by JAMES MONACO
Film's relationship with music is altogether more complex. Until the development of the recording arts, music held a unique position in the community of arts. It was the only art in which time played a central role. Novels and theater exist in time, it is true, but the observer controls the "time" of a novel and, as important as rhythms are in the performing arts, they are not strictly controlled. A playwright or director can indicate pauses, but these are generally speaking only the crudest of time signatures. Music, the most abstract of arts, demands precise control of time and depends on it.
If melody is the narrative facet of music, and rhythm the unique, temporal element, then harmony may be the synthesis of the two. Our system of musical notation indicates this relationship. Three notes read from left to right form a melody. When they are set in the framework of a time signature, rhythms are overlaid on the melody. When we rearrange them vertically, however, harmony is the result.
Painting can set up harmonies and counterpoint both within a picture and between pictures, but there is no time element. Drama occasionally experiments with counterpoint--Eugene Ionesco's doubled dialogues are a good example— but only for minor effects. Music, however, makes a lot of interesting art out of the relationship between "horizontal" lines of melody, set in rhythms, and "vertical" sets of harmonies.
(No, I'm not sure how to fit Rap, or Hip-Hop, into this equation. While Rap grows out of a centuries-old and fertile tradition of spoken rhythmic art, and while it was probably the most innovative artform of the 1990s, its eschewal of both melody and harmony suggests that it is "music" only because it is distributed on CDs and appears on MTV. Maybe Rap makes the point that the one essential element of music is rhythm. Perhaps we should consider Rap, at least in one sense, as the last gasp of abstraction—ironically, the only truly popular expression of the avant-garde abstractionist tendency. Or maybe it's enough to think of Rap as the musicalization of poetry: "All art aspires to the condition of music"—and to its market.)
Abstractly, film offers the same possibilities of rhythm, melody, and harmony as music. The mechanical nature of the film medium allows strict control of the time line: narrative "melodies" can now be controlled precisely. In the frame, events and images can be counterpoised harmonically. Filmmakers began experimenting with the musical potential of the new art very early on. Ever since Rene Clair's Entr'acte (1924) and Fernand Leger's Ballet Mecanique (1924-25), in fact, abstract or "avant-garde" film has depended on musical theory for much of its effect. Even before sound, filmmakers had begun to work closely with musicians. Hans Richter's Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast, 1928) had a score by Hindemith, played live. Walter Ruttmann's Berlin—Symphony of a City (1927) had a live symphonic score as well.
Music had quickly become an integral part of the film experience; silent films were normally "performed" with live music. Moreover, the innovative filmmakers of the silent period were already discovering the musical potential of the image itself. By the late 1930s Sergei Eisenstein, for his film Alexander Nevsky, constructed an elaborate scheme to correlate the visual images with the score by the noted composer Prokofiev. In this film as in a number of others, such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), music often leads, determining images.
Because film is projected normally at a rate of twenty-four frames per second, the filmmaker has even more precise control over rhythms than the musician.
The shortest semihemidemiquaver that could be written in the Western system of notation would last 1/32 of a second—but it would be impossible to play live notes at that rate. The 1/24 of a second unit, which is the lowest common denominator of film, effectively exceeds the quickest rhythms of performed Western music. The most sophisticated rhythms in music, the Indian tals, approach the basic unit of film rhythm as an upper limit.
We are ignoring, of course, music that is produced mechanically or electronically. Even before systems of sound recording had matured, the player piano offered an opportunity to musicians to experiment with rhythmic systems that were impossible for humans to perform. Conlon Nancarrow's "Studies for Player Piano" (the earliest dating from 1948) were interesting explorations of these possibilities.
Film thus utilizes a set of musical concepts expressed in visual terms: melody, harmony, and rhythm are long-established values in film art. Although film itself has had a strong economic impact on music, providing a major market for musicians, it has had no particularly strong esthetic effect on music. The techniques of sound recording, however, have revolutionized the older art. The influence of the new technology was felt in two waves.
The invention of the phonograph in 1877 radically altered the dissemination of music. No longer was it necessary to attend a performance, a privilege that was, over the centuries, limited to a very small elite. Bach's Goldberg Variations, written as bedtime music for a single wealthy individual, Count Kaiserling, former Russian ambassador at the court of the Elector of Saxony, to be played by his personal harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, were now accessible to millions of people who couldn't afford private musicians on twenty-four-hour call.
Recordings and, later, radio broadcasts quickly became powerful pervasive media for the dissemination of music, parallel with performance but superseding it. This had just as profound an effect on the nature of the art of music as the invention of both movable type and the printing press had on literature. The technology quickly dominated the art.
Just as the invention of movable type had opened up literature to the masses, so recordings democratized music. The historical significance cannot be underestimated. But there was a negative aspect to the mechanical reproduction of music, too. Folk music, the art people created for themselves in the absence of professional musicians, was greatly attenuated. In the end, this was a small price to pay for the vast new channels of dissemination and, in fact, the new musical literacy that recordings helped to create later redounded to the benefit of the popular musical arts, which have in the twentieth century become the focal point of the musical world as they never were in earlier times.
While the invention of the phonograph had a profound sociological effect on music, it had a very minor technical effect. There were good technological reasons for this, having to do with the limitations of Edison's system, which will be discussed in the next chapter. As a result, it was not until the late 1940s and early 1950s—when magnetic tape began to replace the phonograph record as the main means of recording, and electrical transcription yielded to electronic methods— that music technique came under the influence of the recording arts.
Again, the effect was revolutionary. Musicians had been experimenting with electronic instruments for years before the development of magnetic tape, but they were still bound by the limits of performance. Tape freed them, and allowed the possibility of editing music. The film soundtrack, which was optical rather than magnetic, had predated tape by twenty years, but in the context of film it had always been relegated to a supporting role; it was never an independent medium.
Once tape entered the recording studio, sound recording was no longer simply a means of preserving and disseminating a performance; it now became a main focus of creativity. Recording is now so much an integral part of the creation of music that even popular music (to say nothing of avant-garde and elite music) has become since the early fifties a creature of the recording studio rather than performance. The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), a milestone in the development of the practical recording arts, was not reproducible in performance. There had been many earlier examples of this shift of focus, dating back at least as early as the popular records of Les Paul and Mary Ford in the early fifties, but the Beatles' record is generally regarded as the coming of age of recording as one of the primary creative musical forces.
The balance has altered so radically now that "performances" of popular music (to say nothing of avant-garde performances) often integrate recordings, and much music simply can't be performed at all live. If the techniques of visual recording had had as great an effect on theater, then a standard popular theatrical performance today would consist in large part of film, and avant-garde theater would consist almost entirely of film!
Clearly, the relationship between sound recording and the musical arts is very complex. We have described only the bare outlines of the new dialectic here. It may be most significant that, unlike the technique of image recording, the technique of sound recording was quickly integrated with the art of music. Film was seen from the very beginning as a separate art from theater and painting and the novel; but sound recording even today is still subsumed under the category of music.
Partially, this is the result of the mode of recording—discs—that pertained until the 1960s. Unlike film, discs could simply record and reproduce their material, not re-create it. But the development of tape and electronic technology added an element of creativity to sound recording. If anything, sound recording is now more flexible and sophisticated than image recording. It may be only a matter of time before sound recording is seen as a separate art. If radio had survived the invention of television, this would have happened sooner, but coincidentally, just as sound recording was emerging as an art in its own right around 1950, radio art was being submerged by television. It is only now beginning to recover its flexibility.
Significantly, sound recording as an integral component of cinema also languished during those years and has itself only recently begun to reemerge. Ideally, sound should be the equal of image in the cinematic equation, not subservient, as it is now. In short, film has only begun to respond to the influence of the art of music.
James Monaco/ HOW TO READ A FILM/ The World of Movies, Media, and Multimedia (Language, History, Theory)
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 2000