The Sound of Erotica

Pornographic Music Part 1

published in The Wire No.174, August, 1998, London

Muffled grunts from the room next door. Metal springs squeak; wood bangs against a wall. A woman's vocalizations flitter incomprehensibly between pleasure and pain. The sounds of sex as heard by the acoustic voyeur. But they could just as likely be the sounds in any gymnasium, chiropractic clinic or medical centre. The body sonic is a blunt instrument when engaged in physical extremities. It heaves, spits, sighs, coughs, thumps and humps in an animalistic sonorum whose baseness excites the pornographic imagination.

Music is a different case all together. That couple next door will screw to any music imaginable. From Oasis to Minnie Ripperton. From The Mamas & The Papas to The Allan Parson Project. From FSOL to Roy Wood's Wizard. No causal logic. No selective order. No reasonable matching. Just the atmospheric noise of music to cover and envelop the bodily noise of sex. Any music can accompany anyone's sex. Any music can be rendered sexual when captured in the synaesthetic realm of erogenous stimulation.

The cinema subsequently has been affected by a perverse audio-visual dilemma: what music should formally occupy the soundtrack in accompaniment to the sounds and images of bodies having sex? Obviously, this is a modern problem. Cinema (that is, the cinema which excludes pornography) has only had to deal with this for the past three to four decades. Prior to the 60s, sex was connoted by the mysterious fade to black or the rapid shuttle to the lurid symbolism of fireworks and crashing waves. The visualization of the sexual act thus necessitated previously unimagined aural accompaniment. The resulting musical scores have generated perplexing conventions that highlight the fissures between the image track's conscious narration and the soundtrack's liminal operation.

This audio-visual dilemma of scoring the hitherto unseen is twofold. Firstly, film music - being at the service of cinema's innate conservatism - had to moralise the brute animalism of sex. While the camera lens coldly captured the sexual act and caged it on screen like a titillating, barbaric aberration, the music score transmuted the physical, the tangible, the visceral, the sensual into a narrow stream of humanist contemplation. Legitimate cinema employs music - scored or as song selection - to provide commentary and orient the act, providing justification for its very depiction. That which appears pornographic is thereby naturalised under the guise of beauty, nature, romance. In short, if there were no music, we would be left with the vulgar soundtrack of the sonic body operating at its base level.

Secondly, film music has had to perform differently from the overall music score which already would be humanising the film's drama. In other words, if the score is already being high and mighty about people, feelings, emotions, motivations, etc., then how does one signpost a specific morality while showing images that clearly are privileged as psycho-sexual stimuli - a nipple, some pubes, a tongue? Two tendencies have been employed in the modern cinema to address this issue: one is to highly poeticise the erotics of the sexual act as sensual rather than aggressive; the other is to blatantly ignore the sexual aura unleashed by sexually charged imagery. We'll take these two tendencies separately.

The poetic approach is marked by a general softening of musical style. A good example is Francis Lai's score to Claude Lelouch's A MAN AND A WOMAN (1966). Plenty of love-making with sub-Nouvelle Vague visual affections is combined with the sensual bossa nova passages by Lai as filtered through that semi-detached pop ballad style in which the French excel. There is nothing overtly erotic in the score, but its leanings toward 'cool' separate it from the brassy arrangements whose origins lie in burlesque and vaudeville stripper routines. The consequent feel of the music is somewhat drained - like a post-coital ennui which alludes to sexual activity without syncing to its more physical convulsions. The same musical intonation is heard throughout much European cinema (home of the infamous euphemism of 'adult/foreign' movie), reaching an apotheosis with Gato Barbieri's theme for Bernado Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973). There the saxophone of Gianni Oddi is as exhausted as Brando himself: both breathe and heave in an aimless dance of chromatic chord changes, circling round and lost in the heady meaningless of life which finds comfort in anonymous sex.

Russ Meyer's VIXEN (1968) - held as an instance of the pornographic crossing into the mainstream with a large measure of strategic success - features a score by Bill Loose that illustrates the latter tendency of scoring. The music sounds like the archetypal dentist's waiting room muzak. It contains no sexually symbolic musical traits and even appears indifferent to the erotic scenes themselves, which sit somewhere between camp and hysterical. The effect is strange - watching bovine breasted women in showers, lakes, fields and trucks while hearing music that seems to deny the manifest sexuality bursting out on screen. The precise origins of this indifference are hard to place - even harder to qualify. It's almost as if the soundtrack is in denial of its imagery. In a sense, film music is often engaged in such denial - trumpeting hollow cliched heroics, orchestrating lush landscapes of blandness, softly silencing graphic violence. Ignoring images of naked bodies continues along similar lines.

Porn film scores slip and slide between these two tendencies. Sometimes their blatant disregard for combining appropriate music with their ocular gynaecological pursuits renders their music surreal and unsettling. Other times, their mock-Euro attributes characterize them as desperate and deluded in their pretence to sensitivity while hammering sexual gyrations with a cinematic sledge hammer. Bizarrely, their scores co-opt legitimate cinema's humanising and naturalising musical strategies - while clearly delivering a type of content which legitimate cinema bars at all costs. One wonders why porn doesn't go further and sono-musically shape its narratives as violently and potently as it does visually. Furthermore, one wonders why in fact music used to accompany sex scenes is not ... sexy. Why it doesn't have a heady, vertiginous, dizzying sense of being out of control and lost in the act. In the face of a plethora of musics and songs which reek of hormonal chaos and libidinal overload, one realizes that film music falls well short of the mark when it come to providing sonically evocative and musically inducing substance for the sexual act.

Searching the history of film music for such possible moments, an unlikely artefact is unearthed: Michel Legrand's theme for Robert Mulligan's (check director) THE SUMMER OF '42. Superficially, it marries the two tendencies of poetics and denial mentioned above. However with skilful cine-music crafting, it perfectly narrates a material sense of sexual arousal through its orchestration. The theme starts with a blurred wavering of disembodied strings. No melody, not even a key. This is flesh: pure, abstract, a field without boundaries. Then a piano and harp tinkle the core melody - lightly, like the first touch upon that expanse of horripilated flesh. Fuller orchestration with violas and oboes as the flesh becomes body, and skin warms to the touch, falling into tactile sympathy with the moving hand. Only then does rhythm unfold - a light combo of softly played drums and electric bass. The rhythm engorges the body and a contra melody played by French horns signals a triumphant union. As cheeks flush and blood courses through veins to erogenous centres, strings soar high and the grand piano hysterically moves up and down the keys like Liberace mimicking those crashing waves. A final climactic peak of volume and pitch, and there you have your Easy Listening cum shot.

Michel Legrand certainly typifies the European para-porno-poetic approach. His landmark work in musically narrating a series of sexual euphemisms in Jacques Demy's THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1968) is a distinctive reversal of the late 60s attempt to reveal and manifest sexuality. Legrand always chose to sublimate overt sexuality within the harmonic structuring of his melodies and their erotic orchestrations, thereby aligning himself less with brash symphonic romanticism and more with the quietened and diffused erotics of muzak. There isn't any sex as such in THE SUMMER OF '42, but - as a movie about the memory of first time sex - it exhibits an interesting technique in averting and displacing sexual aura around the on screen images. Throughout the 80s and 90s there have been many movies about sex. Defiant, up front, taboo breaking. But hardly any have anything interesting to say musically short of reverting to bump & grind table-top hi-tech rock (which is actually a return to the brassy burlesque arrangements that 60s and 70s cinema attempted to break away from). That is, apart from Howard Shore's score to David Cronenberg's CRASH (1996).

CRASH is a complex film in its choice to depict polysexual states and sensibilities. Counter to most options picked up in both legitimate and porn cinema, CRASH is concerned with moving past the body, beyond its organic states and conditions into the uncharted realm of paraphilia: that state, literally, 'beyond love', where the erotic is displaced and the sexual reconfigured by the most unlikely of triggers and stimuli. This means that traditional images of the body on screen are placed there primarily for the purpose of moving through them. Shore's score is similarly deceptive: it appears to have a slight modern tonality on its shimmering, amplified surface, what with electric guitars combined with harp and prepared piano. But Shore is more concerned with composing appropriately for the polysexual condition of CRASH's story - of transcending the obviousness of 'radical' tonalities. He splits the orchestration into two sections: the guitars and the woodwinds. Throughout the film, the central theme literally morphs between the two, so that the woodwinds remind one of the guitars no longer present and vice versa. This absenting of musical texture dryly complements the emptying of meaning in the conventional sexual act. As the innocent James Spader wafts into a new terrain of sexuality, bodies appear to be as they were before, but they now contain a distinct otherness. They shine like chrome; smell like vinyl; feel like leather; sound like an engine. For just as the history of film scoring for the sexual act is a history of covering bodily noise and creating a surfeit of unnecessary narration to compensate for the embarrassing images shown, Howard Shore's score to CRASH is a genteel acceptance of the aural fading of that same musical cloaking.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © respective copyright holders