The Art of Background Sounds: Writing Music for Movies

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship

The St. Louis International Film Festival has been a catalyst lately for discussing the intersections of music and movies, but this topic has been on my brain lately regardless. I try not to talk about projects that are probably happening but technically unconfirmed - these things have their ways of biting back - but it appears that I will be writing and recording the score for a friend's documentary about transgendered individuals who work in the technical field. There are numerous practical challenges to writing music for film, but what seems most unusual is the idea of making music that is limitedly interesting, music intended to enhance a visual element without drawing too much attention to itself.

I gravitate towards music that is overwhelming. I like layers, I like depth, I like sensory overload. I suppose my favorite music finds a way to compensate for its lack of visuals, but this is an aspect that must be dialed down within the context of a film score. People often complain that film music is boring when listened to on its own, and this is frequently true. But this can be said of any functional music separated from its intended environment. "Old Time Rock And Roll" without dancing, "Canon In D" without a wedding, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" without the opening credits of "Whale Wars."

One of the great internal struggles for musicians is the purpose of music. Is the music art or is the music functional? Great music can certainly fit within both camps simultaneously; LCD Soundsystem comes to mind as one example. Most of my experience is in nonfunctional music. Film music is not only provided a function, it is embedded and synchronized within said context. This is a bit out of my comfort zone.

I am reminded of Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh, two musicians who write fantastic functional music for films. Elfman's score for Edward Scissorhands was the first movie music I fell in love with, or probably even paid attention to. Mothersbaugh's ability to match the vibes of The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums with sound is unbelievable. Plus, the common thread of Elfman and Mothersbaugh formerly playing in weirdo new-wave leaning art rock bands makes them feel like kindred spirits.

Philosophically, though, I keep coming back to Brian Eno's concept of ambient music, of music that breathes and allows the people listening to insert their experiences in its spaces. This is fascinating because it does not view function and art as separate traits, but capitalizes on the ability for each to further the other. I can't imagine how many film composers heard Music For Airports and simply thought, "Damn..."

So next time you watch a movie, even a TV commercial, pay attention to the sounds in the background. If you have never paid attention to this music before, chances are that it served its purpose.

My goal for this film, working title TransGeek is as follows: write something that is aware of the coldness of numbers but focuses on the humanness, vulnerability, and courage of those who boldly live outside of convention without being too precious or sounding too much like Four Tet. I am not sure how well I can execute this plan, but the result should be just interesting enough.


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