Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Music and The Hunger Games

There is a curiously ambivalent attitude towards music in Gary Ross's film of The Hunger Games. Music acts on the one hand as a vital form of communication, a metaphor for the last fragile shreds of the social bond itself (think of the ra-fe-mi-do code used by Katniss and Rue to signal to each other through the medium of imitating mockingjay birds); and on the other hand, as something profoundly suspicious. 

This is due in part to the fact that the first fully orchestral music we hear in the film takes the form of a proud brass fanfare diegetically accompanying a government propaganda film in the fictional country of Panem. So when, just a few minutes later, we hear a bed of lush, soaring strings entering as a - now non-diegetic - underscore to the action, we are apt to ask just what is being propagandised on behalf of in this film, The Hunger Games itself. Perhaps the kind of rootsy, aspirational self-determination exhibited by the film's lead characters - a quality that is itself musically coded.

In a recent article for New York Magazine's 'Vulture' blog, Nitsuh Abebe points to "a whole clutch of indie-folk guitar bands, up-and-comers and major-label crossovers alike, who enjoy dressing as if they just stepped out from among the coal miners of Hunger Games’ District 12." Abebe lists Mumford and Sons, Fanfarlo, the Magnetic Zeros, Of Monsters & Men, and Great Lake Swimmers, as artists responsible for "a form of polished, triumphal, suspender-friendly indie-folk" with a "smooth, punch-pulling sound ... cozy, attenuated, rigorously easy on the ears." These bands, Abebe claims, write music which "aims to be stirring, inspiring, or empowering ... But a striking amount of it winds up feeling inspiring on roughly the same level that your bank would like to inspire you to enjoy the freedom of no-fee checking, or your cellular provider would like to empower you to lead a rich, interconnected social life with your unlimited data plan." 

The connection is not simply a glib cheap short, Abebe insists, as this music is precisely the soundtrack of choice for many television commercials, with which it seems to share this same promise of a "highly-generalised self-actualisation." This music also makes up a great deal of the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: The Arcade Fire, whose song "Abraham's Daughter" features on the film's soundtrack, are mentioned in Abebe's article; The Civil Wars - who aren't mentioned in the article, but could be - have two songs featured on the soundtrack; and much of T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard's incidental music for the film inhabits the same soundworld of tentatively plucked acoustic guitars, winsome pentatonic flutes and stirring orchestral textures. 

But The Hunger Games, more than almost any other science fiction film recently produced, is all about a future, as in William Gibson's oft-quoted phrase, decidedly "unevenly distributed". There is a scene early on where the apparently medieval existence of Katniss Everdeen and her fellows in District 12 is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a massive chrome-plated airship looming up over the forest like something out of Star Trek. The musical equivalent to this moment of sudden future shock and radical incongruity comes quite a bit later in the film and - perhaps surprisingly - it involves the oldest composed piece of music in the whole soundtrack. 

It takes place when Katniss and the other 'tributes' first rise up into the game arena, and it is preceded by a moment of complete silence, an absolute vacuum of sound which lasts for a remarkably long period of time. This use of absolute silence is an old sound designers' trick, often used before strange or shocking noises as a means of emphasising their shock effect. You'll often hear a sudden - and usually very brief - suck of soundlessness immediately before big explosions in action and science fiction films, for instance. But here it is being used to introduce a very different kind of sound. 

The piece of music is called 'Sediment' and it was created in 1972 by the American composer Laurie Spiegel using a monophonic analogue synthesizer called an ElectroComp 200. Spiegel's first compositions, at Shimer College, Chicago (where she studied under the Ford Foundation-sponsored Early Entrant programme) and at the Juilliard School in New York, were composed for guitar and mandolin, and influenced by the "American Primitivism" of John Fahey (whose record label, Takoma Records, released the first solo album by Hunger Games composer and "executive music producer" T-Bone Burnett). But in 1969 she was introduced by Morton Subotnick to Donald Buchla's pioneering modular synthesizer, the so-called "Buchla Box", an event she describes as "a mind blow" and "a revelation", claiming that she immediately "fell madly in love with it". 

Spiegel would go on to work at Bell Labs and Eventide, produce an electronic realisation of Johannes Kepler's Harmonices Mundi for the Voyager Golden Record, and create one of the first pieces of algorithmic music software, Music Mouse for the Mac. She was among the first to write about the digital distribution of music and the effects of computers on musical aesthetics. Seeing the possibility of a return to a kind of grass roots domestic music-making, she came to regard the computer as a new kind of folk instrument.

'Sediment' itself was created in the composer's Manhattan apartment and it was necessary to turn off the refrigerator while recording to stop the synthesizer's valves from dropping out of tune. Intricately worked out with pen and graph paper before its electronic realisation, the piece thrums with the kind of swelling, pulsing sounds that were contemporaneously beginning to characterise orchestral work by her friends and fellow New York downtown composers, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and Philip Glass, albeit with a cool, metallic sheen that gives it the resonant feel of a science fiction spaceship interior. 

In the film, it is followed almost immediately by another piece of musical minimalism, the first part of Steve Reich's Three Movements for orchestra, from 1985. Reich's delicately phased pitched-percussion instruments and eighth note string ostinati seem at first a curious choice for the violent bloodbath that it underscores in the film. But in combination with the Spiegel piece it follows, it produces a strangely delirious feeling, something like the "ecstasy of fumbling" described in Wilfred Owen's poem from the trenches of the First World War, 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. 

But what finally links all these musics, the Spiegel and the Arcade Fire and even the imitative song of the mockingjay itself, is this curious nostalgia for some lost organic solidarity; a misty-eyed pastoralism whose very condition, somewhat paradoxically, is advanced digital technology, whether Spiegel's synthesizer or the genetically engineered songbirds. Even the indie-folk groups identified by Abebe seem to be a direct outgrowth - if not of the whole Pitchfork phenomenon itself of which blogs like Vulture are not entirely disconnected - then of the alt.rock and tags, generic identifiers which signify their debt to the usenet discussion forums of the 80s and 90s.