Reflecting on Randy Thom’s post Score or Symphony, The Moment or The Flow? it occurred to me that one of the hardest issues I wrestle with at the moment as a sound designer is how I both communicate and compromise on the amount of music (and sound) there should be in a film project, my dilemma feeds into Thom’s essential point of whether and how to focus on the 'momentary complementarity', or 'flow-based complementarity' when it comes to creating moving image soundtracks.
From my own point of view, I love music and I love sound, but those two facts do not equate to them being a constant presence when I’m watching a film. I suspect I’m not alone. However, I am fairly radical in the view that I believe there are very few instances where music is actually needed in your average drama or documentary film. That’s a personal preference, and one that I know is a) likely not shared by a majority of people, and b) not necessarily the 'correct': it’s just 'a' view. In fact, I am often rowed back from these more austere preferences by directors and others, and I am generally grateful for their sensitivities in steering me towards less radical choices, just as I hope I may in some small way they reciprocally appreciate if I am able to nudge them towards an appropriate amount of risk taking and mindfulness of their own music and sound choices. For me, this compromise is an essential dance that must occur to get the sound that is 'most right' for each and every project.
In thinking about the momentary complementarity versus flow-based complementarity conundrum it is as well to remember that a film could very well have no added sound, or could just have diegetic sound or just production sound. (Sound here taken to cover both sound design/sound effects and music). The common aesthetic though is to not do that, and so when we embark on a journey of creating sound design and music, we are obviously making choices. Those choices should be important. And if we could just as easily have one sound or another, or have added sound or no added sound, let us then proceed to think about what is meant by choosing either one or the other, and by having sound or not having sound. To my mind, a film’s soundtrack is a conversation, not an essay. There is not one voice at work, but at least three (music, dialogue and sound) and perhaps others, depending on your points of reference.
As a sometime composer of zero standing, the idea of creating pieces that exist as momentary expressions of a feeling, event, sequence, etc strikes me as extremely compelling and exciting. It is a different challenge to the coherent coalesce; the blended and whole yet oddly cacophonic result of unending background noise that film music, and even constantly 'present' sound design, can become.
I recently finished work on a short film where the constant presence of music (score) was motivated by the principal character, and in fact its presence was an extension of this character's speaking voice; it was a simulacra of his inner voice and thoughts. In that instance, although the director and I had several back and forth conversations about how much music there should be, it was always from a place of knowing what was guiding that preference for music. Although a number of my choices were vetoed for this very reason, it is true that there is an absence of music in places where there would undoubtedly otherwise have been, and the space that is created in these music-less moments serves to add positively to the clarity of the storytelling. What films such as these (American Graffiti being possibly the most famous example of this kind of 'constant music') show is that whether full of music, sound, both, or lacking in music, sound (or both), it is the intention and the motivations; the method and the reason behind what sound occupies the film space that matters most of all.