Narrative / Narrative Film / Music Narrative / Narrative
published in Cinema Papers No.71,
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.
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
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 experincing 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.
- 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 (implicity or explicity) demonstrated
that narrativity is the temporal mobilzation of structure.
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.
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 tendancy 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.
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.
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 cogniscent 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.
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 contiuum, 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.
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
`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.
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.
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 inneffectiveness 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.