Synesthesia and the mystery of great film music

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By Ray Bennett

“Give me music,” says Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. “Music, moody food for us that trade in love.”

Moody food, too, for those who trade in movies. Whether it’s Rupert Everett leading a rousing chorus of “I Say a Little Prayer” in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”, Henry Mancini’s feline tiptoe accompaniment to “The Pink Panther” or Maurice Jarre’s haunting “Lara’s Theme” from “Doctor Zhivago”, music in films has the power to move us as much as, and sometimes more than, the words and pictures.

William Congreve wrote: “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

There is a word for it: synesthesia. It’s the subjective response of one sense when another sense is actually being stimulated. It’s when perfume brings to mind someone’s touch or when a sip of champagne makes you hear someone’s voice. Most of us have experienced it.

Clinically, synesthesia has to do with an intense crossing of the senses, particularly those that involve colours and sound. Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, who has degrees in music, physics and electrical engineering plus a doctorate from Stanford in acoustics, points out that waves of deep or loud sound can affect senses other than hearing — balance and stability, for example.

“But synesthesia usually refers to the association of music with color,” said Dr. Cohen, who is president of the Audio Engineering Society and whose company, Cohen Acoustical, Inc., designs concert halls and screening rooms. “Data varies all over the map on the percentage of people [synesthesia] occurs in but there is huge literature, stemming from studies in anthropology and ethnomusicology, on the emotional impact of music and the ability of music to induce altered or transcendent states.”

How it works is a puzzle, and so too is the way composers render music for films that create such responses in moviegoers.

Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer said, “It is a mystery, and that’s one of the great things about it, because, being a mystery, you get to reinvent it each time. There are certain things that strike us at the core of our being, and music is incredibly powerful in that respect because it’s an absolutely valid and legitimate language in its own right, and it deals only with emotion.”

Zimmer wrote the music to Terence Malick’s film “The Thin Red Line” and he said at one point he was at a loss over what a certain piece of music was supposed to do: “He said, ‘Oh, you’re the harmony to the character,’”

Still, Zimmer had problems because Malick asked him to write music for a film not yet shot: “I kept saying, ‘I need to see how you light this scene. I need to see how green the grass is in the valley you’re asking me to write about. On ‘The Lion King’, I had black-and-white drawings to work with, and I’m still kicking myself about one scene because I got the colour in the music wrong. I didn’t get the emotion right because the colours were clashing.”

Songwriter Allan Rich, whose songs have been recorded by Kris Kristofferson, and his father, the late Charlie Rich, said he is synesthetic: “About 12% of the population is truly synesthetic. We hear colour and smell sound. Beethoven thought that B-minor was black. He thought that D-major was yellow and Rimsky-Korsakov thought it was orange.”

John Frizzell (“Alien: Resurrection”, “The Following”) said it’s difficult for him to write music before he sees the movie: “I’m inspired by colours and lighting. I tend to share a bond with the cinematographer. I view scoring a picture an aspect of a film as important as the cinematography. They set the visual tone. We set the sonic tone.”

John Debney (“Sin City”, “New Year’s Eve”) said that he doesn’t think consciously in colours: “I think of orchestral colours, that is, the softness of a solo clarinet or the plaintiveness of a solo oboe. Would an oboe be orange or yellow? I don’t know. I’ve had directors say the music was a little too blue or too red. One time, I had a melody carried by a bell and someone said, ‘It’s a little too yellow and happy.’ It can help facilitate communication sometimes.”

Legendary guitarist and film composer Ry Cooder (“Paris, Texas”, pictured, “Southern Comfort”) observed that music also reflects time and space: “If you hear old blues music that came out of the Southern states, especially Mississippi, and you go down there and catch the way the place looks and smells, you understand where the tempos are coming from and where the space in the music comes from.”

Cooder made the hit Nonesuch Records “Buena Vista Social Club,” which features a group of old-time Cuban musicians and reflects that sense of place. He recalled when he was 4 years-old and heard music that made him see places he’d never visited: “When Woody Guthrie used to say, ‘I’m goin’ down the road feelin’ bad’, you really saw it happening. I’d listen to those records as a kid, and I could see every foot of the road. I try to bring that to my pictures.”

Wherever composers derive their inspiration, Dr. Cohen says that films would reflect their own time and space much more successfully if directors worked with composers from the beginning: “The best filmmakers have very close relationships with the composers they work with. Scripts that have a strong point of view and compositions that have a strong point of view can work together to deliver whatever message or emotional state the filmmaker wants. Anytime you start doing things by committee or start delegating that, you’re giving up control over your artistry.”

Leonard Rosenman, the concert-hall composer who scored such pictures as “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden”, observed that music and film are similar because they deal in the same way with real time and psychological time: “There has to be a real marriage between the music and film.”

Rosenman wrote the score for “East of Eden” before the picture was made: “I played the piano for the actors before they played a scene. They all said it helped them enormously.”

Mike Figgis is one filmmaker who provides the perfect mesh among writer, director and composer. That’s because he does it all. He wrote jazz music for “Leaving Las Vegas” and a classical score for “One Night Stand”, amongst others.

Figgis played the theme music for “Leaving Las Vegas” to stars Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue at his home before they shot a love scene: “They both said they learned more about their characters from the music than from the script. With the music, you can add a whole new layer of imagery that no one’s heard before. That’s always been the point of making films to me. The idea of handing everything over to another composer is unthinkable. It’s such a powerful gift to give someone.”

And it remains a mystery. But movies would not be the same without the score. As Shakespeare’s Orsino says in “Twelfth Night”, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter circa 1998

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