OPEN MIC: Sight(read)ing Music’s Unique Tones in Film

The film OPERA JAWA, based on Javanese legends.

GFI intern Natasha Hull-Richter sings out about the daring Global Lens film OPERA JAWA, and the ways in which music and film can change the way you see the world…

As a musician, I am particularly interested in the similarities between film and music. The many common elements that I have seen from previous experience and through my internship at GFI include the cultural importance and storytelling of music, of film and of music in film. A particular song or score at just the right moment in a film can express so much more than the scene alone.

Music, for one, can express culture in many ways. Most Western music operates on a different tonal scale than the music of Java or Bali. The distinctive 12 tones of the atonal scale in Western music do not come close to correlating to the nearly pentatonic (five tone) music that comes from the gamelans of both Java and Bali. Speaking from experience, hearing the gamelan is like being transported to a different tonal world. As far as using the same notes differently, some musicians, such as Bela Bartok, use these defining characteristics to show their cultural background in their music.

Balinese Gamelans

Film expresses these cultural distinctions in just the same ways.  The story of Global Lens film OPERA JAWA (dir. Garin Nugroho, Indonesia, 2006) is an opera based on Javanese legends. The film crafts a unique picture of life in Java, not only in its narrative, but also in the way in which it tells that story. It is like no other film I have ever seen. Still, films do not even need to be unique to express cultural significance. Global Lens film CRAFT (dir. Gustavo Pizzi, Brazil, 2011) focuses on an actress from Brazil, and her individual story (especially towards the film’s end) tells us more about the culture of her country than any travel guide could hope to. One of the wonderful things about all Global Lens films is that they express their culture in the same ways music does.

While music and film can individually express the culture of a country or region, they can work together to do so as well. OPERA JAWA prominently uses the tonalities of the Javanese as a way of expressing Javanese culture. The gamelan serves as both the background music and the overt soundtrack to the film. The fact that we even see the gamelan in the film shows something culturally relevant to Java. Namely, the musicians are much more prominently shown in Javanese performances than is common in Western music.

Storytelling in both music and film can be important in understanding the culture from which the film is made and independently of that culture. In discussing film, I feel as though it is almost too obvious to say how films tell stories. Saying that music is a form of storytelling, on the other hand, requires more elaboration. Music can be used to elevate emotions and express stories, even if that music does not have words. One of the most moving examples I’ve studied is Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. The symphony musically expresses the pain and suffering that people had felt during the purges in Russia and ends triumphantly. Many reports I’ve read about the premier said there was not a dry eye when the symphony ended.

Together, music and film can more powerfully express a story of cultural importance and can emphasize that culture. As one of the characters in the Global Lens film A USEFUL LIFE (dir. Federico Veiroj, Uruguay, 2010) points out, the ability of music to manipulate emotions is often used in film and can even be important for the story. He points out that when you are trying to evoke an emotion in a film and add a piece of music that also evokes this emotion it can have an amazing effect on the audience.

THE PRIZE uses almost no music to evoke emotion within the film.

To be specific, having very little or great deal of music can say a lot about the film and the story that is being expressed. Without the tonalities of Javanese music, OPERA JAWA would not have been nearly as surreal. The music, while providing a basic structure to the film, helped OPERA JAWA blur the lines between reality and the fantasy, where much of the movie seems to take place. In particular, the parts of the film where we see the gamelan players are vibrant and lifelike, and certainly seem far more real than the actual ending of the film, whose dull colors and unexpected setting give it a dreamlike effect.

Similarly, the lack of music can be just as intriguing for a film. The complete silence for most of the Global Lens film THE PRIZE (dir. Paula Markovitch, Argentina, 2011), broken only intermittently by the odd almost off-key music, makes the film seem more serious and almost forces the audience to pay closer attention to what is taking place in the film. The intermittent music merely sets the emotional stage for the real action which takes place in the film.

But again, this comes back to the culture because it ultimately defines which stories are relevant and worthwhile to tell. Shostakovich’s Fifth tells a story most culturally relevant and important to people who lived in the former USSR. OPERA JAWA uses a Javanese legend. CRAFT chooses a person who leads what most people would consider an ordinary life, which is inherently part of her cultural experiences.  One of the reasons I find the cultural elements and storytelling in both music and film so fascinating is because I get to use it learn new things about other cultures which I wouldn’t otherwise know.

Natasha Hull-Richter is a senior at UC Berkeley studying music and philosophy.  For as long as she can remember she has enjoyed film, music, and the fine arts (she sees all of the arts as a continuum, instead of distinct entities).

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