By Terry walstrom
12 November 2003
In the history of dramatic presentation, the spoken word has reigned supreme until fairly recent times. With the advent of miraculous technology for throwing images up on a large panoramic screen and the infusion of vast surrounds of ambient atmospherics a gradual shift in emphasis has evolved.
Music and pure visual action has all but replaced the spoken word and even in some respects the plot! At first music was the "verb" that connected the visual subject to the object of desire.
Activity onscreen was synonymous with activity in the orchestra pit. So potent and moving was this device that more and more sonic layers have been added over the years in multifarious incarnations. Clever composers developed an approach which seemed a best fit for the marrying of onscreen activity with their musical creations.
Roughly these schemes and strategies fall into the following categories:
- The rhythm carries the pulse with various percussion colors. An ostinato can simply repeat a comprehensible pattern or the pattern can vary unpredictably.
- Brass chords and low strings. Sometimes woodwinds add a touch of variety.
- Slashing chords played tutti.
- Synth drones and bouncy wouncy electronic voices.
- Slow scales and sinister minor chords going "against" the action on screen.
- A bit of each of the above.
In the old days a guy like Tiomkin would use the entire orchestra in a fugue with parts carefully timed to ape (or Mickey Mouse) the action with a sound to match each action flourish.
Bernard Herrmann would repeat a small phrase modulating downscale with large or small choirs of instrumental colors. Or, he'd expostulate brazenly with large percussion canons and flourishing brass stings.
Elmer Bernstein would take 9/8 triplet-like rhythms and break them up in the lower section and let the horns and brass wail on top while the piano gave colorful obbligato decorations in the middle.
John Barry would divide eighth notes into 3-3-2 and alternate chromatic chords atop in a lurching rhythm while a definite memorable melodic phrase floated above.
Lalo Schifrin would take a West Coast Jazz instrument group and add ad lib Tabla drums, stream of consciousness flute and afro-cuban melody fragments.
Jerry Goldsmith would divide the rhythms into cells of uneven groups of beats, blend short motives of melody with electronic amplifications and batteries of percussion colors interspersed with huge blocks of heavy brass, glissandos and varied woodwind combinations.
Henry Mancini would take bass flute, low woodwinds, divided strings and agitato celli up a slow chromatic scale in half-tones with increasing dynamics.
Miklos Rozsa would build grand architectural choirs of instrument groups in a statement of theme and antiphonal "answer" of theme around vigorous brass configurations as counterpoints and obbligatos colored the dynamics.
Contemporary composers appeared. A new kind of action music was born. Melody vanished. Themes were banal or mere accidental motives tossed up by chord changes. Augmentation of acoustic orchestra with heavy batteries of keyboard synths mirrored onscreen action and "punched up" whatever appeared.
Slow builds of walls of sonic amplification became a muscular wallpaper as stings of sampled sounds slashed through the heavy soup with chalk-on-the-blackboard psychology.
You could transplant this "action" music from film to film and hardly recognize any switch had taken place.
Ah, Brave new world.