by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 27, 2005.
Some of the most compelling film music of the past year appeared not on the big screen but on the small one. Michael Giacchino’s score for the TV show “Lost”—the tale of several dozen plane-crash survivors marooned on a vaguely supernatural, “Tempest”-like island—has unsettled millions of American viewers with an eerie array of orchestral sounds: fluttery four-note figures, shivery tones produced by bowing strings near the bridge, nasty glissandos on the trombone, and, at moments of maximum tension, a low plucked note on the harp. According to convention, harps are called upon to herald angels or other vessels of goodness. Giacchino makes the instrument gaunt and deathly, much as Mahler did in the last song of “Das Lied von der Erde.” In general, Giacchino has done such a bang-up job of generating menace that the scriptwriters may have a hard time satisfying the expectations that he has created. Something mighty grim will have to crawl out of that lush jungle in order to justify those twangs of terror.
Composers usually enter the filmmaking process late in the game. They’re given a few weeks to add music to the mix, often under strict instructions as to mood and style; they’re essentially applying a finishing coat of aural stimulus. But music can do much more than echo the action on the screen. It can evoke hidden lives, unknown destinies, unseen histories, forgotten voices. The greatest filmmakers have all understood the complicating significance of music, and one measure of their greatness is their willingness to delegate power to composers. When Eisenstein made “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible,” he had Prokofiev as his house composer, and he would sometimes wait until Prokofiev had finished a certain segment before filming the corresponding scene. He wanted to chain the camera to the notes. Orson Welles followed Eisenstein’s practice on “Citizen Kane,” hiring the young New York composer Bernard Herrmann. For the final sequence of the film, which shows the destruction of Rosebud in the fireplace of Kane’s castle, Welles had Herrmann’s cue playing on the set. He later said that the score was fifty per cent responsible for the film’s success.
Music can take control of the image; it can also suggest a world separate from the image, or expose the image as a lie. Shortly after sound came in, Eisenstein and other Soviet directors wrote a manifesto declaring that soundtracks should create “sharp discord” with the visual dimension, in order to cultivate critical thinking on the part of the audience. (That’s not quite what Stalin had in mind, of course.) One early illustration of the practice was Shostakovich’s 1929 score for “The New Babylon,” a story of the Paris Commune. At the end, when the Communards are killed by a firing squad, Shostakovich responds not with a tragic utterance but with a distorted version of Offenbach’s Can-Can. Giacchino’s music for “Lost,” in its own non-Marxist way, plays this same game of estrangement. Dispatching the ghosts of Schoenberg, Xenakis, and other twentieth-century sonic terrorists into an island paradise, it touches on the universal modern suspicion that surfaces are not what they seem, that the center does not hold, that it ain’t necessarily so.
When the images themselves are terrifying, music can bring about an even trickier reversal, providing ironic reassurance or genuine compassion. Stanley Kubrick’s decision to play “We’ll Meet Again” over a montage of nuclear annihilation at the end of “Dr. Strangelove” is one famous example; another is Oliver Stone’s use of Barber’s velvety “Adagio for Strings” over scenes of carnage in “Platoon.” Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, in their score for the new Gregg Araki film “Mysterious Skin,” do something wholly unexpected: as a horrendous story of child abuse in a Kansas town unfolds, the music sways toward a state of irrational bliss, as if to numb the pain. Music, in these cases, doesn’t show the image as a lie; instead, it is itself the lie we tell ourselves in order to survive.
Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series recently presented a mini-festival titled Sound Projections, in which live ensembles played alongside silent movies, both classic and modern. The series began with a vintage radical Soviet film, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s “The End of St. Petersburg,” for which Alfred Schnittke supplied a score in 1992. Pudovkin was one of the directors who had argued for freethinking musical narratives in film, and it was fitting that Schnittke, the master surrealist of late-twentieth-century music, should have subverted Pudovkin’s story of the education of a Bolshevik hero with all manner of brooding ostinatos, kitschy digressions, and anarchic pileups of tunes. The Asko Ensemble gave a committed, demented performance. The Ensemble Intercontemporain, from Paris, one-upped them by presenting Benedict Mason’s 1988 score “ChaplinOperas,” a kaleidoscopic companion piece for three classic Chaplin silents. It’s a dazzling, dizzying, ultimately wearying exercise in free association, as chaotic in technique as Chaplin’s films are clean.
The Lincoln Center series culminated in a blast of Glass: “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi,” and “Naqoyqatsi,” a trilogy of documentary film fantasias conceived by Godfrey Reggio and scored by Philip Glass. (The live performances were courtesy of the Philip Glass Ensemble.) The titles are Hopi Indian words approximately meaning “life out of balance,” “life in transformation,” and “life as war”: the aim is to see human civilization in its mundane entirety, without reference to politics, culture, or history. There is no dialogue or plot; scenes of high-tech American cities, poverty-stricken Third World streets, frenzied factories, and empty canyons unfold in dreamlike motion. The images are sometimes sped up and sometimes slowed down. Humanity comes off as an insectoid species, though not without certain redeeming features. Glass’s trademark arpeggios and carved-in-granite chords generate a ritualistic, vaguely ancient air, circling back, time and again, to an abiding sadness.
“Koyaanisqatsi,” which was shot during the nineteen-seventies and released in 1983, is the masterpiece in the series, and a singular event in film history. There is no more potent example of a score dominating a film. The relationship between filmmaker and composer extended Eisenstein’s ideal to the nth degree: Glass watched the footage and wrote some music, Reggio and his editors listened to the music and reworked the footage, and the process went on until the appearance of fusion was total. In an interview that accompanies the “Koyaanisqatsi” DVD, Glass provides his own eloquent definition of the film-music art: he calls it “observing accurately the distance between the image and the music.” In other words, instead of trying to make image and music serve the same ends, you play one against the other, letting the disparity become an emotional experience in itself.
Glass’s solutions to the challenge of “Koyaanisqatsi” are riveting. The opening is famous and majestic: a deep bass voice chants the title phrase in monotone while an electric organ turns slow pinwheels above it. As the camera of Ron Fricke, the cinematographer, floats across immense Western landscapes, a flute plays a lonely figure in open intervals, perhaps in tribute to the prairie music of Copland; then the bass chant returns, sounding very much like a sad, angry god. A later sequence, devoted to various forms of transportation, dwells for a long time on slow-motion footage of a jumbo jet taxiing on a tarmac. Glass responds to this grungy image with music of exhilarating quickness and lightness, high female voices predominating. In later sections, Glass abandons his attitude of cosmic detachment and picks up the racing rhythms of Fricke’s cinematography. To depict the decay and destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, in St. Louis, the composer writes a monstrous neo-Baroque moto perpetuo, which, as the buildings fall, devolves into nothing more than descending scales. (This footage has become more haunting with time; Minoru Yamasaki, who designed Pruitt-Igoe, was also the architect of the World Trade Center.) During the twenty-minute frenzy titled “The Grid”—crowds swirling, traffic churning, televisions flickering, hot dogs and Hostess Twinkies being exgurgitated from production lines—Glass and his musicians become manic machines, firing off notes like so many 0s and 1s. The distance between sound and image disappears, and the viewer is left with little space in which to think or breathe.
When I saw “Koyaanisqatsi” in college, I dismissed it as a trippy, slick, MTV-ish thing, to which some well-meaning soul had attached hippie messages about the mechanization of existence and the spoliation of the planet. At Lincoln Center, I understood it as something else altogether—an awesomely dispassionate vision of the human world, beautiful and awful in equal measure. What made the difference, apart from the fact that I was no longer a facile collegiate ironist, was the experience of hearing the music live, with Kurt Munkacsi’s sound design adding heft and definition to every gesture. For all the deliberate coldness of some of Glass’s writing, “Koyaanisqatsi” is deeply expressive; its blistering virtuosity is often the only sign of emotional life on display, excepting a few wan smiles on the faces of pedestrians who hurry through Times Square.
“Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi,” the sequels, don’t match the force of the original, though they are absorbing throughout. Glass supplies many passages of cool, aching beauty, but the urgent side of his early style, the technique of eviscerating repetition, is diminished. As a whole, the trilogy mimics the uneven shape of the composer’s career, which has ranged from achievements of staggering originality (“Music in Twelve Parts,” “Einstein on the Beach,” the Violin Concerto) to statements of baffling neutrality (a world-music cantata entitled “Orion” is the newest instance of the latter). These days, he often seems trapped in his formulas; he writes “Philip Glass music” in place of music that happens to be by Philip Glass. But he has won his place in history, and he may figure out a way to knock us sideways once again.
Still from Koyaanisqatsi, dir. Godfrey Reggio, cinematography by Ron Fricke.