Film soundtracks are fantastic. The music is all about an instant emotional picture: no need for the architectural unfoldings of classical music with its exposition, development and recapitulation sections. Film music is designed to enhance the nature of a particular scene immediately, without recourse to large-scale structural devices. Think of the strident dissonances in Herrmann’s music for Psycho, or the looming menace of the semi-tone in Jaws.
The trouble is that most Hollywood Blockbusters lay the music on with a trowel. Big blasting brass sections, sweeping string gestures and pounding timpani often assault the ears in these epic films. This means that viewers don’t have to think or work out the emotional temperature of a scene for themselves – the accompanying soundtrack paints it for them with a thick brush.
There’s a marvellous French film, Un Coeur en Hiver, from 1992, about a love-triangle between a woman and two brothers: played by Emmanuelle Béart, Camille is a violinist who is recording chamber music by Maurice Ravel; her partner Maxime is producing the recordings, and his brother Stéphane, a violin-maker and repairer, begins an affair with her. The subtle nuances of the dynamics between the three characters are reflected in the soundtrack, which comprises entirely the music that Camille is recording in the studio or performing live. Ravel’s music is therefore not written for the film at all, but it is used sparingly and diagetically: the music plays when the musicians themselves are performing it.
Here, Camille is recording Ravel’s Violin Sonata while Stéphane, unbeknownst to her, watches from the engineering room: The taut emotion Stéphane feels is mirrored in the brusque pizzicato of the violin, and the harmonic roller-coaster of the chords in the piano.
Or this section here, where her attempts to perform the Sonata for Violin and Cello are thwarted by her emotional state: Stephane is sitting watching, which is distracting her. She falters and has to begin several times, until Stephane quietly leaves: at which point, she is able to play the piece perfectly. The melodic lines of the two string instrument twist and turn around each other in a way that reflects the desires of the two protagonists.
The film is a welcome relief from all those major films that paint their aural backcloth in livid colour, drowning the discerning viewer in an excess of orchestral zeal. It’s a shame; it’s more interesting (and more rewarding) to be allowed to work out the emotional conditions of a film for yourself unhindered by excessive bludgeoning from the soundtrack.
Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to view his Music Matters blog.