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Unsettled Listening: Integrating Film and Place

Sculpting the Film SoundtrackWelcome to the third and final installment of Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, our series about sound in contemporary films. We’ve been focusing on how filmmakers are blurring the boundaries between music, speech, and sound effects – in effect, integrating distinct categories of soundtrack design.

In our first post, Benjamin Wright showed how celebrated composer Hans Zimmer thinks across traditional divisions of labour to integrate film sound design with music composition. Danijela Kulezic-Wilson followed up with an insightful piece on the integration of audio elements in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, suggesting how scholars can apply principles of music, like tempo and rhythm, to their analyses of the interactions between a film’s images and sounds. In this final entry, Randolph Jordan, considers another dimension of integration: a film’s sounds and the place where it was produced. In his provocative and insightful reading of the quasi-documentary East Hastings Pharmacy, Jordan, who is completing a post-doctoral post at Simon Fraser University, elaborates on how the concept of “unsettled listening” can clue us into the relationship between a film and its origins of production. You’ll be able to read more about “unsettled listening” in Jordan’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema, to be published by Oxford University Press.

I hope you’ve enjoyed taking in this series as much as I’ve enjoyed editing it with the help of the marvelous folks at SO!. Thanks for reading. — Guest Editor Katherine Spring

A mother and son of First Nations ancestry sit in the waiting area of a methadone clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, their attention directed toward an offscreen TV. A cartoon plays, featuring an instrumental version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” that mingles with the operating sounds of the clinic and ambience from the street outside. The tune is punctuated by a metal clinking sound at the beginning of each bar, calling to mind the sound of driving railway spikes that once echoed just down the street as the City of Vancouver was incorporated as the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway (beginning thus the cycle of state-sanctioned erasure of indigenous title to the land). The familiar voice of Bugs Bunny chimes in: “Uh, what’s all the hubbub, bub?”

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Hubbub indeed. Let’s unpack it.

The scene appears one third of the way through East Hastings Pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012), a quasi-documentary set entirely within this clinic, staging interactions between methadone patients (played by locals and informed by their real-life experiences) and the resident pharmacist (played by an actress). Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, dubbed Canada’s “worst neighborhood” for its notorious concentration of transients and public drug use, is also home to the largest community of First Nations peoples within the city limits, a product of the long history of dispossession in the surrounding areas. When the film presents this indigenous pair listening to a Hollywood fabrication of the sounds that marked their loss of title to the city it is a potent juxtaposition, especially given the American infiltration of Vancouver’s mediascape since the 1970s. Long known as “Hollywood North,” Vancouver is more famous as a stand-in for myriad other parts of the world than for representing itself, its regional specificity endlessly overwritten with narratives that hide the city and its indigenous presence from public awareness.

"Quidam +  Noise" graffiti in Downtown Vancouver,  April 6, 2013, by Flickr User Kevin Krebs

“Quidam +  Noise” graffiti in Downtown Vancouver,  April 6, 2013, by Flickr User Kevin Krebs

In her essay “Thoughts on Making Places: Hollywood North and the Indigenous City,” filmmaker Kamala Todd stresses how media can assist the process of re-inscribing local stories into Vancouver’s consciousness. East Hastings Pharmacy is one such example, lending some screen time to urban Natives in the 21st Century city. But Todd reminds us that audiences also have a responsibility “to learn the stories of the land” that have been actively erased in dominant media practices, and to bring this knowledge to our experience of the city in all its incarnations (9). Todd’s call resonates with a process that Nicholas Blomley calls “unsettling the city” in his book of the same name. Blomley reveals Vancouver as a site of continual contestation and mobility across generations and cultural groups, and calls for an “unsettled” approach that can account for the multiple overlapping patterns of use that are concealed by “settled” concepts of bounded property. With that in mind, I propose “unsettled listening” as a way of experiencing the city from these multiple positions simultaneously. Rick Altman taught us to hear any given sound event as a narrative by listening for the auditory markers of its propagation through physical space, and recording media, over time (15-31). Unsettled listening invites us to hear through these physical properties of mediatic space to the resonating stories revealed by the overlapping and contradictory histories and patterns of use to which these spaces are put, all too often unacknowledged in the wake of settler colonialism.

East Hastings Pharmacy provides a great opportunity to begin the practice of unsettled listening. The film’s status as an independent production amidst industrial shooting is marked by the intersection of studio-fabricated sound effects and direct sound recording, as in the example described above, and further complicated by the film’s own hybrid of fiction and documentary modes. That speaks to the complexity of overlapping filmmaking practices in Vancouver today, a situation embedded within the intersecting claims to land use and cultural propriety on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. To unsettle listening is to hear all these overlapping situations as forms of resonance that begin with the original context of the televised cartoon and accumulate as they spread through the interior of the clinic and outwards across the surrounding land. So let’s try this out.

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The cartoon is Falling Hare (Robert Clampett, 1943), a good example of the noted history of cross-departmental integration at The Warner Bros.’ cartoon studios. The scene in question begins at 1:55, and here the metallic clinking sound is just as likely to have been produced by one of music orchestrator Carl Stalling’s percussionists as by sound effects editor Treg Brown. This integration can be heard in the way that the music’s unspoken reference to railway construction charges each clink with the connotation of hammer on spike. However, the image track in Falling Hare doesn’t depict railway construction, but rather a gremlin whacking the nose of a live bomb in an attempt to do away with enemy Bugs seated on top. James Lastra would say (by way of Christian Metz) that the clinking sound is “legible” as hammer on spike for the ease with which the sound can be recognized as emanating from this implied source (126). But this legibility is premised upon a lack of specificity that also allows the sound to become interchangeable with something else, as is the case in this cartoon.

Screen Capture from Falling Hare

East Hastings Pharmacy capitalizes on this interchangeability by re-inscribing the clinking sound’s railway connotations, first by stripping the original image and then by presenting this sound in the context of the dire social realities of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as the city’s sanctioned corral for the markers of urban poverty – and indigeneity – that officials don’t want to spill out across the neighborhood’s increasingly gentrified perimeter.

As one of a string of Warner Bros. cartoons put in the service of WWII propaganda, the Falling Hare soundtrack also resonates with wartime xenophobia and imperialist expansion, branches of the same pathos that leads to the effacing of indigenous culture from the consciousness of colonizing peoples. In Vancouver, this has taken the form of what Jean Barman calls “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity,” the process of chasing the area’s original peoples off the land while importing aboriginal artifacts from elsewhere to maintain a Native chic deemed safe for immigrant consumption (as when the city paid “homage” to the vacated Squamish residents of downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park by erecting Kwakiutl totem poles imported from 200km north on Vancouver Island) (26). This is an interchangeability of cultural heritage premised upon a lack of specificity, the same quality that allows “legible” sound effects to become synchretic with a variety of implied sources. And this process is not unlike the interchangeability of urban spaces when shooting Vancouver for Seattle, New York, or Frankfurt, emphasizing generic qualities of globalized urbanization while suppressing recognizable soundmarks from the mix (such as the persistent sound of float plane propellers that populate Vancouver harbour, the grinding and screeching of trains in the downtown railyard, or the regular horn blasts from the local ferry runs just north of the city).

The high-concept legibility of Warner Bros.’ sound effects – used in Falling Hare to play on listener’s expectations to comic effect – is further unsettled by its presentation within the context of documentary sound conventions in East Hastings Pharmacy. Bourges’ film commits to regional specificity in part through the use of location sound recording, which, as Jeffrey K. Ruoff identifies in “Conventions of Documentary Sound,” is particularly valued as a marker of authenticity (27-29). While Bourges stages the action inside the clinic, the film features location recordings of the rich street life audible and visible through the clinic’s windows that proceeds unaffected by the cameras and microphones. This situation is all the more potent when we account for the fact that, in this scene, the location-recorded cartoon soundtrack and ambient sound effects were added in post-production, and so represent a highly conscious attempt to channel the acoustic environment according to the conventions of “authentic” sound in documentary film.

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Screen Capture, East Hastings Pharmacy

While the film uses location recording as a conscious stylistic choice to evoke documentary convention, it does so to engage meaningfully with the social situation in the Downtown Eastside, underlining Michel Chion’s point that “rendered” film sound – fabricated in studio to evoke the qualities of a particular space – is just as capable of engaging the world authentically (or inauthentically) as “real” sound captured on location (95-98). By presenting this Hollywood cartoon as an embedded element within the soundscape of the clinic, using a provocative mix of location sound and studio fabrication, East Hastings Pharmacy unsettles Hollywood’s usual practice of erasing local specificity, inviting us to think of runaway projects in the context of their foreign spaces of production and the local media practices that sit next to them.

Finally, this intersection of sonic styles points to the complex relationships that exist between the domains of independent and industrial production around Vancouver. In his book Hollywood North, Mike Gasher argues for thinking about filmmaking in British Columbia as a resource industry, pointing to how the provincial government has offered business incentives for foreign film production similar to those in place for activities like logging and fishing. Here we can consider how the local film industry might follow the same unsustainable patterns of extraction as other resource industries, all premised upon willful ignorance of indigenous uses of the land. Yet as David Spaner charts in Dreaming in the Rain, the ability to make independent films in Vancouver has become largely intertwined with the availability of industrial resources in town. Just as Hollywood didn’t erase the independent film, colonization didn’t erase indigenous presence.

East Hastings Pharmacy offers a powerful example of how we can practice unsettled listening on the staged sound of Falling Hare, devoid of local context and connected to the railway only by inference, to reveal a rich integration with regional specificity as the cartoon’s auditory resonances accumulate within its new spaces of propagation. In this way we can hear local media through its transnational network, including the First Nations, to understand the overlaps between seemingly contradictory modes of being within the city. And in so doing, we can also hear through the misrepresentation of the Downtown Eastside as “Canada’s worst neighborhood” to the strength of the community that has long characterized the area for anyone who scratches the surface, an important first step along the path to unsettling the city as a whole.

Featured Image: Still from East Hastings Pharmacy

Randolph Jordan wanted to be a rock star.  Academia seemed a responsible back-up option – until it became clear that landing a professor gig would be harder than topping the Billboard charts.  After completing his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia University in 2010 he floated around Montreal classrooms on contract appointments before taking up a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. There he has been investigating geographical specificity in Vancouver-based film and media by way of sound studies and critical geography, research that will inform the last chapter of his book Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema (now under contract at Oxford University Press).  If you can’t find him hammering away at his manuscript, or recording his three young children hammering away at their Mason & Risch, look for him under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge where he spends his “spare time” gathering film and sound material for his multimedia project Bell Tower of False Creek. Or visit him online here: http://www.randolphjordan.com

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The Musical Flow of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color

Sculpting the Film Soundtrack

Welcome back to Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, SO!‘s new series on changing notions about how sound works in recent film and in recent film theory, edited by Katherine Spring.

Two weeks ago, Benjamin Wright started things off with a fascinating study of Hans Zimmer, a highly influential composer whose film scoring borders on engineering — or whose engineering borders on music — in many major Hollywood releases. This week we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum to a seemingly smaller film, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), which has made quite a few waves among sound studies scholars and fans of sound design, even earning a Special Jury Prize for sound at Sundance.

To unpack the many mysteries of the film and explore its place in the field of contemporary filmmaking, we are happy to welcome musicologist and film scholar Danijela Kulezic-Wilson of University College Cork. Listen to Upstream Color through her ears (it’s currently available to stream on Netflix) and perhaps you’ll get a sense of why you’ll have to listen to it two or three more times. At least.

–nv

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 10.04.09 AM

When Shane Carruth’s film Upstream Color was released in 2013, critics described it in various ways—as a body horror film, a sci-fi thriller, a love story, and an art-house head-scratcher—but they all agreed that it was a film “not quite like any other”. And while the film’s cryptic imagery and non-linear editing account for most of the “what the hell?” reactions (see here for example), I argue that the reason for its distinctively hypnotic effect is Carruth’s musical approach to the film’s form: he organizes the images and sounds according to principles of music, including the use of repetition, rhythmic structuring, and antiphony.

The resulting musicality of Upstream Color may not be surprising given that Carruth composed most of the score, and also, as Jonathan Romney has noted in Sight & Sound, Carruth has said on many occasions that he was hoping “people would watch this film repeatedly, as they might listen to a favourite album” (52).  In this sense, Carruth (whose DIY toolkit also includes writing, directing, acting, producing, cinematography, and editing) joins the ranks of filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky and Joe Wright who recognize that, despite our culture’s obsession with the cinematic and narrative aspects of “visual” media, music governs film’s deepest foundations.

 

Upstream Color is a story about a woman, Kris, who is kidnapped by a drug manufacturer (referred to in the credits as Thief) and contaminated with a worm that keeps her in a trance-like state during which the Thief strips her of all her savings.  Kris is subsequently dewormed by a character known as the Sampler, who transfers the parasite into a pig that maintains a physical and/or metaphorical connection to Kris. Kris later meets and falls in love with Jeff who, we eventually discover, has been a victim of the same ordeal. Although the bizarreness of the plot has encouraged numerous interpretations, the film’s unconventional audio-visual language suggests that its story of two people who share supressed memories of the same traumatic experience shouldn’t be taken at face value, but rather serves as a metaphor for existential anxiety resulting from being influenced by unknown forces.

Such an interpretation owes as much to the film’s disregard for the rules of classical storytelling as it does to a formally innovative soundtrack, one that uses musicality as an overarching organizing principle. The fact that Carruth wrote the score and script simultaneously (discussed in the video below) indicates the extent to which music was from the beginning considered an integral part of the film’s expressive language. More importantly, as the scenes discussed in this post suggest, the musical logic of the film is even more pervasive than the style, role, and placement of the actual score.

Whereas feature films traditionally assign a central role to speech, allowing music and sound effects supporting roles only, Upstream Color breaks down the conventional soundtrack hierarchy, often reversing the roles of each constitutive element.  For example, hardly any information in the film that could be considered vital to understanding the story is communicated through speech. Instead, images, sound, music, and editing–for which Carruth shares the credit with fellow indie director David Lowery–are the principal elements that create the atmosphere, convey the sense of the protagonists’ brokenness, and reveal the connection between the characters. At the same time, characters’ conversations are either muted or their speech is blended with music in such a way that we’re encouraged to focus on body language or mise-en-scène rather than trying to discern every spoken word. For example, Jeff and Kris’s flirting with one another during their initial meetings (at roughly 0.44.20-0.47.00 of the film) is conveyed primarily through gestures, glances, and fragmentary editing rather than speech, which would be more typical for this sort of narrative situation.

Further undercutting the significance of speech across the film is how the film has been edited to resemble the flow of music. For example, non-linear jumps in the narrative are often arranged in such a way as to create syncopated audio-visual rhymes. This technique is particularly obvious in the montage sequence in which Kris and Jeff argue over the ownership of their memories, whose similarities suggest that they were implanted during the characters’ kidnappings. In this sequence, both the passing of time and the recurrence of the characters’ argument is conveyed through the repetition of images that become visual refrains: Kris and Jeff lying on a bed, watching birds flying above trees, touching each other. Some of these can be seen in the film’s official trailer:

The scene’s images and sounds are fragmented into a non-linear assembly of pieces of the same conversation the characters had at different times and places, like the verses and the choruses of a song. Importantly, the assemblage is also patterned, with phrases like “we should go on a trip” and “where should we go?” heard in refrain. The first time we hear Jeff say “we should go on a trip” and suggesting that they go “somewhere bright”, his words are played in sync with the image of him and Kris lying on the bed. The following few shots, accompanied only by music, symbolize the “honeymoon” phase of their relationship: the couple kiss, hold hands, and walk with their hands around each other’s waists. A shift in mood is marked by the repetition of the dialogue, with Jeff again saying “we should go on a trip” – only this time, the phrase plays asynchronously over a shot of Jeff and Kris pushing a table into the house that they have moved into together. Finally, the frustration that starts infiltrating the characters’ increasingly heated arguments is alleviated by the repetition of the sentence “They could be starlings.” As it is spoken three times by both characters in an antiphonic exchange, the phrase emphasizes the underlying strength of their connection and gives the scene a rhythmic balance. Across this sequence, the musical organization of audio-visual refrains prompts us to recognize the psychic connection between Kris and Jeff, and even to begin to guess the sinister reason for it.

While speech in Upstream Color is often stripped of its traditional role as a principal source of information, sound and music are given important narrative functions, illuminating hidden connections between the characters. In one of the most memorable scenes, the Sampler is revealed to be not only a pig farmer but also a field recordist and sound artist who symbolizes the hidden source of everything that affects Kris and Jeff from afar. As we hear the sounds of the Sampler’s outdoor recordings merge with and emulate the sounds made and heard by Kris and Jeff at home and at work, the soundtrack eloquently establishes the connection between all three characters while also giving us a look “behind the scenes” of Kris’s and Jeff’s lives and suggesting how they are influenced from a distance.

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 10.07.38 AM

In one sense, by calling attention to the very act of recording sound, the scene exposes how films are constructed, offering a reflexive glimpse into usually hidden processes of production. The implied idea here–that the visible and audible are products of not-so-obvious processes of formation–refers not only to the medium of film but also to the complexity of the inner workings of someone’s mind. Thus the Sampler’s role, his actions, and his relationship to Kris, Jeff, and other infected victims can be interpreted as a metaphor for the subconscious programming – all the familial, social and cultural influences – that all of us are exposed to from an early age. The Sampler is portrayed symbolically as the Creator, a force whose actions affect the protagonists’ lives without them knowing it.  The fact that he is simultaneously represented as a sound artist establishes sound-making and musicality as the film’s primary creative principles.

Considering Carruth’s very deliberate departure from the conventions of even what David Bordwell calls “intensified” storytelling, it is fair to say that Upstream Color is a film that weakens the strong narrative role traditionally given to oral language. What is intensified here are the musical and sensuous qualities of the audio-visual material and a mode of perception that encourages absorption of the subtext (in other words, the metaphorical meaning of the film) as well as the text.

The musical organization of film form and soundtrack is no longer limited to independent projects such as Carruth’s Upstream Color. As I have shown elsewhere, musicality has become an extremely influential principle in contemporary cinema, acting as an inspiration and model for editing, camera movement, movement within a scene and sound design. Some of the most interesting results of a musical approach to film include Aronofsky’s “hip hop montage” in Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Jim Jarmusch’s rhythmically structured film poems (The Limits of Control, 2009; Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013), the interchangeable use of musique concrète and environmental sound in Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy and films by Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga, 2009; Berberian Sound Studio, 2012); the choreographed mise-en-scène in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012); the musicalization of language in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012); and the foregrounding of musical material over intelligible speech in Drake Doremus’s Breathe In (2013). Given the breadth of these examples, it’s no exaggeration to say that filmmakers’ growing affinity for a musical approach to film is changing the landscape of contemporary cinema.

Danijela Kulezic-Wilson teaches film music, film sound, and comparative arts at University College Cork. Her research interests include approaches to film that emphasize its inherent musical properties, the use of musique concrète and silence in film, the musicality of sound design, and musical aspects of the plays of Samuel Beckett. Danijela’s publications include essays on film rhythm, musical and film time, the musical use of silence in film, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga, Gus Van Sant’s Death Trilogy, Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s films, and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. She has also worked as a music editor on documentaries, short films, and television.

All images taken from the film.

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Sculptural Dissonance: Hans Zimmer and the Composer as Engineer

Sculpting the Film Soundtrack

Welcome to our new series Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, which brings you new perspectives on sound and filmmaking. As Guest Editor, we’re honored and delighted to have Katherine Spring, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Spring is the author of an exciting and important new book Saying it With Songs: Popular Music and the Coming of Sound to Hollywood Cinema. Read it! You’ll find an impeccably researched work that’s the definition of how the history of film sound and media convergence ought to be written.

But before rushing back to the early days, stick around here on SO! for the first of our three installments in Sculpting the Film Soundtrack.

– NV

It’s been 35 years since film editor and sound designer Walter Murch used the sounds of whirring helicopter blades in place of an orchestral string section in Apocalypse Now, in essence blurring the boundary between two core components of the movie soundtrack: music and sound effects.  This blog series explores other ways in which filmmakers have treated the soundtrack as a holistic entity, one in which the traditional divisions between music, effects, and speech have been disrupted in the name of sculpting innovative sonic textures.

In three entries, Benjamin Wright, Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, and Randolph Jordan will examine the integrated soundtrack from a variety of perspectives, including technology, labor, aesthetic practice, theoretical frameworks, and suggest that the dissolution of the boundaries between soundtrack categories can prompt us to apprehend film sound in new ways. If, as Murch himself once said, “Listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently,” then the time is ripe for considering how and what we might hear across the softening edges of the film soundtrack.

– Guest Editor Katherine Spring

Composing a sound world for Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder’s recent Superman reboot, had Hans Zimmer thinking about telephone wires stretching across the plains of Clark Kent’s boyhood home in Smallville. “What would that sound like,” he said in an interview last year. “That wind making those telephone wires buzz – how could I write a piece of music out of that?” The answer, as it turned out, was not blowing in the wind, but sliding up and down the scale of a pedal steel guitar, the twangy lap instruments of country music. In recording sessions, Zimmer instructed a group of pedal steel players to experiment with sustains, reverb, and pitches that, when mixed into the final track, accompany Superman leaping over tall buildings at a single bound.

His work on Man of Steel, just one of his most recent films in a long and celebrated career, exemplifies his unique take on composing for cinema. “I would have been just as happy being a recording engineer as a composer,” remarked Zimmer last year in an interview to commemorate the release of a percussion library he created in collaboration with Spitfire Audio, a British sample library developer. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to stop me from mangling sounds, engineering, and doing any of those things, and actually getting me to sit down and write the notes.” Dubbed the “HZ01 London Ensembles,” the library consists of a collection of percussion recordings featuring many of the same musicians who have performed for Zimmer’s film scores, playing everything from tamtams to taikos, buckets to bombos, timpani to anvils. According to Spitfire’s founders, the library recreates Zimmer’s approach to percussion recording by offering a “distillation of a decade’s worth of musical experimentation and innovation.”

In many ways, the collection is a reminder not just of the influence of Zimmer’s work on contemporary film, television, and video game composers but also of his distinctive approach to film scoring, one that emphasizes sonic experimentation and innovation. Having spent the early part of his career as a synth programmer and keyboardist for new wave bands such as The Buggles and Ultravox, then as a protégé of English film composer Stanley Myers, Zimmer has cultivated a hybrid electronic-orchestral aesthetic that uses a range of analog and digital oscillators, filters, and amplifiers to twist and augment solo instrument samples into a synthesized whole.


Zimmer played backup keyboards on “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

In a very short time, Zimmer has become a dominant voice in contemporary film music with a sound that blends melody with dissonance and electronic minimalism with rock and roll percussion. His early Hollywood successes, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Days of Thunder (1990), combined catchy themes and electronic passages with propulsive rhythms, while his score for Black Rain (1989), which featured taiko drums, electronic percussion, and driving ostinatos, laid the groundwork for an altogether new kind of action film score, one that Zimmer refined over the next two decades on projects such as The Rock (1996), Gladiator (2000), and The Pirates of the Caribbean series.

What is especially intriguing about Zimmer’s sound is the way in which he combines the traditional role of the composer, who fashions scores around distinct melodies (or “leitmotifs”), with that of the recording engineer, who focuses on sculpting sounds.  Zimmer may not be the first person in the film business to experiment with synthesized tones and electronic arrangements – you’d have to credit Bebe and Louis Barron (Forbidden Planet, 1956), Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, 1981), Jerry Goldsmith (Logan’s Run, 1976), and Giorgio Moroder (Midnight Express, 1981) for pushing that envelope – but he has turned modern film composing into an engineering art, something that few other film composers can claim.

Zimmer Studio

Zimmer’s studio

One thing that separates Zimmer’s working method from that of other composers is that he does not confine himself to pen and paper, or even keyboard and computer monitor. Instead, he invites musicians to his studio or a sound stage for an impromptu jam session to find and hone the musical syntax of a project. Afterwards, he returns to his studio and uses the raw samples from the sessions to compose the rest of the score, in much the same way that a recording engineer creates the architecture of a sound mix.

“There is something about that collaborative process that happens in music all the time,” Zimmer told an interviewer in 2010. “That thing that can only happen with eye contact and when people are in the same room and they start making music and they are fiercely dependent on each other. They cannot sound good without the other person’s part.”

Zimmer facilitates the social and aesthetic contours of these off-the-cuff performances and later sculpts the samples into the larger fabric of a score. In most cases, these partnerships have provided the equivalent of a pop hook to much of Zimmer’s output: Lebo M’s opening vocal in The Lion King (1994), Johnny Marr’s reverb-heavy guitar licks in Inception, Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down (2002), and the recent contributions of the so-called “Magnificent Six” musicians to The Amazing Spider Man 2 (2014).

The melodic hooks are simple but infectious – even Zimmer admits he writes “stupidly simple music” that can often be played with one finger on the piano. But what matters most are the colors that frame those notes and the performances that imbue those simple melodies with a personality. Zimmer’s work on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy revolves around a deceptively simple rising two-note motif that often signifies the presence of the caped crusader, but the pounding taiko hits and bleeding brass figures that surround it do as much to conjure up images of Gotham City as cinematographer Wally Pfister’s neo-noir photography. The heroic aspects of the Batman character are muted in Zimmer’s score except for the presence of the expansive brass figures and taiko hits, which reach an operatic crescendo in the finale, where the image of Batman escaping into the blinding light of the city is accompanied by a grand statement of the two-note figure backed by a driving string ostinato. Throughout the series, a string ostinato and taikos set the pace for action sequences and hint at the presence of Batman who lies somewhere in the shadows of Gotham.

Zimmer’s expressive treatment of musical colors also characterizes his engineering practices, which are more commonly used in the recording industry. Music scholar Paul Théberge has noted that the recording engineer’s interest in an aesthetic of recorded musical “sound” led to an increased demand for control over the recording process, especially in the early days of multitrack rock recording where overdubbing created a separate, hierarchical space for solo instruments. Likewise for Zimmer, it’s not just about capturing individual sounds from an orchestra but also layering them into a synthesized product. Zimmer is also interested in experimenting with acoustic performances, pushing musicians to play their instruments in unconventional ways or playing his notes “the wrong way,” as he demonstrates here in the making of the Joker’s theme from The Dark Knight:

The significance of the cooperative aspects of these musical performances and their treatment as musical “colors” to be modulated, tweaked, and polished rests on a paradoxical treatment of sound. While he often finds his sound world among the wrong notes, mistakes, and impromptu performances of world musicians, Zimmer is also often criticized for removing traces of an original performance by obscuring it with synth drones and distortion. In some cases, like in The Peacemaker (1997), the orchestration is mushy and sounds overly processed. But in other cases, the trace of a solo performance can constitute a thematic motif in the same way that a melody serves to identify place, space, or character in classical film music. Compare, for instance, Danny Elfman’s opening title theme for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer’s opening title music for The Dark Knight. While Elfman creates a suite of themes around a central Batman motif, Zimmer builds a sparse sound world that introduces a sustained note on the electric cello that will eventually be identified with the Joker.  It’s the timbre of the cello, not its melody, that carries its identifying features.

To texture the sounds in Man of Steel, Zimmer also commissioned Chas Smith, a Los Angeles-based composer, performer, and exotic instrument designer to construct instruments from “junk” objects Smith found around the city that could be played with a bow or by hand while also functioning as metal art works. The highly abstract designs carry names that give some hint to their origins – “Bertoia 718” named after modern sculptor and furniture designer Harry Bertoia; “Copper Box” named for the copper rods that comprise its design; and “Tin Sheet” that, when prodded, sounds like futuristic thunderclaps.

Smith’s performances of his exotic instruments are woven into the fabric of the score, providing it with a sort of musical sound design. Consider General Zod’s suite of themes and motifs, titled “Arcade” on the 2-disc version of the soundtrack. The motif is built around a call-and-answer ostinato for strings and brass that is interrupted by Smith’s sculptural dissonance. It’s the sound of an otherworldly menace, organic but processed, sculpted into a conventional motif-driven sound world.

Zimmer remains a fixture in contemporary film music partly because, as music critic Jon Burlingame has pointed out, he has a relentless desire to search for fresh approaches to a film’s musical landscape. This pursuit begins with his extracting of sounds and colors from live performances and electronically engineering them during the scoring process. Such heightened attention to sound texture and color motivated the creation of the Spitfire percussion library, but can only hint at the experimentation and improvisational nature that goes into Zimmer’s work. In each of his film scores, the music tells a story that is tailored to the demands of the narrative, but the sounds reveal Zimmer’s urge to manipulate sound samples until they are, in his own words, “polished like a diamond.”

Zimmer at Work

Ben Wright  holds a Provost Postdoctoral Fellowship from the University of Southern California in the School of Cinematic Arts. In 2011, he received his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University. His research focuses on the study of production cultures, especially exploring the industrial, social, and technological effects of labor structures within the American film industry. His work on production culture, film sound and music, and screen comedy has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is currently completing a manuscript on the history of contemporary sound production, titled Hearing Hollywood: Art, Industry, and Labor in Hollywood Film Sound.

All images creative commons.

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