The Electric Cinema: Electronic music in film

“A new language requires a new technique, if what you’re saying doesn’t require a new language, then what you’re saying probably isn’t new” – Philip Glass

At the turn of the decade, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross scored The Social Network (2010) and, to the joy of anyone with ears, won the Academy Award for best original score. In a category traditionally dominated by lavish orchestral music and grandiose symphonies, the triumph came of something of a surprise, and for a brief moment it appeared that the Oscars had finally undergone the process of modernisation that they so desperately need. Though Reznor and Ross were far from pioneers in bringing synthetic, beat driven, computer generated music to the cinema screen, their inimitable soundtrack, combining lush, layered ambience, pulsating rhythms and a detailed approach to atmosphere and tone, re-energised the practice of scoring cinema with electronic music, and simultaneously questioned the value of the classical score in an industry increasingly dominated by digitalisation.

Since then, there has been something of a renaissance period for electronic scores. Tron: Legacy (2010) enlisted the help of French house pioneers Daft Punk to provide the technocracy it depicts with a suitably mechanical score, The Chemical Brothers lent their ear for adrenaline pumping big beat music to the kinetic Hanna (2011), and more recently we have seen critical acclaim bestowed upon Mica Levi’s eerie and unsettling Under the Skin (2014) score.

Electronic music is nothing new in film. The synthesiser was practically a staple instrument for film scoring throughout the 1980’s, especially present in the horror pieces of the era, but its use felt heavy handed and clumsy. The instrument was forced into prominence instead of being utilised for the subtlety it can provide. As a result, many of the electronically orientated soundtracks of this period sound somewhat cheesy and mediocre, and unless artists like Vangelis, Tangerine Dream or Giorgio Moroder were enlisted, the scores suffered immeasurably at the hands of composers not proficiently versed in electronic music.

Below then, is a selection of some of the more interesting and unique moments in electronic film music. This list does not necessarily include some of the more defining moments of on-screen electronica, but instead, collates examples of where computer generated sounds have worked especially well in relation to their respective films.


run-lola-run

RUN LOLA RUN

1998

Tom Twyker

On paper, it may seem an impossible feat for an individual entity to tackle writing, directing and soundtrack duties, simultaneously, on a feature length film. It seems even more impossible for the act to result in the quality and endearing legacy of Tom Twyker’s Run Lola Run, however, Twyker handles each element deftly, interweaving visual and narrative experimentation with an innovative use of music that culminates in a resounding success. The fiery, potent mix of break-beat Jungle, relentless drum and bass, and occasional Eno-Esque ambience, is the feature around which the film revolves, providing a near constant musical accompaniment for the infamously hyperactive, Berlin set story.

The score does not just simply function to provide the restless character of Lola with a complementary genre of music, but also serves as a tool to concurrently gauge the severity of the danger present in each narrative, gradually construct familiarity and a connection between the music and the character, and furthermore, reflect the thematic content of the film within the cryptic lyrics and oblique rhythms.

The soundtrack contains three versions of the same song, a recurring motif that appears throughout the film and enhances itself with additional features during each emergence. The first version of ‘Running’ is a vastly different beast from the song it evolves into by its third excursion, with Twyker fleshing out the skeletal track with added lyrics, additional polyrhythms and a chorus of ghostly voices to culminate in a high-strung, tense drum and bass odyssey, one that mutates as the film progresses. The effect of this motif is to demonstrate the notion that each time Lola begins a timeline, and returns to the point at which the narrative separates, she educates herself and grows as a character. As the track adds a feature, so too does Lola, be it her expectation of an event, knowledge of a different timeline or simply just an increased ambition to succeed.

With Run Lola Run scored by a genre of music that thrives on, and is arguably defined by, a cyclical nature and use of repetition, the film generates a symbolic and reflexive subtext concerning the idea of rhythm, patterns, and non linear elements which appear throughout life, and the three scenarios depicted in the film.

The score is controlled chaos, as is the film it accompanies.


Virgin-Suicides-Cast

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES 

1999

Air

It is a rare achievement, for a soundtrack album to function as an individual piece of art equally as well as it does when considered solely as an accompanying element. Air’s score for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides is still arguably their most accomplished record other than the landmark Moon Safari, and which, on its own, is an exceptional album within its genre. A beautifully hazy and elaborate score, one which follows a single melody through instruments, tempos, varying complexities and shifting moods, the reiterated string of notes flows through changing atmospheres and reaches the same destinations, only to be resurrected in the very next song.

The film, a typically melancholy Copolla adaptation, of Jeffery Eugenidies’ novel of the same name, is drenched in the warm glow of the sun and glides along at a tranquil pace. The Virgin Suicides concerns five sisters, sheltered and innocent, across their teenage years and is told through the collective memories of the five boys the street over, obsessed with their beauty. By adhering strictly to a single melody, Nicolas Godin & Jean-Benoît Dunckel were able to craft a window into the souls of the sister, each of them assigned a part of the melody in order to communicate their story in a medium separate to that of their image.

I submit that the score operates in a way that instils a sense of narrative in the listener, the record progresses through slow burning waltzes and quickens into electric guitar driven, mountainous, chambers of noise, mimicking the trajectory of the Lisbon girls from their idyllic beginnings in the North American suburbs, to their dark, tragic and mysterious demises.

With this sense of narrative, Air were able to exploit the spectrum of emotional impacts that feature throughout the film, in the sense that, by tracing the story’s narrative through the medium of sound, the score is able to absorb the emotions generated through the viewer’s reaction to the visual tale, the connection forming through the symbiosis of music and image. The result of the effect is that, even when not associated with the film, the music relates to a vast palette of emotions and cinematic imagery, without ever changing a single note.


The-Thin-Blue-Line

THE THIN BLUE LINE

1988

Philip Glass

Philip Glass, pioneer in the field of minimalism, deals in euphoric repetition and sketched sparseness, with much of the impact in his music located in the experience of hearing it over a prolonged period of time. So, a documentary delving into the intricacies of a murder case fraught with inconsistencies, allegations of corruption and dramatic twists, seems to be the appropriate scope for Glass’s ideas to fully reveal their multiple dimensions. Glass assigns each figure involved in the case a theme – the most devastating of these singular pieces being ‘Adam’s theme’, a sorrowful, descending harmony which perfectly encapsulates the tragic imprisoning of an innocent man. After hearing the track numerous times throughout the film, over recreations of the murder, interviews with Adam himself, and the endless bureaucracy and paperwork hindering his plight, one becomes wholly familiar with the melody, anticipating its return and the simple combination of a thin string section and muted, delicate horns.

Though not electronic in a literal sense, I include it here because it incorporates many of the defining features of the entirely electronic film scores which would follow it. The influence of Glass’ score for The Thin Blue Line, can be found throughout all of the examples listed here, its exquisite use of repetition preparing the environment for the automatic and mechanical revisiting of notes, rhythms and ideas that can be found, not only in synthetic film scores, but in electronic music as a whole.

Never stumbling into tedium, despite the seemingly infinite revisions of motifs and notions, the score gradually transitions into a subtly hypnotic exercise in manipulation when it begins to challenge the establishment it develops. The melody begins to appear when Adam is not on screen but, through Glass’ insistence and Morris’ suggestion, still denotes his presence, and likewise for the themes of the other figures. The score uses its repetition to build trust and a sense of routine or expectation in the viewer, before utilising this to control the flow of information, emphasising and suggesting ideas not present in the images but integral to the case.

It seems somewhat dangerous for a score to be able to so effectively coerce and choreograph the opinion of a film, surely this would be the director’s role, but what the music behind The Thin Blue Line brings to prominence, is a contesting voice, a concept that is arguably the driving creative force behind the film. The film’s scorer, its director, and extending this idea, the editor and the cinematographer each have their perspective present on-screen, jostling for the attention of the viewer, attempting to disclose their opinion through their respective contributions.


Blade Runner

BLADE RUNNER

1982

Vangelis

Perhaps the most often praised and celebrated electronic score; Vangelis’ haunting companion piece to Ridley Scott’s poetic exploration of humanity and artificial intelligence, could be considered equally as important in the compelling creation of a dystopian setting, as the futuristic aesthetics and the incredibly elaborate, detailed set designs.

It is difficult to think of Blade Runner without hearing the droning, reverb laden synthesiser notes that smother the hellish architecture and blackened skyline of Los Angeles, 2019. Particularly relevant when we consider the film depicts the turbulent relationship between man and machine, the score mirrors the content, embodying a sense of conflict and hostility between organic sounds and the warped, distorted versions of them, that emit from the machine.

Vangelis had, by the time of Blade Runner’s release, already won the Oscar for best score for his work on Chariots of Fire (far preceding the aforementioned Social Network victory) and established himself as a towering figure in film music, bringing the use of a synthesiser in the medium to the foreground, in the most assured way possible. However, it is his collaboration with Ridley Scott that proves still to be his finest work, a score that conveys an intense sense of isolation and alienation, but harbours moments of brief optimism and flashes of momentary promise.

Although the music of Blade Runner sounds alien and unfamiliar, it is possibly the closest example to a traditional film score on this list. Vangelis incorporates many of the practices and clichés of orchestral, symphonic, classical music, and applies them to an electronic foundation. The swells of noise, the use of crescendo and surging walls of sound can all be found in typical Hollywood soundtracks from throughout history, but the use of sound engineering, technological manipulation and synthetic instruments ferries the score to uncharted waters.

Where the Chariots of Fire soundtrack demonstrated the rousing power of the synthesiser when used correctly and in an appropriate fashion, Blade Runner highlights the devastating power of the electronic score when applied to science fiction. The two concepts have, over time, formed a sub textual relationship, both asking questions concerning the role of organic material in a technologically enhanced world.


pi03

PI 

1998

Clint Mansell & others

The appearance of Darren Aronofsky’s lucid Pi on this list, is equally owed to the collection of pre-existing tracks that appear throughout the film, as well as the few tracks Clint Mansell produced specifically for Pi. Another example of drum and bass and jungle music being used to enhance the narrative, characterisation and elements of the imagery and editing in a similar manner to the way Twyker uses the genre in Run Lola Run. In Aronofsky’s mathematical fever dream, tracks from Electronic music messiah Aphex Twin, Trip Hop godfathers Massive Attack and caustic ambience ruffians Autechre, aid in the conveyance of the intensely complex mind of the protagonist, as he attempts to unravel the mystery of the number, his incredible brainpower eventually driving him to extremes.

Pi is a film concerning patterns, systems and codes, the imagery and the hyperkinetic editing of the film often depicting long strings of numbers in rapid succession in an attempt to visually represent the severe turmoil within the mathematicians psyche. With its complex polyrhythms and precisely calculated melodies, the use of these pattern orientated genres is an exceptionally smart strategy.

Throughout the constant soundtrack, moments of silence become equally as symbolic as the maelstroms of noise that they are contained within, and the brief respites from the pulsating wall of noise begin to take on a sinister association, as they only appear when protagonist Max blacks out after his brain overloads, ceasing both his awareness and the music immediately. The obsession with systems, computers and technology is directly represented through the score, in the sense that it mirrors perfectly the processes of Max’s logic and reasoning. Martinez employs a musical system in which the emotions of Max are completely and wholly represented by the music that scores his actions, and though other scorers and composers may have opted for a more emphasis and underscore driven approach as opposed to the exact replication of emotions, when we consider the fact that the film concerns scientific definitive’s and mathematical certainties, then it seems appropriate that the music would take a similar, mechanical and accurate approach.

Of all the scores listed here, Mansell’s and Aronofsky’s work on the music of Pi feels the most fresh and invigorating, and remains the most intricate and detailed use of drum and bass music in the medium of film. Mansell has also created other similarly essential electronic scores, including the distinctive sounds found within Moon (2008) and Drive (2011), both of which became institutes in their own right.

  • Kristofer Thomas

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