Moving Images

To 19th Century composers such as Wagner, opera had the potential of being a “total art,” integrating drama, dance, visual art and design, philosophy, and poetics within the grand embrace of music. And then along came the cinema. Putting a silver screen across a stage revolutionized the potential of location and reality in telling a story and in making a new “total art” in which music was not primary. The roles of composer and director shifted: in opera, a stage director can have great influence over how a story is told and perceived but must always work within the confines (if you will) of a composer’s musical score and fit the stage action within the music. In film, this relationship became reversed, usually forcing the composer to do the fitting of his or her music to the director’s timeline as made on film.

But as anyone who has seen a silent movie or watched a film with the sound off can tell you, music plays a huge and immeasurable role in the ultimate nature of a film. Watch The Shining without the sound of Bart—k’s tension-filled music and it’s not so scary anymore. And yet in the concert hall, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta doesn’t exactly scare your pants off. This is testament to the wonderful symbiosis that music and film can have. Just as music can have a dramatic effect upon the mood and disposition of a film and a story can truly become a different story with different music supporting it, the moving image can impart quite different connotations to the character of music and our perception of it.

Today, composers, filmmakers, and videographers are taking this symbiosis to deeper levels. The “qatsi” trilogy of Philip Glass and the collaborations of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot are well-known examples of expanding this relationship, and there are many others who are creating work in which music and digital moving image can interact and respond to each other in real time, free of one art form imposing a template on the other, with an elasticity akin to jazz.

One aspect of film that is rarely acknowledged is how motion pictures have succeeded in spreading a wide diversity of musical and sonic experiences to the wider public. Often unknowingly, millions of people have for years been listening to a tremendous stylistic variety of modern and contemporary music, music which they wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to in a concert hall setting. When classical music presenters offer the poor excuse that they fear programming work because their audience hasn’t heard anything like it, they might reconsider that most people today—thanks to the movies—have heard a wide palette of music.

While my experience in composing for film is limited, on the one occasion I had the opportunity (you didn’t see it…a bizarre indie thriller called Bury the Evidence), I fell in love with the process and the revelations of how powerfully emotive my music became when joined with moving image. What is your experience of music and film? And where do you see the relationship of music and film going in the future?