with music? Is film music not actually – behind the action’s back – connected to the mechanism of the film itself (–) to the obsessive mechanical principle (–) the blind slave of the law that the show must go on? [Le Son au Cinema, Paris, 1985, p.109]

In this light, film music is not merely an innocent comforter in the frightening silence surrounding moving images, a response to the horror vacui which continues to exist up to and beyond the advent of sound film and television, requiring that every silence be filled. It is an accomplice, not of the image, but of the mechanism: two time-based media collaborating to lull the spectator’s sense of time and transience – and, ultimately, reality – to sleep.

Like the song of a siren crooning her deceptive, attractive tones to the hypnotic motion of her hands, as they weave back and forth, combing her hair. And we, the spectators, sink slowly into sleep, in the depths of our unconscious.

To immediately resort to the Freudian concept of Todestrieb (as Chion does) is perhaps extreme, but the lulling function of film music has indeed been underestimated, in comparison to its function as accompaniment, accentuation or illustration of the movements and emotions of the actors and the action. But it is precisely in this lulling function that film music has finally found an inalienable form. Because while we claimed earlier that a musical definition of film music is not possible, the contours of a definition in the sense meant by René Clair seem to arise anyhow. Certain kinds of music, certain sounds, certain fundamental movements in music, mostly elaborating on the procedures of nineteenth century program music, which was conceived precisely with an eye to evoking images in the listeners and to ‘illustrating’, have now been used so often in films and on television, that it has become all but impossible not to think immediately of an image upon hearing them. The essential indifference of all those precisely orchestrated emotional accents towards concrete actions can be best illustrated by bicycling through the city while listening to any movie soundtrack on a walkman: the music will make film of any arbitrary series of images. The bicyclist feels himself the leading actor and woe betide him if he imagines himself in a film-noir.

The genre of music which immediately makes one think of film when one hears it, even if it is not associated with the name of one film in particular, now has a name: stock music or library music. It is the modern variant of the ‘stocks’ of adapted classical pieces, genre-pieces, standards, evergreens and pot-pourris used by those who played the accompaniment to silent films, just as did the programmers of music for the pianolas and orchestrions in vaudeville, circus and pantomime.

Department Store Smell
In the phonothèque of the Dutch Broadcasting Association, these libraries now take up a wall, comprising several thousands of cd’s from which the makers of films, documentaries, sports programs, the news, quiz shows, series, industrial films and advertisements can select musical accents. The library is adapted to all tastes, with several versions of each tune: long, short, quick, slow, indexed with terms from professional jargon such as flashes, stings, jingles, bridges, puns, logos, idents, openers, closers, underscores, soundbeds.

Scene: pan over shimmering company buildings under turbulent skies. Zoom-in on the doors swinging open, through which energetic and determined employees hasten towards swift elevator, etc. For scenes like this, the library possesses countless tracks, catalogued under descriptions such as positive themes, contemporary optimism and classy classics. For the above scene, we recommend a track from a cd from the latter category, from the Sonoton Recorded Music Library in Munich: Symphony no.40 (Mozart, arr. Helmut Brandenburg), orchestral pop version, duration: 2'36", 59" or 29".

The libraries cater to the ease and purse of the audio-visual producer. The tunes are free of any distracting virtuosity and from genial and disruptive interferences by composers. It is music which does not exist outside of film. Or, as Peter van Epen of av Music Publishers (labels: Koka music, Omnimusic, among others), puts it: Most underscores have no pretence of being music, and they shouldn’t have, either. av music has to be neutral, not too difficult, unobtrusive. The spectator shouldn’t remember any melody when the film is over. The point is not the music, but the effects with which the image can be reinforced. You have to keep people’s attention, mostly through the unconscious. The more boring the images, the more important the sound. 44 Videovisie, 3-91. René Clair’s completely new music genre smells of department store, of muzak, of the most anonymous functional music which we’re subjected to in elevators, supermarkets and shopping malls.

Scene: an abandoned street in a boring subdivision, above which the rising moon is barely visible through the yellowish mist. Shadowy figures creep towards the house. The brightly-lit windows indicate that the house is fully and exuberantly inhabited, but the music cues us that this is illusory, etc. Music: Static Link, from Dramatic Moods, links and bridges for various dramatic situations (90 players orchestra), also from Sonoton. Fourteen versions of the same, nine-second long orchestral chord, indexed as: (A) dark chord, (B) bright, glorious, (C) as above, shorter, (D) light dissonant, (E) uneasy, etc.

These stocks are a blessing to the music editor. They are neatly catalogued to be located at a glance. He can look at the labels and choose: Dramatic Moods, Rock Power, Transport, Industry, Action and Sports. Wonders whether to use synthesisers or real musical instruments, grabs a cd and has a thematically coherent collection of musical accents which fit virtually every mood he wants to evoke.

The rights to the libraries are paid through buma/stemra, or directly to the producer. And the rates are considerably lower than those paid for ‘ordinary’ music. Gerda Felleman, from one of the oldest and largest libraries, kpm: Completely different rates go for the rights to non-library repertoire... we noticed that during the Gulf crisis. Producers tightened their purse-strings, the ad companies did, too. They took less commercial copyrights, those prices went up into the five figure range. We noticed that: it was a very good time for the libraries. [Videovisie, 6-91]

Audio-visual wallpaper, sold by length. Ten thousand tunes for the winning or losing of a quiz (or a war: the frantic ditties used in the special Gulf broadcasts on current events programs were ‘stocks’, without exception). Thousands of clarion blasts to polish up the company image or provide a current affairs program with an up-to-date face. Hundreds of swooning violins to underline dramatic moments. These music bits will never be published separately as the soundtrack of a particular film, because they have been created for film in general. The ‘stocks’ are the indirect demonstration that a musical definition of film music can’t be given and isn’t necessary. Their primary function is not musical, but psychological. They are for general use wherever there is a need for an accent to emphatically indicate the artificiality of the image: this is film, not reality. They are working their way in everywhere, and can sometimes be dangerous: recently, in its recap of the year, the NOS (Dutch Broadcasting Service) nightly news showed heart-rending images of mutilated victims of the Yugoslavian civil war and of their bitterly sobbing relatives. To preserve the ‘end-of-the-year feeling’, they were underscored with a quasi-tragic ‘stock tune’, which immediately made the war-images indistinguishable from an over-sentimental American b-movie. Consolations of the obsessive-mechanical.

with Petra Pijnappels
translation jim boekbinder

max bruinsma