From Producer to Scoring Films: Electronic Music & The Big Screen

Many more electronic music producers are wandering into the field of filmscore composition, but what value is this adding to the overall musicality of movies, and why is Ennio Morricone so pissed off with it all? DJB spoke to composition expert Thomas Köner about his experiences and looks into the modern world of motion picture soundtracks.

In a recent interview revered composer Ennio Morricone slammed the current trend of scrapping orchestras in the motion picture world. Even soundtrack guru Hans Zimmer himself has moved towards electronic sound manipulation with his productions for Inception and Interstellar. Morricone blames budget constraints, claiming that “Electronic instruments flatten everything. Maybe you can do everything with [them], but the result is quite similar – a kind of standardised music.” Likewise British composers Carl Davis and Christopher Gunning echo these sentiments, with Gunning claiming that synthesised scores remove an element of humanity from a film: "You just do not get the effect of a real live musician playing real phrases. It's quite extraordinary how a live musician can inflect a certain note with emotion."

From the perspective a live musician, it’s a shame to replace bands and orchestras with synthesised songs from a single producer. However there has been a long history of film flirtation with electronic sounds, and from a dance music perspective some of the most interesting stories are those of electronic music artists who have scored films. Let’s take a look at how these kind of audiovisual collaborative projects have spawned truly intriguing and unique works.

"Sound has always been a part of the human experience of visual art"

Electronic music on film – A century-long relationship
The use of electronic music in film is nothing new and can be traced back over a century. Two of the earliest electronic instruments, the theremin and the Ondes Martinot, both creating high wavering pitches, were used in many early films. Notably Hitchcock’s 1945 psychoanalytical movie Spellbound featured a score by Miklós Rózsa alongside sets for its dream sequence by Salvador Dali. Rózsa was a pioneer of the theremin and Spellbound was the first major film to feature it. The first film ever to use an entirely electronic soundtrack was Forbidden Planet whose otherworldly sounds were created using home made circuitry by husband and wife Louis and Bebe Barron. Another Hitchcock film The Birds also used a totally electronic score by Sala and Remi Gassman and featured birdcalls generated by Oskar Sala’s ‘Mixtur-Trautonium’. Not a single real bird sound was used. Electronic music has since featured in many productions: A Clockwork Orange used Wendy Carlos’s notorious synthesiser version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to build a bizarre fusion between a classic piece and a futuristic setting. And of course there was Blade Runner, scored by Vangelis using a Yamaha CS-80 and Roland VP-330 to create Ridley Scott’s dystopian urban landscape.

Multimedia artist Thomas Köner works across various fields within contemporary music, techno, film and installation work. Along with his musical production and live performances, he has been regularly commissioned to create the soundtracks for films by institutions such as the Auditorium du Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and Centre Pompidou. In an interview with DJB, Köner says that the relationship between the audio and the visual can be traced back beyond the advent of moving pictures. “If you look at Monet’s Gare St Lazare painting you can hear it as well. The painter would want you to hear it,” says Köner. “Interestingly this was painted in the same year that Edison introduced the phonograph (1877). There comes a sonic aspect with this painting that has its own reality. As with any other visual perceptions, in a certain way the sound is always already there.” As Köner suggests, sound has always been a part of the human experience of visual art and the two are inextricably linked. Since the invention of the first electronic instruments they have featured on film and the growing participation of electronic music producers in film projects is a natural development of the art of the moving picture.

When Producers go Visual
For electronic music producers who have created film soundtracks the narrative is often quite different from their purely musical work. In an online interview with Music Times, Photek (aka. Rupert Parkes) discusses his experience of composing for the US television crime drama on ABC How to Get Away with Murder: “I've spent my whole life making whatever music I feel like on whatever timeframe I feel like… I actually loved the boundaries and structure of working on somebody else's project and trying to hit the mark for somebody else's needs.”

Film scoring involves collaboration to form a collective representation of a concept that can capture the imagination of an audience with both their eyes and ears. “The material somehow dictates the process [of composing],” says Köner. “Sound sometimes comes first. Images usually come first when I work for or with other artists or on commissions, but I also work on certain pieces from both angles at the same time.” Discussing his 1992 performance with film-maker Jurgen Reble, ALCHEMIE, Köner describes his process of creating sound for this piece: “Reble treated the loop of 16mm film with chemicals while projecting it. After 30-50 minutes the performance ended naturally as the film loop literally decomposed. So what would make sense to compose for this, as a composer and musician? I chose to ignore the narrative of the film loop and the images and instead I used the sounds of the projector…to create the perfect score to ‘accompany’ them.”

In terms of major releases in the past few years, British duo The Chemical Brothers created the soundtrack for surrealist thriller Hanna, while Attack The Block set in London Brixton featured a soundtrack by Basement Jaxx. The resulting music kept roots in dubstep and grime as a nod to the South London setting, but fused with sharp orchestral sounds to create the brooding atmosphere of the film. In 2013, British experimental producer Micachu (Mica Levi) was asked by director Jonathan Glazer to score the film Under The Skin. In an interview with Pitchfork Review, Levi describes how the music is used as a powerful plot development tool in a movie that is primarily focused on the emotional journey of the creature inhabiting Scarlett Johansson’s body: “The music featured in the beginning of the film is complex and slightly sophisticated; it’s supposed to feel like a life form you can’t quite understand, but it's carrying on relentlessly, like a beehive. In the void where she drags the men down into, she seduces them over this music that’s kind of fake-sounding, almost like she's putting on makeup—it gets sadder, it runs out, it loses it steam, it gets darker, and then it comes back and hits her.” Levi is classically trained and her soundtrack is terrifyingly eerie and brimming with tension, using mainly a viola for string sounds but with an undercurrent drone and the recurring motif of a distorted drumbeat to create an inhuman pulse, particularly in the movie’s darkest scenes.

Another recent example of an electronic music producer turning to film soundtracks is Tom Holkenborg, who began producing breakbeat in 1997 under his Junkie XL moniker and has since gone on to score for a number of Hollywood blockbusters including Divergent, Resident Evil, and the latest remake of the Mad Max series along with Hans Zimmer. The soundtrack to Fury Road has been described as a ‘rock opera’ and the roaring tribal-esque beats are key to building the chase scenes and manic desert world created by director George Miller. Drums and guitar are even seen played by characters in the movie, highlighting the music as lying at the core of the movie’s mood.

Continued Symbiosis
Quality electronic music production requires just as much skill as that required by live musicians, but these two methods of making music inhabit different realms. Looking at the last 70 years or so we can see how electronic producers have created striking sonic pieces that compliment but also stand equally alongside the visuals.

“I have been working with the ‘audiovisual’ for 25 years now and despite the depth of my research it is still a bit early to draw conclusions,” says Köner. “I have just come back from a tour with the Audi Festival of German Films in Australia where I accompanied Murnau’s Faust (1926). It is a 107-minute movie and I composed an entire soundtrack for it. In this case the visuals are very strong - they can exist without sound. You could use any frame of the movie, print it and decorate a wall with it as a nice artwork. The sound should have the same quality. It should be able to exist on its own.”

Making sound to accompany images takes a different route from sound production alone, but it gives producers a chance to get out of their comfort zone and to create something according to a collective imagination, sparking some impressive and powerful pieces of work. Electronic sounds have already had a major presence in film history and we will no doubt hear future outstanding film scores created by electronic music artists that will continue to enrich our viewing experiences.