Music Versus Silence


The BBC has been experimenting recently with what it calls ‘slow film’. It included a series of films showing various craftsmen making: a knife, a chair, and blowing a glass vase. Each was made by hand, demonstrating exquisite skill.

Also included was a real-time film of a trip along the Kennet and Avon canal by boat, from Bath to Dundas aqueduct. This is a journey that I know well, having cycled there in the past, and taken a few boat trips. I can testify that it is indeed lovely.

I loved these films. Beautiful to watch, and as a musician myself, I particularly enjoyed the lack of background music. I strongly dislike the way music is abused these days in film-making, even in documentaries, as if the viewer cannot possibly be allowed to hear silence, in case their attention would wander away. On the contrary, the often silent soundtrack composed of natural ambient sounds of these films really drew me in.

I do hope to hear (and see) more of these.

I am referring to the way that music is plastered like wallpaper over so much film, I suppose because it is easy to do. I am all for the intelligent use of sounds whether naturally occurring or composed, instrumental or ambient. It just doesn’t happen very often. It is very much in evidence when you listen to old tv and film, by which I mean about pre-1980, just how much less music was used, and how much more effective that made it. An example was Smiley’s People, which was repeated recently on the BBC, and which remains a brilliant piece of TV. It had just the right amount of music, that is, very little.

One of the things that I particularly dislike about background music is that it tries to tell you how to feel. It is as if a rather bossy person were sitting next to you and nudging you every so often and saying: “right, you’ve got to feel sad here. Go on, feel sad.” I find it annoying when it is intrusive. If the drama is good enough, I don’t need anyone telling me how to feel. And if it is not, why am I watching?

I remember reading somewhere that one of the things that makes a composer great is that they know when to use silence. I think that the same could be said of film-makers.

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