Thoughts on the background score in the movies, and the difficulty in writing about them

One kind of response you get used to as a critic is the but-how-could-you-not-mention... This usually comes from aggrieved fans of an actor who is not mentioned in the review (or mentioned only in passing, in a pair of parentheses beside his or her screen name), or from those who think that the review should always carry a few lines about the dramatics on display. Sometimes, it could come from fans of a cinematographer or a music director as well.

The general principle behind this response is that a review is like a report card that rates a student on the basis of how well he or she did in Chemistry, Geography, Mathematics... A report card wouldn’t be complete without a mention of all subjects, and a review, too, is assumed to be lacking if it didn’t cover all aspects of filmmaking (or at least the major aspects; forget to mention the hairdresser and you won’t be getting a but-how-could-you-not-mention...)

I got a few of these responses to my review of the terrific new Mysskin thriller Onaayum Aattukuttiyum, in which I mentioned the name of the composer Ilaiyaraaja without going into detail about his background score (which was publicised heavily, and which, in the film’s opening credits, is hailed as the “foreground score”). The latter, in my opinion, is just marketing hype. It has nothing to do with the actual quality of the score.

If a score that’s meant to run in the background of a scene, gently clueing us to the emotions, jumps out and assumes ferocious shape in the “foreground,” then that’s actually a problem — unless we are talking about some kind of avant-garde production whose mission is to subvert all the well-regarded conventions of moviemaking. In theory, a background score — at least while watching a film for the first time, when the average audience member’s primary concern is what happens (rather than how) — should manipulate us without calling attention to itself.

But of course, this isn’t always possible — and Ilaiyaraaja himself has composed many great scores that manipulate us (which is an unconscious process) even while (consciously) alerting us to their pinpoint precision, their beauty, their form and functionality. As we evolve as movie audiences, we get used to “seeing” the movie through multiple eyes, so to speak. We can follow the plot and see what the lighting is like in that corner and hear how the percussion is being used to make this point and take in aspects of the performance...

And if this takes away some of the older joy in watching movies, where everything was smooshed together in one amorphous gob of entertainment, our enjoyment comes in other ways — and one of these ways is to see the various elements come together. (Or not.) We may not know the “process” to the extent that the technicians do, but even our limited understanding can enrich our experience of the film.

And yet, talking about the score is one of the more daunting aspects of a review — and not just because I don’t subscribe to the report-card model of reviewing. (I write about what strikes me, what impacts me consciously, and if the score doesn’t do that, then there’s nothing to write about. There’s really no point saying something as generic as “... and so-and-so did an effective job with the score.”)

The main reason is that, as is often quoted, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It is the most difficult thing to do without trivialising the work of the composer. It’s easy to talk about a cascade of violins being used here and some counterpoint being used there, because — whether in songs or in the score — these are but the most outward manifestations, while what’s really important is the inner world, the meaning, behind this cascade of violins and that counterpoint.

And it’s just not possible to grasp all of this while paying attention to plot and performance, the two aspects of a film that grab you the most while watching it for the first time. Well, scratch that. Sometimes, it is possible. Sometimes a score is so particular, so attuned to the characters that it’s impossible to miss — like Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement. It’s a story about a writer and the percussion, in the score, comes from the tapping of a typewriter. (This sort of gimmicky music is what you’d really call a “foreground score.”) Or sometimes a portion of the score becomes a leitmotif that’s used so frequently that we register it over the course of the movie — which was the case, recently, with Amit Trivedi’s “fragrance theme” in Aiyyaa. Or sometimes the score is so different from what we hear usually that we take note of it at once — like in Mumbai Xpress. (I wrote then: “Ilayaraja’s dynamic score… draws on jazz elements, for the movie itself is structured like an elaborate jazz composition. It has masterful slapstick riffs, it has what appear to be spur-of-the-moment improvisations, and if a few of the notes it hits are off-puttingly self-indulgent, it always manages to draw you back in with its maniacally free-flowing rhythms.)

But the score for Onaayum Aattukuttiyum is a little more difficult to pin down because it’s in the traditional symphonic mould — and as any teacher of western classical music will tell you, you need to listen, really listen, to a piece four or five times before knowing what it’s about and how it achieves its emotive effects. The score was available online earlier, and some people watched the film after listening to it — which means that, in a way, they went in looking to see how the score would be used (consciously) rather than how I went in, unprepared, and was thus able to see (after one viewing) simply that the film was “underscored by equal parts silence and a score,” which is how it usually is in Mysskin’s films. (You really should see his films if you haven’t. They’re one-of-a-kind.)

And that sort of generic observation about the score was what brought on the but-how-could-you-not-mention... Scoring for the movies is a vast topic, and I am very ambivalent about the concept itself at times — but this column must end now. And because you’ve been patient with all this heavy-duty hand-wringing, I’ll leave you with a laugh. When Hitchcock was making Lifeboat, a film set entirely on a... lifeboat, he was reluctant to include a score. “But where is the music supposed to come from out in the middle of the ocean?” The composer David Raksin replied: Wherever the cameras came from.

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