Composing in reel time

The BBC's 'Sound on Film' strand returns to the small screen tomorrow, its aim to re-establish the collaboration between music- and image-makers that characterised cinema's early days. Michael Church assesses the project and charts the highs and lows of film-music's first 70 years
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'No one knows why films need music, but no film is complete without it," said Bernard Herrmann, grand-daddy of all film composers. In the days of silent movies, off-screen music filled the void. When Al Jolson opened his mouth in The Jazz Singer, on-screen music was enshrined for ever. And in the early days, the best composers queued up to have a go: Strauss, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg; Britten and Walton; Shostakovich and Prokofiev. They recognised cinema's power, and wanted to harness it to their musical ends.

But power swung the other way. The composer became a subservient member of the director's team, and "film-music" became synonymous with professional prostitution. When BBC2 relaunches Sound on Film tomorrow, it will attempt to establish a parity between the makers of music and the makers of image which does not exist today. Or if it does exist, not for long: the petulant bust-up between Peter Greenaway and Michael Nyman is a case in point.

There have, however, been notable pairings in the past, the earliest of which was a one-off collaboration between those two Sergeis, Eisenstein and Prokofiev. Both were fresh from Hollywood, where Prokofiev had been picking up ideas on the sound stages of Disney, and where Eisenstein had made silents. They admired each other's work, wanted to find a path through the thicket of Soviet cultural politics, and reckoned that a celebration of medieval hero Alexander Nevsky might score useful brownie points. The lowering presence of Stalin turned their dream into a nightmare, but the film was still a triumph, with the Nevsky Cantata an unexpected spin-off.

The cinema's first long collaboration was between Jean Cocteau and the composer towards whom he instinctively gravitated, the mercurial Georges Auric. Le sang d'un poete was for both men their first experience in the cinema, and over the next 30 years they developed a language that was a perfect marriage of sight and sound. From La belle et la bete to Le testament d'Orphee, that language matured magically.

Herrmann himself saw no distinction between composing for the cinema and composing for the concert hall, and in his first great collaboration with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane he had the satisfaction of seeing sequences actually tailored to match his music. Before going on to work with Truffaut and Scorsese he had a fruitful period with Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo), which terminated in a very predictable disaster. Hitchcock was under pressure from Universal Studios to deliver a commercially exploitable score for the Paul Newman-Julie Andrews Torn Curtain, and Herrmann's response was an outlandish work involving 16 French horns, 12 flutes, nine trombones, and - horror! - no violins. Hitch dismissed him on the spot. As commercial cinema got into its stride, proud spirits such as Herrmann were tamed or forced out. Hollywood wanted obedient journeyman such as Spielberg's John Williams or the ubiquitous George Fenton (Gandhi, Groundhog Day, Shadowlands etc). The trouble with these journeymen - as indeed with Michael Nyman - is that everything they write sounds like everything else.

Occasionally musicians are given their head, with marvellous results. Miles Davis's classic score to Lift to the Scaffold came about because Louis Malle simply let him improvise as the film was running. Jim Jarmusch's films are always pervaded by music - Mystery Train by Elvis, and Night on Earth by Tom Waits - but for his recent Johnny Depp vehicle, Dead Man, he took a leaf out of Malle's book, and invited guitarist Neil Young to do it his way. "He simply asked for a map of where I wanted music in the film," said Jarmusch, himself a former rock musician. "We set him up in a San Francisco warehouse with his guitars, a pump organ, and a honky- tonk piano, and let him react to the screen the way musicians used to do with silent movies." The resulting fusion of sound and image is as perfect as anything by Cocteau and Auric.

But this was a happy accident. What Sound on Film producer Peter Maniura wants to do is to arrange creative marriages ab initio. This is the third such series he has masterminded: each film has been commissioned on the basis of a joint submission by a director and a composer. "Given music's importance in cinema," he says, "it seemed to us crazy that composers weren't working with a directors on an equal footing." And he's determined that the results should be broadly accessible. "We're talking about television films, for a limited means of sound reproduction. Many people will receive them in mono, with a speaker the size of a matchbox. And they are designed to fit in the middle of a normal evening, not to go out with an apologia at one o'clock in the morning." The number - and calibre - of submissions has been impressive: those turned down include proposals from partnerships including Nyman, Ken Russell and Jeanette Winterson.

Maniura concedes that not all the films are successful: indeed, some of the new batch strike me as unbearable fey, leaning on tricksy tv-ad cross-cutting. But those to be broadcast tomorrow are outstanding, perhaps because they make a virtue of their 15-minute form. Jazz composer Django Bates has long wanted to break into films; with One in a Million, directed by Terry Braun, he's found a charmingly unorthodox way of doing so. A day in the life of a young composer and her daughter: an essay in which crumbs, cascading peas, and blobs of marmalade transmute into notes. As with all his work, its apparent randomness masks close control.

In Blight, composer Jocelyn Pook and director John Smith have created a "homes not roads" commercial; its punch derives from their deft interplay between sound and vision. Sometimes one takes the lead, sometimes the other: the noise of a saw seems to cut through the image of a tree; a falling wall obliterates a repeated despairing phrase on the soundtrack. This may be a college of mundanities, but it reverberates mightily.

A backward trawl through previous films in this series reveals the mix you'd expect: a lot of self-indulgence (particularly when the stipulated length was not 15 minutes but 30), and a lot of unexpected originality. The composer Steve Martland produced a political polemic, Mark-Anthony Turnage inspired a film that became an early sketch for his opera on Steven Berkoff's Greek. And Plane Song - the prize-winning collaboration between composer Kevin Volans and director Deborah May - conjured the most extraordinary beauty out of dirt-poor, backyard South Africa. May's camera played no tricks, but simply gazed on whatever took its fancy. And because the eye was ravished, the ear was open to the effect of Volans' spare harmonies. One sense can heighten another.

Maniura wants to get people to "play with form, and to produce films that are not necessarily story-driven". Fair enough, but I think some of his less successful products could - like many abstract ballets - have benefited by the stiffening of a plot. Anton Karas's spiralling zither music may be the element we instantly recall from The Third Man, but it rides along on Carol Reed's spiralling camera-work, which feasts on superb acting, which draws its strength from Graham Greene's artful suspense. Never underestimate the power of a storyn

'Sound on Film', tomorrow 7.30pm, on BBC2