Pseudo Soundtracks

Reconsidering The Rescore

Published in Live Cinema: Cultures, Economies, Aesthetics, Bloomsbury, London, 2019


Jack DeJohnette performing his rescore to William Clayton’s Jack Johnson (1970), titled Jack Johnson – Portrait Of A Legend, 2005

I. Audiovisual Amnesia
Presumed invention in newly commissioned rescores

Rescoring a pre-existing silent film strangely activates a mute dialogue with the film, mostly because the composer/musician is not required to communicate to or with the film. Put simply, the film cannot talk back to the rescorer. The composer/musician generally operates in one of two ways. He or she will be melodramatically reverent, wishing the music to sound like it has been magically transported from the past to our present. Or, the composer/musician will be salaciously presumptive of how an aleatory response to projected imagery somehow redefines audiovision anew. The former drive seeks to seal music to image like the illusory toning of a Renaissance landscape; the latter impulse seeks to fracture music from image like shards in a Cubist landscape. Both are arguably rooted in a Romantic synaesthesia which dreams of music and image determining the other. It’s a bad marriage, grounded in co-dependent presumption largely extrapolated from circulated altruisms of how a film score is negotiated in a film’s commissioning. These tendencies have pushed two polarities in rescoring. The ‘neutralising’ rescore (preferring 19th century instrumentation, ideally with a humble folksy bent) upholds conservative notions of music being mere accompaniment to images. The ‘radicalising’ rescore (turntables, samples, wild fuzz, free jazz, ethnographic sounds) implies that film scoring is allergic to lateral experimentation.

Neutralising rescores and radicalising rescores have grown within the progressivist remit of international film festivals and arts festivals. Returning the film form to its status as a live event enlivens these institutions of curation in a win-win situation. Curatorially, they either mourn the death of celluloid with faux-nostalgic sad tones, or wave revolutionary flags of modernist intervention by commissioning clashes between hoary old films and modish contemporary musical identities. I remain cynical of many of these ventures despite the undeniable success of this programming strategy in numerous festivals over the last two decades. Their purported vibrancy and vitality implies that by interfacing, interacting or plain interfering with the ontological stability of a projected film betrays both a short technological memory and a meagre assessment of the squirming complexity withheld by the innocent term ‘medium’. No technological medium remains fixed across time, between cultures, or across industry. All technological media are in transition, due to the proprietary territorialisation of its hardware and demands generated by or created for target audiences. Rick Altman’s definitive archaeology of the origins of the American film soundtrack Silent Film Sound (2006) cogently details the ‘crisis historiography’ of the medium’s aural dimension. By investigating the noise channels and overloaded fields of communication of late 19th century American musical culture and its mechanics, he demonstrates the manifold pressures and influences upon the random appearance of many potential encoding formats and delivery systems through which cinema would attain the status of a dual-system audiovisual encoding medium. Cinema’s phenomenal sealing, technological fusion, and sensory modulation result equally from the medium’s lack of fixity and film history’s reduction of its complexity.

Altman notably put sounds where his thoughts lie. His series of performances throughout the 2000s The Living Nickelodeon aimed to recreate the general sensation of being at a storefront Nickelodeon venue at the dawn of the 20th century. Essentially a jaunty slide-show with piano playing and sing-alongs, Altman chose this method of presentation to demonstrate how the site-specific interaction between an emergent unformed audience and the live happenstance performance of music to slide sequences triggered risky clashes between an image channel (the slides with their text-image configuration and controlled timing and sequencing) and a sonic channel (Altman’s accompaniment—either cued by the slides, separately chosen, or improvised on the spot—and the conducted involvement and uncontrolled contributions by the ideally rowdy audience). Silent Film Sound makes a special point towards its conclusion in doubting the value of cinema’s controlling of audiences’s synchronized emotional experience through the clarification of musical codes mandated by cinema’s evolving industrial apparatus. The birth of classical film narrative can be regarded as the death of the audiovisual multiplicity and density which reigned, however chaotically and precariously, at the turn of that century.

The Living Nickelodeon sits well away from both the neutralising rescore and the radicalising rescore. Understandably, its maudlin songs, sentimental lyrics, cloying involvement and soft ribaldry aspire neither to bourgeoisie grandeur or avant-garde fantasy. However, neutralising scores’s symphonic splendour often amounts to harmonious kitsch, while radicalising rescores’s musical strategies are often past their modish use-by-dates. So maybe the means of differentiating audiovisual form is limited when one approaches it through criteria of artistic expression or entertainment value. Altman’s project is a discursive interrogation of historiography, not a declaration of artistic essentialism or entertainment. Crucially, his cartography of cinematic audiovision morphing from one ontological possibility to the next grants an overview of how (i) no technologically determined ‘new medium’ is born fully developed, and (ii) no matter how dominant and secure a single medium’s position and utilization, its effects can be short-circuited by encroaching and enveloping forces. Zooming out from Altman’s focus on fin de siècle audiovision, one can perceive similar climatic whorls in cinema’s modern regime. Audiovision would continue to resist definition by problematising extant ontological paradigms collectively defended by reviewers, audiences and industry professionals. Three pressure zones which resist the normative notions of how sound should service cinema are clearly audible: (i) the spatio-temporal cinematising of Broadway musical effects from the 1930’s to the 1950s (from Busby Berkeley spectaculars to the canny collaborations of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen); (ii) the importation of phonological presence in teen movies from the 1960s to the 1980s (from Roger Corman’s wild and twanging youth exploitation flicks to John Hughes’s synth-pop dramedies); and (iii) the immersive spatialization of expanded frequency and dynamic range in Dolby applications from the 1970s into the 1990s (from Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas’s early experiments to the complex orchestrations of Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Goddard, David Lynch, Robert Zemeckis, P.T. Anderson, et al).

These three arcs of 20th century invention—only loosely itemised here due to the focus and scope of this chapter—are notable for two key reasons. The first is that they constitute a rich and available history which most rescoring strategies either ignore, unconsciously mimic, or of which they are simply ignorant. A strange uncritical situation indeed, considering that rescoring necessitates a critical response based on becoming aware that the film one is rescoring pre-exists one’s connection with it. The most vulgar rescoring is that which presumes a Pavlovian one-to-one dialogue can be enacted between the rescoring composer and the original film. Both neo-classical claims and para-modernist assertions made by composer/musician-centric rescore projects can easily be countered by the bounty of imaginative audiovision in the historical catalogue of the aforementioned three arcs. Secondly, their pressure zones are framed by controversy and contention. Far from supporting Hollywood’s hegemonic adoption of high-art academicism touted by the early to mid-20th century influx of émigrés from Europe’s venerated conservatoria, these contentious epochs of audiovision are firmly grounded in technological enquiry and embrace, musicological heterogeneity and exploration, and pop cultural assimilation and regurgitation. As such, they have generated an energizing current through the voluminous spread of genuflective image-accompaniment, mood-generation and emotional-cueing, which to this day constitute the commonplace purpose of film music. To bypass the criticality of these streams in cinema amounts to audiovisual amnesia.

II. Audiovisual Imagination
Defining new modalities of Audiovision in rescores

Pierre Henry’s rescores to Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), premiered in 1991, and Dzhiga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929), premiered in 1993.

Pierre Henry, 1998
Man With A Movie Camera (1929); Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)

Jack DeJohnette’s rescore to William Clayton’s Jack Johnson (1970), titled Jack Johnson – Portrait Of A Legend and premiered in 2005.

Miles Davis - Jack Johnson (1970)

III. Audiovisual Textuality
Voicing narrative meaning through composing rescores

Philippe Garrel’s Le révélateur (1968) and Andy Warhol’s Kiss (1963) - retitled respectively Aurévélateur (premiered in 2004) and Kissed (premiered in 2007).

Text © Philip Brophy 2018. Images © respective copyright holders