Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

BBC2's `Sound on Film' spotlights the vital role of music in movies.
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the relationship between music and film has always been a stormy one. The concept of a soundtrack as sonic illustration to the plot has thrown up some great scores - think of Bernard Hermann's music to Psycho, or John Williams's menacing double-basses in Jaws. But some composers have always felt the association with film to be unclean - they play second fiddle to the image through gritted teeth and try to concentrate on the money.

An equal, creative relationship between music and image remains, for the most part, a sort of Philosopher's Stone of the screen. Full marks, then, to the Arts Council and the BBC, joint commissioners of the latest "Sound on Film" season of four short films, to be shown on BBC2 next week. The idea is that each film combines a specially-composed piece of music with specially shot images, so as to achieve "a new form where music and image are equal partners".

The first "Sound on Film" series was made in the late Eighties and was specifically commissioned from name artists. This time around, the process kicked off with a national competition. The BBC's commissioning editor, Peter Maniura, explains why: "We wanted to break any charmed circles of commissioning power. We've ended up with a real variety of styles, because there was no agenda. For instance, one of the films, Passover, is a flamenco drama. That's important because it's an improvised, rather than notated form: it's not just Western classical `art' music."

No indeed. And Passover (Mon 11.15pm) is certainly a striking piece: imagine if Pedro Almodovar got rhythm, and then got religion. It's a good introduction to the series because it's the most straightforwardly dramatic of the four. The post-Greenaway lunacy of Temp'est (Wed 11.20pm), for instance, is so nearly unwatchable and unlistenable that you find yourself magically glued to the set. Another film, Pictures on the Piano (Thur 11.15pm), is a collaboration between documentarist Michael Grigsby and young composer Paul Englishby, telling the story of three very different real-life pianists. The themes each of them plays are worked cleverly into the score, echoing and complementing one another. And although Englishby's music is largely an exercise in embarrassing toyshop symphonics, this doesn't altogether destroy the interest.

The best film in this season, though, is Plane-Song (Tue 11.15pm), an utterly seductive evocation of Africa told through the dance of Vincent Mantsoe (below) and the superb quartet writing of Kevin Volans. The film, directed by Deborah May, is the least plot-driven of the four, and it approaches closest the idea of an equal marriage between the media.

The quality of the season is inevitably slightly uneven - some partnerships are clearly more equal than others - but "Sound on Film" is consistently fascinating, and represents an important recognition of the soundtrack's role. As Peter Maniura puts it: "Music has the power to take us out of the solid naturalism of most TV and into a fantasy world, where we take the audience on a trip." Buckle your seat-belts, and open your ears.