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Avant-garde Film Music

Music has always played a crucial role in the cinema. Even during the earliest days of filmmaking, silent films often depended on live musical accompaniment to enhance the action and drama in the absence audible dialogue. The concept of musical underscoring for film took several years after the introduction of sound to establish itself, but by the mid-1930s, underscoring was an accepted convention.

Master film composers like Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold specialized in thickly orchestrated, Wagnerian thematics that could make even bad films watchable, and because of the music’s considerable emotional power, good films great. Composers like Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann adopted less emotional but nonetheless evocative techniques. In the 1950s and 1960s, tastes changed and full orchestra scores went out of fashion, replaced by song scores or more tinkly, less bombastic confections. Jazz also became popular in movies for a brief period.

But, the orchestral score made a comeback in the 1970s and 1980s, led by composers like the inventive Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, who appropriated many orchestral techniques from composers like Korngold and Steiner (Eyman and Gianetti 155). And, while conventional film scoring has created musical scenes and themes that are ingrained in the collective consciousness, innovative film composers like Bernard Herrmann, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Erik Satie used avant-garde techniques to create some of the most memorable music in cinematic history.

Avant-garde style is a case of existence preceding essence, as the ideals of experimentation and innovation have existed for millennia, but essence of the avant-garde has only truly been recognized in every aspect of art, music, and social movements for just over a century. Considered as almost an accompaniment to modernism, avant-garde artists were praised as well as condemned for their innovative techniques and break from the traditional styles of the time.

While many mainstream critics and fans of art were quick to recognize the social significance of the avant-garde as a statement of the breakneck speed of the ever-changing modern world, others rejected its innovation and politics. However, the avant-garde continued to permeate every aspect of society throughout the twentieth century, eventually losing some of its impact as so many avant-garde artists entered into the mainstream. While this newfound acceptance went a long way in illuminating the creative aspects of the avant-garde to the masses, it also robbed it of some of its greater social meaning.

Regardless of the mainstream acceptance, avant-garde and popular artists continued to push the boundaries of art and challenge their audiences to continue expanding their tastes and minds. Some of the greatest success from the avant-garde came in the collaboration between filmmakers and musicians, who would often combine their talents to create some of the most memorable images and sounds in cinematic and music history. Bernard Herrmann scored films of some of the greatest directors in film, including Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Francois Truffaut.

The first film Herrmann ever scored was Citizen Kane, considered by many film critics to be the best film ever made. Herrmann’s work only continued to grow in scope and experimentation, until finally reaching its artistic peak in his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. While Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most recognizable names in movie history, his success is owed in large part to Hermann’s memorable scores, who helped create the atmosphere of some of Hitchcock’s most famous films. Perhaps, no single piece of music in film history is more famous than the screaming strings that accompany the shower scene in Psycho.

A radical departure from conventional string music, the harsh, cutting strings create a tone of slashing, maniacal menace inherent in the mind of Norman Bates. The music adds considerable drama and horror to the scene, which remains one of the all-time classic cinematic scenes. But, the shower scene in Psycho was only one element to the genius of Hermann to create menace and a sense of urgency through music. The music that accompanies the title sequence echoes the escape, agitated and moving.

The scenes of Janet Leigh driving through the rain, anxious yet determined, are enhanced by the driving strings of Herrmann and set an atmosphere of tension. Many of Hitchcock’s films relied on tension, and Hermann was an expert at creating it through his music. In Vertigo, Hermann adds to the main character’s sense of fear and alienation by adding a score of dizzying arpeggios that reflect the mindset of the character and his disorder. With Hitchcock’s brilliant editing, the music works perfectly to complete a complex array of musical motifs that reflect the main character’s obsession for a woman.

As sound consultant on The Birds, Hermann again showed his innovative techniques by editing electronically-generated bird sounds together in a unique “sound construction” (“Bernard Herrmann”). While the film has no musical score the bird sounds combine to create a terrifying noise. Hermann’s successful collaboration came to an abrupt end after he and Hitchcock disagreed on the score for Torn Curtain, with Hitchcock wanting a more jazz and pop score, and Hermann wanting a classical score.

The music of Hermann continues to influence musicians and filmmakers today, and his contribution to modern film remains undeniably significant. Another successful collaboration between two gifted artists in different mediums was between filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Like Hitchcock, Kubrick was a master filmmaker, and by the time he began making 2001: A Space Odyssey, he had already made some of America’s most classic and socially-relevant films. The science fiction epic, written with the assistance of Arthur C. Clarke, would prove to be Kubrick’s most ambitious and artistic film to date.

The innovative special effects, poetic scenery, sparse dialogue and themes of isolation create a movie that is mystical in its depiction of the future and existential realities. The music used in 2001 follows many of the conventions of other science fiction films, showing the contrasts between chaos and order, technology and morality. Accordingly, the movie also uses music that represents each of these polar oppositions, through classical selections to represent the almost mundane world of technology, and the avant-garde music of Ligeti to accompany the chaos and revelations throughout the film.

According to film historian Timothy E. Scheurer, Kubrick’s musical juxtapositions work by creating a paradoxical unity: “The musical language of his selections in actuality does not stray far from the conventions of scoring for the classic science fiction film, but their recognizability (or lack of it in the case of the Ligeti works) allows them to simultaneously complement the action on the screen in classic film scoring fashion while also functioning in a contrapuntal fashion” (Scheurer 13).

The fact that many of Ligeti’s pieces in the film are atonal and dissonant, as well as failing to match the action on screen, they have an added futuristic feel and force the viewer to see the screen images in a different way than conventional scoring would. The contrast of classical pieces with Ligeti’s avant-garde music reinforces Kubrick’s view of technology and discovery as something that can lead to new worlds of infinite creativity and knowledge, or simply trap humanity in a cycle of monotony.

Ligeti’s music associated with the mysterious monolith “captures dramatically and in an unsettling manner the rush and commingling of the creative and the destructive. The seeming atonal chaos of the voices captures perfectly the dynamic and mercurial ebb and flow of the creative experience. It is as though the singers’ voices are rising out of a void, struggling to reach some sort of resolution but then butting up against another set of voices (i. e. , new ideas, images, inspirations) struggling for the same” (Scheurer 7).

Kubrick and Ligeti collaborated thirty years on the film Eyes Wide Shut, where Kubrick used the second movement of Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata” throughout the film. The music helped create the sense of alienation that pervades the film, and its stark piano notes show again the innovation of Ligeti. Disregarding the ideals of classical music, the piece uses unusual transitions and only three tones. Like his work in 2001, combined with Kubrick’s direction, it creates an unsettling and striking combination.

Preceding the films of both Kubrick and Hitchcock were the films of Rene Clair. The French avant-garde filmmaker helped define modern film and its possibilities, and became an early innovator in avant-garde music in film with the help of composer Erik Satie. Satie scored Entr’acte for Clair in 1924, producing an amazing combination of visuals and sounds. The score follows the film, which is largely non-narrative, though the second half loosely follows the progress of a funeral procession.

Clair’s interest in the film clearly lays in camera effects, movement, and creating a visual fluidity through the modern affection for fragmentation. While there are virtually no stationary shots in the entire film, the scenes short and constantly moving, Satie’s score creates a cohesiveness that pulls the elements together and keeps the film from fading into a confusing mess of images and motion (Rowley). Satie’s music was known for its minimalism, and in Clair’s movie, the music is simple and repetitive, which allowed the constant motion of the film to remain grounded.

Many of Satie’s piano pieces were echoed in the work of later composers, including Ligeti’s simple, repetitive piece in Eyes Wide Shut. The avant-garde music of Hermann, Ligeti, and Satie helped create some of the most memorable film music ever and encouraged experimentation and progressivism in music. Far different from conventional artists, they each adhered to the same basic ideals of independence, originality, and innovation. When working with talented directors, their music enhanced the films and influenced scores of other filmmakers and musicians.

A unifying theme that runs through the avant-garde scores of films seems to be the juxtaposition of images and music, whether from 2001’s static shots of a motionless monolith underscored by the chaotic music of Ligeti, or the chaotic action of Clair’s Entr’acte backed by the simple music of Satie. And, while evocative images and music could most likely stand well as separate pieces of art, when combined by talented avant-garde artists, they become an unshakable transcendent experience that often stays in the heart and the mind for a lifetime. Works Cited:

“Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) – perfect partner to Hitchcock thrillers. ” Mfiles. 2007. 27 Apr 2008. <http://www. mfiles. co. uk/index. htm>. Eyman, Scott and Gianetti, Louis. Flashback: A Brief History of Film. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991. Rowley, Caitlin. “Satie and minimalism: Parallels & points of contact. ” erik satie’s crystal ball. 2002. 27 Apr 2008. <http://www. comcen. com. au/~carowley/points. htm>. Scheurer, Timothy E. “The score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. ” Journal of Popular Film and Television. Winter, 1998. 27 Apr 2008. <http://www. mfiles. co. uk/composers/Bernard-Herrmann. htm>.

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