Saturday, April 15, 2006

3 analytical tools: Dominant Flow, Parallel, Counterpoint

Extract from Notes on Some Issues Brought to Mind by the Metropolis Screening
tracked by Rubber Inc. 2005

By angermintano

The music was definitely much more responsive to the changes in the tone of the film this year, unlike last year, when the music would often keep rolling along in the same vein even when the tone/temper/mood of the scene had changed radically, violating a prerequisite that seems to me to define what the hell soundtracking is in the first place ie to make sounds that keep faith with the visuals.

“To keep faith with,” what does that mean? Not exactly sure myself, which is (one of the things) that this essay is supposed to clarify.And now it might be best to go into specifics:

Malek , the group’s leader, had Arvin (Caliph8) DJ an orchestral record (Holst’s “The Planets”) during certain parts of the movie, notably during the idyllic opening scenes with the children of the elite partying in some garden. Debussy’s legacy music: no strong melody/motifs, strings noodling along, beginning, implying, erasing, revising, etc. The music fit the mood perfectly in some 1950’s Hollywood mode, up until Maria showed up with her gaggle of urchins saying, “These are your brothers!!” This development of course breaks the idyll, yet the music goes on dreaming away,oblivious to the dramatic development. The same thing happened when more of the same music was used to track Maria’s prayer meeting in the caves. Perfect consonance between sound and image, up until the camera cuts to Jon Federer and Rotwang spying on the proceedings. At this point, the editing goes parallel, tracking both the prayer meeting and the shadowy conspirators, which again the music ignored. Now, while it perfectly valid to use a disjunction between the visual and musical moods as a dramatic device, so that the music becomes a kind of ironic commentary on the visuals, --eg a car radio playing cheery muzak while the driver is hacked to pieces by Leatherface—we did not perceive the disjunction as such. Rather, the disjunction struck us as an error, a kind of obtuseness in the music.

When I mentioned this to Caliph afterwards, he said something to the effect that “we didn’t want the music to be too literal.” Leaving issues of veracity aside, two things immediately eventually came to mind:

1) You can’t have it both ways. The music was selected because it seemed “appropriate”, ie because the music and the film blended like old Hollywood. When the music and the film cease to blend like old Hollywood (ie when the like of the aforementioned disjunctions crop up) you can’t turn around and say you didn’t want the music to be too literal because you negate the premise that was the criteria of appropriateness in the first place. This is inconsistent.

2) The word “literal” lives on unchallenged because of an absence of a common theoretical framework. I propose this premise as the foundations of one: The music must at all times jam with the visuals. When a musician jams with other musicians, he has 2 general options open to him at any time: to go with the flow or to oppose it (better: COUNTERPOINT it). These two general principles can be fleshed out in infinite ways. One go with the flow by repeating a melody in unison, or playing in harmony; go with the rhythm while opposing the key; hold a key but play at double speed; oppose sporadically by inserting passing chords, and so on. Enshrining “jamming” as the first principle makes much clearer the soundtrack’s responsibilities, options and mandate, and makes it clearer what kind of error the deprecatory use of the word “literal” encourages. Using the word “literal” this way

a) sets up a straw man by pre-equating “going with the flow” ( a phrase which we will henceforth replace with the noun PARALLELISM ) with bad musical strategy. This allows the speaker to claim anything OTHER than parallelism (including simple inertia) as good musical strategy; and

b) clouds (perhaps even corrodes) one’s intuitive awareness that jamming, or INTERACTION is not a program of exclusive parallelism or exclusive opposition. Interaction is the choosing of one or another program at every moment. One could get all Zen here and discuss The Void as the place where choice occurs or not-occurs. I leave this option to those so inclined.

In short the film should be considered as another musician, (better: as the DOMINANT FLOW) It is incumbent on the soundtracker that he make a meaningful choice at every passing moment; that is, he must decide how or whether he is at any given moment playing with the flow or counterpointing it in some way; and he must be clear how he is executing the counterpoint. In the light of this framework, it becomes impossible to deny our perception of glitches as glitches, and we can say confidently that letting Holst play on even when he and the visuals have obviously parted ways is not good soundtracking, BECAUSE IT NEITHER PARALLELS NOR COUNTERPOINTS THE VISUALS. It is a (momentary) abdication of interaction. This is why it strikes us as a form of obtuseness.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the practical difficulties of editing Holst to fit Lang. I know it’s hard, but then one should say “That would be the ideal, but I don’t know how,” or “It’s impossible” or “I didn’t have the time” or whatever is/was the case instead of defending the glitches as aesthetic choices, not only because it’s illogical, or even that it’s dishonest, but because you run the risk (if you adopt this sort of mental judo as a standard move) of eventually believing it, which will only happen at the price of rendering yourself numb to the perception of error. It carries the threat of self-mutilation. And it happens.

In contrast to the glitchy moments in the Holst passages, the music accompanying the scene in the caves where Rotwang abducts Maria exemplifies excellent counterpoint. The music, instead of paralleling Maria’s desperation, lays back, deploying an impersonal architecture of percussion, in the process remaining icily distant, with the result that it emphasizes and sharpens our sense of her isolation, tiny white figures running crazily in the twisting dark.

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