Only Music Will Last
Up to about three or four years ago, I never chosen a title for the articles I wrote for “Film Monthly”. I even preferred to wait until I received a copy of the magazine in Australia to see what they have entitled it. Yet this time, I first thought of the title because I definitely wanted the word music to appear in it. Coincidentally, this title- which refers to a famous poem by Forough Farrokhzad, “only sound will last”- also alludes to my other objectives in these notes.
Due to personal taste, I’ve set minimalism, in any field of art, as my basic standard. Less is better. The lesser the story, the lesser the exaggerated acting, the lesser the dialogue, the music, the sounds, the better. In my view, cinema at its peak, should find its way to a place beyond the conscious self, meaning somewhere called the unconscious; Freud’s big discovery. The less melody the music has, the more space can be given to the viewer, in order to have greater freedom to sum up his/her feelings and thoughts about the story, characters, and the overall film. Naturally, anyone can tell that I don’t really like this kind of cinema and I want the story, characters, dialogues, sound and music to tell me everything. Well, this is a kind of cinema, but what I mean by cinema, in this article, is presumptuously, my own favorite kind of cinema. Of course, since, like life, cinema does not easily submit to any laws, the good news is that I can change my mind quickly, because there were some films and certain scenes in some films which aim to convey to the audience a specific feeling or thought through sound and music, which are the main ingredients of their narrative structure. Not only is this no problem at all, but it’s actually an inseparable part of the whole. So, sound in a film has to become more like the music, and music has to become more like sound. The dialogue, which is a part of sound, should approach musicality and musical brevity. Finding this delicate harmony between silence and sound is the most important responsibility of the director- in terms of the relationship between sound and music- something that is rarely seen in Iranian films. Our films are either too talkative, giving too much information and underlining their important statements (music and sound are often used for this underlining), or they are committed to a lack of information and excessive silence. This lack of harmony between the amount and the way information is given in the story or the excessive lack or excessive soundtrack and the music, shows the scarcity of good editors, and sound designers (although there is a strong belief in Iranian cinema that we actually don’t have good script writers).
Of course, the main approach to the music in the 17 films that I saw was much more modern than before. The amount of music used in most films (in Iranian standards) was adequate. The melodies, with the exception of a few, didn’t gush out unnecessarily and excessively, and fortunately, in over half of the films I’ve seen, there was more importance given to designing the sound, which is grounds for joy. The Traces of the Memory (Mostafa Razagh-Karimi and Farhad Varahram), Paradise for You (Ali Reza Davood-Nejad), The Hidden Half (Tahmineh Milani) were in Dolby Stereo System. I hope that even one day caring about good sound becomes trendy, because it could be a good trend. The other good thing was that the music in most of the films was primarily Eastern and then Iranian. I know this may not suit some people’s tastes, but unfortunately, for some unknown reason I cannot much relate to the Iranian music, whether it is traditional or contemporary. The only Iranian music I’d been exposed to during childhood, and which had attracted me to the extent that I wanted to use it in one of my stories, was the piece by Aminollah Andre Hossain, which Kiarostami used in Where is the Friend’s House? Another piece that interested me was the soundtrack to Gabbeh, by Hossain Alizadeh, with an appropriate flavor of folk and modern touches…and then I saw The Traces of the Memory, and for some time I could not believe that this music was made in Iran. Aligholi gave me some hope on the music of my country. As far as I know, his work in The Traces of Memory is the only Iranian piece which can be exported to the international market. I mean that little section, called “World Music”. We must thank Scorsese, who in spite of making the disappointing The Last Temptation of Christ, at least by having chosen Peter Gabriel as the film’s composer, brought about a revolution in the way Third World music was presented to the Industrial Countries. This doesn’t mean that the film’s soundtrack is anything terribly special. Prior to Gabriel, there had been much more important and interesting “Fusion” music, however, Gabriel was a cause for the increasing popularity of this kind of music, especially among a younger generation. With the popularity of this film’s soundtrack “Passion” (1986), Gabriel released “Passion’s Sources”, (inspirational sources for the film’s soundtrack). That album introduced Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to the world outside Pakistan. Yet Gabriel’s contribution in introducing Eastern music was not restricted to these two albums. In fact, by establishing the “Real World” label, for the past fifteen years he has been involved in the production and distribution of CDs featuring Folk, Traditional and Fusion music, especially from the Third World. However, the negative side to the popularity of “Real World” has been that many (especially in Iran) have turned to a cheap imitation of Gabriel’s style (as a producer). The funny thing is that “Passion’s Sources”, music from Africa, Arabic Countries and Iran, is Gabriel’s tribute to the music of these countries, but some Iranian composers prefer to be influenced by Gabriel’s soundtrack to the film, (which was a combination of Eastern and Western music), in order to know their own Eastern roots.
When I claim that the music of the films at this year’s festival (Fajr 2000), was more Eastern than Iranian, I did not mean to offend traditional Iranian music, but rather to say that since film is a universal art, the music in it should, to a possible extent, be also. As a matter of fact, music became a universal art before anything else, having broken all boundaries. Therefore, it can even be said that of the seven arts, only music has been able to bring people and cultures closer to each other. Even in Iranian families who never listen to foreign music, you will probably find some Yanni, Simon & Garfunkel- Greatest Hits-Gipsy Kings, Vangelis, Kitaro and specifically Jean Michel Jarre’s albums on a shelf somewhere. The traditional and folk music of each country may be very important, ethnologically and artistically, to researchers, musicologists, and anthropologists, but for most people, if the sound of a Dijiridoo (a native Australian wind instrument) or an Iranian string instrument, or the drums of Native Americans, is not combined with a more familiar sound, it has no attraction, and if it does, it won’t hold their attention for very long. When I was a child, I read in a nature magazine that research has been done on the sounds of animals in different countries and it was made clear that, for example, the sound of a rooster, cow, or dog differs from country to country. Of course, it is our interpretation that makes these sounds different. The crow of a rooster or the meow of a cat is heard differently in each culture, let alone music. Just as Chinese folk songs may not sound so smooth to us, many non-Iranians may hear the warble of a traditional Iranian singer differently. If the music is created to be accessible to different cultures (not just in its commercial sense), it has to use every kind of sounds and instrument in a way to reach the common grounds between East and West (is the world anything but the two?). These days, even some of the musicians and composers, who are working in the field of Alternative music, like to use human voice and song in their music, though for some reason, they’ve given up on the use of one specific language, and have turned voice and song into instrument: people like the American Meredith Monk, who even stages musical plays, or Sussan Deihim, the Iranian singer and composer based in New York, and the most renowned of all, the Irish/Australian band, Dead Can Dance, and the oldest in this field, the Swiss Stephan Micus, coming from the land of time and precision, but whose every album (from the mid 70s) has an Eastern aura from different parts of the world.
I hope I haven’t drifted away from the subject. The point is that if music, like cinema and other arts, is a means of connecting, people’s ears should be cleared. Fortunately the soundtrack of most of the films I saw in this year’s festival was moving towards connecting cultures, different countries and people together. Maybe, by coincidence, “The Dialogue among Civilizations” has occurred more in the soundtrack of our films (in this official year of “The Dialogue…”). Paradise for You and the documentary The Traces of the Memory were the best examples of this in this year’s festival. Apparently the making of The Traces… took about 3 or 4 years, of which approximately one and a half years was devoted to its sound and music. Before this, none of Mohammad Reza Aligholi’s works had had any effect on me. The 125-minute- film, which was about Iranian history and culture, was produced by Iranian Television. The structure of the film reminds one of Saba’s Wind (Lover’s Wind) by Albert Lamorisse but, on the other hand, the omission of narration and dialogue and the excessive use of wide lenses and, at times, spending too much time on specific customs and rituals and an extreme use of music (not in its bad sense), reminded the audience of the films of Godfrey Reggio and his cameraman Ron Fricke, who shot and directed Baraka. (Godfrey Regio’s Koyaanisqatsi -1983- has also been influenced by Lover’s Wind). Of course, this isn’t necessarily bad, but at the end, the film suffers the same problem that Albert Lamorrise lost his life trying to escape from. Apparently after Ministry of Art and Culture-the producers of the film- had seen the rushes of Lover’s Wind (in 1970, during the Shah’s reign), he was asked where modern Iran was. Poor Lamorisse came to Iran once again to shoot “modern” Iran so that he may insert it at the beginning of the film in a separate section. But as we all know, while filming the Karadj Dam, his helicopter encountered the cables, placed above the water, for performing military maneuvers for the Shah and crashed, taking both him and the pilot from documenting signs of Iranian modernism, to the land of death. From what I know about the directors of The Traces of the Memory, they don’t easily give into propaganda films. So I’d prefer to blame the Iranian TV which has produced the film. This direct propaganda approach is a typical attitude of Iranian TV (with almost all of its six channels). They are still not convinced that direct propaganda has even negative results…
Paradise for You was the first film I saw on the third day of the festival, while half asleep, since I’d sustained much sleeplessness in finishing my own documentary. I’d only seen The Need and Sweet Agonies by Ali Reza Davood- Nejad, but it was enough to make me interested on his “Inventive Cinema” (a label which was used by one of the journalists, in mock of his film in the Press Conference…) A middle aged man has had enough of living in Tehran, so, he moves to a small village in the mountains, with no electricity. His family goes to visit him and they try to knock some sense into him, but little by little, sense is actually knocked out of them and they end up living up North all together. Before the title, we see the leading character wandering the streets of crowded and polluted Tehran, and Iranian (version of) Blues music is heard along with these images. After the title, there is a cut to the Northern forests and the same man with a bushy beard enters a partially abandoned cottage. He starts up his old van and begins to make repairs around the house. Up to the point which his parents and family show up, we hear three pop songs, which is a lot…After that, in the scene that his son Arash and cousin Mona come to him, Arash’s guitar acts as an element of the story, and it’s from this point on that the soundtrack of the film and the music that the characters can also listen, is blended together. In this film, contrary to my own taste that music and sound should target the viewer’s unconscious, Davood- Nejad has used the music in a very conscious way, as part of its narrative structure, and since this is established well in the film, it is justified. From a certain point on, the music turns into an inseparable part of the film and in addition to the lyrics that describe the situation or the characters’ concerns, the music itself is full of a passion for living. The music in this Iranian musical (?) was not intended only for pleasure, but rather as a narrative structure, a means of creating dialogue among people and different generations. And when I saw the film for the second time, I developed an even more positive opinion of it (although it’s usually the other way around): the paradise of not telling stories, the paradise of under the skin acting, the paradise of dialogue musicality and Davood- Nejad’s precise, but at the same time spontaneous way of dialogue writing and…Paradise for You more than any other film in the festival this year, expressed a love for music. Not because it included songs and was filled with music, but because the spirit of music was present in it. One scene that even worked for those who did not like the film: at night the secluded man is strumming his Tar (an Iranian string instrument), but in the midst of this, his mother and daughter are complaining about his move out of Tehran. And while he listens to all this, he speaks his heart out through mumbling bits and pieces of a song as if he were composing it on the spot. In this film, music always brings people closer together…It’s true that these songs are made with an eye on the box-office and young audience, but the place and significance of youth in Davood- Nejad’s film are so important that even this promotional consideration is justified with the story and the style of the film. Besides, what’s wrong with a director wanting his/her film to sell well? Everyone wants his or her film to sell, from Tarkovsky to James Cameron. Yet each filmmaker has a certain kind and number of viewers in mind. For example, at the beginning of a film like Easy Rider, or the more recent The Ghost Dog and the Ways of Samurai, Dennis Hopper and Jim Jarmusch use the songs of famous music bands and singers to attract the audience. Another fault found in Davood- Nejad’s recent films, (according to his critics), and maybe the main reason for labeling him with “His Own Inventive Cinema”, is that he works with members of his own family and because of that, he’s been accused of wanting to bring the budget of his films down. Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman have always made their films with their wives, friends or ex-wives. What’s wrong with wanting to make a low-budget film, if this is what he intended? In the West, critics are concerned with the performance of Liv Ullman, not her relationship with the director. What kind of criteria is this for rejecting or approving a film?! (Sorry for straying from the sweet subject of music and sound, once again.) Davood- Nejad wants to make a film about inner poverty and human misunderstanding; something that is, in my opinion, much harder to do in contrast to material poverty. The important thing is the result. In an interview about ten or twelve years ago, Jim Jarmusch said, “my way of writing and filmmaking is quite the reverse, everyone writes the script and then casts the film, but I can’t write a story until I know who is going to play the parts. The actors are usually friends of mine and until their characters are clear in my mind, I cannot begin to write”. If by “Davood- Nejad’s Inventive Cinema” they mean a cinema involving family and friends, I must apologetically say that this isn’t Mr. Davood- Nejad’s invention. But if “inventive Cinema” means, its narrative structure, superb natural acting, seemingly simple “mise en scene”, working with friends and families, I, like himself hope that “as long as his films can sell”, he will continue to make these kinds of films in the future. Such a combination between artistic, social, personal and commercial cinema has seldom been made in Iran. It may seem easy but it’s a big endeavor…
I saw a few films that could, in terms of music and sound, be classified as “Kiarostami-like”: Jomeh (Hassan Yekta Panah), Under the Moonlight (Reza Mirkarimi), We Pass Each Other (Iradj Karimi), Daughters of the Sun (Maryam Shahriar), You Are Free (Ali Talebi), and even Baran (Madjid Madjidi) despite its sentimentality. In these films, it always seemed as though the real sound were being heard, mostly realistic background sounds, but with rather increased volume and details. The music of such films is the script music (which can also be heard by the characters in the story) and is usually heard very briefly and quickly. These are all interesting descriptions and can create a good minimalist soundtrack, but I don’t agree that it is a realistic soundtrack. This kind of sound design just feels realistically prone, but under normal conditions, in real life, we don’t hear all the sounds in the street, city, or workshops. Our mind edits sounds and even adjusts the volume of sounds, based on our interests and priorities. The directors of these films, by arranging and mixing all these sounds one after the other, probably want to impress us with a pure reality, but is there a pure reality in cinema? Tolerating these extra sounds, at times, saturates the audience, and we’d like the sounds to become more subjective and less crowded. The restaurant scene in the film We Pass Each Other is spoiled due to too much background noise. In this scene, in which we see all the characters together, we need to be alone with them to feel and evaluate their reactions towards each other. If the director was not able to stop all the cars during filming, he could have chosen a restaurant further away from the main road or used filming tricks to make the two restaurants seem like one setting and therefore overcome the problem of excessive noise. You Are Free! and Under the Moonlight, have to some extent detached themselves from the reality of the constant sound, but unfortunately they were suffering from sentimental music. I only watched the first halves of Daughters of the Sun and Quivers of Peace, and both suffered from too much silence. I don’t mean that music should replace the silence, but rather that the sound should be musical. The last two films and The Incomplete Piece (Maziar Miri), are full of excessive sound of wind; winds that very often have invisible sources. And…Oh, the dreadful echoes. Even Paradise for You was not free of echoes. I think, nowadays the audience is sophisticated enough to recognize subjective sounds without them being punctuated by the use of echoes. (I saw Jomeh six or seven months ago without concentrating on the sound. I didn’t have another chance to see it, so I’d better not comment on it).
Generally, this kind of “Kiarostami-like” soundtrack appears simple but the audience develops a feeling towards it throughout the film. So, the works of Mohammad Reza Delpak, who specializes in this kind of sound design, may look easy, but he’s definitely got his work cut out. I don’t know if it’s OK to think of the Sound Designer or the Sound Mixer as having his own style or not, and to believe that he, like the Director of Photography, must make his style conform to the story of the film. However, Delpak leaves his distinctive mark in his work even when working with different directors. Delpak’s work is significant enough to be dealt with separately and in greater detail.