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Nigel WESTLAKE (b. 1958)
- music from the film (2000)
Sydney Chamber Choir/Nicholas Routley (soloists and musicians)
Recorded at The Sydney Opera House, Eugene Goossens Hall; Powerhouse Studio, Rimshot Studio and Audio Loc. Mixed and edited May 2000
ABC CLASSICS 476 176-1 [40.15]

Solarmax is an Australian documentary that, the film’s website tells us, is ‘a 40-minute giant-screen documentary that tells the story of humankind's struggle to understand the sun.’ I haven’t seen the film and so have to judge the music divorced of the image, a somewhat problematic position as film music is not composed to be heard in isolation.

Music has been an important component of cinema since its early days. Even ‘silent cinema’ is a misnomer as live music (and occasionally recorded music on early gramophone technology) accompanied the images. This had two main functions: it helped drown the racket of the projector and helped audiences understand the images as it helped focus audience attention on the screen and signified the scene’s emotional tone.

Whilst film is obviously primarily a visual medium, it is wrong to assume that the soundtrack merely reinforces what we see. Sound’s role is much more important as it not only adds an aural dimension to what we see it also, through the mix, emphasises what is important and, through the music, helps to cue audience response. It’s interesting that audiences, who would otherwise never do so, are happy to listen to ‘classical style’ music in films. Indeed, horror films are often accompanied by music that has a minority following even within ‘classical’ music. The atonal dissonances that assist in raising tension have their roots in Schoenberg’s 12-tone system; he tutored Hollywood composers during the 1940s.

Whilst listening to Westlake’s music, the best known film that he has scored is Babe (Australia, 1995), the following composers were conjured from the music: John Adams, Copland, Handel, Ligeti, Arvo Pärt, Reich and Vaughan Williams. This is unsurprising as film music is often pastiche; it has to quickly evoke a mood or emotion and so draws on conventional aural meaning. The Ligeti reference reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but other than that hardly draws upon what we might expect from a science fiction film, the genre nearest to the subject of this documentary. Hearing those composers is pleasurable, rather less so is the syrupy theme that’s reminiscent of John Williams’ more melodramatic, as against action, film scores.

The music is most interesting when it draws upon ‘ethnic’ sounds and uses a variety of instruments such as the Zamponas (Andean panpipes), the Koto and Shakuhachi. The bone flute is, presumably, the instrument that evokes the aborigines, appropriately given the Australian provenance of this documentary. These ‘ethnic’ sounds (that is non-western) are – as far as I can tell from the track-listing – used to evoke the primeval (track three is called ‘First Light’). This draws on the convention that western culture has lost touch with its roots and only ‘primitive cultures’ can be used to evoke a pre-civilised time.

The disc offers incidental music, short pieces that often seem to peter out just as they appear to be going somewhere. Even if I had seen the film I can’t imagine I’d want to own this disc. This is not a criticism of Westlake, his music is not designed to be listened to in isolation. However there are some exciting percussion-driven moments to remember; otherwise an aural memento of the documentary.

Nick Lacey

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