Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.

Music, Memory and Society.

Adorno and Eisler argue that:

“As a matter of principle, priority goes to the truly novel musical resources. However, motion-picture music can also summon other musical resources of the most varied nature, on the condition that it reaches the most advanced contemporary modes of composing, which are characterized by thorough-going construction and the unequivocal determination of each detail by the whole, and which are thus in line with the principle of universal planning, so fundamental to motion picture music.” (1947, p.83)

This priority towards the “truly novel musical resources” sums up the music of Distant Voices, Still Lives. It is however far more complex and less of a novelty than Adorno would probably give it credit for. Similarly to the use of sound, the use of music in Distant Voices, Still Lives is a deliberate evocation; an exploration into the director’s own personal nostalgia for past practices and memories. The use of music can be split into two different types with one notable exception. There is no composed score for the film in a normal sense for a period drama. Instead, Distant Voices, Still Lives uses a variety of sourced music and specially recorded arrangements of songs, both used equally to evoke the era and the memories. Everett (2004, p.176) is again the main investigator of this stating: “However, autobiographical discourse, as we have seen, is about the processes of memory and does not therefore seek the closure of nostalgia, so that, even when the nostalgic potential of popular songs is exploited, this is generally done ironically and self consciously.” Because of a lack of distinction between whether she is discussing diegetic or nondiegetic, we will see that this is only half true. The first of these uses is found in the nondiegetic section of the soundtrack and can be described as more classically orientated both stylistically and in its use.

Classical Memories and Metaphors.

Going back to the film’s opening segment, it again is found to contain all of the elements of the film’s sound-world in a microcosm. As the doorway fades from a closed door to an open one, the viewer watches a funeral hearse drive past and park up. This again highlights the link between marriage and death but musically, Davies is being openly metaphorical. A rendition of “There’s a Man Goin’ Round Takin’ Names” by Jessye Norman is heard throughout this short funeral montage.

This set up is repeatedly returned to, often to emphasis the picture of the absent father on the wall behind the family. This song however, mirrors this effect with obvious lyrical ties to the father character. Norman’s vocal style is operatic which hints of religious and Catholic layers of the life shown on screen but this also acts as an apt funeral soundtrack for the absent character too.

The lyrics to the song are as follows:

There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
He’s been taking my father’s name,
an’ he left my heart in vain,
there’s a man going ’round taking names

There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
He’s been taking my mother’s name,
an’ he left my heart in vain,
there’s a man going ’round taking names

There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
He’s been taking my sister’s name,
an’ he left my heart in vain,
there’s a man going ’round taking names

There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
There’s a man going ’round taking names (taking names),
He’s been taking my brother’s name,
an’ he left my heart in vain,
there’s a man going ’round taking names

The use of this is interesting for a number of reasons. The first verse is the main extract used in the sequence and Davies puts emphasis on the line “He’s been taking my father’s name” as the shot tracks forward towards the picture of the father. Davies is showing nostalgia through metaphor here, allowing a reading of the lyrics to be about the death of a father figure. This is further added to by the exclusion of the verses mentioning the female members of the family.

More classically tinged music is used throughout the film in a strictly nondiegetic sense, using its sense of feel as a deliberate bypass into other memories. This cutting is familiar to the more general use of nondiegetic music, often put in place to suture images together. This is evident here but also more clearly later on the film when it appears to make long takes transition seamlessly between times and places.

A shot starts in the pub after the first wedding. As the diegetic sound of the pub and the crying daughter fades, the shot begins to track left, slowly edging out of the public house to what at first seems to be darkness. This darkness then becomes a scene in a church with the whole family lighting candles before again moving along until it comes to the street where the house is. This is clearly at Christmas time as the father is seen putting up decorations at the window. Throughout all of this, there is no diegetic sound. It is instead replaced with the Christmas piece “In the Bleak Midwinter” which plays throughout until fading to allow the diegetic sound of the family home at Christmas to come back in. At the start, Eileen is shown to be crying about the loss of her dad, brought to the fore by his absence on her wedding night party. When talking about a scene from Star Wars (1977) whose music is “slipping back between diegetic and nondiegetic.”, Kassabian (2001, p.47) points out that “In some cases, the idea of source scoring may be useful to describe musical events whose narrative status is open to interpretation.” The music here shares this relationship and also “use nondiegetic music to bridge gaps of diegetic time.” (Gorbman, 1987, p18). Whereas the other memories of the father have been negative, the shot pans to the different past seen by Eileen who is clearly far more forgiving of him. The past here treats him in a nostalgic way, taking his family to light candles in a church and putting up the Christmas decorations before he whispers a gentle goodnight on Christmas eve. The music reflects this, layering the imagery with equally festive and religious sentiment.

The classical, nondiegetic music used in Distant Voices, Still Lives is often played sparingly but for smoothing montage like sequences. They also add metaphorical and heightened values to the scenes in which it is used and brings forth the positive nostalgia for the more rose-tinted views of the characters before the inevitable crash of reality occurs.

Part 8 coming soon.

Adam Scovell.

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2 thoughts on “Distant Voices, Still Lives (Part 3) – Music, Memory and Society.

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