The Soundtrack: From Film to Essay

Ideas come along in the strangest way when you just pay attention . . . . The music has to marry with the picture and enhance it. . . . When it marries, you can feel it. The thing jumps; ‘a whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ kind of thing. –David Lynch, “Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity”

 Here’s to the best words in the right place at the perfect time to the human mind blown up and refined. / Here’s to long conversations and the philosophical ramifications of a beautiful day… / Here’s to the was you been, to the is you in, to what’s deep in deep and what’s down and down / to the lost and the blind, and the almost found. / Here’s to somebody within the sound of your voice this morning. / Here’s to somebody who can’t be within the sound of your voice tonight. / Here’s to a light buzz in your head, and a soundtrack in your mind / going on and on, and on and on and on—like a good time… –Sekou Sundiata, “Shout Out”

As listeners to the Tower of Song program know, the Gypsy Scholar’s radio essays are put to music, combining “Argument & Song”—thus the radio-text called the “Essay-with-Soundtrack.” (For an in-depth explanation of what this is all about, see the GS’s “Re-Vision Radio Manifesto & Visionary Recital” on his Program Guide, page 4, of his website.)  But what listeners don’t know is how the GS came to invent this unique radio-text. It was his interest and passion for the way soundtracks were used in films, which became elucidated when he began attending the history of film classes in college. Films of the late 60s and 70s, with their sixties music soundtracks, especially communicated the power and possibilities of the combo of image, dialogue, and music. (I should also just mention the initial influence of the poetry of the spoken-word set to background music—as in Jack Kerouac’s jazz-reading experiments—and later the spoken-word style of rap and hip-hop—especially the work of the late Sekou Sundiata, African-American poet and performer, as well as a teacher at The New School in New York City, whose famous students included musicians like Ani DiFranco.)

If my memory serves me well, the very first film that profoundly affected me with its 60s popular music soundtrack was Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967), which used songs from Simon and Garfunkel. But the first movie that really blew my mind was Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), because it actually had an entire music score adapted to it from the songs of my favorite modern troubadour, Leonard Cohen—awesome!

Through the intervening years, I found that the films I particularly enjoyed were those that not only had folk-rock and rock soundtracks, but those films that knew how to make the best of them—when and how they introduced the song. I mean, if a film introduced a song, like a love-song, at the perfect moment, potting it up slowly, and then taking over—no dialogue over it; the song is foreground and just plays, while the actions of the characters on screen become the imagistic background—, I would have something close to a mystical experience! Thus, I realized that the best way to use a soundtrack was to have the song connect and amplify the emotion of the scene as well as sum up its narrative content, driving the meaning home. (So films that used songs merely as interludes, which could have been any song, were much less interesting to me.) The last film that did this wonderfully was John Sayles’ Limbo, using Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day.” I have noticed that, in the last two decades of filmmaking, a few directors just love to use Van Morrison’s music for their love stories. I have seen at least three films in the genre of “Romantic Comedies” whose last scene of union between the two lovers goes out with a Van song, and into the credits—totally awesome! It makes you hear the song in a totally new way (which is what the GS tries to do with the way he con-textual-izes the songs for his musical essays). Therefore, I have been inspired by and learned a great deal from film soundtracks. (And I have even found new songs to play for my musical essays from film soundtracks.)

These days, what fascinates me is the way film and music seems to have perfectly merged—the soundtrack no longer secondary to the film. Once more, I love intellectual discussions about music’s relation to film. That is why, when I heard KUSP’s Robert Pollie interview composer Philip Glass, I listened with great expectation. I wasn’t disappointed. So I have transcribed a portion of that interview (7/25/11), which followed my program, and offer it here for your edification.

In August 2011, Glass will present a series of music, dance, and theater performances as part of the Days and Nights Festival, as well as a screening of Dracula with Glass’ score. In 1999, he finished a new soundtrack for the 1931 horror film, Dracula. Glass is commenting on this film and its score.

PG: If anyone’s interested in knowing what music does for film, it’s an interesting exercise to see Dracula without the music and then see it with the music. Then ask yourself the question, what does the music do, and you’ll figure that out right away.

RP: Well, a lot of the mass audience knows you at least as well from your movie scores as they do from, say, your concert works; going, you know, back to Koyaanisqatsi.

PG: That’s right! And that, of course, is the point—you’re two decimal points away from a concert audience. . . .

RP: When I think of what your music brought to that movie—I mean, that movie is inconceivable without your music. But even films that you could imagine without your music they get a layer of uh … emotional urgency and weight from your music.

PG: There’s that, and there’s another side to it too. Sometimes movies can be in deep trouble, because the actual structure of the film is so confusing that you can’t follow it. And, in that case, the music can actually work it out for you. Look at Hours: three stories, three different scenes, one after the other—abc, abc, abc. Three stories: one in Los Angeles, one in London, one in New York—that’s the whole movie. And what I was able to do with that score was to put one piece of music to run between the three scenes. . . . And that pulled the movie together. . . making it viewable and comprehensible. Mishima was another film, which had big problems with the structure because of the complexity of it. Again, the Mishima score. So one way that music can function—it doesn’t always, but it can—is to actually articulate the dramatic structure of a film. I mean, that sounds like a fancy way of saying it makes the movie make sense.

RP: Wow, that’s really interesting. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it that way.

Yes, that’s really interesting!—and the GS has actually thought of it! Well, at least in terms of putting his essays to music (i.e., entire songs interspersed, along with constant background music, that amplify their meaning—“the philosophical ramifications”). Now that I’ve heard what Philip Glass has to say about convoluted and therefore problematic films given coherence by music soundtracks—hey, I can extrapolate it to my own form of art (“scholarship as performance art”: the “ability to play with knowledge and create a collage of ideas or intellectual mind-jazz”) and rest assured that I have the music to fall back on for my problematic essays to “make sense”!


Note: If anyone thinks I’m comparing apples with oranges in associating a modern classical composer like Philip Glass with popular song, I present the following relevant bio on him:

Aside from composing in the Western classical tradition, his music has ties to rock, ambient music, electronic music, and world music. Early admirers of his minimalism include musicians Brian Eno and David Bowie, who attended an early performance of the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1973. In the 1990s, Glass composed the aforementioned symphonies Low (1992) and Heroes (1996), thematically derived from the Bowie-Eno collaboration albums Low and Heroes (composed in late 1970s Berlin). Philip Glass has collaborated with recording artists such as Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, Mick Jagger, Leonard Cohen, David Byrne, Uakti, Natalie Merchant, and Aphex Twin. Glass’s compositional influence extends to musicians such as Mike Oldfield (who included parts from Glass’s North Star in Platinum), and bands such as Tangerine Dream and Talking Heads. Philip Glass and his sound designer Kurt Munkacsi produced the American post-punk/new wave band Polyrock (1978 to the mid-1980s), as well as the recording of John Moran’s The Manson Family (An Opera) in 1991, which featured punk legend Iggy Pop, and a second (unreleased) recording of Moran’s work featuring poet Allen Ginsberg.

By the way, I have the CD of the music Glass composed for Leonard Cohen’s poetry, Book of Longing (2006), some of which I’ve played on my program. (Following the series of live performances which included Glass on keyboards, Cohen’s recorded spoken text, four voices and other instruments, and as well the screenings of Cohen’s artworks and drawings, Glass’ label, Orange Mountain Music, released a double CD with the recording of the work, entitled Book of Longing: A Song Cycle based on the Poetry and Artwork of Leonard Cohen.)


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