By Terry walstrom
07 December 2003
What is the point of slippage? Slippage is a theory of how things are actually "created". Nothing is ever truly original. But, by increments an old way of doing things, or thinking things becomes entirely novel and fresh. This is easily done with musical tunes.
Take the tune GIVE ME THE SIMPLE LIFE and vary the last phrase and Presto! You have the theme to Candid Camera. But, let us go deeper. What if you take action music, for example, and apply slippage. What are the rewards? Onscreen there are frantic images and tense situations, lots of ambient sound, noise, effects, etc. The expectation is music that mimics that activity. For the composer that means writing a lot of notes. For the orchestra: playing fast. For the sound mixer: one more group of sounds to be blended. For the audience? Maybe just too much of everything. All that work the composer went through and the details are blurred into a soup.
What if the composer applies slippage? Instead of hundreds of fast notes he slips in just a few slow notes? What if the tempo is broad and brackets the beginning and end rather than changing lanes like a racecar? What if there is an actual melody instead of riffs and ostinati? After all, how many mood changes can be provoked in an audience? How many emotions SHOULD they be experiencing to move the plot along? Is the purpose of the action an emotionally significant one? Can that be stated in a word? Can the music not stick to that emotional tone and be successful?
Take any recent action movie with music behind it and you'll hear a mammoth wall of sonic assault. In effect, it is bursts of noise played by instruments. The visceral effect is not unlike a large group of people stomping their feet. Raw Energy is what it amounts to. But, is it emotionally informative?
I've stated all the above to make the following statement. Perhaps film composers by using slippage make a huge and important discovery about film music: Simple is better than complex in action music. A broad theme is something the audience can hang on to and stay with EMOTIONALLY. An exhilaration can stem from happiness or anger or awe but it is one emotion. Why duplicate what is onscreen?
Let us take an example: John Barry had many many opportunities to explore the effect of action music in the Bond films. Bond films had in the music a serious tone. My opinion is that the serious tone made the cartoonish action onscreen work much better. With the advent of Dolby sound recording the amount of sonic information delivered to the audience's ears doubled, then tripled over time. A film composer finds his music being drowned out. Melodic composers best efforts were, in effect, destroyed. But, the declamatory composers' efforts were not affected at all.
Not the only problem. With the advent of digital recording and editing the LOCKED DOWN print was a thing of the past for a composer. The scene could be changed and changed and changed again by the editor almost up until the week of release. A carefully timed score based on melody and synchronized action moments would be immediately rendered ineffective when edited. Not so a score with mere short cells of rhythm and chords.
Consequently, the truly gifted melodic composers began vanishing from action films. Enter SLIPPAGE and innovation. John Barry figured out a way. Loooooong, slooooow melody lines so broad it would fit over the entire scene no matter what the quick cut changes because the general definitive mood was in place. The music would "make sense" because it was now a COMPLETE thought as melodies are. It was no longer a salad but a meal. Our ears are accustomed to the usual approach, to be sure. But, I for one like the melodic approach very much.
The greatest tribute to Barry's method is in Dances with Wolves. The melodies are very strong. There is energy and there is content emotionally. The music tells you something as in a complete thought or sentence with the melody as the subject and the tempo as the verb and the emotional result the direct object. Slippage works.
Look at the flight scene in OUT OF AFRICA. The music is very slow and broad. There is no sense of matching the editing tempo to the music. However, the enormity of the exhilaration in realizing the beauty of Africa comes almost entirely from what the music accomplishes. Busy busy busy music simply could never deliver such a wallop.
Producers who are too scared of not being conventional with their music score are missing out on a great deal by not trusting John Barry's journeyman instincts. But, the biggest loss is on the part of the audience. We find it more and more difficult to FEEL something no matter how terrific the special effects onscreen.
I ask you to compare any action scene in a recent James Bond movie scored with wall to wall sonic assault by David Arnold with John Barry's efforts a decade or so earlier. Which is more emotionally satisfying? There is no ONE TRUE answer to this question. After all, like so many things in life it is a matter of taste. But, I'd rather slip out the current method and slip in the emotionally true one.
Long live SLIPPAGE.