The radio can be a curious companion whilst driving long stretches through the outback. Stations come into range for a couple of hours before retreating in stuttering static as you search the bands for new treats. Whilst country music or classic blandness from the 80’s are the mainstays, you can occasionally be blessed by christian children’s stations, terrible jingles for the local mechanic or inept announcers sharing their theories on immigration. One mainstay however is radio national which as one call sign disappears under raining static another one appears on an alternate band. So this holiday period we found ourselves, dodging floodwaters and tuned to radio national who provided a fascinating program peering beneath the veneer of film music.
This particular episode was a conversation with Rodney Holland, a sound editor who has worked with some of the great filmmakers of modern times including Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah and Nicholas Roeg. Holland took us through some of the sonic choices made in films like Barry Lyndon, Don’t Look Now and in particular the disturbing battle scenes in Cross of Iron. As he would speak about these films the soundtrack would appear behind him, illustrating his points, which when divorced from the images were incredibly powerful. In fact in his new book based on the series, The Sound of Pictures: Listening to The Movies From Hitchcock To High Fidelity (Black Ink) broadcaster and music show presenter Andrew Ford speaks of editing the sound of this scene for the broadcast, stating that divorced from Peckinpah’s patented spurting blood and slow motion choreographed ballet of death, the sounds took on even more terrifying proportions, causing them to feel physically ill, to the extent that they cut out half so as not to inflict it upon the unsuspecting audience. This he states is the power of film sound.
Ford goes to pains not to overly jargonise his text or bury it beneath impenetrable academic theories. There’s a love of film sound here, best evidenced by those he sought out to interview. Each chapter is a conversation with one exponent in the field, initially composers like Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), Lalo Schiffrin (Dirty Harry), Woody Allen mainstay Dick Hyman and the great maestro Ennio Morricone responsible for the iconic Mission and The Good The Bad and The Ugly. Then he goes to the other side and speaks with directors, Wim Wenders (Paris Texas), Peter Weir (Picnic At Hanging Rock), Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), Peter Greenaway (The Cook THe Thief His Wife and Her Lover), and Sally Potter (Orlando). In between he takes the reader on a personal journey through film sound, discussing various techniques and approaches touching upon everything from Blow Up to Mamma Mia.
There’s something incredibly loose about this approach. He’s not attempting to ram a thesis through, rather he throws some ideas into the wind and sees what sticks. There are some central themes however. Firstly when a film is made, prior to commissioning the score they put a temp score on to show it to the studio who financed it. It’s usually from other film music (and usually the Mission). This is the bane of all film composers. By the time they’re brought into proceedings everyone has fell in love with the temp score, so the composer is asked to merely replicate it. Morricone flat out refuses to score films that have temp tracks but he has power. Bruce Beresford found a way around it, temping Double Jeopardy with the work of unknown Canadian Normand Corbeil the man he wanted to score the film. So when everyone fell in love with the temp track and asked who should do the score Bruce was able to suggest the man who had already composed the music. Then of course there’s the story of Alex North, who had his music for 2001 dumped in favour of Kubrick’s temp score that has since become iconic. Whilst Scorcese refuses to use temp scores at all.
Hitchcock is held up as celluloid film school, and of course Bernard Herman’s scores for the Birds and Psycho are breathlessly discussed by most of the participants, in fact Ford devotes a whole chapter on Hitchcock’s sound work, whilst Dick Hyman gushes about the musical collage that is Rear Window.
The Bourne Identity comes into some criticism, where the role of music just seems to be playing endlessly keeping the momentum going. Though Ford also asks some interesting questions about the absence of music. Morricone suggests the minimal trumpets in The Hill (Sidney Lumet 1965) were a masterstroke, whilst Richard Rodney Bennet points to Miles Davis’ iconic Ascensuer pour l’echafaud score as a pivotal moment where the music was saying everything the images weren’t. In fact that’s what makes this book so incredible, it’s an intimate peek into the minds of the practitioners, and an awakening about the power and art behind the sounds we hear.