Thursday, 16 October 2008

On Soundtracks

Nothing spears a movie-goer as well as a real and engaging score, one that resounds within the audience's physical bodies, fills the space so well that the hearer is no longer aware that that space exists, is fixated only by the sound and the screen.

The angle and pitch of the cinematography, the contrast of shadow and glare, the rasp of the hero's beard or the slope of a heroine's cheek--these are all strong incitements, do not get me wrong. The spartan poetry of a good script, the crimson stirring of a pre-battle speech--these are all rewarding. But one of the quickest, dirtiest, most relentless way of winning the audience is a soundtrack that does what it ought and does it without reserve.

I listen to soundtracks. They rarely have lyrics to get in the way, which I originally thought meant I could better study with them. This is not true. I cannot read for English courses with music in the background, because soundtracks are specifically designed to be overwhelming. The score buries the prose. If I try to write with music on, that music seeps into my writing; my writing cannot work without the music driving it; my writing cannot stand alone. (That being said, I wonder what you make of this writing, which must have been influenced by a few different songs. Maybe I'm wrong?)

I bring this up because I was scanning pages into my computer, reading a book about the music of writing, and how to be a good 'composer of words,' when a song from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End came on. I was immediately driven to anticipation. I could almost feel the sway of the ship, the tang of sea-salt air, the cool heat of a tropical coast, and the deep pulsing excitement of the exotic. I recalled first seeing that movie in theatres, the hysterical glee of first watching it, the rabid intensity with which I anticipated the second film. The success of those movies, I am sure, comes not just from the acting, the brilliantly convoluted script, the stunning visual effects, or the aesthetic supremacy of pirates, but the tidal power of the score. That soundtrack can pull your body into Tortuga, can release all of the pent-up desire for the sea, can deliver to you a taste of that exoticism which you will but only sample.

The score's power is evident in some of the biggest blockbusters we have today: Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Spider-Man (you may not be able to hum the music, but listen to it sometime; it's pretty good), Troy, Gladiator. Think also of the older collossi, such as Star Wars, James Bond, or Indiana Jones. Where would Vader be without his Imperial March? Indiana without his plucky theme? Bond without his suave swing?

Now, not-so-good movies can fail to profit from incredible music, such as the third installment of the Harry Potter films ("Hedwig's Theme" is Williams at perhaps his least characteristic, at yet it's one of his best later works, I think). Meanwhile, excellent films can falter thanks to an unremarkable score, such as The Golden Compass, which had only the Gypsy Theme to stand out--if they worked with and developed that strain more, I think they would have had more success. We can only see what they'll produce for The Subtle Knife, I suppose.

Computer games are getting on board, now (though maybe I'll want to save this for my other, neglected blog). They always have been, of course, but the hype and availability of computer game soundtracks is increasing. If you've ever heard the mercilessly epic music of World of Warcraft, you'll know what I mean. Fans of the classicly gritty Doom-clone Duke Nukem 3D will be able to attest to how the intro music to this gem could stir the blood. My favourite, though, is the introductory music of the under-appreciated RTS Majesty. I am sure the emotional charge that I get when I hear this music is fueled by the nostalgic quality of the game, but the sound itself is engaging. I'm going to see if I can link the music into my blog somewhere; if I can, listen to it and you'll see what I mean.

Now, I have no skill in music criticism. I know what a staff is; I get caesura to some extent, thanks to my giddiness about sonnets; I know the 'hold me' joke; I understand that jazz is different; I know that percussing on the counter-beat adds that extra edge. But music theory is something I haven't explored with any organization or direction. I'd like to, but, with linguistics, I have little external motivation and therefore can chicken out whenever it gets challenging--which it does immediately. All I can go on is my natural artistic abilities. So I can't tell you what makes a good soundtrack, but I can sure tell you how it makes you feel.

"True Love's First Kiss" from Shrek just came on Window's Media Player. This one is so beautiful. It builds, builds, explodes in majesty, and then lowers you with such delicacy, followed by gradually increasing and perfectly controlled swells, bringing you gently to rest at the end, with just a hint of more to come, ending on the paradox of satisfied anticipation... ah...


I should go work now. I've been meaning to write this for a while, but just now was moved to do so by the resounding awesomeness of the Pirates soundtrack.


Jon Wong said...

Garden State has an awesome soundtrack!

The English Clergyman said...

Every time I tell someone I listen to soundtracks, they say, "Garden State has a good soundtrack," or something synonymous to that. Every. Single. Time.

It does, of course, but I didn't find it to be a strikingly memorable soundtrack, one that has a visceral response. In this respect--the ability to compell you into a response--it does not live up to the music of Troy or Pirates of the Caribbean or World of Warcraft. I think this is because it is all indie music, which is still a fledgling and therefore unpracticed, but also because its motives are not so directly utilitarian as the soundtrack, being too concerned with such things as originality (which kills all hope of originality, I might add) and 'artistic-ness'. Orchestral, on the other hand, has a long tradition which the composers can draw on; these composers are also usually well-practiced and the best in their field, combining the tradition with personal ingenuity. Further, soundtrack music is specifically designed to provoke a very particular emotional response, and therefore, in combination with those other features, will probably do just that. Therefore, while I'm sure the soundtrack to Garden State is quite good, the individual songs do not count as 'score music' in the same way, and, at least as far as I am concerned, do not elicit the same response.

That being said, songs adapted for use in particular movies sometimes do have the soundtrack effect; take, for instance, the soundtrack to Shrek, particularly "Hallelujah."

Anonymous said...

Speaking of video games, Civ. IV has an amazing opening song. I've never actually played Civ IV, but a friend directed me to the song when I was prepping for my trip. The title is "Baba Yetu," which means "Our Father" in Kiswahili, and the rest of the lyrics are the rest of the prayer. My Swahili is rustier every day, so I don't catch every individual word, but knowing what it means makes the moving music even more significant, despite the fact that it's the opening of a video game. I'm sure that even for those who don't understand it at all, it would still be an incredibly amazing song - think of the many ecclesiastical choral pieces with Latin lyrics, that nonetheless have the ability to move and inspire masses. You should be able to find it on youtube if you're interested. I hadn't listened in a while, and your post just reminded of it - thanks!

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