Film Music - Hidden Cultural History

When the Red Army marched into Finnmark at the end of World War 11, brass bands played the cheeky Fjellsangen (Mountain Song) from the Norwegian film classic Gjest Baardsen.

Film musikk

“It was to demonstrate that the Russians came as friends and liberators,” smiles our only film music historian, Bjørn Sverre Kristensen, who maintains that this 1939 film hit is one of the most played marches in the world. The light-hearted melody was written by Adolf Kr. Nielsen for the Norwegian “Robin Hood” story filmed by Tancred Ibsen, the so-called “double grandchild” of major poets Ibsen and Bjørnson. It is also one of the few examples of Norwegian film music to achieve international distribution.

Not so many Norwegian films achieve international distribution either, apart from the film festivals. But Nils Gaup's Veiviseren (Pathfinder) from 1987 was one of them, a simple, powerfully told adventure film from Finnmark in “cowboy and indian” style. A young Same finds cunning ways of halting the advances of threatening attackers. Gaup took an ancient Sami legend and illustrated it with imaginary ethnic music, which helped the film to be nominated for the final round of the Oscar awards. It didn't win in the “best foreign film” category, but was nevertheless shown at many cinemas all over the world.

You don't find many examples of film music being able to stand on its own feet, and Norway is no exception. Stravinsky once said that film music is not music.

Not independent
“Film music is not independent expression,” states Jon-Roar Bjørkvold, Professor of Music at the University of Oslo. Film makers make sure they have a single, memorable melody, a signature tune or leitmotiv. It is the only thing that is meant to be remembered.

Norwegian film history has produced a few such appendages that have gone on to become big hits - not in American terms, of course, but they have at least been played and replayed on radio request programmes in Norway. In addition to Fjellsangen, we had the lively En herre med bart (A Gentleman with a Moustache) from the 1942 film of the same name, and ten years later Hva var vel livet uten deg (What Would Life Be Without You) from the comedy Vi gifter oss (We're Getting Married), where birds were played on telephone wires so that the screen looked like a score and the notes (birds) moved in time with the music.

Film music is a hidden, almost neglected part of Norwegian cultural history, but much of it was as good as anything you could hear from abroad, say those in the know. And rightly so.

Films have never been silent. Or rather, they are only silent when they are shown as “silent movies” in our own times. At the time, they were always accompanied by music and other sound effects. The combination of music and film is as old as the art of cinema itself, almost a century old.

Desert song
Older films also had specially written music and sound effects, intended to follow and reinforce the action. But all the music had to be performed live in the cinema every time the film was shown. The more expensive films were accompanied by a score on their trail round the cinemas, almost like an opera score. Musicians could subscribe to catalogues and music samples that taught them the art of improvising to create transitions in various types of film. There were sometimes detailed directions about which music - often from the classical repertoire, such as Chopin - should be chosen to evoke a certain mood or atmosphere. It was just a matter of looking up the key words.

Brilliant pianist and accompanist Robert Levin started his career as a restaurant and cinema musician. In his memoirs he relates that he viewed next week's film prior to the premiere on the Monday; he sat at a little table with the house lights on and noted one and three quarter minutes of love with aircraft noise, twenty seconds of moonlight, ten seconds of threatening clouds, half a minute of storm - NB desert storm, not ocean storm.

The next day his partner went to a “cinemathèque” where all possible sounds for storms and love, and everything in between, were filed. “With everything that was to be accompanied by sound in the course of a performance, the pile of music was gigantic,” says Levin, now 82 years old. He thinks a lot of the music was good, not only as illustration but also in terms of pure music. French cinema music was in a class of its own, but all kinds of music were used.

Thirsty work
“At one cinema, the double bass was under the stage and sounds emerged from there that had absolutely nothing to do with what was happening on the screen. The orchestra was so small that it was noticeable when the double bass suddenly fell silent. Thereupon we heard the following sounds: a door being opened, a gurgling noise, a satisfied “aah”, a sudden note from the G string, a door being closed and music from the bass again. The bass player had sawn off the top of his instrument, erected a shelf and hinged the wood back on. In this little cupboard stood a bottle and a glass. There weren't many breaks, and if the bass player was thirsty he could quench his thirst without leaving his seat,” relates Levin.

In Norwegian film history little music was specially composed for silent films. The first registered music was written by Willy Johansen for the first sound movie Den store barnedåben (The Big Christening, 1931). It required, popularly enough, thin strains from an accordeon.

The first “sound movie music” remained external and descriptive. There was no attempt at psychological characterisation. Most first-generation film composers were theatre conductors with a good classical background. Jolly Kramer Johansen was the best educated (organ and composition) and the most productive. He recorded his music with a stopwatch in one hand and his baton in the other, and kept exactly to the allotted time.

The year zero
1946 was year zero. New musical trends emerged. Five people made their debuts as film composers, including Gunnar Sønstevold and the French-inspired impressionist Pauline Hall, a pupil of Massenet. Sønstevold became the great innovator, an unbelievable source of musical ideas. He moved with versatility between jazz, twelve-tone scales and neo-classical music. Instead of writing external dramatic illustrations, he entered into the films and described the psychology of the scenes. A pupil of Swedish Hilding Rosenberg, he understood both composition and cinematic art and wrote music for more than forty full-length films and almost 200 short films.

Gunnar Sønstevold was the first Norwegian film composer of really international dimensions. He also broke with the national romantic tradition. Grieg's influence had been pervasive. Professor Bjørkvold regards Sønstevold as a major composer from the post-war period: he belonged to the permanent ensemble round Arne Skouen and they made 17 films together over a 20 year period from 1949 onwards. Skouen is generally considered to be the best Norwegian film director to date. He also wrote his own scripts, and three years ago his 1957 drama about a man fleeing from occupied Norway, Ni liv (Nine Lives), was elected “the best Norwegian film of all time”. It was also nominated for an Oscar, the only Norwegian film to have this honour apart from Pathfinder.

Skouen had an ear and an eye for film music and regarded the film script as a kind of score; his film-making was based on a musical concept. For him, motion pictures were highly symphonic and contained an explosion of rhythms; he thought in musical metaphors. Director and composer worked very closely together; the composer was included in the production at an early stage. Actor Jack Fjeldstad, who played the resistance hero and is also highly musical, was the third member of the troika.

“I was there when they saw Ni liv 17 years later, and they obviously fell in love with the film all over again. I compare them with a central European troika, dramatist Berthold Brecht, composer Hanns Eisler and Ernst Busch, who tame from the theatre and was a classical actor. Fjeldstad is Busch, Sønstevold is Eisler and Skouen is Brecht. Both the troikas were critical of society; the Norwegians were involved without being political, but they were highly conscious of what film should be. And they were rather anti-American in their way, opponents of excessively schmaltzy romantic language. They were Europeans.”

At one level, the “Nine Lives” music follows the image very closely; Sønstevold's comment when he saw it again was, “That's over the top!!!” Image and sound said exactly the same thing, which is close to the American tradition, but the music is mostly radical rather than romantic. Sønstevold consciously ensured that his music was in tune with its own times; a modernistic approach. You can't whistle any of it, not even the leitmotiv that actually exists in the film. It is totally integrated. Skouen's narrative technique is otherwise traditional in many ways.

Sønstevold's wife, Maj, also wrote music in all possible styles for more than 25 films. It is probable that she also contributed to her husband's films when he was in over his head.

Egil Monn-Iversen was a quite different type of composer, who probably did his best work around 1960. He writes jazz, or improvises it. He was lucky enough to be able to get hold of the brilliant American saxophonist Don Byas for Line (1960). In Kristensen's opinion, Monn-Iversen became less interesting when he turned to the language of musicals and shows. In the 1960s the gap widened seriously, diversity arrived with the modernists, jazz people like Jan Garbarek and pop musicians.

Arne Nordheim was the most disparaged, and probably the most insulted person in Norway before he became the internationally best known Norwegian contemporary composer. His first film music, for Klimaks (Climax, 1965) was accused by the critics of breaking with style and being a direct parody. The consolation is that film is a mass medium and large groups of the population became acquainted with new music in this way.

Hans Eisler argued in favour of using modern music in films because tonal music is based on a centre and is intended to develop a theme. There isn't time for this in a film that normally only consists of short sequences, where you have to compose with a stopwatch. Atonal music works very well, because there's no need to complete anything. Bjørkvold reminds us that two of the best film composers to have worked in Norway, Gunnar Sønstevold and Ame Nordheim, stuck to this type of tone language.

Melodious pop
Later on, Svein Gundersen became a productive composer. He had seen a lot of movies and listened carefully to foreign film music. Gundersen, who came from the pop group Aunt Mary, wrote mostly in a pop-influenced, melodic style and provided the anarchist duo Wam and Vennerøds unusual films with interesting musical illustrations.

The younger generation is represented by the conservatory-trained duo Geir Bøhren and Bent, who had their breakthrough with the pop group Junipher Greene. In their first films they offered “forests of synthesizers”, later they turned to Symphony orchestras. Another extremely competent composer is the American Randall Meyers, who writes more in the chamber music style.

Silent movies again
A new type of music for silent movies has emerged. Composer and pianist Ketil Bjørnstad has applied himself to this genre with some success. He has written his own imaginative piano music for Victor Sjöström's 1917 film Terje Viken. Like many film composers, Bjømstad plays the music himself. He has also composed music for one of the last silent movies to be made in Norway, Danish George Schneevoigt's Laila, based on a classical novel about a Norwegian girl who grew up in the Arctic with the Sami people. This was chamber music for a rock band, and singer Kari Bremnes used her voice as an instrument. The Norwegian film festival in Haugesund has specialised in producing “film concerts” of this type with both “original” and newly-composed music for silent movies.

Ni liv contained a lot of action, but it was only with the advent of television, theme music and, not least, signature tunes for crime series that this type of music became popular. Orions belte (Orion's Belt, 1985) with dramatic explosions and other special effects, was made in the same tradition. It was even successful abroad.

With the opportunities presented by electrophonic music for smashing intervals and tonality and integrating sound effects, however, Orions belte exemplifies a new type of musical cliché. The same thing was happening abroad. The scary action film, full of bombs and murders, opened entirely new vistas for modernistic music; the traditional orchestra and ordinary orchestration could also be blasted to pieces. Rhetoric was provided by different instruments, and this rhetoric has become far more prominent – to such a degree that it may become as much of a cliché as the traditional style.

Composers like György Ligeti were involved in electrophony at an early stage and also inspired their Norwegian colleagues. Through the electrophony studios in Warsaw, they were offered possibilities for making music on a par with the best contemporary forms of expression, as Arne Nordheim has done.

Videos are the new forum for visual experimentation. Poetry in film is being transferred to new technology, while the narrative technique remains similar to that of Charles Dickens in the 19th century. The influence of the 1920s, when James Joyce and others began to dissolve rational narrative, has hardly been noticeable. Film has a figurative base and has clung to traditional narrative techniques. Norwegian film-makers are strangely old-fashioned. We might also maintain that modernism is becoming a cliché, or at least out of date.

The Norwegian experts agree that film composers, like so many other Norwegian musicians today, possess enormous craftsmanship and expertise. They have access to synthesizers and computer technology and have learned all the latest tricks abroad, in places like Hollywood. Bøhren and Åserud, who won the film critics' prize for the music for Orions belte and are frequently used, are on a par with international composers, as are many others. They are professionals, composers and performers alike.

These world-class abilities may lead to a weakening of the national profile; the ethnic flavour may disappear. It is also worrying that Norway cannot afford to involve composers deeply at an early stage, precisely in order to ensure holistic, unique productions.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.2 - 1994 No. 1
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