This is a poster for Fences (film). The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist.

I’ve written about music and film a couple of times before and although Denzel Washington’s latest film Fences is not about music and in fact has very little music in it, walking out of the cinema I thought it was an experience I’d like to share. Music has a role in the film as well, but it was the experience of watching this film in a sold out hall that I’d like to focus on here. This is also why I’ve included this post in the Gigs category.

One of the scenes, that for me came closest to an experience I usually have in concerts, didn’t have music playing at all. The film, however, is a good example of effective use of music in ways that serve the story – or are a part of it. But most of all I was reminded that watching a film in cinema is a social event, however little social interaction there might be – which is often preferable.

Fences is a story of a working class African American family trying to get by the best they can in a 1950’s post second World War but pre-Civil Rights Era suburban town. The main character is a man played by Denzel Washington who’s taking his role as the head of his family very seriously but, although he loves his family, he thinks it’s enough – or doesn’t know better than – to show it by providing them with material well-being to the best of his abilities.

Music first enters the story as the main character Troy’s eldest son walks in the house to borrow money. The son is trying to make a living as a musician and his father doesn’t approve. Although, as discussed before, music has provided professional opportunities to many African Americans, it’s been an uncertain bread bringer at bes and not a much more respected profession African Americans than it has in the mainstream society.

Watching together – Silence

As said, most of the film doesn’t have music at all. The “musical” experience I mentioned above was a moment in the scene, a part of which you can see in the trailer above, in which Troy is telling some very unpleasant news to his wife (I don’t want to spoil this for those who haven’t seen the film yet). Once he’s spilled out the words there’s a long silences as the words sink in, as much for the wife hearing the news, Troy waiting for her reaction and the audience watching the drama.

This intense moment of silence reminded me of my favourite moments in concerts; the endings of a performance where the whole hall – or whatever performance space – in intense stillness hangs on the last sounds as they fade away. In such moments one can kind of feel time. Every passing second, as the sounds fade, we come to terms with the performance we’ve witnessed and (hopefully) appreciate the efforts the artists have made to create it for us. In the scene of Fences I described above, the tension of between the characters was palpable as the sold out hall of around 100 people were sitting in silence and living the moment with the characters on the screen.

Like all performances, such moments are unique. Although this film is exactly the same every time it’s projected, the audiences are different. I’ve noticed it lately to be quite rare that audiences have the patience to keep quite in such moments. This can be also heard in the clip below (at 5’20”) where after the solo performance of Lars Danielsson starts to clap while the last notes are still ringing.

Music in storytelling

In Fences, music proper only enters the story after the above described scene; after the story takes a turn in the Golden Cut.  We see Troy in blue thoughts at the bar while Dinah Washington sings You Don’t Know What Love Is (“until you’ve learned the meaning of the Blues”) in the background. Washington’s bluesy interpretation is a great choice, but also realistic as a contemporary of the story.

This scene also introduces Troy singing an old folk song Old Blue to himself, which helps bring closure to his relation to his youngest son in the end of the film. Again, I don’t want to disclose too much of the story not to spoil it for the “uninitiated” 😉

Troy sings Old Blue as an unaccompanied Blues, whereas all the versions I could find of it are in more country or American folk style. In Troy’s Blues rendition the dog of the story seems to be himself, which in the end his youngest son also realises helping him to make peace with his father.

Thus, in Fences we have music being part of the story – as it is part of life – in good and in (perceived) bad as well as accompanying life. Most impressive for me, however, was the performative similarity of the experience of that intense silence in the cinema. It takes a strong performance to capture an audience in a way that it stays silent for longer than 5 seconds and Fences, at least last night, it worked.

With various streaming services gaining popularity among music and film lovers alike, I find it good to keep in mind that there’s more to listening to music and watching films together as part of an audience, than individual pleasure of listening and watching art being performed while sitting on the coach at home and/or with headphones on. But more about this another time. While I think music will always be performed, with films it’s a bit different and we’ll have to see how things develop.

Meanwhile, go to movies! 😀

Music and film – Part II

Story of Floating Weeds at Film Museum EYE, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s cultural life has once again offered something quite thought provoking and of course I’d like to share the products of my grey cells with you. I’ve discussed music and/in film here already earlier but this latest experience provides yet another angle to the topic.

The Amsterdam film museum Eye presented the Japanese silent film The Story of Floating Weeds (Ukikusa monogatari) from 1934 with introduction and piano accompaniment by Martin de Ruiter and voice acting (benshi) by Ichiro Kataoka.

“Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives,” has long been a favored metaphor in Japanese prose and poetry. Donald Richie

The film tells a story of a man leading a theatre troupe and being torn between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of his nomadic profession. For a more elaborate plot description and analysis, see this blog text on Silent Volume.

Silent film in Japan

In the introduction to the cinema concert Mr de Ruiter told us that in Japan silent films were made considerably longer than in the US and Europe. Whereas in the US the last silent films where made in the end of 1920s and e.g. in the Netherlands Philips was able to equip the Dutch cinemas with sound systems very quickly in the 1930s, in Japan silent films were made until the 1940s.

It is also notable that the Japanese silent film making owed much to the Noh theatre tradition.  The director of the afternoon’s film Yasujiro Ozu bowed to the old tradition by using a rather stationary camera positioning, which according to David Bordwell is Ozu’s stylistic trademark. There were very few scenes where the camera would actually follow a person or close up. I’m not an expert here but seems to me that Ozu’s work belongs to the Pure Film Movement of early Japanese cinema.

Here’s a short clip from the film to give you a better idea what I’m talking about here.

In addition to being stationary and showing mostly the whole set of a scene, Ozu’s style of shooting also viewed the actor from a point of view similar to that of a theatre audience; from slightly below, always showing the full bodies of the actors – including their geta, Japanese version of flip-flops. In the few close-ups at the most dramatic moments the actors didn’t show there emotions so much on there faces as with their hands and other bodily gestures. There was a lot of scratching and touching different body parts as a reaction to e. g. an accusation or embarrassment.

Picture from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/78/Geta.JPG/200px-Geta.JPG
A pair of geta

This, in my view, is in line with the above-mentioned debt to the Noh theatre in which the actors wore masks.

Picture from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/cc/The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_%22Ko-jo%22_Noh_Theater_mask.jpg/170px-The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_%22Ko-jo%22_Noh_Theater_mask.jpg
A “Ko-jo” (old man) mask used in Noh theatre; in the collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Dramatising a story

Old films, let alone films from other cultures, tend to use different strategies and methods to dramatise their stories. Most notably there are differences in the amount of time taken and details used to build up the story line and highlight the dramatic climaxes.

In this cinema concert, however, the drama began from the setting you see in the picture on the top: An empty screen and empty piano chair. Outside of the picture on the left there’s also a speakers stand for the voice actor. In other words, the setting was full of potential but provided few cues as to what was to come – which of course is the case in most performances.

Not being at all familiar with Japanese silent film before this experience, I could only expect what I had read in the short description on the EYE website.

Power of silence

I couldn’t find any information about the piano music Mr de Ruiter played that night, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t the same composition heard on the clip above.  Whereas the music of this clip sounds like quite typical late Romantic piano music (not quite my cup of tea so I can’t name the composition), the music Mr de Ruiter played was more serene, even abstract at times, and used a lot of pentatonic scales giving it an “Eastern” flavour.

Although Mr de Ruiter has composed music for silent films and is the programmer for “silent film and live music” at the EYE, I couldn’t find confirmation to whether he had actually composed the music we heard that afternoon.

One of the most dramatic moments in The Story of Floating Weeds was when the troupe was sitting together for the last time and began singing, trying to enjoy this last moment together. The drama of the moment was highlighted – one might even say created –  by the pause in the piano accompaniment. This left us watching the silent singing and hand clapping of the people on the screen – and indeed for one of them it was too much and he broke off crying.

I found that a very strong moment with much more profound effect as in your standard Hollywood build-up with more and more action and louder music/sound effects. It was also a bold move from the composer. The music until then – and after this scene – was indeed more like an accompaniment; moving with the action on the screen, sort of mimicking it.

By dropping the accompaniment out when the people on the screen were singing, music – for a moment – gained agency in the dramatisation of the story. The sudden absence of the music, just when the people were singing and in need of accompaniment, turned our focus on the (absence of) music as well as on the dramatic moment; the the film characters were forcing themselves to sing, although most of them felt like crying. One could also say that music assumed a personage of its own as one of the singers on the screen who – like one of the figures actually did – couldn’t go on singing but had to break off.

Music and Film


I’ve been lately intrigued by the different ways in which music is used in films and would like to share some of my thoughts in light of a few specific examples.

Most films and tv series have a theme song or music in the beginning and end, but there are others, mostly outside or in the margins of the mainstream films, in which music is used very sparsely. In many films music is also participating in the storytelling, or even has its own agency. Such techniques were already perfected by Richard Wagner with his aspiration for “Gesamtkunstwerk”; an artwork where all the artistic elements – music, poetry, acting, staging, lighting, etc. – serve more or less equally in the telling of the story. Some film composers, such as John Williams (e.g. Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potter), have taken their cue from Wagner and Wagnerian devices such as leitmotifs can be found in their works.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, without the preceding Ligeti piece.

The director Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, chose to use mainly existing compositions in his films. While there may have been an economical motivation for this practice at some point of Kubrick’s career, the artistic rationale for his choices of music are intriguing. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) begins with a fragment (ca 3 min) of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères while displaying a blank screen. This is followed by the “Sunrise” fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, beginning the composition’s journey towards one of the most used pieces of music in films up to the point of being a cliché. Both compositions are used in the film as leitmotifs. There juxtaposition, however, add another layer of reference to the film – with a real life element. While Ligeti admired Kubrick’s work, he wasn’t fond of being placed in such proximity with 19th century composers (Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau is played during a scenes picturing a moonwalk and docking to a space station), nor the fact that Kubrick failed to obtain the rights for using Ligeti’s music in the film.

The space station docking scene with Strauss’ An der schönen blauen Donau. I love the way he takes his time with this scene. Something you don’t see in contemporary films very often.

These juxtapositions, however, are very powerful in anchoring the film’s depictions of future to the cultural heritage of the viewer (in a rather western-centric manner), but also supporting the main storyline of human evolution. Music in this film is also able to draw lines between the distant moments in the human evolution the film portrays and centre them to the present.

A Clockwork Orange

Poster of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwor Orange from 1971.
Poster of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange from 1971.

In A Clockwork Orange (1971, also by Kubrick) music has an important agency. (Spoiler alert: The end of the film is revealed.) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the culmination of symphonic composition, plays an important role as part of the “cure” of the overly violent main protagonist. The Hollywood hit Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is sung by the protagonist while performing his violent acts.

The Singin’ in the Rain scene from A Clockwork Orange.

While this juxtaposition of a popular, happy song from a family film and extreme violence is certainly effective in underlining the madness of the protagonist, one could also argue that the music in this film adds another dimension to the story about a man who doesn’t fit into the society (to put it mildly). Musically, the film would seem to claim that popular culture is the problem and the Classical music and culture (including science) are the solution, or “cure” – for the protagonist in a very concrete way. But this “cure” is applied by re-conditioning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (fourth movement), which the main protagonist also listened quite voluntarily earlier in the film, through the Ludovico Technique. In fact, it is his keenness on music – and “Ludwig van” particularly – that “cures” him as he is forced to witness the violation of this art in the test.

The Ludovico Technique scene from A Clockwork Orange.

So the question remains, whether the music used in this film is a statement of the particular kinds of music and their place/role/status in the society or is that relation arbitrary in the overall scheme of the film to portray the fringes of our social norms? In short, nothing in Clockwork Orange is quite what it seems and I’d recommend you to not only watch it, if you already haven’t (and if you can stomach it), but also to do some reading on the contradictory reception of this film. My apologies for spoiling the end here, but the film is more about the process the main protagonist goes through rather than the end result, in my view.

Deux jours, une nuit

As the icing on the cake as well as a form of catharsis, two exquisite musical interludes drift into the dialogue-fuelled effort as a way of re-setting the momentum. Sarah Ward (ArtsHub.com)

While Kubrick was certainly aware of the interpretative layers music was adding to his works, and the extent to which they were in his control, many film makers – mainly outside of Hollywood – seem to be rather cautious in their use of music. I recently saw Deux jours, une nuit (2014) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which is a great example of this. First, there’s no music during the opening or closing credits. In fact, the film has music in only two scenes, both of which happen in a car and the music is played by the protagonists through the car stereo. Music in this film is part of the storytelling, but it’s not telling the story but rather part of the story, part of the protagonists’ life:   In the first scene, the husband of the main protagonist plays music from the car stereo while they’re driving, but the main protagonist asks him to turn it off as in her current mental state she cannot handle it. On the other scene there’s a third person in the card as well, things are looking promising and Van Morrison’s Gloria from the radio provides them with an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate the moment.

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