The Music of Folk Horror – Part 7 (Musical Anachronisms).

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

Musical Anachronisms – Naturally and Overtly.

“Let’s just say there aren’t many films set in the reign of William and Mary in which the devil rebuilds his body by harvesting the skin of children…” (Gatiss, 2010, BBC).

To address the presence of musical anachronisms in films of all types is a tricky subject and potentially filled with problematic arguments.  By addressing the issue, other factors such as wide-spread audience reception, cinematic trends and audio-visual norms have to be generalised to the point where counter-arguments are easily formed.  To address the relationship of anachronistic music in folk horror is an equally troublesome area, simply because the arguments could easily be extended to cinema outside of the sub-genre; if this is a common trend in all types of cinema, why then focus on it when discussing the specific audio-visual relationships of a sub-genre?

Blood on Satan’s Claw, however, presents a case of examples that are worth analysing, simply because the ideas of anachronistic musical traits can be read as informing and reinforcing particular strands of the Folk Horror Chain whereas readings for thematic anachronistic presences of music in other genres may perhaps be more general and more to do with the production of the films and the assumptions they make of their audiences.  As Wurtzler argues “This position, so important to the cultural label “realistic,” hinges in part on the sound film’s ability to posit a single, unitary audio-visual event that exists prior to its representation.” (p.99, 1992).  What then can we call anachronistic music in Blood on Satan’s Claw and folk horror?  As we have seen in The Wicker Man, the music in folk horror can often reflect the era it was made, a modern day setting allowing for the influence of the counter-culture to enter.  Yet Blood On Satan’s Claw does not have a modern day setting.  Like many folk horror films, it is set in a very particular past.  Because of this setting, most classical methods of scoring are going to be anachronistic to the period setting, sometimes overtly, other times more subtly and only to the ears of a musicologist.

Witchfinder General is a good example of this logic with its 1645 setting at odds with its modern orchestral score.  Even a film set around the same era but outside of the sub-genre places equal presence upon this type of music; for example Cromwell (1970).  But there is something very different about Wilkinson’s score for Blood On Satan’s Claw – something that, when addressed, can also show why he was perhaps drafted in to advise on the initial musical writing for The Wicker Man.

Even to a non-musical viewer, the opening musical themes in Blood on Satan’s Claw are clearly odd in some way.  The influence of the counter-culture can again be deduced from the basic instrumentation of the score, with lead melodies given to a flute and the ensemble being small and percussion heavy similar to musical acts of the era.  After all, Haggard has stated this influence to be heavy on the film as a whole: “I think that I was trying to make a folk horror film in a way because we were all interested in witchcraft, we were all a bit interested in free love.  The rules of the cinema were changing.” (Gatiss, 2010, BBC).  A moment happens within this opening motif which is subtle enough to be difficult to single out but odd enough to achieve an effect of implying the uncanny.  Though obviously having emphasis on percussion, a shimmering symbol hit (in time with the first discovery of the remains of the supernatural creature) seems to have some form of electronic modulation upon it.

Though this relationship would be more overt over the years as the technology grew cheaper and more accessible, this brief but simple effect hints at something being out-of-place within the narrative world of the film; this “something” being read as the presence of the supernatural (the final stage of the Folk Horror Chain).  Donnelly has perceived this relationship before in more general use of horror music stating  “Film music not only seems to have an insistent irrational edge, but it also concretises this through its power to manifest the supernatural.” (p.9, 2005).  Other strange moments occur earlier within this motif, namely when the music actually begins.  A descending melody is heard on some form of flute and a sound appears alongside this but the instrument playing it is ambiguous.  At first it could be construed as another type of woodwind instrument but it also has the sense of being electronic, almost like a sound effect.  Its ambiguous nature again lends to reading a sense of the uncanny.

Put together with this obviously folk influenced melody, the music portrays two polar forces.  Cantwell suggests the following:

 “Thus the folk revival was neither reactionary nor revolutionary, though it borrowed the signs of other such movements and subcultures to express its sense of difference from the parent culture; it was, instead, conservative, or, more precisely, restorative, a kind f cultural patriotism dedicated to picking up the threads of a common legacy that the parent generation had either denied or forgotten to reweave into history.” (p.50, 1993).

The film has already shown this clash to be present within its narrative but such a reading can be derived from the musical score as well.  The descending flute can represent the people, more precisely in the film’s opening moment, the lonely field worker.  The descending nature of melody hints at a downwards movement, apt for the visuals of a worker ploughing the fields[i].  This melody seems very deliberate as the film is explicitly about the ground and the soil; what can come from underneath its supposed rural surface?  Alongside this “digging melody” there is the strange sound (alongside some diegetic sounds of crows calling) which can again represent the slight presence of something supernatural and out of place in the setting.  It’s lower in the mix but can be seen to be come to the fore (along with the previously mentioned electronic modulated symbol) when the field worker discovers the first remains of the creature.

When showing a clip of the score recently to a tutor, they remarked at how, in essence, it reminded them of the work of Vaughan Williams, albeit in an obviously more pulp setting.  This composer was mentioned earlier in passing and this was somewhat deliberate, to show that, of all British composers, it is Vaughan Williams who, with his interest in nationalist music and the use of traditional English folk melodies, shares the most trends with the arguments of this essay.  The tutor was indeed correct; Blood On Satan’s Claw does have elements that can be found equally in the more rural-esque work of the composer in its aural soundscape.  Both have melodies that were (or at least tonally could be in the case of score) taken from traditional folk music and both evoke the aesthetics and traditions of the rural landscape and countryside.

Ling states that “…Ralph Vaughan Williams, who collected folk melodies himself and then used them in his variations, fantasias, and symphonies.” (p.205, 1997).  This could easily be considered a similar pathway to Wilkinson’s score though may seem an assumption without detailed analysis- after all, the transcripts of the score are unavailable and Wilkinson, an obscure and largely unappreciated composer, has left little discussion of his work.  But the main crux of the argument is that Wilkinson’s score does sound like it could potentially have been passed down from folk melodies.  It could easily be a variation on some obscure folk theme as was the popular method of Williams; “Other composers such as Vaughan Williams, felt deeply committed to the songs as well as the singers who passed them down.  Variation has remained a popular genre.” (Ling, p.205, 1997).

The interest and emphasis on allowing this influence into the music can therefore be seen as apt for the setting while ironically displaying an anachronistic, 20th century interest; that of acknowledging and incorporating folk song into the supposed higher art of classical forms.  From listening to Blood On Satan’s Claw with emphasis on its connections to the film’s thematic material, it is clear that Wilkinson’s score not only adds to the film but reinforces its already stark connections with the Folk Horror Chain.  By highlighting the potential in film’s typical relationship with anachronistic sounds and music, the score hints at new territory while simultaneously being overt and extremely quintessential in its role as a folk horror whose isolated, rural communities conjure up something devilish through their easily swayed beliefs.

Part 8.

Adam Scovell

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