On Movie Soundtracks: Shutter Island, temp tracks & original scores

During a semester several different strands come into thought and only a few develop to become actual exam papers. Some disappear back into obscurer corners of the mind only to reappear at a later point. Some become blog posts, like this one.

It all began when I saw Scorsese's Shutter Island again. The movie is good but not great. It has touches of classic Scorsese and a distinctly moody atmosphere though I'm not sure the story adds up to very much.

Yet the soundtrack once again stood out as being good, i.e. it works quite well within the movie. I remember discussing the soundtrack with friends both online and IRL when the movie was in theaters. Everyone agreed that it was a brilliant soundtrack and there was more than one occasion where comparisons were made to the music of Bernard Hermann, the film composer who was responsible for all the famous soundtracks in Hitchcock's movies (some famous examples are Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and "sound design" in Birds).
Bernard Hermann & Alfred Hitchcock
I didn't give it much thought after my initial viewing and just presumed that the Shutter Island soundtrack was an original soundtrack written especially for the film and deliberately intended to reference classic mid-20th century thriller film scores.

Which is why it was quite interesting to note that this was not the case; the entire soundtrack is actually made up of previously recorded material, in this case a selection of 20th century modern classical pieces selected by long-term Scorsese collaborator Robbie Robertson (of The Band fame, gloriously documented in Scorsese's 70's concert film The Last Waltz).

Featured on the Shutter Island soundtrack are such modernist and avantgarde heavyweights as Krzysztof Penderecki, John Cage, György Ligeti and Morton Feldman as well as minimalism/post-minimalism associated composers Ingram Marshall, John Adams and Brian Eno.
Krzysztof Penderecki 1933-
A leitmotif in the movie is Passacaglia - Allegro Moderato, the 4th movement from Penderecki's 3rd Symphony. It is heard the first time when Daniels and Aule are driven from the island harbor up to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane and recurs a couple of times during the movie to convey feelings of ominous foreboding - a general theme in the entire movie actually, but this particular piece adds a certain suspense to the proceedings:

When listening closer to the movement it is quite easy to see why it fits so well within a suspenseful, ominous cinematic context; eight note D's are repeated in the low strings and create an ostinato that dominates the majority of the movement. Around 0:35 low register horns are introduced that shift chromatically between E flat and D, a minor second interval that to my ears creates a sense of tension and claustrophobia.

At 1:26 the horns begin to play a repeated A flat note that serves as counterpoint to the eight note D's of the strings. The interval between these two notes - from the tonic to the diminished dominant - is known as tritone/Diabolus in Musica. It is one of the oldest tropes used in western classical music to convey things eerie and sinister. A famous heavy rock version of the tritonus interval is the guitar riff in "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath.
Tritone interval between F and B. A similiar thing has happened to the 13th century hymn "Dies Irae" which has found cinematic use as foreboding signifier in movies such as Metropolis, Day of Wrath and The Shining. I blogged about it here.
The interplay between the different elements of  Penderecki's Passacaglia gradually builds and modulates in a crescendo as Penderecki adds on more voices, and after a climax things return to the repeated eight note D's from the beginning. Dramatic stuff.
It must be said that Robertson and others involved in editing and placement of music in Shutter Island did a good job, but still; even on its own it's remarkable how much this piece sounds like soundtrack music!

The similarities between 20th century art music and film scores from the same era are quite interesting. I don't know any single explanation as to why these similarities occur. One historical reason I've heard mentioned is the fact that a lot of Eastern European and Jewish composers fled to the US during the 2nd World War and quite a few of them were hired as soundtrack composers.

The above mentioned Bernard Herrmann appears to be a key figure in this development. Another one is Leonard Rosenman who was a pupil of Arnold Schönberg and wrote the soundtrack to The Cobweb (1955) which is believed to be the first major Hollywood soundtrack to "draw heavily" from the twelve-tone technique most closely associated with Schönberg.

Shutter Island is obviously not the first time that pre-recorded 20th century art music is being used extensively in a movie. A notable previous example is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack album cover
In this case an original score was actually composed by famed soundtrack composer Alex North - along with Herrmann and Rosenman he's also a notable figure in making 20th century soundtracks sound like the 20th century - but Kubrick ended up ditching the North score in favor of the temp tracks he'd been using while working on the film. "Temp tracks" (temporary tracks) are tracks that directors use while filming and editing a movie in order to guide the emotional and musical content of various scenes.

Alex North was not a nobody in the world of film scores and Kubrick had already commissioned a score from him, so it took some guts and dedication to abandon it in favor of the temp tracks. The temp tracks used were a selection of fairly traditional classical pieces (eg. Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, An der schönen Blauen Donau by Johann Strauss) along with four modernist classical pieces by Györgi Ligeti (who also features on the aforementioned Shutter Island soundtrack with the piece Lontano). Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra famously and gloriously accompanies the opening credits:

It's interesting to note that Richard Strauss and his Also Sprach Zarathustra tone poem were largely unknown to the general public before 2001: A Space Odyssey made such definitive use of the piece.  

Another point that people tend to forget is that though the clip above does contain the opening credits of the movie, it is not the actual opening scene: the movie opens with a black screen while an excerpt from Ligeti's Atmosphéres (1961) is audible. This is the actual opening scene of the movie and only afterwards do we see the MGM logo and then the opening credits. The black screen accompanied by Atmosphéres reappears after the "Intermission" in the middle of the movie and the piece also appears during the psychedelic "hyper space" wormhole sequence near the end of the movie.

This work is representative of Ligeti's quite unique micropolyphonic cluster chord compositional style where conventional melody, harmony and rhythm are eschewed in favor of timbre, texture and slowly moving masses of sound. The individual voices are kind of "lost" in a dense, indecipherable web of texture. Quite fascinating music that to my ears predates a lot of electronic and ambient music.

Ligeti was in fact inspired to compose in this way during his time at the Electronische musik studio in Cologne, Germany in the late fifties where the hands-on approach to working with tape machines etc. provided him with a more material, tactile understanding of music (as opposed to the more abstract "music is what is notated on a score"-understanding of earlier times).
Gyorgi Ligeti (1923-2006)
All the scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey featuring the mysterious monolith are accompanied by "Kyrie", the 2nd movement from Ligeti's Requiem (1965). "Kyrie" thus acts as a leitmotif throughout the movie. Some readings of the use of this movement in the movie even speculate that it is to be seen as a piece of diegetic music (as opposed to non-diegetic), i.e. the "Kyrie" voices are actually part of the narrative - emitting from the monolith itself! - and thus should not be understood as merely being part of the soundtrack.

No matter what reading one prefers in regard to it being digetic or non-diegetic, it can be said that "Kyrie" does represent something alien and otherwordly in the context of the movie. The fact that Ligeti uses his micropolyphony on human voices creates a strange "discrepancy" between the familiar and the unfamiliar; human voices are conveying something that appears deeply unhuman, or at least strange to our conventional definitions of human.

Interestingly this music is tied to the monolith: an object that represents an alien and/or super intelligence of some sort. The movie's themes of artificial intelligence, alien intelligence and the head-on journey into the unknown go well with this music. And though Shutter Island is a lesser film, it touches upon similar themes of the unknown, the strange, that which is immediately beyond perception. It's interesting to note that modernist music still manages to evoke such themes and emotions in us as listeners. Or maybe it's the other way around: we keep associating modernist music with these things.

Last Friday, my girlfriend and I and some friends of ours had the pleasure of hearing a live performance of Ligeti's Atmosphéres at Koncerthuset here in Copenhagen. The Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle were in town for the first time in 47 years and their concert began with an incredible performance of the piece. I'm used to listening to it through headphones at home and never thought I would have the chance to hear it live. Apart from the occasional audience cough (!) it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that underlined for me that this music remains deeply unique.

"...Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category. Just as it cannot be reduced to abstract form, with equal necessity it must turn its back on conventional surface coherence, the appearance of harmony, the order corroborated merely by replication."
-Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia (1951), p. 218.

Fox, Margalit. 2008. "Obituaries - Leonard Rosenman, 83, Composer for Films", The New York Times  

Ligeti, György. 1976. “Elektronmusikkens betydning for mine værker” in Dansk Musik Tidskrift, Volume 51, 1976-77  

Paulus, Irena. 2009. "Stanley Kubrick's Revolution in the Usage of Film Music: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)", International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jun., 2009), pp. 99-127

Robertson, Robbie (ed.) et al. 2010. Shutter Island: Music From The Motion Picture, Rhino Records

Sørensen, Søren Møller. 2010. “Klang in der Lebenswelt. Vom avantgardistischen Diskurs über das soziale Interventionspotential von Muzik und Klangkunst” in Ausweitung der Kunstzone – Interart Studies –Neue Perspektiven der Kunstwissenschaften, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag s. 143-164