Schizo Scherzos & Psycho Synths

Cinematic Electronica Part 2:

published in The Wire No.160, June, 1997, London

For postwar Hollywood, the world was a place where you hoped you were stable and centred. If there was a problem, it was not with you - it was the world around you. Your surroundings were alien, other, threatening. This is nowhere more apparent than in the chiaroscuro chasms wedged open in Film Noir. Despite reams written on the period from a sociological view, the point often missed is that the visuals 'state' this dilemma, while the soundtrack grants us access to the interior state of the agonized protagonists.

Film Noir orchestration is typically an aggressive jostle between jazzy fly-bys and distant rumblings of avant-garde atonality. And nowhere is this more audible than in the use of the vibraphone: it would play modulating chords with the sustain pedal engaged, delivering the tonality of preceding and proceeding chords at any one point. Its ability to liquefy harmony in film scores consequently blurred time and rendered perception watery, shimmering. A magically effective instrument, the vibraphone imported a certain 'jazziness', and at the press of a pedal could grant you tonal orchestration that would take hours to transcribe and effectively conduct. As such, it is an important technological device in the production and performance of modern music.

The sporadic use of the theremin in Film Noir performs similarly. In Miklos Rozsa's score for Billy Wilder's THE LOST WEEKEND (45) the theremin is the 'genie in the bottle'. It musicalizes the allure of alcohol, harmonically suggesting its vaporous form in the guise of a scantily veiled temptress dancing near Ray Milland's nostrils. Once again, Hollywood is simultaneously corny and profound, conveying addiction via a synaesthesia of pheromones, erogenous zones and harmonic tones. Here, the theremin symbolizes the sound of something - liquor - which momentarily exists outside of Ray Milland. For this is postwar Hollywood. The problem is not him - it's something else, someone else, somewhere else.

Thirteen years later, in Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (71) the problem clearly is Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell. He stomps across a landscape stamped with sociologically scarring potential, yet his external environment is neither alien, other nor threatening. The problem is in his head. The 2nd movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony rings and climaxes until overcome by something else - a rich, swirling metallic tone, tuned to the tonic of the piece and evoking a huge bell. This is pure sonic terror: a ringing sound you can't get out of your head that keeps you awake all night. In this case, it is the sound of Wendy (then Walter) Carlos' electronic rendition of Beethoven's 9th. In a moment of sublime decision, Kubrick commissioned Carlos - a recording artist by profession, film composer by invitation - to 'realize' Beethoven so as to convey the subjective perspective of someone listening to Beethoven - or being driven by his music. The 70s thus starts with synthesizers being employed not to simply create imagined worlds and evoke mental states, but to de-interiorize the mind of a character: to turn that character's inner world inside-out by creating a musical soundscape which we as viewer/auditors inhabit. The strains of Beethoven in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE do not beckon Malcolm McDowell like the alcoholic theremin in LOST WEEKEND; they are the sinuous, treacly threads of his problematized psychological make-up.

Wendy Carlos (as Walter Carlos, and in collaboration with synthesizer designer Robert Moog) is perhaps the most important though unacknowledged figure in the musicological development of the synthesizer. In the queasily affective SWITCHED ON BACH (68), those chintzy analogue tones embodying centuries-old melodies are historically implausible yet technologically possible. Simplistic linear thought labels this 'new-meets-old' but the implications are lateral. Carlos effectively played Bach as 'heard' by a synthesizer, and thereby - devoid of irony - demonstrated the synthesizer's unique ability not to simply 'represent' something, but to take its place. The synthesized renderings of Beethoven in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE execute Beethoven via sonic textures which obliterate the very work being performed (hence purists outrage with most of Carlos' recordings). Once you introduce such a severely self-reflexive and radically dimensional effect into the already overloaded receptive domain of the cinematic experience, things become very complex indeed. And from this point - despite what every Adorno-worshipping musician claims - synthesizers become crucial instruments in expanding modern and postmodern aspects of film as an audio-visual medium.

Another seminal composer/performer ensemble who entered cinema through score commissions is Tangerine Dream. If Carlos leaves us with much to philosophically ponder in the identity of the synthesizer (what is its 'own sound'? etc.), Tangerine Dream leave us a legacy of formal devices in film scoring. Ostensibly a para-druggy 4-chord cosmic-jamming outfit who mood-twiddled analogue synthesizers, the simplicity, clarity and effectiveness of their work from PHAEDRA (74) to AMERICA (81) allowed them to develop a lexicon of textural and harmonic handles which were easily and readily transposed to the film soundtrack.

Films containing Tangerine Dream scores like William Friedkin's THE SORCERER (77), Michael Mann's THIEF (81) and THE KEEP (83) collectively sketch thirty years of modern film scoring techniques. In these scores, one can hear indifference, asynchronism, amorphism and transcendentalism as Tangerine Dream's 4-chord motifs virtually hover still while the film narrative moves through them. The role the score performs in these films is integrally tied to Tangerine Dream's use of the synthesizer as a non-definable, distanced instrument, devoid of its own identity yet capable of calling up simulated timbres in a breathy, hazy way. Jan Hammer's MIAMI VICE (84), Angelo Badelamenti's TWIN PEAKS (89) and Mark Snow's THE X-FILES (94) all use Tangerine Dream's synthesizer technique of simplistic yet dense chordal textures to connote an 'orchestra-ness' while emptying the screen soundspace of any true orchestral presence. Just as Carlos did this through direct referencing of Baroque and Classical works, Tangerine Dream do so with what we expect to be the sound of 'film score orchestration'.

Though in depth analysis of both Carlos and Tangerine Dream's work is not possible here, I am intent on redirecting the presumptive dismissal of synthesizers in film as 'cheap pseudo-orchestras'. In fact, I maintain there is great technological, narratological and musicological importance in them being boldly used as 'cheap pseudo-orchestras', and that the cinema is the site that allows these grey areas of artistic endeavour to be richly explored.

Perhaps the best advocate for this as a positive and liberating manoeuvre is John Carpenter - a rarity as he is both director and composer. In collaboration with Allan Howarth as synthesizer programmer, Carpenter scored numerous of his own films and in doing so may have had either an indirect or symbiotic effect on Tangerine Dream. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (76); HALLOWEEN (78); HALLOWEEN II and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (both 81); HALLOWEEN III and THE THING (both 82, the latter composed by Ennio Morricone under Carpenter's direction) - in all these Carpenter is the meister of the one note synth pulse. Through a brutish yet economical employment of this trait, he helped crystallize the synthesizer as an instrument of indifference and asynchronism - that 'hovering still' sensation - which then became the perfect foible against which changing degrees of dramatic tension could be measured. This was, in effect, a narratological transposition of Minimalism's drone/loop states, where the absence of 'horizontal' melody aided in one's awareness of the 'vertical' depth to any one note or musical fragment. Once again, the synthesizer's innate ability to be inhuman was crucial to Carpenter's discovery of this modern effect. Furthermore, Carpenter more de-scored than scored: his 'cues' are largely dub variations from the analogue multi-track, as layers and parts of the composition exit and enter in noticeable fashion. This is yet another example of how musical technology has been incorporated into the craft of film scoring in a contemporary vein - by those composers attuned to the technology's potential.

Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER (82) is a film most readily acknowledged for its modern use of the synthesizer as a scoring instrument, though little has been articulated about either its precursors (especially Tangerine Dream) or the function of its score. Scott's use of Vangelis' electronic score with the sound design of a speculative Asian-ized LA generates a compound effect of sounds and tones which perceptually fuse orchestrated timbres with designed sound effects and atmospheres. Just as BARBARELLA's ambience is a mix of futuristic fromage and electronic detailing, BLADERUNNER's ambience is a disorienting blend of multicultural discord and urban noise. Key modernist traits are sharply defined in the film's final mix - particularly amorphousness (sounds bleeding in and beyond the frame to non-specifically suggest a space) and indifference (sono-musical lines being allowed to flow and resolve independent of focused dramatic occurrences). While these aspects have been appropriated by numerous ambient composers over the past fifteen years, their role in the film is rooted to a perversely futuristic narrative logic, informed by ideas of the collapsed metropolis and how time, space and people inhabit and navigate its reinvented zone.

If the Scott/Vangelis combine painted a sonic landscape for the urban pseudo-being of the future, Howard Shore's score for David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME (83) paints a sonic abstraction of the schizophrenic media-being of the present. The power of Shore's work lies in contrasting digital and analogue textures. One simulates the other to create a schizophrenic oscillation between states of existence and perception. The film literally breathes with the synclavier mocking human breath, Debbie Harry's real breath analogue-filtered, and the synclavier simulating orchestral drones which historically symbolize vocal sighs and choral murmurs. Abstraction is the key application in the rendering of all sounds: one is continually aware of a 'humanness' which audibly strikes one as entirely inhuman. And once again, the synthesizer is exploited (a la Carlos and Carpenter) for its innate ability to render human as a timbrelly pornographic presence.

A critical problem leaves these observations unresolved. Firstly, electronica and synthesizers have been applied in the cinema in monstrously complex ways. The dearth of critical awareness of this, plus the lack of investigation into technological links between the film and recording industries paint a barren landscape of ignorance and disinformation. The second problem is a historical one. Past the mid-80s, I find scant development beyond the ideas, devices, forms and approaches employed by Carlos, Tangerine Dream and Carpenter - the key figures who nurtured synthesizer scoring as inventively as electronica has ben deployed in the wide genres of (forgive the blunt names) Krautrock, Jazz Fusion, Electro, House & Techno. The current dilemma: if synthesizers can do so much, why aren't they in more film scores? The original THX logo-jingle-phoneme is all-synthesizer - but what do you hear most and loudest in the following movie? Anything but a synthesizer.

Text © Philip Brophy 1997. Images © respective copyright holders