Some of the best new sounds I’ve lately heard are on the soundtrack of Punch-Drunk Love, a marvelous, mostly unpredictable romantic comedy directed by P. T. Anderson, who also did Magnolia. This movie, like Magnolia, is almost an art film in pop-film guise, or maybe the reverse, a pop film in art-film disguise. I felt almost enchanted as I watched it. Adam Sandler is an inept single guy with a business that sells, absurdly, gag toilet plungers; Emily Watson is the unsure woman who grabs onto him. As their romance slides toward an ending that looks like it has to be happy (in the best Hollywood style), I began to grouse, thinking everything might be wrapped up too neatly, that the suppressed (or maybe not so suppressed) violence in the lovers would be swept under the nearest, classiest rug. But as Watson spoke the film’s final line—words that somehow sound both grounded and totally crosseyed—I saw that Anderson was way ahead of me. He’d thought of everything I groused about, and left his lovers shaking on what just might be the edge of a cliff.
Now, there’s a soundtrack album, a really nice one, released, appropriately enough, on Nonesuch, which because it’s an art label with pop leanings is a perfect match for the movie. But the sounds I loved most were on the actual film soundtrack, though the CD does give some idea of how sound can work in the movie, for instance on the first track, simply called “Overture.” For the first 40 seconds, all we hear are sonic scraps—the faintest sound of wind, then unstable soft chittering, later a click, and (among other things) some bells, and a distant empty roar.
These are layered together more or less the way the sounds are in the film, and maybe in fact they are sounds from the film; I don’t remember. What I remember best are other collage effects, among them scraps of real-world noise, like the faint chatter of a TV far in the background while something dramatic (and unhinged) unfolds onscreen. The TV voices take the place of music on the soundtrack and in fact replace any formal underscoring. As far as I could see, the TV sounds weren’t synchronized in any way with the flow of the scene. They were just there, as they often are in life. I remember a juxtaposition like that in a Czech theater production I saw decades ago. The piece was highly stylized, but was performed in a former storefront with a picture window, so alongside the formality was the random sight of people walking by on the street outside, or stopping to peer in and watch. At one point a goat was tethered on stage, walking (within the limits of the tether) at random, goatwise, while the actors made their solemn, formal moves.
My favorite sonic moment in Punch-Drunk Love comes in a supermarket, when Sandler, searching for products with a special offer on them (don’t ask), opens a freezer door to get at the frozen food. All at once we hear a tiny freezer whine, precisely layered on top of silence. This, though, really is a cinematic underscore, building just the right amount of tension into the scene, tension that’s if anything screwed even higher because you feel the sound more than you hear it.
There’s also music on the soundtrack (by Jon Brion, a songwriter with a fine ear and a deft, wry touch who also has a weird live show that plays Los Angeles clubs,) that sometimes functions very much like random sound. He’ll create, for instance, pattering light recurrent drums, heard on the second track of the CD (under the title “Tabla,”) blended with electronic beeps and what might be the sound of waves. The drums of course might be electronic as well. For an instant there’s a little scrap for flute and strings, which intrudes surprisingly, just as (reversing a more common pattern) jabs of noise would intrude in more melodic music. There’s more rhythmic patter on track four, “Hands and Feet,” this time higher-pitched, sounding like some of it might be played on a xylophone made of water. In the movie, sounds like these seem to go well with Sandler’s jitters.
And finally on the soundtrack there’s dialogue that itself has musical rhythm, when Sandler walks away from Watson’s door after their first date, cursing himself for his lame goodbye: “Bye-bye…asshole…bye-bye…stupid motherfucker…” Those aren’t the words, but they’re something like that. Here the acting itself tumbles downward into the background sounds in the film. And in fact, since these words underscore a shot of Sandler, seen distantly from behind, careening down a corridor in the building where Watson lives, they function more like an underscore than like acting. We don’t see him speak; we just hear his words, almost as we might hear a voice behind one of the apartment doors he passes.
Brion’s music (especially as orchestrated by Thomas Pasatieri) is pretty wonderful. He gave—I assume it was him—the soundtrack CD its own continuity, more or less in the style of the film, but of course with a life and sound all its own. “Overture” sets the tone, and establishes the sense of collage that informs the whole CD. First, as I’ve said, we hear noises. Then a gentle waltz-time oom-pah, with a wistful three-note melody cloaking it, repeating like waves breaking on a beach. Then an oboe tune, in two waves, with electronic shudders rising beneath the second one. And then strings, rising to a certified Big Tune, a kind of goofy love waltz, though very tender, which melts away without ever finishing. It melts into low-key singing, more background noises, and finally the sound of an orchestra tuning up.
Then of course comes “Tabla,” with its rhythmic patter and its ocean waves (which might be there because a key stretch of the film is shot on and near the beach in Hawaii, a prosaic thought).
And then track three (“Punch-Drunk Melody”) takes us back to the waltz, though now the music sprouts new ideas, nothing forceful, but still new. Soon it rises once more into the sweet, goofy tune, again with fine, rich strings, and again melting away, this time into almost boneless oom-pahs that mark time quietly, swinging back and forth, finally joined by echoes from one of the melodic wisps at the start of the track. I love the way these are mixed, so they sound like tiny ghosts of violins, making me wonder why classical composers don’t use recording studios this way. Why do we almost always write acoustic music, or else music meant to be amplified or altered electronically, but still heard live, and then recorded naturalistically? Why don’t we use the art of the studio (available for hardly any money on our own computers), to create pieces directly for recording?
What emerges, as the CD takes shape, is a pattern: alternate tracks of waltz and of other kinds of music and sound, these last being much less structured, and—speaking conventionally, now—much less “musical.” Each time the waltz pops up, it evolves, hanging around just a little longer before it melts away. It visits on a tack piano, and way down on track 13, with a Latin beat, and grows to a very peaceful climax, of sorts, on track 14, “Third Floor Hallway” (site of the lovers’ first kiss), where the love tune returns in its pristine orchestral dress, and finally plays to a conclusion.
Though the conclusion (typically wistful) comes barely one minute into a track that’s three and half minutes long. So what happens in the rest of that time? Oom-pahs, in their now-familiar holding pattern, plus reminiscences of waltz scraps from previous tracks, and then finally another stab at the tune, but this time varied in a way that makes it sound more like a memory than a restatement. The CD never delivers any conventional payoff; it never surges to the kind of full-blooded climax the love tune could easily suggest. For three tracks, in fact, it wanders off into oddball songs, borrowed from elsewhere, in styles ranging from Hawaiian to rockabilly. There’s also a song on the next to last track, an almost Beatle-esque Jon Brion tune specially written for the film, which uses some of the waltz wisps. The final track gives us an instrumental remix of one of the borrowed songs, which does finally bring the CD to a full stop on a stable tonic chord—except that this track is full of things that don’t quite add up, including (and I really love this) just one quick foreshortened single note of singing, which was sampled from the vocals of the original song, and in fact is all that’s left of them. It’s also interesting that, early on the CD, the pattern tracks are a lot longer than the melodic ones. Taken as a whole, the CD is a collage (as many individual tracks also are), which again makes it, in spirit at least, a lot like the movie’s real soundtrack.
So, why couldn’t Punch-Drunk Love be an opera? Or, to put it another way, why aren’t new operas as fresh, fun, and contemporary as Punch-Drunk Love? This is a paradox. Here we have a movie that might not be runaway smash-hit, but still has been a success, staying for weeks on the list of top-ten movie grosses. Obviously, lots of people like it, surely more people than go to new operas. But then on the other hand we have new operas, which seem cautious and conventional next to this movie, as if they were afraid of displeasing an audience—even though the movie has a bigger audience than they do.
Which suggests, of course, something we know is true—that opera lives in its own, resoundingly conventional universe. Of course there are things in the opera world that don’t fit this universe, starting with the whole range of so-called experimental music theater (Meredith Monk, and the like); plus Regietheater, the modernist (and postmodernist) restagings of familiar opera repertoire, common in Europe but mostly damned in the backward U.S.; plus all sorts of newer European works. But none of this is especially welcome in American opera houses, which is exactly my point. Opera claims to be high art, yadda yadda yadda, then gets outgunned in artistry by popular culture. Another film that teaches this lesson, and more directly than Punch-Drunk Love, is Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge, a music-theater piece that’s far more edgy and delightful than anything I’ve seen at any opera house lately.
But then how would anyone write an opera with music that works like the soundtrack of Punch-Drunk Love? Take that moment in the supermarket, with its tiny freezer whine. You could create something like it on an opera stage. The Adam Sandler character would open the freezer door, just as he does in the movie, and the metallic freezer whine, more felt than heard, could be created electronically, played on a recording, or emulated with canny orchestration. It could come out of silence, as it does in the film, or show up as an uneasy addition to whatever music (or other sound) accompanied the Sandler character as he shopped. Opera always has allowed such things, and in fact subtle sonic shifts are a great delight in an opera score deft enough to allow them.
And certainly the language of new music, as it’s evolved in the last hundred years, allows for noise in music—electronics, recordings, anything you want. But most opera composers, with a moment like the supermarket freezer to bring alive, would evoke it with orchestral music in a recognized operatic style. That can be disappointing, as it is, for instance, at the start of Carlisle Floyd‘s Of Mice and Men. George and Lennie are running away from the cops, so as they come on stage, we hear police sirens far away, a gripping sound. And then Floyd’s music starts, and, at least to my ear, the moment dies, since the music is much more predictable than the sirens were. The sirens ought to be the music, or at least the music could take off from the sirens, or weave the sirens into itself, the way Wagner wove offstage horns into the start of the second act of Tristan.
But the supermarket moment, treated in punch-drunk style, has problems in an opera house. You write one moment like this, and surely you’ll have to write others, so your work has a consistent sound. Soon your score becomes a collage, including many non-operatic elements, and that has implications for the singing. What kind of vocal style would be appropriate? Probably a collage of vocal styles, none of them, perhaps, conventionally operatic… Or maybe there wouldn’t be any singing at all, making the piece opera only because all of it would be entirely shaped by music. So now we have an opera that might not need opera singers, and, for that matter, might not need a normal orchestra. Who’s going to stage that? Maybe the Next Wave, or the Lincoln Center Festival, but surely not an opera house!
Which makes me think (though this is a much longer story) that the classical music mainstream isn’t a good home for art.