Even the Score

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For most people, awards season is a time to discuss things like Amal Clooney’s white gloves, Benedict’s Cumber-baby and whether or not Emma Stone is really as down to earth as she seems. Spare a thought, though, for drummer-composer Antonio Sanchez, who won’t be enjoying Oscar-time frivolity after his widely-lauded, Golden Globe-nominated score for Birdman was disqualified by the Academy. This was due to the intermittent use of pre-existing classical music that interspersed Sanchez’s own compositions, seen in the Academy’s eyes as undermining his original, captivating percussive work. This raises a lot of questions about the nature of music composed for a soundtrack and whether the film industry needs to re-think its somewhat archaic rules surrounding such scores.

“I feel like if there is original music composed for a film then that composer should be eligible for a best original score nomination,” says Dublin-based musician Simon Bird, who has previously composed the wonderfully surreal electronic score for Distance From The Event, a play by the Collapsing Horse Theatre Company, “Even if the score also utilises or re-arranges pre-existing music or recordings, the re-arrangement is still scoring.”

“Obviously there are iconic movie sounds that everyone is aware of, like the theme to Jaws or the lightsaber sound effects in Star Wars. But there’s a lot more going on in the sound design and music for films that I think most people are unaware of.”

For musician Flann McMorrow too (whose fantastic score work was most recently seen in noir-y short film Ringsend, the first release from Wonderfulgood presents: Little Prince Productions) the notion that using pre-existing music in a score should make you ineligible for recognition is a ridiculous one: “I think you should take whatever you can, from anywhere, and use it however you like […] You can’t rightly own an abstract sound, therefore you can’t own a collection of abstract sounds. Of course,” he concedes, “Legally you can, but that’s stupid, and its also a different discussion.”

Films such as Foxcatcher gained a thrilling resonance from their lack of sound, creating tension through minimalism and silence. With the Birdman score, however, everyone talks about how Sanchez’s drums gave the film a vitality and heartbeat, and one has to wonder if the film would have been quite the same without it. The same sentiment is true of McMorrow’s Ringsend score, though he doesn’t admit to that himself: “The cinematography and script were so well executed in Ringsend it could have stood without any audio,” says McMorrow. “This created a lot of anxiety for me. Do not overshadow, do not fail the mood, do not underwhelm!” Perhaps it could have stood on its own, but it is the score that elucidates perfectly the dark, twisted beauty of the film with exquisitely jarring string samples from cellist Anna Clifford.

Trinity student Max Rosenthal McGrath, who composed the score for the winning film in the recent Fourwalls housing short film competition at the London Short Film Festival, too felt it necessary to create something that evocatively added to what was being depicted on-screen. “The first half of the footage was already shot before the music or poems were recorded and it was in black and white and had quite melancholic panning shots of the city […] so it was an obvious decision to match this with the contemplative, emotional words and music.”  As a film about housing in London, a musical accompaniment was, again, arguably unnecessary, but McGrath’s piano part serves to emphasise the spoken word and the shots of buildings — he notes bringing in richer sounds to highlight a particularly optimistic part of the poem. In this instance, the music seems to serve as an emotional guide to the film.

Anthropologists will often discuss the idea of a sensorium — the sum of an organism’s perception — and a sensory hierarchy, which is interesting to apply in the context of scores for works that we ultimately understand as being visual. When people talk about films or plays they tend to talk about the acting and the script, but it is undeniable that sounds inform our perceptions of what we see.

“Obviously there are iconic movie sounds that everyone is aware of, like the theme to Jaws or the lightsaber sound effects in Star Wars,” says Bird, “But there’s a lot more going on in the sound design and music for films that I think most people are unaware of, all of which contributes greatly to directing the audience towards the desired emotional response. You could argue that silent films, and their effectiveness in the absence of sound might indicate that sound is not as vital to creating atmosphere as visuals, but I would think anyone who claims that has probably never seen a silent film with a really crap musical accompaniment.”

“Why are sounds so affecting?” asks McMorrow. “Who the hell knows. But contrast the same image with two different pieces of music over it and your mask comes off. A child’s laughing face with The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes The Sun’ vs. a child’s laughing face with the sounds of rutting foxes, screaming, and screeching violins. And everything in between.”

In light of this intrinsic linking between imagery and sound, a score is quite different to a normal piece of music compositionally – both Bird and McMorrow note having to remind themselves that they were composing for specific niches: “I would go in for rehearsals and make notes, and then go home and work on the music — bringing it back in the following day and seeing what worked and what needed to be changed”, says Bird, “When I was working on the music at home it often felt like I was just recording a piece of music like I normally would, so I would have to keep reminding myself that the music had to fit the scenes of the play and couldn’t just move in any direction I saw fit or diverge off into weird tangents like a lot of my music does.”

Sanchez’s Birdman score might not get the Academy acclaim it deserves, but the soundtrack could well become a popular recording in its own right. Scores detached from their intended visual counterpart can sometimes be just as effective — Bird notes a fondness for the works of the likes of Ennio Morricone in spite of not having seen the films that the music was composed for. For Sanchez, one can hope longevity and respect for his ingenuity will outweigh an Oscars snub.

Originally published in tn2 Magazine, artwork by Alice Wilson

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