Takemitsu Tôru

18/07/2017

The composer Tôru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996) took composing for film as seriously as composing for the concert hall – and he was very successful in both fields. Takemitsu created more than 100 film scores, e.g. for directors Akira Kurosawa, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Nagisa Ôshima or Mitsuo Yanagimachi.

The pianist and academic Noriko Ohtake succinctly sums up Takemitsu’s approach to film music:

Composing for film scores satisfies Takemitsu’s goal to become anonymous and let music speak for itself. While the composer’s name is not always visible to the cinema-goer, his music plays its role in supporting the totality of a film. Takemitsu feels that music in film social meaning for two basic reasons. First, films obviously reach a wider audience than classical music concerts. Also in working with collaborators, Takemitsu avoids limiting his own means of expression, since perceptive directors tend to bring out hidden aspects of his talent.

My favourite is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film The Woman in the Dunes (1964 D; H. Teshigahara), where music and sound design seamlessly blend into each other.

This links to my own approach to composing for documentary film: I feel my way into the world of the film; I try to understand the director’s intention; I listen carefully to the location sounds and sonic atmospheres and generally treat music as just another sound in the soundtrack. Takemitsu’s music leaves much space for other filmic elements to be and to expand.

In 2002 the Journal Contemporary Music Review dedicated a special issue to Takemitsu.

References

  • Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 21, issue 4 (London, 2002).
  • Ohtake, Noriko. Creative Sources for the Music of Toru Takemitsu. Ashgate, Aldershot, 1993.
  • Richie, Donald, “Notes on the Film Music of Takemitsu Tōru”, Contemporary Music Review, vol. 21, iss. 4, 5–16 (London, 2002).
  • Takemitsu, Tôru, Yoshiko Kakudo, and Glenn Glasow. Confronting Silence : Selected Writings. Fallen Leaf, Berkeley, Calif., 1995. (specifically on film music: “Conversation on Seeing” p. 36 – 45)

Sci-Fi festival

02/11/2016

Utopiales is an international festival dedicated to all aspects of Science Fiction. It is organised anually towards the end of October in the French city of Nantes. This year more than 60.ooo people attended. Here is a review in Le Monde.

 

European film sound

05/10/2016

European Film Sound? The musical and sonic representation of landscape and climate in the Icelandic series Trapped (2015) as expression of a specific north-European sentiment.

European film sound – what could this mean? Even superficially looking at this concept reveals the difficulty to formulate a compelling definition of the Europeanness in the music and sound design of European films. This has implications for the project www.europeanfilmsound.org , that methodically inquires the Europeanness in film sound and collects case studies. Films produced in the geographic region of Europe frequently play with an idea if European identity, that defines itself as the other, as non-identity. Directors and critics either stress the individual (the idea of the auteur: think of Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Jaques Audiard, Pedro Almodóvar, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog) or the national (as in the French film Amélie (2001)). Particularly important seems to be the role as anti-pole to Hollywood: European films explore real social and moral questions and are not exclusively focused on entertainment. They display a hightened realism, the argument goes.

What does this mean for the soundtracks of European films? On the background of the successes of the Scandinavian „Nordic-Noir“ crime series over the last decade (e.g. Wallander, The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge) it is worth listening to the Icelandic TV series Trapped (Island, 2015, R: Baltasar Kormákur). Does the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson express a specific North-European identity? Can one contextualise Jóhannsson’s and Guðnadóttir’s musical aesthetic in the tradition of European art music of the 20th Century: the composition of sound itself (Stockhausen’s Stimmung), working with harmonic spectra, as it is common practice in electroacoustic music, as well as with the so-called „holy minimalists“ Arvo Pärt or John Tavener, who focus on the simplification and reduction of musical means.

Nordic European landscapes and climate seem to have inspired the owner of the ECM label, Manfred Eicher as well. Many of his CDs have images of Nordic landscapes and Jan Garbarek, who is inspired by Norwegian folk music, is one of ECM’s stars.

Speaking about folk music: many tribes across the globe use the musical technique of drones in their ritual practices. The throat singing of the Mongolian group Huun-Huur-Tu from Tuva is rooted in ancient rites that animate natural phenomena through musical sound.

In Trapped and many other films, sound, timbre and harmic spectra have become the main focus of composition. Naturally this bring music and sound design closer together. This aesthetic approach can also be heard in the music of a group of composers subsumed under the misnomer „Neo-Classical scene“: e.g. the German composers Nils Frahm (Victoria, 2015) and Max Richter (Shutter Island (2010), Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Stranger Than Fiction (2006)) compose, produce and perform music and soundtracks that transplant elements of classical music into the sound world of pop and experimental electronics. Audiences and film directors seem to love it.

Keywords:

Trapped (2015), European Identity, Folk music, drone music, harmonic spectra, animism, ascetism, instrumentation, electroacoustic music techniques, soundscape composition, neo-classical music scene

References

 

Film composer & sound designer interviews

29/09/2015

As part of the European Film Sound (EFS) initiative I conducted the first interviews with

Dario Marianelli (Oscar winning composer)

Glenn Freemantle (sound designer of 140 films, Pinewood Studios, UK)

 

Journals on sound & music in film

06/09/2015

Journals on sound and music (selection)

German journals

Sound Studies Journals

French film journals

 

Breaking Bad

01/06/2015

Television series have arguably become more sophisticated in terms of character portrayal and complex story telling than many Hollywood “blockbuster” feature films.

Does the use of music and sound design in TV series demonstrate an equally innovative approach? The title music in particular is crucial to create a strong audio-visual identity for a TV series. The title and end sequence have become spaces for experimentation.

Breaking Bad (2008-13) is one of the most watched and highest rated TV series ever. It demonstrates a contemporary use of music, i.e. a strong integration of music into the film drama. Instead of using clichéd and prescriptive musical pastiche of 19th Century orchestral music – a common practice in Hollywood still today – the composer Dave Porter and the producer of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan use music very sparingly and in differentiated ways. Dave Porter title music, just 16 seconds long, re-interprets a famous film tune, or more precisely, the sound of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar music for Wim Wender’s Paris Texas (1984). Cooder himself referred back to the Blues musician Blind Willie Johnson. This film music tradition treats music as organised sound in the sense that it instantly evokes a sense of place (the American South) and identity (Black exploitation, social outcast) thus highly integrating it into the location sound of the drama. The sound of the title music is part of the drama’s sonic world, even though the main protagonists are white. This is further re-enforced in the endtitle, where the slide guitar motif is combined with different soundscapes integrating a crucial sound, Murray Schafer would call it a sound mark, from an episode.

A strong title tune creates an identity for the whole series in terms of place and social milieu. Detailed emotional commenting is relegated to underscoring sound design, in particular when it comes to the dark and morally questionable Walter White, the main character of the series.

The fact that the title tune appears only 3-4 min into the drama suggests that

  1. the realism of the drama is more important than the suspension of disbelief. Before any title credits appear a whole scene has been played out.
  2. music is only one of many elements in the film. Music is fully integrated into the fabric of the film and doesn’t announce in a fanfare the start of the film
  3. when music is used it is a powerful shortcut to provide a sense of place and social milieu
  4. musical underscoring is replaced by sound design

Existing popular music is used by characters in situations of the film drama as diegetic music.

Other famous TV series and their title music

  • The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008): contemp electronic music with action weaved in
  • The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007): song
  • Mad Men (2007 – ): Electronic music with a falling motif corresponding with the stylised animated film (downward spiral).
  • Borgen (Danish, 2010 – ): traditional fake orchestral, with a pop beat
  • Spiral (France 2005 – ): short scenes with music sounds (not proper music); each new scene introduced by a woosh effect

Quotes:

“But the title sequence has more to achieve. After all, it is a matter of the movie’s beginning. The title sequence has to lead into what follows, has to set the course in this respect, capture the genre, and the specific “mood” of what is to come, so that one is initiated into the cinematic narrative, the diegesis.” (Stanitzek 2009: 49)

“…even the most conventional of Hollywood movies entails, in this space [title sequence], a miniature experimental film” (Stanitzek 2009: 50).

References

Davison, Annette. ‘The End Is Nigh. Music Postfaces and End-Credit Sequences in Contemporary Television Serials.’ Music & the Moving Image 8.2 (2014).

Davison, Annette. ‘The Show Starts Here: Viewers’ Interactions with Recent Television Serials’ Main Title Sequences.’ SoundEffects 3.1-2 (2013).

Stanitzek, Georg ‘Reading the Title Sequence (Vorspann, Générique).’ Cinema Journal 48.4 (2009).

Essay on the documentary film Leviathan (2012)

30/01/2015

Christopher Sciacca wrote an interesting essay

Toward a New Truth in Sound: Expanding the boundaries of Direct Cinema (2015)

available at academia.edu

ABSTRACT
Since the emergence of Direct Cinema in the late 1950’s, documentary films have  presupposed a more accurate “claim of truth” over their subject matter.  Advancements in portable recording technology after World War II allowed documentarians to dissolve the line between subject and object using un-obtrusive camera and sound recording techniques, often regarded as the “fly on the wall”  style. From the Arriflex 35 and Nagra III audio recorder to the advent of the GoPro, direct cinema has evolved in concordance with the capabilities of new technology. Direct cinema’s attempt to display “reality” through a strict code of aesthetics not only relies on the visual “outside observer” model, but must also take into account an accurate representation of sound and soundscape. What role then does sound play in constructing reality where verbal narration and non-diegetic music is absent? The latest ethnographic film of Harvard’s Sensory  Ethnography Lab, Leviathan (2012) will be examined as the forefront of the new direct cinema style. This immersive film provides a heightened sense of reality remarkably without the aid of traditional sound design. Since the idea of film-truth is debatable, can artistic integrity outweigh the actuality of events, or is the concept of truth supplanted by a more visceral, experiential understanding through stimulating new camera techniques and rich soundscapes?

Acousmatic voice

14/01/2015

In many films we hear voices whose bodies we never see, but who could plausibly be part of the narrative or story.

Michel Chion calls these voices ACOUSMÊTRE (see Glossary) , which he defines as:

An invisible character created for the audio-viewer by means of an acousmatic (84) voice heard either offscreen, or onscreen but hidden (behind a curtain or other obstacle). The voice must occur frequently and coherently enough to constitute a true character, even if it is only ever known acousmatically and so long as the carrier of this voice is theoretically capable of appearing onscreen at any moment. In film, the acousmêtre is distinct from the voiceover that is clearly external to the image: an acousmatic character is defined by the edge of the frame, a space where it could appear at any moment, but whose position outside that frame seems to confer on it certain powers over what’s within the frame (e.g., Norman’s mother in Psycho, Mabuse in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). The
cinematic imaginary regularly bestows on the acousmêtre the powers of ubiquity (being everywhere), panopticism (seeing all), omniscience (knowing all), and omnipotence (being all-powerful).

Examples:

  • The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang)
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming, George Cukor)
  • Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) : Hal 9000 computer
  • Her (2013, Spike Jonze) : the voice of Samantha
  • Birdman (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Subjective sonic expression in film

08/01/2015

In many films we can observe this phenomenon. A protagonist finds him/herself in a dramatic situation and the sound shifts to the subjective point of audition of this character. “Subjective or internal sound are sounds heard or imagined by a single protagonist and that we assume cannot be heard by any other characters who may be present” (Chion).

What is the role of music in this context? Music is the ultimate tool for subjective sonic expression, but not exclusively – in Hollywood film it too frequently tells what the protagonist feels and more annoyingly, what we should feel.

Some film examples are:

  • Being John Malkovich (1999)
  • Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979)
  • Requiem for a Dream (2000)
  • Katalin Varga (2009)

I saw Un prophète (2009) by Jacques Audiard, who has won the London Film Festival Price 2009.

It is a tense, gripping film which tackles issues of race (Corsicans, Arabs and Blacks in France), religion (Islam), and the injustice of the penitentiary system, which re-creates a society within the society. Audriard explores violence in prison and its consequences for society, i.e. often recreating the status quo.
Towards the last quarter of the film the main protagonist Malik El Djebena kills members of a rival gang in a crowed street by jumping into their car. Through the noise of the gun battle he becomes temporarily deaf, which is expressed sonically through a muffled sound in the soundtrack, i.e. subjective sound. When his companion asks whether he is injured, because he is covered in blood, the viewer can hardly understand his voice. We hear through the ears of Djebena.

In another scene the Corsican Mafia boss nearly destroys Djebena’s eye. After this event the camera shows the subjective view of the world through Djebena’s damaged eye.

A discussion of the subjective use of music in film has to follow.

Texts:

Chion, M. Glossary, No. 97. POINT OF AUDITION (see Chion website )

Milicevic, Mladen. ‘Film Sound Beyond Reality: Subjective Sound in Narrative Cinema.’ filmsound.org (no year)

Raskin, Richard. ‘Varieties of Film Sound: A New Typology.’ fra publications, Aarhus University  (1992). pdf

definition on University of Texas film course

mobile music listening in the environment

14/10/2014

Listening to music on a mobile device (phone, iPod, iPad and other tablets) influences the way we perceive our environment. But a certain environment, e.g. a street will also influence how I listen to a piece of music. When I listen to the same piece in a forest, it will feel different.

Listening and seeing is a two-way perceptional process: listening influences seeing, and seeing influences listening.