“Quotation and allusion in film music”

©Janet K Halfyard

(Paper presented at the Critical Musicology Forum, City University, January 2001)


This paper examines the presence of intertextuality in orchestral film scores.  The significance of these musical devices lies in their function as referents of the kind that Noel Carroll - in his 1982 paper “The future of allusion” - identified as “a major expressive devise..., a means that directors use to make comments on the fictional world of their films.” A similar argument can be made for the musical narrative, and this paper examines the presence of the director’s use of musical quotation and the composer’s use of allusion as a means of commentary and intertextualisation.


Robert Hatten draws a distinction between stylistic allusion to a musical genre, era or school and strategic allusions to a specific piece of music. Stylistic allusion is a mainstay of film music - theorists who list functions of film music usually include categories of music that locate a film in time and place, and this is done by allusion to a musical convention, whether its the use of exotic scales to conjure up non-Western cultures, the use of harpsichords for the 18th century or country music for the American South. A film uses these cultural musical codes to identify itself to an audience by reference to the existing body of films that have used that same code as part of the mechanism by which a filmic genre is established. In particular, main title music, played at the outset of the film often before the visual narrative has begun, uses this intertextual mechanism to prime the audience for the film they are about to see.


Strategic allusion in film music is a related issue and the point at which an allusion ceases to be strategic and becomes stylistic is far from clear-cut. Some examples of strategic allusion are very obvious. Brian de Palma’s Carrie is a film which makes intertextual references at a number of levels to Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have references in terms of characterization, narrative, visual imagery and music. Both films deal with the relationship of a child with its mother; with sexual repression leading to the murder of various objects of desire. The large kitchen knife with which Norman kills his victims in Psycho is a prominent visual motif in Carrie, and the main weapon with which the title character eventually kills her Mother; and similarly, Carrie borrows Herrmann’s musical motif associated with stabbing in Psycho’s famous shower scene. The music with which a mentally disturbed Norman kills in Psycho becomes the music representing the means by which the comparably mentally disturbed Carrie acts and ultimately kills: the Psycho music becomes the psychic music.


 The existence of strategic allusion owes at least something to the temp track, the music taken from existing recordings that the film is edited to in advance of the score’s completion, which may become so beloved of the director that the composer is persuaded to make his or her score sound as much like it as possible. The most notorious case of a temp track making its presence felt in a film is Kubrick’s 2001, where Alex North’s score was entirely discarded in favour of the temp track: Thus spake Zarathustra, The Blue Danube, Ligeti and Khatchaturian. The opening bars from Thus Spake Zarathustra, the main title music in 2001, correspond to the Prologue of Nietszche’s epic poem, in which the prophet sits alone at the top of a mountain and watches the sunrise, announcing the dawning of not simply a new day but of a new era, the coming of the Superman who Nietzsche saw as being the next stage in man’s spiritual evolution: and it doesn't take the most enormous leap of the imagination to see how this might act as a parallel and commentary on 2001’s overall premise.


The Ligeti music - primarily the Kyrie from the Requiem and Atmospheres makes considerable use of drones and clusters, music which is part of the vocabulary of horror films in the creation of suspense, and is strongly associated in this film with the idea of space as containing some vast mystery which may be a force for either good or evil, personified by the black monolith.  This music in particular has been alluded to in other film scores concerned with space and possibly malevolent forces. One is John William’s score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the alien abduction of a child is accompanied by very 2001-esque music; another is Elliot Goldenthal’s main title music for Alien 3.  Again, we have atonality and microtonality, drones and clusters, and also the setting of a liturgical text. In 2001, the text is the Kyrie, which doesn’t appear to have any obvious significance in terms of the narrative beyond its part in the Requiem with its idea of death as rebirth; but in Alien 3, the text is a setting of the Agnus Dei, and towards the end of the film, the significance of the anthem to the sacrificial lamb who dies to take away the sins of the world, and thereby saves it, becomes apparent as Ripley immolates herself to destroy the alien embryo growing inside her.


As Robert Stam has recently put it, 'Any text that has slept with another text... has  necessarily slept with all the texts the other text has slept with' (Stam 2000, 202). Texts are promiscuous, and 2001, without a note of original music in it, is one of the most promiscuous of them all. In 1994, two years after Alien 3, Goldenthal wrote two more film scores, Interview with the vampire and the third film in the Batman series. 


There are two notable features about the main title theme that he wrote for Interview which are striking from the point of view of intertextuality. Firstly, it is again a setting of a liturgical text associated with the Requiem mass; and again, as in his music for Alien 3, Goldenthal sets it for a boy treble. As in Alien 3, the text set is a direct commentary on the narrative: the words free me from myself and give us eternal light take on new meaning when sung in the context of a technically immortal vampire who can, nonetheless, be killed by daylight. Louis, the eponymous vampire here, has been depressed for about 200 years, and in a sense this is his own requiem for the undead. But, as Stam would have it, by linking this film to Alien 3 through the main title music, Goldenthal in turn refers us back to 2001. The Requiem, particularly the Agnus Dei and the Libera me, deal with transfiguration through death: as indeed does 2001: the Ligeti music is associated with the monolith, the herald and instrument of transformation; and Dave Bowman, having begun his journey through the star gate to the accompaniment of the Kyrie, is then himself transformed, apparently dying and being reborn as the star child. Ripley starts both Alien 2 and Alien 3 in suspended animation, a simulated death, is resuscitated, is forced through processes of transformation in all three films (if only in the ever decreasing length of her hair) before her eventual transfiguration into Ripley, Mother and Martyr, the sacrificial lamb in Alien 3. Her unlikely resurrection in the fourth alien film perpetuates her saviour-like status. 


Interview with the vampire again continues the theme of transfiguration through death: Louis’s transformation to undeath at the start of the film and then his constant yearning for a further transformation to escape from his existence, epitomized by the main title theme, which dominates the musical soundtrack. What both Alien 3 and Interview have in common that comes from Goldenthal rather than Ligeti is the use of the voices: in place of the Kyrie’s mixed choir, both times Goldenthal uses a child’s voice, juxtaposing innocence with the evil represented by both film’s title character’s: innocent human child against reputedly evil Other. Musically, all three films share the use of drones, or pedal notes in the case of the musically much more conventional Interview, and a certain lack of rhythmic drive: none of these films have anything approaching an audible beat to them: they drift through space.

The other notable aspect of Interview’s main title is its relationship with Elfman’s Batman theme. Phillip Tagg, in his paper “Tritonal Crime”, makes a case for the tritone (also known as the augmented fourth) as representative of all things criminal in film and TV music: a similar case can be made for the tritone as representative of all things supernatural, a real diabolus in musica, heard in the use of the Lydian mode in the main titles of films including Jumanji and The Witches of Eastwick, and as a prominent feature of the main title of Beetlejuice, all supernatural comedies set in New England. Both interpretations are equally justified: the tritone has become a convention for representing a variety of Others, be they criminal, evil, supernatural. There can be no doubt that Goldenthal listened closely to the Elfman scores before writing his 1994 score for Batman Forever, and the melodies of Elfman’s Batman theme and Goldenthal’s theme for his other 1994 score, Interview, whilst rhythmically very different, have an unquestionably similar basic outline which emphasizes the interval of the augmented fourth found between notes two and six of the minor scale: both themes consist of the notes of the tonic triad, plus that tritone. In fact, this phrase can be found in other films dealing with vampires and the supernatural in particular, such as Coppola’s Dracula and even a supernatural comedy such as The Burbs, to the extent that if could be argued as a museme, a unit of meaningful musical sound, the meaning in this case being associated with the forces of darkness.


What’s more, we have a song lyric associated with the same basic theme from Irving Berlin:

                        There may be trouble ahead

                        But whilst there’s moonlight and music and love and romance

                        Let’s face the music and dance


It has to be pointed out that Elfman denies even knowing the song (which is actually rather unlikely, given his interest in pre-WWII jazz) and it was not intentionally used as any kind of model for the Batman theme, but it does neatly summarise the key elements of the film: love, romance, moonlight and trouble.

In Goldenthal’s score, it connects Batman to vampires. And what is Batman if not vampire as superhero? He goes around at night, has a long black cape, appears to turn into a bat, is dark and gothic and yet, just like the vampire of Interview, he is also a tragic hero.


So, having started with 2001, and gone via Alien 3 and Interview with a vampire to Batman, it seems appropriate that Batman should take us back to 2001. Nietzsche in his poem and Kubrick in his film are both, in their own ways, talking about the Superman; Strauss’s music is the bridge that connects them. Batman is obviously the wrong Superhero, but nonetheless, Strauss creates the link again. At the end of the 1989 film, the bat-signal is shone upon the sky, a disc rather than one of Kubrick’s spheres. At the same time, we hear an unmistakably Straussian allusion as the camera pans up the building to reveal Batman, silhouetted against the night sky: as before the music alluded to the dawning of a brave new day in the history of mankind, now it refers to a brave new night in Gotham City, guarded by not Superman but Batman.


To conclude, the question must be asked: “for whom do these allusion exist”? In his essay, Noel Carroll talks of films operating on two levels when they start playing with allusion. At one level, the film exists as an apparently self-contained artefact: some one who has general acquaintance with film should be able to enjoy and understand the film largely in isolation from an acquaintance with other films. At the other level, the film exists as a self-consciously intertextual object aimed at film-literate aficionados, who can enjoy the film for itself and at the same time derive pleasure from recognition of allusions to other films, genres and cinematic styles and conventions. Arguably, exactly the same situation exists for film music: failing to spot the allusion should not damage one’s experience of the film, and the allusions are aimed, if they are aimed at all, at whoever is sufficiently acquainted with the appropriate repertoire to be make the connections. Carroll worried that, in the wrong hands, allusion threatened to become an end in itself, with films ceasing to be about anything other than other films in a triumph of style and affectation over meaning.


With orchestral film music, intertextuality plays a substantial role in how films are understood. In terms of stylistic allusion, it plays a role in the formation and confirmation of codes and conventions, which are in part a labour-saving device, musical short-hand for the desired effect in a aspect of film-making that is usually done in a hurry, but equally tap into cultural understandings of musical meaning that allow us to understand what the music is saying in relation to the image. Strategic musical allusion is a means by which either a composer or director can use music, as Carroll puts it, to make comments on the fictional world of their films, and this often occurs in conjunction with a parallel visual allusion, as in the case of Carrie and the Psycho knife, or Alien 3 and the vision of space. It could even be argued that intertextuality is a mechanism by which meaning is created in film music. Far from being the potential dead-end that Carroll believed it to threaten for film, intertextuality itself is an important aspect of narrative in film music, complementing, enhancing and interpreting the nature of what we see, whether through stylistic or strategic allusion.