A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence. — Leopold Stokowski
January 1st, 2009, the first day of the year marked the date The Drummer was being released theatrically in Germany. Along with the release of the film, a German version of the film’s soundtrack CD was also produced and distributed. There is already a Hong Kong version of the soundtrack CD sold throughout Asia, but the German version contains five bonus tracks.
Click thumbnail for the artwork of the Hong Kong and German CD’s.
In the Hong Kong film industry, and I imagine elsewhere also, one often hears this comment from a director or producer before a film is finished: “Music in this film is going to be very important.” I used to be impressed by such clear, decisive insight, but years later have found that you can say that about any element of a film. “The cinematography is going to be very important in this film…The casting is very important in this film…The editing in this film is very important…” etc.Music in films is never the element that initiates a project unless it’s a musical, and even then the subject matter usually comes first. So why do we all love music in films? When we walk out of the cinema, we want to be humming the main theme. How does music in film work?
Music is most often used as “cues.” Cues to indicate to the audience how they are supposed to feel in that certain section of the film. An emotional trigger, so to speak.
For example, in The Drummer there is a sequence where Sid, the main character, is training on the mountaintop. So we added “training music”, with a rhythm and a beat. The audience would feel the exultation as well as the humility in physical exercise. The sequence works in isolation from the rest of the film.
Click here for the original sequence
However, within the context of the film, the music tells you very quickly that this is the “training section” because there’s the proverbial training music. One gets bored by it very quickly unless there’s some progression in the sequence that piques your interest continuously.
What really was wrong is that the music is telling the wrong story at that point in the film. In many instances, filmmakers and musicians will score to picture, meaning that when your main character is being chased by someone, you put on “actiony” music with a percussive and syncopated beat. When the pace is slow and a sensitive exchange is happening between the characters, then one puts on piano music.
In the end for the training sequence, something else was used — silence. Silence is never really just nothing, there’s music in it, the actual ambient sounds from the scenes themselves: the atmosphere, footsteps, clothes swaying in the wind, the breathing, etc. That can be “music,” too.
Click here for the final sequence
THE LONGEST SUMMER
I have composed for several Hong Kong films before, including The Longest Summer, the second of director Fruit Chan’s trilogy on the 1997 Handover. I remember watching the rough cut and thinking this was not a typical genre film, so there were no specific genre expectations in the story or in the music. So how does one begin to create the soundtrack?
“What is the film in musical form? What’s the idea of the film, the soul, in musical form?” If one can find the soul, then half the battle is won. In The Longest Summer, the soul clearly was the ambivalence of being a “Hong Konger”, who’s ethnically Chinese and employed by the British garrison in Hong Kong, but is now being handed back to China with all its history and political baggage.
Lam Wah Chuen (cinematographer and co-composer of The Longest Summer) and I were experimenting with Chinese melodies that sounded communist to add on top of the dance track when we stumbled on to the main theme of the film. It was a “Chinese-ness” that was bigger than the politics of Hong Kong being a British colony handed back to China. The soul of the film now had a voice.
On my first 35mm feature, Rice Rhapsody, I sought out famed Japanese composer, Masahiro Kawasaki, to create the soundtrack. I fell in love with his music from Bounce Ko Gals, directed by Masato Harada, because it elevated the emotions and illuminated what was unsaid in the film. So his music, when used interestingly, can serve as a character, manifesting the soul of the film.
Here’s a scene from Rice Rhapsody before music was added:
Click below for the Dream sequence with voice over but no music
Click below for the same scene with final music
For The Drummer, Andre’s amazing composition for the sequence where father and son come together spiritually but take a divergent turn in life, perfectly illustrates the power of the soundtrack. Click below for the sequence with voice over but no music:
I recently found some photos of Singapore in the 70's taken by Matthem Schramko. I was astonished to find two photos of Chinatown where we shot Rice Rhapsody. The two photos were taken exactly where we made the film some 30 years later.
The photos really show what the original Chinatown was like, full of life and vitality. Although the atmosphere has changed, the buildings have been preserved well.
Top photo from the film and bottom photo was taken from almost exactly the same angle...