Film and Music

Alexander Hackenschmied (Hammid)


n collaboration with the composer, František Bartoš, I have tried in my experimental film of Prague Castle (now entitled Music of Architecture) to find the relationship between architectural form and music; between an image and a tone; between the movement of a picture and the movement of music; and between the space of a picture and the space of a tone. This all being part of the wider problem of the relation between film image and sound.

Similar problems have already been encountered on the stage, by music itself, and by the silent film accompanied by an orchestra. These problems have been solved only intuitively by practice. On the stage a scene accompanied by special music can become quite different from the same scene without music, just as in the sound-film music can give an emotional, spatial, or rhythmic character to the picture, be it either purposely or by chance.

The fundamental element in the relationship between sound and image is the influence of tones of different pitch, timbre, and force upon the relative spatial formation of the image. There is also to be considered the relationship of tones and colors, and considerable experimental work has been attempted in this direction. The faculty of having visual color impressions on hearing different tones is possessed by many people, all of whom, however, do not visualize the same color for the same tone. Scriabin, the Russian composer, possessed this faculty, and has recorded on the margins of his musical manuscripts the colors which arose in his mind while composing. When plasyed on Pesanek’s “color-piano” – by which it is possible to produce on a screen, simultaneously with the music, colored shapes of varying size – Scriabin’s theory became clear, even to people who had not the faculty of seeing tones in colors. These color compositions have a direct analogy to the sound-film I have in mind: the indivisible sound and film composition.

Similar experiments have been made by Hirschfield-Mack at the Bauhaus School in Dessau in his reflector plays (Reflektorische Lichtspielen)/ By means of reflectors he threw on the screen colored geometrical shapes, capable of moving, and each corresponding to a certain tone. The spectators’ impression was that these shapes sounded themselves. They were made to appear, move, disappear or change places in accordance with the rhythm of the music, thus introducing a geometrical and moving (almost dancing) component part. In this way Laszlo’s modernist compositions of color and music were performed.

Scriabin, Laszlo, Pesanek and Hirschfield-Mack put stress before all upon color; but in the film we are putting stress upon shape, space and movement. There is not, however, a great difference, as in both cases the basis is the simultaneous fusion of musical and visual impressions into one emotional whole. The sound-film made the work much easier by introducing the unbreakable mechanical connection of both component parts.

The first film experiments of this sort were made by Oskar Fischinger in Berlin. In his Dancing Lines cartoons (Tanzande Linien, Opus I-XII.) Fischinger was not interested in color, but in movement and shape as he could feel them in music. He composed to given music, played on gramophone records, abstract and prevailingly lineal images, following uninterruptedly one after the other as well as moving intermittently or changing according to the rhythms or dynamics of the music. He preferred music predominantly rhythmic and gave an almost dancing character to the changes and movements of lines. Fischinger’s work, a sort of visible lineal transcription of the music, was impressionistic, as, being a painter, he recorded visual impressions as they arose while hearing music with closed eyes. Music was the leading force, which he obediently accompanied by the dance of his lines.

It has often been said that the best film music is that which we do not hear – that is, which does not intrude upon us but faithfully follows the atmosphere of the film, its chief task being to remove the painful silence and the noise of the projector. This might be valid in the period of the silent film, which had no need of music and was eve better without it. But for the sound-film this statement would mean the deepest misconception of the new medium. The silent film was better when music was smooth, servilely followed the action, and brought nothing new to the film, which the spectator could see as the director had made it. But if the musical conductor endeavored to strengthen the impressions of the film, then he became a violator of the director’s work, and always made faults. The music would draw attention to itself by of its dynamic and rhythmic incongruities with the film as a whole and in parts, and if the spectator had a sense of film rhythm the result was ear-splitting. This was especially the case in Russian films which put stress upon montage.

The composer could not subordinate the rhythmic and dynamic changes of music to the changes of the film, because in doing so, he might violate the laws of music. The director, on the other hand, paid no attention to the future of music and its laws. Music always brought forth some new and unforeseen changes in the whole impression of the film. The director expressed with aid of filmic means all he wanted. Apart from the director’s work, the composer wrote music according to the old independent rules, and the film served only as the raw theme. This gave rise to music which was self-sufficient in its form and could be played even without the film. Film and music ran side by side, both endeavoring to express the same thing in different ways. They illustrated themselves mutually, and in some places the impressions accidentally supplemented each other, thus creating some new impression, unforeseen either by the director or by the composer. For a space there was something new – a sound-film; but a sound-film only by accident, and therefore bad on principle.

The musical film is a new medium, consisting of two component parts – music and film, both of which must be created simultaneously. Neither music nor film can be divided and performed separately, because on part without the other would be unintelligible. It is possible that music already composed, or silent film already made, may be used as part of a requisite whole. Such cases, however, are rare for the actual work often involves some violation of the original, and it is therefore a responsible task to choose the parts. As a matter of course, it is much easier to make a new film with music already composed than to compose new music for a film already made, the laws of film composition being more flexible than the laws of music. But primarily it will always be the formal, syntactic relation which will condition to cohesion of both component parts, the content or motive relation remaining secondary and not necessary. The possibilities are far reaching and await application as well as theory. Sound gives to a picture a new coloring; it determines its space and depth. The cohesion of music and film may result in counterpoint or syncopation of rhythm; by contrast it may give to each a new inner significance.

This article is reprinted from Film Culture No. 67-68-69, 1979 and was originally published in Film Quarterly No. 1, spring 1933. It was translated by Karel Santar.