Blog / Richard Tognetti on Cinemusica

Richard Tognetti on Cinemusica

Posted on 23 Mar 2016 by Leo Messias

‘The eye takes a person into the world. The ear brings the world into a human being.’

From the inception of motion pictures when the Lumière Brothers, Auguste and Louis, premiered Workers Leaving at the Lumière Factory in December 1895, music has been integral to movies. Camille Saint-Saëns is believed to have been the first composer ever to write an original film score, for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise – an 18-minute silent movie directed by André Calmettes and Charles Le Bargy and written by Henri Lavedan.


But it wasn’t until 1933 and the proliferation of ‘talkies’ when Max Steiner wrote the score to King Kong that music in film became a thing. Film composers began to use the very classical scoring technique of the ‘leitmotif’ to signify particular characters or events on the screen. The ubiquity of Wagner as the model for movie composers exists even today, particularly in mega blockbusters where it is de rigueur to have these musical signposts to announce who is on the screen and if they are good or bad or somewhere in between.


A successful musical score will manipulate how we feel about the characters in a movie, what we think of the situation they are in, the importance of the scene in relation to others in the film, the progress of the story, etc: in short, the music creates mood. Take for example the shower scene from Psycho. Would this scene yield the same emotional response were it to be accompanied by, say the Blue Danube waltz? I think not. The sheer psychic terror of Janet Leigh in the shower, desperately struggling with her assailant, lives on, forever.


Martin Scorcese, who used music by Ligeti, Penderecki, Feldman, Cage, Schnittke, Harrison, Adams and Scelsi for Shutter Island said: ‘A lot of music is used in movies today just to establish a time and a place and I think that is lazy…I want to take advantage of the emotional impact of music.’

Both Bernard Herrmann and Thomas Newman’s music expertly take advantage of music’s expressive impact. They both convey atmosphere and fleeting emotions. There is nothing leitmotivic about their approach to scoring. Newman’s elliptical approach to scoring is used to stunning effect in American Beauty, in its searing portrayal of suburbia. And Herrmann seeks to amplify the emotional punch of Psycho with his throbbing score for strings. Herrmann once said that Hitchcock ‘only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him.’ And speaking directly on this film, Hitchcock agreed: ‘33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.’

I have a friend who is a passionate music lover tell me about his experience with Bartók. He initially found his music inscrutable, impenetrable perhaps, and emotionally perplexing. Then he saw The Shining, and something was unlocked on a very visceral level. And it didn’t just open up Music for strings, but all of Bartók’s oeuvre. The visual representation of the music drew it into sharp focus. These sorts of associations enrich the listening experience.


Not all of the music on this program was used in films – Xenakis’ Psappha was used in a short film called Orson Welles’s the Other Side of the Wind: A Film by Orson Welles written and directed by Felix Else, but I’m not sure how widespread its box office release was…

There could be some benefit to visual aids in understanding Xenakis’ music. His music has been described as desensitised – a criticism he disputed: ‘In my music there is all the agony of my youth, of the resistance…From this was born my conception of the massing of sound events.’

Timothy Constable has written the eponymous work for this tour. His Cinemusica seeks to link some of the works, particularly the Newman and Bartók, both of which feature the ACO and Synergy together. Tim said that there are not many pieces out there for this combination of instruments, especially that ‘feature both instrumental ensembles equally’. It has been 30 years since these two groups have collaborated and Tim has composed a fantastically cinematic work to celebrate this reunion.

In the 1950s, there was a movement to exclude music from films. The argument was that there’s no soundtrack to everyday existence. This idea resurfaced again with the Dogma films, and a few others, most notably the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men – a filmic triumph with its sparse use of music, relying instead on the menace of Chigurh to create terror.

But this is the exception not the rule. Music conspires with film in the best possible way. Bernard Herrmann described this union:

‘I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.’