Sound, imagery inextricably linked

I listen to music cinematically. I think about music and how it would make me feel when it’s put to an image, a moving image, and I love it — Walton Goggins

In the last three or four weeks, I’ve been obsessed with a musical mash-up between Blondie (Heart of Glass) and Philip Glass (Violin Concerto: II) which was created by Daft Beatles a few years ago. Titled Heart of Glass (Crabtree remix), I never knew this was a mash-up I needed in my life and on my writing playlist.

The first time I heard the song was on the July 11 broadcast of CBC’s q with guest host Ali Hassan. Hassan was interviewing Michael Perlmutter, the music supervisor for the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. They were discussing the rise of the music supervisor and how the Emmys finally created a category for outstanding music supervision.

Side note: Perlmutter didn’t make the cut for that category. Bummer.

Second side note: the job of music supervisor or music editor for a film or TV series fascinates me to no end. Soundscapes are just as important as the visuals and when you have a perfect marriage between the two, it is absolutely unforgettable.

The TV series Person of Interest was the first show I became aware of the music they used in their episodes. They used music by artists such as Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, The Kills and Philip Glass for two or three key scenes in every episode during the five seasons that they ran. It was smart use of sound and visuals to manipulate the viewer into feeling a certain way about a situation or one of the characters. Although the show probably paid a pretty sum to use the music of these artists, the real star, musically-speaking, was music composer Ramin Djawadi who created the score for the series. This is where I discovered his music and have remained an ardent fan of his work. The leitmotifs he created for the series were sublime. Mind you, his work for Game of Thrones is nothing to sneeze at either. Light of the Seven will always be one of my favourite works from Djawadi.

Watching this series made me think about the marriage between sound and imagery. It also made me want to talk to the show’s music supervisor, Djawadi and the show’s producers about their views on music and its role in visual storytelling. I just wanted to pick their brains. It would have been an eye-opening experience.

Anyway, back to Perlmutter and his CBC q interview. Assuming I heard the man correctly, the show submitted its third episode for Emmy consideration which featured the Daft Beatles mash-up. Then they played the song without naming it. Well, I nearly fell over when I heard the piece. I love Blondie. I love Debbie Harry. And I have an ever-growing appreciation for Philip Glass. Holy crap. Who knew these two artists could be mashed up like that and sound so sublime. I didn’t. And had I been PVRing The Handmaid’s Tale I would have discovered this little bit of aural heaven a lot sooner.

Of course, it’s a piece of music that fits perfectly with my current writing playlist. The piece is visually and emotionally evocative. It inspires my characters. It sets the right tone for them in some of the scenes I plan to write. It sets the wheels in motion.

My playlist is forever evolving and being fine-tuned as I work on the second novel. What the playlist looked like at the beginning of the writing process will look almost completely different by the time the first draft of the book is finished. What will remain are the core pieces that represent the characters and their relationships to each other.

Music and the writing process are inextricably linked.

I’m not sure when I started listening to music cinematically. I probably started when I was a teenager. Bits and pieces of images that would pop into my head because the music I was listening to at the time demanded it. I’ve always believed in the power of combining music and imagery, be it still or moving. But not everything I hear is cinematic. The pieces of music my brain registers as cinematic share some sort of intangible quality. I know what some of the commonalities are but it doesn’t completely explain the reason they affect me the way they do.

To be honest, I’m not all that interested in over-analyzing it. I go by gut instinct when it comes to music.

And now, I’m off to obsess over music and story.

More than just background noise

Where words leave off, music begins — Heinrich Heine

Last month, flying back home from Vancouver, I re-watched the last three episodes of Broadchurch on the in-flight entertainment system. I had read the buzz surrounding the eight-episode British crime drama series and had watched it when it first aired in Canada back in August.

The premise seemed simple enough. But that was the only thing that was simple. The whodunit storyline kept me guessing right to the very end. There were so many things I was taken with — the cinematography, the acting and the marriage of the scenes with a soul-stirring, melancholic and evocative music score by Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and record producer Ólafur Arnalds.

The marriage between music and TV shows and film has always fascinated me. The purpose of a music score or soundtrack is to enhance a scene and evoke emotions in the viewer, to bring the viewer further into the storyline. Sure, it’s pure manipulation on the part of the director, the music composer and the music editor, but it’s manipulation that is welcomed by the viewer, especially when it’s done well.

In my humble opinion, Broadchurch is an excellent example of effective use of music in a TV drama series. The music is an extension of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. It is also the aural manifestation of the setting of the story. Hearing the music makes you think of Broadchurch, brings you back to Broadchurch.

Arnalds’ aptly named Main Theme is my favourite score from the soundtrack. Ambient/electronica sounds and a cello at the start of the piece makes way for the achingly simple minor third of D-sharp and F-sharp on the piano. Layer those notes with a B and A-sharp/B-flat. Those notes make up the simple motif of the musical landscape that inhabits Broadchurch.

(This is an edited version of the one available on iTunes)

Going further into the piece, the sound is layered with more strings — violins and viola (the viola might be in there, I can’t be sure about it)— and electronica sensibilities, building up to a sweet crescendo and dissipating quickly like the ocean water meeting up with a rocky shoreline. It’s a 3:02 slow-burn that propels you towards the answers you’ve been looking for, for most of your life. That’s what this piece does for me. For anybody else, you would have to ask them what they felt. I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for me.

This is an example of what can happen when music and TV / film come together so seamlessly and organically. It stays with you, it haunts you, it makes you feel.

All of this falls in the hands of the music department. The job of a film or TV music supervisor or music editor intrigues me. I want to know what their job entails, how they go about searching for the right music to accompany a scene. They must listen to tons of music just to find THE piece of music for a scene. What I wouldn’t give to hang out with the music department for a week or two to see how the process works.

Whenever I hear a cool little piece of music as I’m watching a scene, I always find myself wanting to know the name of the singer or band who is performing that piece of music. That’s what happened when I watched a C.S.I. episode a few years ago. The music played during a scene where the characters Catherine and Sara were searching a house, looking for further evidence that a dead clown had been at the location just before he was murdered. Yes, I said clown. Not a typo. Clown. I can’t tell you what season it was but it was during the days of Grissom. God, I miss William Petersen.

Anyway, with a little bit of sleuthing, I discovered the name of the band — The Peak Show — and the title of the song — Flow. The Los Angeles group has long since disbanded but I was able to contact its lead singer, Holland Greco, regarding Flow via email. I pretty much gushed about how much I loved the song. In her reply to me, she was kind enough to send me an mp3 of the version used on C.S.I. The original version from one of their album didn’t have the jazz sensibilities that was heard on the show. I had struck gold. I’ll always appreciate Holland’s generosity.

For the 2013-2014 TV season, I’ve been faithfully watching The Blacklist, starring James Spader. Definitely one of the best new shows of the season. Spader is fabulous. Can’t say enough about the guy.

From The Blacklist, I discovered two lovely gems which now have become part of my music library.

The first is a cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, performed by Emika, a Berlin-based English electronic musician. I love Isaak’s version. A lot. The video? I’m a sucker for black and white and his video is six degrees of awesome. When I heard the familiar opening of the song play in the last scene of episode five, I thought ‘Wow, they’re playing this song for this scene. Cool.’

The second gem is Here with Me by Robot Koch and Susie Suh which was heard at the end of episode three. I can’t quite decide what drew me into the song. Most likely, it was the lyrics and Suh’s ethereal vocals.

Caught in the riptide
I was searching for the truth
There was a reason
I collided into you

By now, some of you are astute enough to notice that Arnalds, Emika and Koch are artists one could refer to as electronic musicians be it in the genres of experimental, ambient, trip hop, dubstep or dance. That is completely coincidental. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of electronic music. I would say I’m a fan of music. Period. That encompasses all genres. I am a fan of anything that perks my ears and stirs my soul.

Although I seem to be more aware of the music used on in film and episodic television today than when I was much younger, I still don’t necessarily make it a point to keenly listen to the music in every TV show or film I watch. I just let my subconscious do the listening for me and alert me. I hear something that captures my attention, curiosity and it gnaws on me, I’ll search for name of the piece and the artist’s name.

All I can say is thank god for the internet. There are folks out there who make it a point to listen to the music featured in a TV show or film, do the detective work in uncovering the name of the song and the artist and share that information with people like me who are searching for it.

These days, I have to admit that the only way I get to expand my music collection is through watching TV and movies and listening to Q with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC radio. Listening to Top 40 radio just grates on me. I’ve long moved away from that and have figured out different ways to discover music. Who knew watching TV or a movie would be one way for me to discover new or different artists? I certainly never gave it serious consideration.

It is, without a doubt, a great way to find some musical gems. It’s also interesting to hear the music selection for a show like The Blacklist. For a lack of a better description, the music, or soundtrack, is not elevator music. It is an integral part of a storyline. It is an integral part of the viewer experience.

While I am intrigued by, and love, a good story supported by great acting and directing, the music score intrigues me just as much. When all the elements are in place, it is stunning and breathtaking to experience.

When done correctly, the music score, the soundtrack, is more than just background noise.