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Music, Image and Nostalgia

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Each season of The Wire started with a different arrangement of Tom Waits' Way Down In the Hole. Then there would be no music - apart from genuine ambient stuff, such as a car radio or something playing in a club - until the end credits. This highlighted the gritty realism of the show. And it worked brilliantly. Every current Hollywood blockbuster (for that read any mainstream movie with mass distribution) is stuffed with bombastic forgettable score from beginning to end, as though the directors and producers simply equate more noise with more excitement. And for me at least, this does not work.

What I love about good film music is the use of silence and space. The medium allows for that. When you're writing to accompany an image you can stretch a piece in ways that wouldn't work in stand alone music; maybe leaving gaps of twenty or thirty seconds between phrases, using background sounds, or bits of dialogue as connectors.

As part of this year's Filmic Fest, I was asked to pick four films to screen at Watershed Bristol whose scores I admired or was influenced by. Three of the four were made between 1969 and 1971 - the immediate post Easy Rider years often referred to as a golden age in cinema. This was also the period I began going to the cinema so I checked, and quickly discounted nostalgia as the reason for my selection. Nostalgia is something I try to be aware of when I'm writing or producing. We don't create in a vacuum, so the separation between incorporating and reinventing myriad past influences and simple nostalgic recreations is a constant struggle. There's great comfort to be had in nostalgia after all - look at the current electoral success of Ukip, a party whose support seems to be largely based on a mixture of xenophobia and nostalgia.

In the case of my film selection, this separation was easy to identify. I had come to all four movies long after their release, and didn't associate any of them with a particular era of cinema going. The relationship between the music and the images is different in the four films, but equally symbiotic in all. Unlike The Wire, in which there seemed to be a fear that music would make the action less authentic, and every current Hollywood blockbuster where the music has become just one layer of a full-on sensory onslaught, the sound and the images work together in these films, jointly dictating the pace of the movie, leaving each other space where desirable, and not patronising the audience by using the music for obvious emotional sign-posting.

The way these different scores work ranges from the almost invisible to the un-ignorable. I had no recollection of Michael Small's music after my first viewing of Klute, I just remembered how claustrophobic and tense the atmosphere was. Seeing it later on a flight, wearing headphones, I realized how much the sparse, creepy piano and jittery percussion contributed to this feeling - Un-ignorable - the dramatic, plaintive electric guitar and the haunting melodramatic voices of Morricone's masterful music for Leone's equally majestic sprawling images in Once Upon A Time In The West.

I'm not suggesting there's no good film music anymore, there are great scores being written every year - I particularly liked Dickon Hinchliffe's work in Winter's Bone -they're just a little thin on the ground in the multiplexes. And I'm nostalgic for a time when they weren't.

John Parish is taking part in the Filmic film and music festival at Watershed and St
George's in Bristol: www.watershed.co.uk/filmic. His album Screenplay on Thrill Jockey is out in April.

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