Future Too Perfect? Vangelis & Blade Runner – A Lou Review

One would imagine that most people have encountered a film with an utterly forgettable score or soundtrack. Consider how many films are created every year, both blockbuster and independent. It may be the case that most films have unremarkable music and sound design. But this being the case does not mean that the music in a film simply ought to be a mere accessory to the events on screen. For example, recall The Lord of the Rings (2001); Canadian composer Howard Shore devoted a theme to just about every faction within the story. But more than mere themes, these serve as what are called leitmotifs, which are deliberate themes used to represent characters. This technique is widely credited to German composer Richard Wagner, who used leitmotifs for not only characters, but also emotions, intentions, and abstract ideas such as death, justice, piety, heroism, etc. So when the events on screen feature different elements of the story coming together in some way, such as with the various battles in the Lord of the Rings, so too do the musical leitmotifs that represent them. While most people might not give a film score a second thought, there is a lot of work that goes into composing a great film score. Unfortunately there are so many films that have merely passable scores that they almost seem like an afterthought compared to the actual film. 

Let us first consider the methodology of a film composer. The vast majority of music in film is written as a kind of guide as to how to interpret the events on the screen. The emotional beats of the story are imbued with the emotional subtext of the score. These scores often include deliberate themes which have a clear beginning and end. Scores are typically very melodic, with a ‘hook’, and feature a strong sense of rhythm. Think of the classic scores from films such as Star Wars, Psycho, or Lord of the Rings. These pieces of music can be dissected from the movie itself and enjoyed as one would a Classical music record. In fact, this is often what happens; the independently released soundtrack to a successful film is often very successful itself. But the side-effect to this methodology is that there is a kind of schism that develops within the film; there is the music part, and the movie part. Both of these parts are sub-tractable and enjoyable without the other. While watching a film without its score would be a different experience, it would not be an alien one. It would be somewhat reminiscent of watching a stage play. The story, characters, themes, motifs, etc., are all still present and enjoyable without the score. The same can be said of film score without the moving picture – the popularity of film soundtrack on CD is testament to that. This is all suffice to say that a typical, middle-of-the-road commercially-oriented film mixes its artistic mediums (music, visual art, writing, etc.) in a manner not unlike a tossed salad: each constituent that comprises it retains its individual identity. Whereas a more innovative and artistically-oriented film may combine its mediums to greater effect, so that instead of resembling a tossed salad, it becomes more akin to a melting pot. Each constituent is added, yet they all become part of the homogeneous whole, bleeding and morphing into one another, displaying a greater degree of cohesion than what was possible. This may seem like an idealized way to analyze the constituents of film, and perhaps my analogies are skewed, but the point is that when so many creative minds are at work to produce one piece of art, the integrity of its scope and focus is greatly susceptible to compromise. Analyzing Vangelis’ methodology on Blade Runner reveals a masterclass in musical composition. But more than that, his methodology demonstrates how a committed composer can also contribute immensely to the narrative as a whole.

Vangelis did a stellar job at creating a sprawling dystopian metropolis with his score. very liberal use of a blue-filter lens combined with the electronic flourishing brings the dystopic city to life with all of its beeping, buzzing, wheezing, and screeching. Yet these musical themes are juxtaposed with scenes ‘outside’ of the city in which Deckard is contemplating the past, or romanticizing the past, in which no blue-filter is used, and the electronic buzzing and wheezing is replaced with actual acoustic instrument sounds (most notably a piano). It is almost as if to suggest that the hard-boiled concrete jungle of the city and its oppressive, dystopian influence has no power within the realm of nostalgia. The hardship associated with the metropolis and Deckard’s place within it is forgotten for just a moment, and the film score reflects this. In his essay “Reel Toads and Imaginary Cities” Aaron Barlow mentions how Blade Runner, in borrowing from the tradition of pulp writing, features an introspective tone where “…conflicts are internally, rather than externally, prompted”. Sometimes it seems as though musical flourishes we hear in the score are actually emanating from the characters themselves, as a result of their inner dialogue, betraying the secrets of their introspection, but prompting and furthering character development all the same. As we can see, these stylistic changes and their homogenizing effect propels Blade Runner far above a typical movie. Recall the scene when Deckard is at the Tyrell corporation and is about to meet Rachael. As she comes on screen, she is accompanied by an awesome set of synth string chords. These chords rise in pitch an octave and remain there, almost as if a machine is booting up. The machine sound in question at first glance could represent the owl itself, as it is divulged to be artificial, but the sound itself clearly properly accompanies Rachael on the screen. This makes sense, since Rachael is a replicant, though this has not been revealed yet. The inclusion of this musical motif in this scene creates an ontological ambiguity, between life and artificiality, consistent with the narrative.

The use of electronic music is obviously significant for Blade Runner but digging into specifics can be enlightening. In both the film and novel we are presented with Deckard, a film noir-esque hard-boiled cop surrounded by not merely an inert, concrete jungle, but a pseudo-organic, robotic Valhalla where technology and electricity hail supreme. Everywhere he goes within the city Deckard is living amongst the technology. But unlike Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where humans are depicted as childlike princes within their pristine palace of technology, the city and its inhabitants are dirty, dusty, deadly, and doomed to entropy. This is very well reflected by the abundance of electronic music – it serves as a motif. Organic life is almost too quiet to hear, too insignificant to be noticed in such a technologically-dominated world. Whether or not Deckard is an android himself has been a controversial issue. In the novel, Deckard is almost certainly not an android. But in the movie, there are strong implications to suggest that Deckard is, in fact, a replicant. As mentioned previously, the scene in which Deckard sits at the piano and contemplates the past in a spell of nostalgia is significant in its musical shift: it is a shift from electronic pitch-shifted brass, to the most authentic, warm sounding piano simulation possible with technology at the time, courtesy of the CS-80. Deckard being a replicant in the film adds another layer of meaning behind the piano scene. Since false memories are implanted within replicants to fool them into believing they are human, Deckard is not contemplating the past at all in the piano scene, but rather is being subjected to a simulated experience of nostalgia. Vangelis with his CS-80, shifting from electric sounds of the city, to the warm acoustic piano of nostalgia, is reflecting the fact that the memories Deckard is contemplating are, in fact, illusory. The warm acoustic piano is not actually a piano at all, but rather a convincing simulation on behalf of the CS-80, just like how Deckard’s nostalgic memory is not really a memory at all, but simply the most cutting-edge simulation on behalf of the Tyrell (or Rosen) corporation.

Aside from the methodology at work in Vangelis’ composition we can look to the quality of the music itself to further our analysis. Classical composers, especially those in the 20th century, are notorious for experimenting to create something unique, for better or worse. For example, consider the fact that electronic music had been a staple of the sci-fi genre, going all the way back to Bernard Hermann’s score of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), with his use of the theremin. That was 30 years or so before Vangelis and Blade Runner. If placed on a spectrum, Blade Runner is somewhere in between the grand symphony of Lord of the Rings (2001) or Star Wars (1977), and the intensely ambient soundscapes of earlier sci-fi, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Vangelis is using the same equipment as prior sci-fi composers. But while other composers went for ambient, alien, amelodic soundscapes, Vangelis uses them toward a more melodic and musical end. Since Blade Runner is a film that puts to great use the homogenization of its artistic constituents, the score of Blade Runner is not an addition or a mere aural companion piece to the main attraction on screen. Rather, the music is part and parcel of the movie itself. All of the audio you hear is very tightly integrated with the events on screen. There is no distinct start or stop to a theme or section. Each part blends and bleeds into the next in something reminiscent of a ‘stream of consciousness’. At many points in the film it is as though sounds from the score could actually just be a part of the film set itself; there is often no clear-cut divide between sounds that are ‘in-world’ and sounds that are part of the score. And this is of course juxtaposed with times when the score is obviously not part of the world, which is also significant. One way Vangelis managed to achieve this level of musical blending is with liberal use of a tried and true audial effect known as reverb.

Reverberation is paired with every sound heard whether the effect is noticeably significant or not. Speaking in an empty apartment is much different from speaking in a carpeted and decorated apartment. Musicians and producers wanted to produce a stronger effect of reverb without having to produce costly physical reverb infrastructure in the studios, such as large halls, elevator shafts, etc. “Artificial reverb” was a product of technological innovation from German company EMT (Elektromesstecknik); they released the world’s first ‘plate’ reverb machine, the EMT-140, in 1957.  It managed to produce a reverb-like effect artificially, though the device was costly and pure analog (and it weighed 600 lbs). Reverb can be readily heard on many early Rock and Surf records from the ‘50s and ‘60s. A well-known example from the ‘60s is the tune “Apache” by The Shadows, and notably from the ‘70s it can be heard in the drum intro to Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”. But the use of reverb would not reach its peak until at least the 1980’s. The sound engineers, producers, and musicians of the 1980’s absolutely loved reverb. This is substantiated by the fact that nearly everything from the 80’s sounded like it was recorded in a bathroom. The production on Phil Collins’ albums, for instance, feature heavy reverb on virtually every instrument, giving the impression that it was recorded in an arena. Being an ‘80s movie, the sound design in Blade Runner is no different. Even the dialogue is heavily saturated with reverb, giving it a dreamy quality, just like the score and sound effects. Indeed, reverb is everywhere in Blade Runner. As mentioned, artificial reverb had been around for decades by the time Blade Runner was released. But the specifically digital reverb we hear in this movie was actually relatively new, and a big improvement over the 600 lb monstrosity that was the EMT-140. The world’s first digital reverb machine, the EMT-250, was released only six years before Blade Runner premiered in 1982. This allowed Vangelis to create a much more spacey and ethereal sound than what was possible before with mere artificial reverb. “Heavy reverb, because it implies a huge, enclosed, hard-surfaced space, creates a mood of mystery and paranoia…”. The type of reverb applied changes the effect; from the immense space of a giant arena to the claustrophobia of a small bathroom at the flick of a switch or turn of a dial. It is also effective at blending sounds together. Rather than having themes with deliberate beginnings, ends, and ‘hooks’, Vangelis turned his score into one master track, with each ‘scene’ of the movie coming and going between pitch-shifted brass and heavy ambience. His use of reverb allowed the score to blend more easily, providing a sense of cohesion within the picture.

The advancements we have seen in digital music technology over the last fifty years are indicative of what is to come with technology as a whole – simulation with ever-increasing authenticity. In such an increasingly technology-dominated world we often find ourselves as proto-Deckards, trying to come to terms with what it means to be authentic, while living in the mire of inauthenticity. There will always be future iterations, newer models, and next-level innovation, seemingly for the sake of it. The CS-80 was a massive achievement, but it was only to be succeeded by even greater technological achievements in the decades that followed. Part of this analysis included detailing the many musical features of the CS-80 and its awesome power, but it brings to mind speculation regarding what kind of new abilities will be featured with the CS-90, or CS-800, or even the Nexus-7, and how the question of human authenticity will fare against their respective technological innovations. With the ever-increasing tech innovation displacing musicians, truck drivers, taxicab drivers, cashiers, etc., could it be the case that a great threat to humanity is the possibility of the future being too perfect?

While Vangelis is not returning to compose the score for the sequel to Blade Runner, composer Johann Johannson, a respected and accomplished composer in his own right, will be taking a crack at re-imagining this masterpiece. But whether or not he takes inspiration from Vangelis has yet to be seen. He could accomplish with his score the same thing Vangelis accomplished, that being the expert blending of sound in pursuit of unifying the audio and visual aspects of a film, with a real sense of narrative cohesion. Perhaps in his method, he will elevate the sequel to even greater levels of artistic merit. Or perhaps the sequel will simply tow the Hollywood line, destined to be like so many other blockbuster scores these days: derivative, uninventive, commonplace… or lost, like tears in the rain.

 

–Lou

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