Lights! Camera! … Atonality!

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey took Ligeti into the cinemaKubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey took Ligeti into the cinema

The clandestine darkness of the cinema auditorium changes perspectives on the world. As we cosy into our cinema seat, we’re prepared to take it on trust that a Kansas farm girl can travel to a place of make-believe to meet a wizard, that Harold Lloyd can dangle out of a New York skyscraper without falling off, that six strikingly different looking men can all somehow be James Bond and, finding yourself unfortunately lumbered with a dead body, Harvey Keitel is the man to sort it: just phone him and he will ensure you get away with murder.

In this intoxication of the senses, music plays a major part. At the very mention of The Wizard of Oz, Harold Lloyd, James Bond or Pulp Fiction, we ‘see’ music as vividly as the image of Lloyd’s wiry frame hanging off the Chrysler Building, or John Travolta doing a twisted twist with Uma Thurman, rewinds through our mind’s eye. A Viennese waltz suddenly becomes an ideal sonic metaphor for the leisurely spin of spaceships orbiting the earth, while a neurotic New Yorker, who finds he’s woken up 200 years in the future, gets chased around a sci-fi landscape accompanied by the swing of archaic King Oliver-styled Classic jazz.

As we sink into that swanky red velvet cinema seat (just why exactly are cinema seats always red?), we invite film directors to teleport us to worlds far outside the day-to-day – and I wonder if that’s why audiences who might baulk at the prospect of going to hear Ligeti’s Requiem or Penderecki’s Anaklasis and Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima in concert, or whose idea of musical hell is a fortissimo high-register string cluster, will gladly submit to those same sounds, and those same pieces, when hooked around Janet Leigh being stabbed in the shower, or off the narrative of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining or The Exorcist? Why is a vast public so petrified of sound, they will only accept its more extreme manifestations if given a psychological reason, a visual cue, to do so?

It’s an intriguing problem, and I like that the answer is obvious, but also curiously imponderable. When Arnold Schoenberg wrote his Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene ('Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene') in 1930, he raised these same issues for the first time, writing music purely in the abstract that, with its glutinous counterpoint and atonal bite would certainly have been deemed as essentially useless to accompany any film, especially as, after the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 1927, silent cinema began its gradual fadeout. If Schoenberg’s chamber, pit-sized, orchestra showed some empathy with the realities of film-making, he determined to keep this film music ‘imaginary’; as the programme-note housed on the Arnold Schoenberg Centre website sternly puts it '[he] would never have agreed to play a subordinate role to a director's or producer's conception of art'.Schoenberg thought deeply about the emergence of film as an art-form and generally disapproved, although that fate would land him, later Stravinsky too, in Los Angeles, both men inhabiting neighbourhoods not too far from Hollywood (a place about which Schoenberg’s friend Oscar Levant once noted 'strip away the false tinsel, and there you find the real tinsel inside') is an irony worth noting. Schoenberg’s aspiration for film was it might represent 'a completely new and independent instrument for innovative artistic expression'; far from peddling tired-out, beginning/middle/end-type narratives, Schoenberg hoped that cinematic technique might provoke 'the utmost unreality' (my italics).

What he never anticipated – and fair enough, how could he? – was that a whole generation of cinema goers would come to associate atonality with the tomato-ketchup schlock and supernatural fantasies of gothic horror. And, irony now working hand-in-hand with paradox, scores to Hammer Horror flicks like The Haunting, Horrors of the Black Museum, Corridors of Blood and Fiend Without a Face would be written by composers like Humphrey Searle and Gerard Schurmann who were initially attracted to the exhilarating ideals of 12-tone music as an artistic credo, only to find themselves prostituting their initial idealism to pay the rent because atonality in the concert hall didn’t pay.

So how did 12-tone composition, and music by the likes of Ligeti and Penderecki that blossomed off the back of the 12-tone revolution, become the soundtrack of choice for Vincent Price sticking his fangs into the necks of busty maidens, or Jack 'REDRUM' Nicholson pursuing his terrified victims around a snowy hedge maze in The Shining?

Popular culture has always excelled at siphoning off what it needs from other art forms, and then doing a good job of covering its tracks. Film and various musical ‘Modernisms’ – whether Schoenberg’s atonality, Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, Varèse’s exploration of percussion and electronics – all matured during the early decades of the 20th century, and it’s no wonder ideas migrated between them. When Bernard Herrmann, who became Alfred Hitchcock’s composer of choice, scoring Psycho, North By Northwest, Vertigo and Marnie, before falling out in 1966 over the music for Torn Curtain, joined CBS as a staff conductor in 1934 he instigated a radio show called Invitation To Music (later Exploring Music), which was designed to introduce trail-blazing New Music by Ives, Schoenberg, Bartók, Copland and others to new audiences and, perhaps, to himself. That Herrmann could have dreamt up the score for Psycho without knowing Bartók’s music is unthinkable.

In 1951 director Robert Wise asked Herrmann to score his sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, with its hovering flying saucers and humanoid alien visitors to earth, and Herrmann responded by symbolically embedding ‘alien’ electricity inside our earthling acoustic orchestra. The music is more impressive than Wise’s 1950s, Flash Gordon vision of the future: Herrmann stripped away the conventional orchestral woodwind and string sections, leaving a monolithic brass core that included four tubas, and then he imagined how a futuristic orchestra might sound, adding the space-age sonic spectacle of two Hammond organs, a large electric organ, three vibraphones, two glockenspiels, marimba, two pianos, celeste, two harps, electric violin and two theremins, and messing with our perception of time by deploying tape-reversal techniques and over-dubbing.The theremin, which throws out sound without needing to be handled physically (the player outlines contours of pitch and rhythm with their hands along metal antennae that are primed to respond with electronic glissandi and woo woo-wooings), became a portal through which film composers could harness something of the current of electronic music for themselves. Hitchcock’s 1945 psychological thriller Spellbound, which starred Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, showcased the theremin in a trippy dream sequence devised by Salvador Dalí, with Miklós Rózsa’s music complementing the surreal melt of Dalí’s images to perfection. The theremin, and its younger cousin the ondes Martenot, continues to obsess film composers looking to evoke the dark side; the ondes even turned up in Elmer Bernstein’s score for Ghostbusters sounding there as eerie as it sounds ecstatic in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie.

Close director and composer collaborations like Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass), Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais and Francis Seyrig) and Shadows (John Cassavetes and Charles Mingus) are unfortunately rare, and I’ve no essential objection to film composers cherry-picking what they need from the music that surrounds them. But directors who impose a narrative onto pre-existing ‘concert hall’ music are potentially playing a more dangerous game. Ligeti’s Requiem, if you want to get all purist about it, is haunted by the war and political repression; okay, Penderecki only later added the title Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima to a piece which originally had the more cerebral, Cageian title of 8'37", but neither piece had anything to do Stanley Kubrick’s spaceships or haunted hotels.

Does this matter? Kubrick’s far-seeing genius means it’s not really a problem at all. But Visconti drizzling Mahler over Death in Venice, or Scorsese cranking up the sentimentality of Raging Bull with snippets of Italian opera? That feels uncomfortably like emotional fraud, and those of us who care about the ‘true’ Schoenberg and Ligeti are surely justified in feeling a degree of exasperation that their music has been hijacked, and now means something else to millions of people. But if, as Hitchcock notoriously claimed, actors are cattle, perhaps we music lovers need to remember this: music for most directors is merely a commodity to be herded around, then milked for its emotional nourishment.

For more articles about music and movies, buy the April edition of Gramophone, on sale from March 7.

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