Raising Emotional Stakes: Connecting Sound and Image

Since our early years as musicians, both Nic and I have approached making music from a cinematic or visual angle. When we began working together as ROOM8 this was a very conscious aspect of the concept. Whether writing songs or music as standalone pieces or actually scoring to picture, our thought is that music should always conjure up the visual part of the imagination. This is why we are very concerned with how we produce the sounds that go into our pieces. People have questioned us about our dedication to analog or older electronic equipment and a lot of that is connected to the weight and emotional impact of the sounds those instruments generate compared to their virtual counterparts. It’s one reason why older music from past decades has more of a strong cinematic connection than modern music. Why are so many older songs used in so many modern movies to really evoke a feeling or complement a big moment? Besides the quality of the writing, the sound of the recordings are more evocative, less perfect and thus give more of a sense of a scene or a time and place then the latest Taylor Swift hit (no offense to Taylor).

The biggest difference we have found in terms of writing music on its own versus scoring to a picture relates to raising emotional stakes. In general, a film has a lot of emotional information going on from the story, picture, and actors. That takes up a good amount of the musical ‘space’, so less musical information is needed to make a strong impact, opposed to a piece of music which stands on its own and must have more going on within it to create a visual experience.

We knew this from our multiple experiences scoring short films but it’s ever the more true when scoring a feature. We recently completed the score for a film called Cuck, which hits theaters October 4th of this year. The whole score was made using older analog synthesizers and some early digital ones as well. The main thing any good score should accomplish is to marry to the picture by being a ‘third character’ in the room. It’s not enough to just marry to the picture and become part of the sound design as some film composers seem to approach scoring. A truly memorable score must raise the emotional stakes of a scene by blending in but also by adding enough surprise as to juxtapose what is happening on screen without ever overwhelming it.

One of the key ways of thinking about this is thematically. Some of the greatest film soundtracks of all time rely heavily on themes that reoccur in various ways. Whether its the famous shower scene music Bernard Herrmann composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, “Tony’s Theme” that Giorgio Moroder wrote for Scarface, or the gorgeous electronic swells of the synclavier that Jack Nitzche brought back around for Starman, great themes put us into the mind and heart of the characters on the screen. What makes a great theme is, again, contrast or juxtaposition. “Tony’s Theme” in Scarface isn’t just dark, its tragic, sad and ominous with a touch of swagger.

“In that way, when the theme plays and we see Ronnie’s unhealthy relationship with his mother, the music connects us to a full array of feelings within his psyche, rather than just being “dark.”

The main character in Cuck is a damaged and deeply sad man named Ronnie. His hostility and rage at the world is born from his sadness and lack of human connection/affection. One of the themes we composed for Ronnie was a “love theme” which hinted at that with a melody that was both sad, hopeful, foreboding, and yearning. In that way, when the theme plays we see Ronnie’s unhealthy relationship with his mother, and the music connects us to a full array of feelings within his psyche, rather than just being “dark.”

Even at the most climactic, dark moments within a film it is important to introduce other emotional aspects, even if in the smallest way. The job of the film composer is to add the psychic, emotional complexity of real life to the actions of the characters on the screen. In the end, a score is truly successful to us when it can stand alone, apart from the film it was composed for. Just as we strive to write songs that create visual worlds for the listener, we want our film scores to be able to create those same feelings when listened to on their own. Sometimes an entirely different movie can play within the listeners mind when they hear a great score and are not familiar with the film it was written to. One of the greatest film scores of all time, Blade Runner by Vangelis, is certainly a perfect example of this. As great of a movie as Blade Runner is, a huge amount of that is owed to the original score and it remains a piece of music people listen to all the time on its own to this day.

Our upcoming full length album, Transduction was written as an imaginary film soundtrack and we really hope that when it’s released this coming October, it will spark many visual journeys for those that listen. Who knows, maybe someone will make a film around it; that’s how we originally conceived it.

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