Bright Lights Film Journal

How to Murder John Williams: Toward an Ideology of Contrapuntal Antirealism

To construct musicality through expressionism, or to express musicality through constructivism?

“After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” — Aldous Huxley

“Music is a language more precise than words.” — Felix Mendelssohn

“The reason I love movies is because I experience them as music.” — Toru Takemitsu

Knowing the profound rarity (and rare profundity…) of industrial-world silence, and too easily depressed when our fumbling phrases fail to voice our lofty ambitions, we instantly grasp Huxley’s meaning.

Knowing the futility of adjectival precision and loathing our bandied bundles of perfumed prosody, we appreciate Mendelssohn’s intent even realizing that, all romanticisms aside, bad music is as dangerously imprecise as bad words. Music, dancing from the prelinguistic, poetic heartbeat, does throb deeply — but depth and precision are like a haystack and a needle.

Floating happily in the indiscreet impressionism washed from the concert hall into the most cowering recesses of our minds, loving losing ourselves in rhythm and spectral color, we noddingly assent to the unthinking emotionalism of Takemitsu, who in his film scores anchored the aleatory, ghostly naturalism of his concert pieces (c.f., Water Ways [1978]) to material representations of the natural world (c.f., Rikyu [1989]). But stop nodding — we’ve just gone too far. In this unthinkingness, in this damned egoistic impressionism, lurks a sinister bureaucracy of thought suppressing all healthy, deviant impulses — namely, congruency between image and sound.

Feeding from the dried blood of a diminished, ghostly Marxism and the already congealed juices of an ascendant postmodernism, most serious film criticism of the last two decades has somehow concerned itself with the idea of subversion, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t: if we agree with Chomsky that all criticism should have an intrinsically liberal (i.e., self-reflective) bias, film criticism should address how films can(not) subversively overcome their own creation and dissemination, either within or beyond mainstream systems of production. Unfortunately, gullible, caricatured, and/or dumbed-down postmodernism too often argues too hard for hypocritical subversions, explaining a two hundred million dollar film is “subversive” because it makes some feeble cinematic in-jokes, parodically trades in nostalgic pastiche, has a strong heroine, does something rather rudimentary with gender roles, and so forth — quickly forgetting that two hundred million was diverted from a limited pool of national resources to capitalistically legitimize, say, that fairly obvious point about gender (for a point is only politically legitimate if it costs two hundred million to articulate). But even films that do successfully subvert, undermine, reevaluate, or mock conventionally stratified notions of race, ethnicity, class, gender, heteronormativity, physical disability, mental retardation, marital status, weight ranking, breast and genital size, and/or ambulatory classification usually reproduce utterly conventional modes of musical representation. True subversion of cinematic form remains a thornily technical matter reserved for poorly published scholars or avant-garde filmmakers who splinter soundtracks like a twirled radio dial or, like Fuses (1967, above) director Carolee Schneemann, angrily scissor and roast their celluloid. If music is clearly among the most vital, basic aspects of cinema, and if we agree that aesthetics is political and politics aesthetical, we must investigate how the filmic use of music can be subverted to better understand what subversion really is.

Every so often you’ll see a huffing critic bewail the disrespect film composers and their scores endure, but these protests seldom argue for new modes of film scoring or prescribe new relationships between image and sound, and mainly mean to draw attention to a well-crafted score whose minimal virtues elevate it above the wholesale imitative-derivative dross of the likes of, for instance, a James Horner (whose life’s ambition, apparently, is to plagiarize Prokofiev1). For the critic, a “good” score simply does effectively what a bad score does poorly — that is, audially mimic, reinforce, or, at best, elaborate upon what the visuals already tell us. The good score is evocative, not provocative, and idiomatically it has matured little since Saint-Saens composed cinema’s first (relatively) splashy orchestral score, for the French production The Assassination of the Duke de Guise (1908). Apart from the manipulatively moody ambient drones espoused by a John Carpenter or Michael Mann, the occasional gamelan-infested excursion into world music, or the modishly minimalist, Michael Nymanesque elicitation of pulse and rhythm, the mode of the good score is still perversely beholden to the late 19th/early 20th century model of the large symphonic orchestra, and its content a sludgy, suprapopulist amalgam of Debussy, Strauss, and Shostakovich, spiked with a pinch of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, strained through the worst tendencies of late-period Korngold, and then refracted, thinned, and simplified through the infantile prism of John Williams (hasn’t anyone noticed that his E. T. theme is stolen outright from Mahler’s Ninth?). Surely exiled Korngold, the child genius who triumphantly sold his soul in Hollywood (yes, let’s admit it, finally!), is most responsible for our current dilemma. Cannibalizing themes from his film scores for his Hollywood-era concert music — his Violin Concerto, op. 35 is a rehashed cocktail of Anthony Adverse (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), Another Dawn (1937), and Juarez (1939) — Korngold legitimized the idea that even “respectable” film music (of respected composers) must be transparently understandable, and licensed other composers to follow suit, while disingenuously (or deludedly) claiming his harmonically watered-down film scores were only logical orchestral extensions of his prodigious, virtuoso operas Die Tote Stadt, op. 12, and Das Wunder der Heliane, op. 20.2 In an irony too bitter to swallow, the Nazis labeled “degenerate” (Entartete Musik) the pure music of Korngold and his brethren, many of whom fled to Hollywood to compose … truly degenerate music!

Following Korngold’s example, many composers of the first and second tiers have since written film scores and incidental music ranging from the pedestrian (Walton’s stiff-upper-lip score for The Battle of Britain [1970]), to the brassily platitudinous (Khachaturian’s scores for Admiral Ushakov [1953], Undying Flame [1956], and much else), to the degradedly childish (Copland’s puppet show From Sorcery to Science [1939]), to the plain embarrassing (Villa Lobos’s kitschy, nearly Disneyfied vocal music for the Audrey Hepburn vehicle Green Mansions3 [1959]). When scoring a film, otherwise discerning composers indulge their basest, dirtiest, most bombastic pleasures, abandon all subtlety, and believe the “inherent” populism of film begs — nay, demands — not only unapologetic transparency but a total intelligibility that, cyclically and self-fulfillingly, then becomes a cultural sign of the cinema’s grossly negligent populism.

While flipping past a sanctimoniously arid wax museum (or “historical reenactment”) called Gods and Generals (2003, right) — because sitting through all four fossilized hours of this mustachioed, cotton-mouthed burlesque is too cruel to the brain — I paused long enough to see how the battle scenes would be orchestrated, paying attention to the degree of quasirealistic violence the PG-13 rating currently allows (its parameters fluctuate yearly), and to further see whether the battle music (by prolific hacks Randy Edelman and John Frizzell) would humorlessly, obediently ape Prokofiev, a la Horner. Perhaps film composers no longer have a choice whether or not to plagiarize Alexander Nevsky (1938) — did they ever? — but I was still simultaneously dumbstruck, saddened, and outraged as Edelman and Frizzell never bothered to mask their thieving of page after page of The Battle on the Ice, right down to its slow crescendo of the military drums (here, synched with elaborate, gradually accelerating tracking shots of phalanxes of marching Yankees) and pent-up eruptions of the shouting chorus.

Those who claim Alexander Nevsky as film history’s greatest score4 — usually film buffs or university professors — really know nothing about Prokofiev,5 and don’t realize this colorful, electric, endlessly influential score was foremost Prokofiev’s sincere attempt to ingratiate himself with Stalinist authorities and the Russian masses6 after the Soviet-period failure of his more “difficult” pieces, such as the dissonant Symphonic Song, op. 57. With John Goberman’s reconstruction of Prokofiev’s Nevsky score, which finally offered the full soundtrack competently recorded7 (in Eisenstein’s film it had always sounded like a squawking, under-rehearsed high school marching band, thanks to Stalin-era recording technology), we can now appreciate that the music’s anti-German bombast and fulsome brass and percussion drown out even Eisenstein’s most striking helm-and-halberd pictorialism; even Shostakovich, no stranger to belligerent bombast himself, criticized the score’s excess of “physically loud…illustrative music.” While Eisenstein spared no praise of Prokofiev’s musical support, in Goberman’s restoration Eisenstein is reduced to less than half the synthetic equation, and merely illustrates Prokofiev’s music, rather than the other way around. For Prokofiev Nevsky represented a significant advance in orchestrational technique and the conjuration of atmospheric effects (he experimented by positioning brass players at various distances from the studio microphone), but a colossal regression from the nearly fathomless motivic and contrapuntal complexities of his operas The Gambler, op. 24 and The Fiery Angel, op. 37. Is it fair to compare the thunderous nonsense and melodic banalities of a James Horner, who scratches out a new score every few months, to the intricacies of operas a decade in the making and revision? No — but film composers needn’t compete with true art, they only need to aspire to it.

Theoretically, there is a logical argument for the norms of film scoring to discourage (if not prohibit) operatic counterpoint and compel homophonic transparency: since scores are supposed to exist contrapuntally to the film image, they needn’t themselves be contrapuntally textured, lest an internal surfeit of contrapuntal variables and intersections inhibit comprehensibility — the relationship between image and music is like the contrapuntal relationship between two layers of music, transposed and expanded to a different medium. While in opera there is both a visual scenario and a score that, save for the most debased operettas, are woven contrapuntally to deeply express psychology and theme, visual backdrops in opera can be, though not exactly an afterthought, created exclusive of the composer’s intentions, whereas film scoring is a made-to-order affair. Furthermore, montage itself operates through contrapuntal principles, obviating the need for an additional musical counterpoint; thus, music only has to emphasize and direct action, not counter it.

So goes the theory. But first, though montage operates contrapuntally in a literal sense, is the visual structure of normative, narrative films really as contrapuntally textured and nuanced as the music of even unexceptional opera composition? More importantly, we must question the value of musical emphasis and redundancy — if a visual text is working properly, does it really need such dire assistance? Of course, opera right through the mid-twentieth century (i.e., neoromantic Barber, or even ex-postimpressionist Poulenc) also traded in congruency and redundancy between music and image — but the ultramodernist operas of the likes of Baird, Penderecki, and especially Birtwistle have redressed this shortcoming, while narrative cinema has yet to address its lack of contrapuntal-incongruous meanings.

In our discussion, it should go without saying that the musical meanings with which we’ll be concerned are what Leonard B. Meyer calls “referential” meanings, which are socio-culturally specific, not “absolute” ones, which are formed from intramusical elements such as pitch, tempo, and so forth.8 (Of course, the meanings of allegedly absolute technicalities like pitch, tempo, etc. will still be culturally determined.) Thus, when we later consider musical expressionism, and how image and music express one another contrapuntally, we assume meanings are referential; as Meyer says, “…although almost all referentialists are expressionists, believing that music communicates emotional meanings, not all expressionists are referentialists….”9 Indeed, abstract expressionism, with the exception of abstract animation (briefly discussed below), is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Though we must upend the unambiguous comprehensibility audiovisual congruency mandates, some referentiality, some anchor, will be inevitably required; our initial goal, at least, is to disrupt the conventionality underlying socio-cultural references without crossing the line into radical (or even pleasurable) incomprehensibility, nihilism, or Dadaism. We may be disappointed that Wakefield Poole’s Freedom Day Parade, a series of silent loops documenting a 1974 gay rights demonstration, uses classical music to conventionally underscore the legal actions of protestors, and sleazily wailing jazz when they illegally romp nude in a public fountain — in the 1950s, pornographically wailing saxophones were necessary to sonically suggest visual sleaze that was taboo, but by liberated 1974 the effect is superfluous. But if Poole’s Parade is too conventional in its associations, his Warhol homage Andy is, perhaps by dint of its subject matter, as solipsistic and impenetrable as a piece of vegan performance art.10 Images of Marilyn Monroe, gun-slinging Elvis, and those goddamn soup cans are intercut, sometimes stroboscopically, to the tunes of ancient Japanese ritual, Western classical, dissonant percussion, and electronic Bachiana. Finally, the camera settles on Monroe while the soundtrack suddenly becomes a randomly spun radio dial, and white noise is added to the unreasonable music collage. Two utter randomnesses multiplied together — a randomly cut image and a randomly cut noise — can only be an unsolvable equation. An excess of consonance is humiliating; an excess of incongruity is insulting.

Is “Pure Cinema” an Anti-Contrapuntal Ideology of Unchallenged Consonances? (I Reject Neuroscience on Anti-Deterministic Grounds)

When spellbound film buffs breathlessly enthuse about “pure cinema,” their examples are typically drawn from stylized extroverts like Fellini or Hitchcock; should their tastes be parochial or callow, the (groan…) Coen Brothers are added, or if their tastes run conservative and artisanal, the noble John Ford or sullen Hou Hsiao-hsien. But few claim, say, Frederick Wiseman as a “pure filmmaker,” though he certainly makes films, and his intentions are purer (if duller) than those of any stylist or image-peddler. But he lacks music!

The soggily auteurist term “pure,” of course, is a euphemism for “totalized,” a synthesis of every state-of-the-art audiovisual component available to the technician at a given time. Paradoxically — the greatest of all cinematic paradoxes — “pure” really means “impure,” a synthetic yet seamless stew of multimedia influences cobbled from the theater, music, photography, painting, etc., such that when all these elements are combined, purity is re-achieved — but synthetic completeness is no more purity than Mendelssohn’s musical “precision” is depth. At the core of auteurist totalization is a vilified chestnut predating cinema. It is the dormant seed of Wagnerism, where, if one subscribes to outmoded Greek divisions, music and verse fuse like emotion and intellect, even if pure cinema’s congruent scoring and wild dolly movements are an inadequate substitute for Wagnerian leitmotif and endless melody. However, that both corporatist-fascist cinema and (non-avant-garde) auteurist pure cinema aspire to Wagnerism doesn’t mean they succeed, of course, for if they did we would be reluctant to undo their ambitions. We know, in reality, that film music is far poorer than its ambitions: shunning counterpoint and, like Stalinist aesthetics, permitting dissonance only as a sensational effect, it is more redundant than synthetic, and is as ideologically sick and degraded as was the Florentine Camerata, which censored “difficult” polyphony in favor of comprehensible, sacred monody.

To cinematic purists we can apply Nietszche’s characterization of Wagnerites: “Wotan is their god — but Wotan is the god of bad weather.”11 Then suffer, wail, and weep as you replace “Wotan” with that corrupted child prodigy “John Williams.” If at the pinnacle of its megalomaniacal corporatism the cinema remains not only helplessly Victorian, in the narrative thrall of Dickens and Griffith, but is mesmerized by the illusory romanticism of Wagner, we must turn to expressionism, at its most ideologically antirealist, as a dear catholicon. The antiromanticism and antirealism expressionism neurotically yet revolutionarily celebrates subverts cinematic Wagnerism, disrupting the “natural,” homologous associations between music and image by advancing three interrelated ideas: dissonance, counterpoint, and incongruity (or discontinuity). We will return to this.

Before Don Juan (1926), the first feature released (and burdened) with a standardized, synchronized music track, the relational meaning between film and image had been allegedly spontaneous and arbitrary, hinging on the silent film pianist’s improvisational whims and spurs. This arbitrary positioning of a more or less standard film text (“more or less” because projection speed, through the early 1920s, was still not standardized) with random accompaniment created the possibility for the chaotic, aleatory meanings — even Dadaistic ones — that synchronized film scoring prohibits. Yet how often did these improvisationalists, who had such chaotic power at their fingertips, exploit prearranged, popular associations: trilled tritones (once deemed an evil interval by the Church) for diabolical machinations, The Sailor’s Hornpipe for maritime episodes, a crude hodgepodge of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet to herald the appearance of lovers, or the impish thumping of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces to proclaim the arrival of magical pygmies, as happens in the American Film Archives presentation of J. Searle Dawley’s antique Snow White (1916). Today, film composition is little more than a corporatist codification of the series of blundering effects the silent pianist once tossed off, minus his occasional improvisational charms. Hammered with thumping ostinati plundered from Gustav Holst each time a break-neck autobus exceeds the speed limit, or subjected to the humdrum, formulaic syncopations that mobilize a lawyer show promo, we are expected to respond to dully insistent rhythm-spinning as predictably as the elderly and mentally enfeebled become sentimental at the sight of bespattered babies, or as mechanistically as hebetudinous children and beer advertisers giggle at animal cruelty. Like an athlete addicted to steroids, film scoring has become a cheap trick, a hoodwink, a pumped up mess of Dolbyized percussion beating on borrowed time, parading superficial musculature to distract attention from the withered, shrunken inspiration that emptily jangles beneath thick electronic padding.

An opera composer has the creative freedom to signify a broken heart with a single plucked harp instead of Puccinian strings, or double a slit throat with a solo flute instead of a brass fortissimo; do film composers have this luxury, or film directors this taste? Some films need their foundational fortissimi as much as a heroine junkie thirsts and pants for his hit — King Kong (1933) might seem destitute and emaciated without Max Steiner’s bongo and trombone reinforcements. Consonant audiovisual associations can be finely executed — the minimalist neo-tonality of Pärt, Tavener, and other European mystics has doubtless invigorated film scorers, especially Japanese ones in the Joe Hisaishi mold — and there is no absolute reason why easy ironies, failed expressionisms, or surrealistic incongruities as jejune as those found in psychedelic 60s rock lyrics should be preferable to the skillful complementariness a Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, or even Max Steiner could cook up. But it is precisely because such film composers were successful, because they knowingly ingrained and naturalized within us a mushy musical habitus, an infantile, grasping desire for reinforcement and congruous, redundant audiovisual associations, that we’ve become so watery and useless, believing reinforcement is expressiveness and formula nature, all under the leaking umbrella ideal of “pure” expression. If Bernard Herrmann is necessary to complement Hitchcock, is he necessarily redundant or expressive? The inevitably pessimistic, corrupting answer: He is both. That Herrmann was somehow a “genius” (i.e., more talented than most) is his own exculpation. At the same time, we believe audiovisual incongruities are the rarified tricks of experimentalists, whose seldom practice ensures they cannot be co-opted or mainstreamed. This holds true of not only musical incongruity but musical absence — The Birds (1963) allows the singular opportunity to interpret Hitchcock’s technique naked, without Herrmann’s decorations, exclamations, and fortifications. Yet this “singularity theory” has cost us our freedom; in literature, Diderot and Sterne have been canonized for their experiments, but what living American auteurs are known for their subversive musical experiments?

Normative film music, consonant both in its own idiom and in relation to the visual text it accompanies, exercises only “positive” cum passive grammatical functions and rarely negative, dissonant cum active ones; that is, film music generally acts like a guiding exclamation point, or occasionally a linking comma, but rarely acts like a doubting question mark or puzzling yet relaxed ellipsis, whose answers the audience must imagine for itself. (I exempt obvious musical gestures, such as quizzical woodwind motifs that cue characters suspensefully peeking around shadowy corners — such clichés are exclamatory rather than interrogative.) Films with John Williamsesque music every five minutes are like nickel novels dotted with ten exclamation points per page — yet we, who would embarrass at a surfeit of novelistic exclamations, accept their musical counterpart unblinkingly. Underlying the relationships between image and music are simplistic adjectival-adverbial agreements (or consonances): a violent scene must be scored violently and cacophonously, a lyrical scene lyrically, a horrific scene horrifically. In 1939, a sarcastic Eisenstein criticized this failure of the imagination:

The object of imagery and the law of structure, by which it is represented, can coincide. This would be the simplest of cases, and the compositional problem in such an aspect more or less takes care of itself. This is the simplest type of structure: “sorrowful sorrow,” “joyful joy,” “a marching march”…the hero sorrows, and in unison with him sorrows nature, and lighting, sometimes the composition of the shot, and (more rarely) the rhythm of the montage — but most often of all, we just add sad music to it.12

Redundant associations also prompt us to naturalize effects rooted in rudimentary historico-cultural associations: the plucked pipa abets the wu xia film, the shakuhachi is retained for the samurai beneath the waterfall, tripping harpsichordiana mobilizes Renaissance bed-hopping, bass-pounding electronica heralds sun-glassed futurism, harp glissandi once (and blessedly no more) stimulated the amnesiac’s revelations, and diatonic scales signify the mundane world and chromatic scales the supernatural, following the principle of Rimsky-Korsakov. The relation between a film image and its music has become analogous to that between a piece of music and its title — the relationship has been reduced to the definitional.

Early cinema, still primitive, static, and montage-deficient, depended on music not for reinforcement or support but outright mobilization, even in the case of abstract expressionism.13 Painter-turned-filmmaker Walter Ruttmann called his path-breaking animations (beginning with Opus 1 [1921]) “optical symphonies” with a “purity comparable to music” — yet these collages of swirling geometry and mathematically multiplying balls moved in so slavishly Bachian a manner that they become as aesthetically sterile as Ruttmann’s later Nazi propaganda. Ruttmann’s painterly experimentation merely apes musical structure, just as today’s film composers ape a visual text. Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering silhouette-animated feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), in which Ruttmann also had a hand, is fanciful and charming, but also so visually spare that Wolfgang’s Zeller’s orientalist score not merely “…supports the drama with a thrilling grandeur, exciting suspense, and lush romanticism,” as animation scholar William Moritz claims,14 but is utterly indispensable, a driving force that truly accomplishes more than half the audiovisual labor. Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker’s pin-screen animation A Night on Bald Mountain (Une nuit sur le mont chauve, 1933) is, for its time, a rare instance of the opposite: its remarkable concoction of animated grotesquerie — ghastly gorilla-monsters, moon-eyed demon birds, anthropomorphic mountains, hand-sprouting windmills, gap-toothed zombie steeds — outdoes much of “proper” surrealism, and is far more disturbing than the candy-colored Mussorgsky-Rimsky score, no matter how frenetically Albert Coates conducts it for this film. Yet even as late as 1949, Jean Mitry’s ideologically primitive experimental short Pacific 231 was content to assure audiences that (as an opening title informs us) the “film is not a documentary, but an attempt to create an atmosphere by associating visual impressions and familiar sounds, intimately mingled with a musical score.” Indeed, Mitry’s retrograde, 1920s-style constructivist montage is hardly an improvement upon the train-montage prologue of Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927), and merely materializes the locomotive rhythms of Honneger’s Pacific 231 (1923) — as conducted for the film by the composer himself, who in the 1920s detested such literalistic associations.

It isn’t satisfying to chastise film pioneers, who ecstatically sewed together all the diverse media to form their beautiful, then-unknown ideal, for clinging to music as a lifesaver — but it should be immensely satisfying to chastise our contemporaries for committing the same old error. A simple critical exercise: when you’re next forced to watch a Hollywood fight scene, mute (or, if in a theater, ignore) the sound and jot down a list of the images. Assuming the scene isn’t further blurred with computerization, or isn’t a vulgar, inelegant imitation of the rapid-fire, post-new wave Hong Kong action choreography that ceased to exist circa 1995, you’ll notice a conspicuous dearth of long-shots and a surfeit of close-ups, with each punch likely pumped by orchestral punctuation to camouflage the lack of sophisticated action design, just as the Bollywood masala trades in frantic, slapdash montage to validate the piteous oscillations and synchronized groin swings that pass for choreography. Then relax and dust off some awful B-Western from the 30s or early 40s, when the influence of Yakima Canutt was still ripe. The hack score’s blaring horns and jolly prestos will raise a risible smile, but they’ll be superfluous too, for the fight scenes, you’ll see, were filmed in limpid, extended long-shot, bereft of the trickery of close-ups and quick cutting. Of course, a realistic fight scene unglossed by any inorganic musical camouflage — such as the frantic, amateurish, eye-gouging climax of Toback’s Fingers (1978) — is usually most effective.

New developments in scientific research suggest the consonant agreement between images and expressive accompaniment may stem from an evolutionary-biological desire for consonance in the sensation and interpretation of all sounds. David Schwartz, Catherine Howe, and Dale Purves, neuroscientists at Duke University, have ascertained what philosophers (like Diderot) long suspected — that human vocal chords are naturally programmed to produce tones equivalent to what are considered consonant harmonies (like octaves and fifths) on the chromatic scale, regardless of the language of the speaker.15 Romantic composers lacking the benefits of neuroscience have often followed this ideal; of his songs, Mussorgsky boasted, “My music should be an artistic recreation of…the tones of… human speech with all its delicate nuances.”16 Our crass, all-too-human daily anecdotes demonstrate the notion of “natural consonance” equally well. In a state of anger, we’d much rather listen to Holst’s Mars than Mozart’s Jupiter, and timid music that scores outrageous subject matter can infuriate. It’s frustrating to hear malevolently suggestive, Aboriginally-inflected ambient music in Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), the true story of half-caste Australian girls forcibly relocated to an internment camp — we want shrieking outrage, not mood music, even if unimaginatively shrieking outrage proves the conservative determinism of evolutionary biology’s pseudoscience.

If music is speech’s natural homologue, musical dissonance will inevitably be bound up with politico-cultural and even psychobiological deviance, particularly if we, either literally or allegorically, equate consonance with harmonious agreement and counterpoint and dissonance with argument and dissent. The limitations of present neuroscience technology, prejudices of evolutionary biology, and instinctual fancies of romantic composition yield easily, however, to the anti-deterministic agenda of sociology and existentialism of expressionism. For Max Weber, the creation of consonant harmony was a rational product of Western scientism:

“All our rational tone intervals have been known and calculated. But rational harmonious music, both counterpoint and harmony, formation of the tone material on the basis of three triads with the harmonic third; our chromatics and enharmonics, not interpreted in terms of space, but, since the Renaissance, of harmony…all these things are known only in the Occident, although programme music, tone poetry, alteration of tones and chromatics, have existed in various [Asian] musical traditions as means of expression.”17

While Weber’s observations about Asian music, circa 1905, are dated and probably unsupportable, the rationalization of harmony after the Renaissance has indubitably been a deliberate program to render “natural” what at the time was thought to be a purely human invention. That there may have been, a priori, a biological basis for the a posteriori rationalization of harmony is an irony, not a proof, for even if we, as humans, are preprogrammed to comprehend harmoniously, there is obviously no “natural” basis to align these tendencies with — and construct them as — political consensus or dissension.

From Weber’s critique of Protestant rationalism it is a tiny step to conclude with Adorno that intramusical dissonance “resists” the forces of monopolistic commercialism, persisting as “an expression of the suffering, simultaneously autonomous and unfree subject…forced back time and again, down to the days of Salome, Electra, and the atonal Schönberg…”18 If it’s a distressing fact that atonality is irretrievably, abrasively reactive and political, it’s also true that dissonance, whether following from postromanticism (Scriabin, Debussy, Roslavets), revolutionary ideology (Schoenberg), or idiosyncratic experimentalism (Varèse, Cage), is also irretrievably allied with stubborn individualism. Indeed, while expressionism will be our focus, it goes without saying that an incongruous dissonance can also be impressionistic in a highly individualized sense. When Oliveira underscores the nocturnal sightseeing sequence of his nostalgic Oporto of My Childhood (2001, above) with locally colorful yet dissonant chords, we understand it as an impression of Oliveira’s sense of loss and longing, unsullied by expressionistic (i.e., antirealist) or political motives.

We know how and why both the masses and bourgeoisie (petit and grande) shudder and yawn when confronted with screeching, post-Schoenberg dissonance — but don’t the same people (not only cultural elitists) also wince and blush when saturated with the excessive, infantile tonality of Muzak, easy listening, country and western, etc.? Somewhere between confusion and insult is the habitual comfort level of moderated yet still-triumphant consonance. Were we to reject consonant associations and demand unconventionality and incongruity with merciless astringency, unsparing to even the supplest musical evocateur, we’d come to a realization as cleansing as the epiphany into which one stumbles when watching television commercials muted: that nearly all history’s films are less than worthless, treasonous, harmful, mentally poisonous, the mindless product of a dumbly consonant habitus writ as conspiratorial aesthetic naturalism and the evolutionary biology beloved of housewives’ talk shows. This is ridiculously harsh, I know — but harshness quickens sobriety.

A taxonomy or hierarchy of contrapuntal audiovisual relationships is fruitless, however, because, as we’ve said, the expressionistic potentials of counterpoint depend on deft execution, and a cheap contrapuntal irony isn’t necessarily preferable to a craftsmanlike complement. For example, Bresson’s portentous use of an overloud solo military drum during the opening credits of Procès de Jeanne D’Arc (1962) invokes obvious fatalistic associations but, despite its unimaginative congruence with the subject matter, also jolts us into imagining how Jeanne’s end will be represented, forcing us to become more active participants in a basically uneventful credit sequence. Moderate stylization and antirealism that falls short of true expressionism is sometimes enough to soothe congruous crudity into an effectively intensified sensibility, if the idiom is correct. When Leonard Bernstein’s music crashes and slams each time a make-believe hood in West Side Story (1961) opens a door or flails his arms, the effect, though still a bit embarrassing, dilates the film’s heroic charms and heedless naiveté. But when Hans Eisler too-congruently deploys a crushing chord at the appearance of a portrait of Hitler in Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1948), the effect is disastrous — wartime exile Eisler’s personal fury had clearly gotten the better of his aesthetic judgment.19

Though music is our present subject, all soundtrack noise is subject to the rule of healthy incongruity — it is no accident that audiovisual discontinuity went hand-in-hand with nearly every new wave movement of the 60s. But even the best new-wavers could irritate the nerves, becoming pointless and indulgent — lacking a unified theory of audiovisual discontinuity, it isn’t easy to figure out exactly how much discontinuity or incongruity is enough to make a point. If in a shootout sequence the director, with each shot fired, replaces the sound of gunplay with the overdubbed, echoing noise of a wooden coffin slamming shut, the effect would initially alarm but become heavy-handed after the fourth of fifth coffin-sound. If each time a character speaks we hear their inner thoughts while other characters in the film only hear their spoken thoughts, the effect becomes annoyingly clever even if the premise is valid. Particular and recognizable sound effects, even when incongruent, will pose the opposite problem of (unfamiliar) music — an excess of comprehensibility. If music must be particularized to be made comprehensible, the discontinuous use of familiar sound effects must be generalized to avoid obviousness. For example, in a production of Rezo Gabriadze’s symbolist play The Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient,20 the story of a pathetic, heartbroken, deluded Russian idealist who believes he is an American automobile, we hear throughout the theater the revving of an engine each time the hero turns a knob he’s absurdly attached to his coat. Yet the revving signifies not only the machinations of his deluded brain, but can be interpreted more generally as the idealistic truths only he can hear, and to which the other characters are deaf.

Normative Incongruities and Nonsubversive Dissonances

From all the ideological freightage philosophers and cultural czars — from Adorno to Zhdanov — have hung around the word “dissonance,” we gather that the comprehension of sound must be politically different than the comprehension of other sensory information. We have no such historically loaded terms to negatively describe stimuli perceived through our four other senses — words such as hideous, malodorous, sandpapery, or bitter, though roughly equivalent to “dissonant” in terms of sight, smell, touch, and taste, do not challenge established orders of comprehension, communication, and even censorship as did Schoenberg’s anti-narrativistic Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 or the sarcastic, anti-Stalinist (and anti-Beethovenian) joke that was Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony. Ironically, we cringe at offenses to our other four senses more automatically than we take umbrage to dissonance — we can endure an avant-garde performance artist clanging vases against turtles for a few minutes before losing interest, but revulsion at detecting your neighbor’s intrusive, fuming admixture of incurable halitosis, medium-priced cologne, and rectal emissions during a live concert is instant and seemingly instinctual.

Yet if the populist masses (on the right or left) tacitly agree with the conservatism of turn of the century Viennese music despot Julius Korngold (Erich Wolfgang’s domineering father) that dissonance is “a complete abnegation of the natural fundamentals of music” and a “relapse into primitivism,” the same vulgar mob freely and daily accepts dissonances between music and image. This is through no fault of their own, if we believe in the truths of behavior modification. Just as the asinine “Mickey Mousing” fostered by Hollywood moguls brainwashes one into believing congruent synchronization is not only logical but natural, the media’s perverse conventions condition them from birth to accept or ignore outrageous yet standardized audiovisual incongruities: a laugh track mechanically roaring at a doltish sitcom, the talentless pop idol whose managers force her to lip sync to save (and eventually lose) face, the fallaciously sincere “We Care About You”‘ music of an Exxon-Mobil commercial, and so forth. While even fools don’t believe in the audiovisual congruency of any of these examples, we’ve been conditioned to accept them not as the outright, manipulative lies they are, but as yawning nuisances imbedded in the plush capitalistic fabric in which we cannot help but comfortably snooze.

Indeed, each time a whiny pop tune unceremoniously and semi-incongruously intrudes upon the soundtrack of a film21Winged Migration (2001, right) is nearly felled by its treacly minstrelsy — we passively accept the meretriciously commercial reasons for the tune’s existence (it must be promoted and sold as an adjunct to the film, etc.), even though the discontinuity between the film and the entirely alien song is far greater than the artistic differences that may exist between a librettist and composer, who at least may occasionally meet for a drink or lunch, and whose inclusion or rejection of melodies is not dictated by boardroom meetings. We may laugh at Stalin and Zhdanov’s censorship of dissonance — just as we atheists use the Council of Trent’s proposed ban on “incomprehensible” polyphony in 1563 to prove the folly of religious terrorism22 — but doesn’t the Thalbergian Hollywood described in Andre Previn’s autobiography No Minor Chords also ban the free use of dissonance, and out of mere stupidity rather than errant ideology? Don’t Hollywood composers, even in 2004, use dissonance only to herald the villains or underscore fright, just as Soviet film composers, afraid to share avant-gardist Meyerhold’s torturous fate, reserved their dissonances only for governmentally-approved, audiovisually congruent moments?

The only practical difference between the congruency-intelligibility of Hollywood and that of Stalinist socialist realism is that the American nationalist style has obvious commercial potential, ready-made for export. When in the German horror film Anatomy (2000) generic rock music scores a generic sex scene (a doubly congruent association), the film’s aspirations to Hollywood mediocrity and commercialism become instantly apparent, for what the scene ultimately communicates is the filmmakers’ desire to spinelessly succumb to Americanized pop salesmanship. Non-Western countries capably manufacture their own psychoses: the musical sequences of Bollywood masalas simply transfer what would be an extradiegetic, temporal incongruity to a diegetic, spatial one whenever the dramatic action is crudely interrupted for actors to lip sync a soundtrack album and thrust their pelvises before the Swiss Alps (usually meant to represent Kashmir).

The most glaring cases of conventionalized, corporatist incongruity — that is, audiovisual incongruities that arise not from meaningful aesthetic principles but standardized, unselfconscious norms — are generally the creations of journalism.23 Musical incongruities that would seem expressionistic, experimental, or plain baffling in a feature film become friendly and innocuous in journalism’s oven-mitted paws. A National Public Radio story24 about atrocious ethnic cleansing (pardon me, “demographic rehabilitation”25) in Sudan was underscored with a street-smart, marginally cosmopolitan electronic dance beat, while a nonchalantly horrifying story about an AIDS-infected African woman who hauls her own coffin through the Sahara, such that upon her eventual death she can be promptly entombed, was bookended by refreshing punctuations of sassy jazz fusion. The music’s ostensible purpose is obvious enough — cool beats signify the bourgeois cosmopolitanism of both NPR and its intended audience — but why is this disjunction not deemed bizarre? Were a fiction film about Sudanese genocide scored with this same music, the effect would seem either inappropriately absurd, or a calculated, artsy attempt to be hip. In the context of (especially radio) journalism, however, it is neither hip nor absurd, but easily comprehensible, non-dissonant, and mindlessly “appropriate,” even though a report about African torture insensitively scored with techno beats that white, First World journalists apparently love should be seen as morally offensive.26 Journalism’s alienating and self-alienated mode of musical incongruity may have finally, madly lapped itself, becoming congruous once again, when a fifteen-second CNN news promo27 grafted a farcical orchestral score combining Morton Gouldian Americana with clowning motifs and sliding trombones onto a montage of its mealy, self-aggrandizing pundits and pontificators. The music that would otherwise be juxtapositionally insensitive has finally found a home in the arms of the uncritical media circus that spawned it — even as in his next breath the news anchor will pretend to critique the dreaded media bias that is his vampiric lifeblood.

Because we are not investigating the mere fact of a score’s dissonance or consonance, but whether the score’s idiom, whatever it may be, is itself dissonant or consonant with the visual text it accompanies, we must also dismiss as inconsequential scores whose dissonances are conventional and do not exist contrapuntally to the visual text. Use of dissonant music can be consonant and conventional within a given context — Kubrick’s misterioso deployment of then-contemporary Ligeti in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is less “dissonant” than his use of Rossini and synthesized Purcell in A Clockwork Orange (1971). As children, we are conditioned by cartoon music to compartmentalize dissonances as isolated, violent, eye-popping events, while every slasher flick composer’s nth-rate, glissandi-clogged imitation of the anxious parts of Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings multiplies two negatives — a dissonant-violent score and a dissonant-violent text — to produce a positive consonance.

Superficial incongruities between text and image can also produce sophomoric sarcasms rather than expressive enlightenments, or even decent ironies — for example, consider a Snow White cartoon scored with heavy metal, the stone-faced martial music John Landis asked Elmer Bernstein to write for Animal House (1978), the precious, “it’s all just a joke” tunes that underscore the closing credits to Legacy of Blood (1978), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and The Evil Dead (1983), or the nose-thumbing electronic score that plants a convenient dunce cap atop the high-tech visuals of Johnnie To’s self-congratulatorily meaningless The Mission (1999). At times a musical joke is so odd that it blurs the distinction between congruity and incongruity.28 The wildly anachronistic, snazzy ’70s jazz of the Japanese Hanzo the Blade series (1972-74) is at once stupefying and arguably well suited to the series’ hedonistic attitudes — but when one learns that innumerable Japanese directors of the 60s and 70s similarly channeled feudal cruelties through the new wave’s antibourgeois nihilism by pairing samurai with saxophones, the spell is quickly broken. A healthier, more productive ambiguity is provided by Godard’s Weekend (1967). When in the middle of the final sequence in the forest we see a young musician pounding on his drums, the image has multiple interpretations along congruent or incongruent lines — the image, though surreally incongruent on a superficial level, is thematically congruent insofar as the forest drumming signifies the characters’ return to pre-capitalist primitivism.

We are also unconcerned with what could be called “simplified Brechtianism” or “cabaret Brechtianism,” those cleverish, precious moments when directors have characters incongruously burst into song, as in Medak’s The Ruling Class (1971) and Resnais’s On connait la chanson (1997), or even Ozon’s 8 Women (2002), for here antirealism becomes a device expressing nothing but its own form. What can one say about Resnais’s On connait? It is a postmodern “meditation” on the Hollywood musical form and its deferred expressivities? It is an homage, an ironic jape? How many euphemisms for “bankrupt” can we use, and are our euphemisms as ironic as the film is supposed to be?

A Dissonant Point Between Expressionism and Constructivism?

As we’ve said, literal sound-image incongruity is not necessarily expressionistic — a journalistic voice-over, rather than existing in intellectual tension with the action it narrates, habitually assembles conventional realism from audiovisual dissociation. So what kinds of incongruities are expressionistic? Answering this question is, unfortunately, as difficult as figuring out what expressionism really is.

Expressionism, we know, instructs in ways (false) realism does not, cracking a work’s essence not through a kinship with language but a suspicion toward it and the adjectival-adverbial consonances (lyrical lyricisms, etc.) habitual-naturalistic language entails. Impressionism suggests what is already suspected; expressionism reveals what has been buried. Impressionism is a peaceful-looking scene underscored with terrifying music; expressionism transforms terrifying music into something other than conventional notions of terror. But is the healthy, dialectical musico-visual incongruity under examination always expressionistic? Isn’t, in fact, the actual process of creating an enlighteningly unconventional incongruity more aligned with Eisenstein’s ideographic constructivism, and opposed to expressionism’s wide-eyed, sweaty intuitionism?

The very descriptive superficiality expressionism loathes has muddled our notion of cinematic expressionism particularly — whenever a director skews angles or casts psychotic chiaroscuro, the siren of expressionism is sounded, even if these effects evince the decorative or “suggestive” (as opposed to revelatory) qualities endemic to impressionism (if only the sycophantic practitioners of neo-noir knew how quickly Weimar critics tired of Caligarism and its superficial effects!). From the time the term “expressionism” was coined circa 1906-07 and popularized by Die Brücke (“The Bridge”), its meaning has been up for grabs, probably because expressionists were chary of codifying and sterilizing their radically subjectivist, intuitionist aesthetic (even at its most Marxist) into an objective manifesto or credo, lest expressionism cease being its own critique. Surveying German expressionist criticism from its emergence though the years of World War I, one encounters much ironically impressionistic, adjectival description of expressionism — it is “orgiastic,” “visionary,” “ecstatic,” “cosmic,” and so forth — and little outright definition of it, just lists of panicked symptoms whose only diagnosis is the sighing, common shrug of “modernism.” What expressionism means as its ideality becomes transplanted to different media is even murkier: is the expressionism of Wilhelm Worringer’s theories of abstraction the same as that of Webern’s miniatures or Weine’s madmen?

For a clashing audiovisual incongruity to be truly expressionistic, it must render the same truth that Schoenbergian atonality expresses from its full palette of uncensored, unnaturalized (not unnatural), and democratic, non-discriminatory sounds. The equation of atonal musical expressionism with angst-ridden psychology, however, is a conventional, historical one following from Berg’s Wozzeck, which found a musical equivalent to the masochistic, idiosyncratic pathos of Büchner.29 This sort of psychologizing, though not “realistic” in the traditional sense, is concerned with the individuality upon which post-Renaissance humanist realism is based, and is quite unlike the antirealist expressionism of Brecht. But the dissociative possibilities of recorded sound — the soundtrack going deaf in Gance’s Beethoven (1936), or a reality-challenged Ronald Coleman hallucinating intrusive audio flashbacks of his performance of Othello during the cocktail party scene in A Double Life (1947) — make individualistic psychological expression in film a far simpler trick than a live concert of twelve-tone technique. The filmic voiceover, meanwhile, only crudely soliloquizes what the Wagnerian orchestra more grandiloquently and impressionistically states. Should a cinematic character actually sing his thoughts outside the conventions of the Hollywood (or Bollywood) musical, we laugh, unfortunately and unself-critically. When in Castellari’s quasi-expressionist spaghetti Western Keoma (1976) antihero Franco Nero sings (or drunkenly warbles) his thoughts on a soliloquizing soundtrack whenever he has been beaten or dispossessed by his family, the effect seems ridiculous only because certain unrealistic conventions of expression have been compartmentalized for opera, and other unrealistic conventions for film. Just as we laugh at Nero’s singing in Keoma, so was Prokofiev’s October Cantata banned by Stalin for breaking with convention by pairing melodic music with prose texts by Marx, Lenin, and, ironically, Stalin himself.

Regardless, these “soliloquizing” examples fulfill basically (if more crudely) the same psychological function Adorno identifies in Wozzeck:

“The drama occurs on several levels…from the language of a paranoiac’s clinical psychology it distills an objective world of images, and where the mad fantasies recoil into the escaped poetic word they take shelter in a void. The void awaits the music that leaves the psychological layer beneath.”30

But can the highest form of expressionism really be the exteriorizing, or soliloquizing, of inner, realistic psychological states? Or perhaps only psychic states of mystery and hysteria, whose impenetrability and ultimate inexpressibility are associated with “unreality”? Is expressionism, then, a “psychologically realistic unreality,” whereas surrealism could be called a psychologically unrealistic reality? Kasimir Edschmid’s remark, “That is the greatest secret of art: it is without familiar psychology,”31 seems the unquestioned benchmark of expressionism and its post-Caligari kinship with horror. Yet the original version of Caligari was not rationalized as a psychotic dream; Weine was coerced into changing the screenplay to reflect the subjectivity of a madman, thus reducing what should have been an objective critique of Caligari’s authoritarianism as “real” madness to the merely decorative story of a madman, signifying nothing. As Kracauer observed, “Weine’s version disavowed [the] revolutionary meaning of expressionist staging, or, at least, put it, like the original story itself, in brackets.”32 Soon after, so-called Caligarism destroyed true expressionism, and German critics were chiding its jejune clichés of light and shadow just as Pudovkin and Kuleshov later lamented the empty experimentalism of their early film grammar “primer” The Death Ray (1924/1925).33

The audiovisual incongruity for which we should aim expresses not the psychology of a character but the attitude of the director and composer. It is therefore necessary that both director and composer agree on a singular meaning they both will express. Resulting from the clash between two media, this (incongruous) meaning expresses not an essential meaning or one cowering in a Bergian “void,” but one reflected endlessly, as if between two mirrors, as each medium, film and music, struggles to reflect and synthesize the meaning latent in the other. Most expressionism is obsessed with the “underneath” — our healthy incongruity elicits interstitial meanings “between.” However, these meanings must enlighten us to something unknown or unsuspected; an audiovisual jape such as What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966), though contrapuntally expressing the attitude of the director, and bouncing image and sound endlessly off each other, would not qualify here, for Allen’s intentions only explicate a camp sensibility at which we could easily arrive ourselves were we to see the Japanese film with its original soundtrack.

A good, incongruous musico-visual dialectic is constructed just as montage is: the relationships between cells dictated by intellectual montage and the Kuleshov effect are simply transferred to the relationships between music and image. The apt choice of music then dictates an incongruous yet referentially expressive meaning. For example, a title sequence appended to several Yiddish films (such as Green Fields [1937]) in Brandeis University’s Jewish film preservation series features typical scenes of Eastern European Jews folk-dancing and rolling knishes (or some such activity) while klezmer music tootles happily — a clichéd association, and one whose happy tune untruthfully distracts from historical truths. Cruelly score this little promo with Aryan hymns, and they both place the film in proper historical relief and, perhaps, alert viewers to the necessity of Brandeis’s film preservation efforts. This incongruity is not a Brechtian alienation effect. Contrarily, it is a “reality” effect that opposes realism — but one that expresses the attitude of the director and/or composer, not the “realistic unreality” of psychologically-minded expressionism, which expresses only the diegetic action. Though the meanings of this example are not overly difficult, they are non-transparent, and thus the audience will have to be equally creative in interpreting the meanings as the director is in crafting them. Inevitably, the tension or difference between the audience’s interpretation and the director’s intentionality will express and run parallel to the tension between the incongruous audio and visual elements of the film.

This simplistic, narrow example’s constructivist dialecticism is an advance on that of Eisenstein, who later dismissed his own imagistic uses of harps and balalaikas in October (1928), to suggest the pretty “strumming” of Menshevik opportunism, as “naïve juxtapositions.”34 Equally naïve were his directions to composer Edmund Meisel to “reject customary melodiousness” for Potemkin‘s “meeting the squadron” sequence in favor of the “rhythmic beating of percussion.”35 Doesn’t Eisenstein-Meisel’s rhythmic audiovisual montage — though laudable in 1925 for its abandonment of melody — commit the same folly as the “marching march” Eisenstein criticized above? However, Eisenstein hones in exactly on our theme — that healthy incongruity should not reflect not the psychology of characters but the attitude of the director — when he says the (hypothetical) contrapuntal musical idea of a “life-affirming death” will have to be “attached to the author’s relationship to the thing portrayed” (italics original).36 Though he saw the concretism of his intellectual montage as an affront to the pessimistic, anti-utilitarian styling of “Caligarist” expressionism, Eisenstein was, perhaps unconsciously, in tune with those 1920s Realists (like Lukács) who believed montage was innately expressionistic. Indeed, Eisenstein obliquely references expressionistic ideas that opposed the simpler constructivism advanced by Kuleshov. In The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram (1929), the “pieces of darkness and pieces of lightness” emblematic of montage dialectics also echo the shadow worlds of Weine and Murnau, and in A Dialectic Approach to Film Form (1929), Eisenstein describes colliding montage cells as being pressurized on top of one another, just as typical expressionist themes are psychoanalytically layered, rather than being adjacent to one other in the “epic” building-block style of Kuleshov and Pudovkin.37 Yet Eisenstein’s dialectical use of music had retreated to pure Wagnerism by the time of Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible (1945), and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1946), regardless of any constructivist ideology.38

To understand the musical incongruities Eisenstein never truly engaged, we turn to Meyerhold, whose theater went further than Eisenstein’s cinema, and from whose theatrical techniques we can better understand how clashing expressions of music draw upon both constructivism and expressionism without resorting to psychology. Eliminating the theater’s fourth wall long before Brecht, Meyerhold drew upon futurist and formalist dramatist Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov’s guiding philosophy of uslovnyi, a conception of the theater particular to early 20th-century symbolism that discarded Aristotelianism, advanced a heightened knowledge of theatrical artifice, and whose positioning of performers and audience as equals eventually became associated with Bolshevism.39 Substituting radical symbolism for representational realism, and thumbing its nose at Stanislavksi’s post-Meiningen40 psychological realism (with which Meyerhold himself, as a young man, had been associated), uslovnyi situates audience and actors as symbiotic partners in the interpretation of meaning (perhaps a presaging of Freire’s pedagogy), and, contrary to our present cinematic crisis of overacting, over-scoring, and over-communication, requires actors to withhold meanings for the audience to create themselves.41 The dialectic between music and image should be like the relation between audience and performer — symbiotic, interactive, and, above all, polyarchic. Meyerhold, however, was never a slave to Proletkult, and Symons is likely correct in arguing that Meyerhold’s Marxism involved “a Wagnerian rather than a [genuine or Hegelian] dialectical synthesis,”42 for his use of musical and visual counterpoint did sometimes present antitheses and synthesis complete onstage, rather than as a formula or problem for the audience to meaningfully synthesize for itself. Nevertheless, the potential for dialectical synthesis was greater in Meyerhold’s freer experimentations than it ever was in Eisenstein’s constructivism.

Meyerhold’s techniques, which later so influenced Brecht, were revolutionary in the 1910s and early 20s. During productions the house lights would remain on, allowing audience members to be aware of each other as well as the dramatic action. Decors did not end with the stage’s edge but covered the entire theater and audience, too, and in accordance with Meyerhold’s so-called “cinefication” of the theater, actors were launched forward on railed platforms into the audience to achieve the effect of cinematic “close-ups.” Perhaps “improving” on kabuki theater’s kuroko, the black-clad stagehands who are clearly visible but theoretically ignored, Meyerhold eliminated the curtain so nothing could be hidden during scene changes. “Working class” characters from the dramaturgy would be positioned in the stage pit to physically link the (working-class) audience to stage action. At times, Meyerhold would go beyond the alienation effect, prompting not self-reflection but responsive action. Audience members were encouraged to charge the stage and join in merrymaking or a final chorus, and during a 1920 production of Verhaeren’s Dawns he incited the audience to spontaneously sing the Internationale by reading actual dispatches about the progress of the Bolsheviks against the Whites during a point in the play when dispatches in the drama were to be read.43 At the same time, Meyerhold antagonized the audience to keep alive the spontaneous, artless realities of the revolutionary spirit: during performances of Earth Rampant (1923) and The Last Decisive Battle (1931), machine guns (loaded with blanks, of course) were fired randomly into the audience,44 and Meyerhold enjoyed echoing the solemnly silly rallying cry of Filippo Marinetti to “show plays in the reverse order of their action45…to pour glue on the seats of the auditorium, to sell the same tickets to different people, to distribute sneezing powder, [and] to stage fires and murders in the area of the orchestra seats.”46

Unfortunately, no filmed records of Meyerhold’s productions survive (still photos, however, are numerous, e.g., The Magnanimous Cuckold, right), nor are there extant prints of his first film, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1916), whose then-unprecedented use of expressionistic imagery47 made it the most technically sophisticated film of its time, and one whose influence, critics now speculate, would have probably exceeded Caligari‘s superficially decorative legacy. As early as 1923, in a production of Faiko’s Lake Lyul, Meyerhold’s novel cinefication explored “live” editing: simultaneous actions were orchestrated on a multi-tiered stage, with one stage spotlighted and then the other, to approximate a “spatial” as opposed to temporal montage.48 With this, Meyerhold integrated montage principles into a full-length narrative at a time when rhythmic, tonal, and intellectual montage had been mainly relegated to experimental shorts, excepting the rhythmic montage of Gance’s landmark La Roue (1922).49

Central to Meyerhold’s performance technique was his system of biomechanics, a quasi-balletic acting technique that, adopting the communistic ideology of maximizing bodily energy to perform rhythmically efficient, optimistic labor, theoretically allows one to meet any physical task with a dancelike, Chaplinesque plasticity alien to standard romantic-emotive acting.50 (Meyerhold actually cites Chaplin — though no other silent clown — as an exemplar of biomechanics.) Less anarchic and more utilitarian than Marinetti’s proto-cybernetic, nearly Dadaistic futurism, Meyerhold’s collectivistic biomechanics also offered up an antithesis to the individualistic hero cult of Reifenstahlian neoclassicism then slowly simmering in Germany.

In fashioning the rhythmic foundation of biomechanics, Meyerhold found a convenient point of critical departure in the techniques of the musical pedagogue Jaques-Dalcroze, whose system of “eurhythmics” harmonized the actor’s body with musical accompaniment, and transformed the human body into an organic musical vessel through which text and music unify:

“There was a fine musician and teacher called Dalcroze. He is well known as the inventor of the system called ‘eurhythmics.’ But … Dalcroze’s invention was seized upon by opera singers. ‘If we synchronize our movements with the music, then everything will be quite simple’ reasoned operatic directors and singers contentedly. … Movement in unison with music creates a new kind of ‘Vampuka’ [ludicrous operatic clichés or self-parody]… We are trying to avoid this metrical unison of music and movement. We are aiming at a contrapuntal fusion of the two elements.”51

Meyerhold’s wry description of eurhythmic “vampuka,” or ridiculous self-parody, could well be a critique of film scoring, from the time King Vidor had a drummer beat metronimocally on the set of The Big Parade (1925), to eurhythmically create “silent music” for the actors to follow during the forest battle scene,52 up to the present day’s rampant and debilitating disease of James Horner-ism. With the Soviet audience of the 1920s already versed in the antirealist spirit of uslovnyi teatr and prepared for unconventional, incongruous, surreal, or even baffling audiovisual associations, Meyerhold was totally free to experiment with music and sound — with admittedly mixed results. In his production of Mayakovsky’s satire of Soviet bureaucracy The Bathhouse, Shebalin’s music, presumably by Meyerhold’s request, drowned out and rendered unintelligible Mayakovsky’s dialogue, irritating audiences and infuriating critics.53 For Maeterlinck’s The Death of Tintagilles, Meyerhold employed “the substitution of a musical for a conversational tone in the [spoken] lines,” and for the incidental music used “an a cappella choir designed to express not only the howling of the wind but also the characters’ inner monologue,” while “the actors trained in…[Stanislavski’s] Moscow Art Theater tended to nevertheless speak in conversational tones…[a]s if to contradict the melodrama of this background.”54 At other times, Meyerhold’s use of music was plain perplexing, or at least an endlessly interpretable activity for the audience — his production of The Teacher Bubus placed a visible platform above the stage on which, at forty-three strategic moments, a pianist performed selections from Chopin and Liszt.55 (Unfortunately, no detailed analysis of the music in Bubus — one of Meyerhold’s most important productions — appears to have been undertaken, and records of the specific selections Meyerhold chose do not appear extant in English.)

Though, as Symons suggests, Meyerhold’s idea of “contrapuntal fusion” retains elements of a Wagnerian synthesis of stage actions, rather than a Hegelian synthesis that presents performer and audience as respective theses and antitheses, his creative and unexpected use of music comes closer to expressionistic incongruity, on a more consistent basis, than the use of music of any major film director in memory. True, this radical creativity, borne of the spirits of Bolshevism and uslovnyi, is far easier to enact in the live theater than through the alienating technological barrier that is the cinema screen. Yet the audiovisual confusions Meyerhold generated goad us into reconsidering how exactly musical associations work. Symons adroitly remarks that while Stanislavski’s realism was a psychologizing and thus individualistic exploration of the psychic why, Meyerhold’s philosophy dispensed with individualism to explore the sociological how.56 We needn’t be as reckless or solipsistic as Poole’s Andy or Meyerhold’s Teacher Bubus — we only need to experiment often enough to demystify the “how.” If our experiments fail, so be it — even Meyerhold and Brecht failed as often as they succeeded.

What is Good Incongruity? — A Trial-and-Error Workshop

We’ve spoken at length in theory; now let’s consider some examples, beginning with H. Scott Salinas’s score for Herbert Brenon’s silent Laugh Clown Laugh (1928, right), a derivation of Gausto Martino’s Ridi Pagliacci wherein Lon Chaney plays the melancholic clown Tito, tragically smitten with his own adopted daughter and unable to make himself laugh. To manufacture a crude, low-level incongruity, Salinas could have used dissonant music — and not the conventional “clowning” music he employs — when hopeless, self-sacrificing Tito allows the rich count to have his beloved as he clowns for a grand audience. We can guess Salinas’s use of clowning music in this tragic scene is meant to be ironic — yet since it is apparently no different from the clowning music used in non-ironic scenes, Salinas’s intentionality remains suspect, particularly since a conventionally mournful and bewailing clarinet enters when Tito discovers the girl in the rich count’s embrace backstage. Had Salinas used dissonant or atonal music here, we’d understand the layered psychological meanings the scene engages — Tito hides his dark feelings beneath a clownish exterior — yet the superficially dissonant effect would be too obvious, since we already know his feelings. Likewise, layering the clown music with a dark, ominous, bass-heavy counterpoint would only signify the anguish we already know lurks beneath the mask. This is why we must speculate about the possible effects of completely incongruous, and not merely dissonant, music, and why the dissonance needn’t be within the music as psychology, as Adorno thought, but between music and image as an expression of the director’s sociological theme. When Tito finally becomes mad and suicidal in the finale, and Salinas’s score succumbs to dissonant, electronic sounds, it is only another example of “consonant dissonance,” lacking in contrapuntal imagination, surprise, or unconventional associations. Having said that, even Chaplin likewise errs in his self-composed score for The Circus (1928), where the very first scene’s music proceeds with conventional circus-clown jollity, even as the draconian father denies his daughter supper. Is Chaplin being musically ironic, or just lazy?

To this point, I have deliberately, indeed coyly, avoided the question my discussion begs: if conventionally dissonant music is insufficient, exactly what kinds of music can offer an enlightening counterpoint? The answer may be only a shy, uncatchable phantom, for, as we’ve said at the beginning, what makes a counterpoint effective lies in judgment and execution, not theory or mode alone. For example, sentimental music contrapuntally accompanying horrific violence seems like a grand idea — the effect will be as powerful as Guernica! In truth, the result is either calculatedly manipulative (the pulpy operatics of John Woo), witlessly contrived (Woo’s army of graceless imitators), or as unwise and ill-judged as Oliver Stone’s insistent attempt to turn Platoon (1986) into a celluloid Vietnam Memorial by draping it in the borrowed, exhausted, yet still-resounding cries of Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Examples of good contrapuntal judgment are as limitless as the reader’s imagination. First be sane, then quaff abundant wine or brandy and, in a state of only mild disorder, open yourself up to the most terrible, joyous incongruities: paste the score of one film onto another with revolutionary zeal, mentally inject a pusillanimous, Williamsesque soundtrack with indecent dissonances, or mute the sound on your television and with pursed lips hum your own improvised theme. Try scoring one scene with ten different varieties of music — Carax attempted this in the bridge-dancing sequence in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), though this polystylism comes off as little more than a postimpressionist irony a la Les Six, with little referential meaning.

Will the meanings of a musical non sequitur be an antirealist, antinaturalist liberation from adjectival consonances, or a muddy pathway to consonances yet to be conventionalized? If Alien (1979) were scored with the gangan, omele, and bembe of percussionist Babatunde Olatunje, would the film’s atmosphere become bizarrely Africanized to the core, or would the exotic rhythms remain an ornament? How should the wintry scene of Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush (1925, above right) really be scored — are the slushy silent-film organ and tinkering dancehall piano of public domain prints a quaint tradition or a morbid petrification? Mountainous yodeling music or the icy bird-sounds of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus (1972) are “appropriate” here — but neither as funny nor enlighteningly contrapuntal as hearing Ride of the Valkyries blasted through a dentist’s waiting room. Perhaps undercut Chaplin’s comedy entirely with the sound of a single hammer beating concrete, or something from Palestrina, or remixed snatches of the soundtrack of The Great Dictator (1940), or a nuclear alert bulletin, or apocalyptic silence. Could Throne of Blood (1957) be scored with Steiner’s bongos from King Kong (1933)? Or, speaking of Steiner, would Gone with the Wind (1939) be reduced in epic scope or refined in aesthetic taste were it scored with the zithers of The Third Man (1949)? More pointedly, if those gorgeous zithers were grafted onto a Hopalong Cassidy Western, would the resultant text become a minor cult oddity, a ridiculous drama made somehow sublime by the input of totally alien music? If a John Ford Western were today rescored with Morricone, the result would be mere irony — but what if Fort Apache (1948) were originally scored with those eccentric twangs and tobacco-spitting pops? At very least, you can admit The Searchers (1956) would be better off with no music at all, rather than bound to its present Mickey Mousing score.57 On the other hand, solemn, attention-grabbing silence can be a cheap trick — notice how in each episode of Law and Order a tangible, slightly static-ridden silence, coupled with occasional organic sounds, such as beeping car horns from below, undergirds each courtroom scene, so that they can be distinguished from the climactic confession scenes, which are always undergirded by a string ensemble heavy with celli.

Less whimsically, try inverting existing musical accompaniments and imagine the result. If the credit sequence of Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) juxtaposed not a mocking didgeridoo against iron skyscrapers but ranting modernist electronica against desolate Aboriginal sands, would the effect be a mere thematic rephrasing or an inversion of subjectivity? If in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) the lonely harmonica voiced Claudia Cardinale’s leitmotifs and the lush strings and celestial female choir handled Charles Bronson’s, would we realize that masculine and feminine associations in music were artificial constructions?58 Or, try authenticating a hybridized idiom: would the themes of Koyaanisqatsi (1983) become more legitimate or just exotically pretentious if scored with orthodox Native American chants rather than Glass’s multicultural distillations?

Perhaps the only eminently (and immanently) interchangeable musical idiom is, by its very nature, ambient music, which luxuriantly, obediently cushions dialog and image to make them appear weightier than they are. Ambient music’s nudging tonality and belligerent homophony are analogous to the Church’s historical erasure of polyphony, which strained to couch prayer in the uncorrupted, godlike purity of plainsong, and hypnotize the prayerful as only an uncomplicated, repetitive beat can. The Tangerine Dream of Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and the folksy new age of his The Last of the Mohicans (1992) are idiomatically different but ideologically interchangeable, and either of these trancelike, adynamic tonalities could just as well cue a cool romance in 28th century Paris as an arty neo-noir or pretty revisionist Americana. Such is the widespread value of ambient music’s empyreal nothingness. Only in the context of a thematic incongruity within a film image itself could ambient music become contrapuntal — for example, Takemitsu’s ambient score for Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudi (1984) juxtaposes meditative, pacific tonality against Gaudi’s surrealist-gothic architecture, which itself is violently incongruous with the prefabricated modern buildings surrounding it.

My examples above of Chaplin and Salinas’s Laugh score intentionally neglect to differentiate between silent film music, which fluctuates constantly, with the fixed scores fabricated for sound films. The silent Pagliaccian histrionics of Laugh threaten ironic camp (here held at bay only by Chaney’s peerless pathos) no less than the thickly accented sound histrionics of Browning’s Dracula (1931), and are really far more skillful than today’s standard of sound film performance, which has regressed to the (sub)standards of television overacting. In a further twist, Salinas’s uncritical, noncontrapuntal, intentionally unironic score is quite the opposite of Phillip Glass’s unintentionally ironic string quartet score for a 1999 reissue of Browning’s chestnut. Glass’s creepy if routine minimalism does, in a sense, underscore more consonantly and appropriately Dracula‘s action than did the original score’s mordantly romantic yet irretrievably clichéd stew of Schubert, Tchaikovksy, and Wagner. Yet as the sleekly hip, elegant strokes of the Kronos Quartet accompany each warbled, powder-faced line reading, caulk every awkward silence, and propel each spooky tracking shot toward a rat-gnawed coffin, the effect is unavoidably ironic, as the freshness of Glass’s new music draws increased attention not only to the original text’s quaint datedness but its dire need for an expressive score that, in 1931, it never received. However, this is an accidental counterpoint, not an intentional expressionism. On another level, however, Glass’s music is expressionistic, as its lyrico-mysterious tones argue that encrusted beneath the nostalgia there has, in fact, always been a genuine uncanniness about Browning’s film that only this score (theoretically) can properly excavate and elicit, and through which we can resensitize ourselves.59 A more conventional “Dracula” score — such as Wojiech Kilar’s naïvely atmospheric, nondissonant (by Kilar’s own standards) and ultimately Jerry Goldsmithesque soundtrack for Coppola’s 1992 Dracula (below) — would be insufficiently contrapuntal in relation to Browning’s text to enact such a “resensitization.”

If we still are unsure of Glass’s intentions in writing the Dracula quartet — is the expressionist counterpoint outlined above an over-interpretation? — musical enigmas can result in far happier realizations than can John Williamsesque transparency, even if that happiness springs initially from disappointment or bewilderment. Andrei Konchalovsky’s perversely incongruous, outright mystifying use of saxophonic jazz in the second half of his magnum opus Siberiade (1978) is the most incomprehensible choice for a score I know… and yet how sharply, even irritatingly, it jolts out in the memory, like a needle dripping with a precious serum whose workings remain to be analyzed. In his score for a print of Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl60 (1929) , composer Joseph Turrin uses not melodramatic climaxes when Louise Brooks returns to the reformatory, but whispery clusters of nebulous atmosphere that go on for such length that they become the film’s normative speech. Because Diary is a “legitimate” classic and not the hybrid classic/camp relic that Dracula is, Turrin’s atmosphericism (not really ambience) doesn’t reinvent or legitimize the film text with decades-overdo musical plastic surgery, as Glass’s minimalist ambience does with Browning’s film (in an obvious way, the very idea of rescoring Dracula confesses the film’s shortcomings). While Turrin’s contemporary score manufactures the same historical incongruity as Glass-Browning, Turrin’s musical counterpoint is not a fantasy on the historical value of the film artifact per se, but mainly extrudes the whispery, nebulous desires of the film’s characters — therefore, its expressionism remains in the realm of psychology and Caligarism. If Turrin’s own attitude toward the film is rooted in this psychologizing, or if he merely tries to approximate Pabst’s attitudes with his modern music, it is a failure of his imagination.

On the other hand, counterpoints that at first appear to be audiovisually disassociative can really be congruent. When Roy Frumkes opens his Romero documentary Document of the Dead (1989) with monstrous groans looped over a scene of Groucho Marx joking about Pittsburgh, the effect would puzzle only those unfamiliar with the association between Romero and his home.

The use or incorporation of pre-established, famous pieces of music in a score is a somewhat different matter, since they will conjure barrages of historically particular meanings, often limited to the degree to which the piece of music has been domesticated and reified by popular media. This is the silent cinema pianist’s old problem, and remains ours today. The Firebird or the Concierto de aranjuez have been reduced from actual music into empty cultural signs or recognition-cues — the bourgeois act of recognizing the music is conflating with taking “universally human” pleasures in it — while the corporatist commercials of under-financed classical radio hum along with a Tchaikovskian melody, and allow Smith Barney to sound Straussian horn calls promising to rescue your finances.

Only rarely does a director ironically or contrapuntally employ famous music to challenge our preconceptions, as when Claude Lelouch persistently, almost ridiculously uses Beethoven’s Fifth to cue his decidedly mousy, anti-triumphalist Euro-Western Another Man (1977). “It was not a time for music,” says one of the film’s countless melancholic characters — in a truthful, Marxist irony, only those who already have music, the audience, are allowed to hear it, while the impoverished characters remain deaf. More typical is a piano-scored print of Dreyer’s tedious Intolerance plagiarism Leaves from Satan’s Book (1919) that bangs out the Marselliase during a scene set in a café during the French Revolution. How to contrapuntally cure such a failure of the imagination? If we instead heard an American Revolutionary song, it would stretch our associations — we’d first be struck by the incongruity, but then make a synthetic association between different yet linked democratic movements. An atypically heavy-handed Werner Herzog is not above ransacking the forced clichés of Orff’s Carmina Burana for scenes of Saddam Hussein’s apocalyptic ignition of his oil fields in Lessons of Darkness (1992) — even the literalist-congruent choice of Scriabin’s Prometheus, Poem of Fire would be preferable to this hackneyed sensationalism. So what does one use? Certainly, neither the Iraqi nor American anthems. The maudlin song of a dispossessed Iraqi mother? A kazoo band? Is, in fact, the great Herzog’s simple-mindedly decorative use of Orff any less meretricious than Tinto Brass grafting the Midnight scene from Prokofiev’s Cinderella onto a sweaty bacchanal in Caligula (1980)?

If Herzog bathetically overstates, so does a print of The Lost World (1925) lassoed to a piano-and-orchestra transcription of Verdi’s Requiem — when the irritable clay bronto romps loose through London, the insistence of the Dies Irae is both ludicrous and endearing.61 Occasionally, the borrowed associations of a famous piece do carry some unintended contrapuntal ambiguity. One print of Weine’s The Golem (1920) deploys for its climax the fourth movement of Dvorák’s Ninth, such that when the innocent peasant girl unwittingly paralyzes the monster by prying off its Star of David, and thereupon clusters of Jews amass to praise God for granting them salvation, we are unsure if the music expresses stock emotions or is a particularistic appeal to a “new world” that has learned from its anti-Semitic errors. A more sublime example of contrapuntal yet borrowed and unintended ambiguity is offered by an early 1990s62 gay porn video, Say Goodbye.63 As two young lovers orally entertain one another in a shower stall, directly recorded trickles of water and spermatic slurpings are suddenly supplanted not by the groaning synthesizers porn customarily deploys but by a presumably public domain rendition of Khachaturian’s beloved Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia. The fact that Khachaturian’s thrusting trumpet, singing above knotted, breathless strings, no longer represents the Thracian rebel secretly reuniting with his wife, still enslaved at Crassus’s fortress and unknowing of the crucifixion that lay in her beloved’s future, but the penile infatuations of two guys in a motel room, is an economically-motivated incongruity (the director cannot afford original music) so charming and naïve as to shame any who dare craft naiveté purposefully.

Conventionally warped expectations also cloud our judgments of films about music, particularly composer biographies. It is not gratuitously perverse to suggest a composer biography should scrupulously avoid featuring music by that composer, and instead be totally bereft of both diegetic and extradiegetic music (to illustrate the utopian idea that works of art can be (re-)expressed in forms other than the one in which they were created, without recourse to bald reproduction of music), or only feature the music of other composers (to repudiate the illiberal romanticism of singular genius and establish the collective environment whence a composer springs). Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1971) was disastrous not only for Glenda Jackson’s insufferable snippiness, but because Russell insisted on having the most familiar examples of Tchaikovsky’s music shockingly crash and pound at each dramatic cue or rash scene change. Tony Palmer’s only superficially expressionistic Shostakovich bio Testimony (1987, above right) is claustrophobic ideologically as well as visually; by focusing entirely on Shostakovich’s inner world, and by eliminating any trace of other Soviet-era composers on the soundtrack, Palmer succeeds at a narrow, unimaginative psychology while failing at the broader sociology of the Stalinist universe.64 How much more devastating and trenchant would it have been for Palmer to contrapuntally stuff the soundtrack with the bland tunes of Khrennikov and other Stalinist henchmen rather than make a pusillanimous newsreel parody out of Shostakovich’s overly familiar Seventh Symphony, as he does — then we could have an expressionistic, contrapuntal experience more profound that Palmer’s blatant symbolism (a big stone Stalin head tumbling down a dark street after Ben Kingsley’s Shostakovich) and surface plays of light and shadow. We would differently, more multivalently understand Stalinist musical oppression without literal, hand-wringing reiterations of the composer’s music, and could subversively redress the rampant Shostakovich fetishism traceable from Solomon Volkov’s Testimony down to the present day. Similarly, Milos Forman could have transformed Amadeus (1984) from a conventional costumer into a rare work of expressionistic psychology had he included only Salieri’s music on the soundtrack, such that when we see a Mozart opera performed in the film, we would disassociatively hear only Salieri’s music, thus becoming specially privy to his mad, antiheroic subjectivity. This would be a decent musical choice — a psychological expressionism. But to go one degree further, to express not psychology but the attitude of the director, Forman could have used the music of neither composer, or the music of another composer — the incongruous, alternating use of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and The Rake’s Progress, for example, would first crush Mozartian classicism, and then rebuild it in the form of the neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s late opera, as we might see actors perform Don Giovanni but sing The Rake.

When we imagine how preexisting films can be rescored — just as theater directors restage plays — we can better imagine how films yet to be made can express contrapuntal ideas of which we’ve not even dreamed. Because there can be no conclusion to what has not yet begun, I can only leave you with a final thought: the greatest danger posed by experimental discontinuity is not incomprehensible particularity or perverse eccentricity, but unintentional repetition of the known. For example, it would initially seems that an avant-garde production of Rigoletto set in a futuristic, glass-enclosed sewage system is, for its sheer perversity, an exploration of the “unknown known,” just as expressionism is an “unreal reality.” But in a sewage-system Rigoletto we are still supposed to recognize the characters’ emotions in spite of the absurd décor — against all odds, the emotions remain recognizable, universal, and only resonate more fervently behind the incongruous setting, just as the meanings of Browning’s Dracula, buried under years of nostalgia, are supposedly excavated by the fresh incongruity of Glass’s Dracula quartet.

The sewage-system Rigoletto expresses how emotions endure.

Glass’s Dracula quartet expresses how emotions should have been.

The highest expressionism, that of relational incongruity, explains how emotions and perceptions change, how they are ripped from history and remade not in a better form but a new form, such as replacing the Mozart with the Stravinsky.

So how best to overthrow congruity? If my thoughts were inadequate, can you now instruct me?

  1. Examples of Horner’s plagiarisms are innumerable and well-known among film composers and even fans of film music; for starters, the children’s chorus in his score for Glory (1989) shamelessly imitates the “humming chorus” from Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible. []
  2. True, Korngold also did the opposite, cannibalizing his preexisting concert music for films scores, as he did with his music for Robin Hood, based on themes from Sursum Corda, op. 13. But to claim the operas and early chamber music and The Sea Hawk are “different but equal” is to persist in a state of denial. []
  3. Villa Lobos later added music to the Green Mansions score and reissued it as a cantata, Forest of the Amazon. The concert version retains the sheen of Hollywood schmaltz. []
  4. What is Prokofiev’s real influence? A cursory search on “Sergei Prokofiev” on the Internet Movie Database lists him first and foremost as the “composer” of A Christmas Story (1983)! []
  5. David Bordwell’s acclaimed The Cinema of Eisenstein continues this tradition. While Bordwell’s misidentification of Prokofiev’s cantatas Songs of Our Days, op. 76 and Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, op. 74 as “song symphonies” is forgivable, carelessly lumping these two works together, as he does, fails to acknowledge that Songs is a work of Stalinist toadying, and October an outrageous (if straight-faced) political satire banned by Stalin shortly after its composition. Having said that, I myself am no expert on music; to the contrary, it is only worth writing about things one knows little about. []
  6. The Song About Alexander Nevsky reportedly became a popular Russian school ground song shortly after the film’s success. []
  7. Recorded by Yuri Temirkanov for BMG Classics in 1993. []
  8. Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956, 3. []
  9. Meyer, ibid. 4. []
  10. Both Andy and Freedom Day Parade are included in the DVD set “The Wakefield Poole Collection,” which includes Poole’s masterpiece, Bijou (1972, right), whose congruent ambient music is admittedly effective. []
  11. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Case of Wagner. Ed. And trans. Walter Kaufmann. From The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Random House, 1967, 178. []
  12. Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Structure of the Film.” Film Form. Ed. and trans. Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977, 151. []
  13. Television commercials, of course, still frequently depend almost exclusively on music. Every car commercial is basically the same group of shots of vehicles speeding through mountains, merely set to different music and voiceovers. A more trenchant example: a 2004 presidential campaign ad featured only a zoom toward a photograph of George Bush’s head. Without the assistance of the ominous music, one could hardly tell if the ad was pro- or anti-, unless one interprets all slow zooms as sinister. []
  14. See Moritz’s biographical article “Lotte Reiniger” here. November 1, 2004. []
  15. Their results were published in the September, 2003 ed. of The Journal of Neuroscience. []
  16. See Melanie Unseld’s liner notes to Sony Classical’s Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death. Trans. David Feurzeig, 1996. []
  17. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. London: Routledge, 1996 reprinting, 4. []
  18. Adorno, Theodor. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. New York: Continuum, 1989, 221. []
  19. This may be a shortcoming endemic to Eisler, whose allegedly pacifistic, antifascist Deutsche Sinfonie wallows in noisy depictions of militarism. []
  20. Staged by the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation, 2004. []
  21. For the moment, assume this is an intrusion and not the director’s desire; else, our argument ends and cinema is not worth saving. []
  22. The Church is not alone in such folly. Each dynasty of ancient China would approve its own musical scale, and ban all inappropriate or dissonant notes. []
  23. Though beyond the scope of my interests, the standardized audiovisual incongruity of the DVD commentary track is also notable. The least interesting segments of these commentaries are the ones that discuss the film; only when the director, narrating over the most important scene in the film, suddenly recalls how much he enjoys putting diced hardboiled eggs in his potato salad does the commentary become amusing. Similarly, the most disarming moments in Mystery Science Theater 3000 come not when the wisecracking robots administer a particularly pointed criticism, but during the rare times when their boredom gets the better of them, and they blithely ignore the mise-en-abyme film altogether to go about their own business. Their ignorance of the film under critique (yet really beneath it) is far greater criticism than any single barb — the irony has gone from a counterpoint of content to one of form. []
  24. Broadcast August 10, 2004. []
  25. Shouldn’t we have euphemisms for euphemisms, until we’re all eventually talking about nothing? []
  26. Just tonight, November 2, 2004, the night of our presidential election, a journalist on the pro-gay New York public television station WNET (“Channel 13”) declared gay marriage had been banned by voter mandate in many southern states, after which WNET quickly cut to its interlude music, a scene of a cool jazz quartet crooning on New York City streets. []
  27. Funded by “Americans for Balanced Energy Choices” — perhaps they should balance their musical choices as well? []
  28. It is unnecessary to discuss parodic music — the ramifications are obvious enough — though occasionally parody can also confuse the boundary between congruity and incongruity. For example, when The Simpsons recycles Bernard Herrmann’s Cape Fear (1962, right) theme for its “Sideshow Bob” episodes, the parody does not completely erase the score’s admitted chill — the content actually supercedes the form. []
  29. Mixing elements of impressionism and proto-expressionism, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (with a libretto by Béla Balázs) is perhaps an earlier example of this psychologizing, existing somewhere between the worlds of Strauss-Hofmannsthal and Berg-Büchner. []
  30. Adorno, Theodor. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1976, 75. []
  31. Edschmid, Kasimir. Früehe Manifeste: Epochen des Expressionismus, 35. “Das ist das gröesste Geheimnis dieser Kunst: Sie ist ohne gewohnte Psychologie.” “Gewohnte” may be translated as “familiar,” “everyday,” or “normal.” []
  32. Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974. Fifth ed., 70. []
  33. For the Russian self-criticism, see Jay Leyda’s Kino: A History of the Soviet and Russian Film. Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1983. Third ed., 174. The Death Ray was completed in 1924 but not released until 1925. []
  34. Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form. From “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today.” Edited and translated by Jay Leyda. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, 245. []
  35. From “The Structure of the Film.” Ibid, 177. []
  36. Ibid, 153. []
  37. Ibid, 148–49. []
  38. In 1939, Eisenstein was also considering conventionally congruent music for his unrealized film “The Great Fergana Canal,” whose score would have been composed by Prokofiev. In a letter dated July 26, 1939, Eisenstein requests from Prokofiev a score in the style of his Nevsky music, based on “sand” and “water” leitmotifs. Prokofiev never began any work on the score, though Eisenstein’s screenplay was published in a 1939 ed. of the Russian journal Isskustvo kino (The Art of the Cinema). See Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev. Trans. and ed. Harlow Robinson. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998, 210–211. []
  39. While forward-looking, uslovnyi‘s democratic tendency also harkens back to ritualistic mystery plays and collectivistic invocations, which for a young Meyerhold were apotheosized by Scriabin’s unfinished seven-day music ritual Mysterium. “There will not be a single spectator; all will be participants,” said Scriabin. []
  40. The acting company of the Duke of Saxon-Meiningen, founded in 1866, was instrumental in introducing detailed historical realism into late 19th century theater. []
  41. Literally, uslovnyi means a “consensual agreement” — in this case, the agreement between audience and performers that theater is artifice. []
  42. Symons, James M. Meyerhold’s Theater of the Grotesque: The Post-Revolutionary Productions, 1920–1932. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971. Symons also includes a critique of Meyerhold from Marxist Boris Alpers, who finds Meyerhold’s attempts at theatrical dialectics naïve, pessimistic, and ultimately a failure. See pages 160–161. []
  43. See Hoover, Marjorie L. Meyerhold: The Art of Conscious Theater. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974, 93. []
  44. See Hoover, 269. The shooting of blanks into the audience — a favorite game of both surrealists and futurists — was abandoned in the case of The Last Decisive Battle, where presumably audience hysteria reached unreasonable heights. []
  45. Long before Pinter! []
  46. Hoover, ibid. 128. []
  47. Still photos of Dorian Gray do exist. A remarkable still features Dorian (played in male drag by actress V. Ianova) and Lord Henry in a theater box while reflected behind them (almost like an idea balloon in a comic strip) is a cramped image of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. See Hoover, 243. []
  48. Braun, Edward. Meyerhold on the Theater. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969. 190 []
  49. Eisenstein’s feature-length Strike would appear in 1924. []
  50. Meyerhold identifies the four basic characteristics biomechanics has in common with productive yet dance-like manual labor: “1) an absence of superfluous, unproductive movements; 2) rhythm; 3) the correct positioning of the body’s centre [sic] of gravity; 4) stability.” See Braun, 198. For specific examples of biomechanical exercises Meyerhold advocated circa 1922, see Hoover, 311–315, and for samples of Meyerhold’s teaching curricula, see Hoover, 317–319. []
  51. See Braun, 283. []
  52. Vidor discusses this in Richard Schickel’s television documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: King Vidor (1973). []
  53. Hoover, ibid, 195. []
  54. Ibid, 25. []
  55. This is not to say Bubus met with unanimous acclaim; one critic at the time condemned Meyerhold’s “blatant and arbitrary use of music,” and instead lauded the more congruent, symphonic “orchestration” of actors and music in Meyerhold’s Inspector General. Meyerhold’s musical associations could also be amusing but utterly conventional: for his self-explanatorily titled farce 33 Fainting Fits (1935), he instructed Shostakovich to write piercing brass cues to accompany the faintings of male actors, while lush strings signified the collapse of females. Meyerhold’s prescriptions for physical types also betray shocking, retrograde conventionalism: male heroes should have “greater than average height,” male lovers “no excess weight,” the “hero’s friend” should be shorter than the hero, and grotesque appearances should be reserved for comic types. It is unclear to me why Meyerhold insisted on certain types of subversive counterpoint, but would not, say, have a puffy hero or handsome clown. []
  56. Symons, ibid, 119. []
  57. The final shootout of My Darling Clementine (1946) is effective precisely because, like The Birds, it has no music. []
  58. Compare Adrian Marthaler’s short film after Ravel’s Tzigane, which imagines the violin soloist as a proud female in a bullring, subject to the “taming” of a male orchestra conductor cum matador. []
  59. Compare Glass’s rescoring of Dracula to Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 score for Metropolis (1927), which reimagines Lang’s quaintness (at least when Freddie Mercury isn’t singing) as Glass reimagines Browning’s. []
  60. Released in the Kino Video edition of Diary. []
  61. One day I saw Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin (2002), a documentary about prisoners at the Nazi’s “model” concentration camp who, under the Nazis’ watchful if clueless eyes, staged the Verdi Requiem sixteen times. Then, a few hours later, I saw a buffoonish commercial that used the Verdi Requiem to sell SUVs. It is not that tragedy died in the death camps, but that comedy died on Madison Avenue. []
  62. No exact date available. []
  63. The relationship between music and image in pornographic films, which cannot afford well-composed music, is another generic problem. Here, I limit myself to this one example. []
  64. I have discussed the problems in Testimony elsewhere in collaboration with composer and musicologist Dr. Michael Morse. See “Film Review: Testimony” here. []