Despite being a complete movie addict, as well as having nurtured a fascination with soundtracks since i was a boy, movie scores rarely get discussed on 5:4. There have been notable exceptions, and some invariably find their way onto my annual best album lists, but i often find myself pondering whether, despite my love for them, there’s usually something qualitatively inferior about them. To clarify, i don’t believe that film soundtracks, by necessity or nature, are inherently inferior; there’s certainly no reason why they should be, despite the fact that they are, first and foremost, serving a very clear functional role, working in conjunction with visual elements, mise en scène, sound design, narrative and the like, elements usually irrelevant within the concert hall. In this respect, it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a film score to prove engaging when heard in its own right, away from these elements. But the best of them don’t merely survive such decontextualisation, they thrive, providing an analogue of sorts of the movie, embodying a more intangible yet no less cogent kind of transposed narrative. In other words, they no longer necessarily follow the chronology of the film’s storyline (many soundtracks, indeed, are not arranged in ‘story order’ but are configured for a satisfying aural experience), offering instead a sequence of portraits, sonic windows into its characters and their situations. Calling them ‘mood pieces’ would be to sell them short, yet there’s more than a whiff of truth to that.
Returning to the inferiority aspect that it may or may not have, i’m often concerned that my enjoyment of film scores is filtered through a kind of ‘making allowances’ for inferred shortcomings due to the demands of the movie industry. John Williams is perhaps the most renowned case in point: on the one hand, he’s both responsible for the revivification of the orchestral film score as well as being arguably its most talented exponent; on the other hand, approaching his work with a more critical ear, little he does goes beyond a (admittedly imaginative) re-treading of the musical tropes of late Romanticism. It’s hardly pastiche, but equally it’s hardly laden down by the weight of originality of its musical language. Williams, in my view, does go further than most, whereas the majority of film composers, even among the most celebrated, are often found doing barely more than providing lengthy tracts of either treading water and minimalistic noodling — Alexandre Desplat being the most glaring culprit; most of his scores become downright infuriating in isolation – or, at the more abstract end of the spectrum, sliding strings and massive drum thuds, the calling card of Michael Giacchino, among far too many others.
i’m conscious as i write this that i’m sounding like the opposite of someone deeply enamoured of film soundtracks. Certainly in recent times, there have been many more clunkers than triumphs, with Hans Zimmer’s remarkably lazy, phoned-in score for Interstellar marking one of the lowest points in the genre for many years (Zimmer’s recent announcement that he would no longer be scoring blockbusters is revealing in this regard). My suspicion is that it’s in direct proportion to the demands movies are making on themselves; i enjoy a good crash-bang-fisty-punchy blockbuster as much as anyone, but such low thresholds of invention don’t really afford the likes of Brian Tyler, Henry Jackman, Alan Silvestri, Christophe Beck, John Debney and their ilk (all men; interesting) the opportunity or indeed the need to stretch themselves beyond the kind of primary-coloured gestural bluster that, by now, we’d be shocked not to hear. Inevitably, therefore, it’s the movies seeking to tap into something less familiar that attract more unusual and considered scores from more unknown composers. Kubrick’s approach in 2001: A Space Odyssey, echoed in Friedkin’s The Exorcist, of assembling a patchwork of avant-garde works – principally by Ligeti and Penderecki – to underline the disturbing qualities of their respective films, indicated what could be achieved when more nuanced imagination was brought to bear on the subject. (It’s worth remembering that both of these films, released in 1968 and 1973 respectively, predate the orchestral film score renaissance initiated by John Williams in 1977.) Beyond this, the ground-breaking score permeating Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, often erasing the distinction between non- and diegetic sound, threw down the gauntlet to filmmakers to consider the possibilities beyond conventional instrumental music.
All of this has been brought again to mind when considering Olga Neuwirth‘s recently-released score for Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s film Goodnight Mommy (made in 2014, but only shown in Britain a couple of months ago), an extremely disquieting work focusing on a pair of young twins who distrust and reject – with increasing levels of ferocity – their mother, who has just returned home, heavily bandaged, having undergone reconstructive facial surgery. In almost total contrast to American and British cinema, European film-makers understand and embrace the power of understatement and suggestion. It’s one of the key characteristics of Goodnight Mommy, a film that’s often (in the best sense) horribly quiet, and this extends to Neuwirth’s music. Her score is, as it happens, presented chronologically, but the brevity of the 24 segments (averaging around 2 minutes’ duration) turns them into tight, concentrated portraits of person, place and happening. Permeating the score is a weird sense of idyll, projected primarily through Neuwirth’s use of glass harmonica and musical saw, instantly attractive sounds that nonetheless sound surprisingly alien. These are woven into and interspersed with electronic swatches of pattern and colour that, despite their transience, feel immovable and boundless: quietly grinding, buzzing, shimmering and glowing bands and fields of texture, within which voices can occasionally be glimpsed. Although more to do with post-traumatic neurology than science fiction, the film has a distinctly Wyndham-esque air of claustrophobic dread, and it’s a supreme credit to Olga Neuwirth that she’s fostered this through implication and restraint rather than demonstrative action. Mirroring the visuals, her score seeks less to portray the on-screen events than to shade and reinforce them, laying down hints and ideas that we can either take on their own terms or connect into something more far-reaching. Especially arresting are the occasions when a pair of nursery rhymes and a setting of Psalm 23 by Schubert spill into her music, in the process passing from diegesis to pure fantasy, rendered genuinely hypnotising, as though being articulated by beams of light. Episodes of such delicacy as these only make the work’s ultimate direction all the more horrific, and Neuwirth’s lengthy climactic piece, ‘Torching’, comprises a dense synthesis of all the preceding elements in an industrial miasma that comes as a breathtaking shock to the system. Just like the film, Olga Neuwirth’s score has no interest in and no meaningful connection with convention, opting to keep its distance and allow the narrative to project its own inherent violence without ever forcing it to, and just like the film, it’s a triumph. Without recourse to a single bang or crash, Neuwirth’s music packs an infinitely greater punch.