Film Narrative / Narrative Film / Music Narrative / Narrative Music

published in Cinema Papers No.71, Melbourne, 1989
Santiago Rusinol - Erik Satie In His Room (1891)

When questioned about his unconventional approach to scoring the ballet Parade in 1917, composer Erik Satie returned the question : "When the villain enters the stage does the scenery grimace?" Satie was making the point that if background scenery remains fixed while the balletic/choreographic narrative develops, could not the musical score similarly sever itself from the dramatic flow. The score to Parade is a virtual cut-up of musical fragments, where each section or movement (illusory terms in this case) are arbitrarily collaged. Dramatic intensities change seemingly of their own accord and without apparent reason, as the music deliberately lacks and absents conventional dramatic flows and structures.

To contemporary ears, Parade sounds fairly conventional : it meanders and appears to have a distracted, half-disconnected dramatic flow. As it passes through a set of dramatic styles, musical forms and emotional points, one gets the sense that something is happening but - more importantly - one doesn't feel the need to know what the music might be describing or suggesting. Back in 1917 things weren't that casual. Modernity and modernism in European art and culture were peaking throughout the first quarter of the century, and Satie's dadaist refutation of dramatic logic and rational music was purveyed and taken as `anti-narrative' in its modernist drive.

Today the pseudo-avant garde notion of any `anti-narrative' or `non-narrative' form is either retrograde, naive or plain imperceptive, because such an oppositional notion is based on what are now historical (classical, lyrical, epic, etc.) concepts of narrative. Narrative today - in the swirling blurring of modernist and postmodernist drives of this century - is somewhat different. Narrative (like genre, iconography and style) is morphological in the true biological sense : it grows, it breeds, it mutates. Narrative is not - as is commonly assumed - formal or structural. It is not something to be built up and broken down. The terms `anti-narrative' and 'non-narrative' are mirages of phantom structures, the hangover of a perception conditioned to dealing with building blocks and picture books. To posit narrative as morphological is not simply to discern changes and developments in narrative form, but also acknowledge that narrative exists in time and changes through time (on both macro and micro temporal/historical planes). If you've got `time' (say, as in any time-based medium, or even in a passage of your everyday life) you've instantaneously got a split narrative : a narrative of simultaneity and a narrative of memory ; of experiencing a temporal flow and acknowledging how you are experiencing that temporal flow. Issues of `structure' are mainly formal and/or poetic ways of perceiving narrative which often neglect that while narrativity is not inherent in time, it is unavoidable. To claim something as `anti/non-narrative' likewise ignores this aspect of temporality which typifies and governs much narrative form (in film, theatre, dance, literature and music) of this century.

Satie - one of the key figures in dadaist conceptualizations of music - was perhaps a bit rash in his breakdown of the plastic components of stage ballet. Surely the scenery `changes' continually because of a number of factors : (i) the passage of time itself ; (ii) changes in lighting upon the scenery ; and (iii) its relation to the continually changing stage action. At around the same time Lev Kuleshov was watching films like D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and analyzing Griffith's editing syntax and technique. Conducting a series of `syntactical' proto-montage experiments (prior to Eisenstein's theories) he proposed that one could intercut a single image with a series of different images and thereby make the original image perceptibly change its psychological resonance. Film histories accord Kuleshov the honour of realizing narrative form through the syntactical structure made by editing images. True - but he also (implicitly or explicitly) demonstrated that narrativity is the temporal mobilization of structure.

To say that film is image is sure folly. (Actually it's downright stupid.) Film is a time-based medium. Temporality is its primary governing factor, distinguishing it from photography. To realize the temporality of film is to comprehend cinema as the fusion of sound and image ; what Godard called son-image. Cinema is 100% image and 100% sound. Cinematic narrative (as distinct from whatever literary-based concept of narrative you might entertain) is the temporal multiplication of all possible narratives generated, produced and effected within any cinematic occurrence or continuum.

Further folly is ensured once you try to separate the soundtrack from the image track. In essence it is an impossible task, because the sound and image tracks narrate each other as well as themselves. Their fusion is material, ontological and phenomenological. Their structure, form and flow are infinitely interactive and immeasurably mobile. The fact that we 'watch' or 'see' films and videos testifies not only to visual primacy in our culture, but also our culture's incessant separation of things into parts, levels and layers (a tendency evident in the paradox of Satie's separatist critique of theatre's separation of the background scenery from the musical score). One might be able to take apart a watch or a car engine and put it back together again. That's kids' stuff. Try doing while they're still going. Whatever your conscious mind thinks as it takes in a film, your unconscious body is taking it all in - in total, on the run, and while the film's going.

`Narrative music' is a confusing term. It's like looking at a part from the watch or car engine and recognizing it as a part (apart) - but not being able to understand how exactly it works the way it does when it's actually working. `Narrative music' is in fact a hazy and lazy term, for all music is narrative - even in the most conventional structural sense. Music starts, goes, and ends. Its passage of time is controlled by its dynamics, and its dynamics are the mobilization of its structural components (harmony, rhythm, etc.). Freeze it and you've got its structure. Set it going and you've got its narrative.

The term `narrative music' implies that music `itself' is not narrative. But just as one can question the validity of `non-narrativity' when one realizes the shaky foundations to our concepts of structural narrative, so too can one question the validity of `narrative music' when one realizes music's narratological form. `Narrative music' more properly (yet inappropriately) hints at the narrative effect produced by music once it is engaged in the multiplication of narration in the cinema. By concentrating on the musical score, Satie neglected the totality of narratives which make up theatre. Music in film should be not similarly isolated, for musical scoring in the cinema is generally cognoscente of its partial form yet total flow : it realizes both its contribution to the film's form and its role in the film's development.

Interestingly, when people talk of 'narrative' music they are generally referring to music which has been composed in a primarily linear fashion, designed as such to synchronously follow the dramatic dictates, leads and cues of the plot action and character interaction - to grimace whenever the villain enters the screen. `Narrative' here is a negative term, and is countered by a supposedly `non-narrative' approach to musical scoring - that of the nefariously labelled `ambient' approach. The logic implicit is that if one provides a deliberately unfocussed and multi-layered musical continuum, one is somehow escaping the literality and linearity of the film's narration. One can even sense in this approach a desire to totally forget the temporality of film and compose music which would be atemporal, sitting in the background like .... scenery.

The connection between Satie and `ambient music' (as signposted by Brian Eno in 1975 with the release of his Discreet Music) is neither accidental nor coincidental. Satie was influential on both experimental and minimalist composers at the start of the 70s' because he fostered a yearning for not only the breakdown of logical musical structure (a la Arnold Schoenberg's serial compositional method) but also the complete absence of any such logic in music. His passion was for composing music which was designed to not be listened to - such as the small ensemble music he composed to be performed at an art gallery opening, which unfortunately everyone stopped to listen to as if it were a recital. (Satie apparently went around at the opening yelling at people to ignore the music.)

Eno's `ambient music' likewise attempts to engage a non-listening state. Unfortunately his theorization of `music for films' (released on two albums of that title in 1978 and 1983) is severely weakened by a superficial understanding of film narrative, music in film, and narrative in music. He associates a predominantly floating and intricately textured musical styling with the presumed unspecified location and indefinite presence of music in the film's narrative. The notion is that by having vaguely evocative music which denies or avoids the structural precepts of 'songs' and the like, one is attaining a state, style and form akin to that of `film music'. Quite simply - and ironically - this is the result of someone who has been listening to the film score when they perhaps should have been taking the film in as a whole. Eno is still in the gallery listening to the music with Satie yelling - a typically modernist paradox that is exemplified by Eno's definitive `ambient' record from 1978 Music For Airports : background music he composed after studying and listening to airport muzak.

Satie and Eno together leave us a popular yet (in my view) undesirable legacy : to compose film music as background scenery, as what could be called `architectural silence'. Silent? No. Dumb? Yes. This `non-narrative' approach is of course just as narratological as any other `traditional' recourse. Music in film will always give us mood while telling us something - a bind inherent in the base temporality of music. Some scores are skillful, cunning, creative and/or perverse in their switching between and combining of these two narrative modes (suggestion and description), while other scores are ignorant of or neglectful toward the total narrative effect of cinematic forms. Furthermore, some scores might work best by effacing their presence during the film's narration, while some scores which intrigue and fascinate might detract from the film's overall effect. The point is that there is no `best way' for a score to happen in a film because each film ultimately determines its own criteria for the function and performance of its musical score, leaving us to remember that film music is best discussed in relation to the many other aspects of the film.

Satie's music today (not to mention its aural imaging in Eno's `ambient' stylings) perfectly fits the bill for contemporary cinema's wavering, hovering, floating, driving, disembodied sono-musical texturing which is generally accepted as being in opposition to the 'old school' approach to theatrical/operatic scoring techniques. Sometimes it works (Nomads, At Close Range, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Birdy, Blood Simple, Starman) ; sometimes it doesn't (Bladerunner, Koyannisquatsi, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Eraserhead, The Emerald Forest, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence). And even in the films I just cited offhand, their exact effectiveness and ineffectiveness is hard to specify, because sometimes a music score can best function by being ineffective. The most unassuming or conservative films can have the richest and most complex sound and music narratives, while the most radical or unconventional films can have the most pedestrian and obvious soundtracks. Perhaps the point to be made is that a composer who knows little about film is as bad as a director who knows little about sound - neither are acknowledging yet alone realizing cinema's full potential. That full potential is ultimately realized as our conscious minds and unconscious bodies intake a film. In the end we have to deal with total effects, multiple flows, compound languages and meshed experiences. In the end we have what we started with - film narrative. And that's where we must start.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.