INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The 405 MAY 27, 2016 - by Kristofer Thomas
THE ELECTRIC CINEMA: ELECTRONIC MUSIC IN FILM
Though electronic music in cinema was once synonymous with the often incredibly cheesy synth driven productions littered throughout the '70s and '80s, it has since undergone something of a revolution. Where there was once overproduction and blunt use of melody, there is now incredible subtlety and sub-textual content, and genres from pounding drum and bass to crystalline ambience now find themselves in high demand by directors wishing to establish a very specific tone and convey ideas that only these sounds can provide.
This list is comprised of what I consider to be the finest and most intelligent uses of electronic music in film, ranging from the oblique tones of Cliff Martinez's more caustic productions to Brian Eno's inimitable serene drones. I have attempted to collect a wide spectrum of examples that do not often appear in such lists, in an attempt to highlight the vast scope of electronic music and how it is used, as opposed to simply listing the medium's most famous moments.
We all know Vangelis' score for Blade Runner is great, likewise for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' work on The Social Network. You do not need me to tell you this and we definitely don't need another list extolling the virtues of John Carpenter's synthesiser based work when films such as Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar are rarely celebrated on these kinds of websites. So here then are ten examples of how effective electronic music in cinema can be, courtesy of a writer tired of seeing the massively overrated Drive soundtrack regularly named amongst the best of all time.
SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE
Ambient music is incredibly difficult to get right. If you venture too far into muted atmospherics then you enter challenging avant-garde territory, whilst too much focus on melody can draw attention away from the mood the music is attempting to create. When crafting the score for Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, And Videotape, Cliff Martinez was instructed to channel the spirit of ambient pioneer Brian Eno, and the result is a stunningly hazy tapestry of aural detail and sonic intricacy.
Comprised mainly of delicate melody tied together with icy glacial winds, Martinez's soundtrack for what remains its director's most intimate film continues to work on multiple levels years after its release. On the surface, songs such as Take My Skirt Off and Are You Comfortable seem innocent and innocuous, but develop into something quietly sinister as the film progresses, mirroring the development of its characters increasingly deviant sexual desires.
Beneath this however is the soundtrack's greatest achievement, an allegorical revealing of the film's main themes and ideologies by way of the subtle combining of sedative inspired melody and the electronic medium it is created on - resulting in a soundtrack that can only be described as intimacy underscored with digital obsession, an idea that perfectly suits its material.
Song for song, I believe Morvern Callar's soundtrack to be the strongest here, a coming together of compositions from some of the most respected and influential contemporary electronic musicians to accompany the subtle tragedy of the film's eponymous protagonist. Featuring cuts from Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada and Broadcast amongst others, the soundtrack presents itself as a mix tape left for Morvern by her boyfriend after his suicide and charts her descent into loneliness and isolation with gentle ballads and caustic drone pieces in equal measure.
Transitioning erratically between playful (Aphex Twin - Goon Gumpas), menacing (Lee 'Scratch' Perry - Hold Of Death) and pensive (Boards of Canada - Everything You Do Is A Balloon) the soundtrack for Lynne Ramsay's brooding drama is a whirlwind of different tones and ideas, playing into the idea of Morvern's intensely fractured psyche.
The music alone is a journey, taking its listener from the fog of rural Scotland to the heat of an Ibiza party in seamless fashion. This soundtrack does what every great mixtape from throughout the ages does and creates a story in itself; one that can be interpretable when separated from the film and is simultaneously a vital element of Morvern Callar's fabric.
Where electronic music can best be applied to create mood or atmosphere in a traditional scoring sense, it can also be used to represent a specific time and place, and convey further information concerning the era the film depicts. In the case of Justin Kerrigan's Human Traffic this is certainly the case, the era in question being the '90s in the United Kingdom.
British '90s counterculture was dominated by electronic music, be this the 'squelch' of acid house that emerged from the legendary Hacienda nightclub in Manchester, or the more euphoric rave movement that spread across the countryside. Human Traffic is a love letter to this period, and the drugs, clothes and spiritual connections to 'the weekend' that defined it.
Comprised largely of cuts from what were the most popular figures in dance music at this time, including Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox and Armand van Helden, the Human Traffic soundtrack seamlessly brings together breakbeat jungle, euphoric trance, and multiple strands of house in one big party of an LP, accompanied by a second CD containing a mix by the legendary Pete Tong. The music of the film encompasses all elements of the decade's finest musical exports, painting a vivid picture of the energy and aural soul that remains the decade's most endearing characteristic to this day.
RUN LOLA RUN
Drum and bass is a difficult genre to work with in the sense that it is perhaps only suited to films that demand constant movement, a high-octane pace, and a consistently energetic tone. So it makes sense then that Tom Tykwer's Berlin set marathon puzzle Run Lola Run remains perhaps the finest moment of the genre in recent memory. Tykwer here utilises the genre to establish the intense rhythm that permeates throughout the film, but also in a sub textual manner, enhancing the narrative with intelligent use of composition and evolution.
The track Running is the crux of the soundtrack, a pulsating and quintessentially German drum and bass odyssey that presents itself in three stages throughout the film. Firstly we hear a primitive, percussion focused version, stripped back to its bare bones. In the second instance Tykwer adds vocals and a melody. Then finally, on Lola's third and final run, we hear the full version of the track, complete with siren-esque backing vocals, a chorus, and a piano interlude, revealing the complete song after it has been teased for over an hour-and-a-half.
Through this gradual revealing Tykwer is able to inform us on the progression of his character, the eponymous Lola, whose self-improvement and evolution is mirrored by the progression of the track. During each 'run' Lola builds her skills, refines her plan of action, and learns new things about both herself and her situation, an idea reflected by the episodic modifying of what essentially becomes her theme song. So at the end of the film, when Lola is successful (?) and her character has beaten the odds through the enhancing of her own abilities, the full song is played, signifying her evolution through the music that has propelled her.
English producer Jon Hopkins has, over the course of a fifteen-year career, combined traditional melodic electronica with the genre's more experimental side to great effect. 2013 saw his stunning fourth album Immunity nominated for the Mercury Prize and garner critical acclaim for its organic sounding textures and epic scope, but it is his work on Gareth Edwards' 2010 film Monsters that alerted a wider circle to his presence.
For a film about giant extra-terrestrial beasts, Monsters is often surprisingly tranquil and Hopkins' minimal, melody driven score ebbs and flows throughout the journey the protagonists take across rural, alien infested Mexico. Tracks such as Candles provide melancholy and introspective moments of respite, whilst the more sinister moments like the suitably named Attack bring together ominous strings with menacing electronic hums to generate a terrifying synthetic tension.
Monsters is perhaps the last great low budget sci-fi of the decade, and whilst Edwards' direction underwent a radical change when transferring his skills to Hollywood and the Godzilla reboot, Hopkins music has now evolved into something quite magnificent. His 2013 score for the British apocalypse film How I Live Now again proved his adeptness at creating music able to convey both beauty and horror.
THE THIN BLUE LINE
Though Philip Glass' score for The Thin Blue Line may not be considered strictly electronic in its nature, it is included here for the characteristics of its composition and structure, as opposed to its tone and sound. With specific focus on repetition and minimalism, many of the dominant elements of Glass' soundtrack to Errol Morris' masterful documentary can be found in more conventional electronic genres such as techno or, to a lesser extent, house.
The score's primary motif Adam's Theme contains all the hallmarks of the melodies found in minimalist techno. Comprised of a simplistic two note foundation and dashed through with cascading melodies, the track loops and repeats itself again and again, though never becomes monotonous. A virtue achieved by emphasising details such as timbre and depth rather than complex action mimicking beats.
Glass' work is highly influential in electronic music circles, with praise heaped on his innovative use of repetition as a means of generating emotion. Here this is especially true, with the incessant replication further heightening and underlining the evocative themes present in Morris' true crime masterpiece.
Darren Aronofsky's 1998 debut Pi remains for many his finest work, a hyperkinetic and expertly assembled venture into the psyche of a reluctantly damaged man. With recurrent themes of technology, patterns, mathematics and computer science, Pi demonstrates an intense focus on systematic design and an obsession with order and sequence. Drum and bass, jungle and IDM then, were perhaps the most obvious genres to accompany the film, all products of the technology Pi becomes preoccupied with and comprised of computerised loops, the rhythmic whirring of mechanised drums and synthetic melody.
The music is certainly effective in terms of generating specific tones and suitable atmospheres for Aronofsky's dark tale, but it is the soundtrack's relationship to the subject matter that really distinguishes it. By creating a symbiotic relationship between sound and subject, Pi is able to organically connect its music to our perception of events. Creating a link between the technology its protagonist becomes dependent on, and the technologically produced music we hear during his narrative.
Tracks from the aforementioned Aphex Twin provide chaotic accompaniment to Max's breakdowns whilst more abstract contributions from British artists Auterchre and Orbital leads us down into the uncharted mathematic territory that the film depicts.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
In 2012, French downtempo duo Air released a soundtrack for the restored version of Georges Méliès' landmark A Trip To The Moon, a hundred and ten years after that films initial release. Though somewhat disappointing as a standalone record, when coupled with the film it drew inspiration from it becomes an entirely different experience, highlighting obscure details with spaced out beats and a cosmos influenced tone. The record highlighted that, though their most successful and important days may be long behind them, the duo is still as skilled as ever when composing for cinema, something first demonstrated in 1999 and their work for Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides.
The brilliance of Air's score here can be found in its structure. Made up predominantly of four recurring notes, one for each sister, the music evolves through massively varying atmospheres and moods but retains its four-note composition throughout. By working into the score a musical representation of the characters that the film concerns, Air are able to delve deeper into their tragedy without losing sight of the film's main focus, despite the perspective it is told from.
Though their music has appeared extensively in film and television since their inception, used often as the catalyst for a chilled out, hazy vibe, Air have yet to follow it up their scoring work on The Virgin Suicides with anything for a new release. Here's hoping they return one day to the dizzying heights of Playground Love.
FOR ALL MANKIND
Al Reinert's academy award nominated For For All Mankind is a poetic journey into deep space, one that ventures into the abyss in order to look back and observe our little blue dot from a distance. Documenting the NASA Apollo missions over the years, watching as Armstrong takes his first step on the moon and taking a moment to witness a sunrise over the earth's edge, the film is a serene and peaceful one. So who better to provide its music than Brian Eno, an artist whose sound is preoccupied with the vast expanse of human life and the mysteries of texture, tone and emotion.
Most famous is the track An Ending (Ascent), a gorgeous slice of shimmering electronic ambience, expansive in scope and detailed to the extreme. Conjuring up images of both nature and human progress An Ending complements the subject matter perfectly by being both joyous and enigmatic all at once.
For All Mankind is a film about the infinite void that surrounds us and our relatively minute exploration of it, so the sparse, tranquil and drifting sound of Eno's music fits perfectly with the documentary's content. Eno's pioneering work in ambient music has always sounded like it was made for films, whether they were intended as scores or not. But on his work for Reinert's film all the celebrated elements of his music came together to paint a sonic picture of the childlike wonder one gets when simply looking up at the night sky.