navigation bar

Articles appearing for the first


time

Articles previously published

Reviews of books, CDROMs

Conferences, calls for papers,


events

Information about the journal

Search

Minimalist menace: The Necks score The boys

The boys, cinesonics and Australian cinema

Tony Mitchell

Rowan Woods' 1997 film The boys was released at a time when Australian cinema had just reached the end of its commercially viable, but at times rather shallow and gimmicky "quirky" phase, signalled by films such as Baz Luhrmann's Strictly ballroom (Australia, 1992) and the Abba-drenched Priscilla queen of the desert (Elliott, Australia 1994) and Muriel's Wedding (PJ Hogan, Australia 1994). The boys was an example of an entirely different ethos which confronted far more serious, uncomfortable and disturbing themes relating to Australian masculinity and a culture of violence, as well as articulating a tougher, more arthouse-oriented film aesthetic. Part of this aesthetic involved a more focused approach to film music and an increasing tendency, wherever possible, to employ local Australian rock, classical or jazz musicians to provide film scores which expressed a strong sense of place and time.

In 1998 Australian film writer Phillip Brophy articulated the notion of 'cinesonics' in a series of articles and conferences devoted to film music. In his introduction to the first volume of conference papers, Cinesonic: the world of sound in film, he announced

Sound in the cinema is a beautiful mutant. It is visceral, abstract, poetic, material, eventful, spatial, psychological, temporal, narrational.... Nowhere near enough has been said about sound and music in the cinema. [ 1]

While film music is only one of a number of components in the multi-layered sonic landscape that cinesonics incorporate, it is one of key importance, as the growing literature on film music since the 1990s indicates. Brophy's comments in 1999 on the soundtrack to The boys--performed by minimalist jazz trio the Necks--indicate that Woods' film was something of a watershed in Australian cinema in its exploration of a serious and grounded approach to film music which participated directly in the creation of an affective alliance with the spectator:

Surprisingly, one Australian film (and I do emphasise the 'one' as in, like, 'one a decade') opted to absolutely ignore the last quarter of a century of tizzy, queeny, Whitlamesque, theatre-company-funded, PC, subtle-as-sledge-hammer mockery of the working class (which is still alive and kicking today as back then). Rowan Woods' decision to get The Necks to provide a score for The boys shows that Australians can think beyond Baz Luhrmann excesses, Jenny Kee cockatoos and John Singleton mimicry. Arty but not alienating, the distinctive brooding tone of The boys is enriched by the pregnant spatialisation of The Necks' slowed-down lounge music.... The oppressive outer-suburban screams through the empty inner–spaces created by The Necks (and some occasional passages of Alan Lamb's telegraph wire drones.) Hopefully it won't be a decade before the next Australian feature film does something interesting with its soundtrack.[2]

Brophy's concerns about the dearth of interesting Australian feature film soundtracks may well have since been alleviated by some distinctive film music by rock composers and performers. Former Not Drowning Waving vocalist and keyboard player David Bridie transposed Papuan-New Guinean music in Bill Bennett's In a savage land (Australia 1999) and contributed memorable ambient soundscapes to numerous other films. Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey composed and performed distinctive scores for Andrew Dominik's Chopper (Australia 2000) and Paul Goldman's Australian rules (Australia 2002), and Brophy himself provided the sound design for Vincent Giarrusso's Mallboy (Australia 2000), for which the director--formerly the singer for the Underground Lovers--composed his own rock score. As with The boys, all of these examples contain music that was crafted according to a sophisticated cinesonic aesthetic which enriches films that deal with important Australian social issues, conflicts and environments--often relating to violence--in a thought-provoking way.

In the commentary to the DVD edition of The boys, screenwriter Stephen Sewell described the film as both "tough and hard and truthful" and "projecting forth into the philosophical."[3] This "philosophical" dimension in The boys relates to reaching beyond the realist representation of a particular event, particularly through its visual and musical aesthetic, to make more general statements about aspects of Australian culture, especially those relating to working class suburbia. The boys' unrelenting concern with the philosophical overtones and undertones of suburban male violence and aggression, which is effectively complemented and reinforced by the Necks' music, is noteworthy in Australian cinema. As Fiona Villella has emphasised, the film is distinguished by a searing and evocative representation of working class locality and a strong sense of an almost musically articulated formal and rhythmic structure. Here the Necks' music plays a strong role:

This is the heaviest and bleakest view of suburbia ever represented on local screens. ...here is an existence right in the heart of suburbia--the quiet streets, the brown-brick 3-room house, the car in the driveway--ruled by a cultural and existential void, monotony, emptiness, blandness, unfulfillment and discontent. And, dangerously so. ...Rowan Woods is one of the few contemporary Australian filmmakers to have created a cinematic film--ruled by an aesthetic--where form is inseparable from, and integral to, story. Straight away from the film's first shots....[u]nspecified, mysterious and amplified by an unnerving, haunting score--this sense of an aesthetic is immediately felt.... There is a definite rhythmic quality to The boys, a lingering though intensely hypnotic quality, achieved through Woods' masterful use of silences, pauses, the score, elliptical narrative time and a haunting sense of space.... [4]

Villella's identification of a distinctive formal aesthetic in The boys, which the music plays a strong role in establishing, indicates that its cinesonic properties are important in distinguishing it as something of a landmark in Australian cinema.

In terms of the role of film music in cinematic representations of violence, Bernard Herrmann's music for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (USA 1960), an early example of minimalism in its use of stringed instruments within a relatively tight musical framework, has become a widely-referenced paradigm. Royal S. Brown describes the impact of Herrmann's music in Psycho as "musical translations of raw affect" which are achieved through "a continuing reliance on the short phrase"; for Brown this is "the most nearly pure film-music style." [5] In its own way, The Necks' music for The boys could also be said to achieve this, and like Herrmann's music for Psycho, to have "brought to the surface the subliminal pulse of violence." The function of the Necks' music in The boys approaches that of Brophy's characterisation of Herrmann's music in Psycho, albeit on a much smaller scale:

The score to Psycho is not to be assumed as accompaniment. The film integrates it and transforms it into a cinesonic substance which fires the film's psychotic expulsions. [6]

Similarly, the Necks' music in The boys is never mere accompaniment, but operates as an underscoring pulse which taps into the unspoken violence simmering beneath the surface of the protagonists' conversations and behaviour. This essay explores the modalities of the Necks' music as "cinesonic substance," or "musical translations of raw affect," both in its use within the film and on the soundtrack CD, and outlines the history of the Necks' minimalist musical production and their approach to scoring The boys. In analysing the music they created as a result of their encounter with Woods' film, it elaborates on the "juxtapositional" approach taken by the Necks, in the sense of creating music which does not merely provide scene "accompaniment," but which explores a range of responses to impulses provided by different aspects of the film.

The Necks, minimalism and film music

Sydney-based minimalist improvising jazz trio the Necks--Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on bass and Tony Buck on drums--have been performing since 1986 and have released twelve albums since 1989, gradually building up a loyal cult following which since 2000 has begun to spread outside Australia into Europe and elsewhere. Usually categorised as "minimalist," and tending to avoid the use of non-acoustically produced sounds (at least in live performance), their music has managed to achieve considerable dynamic variety within seemingly modest and restricted parameters. As David Stubbs has stated,

Their modus operandi is unique--taking a single musical idea, mulling it over endlessly, shading, embellishing and elaborating on it but never breaking away from it, for anything up to an hour. [7]

This mobilisation of a single idea over a long period of time also relates to their music for The boys. Although consisting of a number of short tracks, the score still tends to elaborate on a series of single motifs or musical phrases, usually established by Abraham's piano. But this does not diminish the range of tempos, dynamics, genres, and moods they are capable of evoking within these deceptively narrow limits, as John Walters indicates in a review of their 2003 album Drive by in the UK Guardian:

Their music can be slow, fast, gentle, aggressive, multi-layered, minimalist, tonal, abstract, retro, futuristic, chilled, funky, trance-like, controlled, overwhelming, intellectual and sensual. [8]

In live performance, the three musicians--who have a policy of not rehearsing--start with silence, taking stock of the acoustics of the venue, and after one of the three initiates proceedings on an impulse, the other two gradually follow. The piece which emerges often builds slowly to a crescendo and then fades into a resolution, based on a mutual consent that is instinctive and auditive rather than the result of any visual cues or visible interaction between the musicians. Sydney jazz critic John Clare encapsulated an early performance by the group in the Old Darlington School on the grounds of Sydney University:

...the audience and musicians seem spellbound. The only dynamic element is the music, which unfolds like a time-lapse film of growing plants. Absolutely compelling...the surface seems static, but bass and drum patterns subtly metamorphose.... Everything intensifies, almost imperceptibly, until the trio is humming like a dynamo, filling the room with belling overtones.... They present improvisations in which a hypnotic rhythm is invariably established, this being the only predictable element. It is a kind of jazz minimalism. [9]

In its emphasis on ambience and "hypnotic rhythm," the Necks' music has certain affinities with the "music for imaginary films" or "imaginary soundtrack" genre associated with British composers Brian Eno and Barry Adamson, and dance and electronica artists such as Arling and Cameron, David Holmes, Massive Attack, Spleen and others. The Necks embody an open-ended form of patterned improvisation based on repetition which bridges a wide variety of musical genres--classical, jazz, avant-garde, rock, ambient, electronica, "new music"--without ever settling comfortably in any one category, with the possible exception of jazz. (The slowly-evolving modal jazz of Miles Davis' 1969 album In a silent way is often invoked as a major influence.) Their music also has strong affinities with the trance-like properties of non-Western forms of music such as Indian ragas, Indonesian gamelan and African polyrhythms. In the English new music magazine The wire, which has championed the Necks' music since discovering it in 2002, Brian Morton describes Drive by as belonging to a

mantra-like idiom...sufficient to make some American minimalist classics seem one-dimensional. ...one of the beauties of Necks music is how evanescent and unpredictable it is, even within its durational and timbral predictability. Few groups have applied themselves to such a restrictive aesthetic and then mined so much from it. [10]

Their music is most often compared with American minimalism and composer-performers such as La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Charlemagne Palestine. Key minimalist film scores include Michael Nyman's rather frenetically insistent scores for Peter Greenaway's films and his blander themes for Jane Campion's The Piano (Australia 1993). [11] Performed in concert in the USA, Europe and Australia, Phillip Glass's robustly repetitive and highly dramatic orchestral music for films such as Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy (USA 1981-2004), also contributed to popularising the genre. Minimalism is largely process-oriented music strongly influenced by non-Western forms, avoiding the usual narrative structure, tension and climaxes associated with conventional western art music. K. Robert Schwarz, in his book Minimalists, has defined this style as being

...based on the notion of reduction, the paring down to a minimum of materials that a composer will use in a given work. In the classic minimalist compositions of the 1960s, practically every musical element--harmony, rhythm, dynamics, instrumentation--remains fixed for the duration of the work, or changes only very slowly. And the chief structural technique is unceasing repetition, exhilarating to some, mind-numbing to others. [12]

In general the ambient, repetitive, predominantly atmospheric properties of minimalism make it readily adaptable as non-diegetic film music, where, as the example of Herrmann's music makes clear, the function of underscoring film images often requires short phrasing, and a minimum of dramatic tension and melodic dynamics.

Approaching The boys

In 1997 Rowan Woods, a long-time fan of the Necks, invited them to participate in his film The boys. Based on a screenplay adapted by Sydney playwright Stephen Sewell from the play by Gordon Graham, the script was based indirectly on events leading up to the shocking Anita Cobby murder which took place in Western Sydney in 1986. [13] Woods was particularly struck by Silent night, a 1995 double album by the Necks which consisted of one CD entitled Black, and another entitled White. Black was a noirish, evocatively cinematic piece, with sombre piano bass notes predominating along with the macabre overtones of a Hammond organ, throbbing bass and soft cymbals. Working from an idea proposed by Buck, it also incorporated a series of odd background sound effects, forming what Swanton has called a "'narrative' of movie samples" [14] : footsteps, laughter, screams, snippets of conversation, car engines, church bells, a phone ringing, a police siren, and what sounds like an orchestrated argument and fight between a man and a woman. As Abrahams has stated about Black:

We had an idea to make a piece of music in which were embedded small 'moments' from pre existing film soundtracks.... All of the samples came from films which I had recorded off SBS [television] over a period of three or so years. In some senses it can be seen as a homage to some of my favourite films--although the obscurity and size (smallness) and the resultant anonymity of the samples tends to work against this. I also like to think of Black as a soundtrack to a film which has been 'shot' using small sound samples.... Possibly it is a reworking of a soundtrack where the new soundtrack doesn't replace the old one. The old soundtrack is the only surviving element of the 'film' and can only imply or describe an image or theatrical/cinematic moment--thus the visual element can only inhabit the ideational, a bit like words in a script.... Because there was a very positive feeling about Black from both Rowan and Robert [Connolly], and because the album was still relevant to us on an inspirational level, it was a very good match up. [15]

The resulting film noir-like properties of Black were especially appropriate to the disturbing psychological drama of masculine violence that is developed in The boys. In his commentary on the 2003 DVD edition of the film, Woods states that the film is in his view a generic intersection between "the documentary and social realism film and the horror film," both of which involve "looking around corners."[16] Both these elements could be said to be present in embryonic form in Black, which combines a kind of sonic documentary realism with a disturbingly unidentified violence, rather in the manner of Psycho or even Dario Argento's cult horror film Suspiria (Italy 1977). Argento's use of a lush, "prog-rock" soundtrack, according to Brophy, "confounds, compacts and confuses its audience," and is

'sounded' more than it is composed, cued or conducted. Its presence is more abstract and abject than it is representational or expressive. Its 'rockness' is allowed to be itself rather than be coded into some bland narrational voice. [17]

Black was even played on the set of The boys, Dario Argento style, during rehearsals and filming, to "psych" the actors into their parts. [18] Woods wanted to involve the group directly in the creative process from the outset, aware that the Necks' slowly evolving, improvised process of developing a piece of music was perhaps antithetical to the convention of scoring atmospheric "grabs" to fit edited sequences. As he stated in the liner notes to the soundtrack CD, Woods' quasi-saturation approach to the Necks' role was unconventional enough to provide scope for them to work on the score in their usual process-oriented way:

Their involvement with The boys began long before the film entered production. Their response to the film started during script development, continuing through production as they visited the location, rehearsals, rushes and weekly edits. Unlike the traditional approach to film composition, they did not wait for a locked off final cut to compose to. Instead, exposed to all aspects of the film, they entered the studio and simply played. [19]

The house in the Eastern Sydney beach-side suburb of Maroubra where most of the film was shot was used extensively for actors' rehearsals prior to shooting, and the Necks were invited along to savour the atmosphere. Although it was a long way from the Bankstown house in Sydney's Western suburbs where the perpetrators of the Anita Cobby murder lived, Chris Abrahams has compared the use of the Maroubra house to In Cold Blood (USA 1967), Richard Brooks' film of Truman Capote's non-fiction crime novel. Unlike The boys, Brooks' film was shot in the same house in which the murder occurred, but Abrahams saw In Cold Blood as a "legacy", providing a "vibe" the musicians could both contribute to and draw on: [20]

Although both films use a pre-existing house rather than a soundstage to shoot interior scenes, there is a big difference between renting any house and shooting in it and shooting the picture in the very house in which the crime was committed. There is a similarity, possibly, in the intention of creating a "vibe" by using a real run-down place to shoot in and this vibe will inhabit the film's production and influence it in ways powerful yet unknown. The use of Black during the rehearsals for the film can be seen as following this approach to "vibe" somewhat, and this further implies a juxtapositional approach to the music soundtrack which we felt was the correct approach. [21]

That many of the crew of The boys--including Connolly, Woods, the Necks and cinematographer Tristan Milani--were working on their first feature film at the time, contributed to the fact that its production process was quite idiosyncratic and unconventional. This, together with the Necks' music, encouraged an atmosphere of engaging in and developing the process of creation rather than emphasising the finished product. The resulting "vibe-induced" music released on the soundtrack CD differs considerably in format from the majority of releases by the Necks: forty-nine minutes of music consisting of seven tracks of varying lengths (from just over three minutes to ten minutes and twenty seconds), most of which evoke dark and menacing undertones. [22] As Abrahams has noted, the Necks spent a lot of time absorbing the atmosphere of the film, and much of the music they produced was not subsequently used in the final cut. This "extra" music explored aspects of indeterminacy, responding to the unplanned, chance aspect of putting two things together. [23]

According to Swanton the group produced "large swathes of music" and put together hours of tape. [24] Abrahams elaborates on this in terms of the "juxtapositional" approach the group took:

We worked much more abstractly writing as many pieces with different tempos, time signatures, instrumentation, melodies and keys--within a particular aesthetic--as we could. We felt that conventional mood re-enforcing music would have worked against its obvious social realism. The project, for me, seemed to be largely concerned with the juxtaposition of Necks' music with the film, rather than us writing music to the film. [25]

This juxtapositional approach indicates that the group wanted the music to be more than just an affect- or vibe-based response to the film's locations, characters and claustrophobic atmosphere. They were also looking for ways to establish the music as both a separate entity from the film and a commentary on it, which would exist on its own terms. Consequently the soundtrack release, which includes four tracks not used in the film, is more a response to different aspects of the film than a record of the music used in the film. Indeed the adage "music inspired by," which is often used by record labels to justify albums of barely relevant music marketed under the sales tag of a particular film, is here literally true. The raw material which the Necks produced in the studio was subjected to extensive editing and other studio procedures which processed it into self-contained tracks rather than the unresolved fragments of musical atmosphere often found on film soundtracks. (Massive Attack's album for Luc Besson's Danny the dog [France 2004] is a recent case in point within the electronica genre.) As Swanton has stated:

We had recorded large half-hour chunks of several ideas, in rough form, most of which hadn't been used in the film, so Chris and I (Tony had gone back to Europe) edited, mixed, added more parts to them 'til we felt that they stood up as pieces of music. [26]

After the original 1997 soundtrack CD had been deleted, the Necks reissued a re-packaged version on their own Fish of Milk label in 2004, with a sleeve note that clearly stated their intentions:

This soundtrack album...consists of more than just the music that appeared in the film. It is an album in its own right, drawing from all the works that the Necks composed for the project. [27]

The Necks also included a couple of more melodic, less dramatically menacing pieces of music for the album which juxtaposed the prevalent dark, threatening mood of The boys. Abrahams has commented on a track entitled "He led them into the world"--a reference to Brett's manipulation of his brothers to commit a rape and murder--which is included as a sound bite on the DVD, but was not used in the film itself:

'He led them into the world' is probably the 'nicest' track on The boys soundtrack album and I think that the contrast with the bleakness and horror of the film is powerful. The title doesn't refer to any particular scene in the film. The film plots the journey the brothers make from the private world into the public world. There is a sense in which the fate of the brothers is inevitable, there is no other outcome given their upbringing and socio-economic conditions. In the tradition of Mailer or Capote, the film makes no mystery of the crime, rather it sets out to give humanist reasons for how it possibly could have happened. I think the gentleness of the piece and its sad melodic quality emphasise the doomed nature of the brothers' existence and the 'unavoidable', horrific and tragic crime which they commit. [28]

The ethos behind this track, in Abraham's explanation, provides a juxtapositional commentary and a sympathetic underscoring of an important aspect of the character and situation of Brett and his brothers, but one which remains extra-textual. Three other tracks on the soundtrack album, "Headlights," "The sleep of champions" and "Fife and drum" evoke visual motifs from the film. Abrahams describes the latter, referring as it does to the name of the local pub and bottle shop the brothers frequented until Brett's violent encounter with the proprietor, as "possible pub ambience. Something one might have heard on the juke box." But, Abrahams notes, "We wanted the names of the tracks to stand on their own rather than merely describe the music's use in the film." [29] The soundtrack album thus functions as a kind of musical commentary that elaborates on the film, but also as a Necks album in its own right. Through the re-issue of the album, the music has now gained something of a life beyond the film with its new cover design featuring images from the film's opening sequence, rather than the close-up of David Wenham from the original album cover. Abrahams refers to this change as serving to "re-enforce the autonomy of the album." [30]

This autonomy was borne out in interesting ways by most reviewers of the CD re-release in the UK, who have tended to respond to the album without having seen the film, expressing surprise at its atypical use of short tracks, and producing their own imaginary versions of the film (and Australia). These reviews provide indications of the album's success as a sonic evocation of an imaginary film, and its affective dimensions as responses to a "vibe". Louise Gray evoked the following images in The wire:

...that rarity: an OST that stands on its own merits.... It conjures up the badlands of Australia where the film--an Antipodean Taxi Driver--is set. The sonic evocation of place is so well done that one almost sees the screen doors of dingy houses banging in the wind, the wastelands yawning into the outback. [31]

This reference to "badlands" may be an appropriate, if stereotypical trope--Brent Clough used a sequence of the dialogue from the end of The boys to accompany his 2004 ABC Radio eye program based on Ross Gibson's 2002 book Seven versions of an Australian badland. But in terms of "sonic evocation of place," the western suburbs of Sydney are of course a long stretch from the outback, let alone Maroubra, and "screen doors of dingy houses" hardly an appropriate image. Scorsese's Taxi driver (USA 1976) is an apt analogy insofar as its Bernard Herrmann score and its powerful evocation of masculine violence are apposite enough in terms of the music and themes of Woods' film. The review suggests that just as The boys has outlived its connection to the Anita Cobby murder, the Necks' music for The boys has outlived the film, which remains something of a minor Australian arthouse curio in terms of its international recognition.

The music within the film's text

Within the film itself, it comes as a major surprise to discover that from the ninety minutes of music the Necks presented to the sound editor, less than seven and a half minutes of the Necks' music was eventually used. These segments occur within three quite short sequences, all of them using variations on the same repeated musical theme. The first sequence incorporates about two and a half minutes of the theme under the opening titles; the second three and a half minute sequence underscores activity in different rooms of the house just prior to midway through the film; the third involves less than a minute and a half of music just before the end of the film, as the three brothers sit in their car smoking cigarettes, before they decide to accost the woman they see at a bus stop [32] .

All three sequences are psychologically and atmospherically reinforced by the powerful pulse of the music, which involves repetitions of a forceful four-note piano cadenza (with increasing reverberations of the fourth note), a swirling, sustained wash on a Hammond organ, a repeated bass note, stabbing drums, and a buzzing, droning, wavering electronic noise. "The minimalism is intentional," Woods has noted, suggesting that to have used any more of the Necks' music in the film "would have made a very claustrophobic, dark piece almost impossible to watch." [33] Abrahams is largely in agreement:

I think that any more music could have possibly made the film a little too melodramatic and produced and thus could have detracted from the realist concerns therein.... I think the sparse use of the music was very effective. We were fortunate enough to come up with a strong theme for the film--one that, for a while, seemed to be used whenever there was a television or radio report on serial murder, pedophilia or any other dark crime. [34]

These appropriations of the film's music, used to evoke associations with the unseen violence in the film in news stories (on ABC radio and TV in particular), reinforce the life the music has taken on outside the film. The music's strong associative work within the film made it highly quotable; subsequently, it was often used as "mood music," to accompany crime stories in current events television programs. Both these aspects of the music can be related to its 'juxtapositional' construction in relation to the film.

The role of the music in the opening credit sequence is quite complex, occurring after the film opens with a black and white tracking shot of shops, houses and other details filmed from a car, as well as video footage of the surface of a road, complete with white lines. The soundtrack to this sequence, variations of which occur later in the film, consists of what Woods describes as "sub-audible sounds emitted from high tension wires." [35]

This is in fact a sustained drone taken from composer--and biological scientist--Alan Lamb's "Beauty" (from his 1995 album Primal Image, which consists of ambient sounds recorded over a period of seven years by attaching microphones to telegraph wires in various Australian locations and weather conditions.) The resulting ominous, slightly disturbing sound effects morph sonically--after the title credit--into the Necks' music, with its insistent piano motif, Hammond organ, and electronic buzzes. This signals an image shift to a series of shots of the interior of the house: electricity wall sockets, a padlock, coat hangers, light fittings, a TV set, a fragment of bread in a plughole, a sink, and knives in a wall socket. The camera's focus twists between sharp definition of these objects and a blurry indistinctiveness, a technique which recurs throughout the film. Woods has commented that this credit sequence, which was edited to the rhythm of the Necks' music, evokes an atmosphere of "dread," and could possibly represent the empty house while the murder is being committed. This is consistent with the disturbing, menacing conjunction of the music and the minimal images (one of which--a power plug and a knife holder on a red wall--is used iconically on the CD cover of the 2004 reissue of the soundtrack CD.) [36]

The image of the plughole triggers perhaps obvious associations with the shower scene in Psycho. As Abrahams has noted:

The buzzes are made by a DX7 synth, very good at spiky, edgy electric sounds. The sounds of electric machines glitching, malfunctioning. Rhythmically, they offer a counterpoint to the ebb and flow of the piano bass and drums, shooting off obtusely and uncomfortably. They add a nervous dimension. The opening theme is a simple piece of music with a definite cadence--I think it sounds a little like slow ocean waves breaking. It's very difficult to verbalise how we came up with it. We improvised for a while until it came. We had a definite goal whilst working on it, however-- to write the film theme. Although the images were cut to the piece of music, it had to be a certain length--more so than any other piece we worked on for the film. [37]

It is a measure of the effectiveness of the music in the opening sequence that it elicited comments in some reviews, a relatively rare occurrence. In her review of the film, novelist Helen Garner is evocative in her description of the psychological meshing of the images of this opening montage with the Necks' music:

Music by Sydney band The Necks--restrained, pulsing, minimalist-- studs the montage with not quite identifiable electronic buzzes, like muffled signals of alarm. [38]

The music is crucial in establishing the dark, ominous anticipation of the opening sequence. As Bernard Zuel stated in a review of the soundtrack CD:

Long fluid lines spin out, pianos and disfigured bass lines twist in the wind; the drums don't punch they stalk. And always there is the knowledge that something ugly, something dark, is just out of reach. [39]

This element of being "just out of reach" is crucial: in keeping with Woods' notion of "looking around corners," the main aesthetic principle of the film is ellipsis--we are not shown key events, such as the murder or the crime which sent Brett to prison, but left to imagine them from the evidence we are shown. The opening sequence almost suggests that the domestic details of the interior of the empty house contain a secret language that encodes the violent and criminal inclinations of the three brothers, and the music underscores and complements this secret language. As Garner has stated, the crime which the events of the film lead up to is "an act of such savagery that it doesn't even need to be shown on screen." Ben Goldsmith has elaborated on the film's reliance on ellipsis:

The boys is marked by a reluctance to depict or represent key events, be it the pivotal sex crime which marks the end point of one of the film's temporalities and the beginning of the other, Brett's experiences in prison, or the incident which led to his original incarceration. In not depicting these events, the film is encouraging the viewer not only to imagine them, but to consider what else has been omitted, and how these omissions affect the ways in which we think about the environment the film's characters inhabit, and the crime which Brett and his brothers ultimately, inevitably, commit. [40]

This aesthetic principle of ellipsis and omission places added emphasis on the music as a vehicle which stimulates the spectator's imagination regarding the violent events which we are not shown.

The fading electronic bleeps of the Necks' music continue just long enough to cover the first moments of the opening narrative sequence of the film, which begins with the slam of a prison door, marking protagonist Brett Sprague's release from prison after serving time for armed robbery. Lamb's music underscores the rest of this opening sequence, but arguably a disturbing sonic echo of the Necks stays with us, until more than half an hour later when, as Woods puts it, the music again "starts creeping into the mix." [41]

Its recurrence takes place in a particularly tense and complex sequence involving strained and fractious interactions between Brett's mother Sandra (Lynette Curran) and his girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette), as well as Brett and his younger brothers Glenn and Stevie, and Stevie's pregnant girlfriend Nola. The situation has reached a point where Brett is successfully establishing his dominance over the household, working his brothers up into an ugly state of intoxication and incipient violence. Meanwhile Michelle, understanding what Brett is doing, accuses Sandra of being frightened of her sons. The sequence--scene sixty in the published version of Sewell's script--begins with Sandra in her room looking at the Japanese fan her ex-husband gave her, as Michelle warns her to chain her sons up. At the same time, Brett accuses Glenn of stealing his drugs, while Nola seeks refuge in the bathroom. Intercutting between the bedroom and the lounge room builds tension, and the presence of the Necks' music is juxtaposed with a snatch of dialogue which illustrates the absence of music in the boys' lives:

Brett: Put on some music.
Stevie: We don't have any music.
Brett: Put on a record or something.
Stevie: It's broke.
Brett: Then put on the radio, for fuck's sake! [42]

Brett reveals that his main reason for wanting music is simply to drown out the brothers' conversation so that Nola will not overhear them. When the radio is eventually turned on--as the tension in both situations builds to a crescendo--the Necks' atmospheric tones are drowned out diegetically by what Sewell describes as "[s]ome indescribable piece of shit ... banging out over the radio." [43]

Brett then starts a violent ball game in the lounge room, and Sandra appears, attempting to impose some order on the boys by asking them to clean up the room; instead her sons try to get her to dance. The film's final credits list the music on the radio as "Hard On," a raw, volatile and very masculine rock song by A.R.M, a band fronted by Steve Lucas, former vocalist and guitarist for post-punk Melbourne group X. The song drowns out the more subdued musical commentary the Necks provide. Its title, "Hard On," as well as offering a comment on the boys' testosterone-fuelled displays of masculinity, has ironic overtones, given Brett's unsuccessful attempt to get an erection in the following scene in the laundry with Michelle.

The final short segment of Necks music is triggered by an important visual cue--Brett lights a cigarette in the car prior to embarking on the attack on the girl, a sequence which was used in promotional trailers for the film. This cigarette, as Woods explains in the DVD commentary, provides an index of a journey of control and release by Brett within the film. Its significance is explained just before the Necks music returns in the second sequence, when Brett reveals that he has given up smoking while in prison. When confronted by Glenn, who asks him why he has a cigarette in his shirt pocket, Brett replies "that's my pride," placing the cigarette on top of the television set. Earlier, in the first of a series of flash-forwards which show events after the murder, we saw Brett place a half-smoked cigarette down his underpants as he burns his clothes in the backyard of the house after the murder; in the car sequence the murder is signalled by Brett stubbing out the half-smoked cigarette on a glass surface and placing it in his top pocket. The synchronisation of the lighted match and the music almost takes on a Wagnerian leitmotif function, signifying menace and the initiation of a murderous chain of events. It triggers a sequence of images which intercut between the white lines of the road, close-ups of the three brothers in the car exchanging comments about "peace and serenity," and shots of lights in the background. The music finally cuts out just before the three boys spot their victim walking to the bus stop.

In each of these three sequences the music serves much more than a merely narrative or illustrative function: it is woven into the formal and dramatic texture of the film and serves to emphasise elliptic evocations of violence and affect which lie beneath the surface of the events it underscores. As "cinesonic substance" it plays a strong part in the film's formal, rhythmic aesthetic while managing to separate itself from any simple "mood music" function.

Conclusion: The Necks, The boys and ellipsis

Within the sonic environment of a film, the score functions largely on a subliminal level: it has become a truism that many film spectators do not remember or even notice most of the music they hear in the course of a film. Bernard Herrmann even stated that this was a test of how successfully unobtrusive film music can be, [44] and the blending of music into the suture of a film often involves its disappearance from the spectator's consciousness. As Michel Chion has stated: "In continuing to say we 'see' a film or a television program, we persist in ignoring how the soundtrack has modified perception." [45] This is particularly evident in psychological thrillers and horror films, where often the music may play a major role in shocking, scaring or disturbing the spectator, or in providing an undertone of menace and danger, as is overtly the case in Hitchcock's Psycho and Argento's Suspiria.

In the context of an aesthetic based strongly on ellipsis, the Necks' minimalist musical contributions to The boys leave a strong sonic residue which testifies to their impact on the film in three key places. But these three musical segments represent only a small portion of the musical responses to the film which the group devised and recorded and which they have released separately on the film's soundtrack album. These responses have also contributed to the group's own musical oeuvre in a distinctive way which bears witness to the effectively cinesonic properties of the Necks' music, both as potential soundtrack music and as "music for imaginary films." [46]


Endnotes

(To return to your place in the text, simply click on the endnote number)

[1] Philip Brophy (ed.), Cinesonic: the world of sound in film (Sydney: Australian Film, Television & Radio School, 1999). Subsequent volumes, Cinesonic: cinema and the sound of music and Cinesonic: experiencing the soundtrack, appeared in 2000 and 2001. Brophy's articles on film music appeared in the Australian bi-monthly RealTime and the British new music monthly The wire between 1998 and 2001; a selection was subsequently published as Brophy, 100 Modern soundtracks (BFI Publications, 2004).

[2] Philip Brophy, "Cinesonic," RealTime 29, February-March (1999), 22.

[3] Rowan Woods, The boys, Filmmaker's Edition (Madman Cinema/Arena Films DVD, 2003).

[4] Fiona Villella, "The boys," Senses of cinema, September-October 2000, <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/9/symposium.html#4>

[5] Royal S. Brown, Overtones and undertones: reading film music (London: University of California Press, 1994), 149, 173, 174, 175.

[6] Phillip Brophy, 100 modern soundtracks (London: BFI Publishing 2004), 186.

[7] David Stubbs, Review of The Necks' Mosquito/see through, The wire 253, March (2005).

[8] John L. Walters, "Necks big thing," The guardian, 9 January (2004).

[9] John Clare, Bodgie dada and the cult of cool (University of New South Wales Press, 1995), 192.

[10] Brian Morton, Review of The Necks' Drive by, The wire 240 (2004), February.

[11] Theo van Leeuwen, "Emotional times: the music of The piano," in Rebecca Coyle (ed) Screen scores: studies in contemporary Australian film music (Sydney: AFTRS/Allen & Unwin, 1998), 39-48.

[12] K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London, Phaidon Press Ltd.,1996), 9.

[13] Anita Cobby was robbed, raped and murdered on February 2nd 1986 in Bankstown, Western Sydney. The event generated considerable media coverage and the five young men found responsible were jailed for life. A book about the case by Julia Sheppard, Someone else's daughter (Sydney: Pan McMillan, 1991), has been reprinted several times, selling more than 130,000 copies. Gordon Graham's play The boys, which makes no explicit reference to the Anita Cobby murder, was first staged at the Stables Theatre in Sydney in 1991, and was published by Currency Press, with introductory essays about masculinity and violence by clinical psychologist Barrie Kemp, criminologist Paul Wilson, and feminist barrister Jocelynne Scutt. It had previously been given a rehearsed reading at the Stables Theatre "D Week" in 1989. The cast of the Stables production, directed by Alex Galeassi, included David Wenham and Lynnette Curran, who were both in the film version (of which Wenham was also executive producer). The play won an Australian Writers' Guild Award in 1992. As Darlene Taylor has aptly commented, "The boys was evidently not based on the [Anita Cobby] crime, but has come to be spoken about as though it were." (<http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=2671>). The producer of The boys Robert Connolly first developed the film project while a student with Rowan Woods at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. An exhibition about Anita Cobby, Anita and beyond, in which twelve contemporary Sydney artists presented work based on primary research into the Anita Cobby murder, was held at Penrith Regional Gallery in Western Sydney in March 2003. It made no apparent reference to the film. As Anne Loxley noted in the Sydney morning herald, "Like Princess Diana, Cobby was a celebrated beauty with a strong sense of community who suffered a hideous death because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time" (Nov. 8, 2002). Chris Abrahams has noted (in an email to the author, 4 May 2005), "Whether the film is based on the Anita Cobby murder or not, it certainly 'benefits' from it. The not showing of the crime may not be nearly as chilling if the viewer didn't have the idea of John Travis and the Murphy brothers [three of the perpetrators of the Anita Cobby murder] already in his mind. The film has its cake and eats it too. Over time I suppose the Anita Cobby similarities will be forgotten (maybe they already have)."

[14] Lloyd Swanton, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[15] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[16] Rowan Woods, The boys, Filmmaker's Edition (Madman Cinema/Arena Films DVD, 2003).

[17] Brophy 2004, 227-228.

[18] According to Maitland McDonagh in Broken mirrors, broken minds: the dark dreams of Dario Argento (London: Sun Tavenfields, 1991), during the filming of Suspiria, Argento's 1977 film about witchcraft in a German ballet school, "Argento reportedly frightened his actors into character" by having lush synthesiser and percussion music by the film's soundtrack composers, Italian prog-rock group Goblin, "played over the otherwise empty soundstages on which much of the film was shot" (146). While completing a BA in Communications at the Sydney University of Technology in 1993-5, Chris Abrahams wrote an essay on Argento for one of his film courses.

[19] Rowan Woods (1998), Liner notes to The Necks, The boys, Adrenalin/Wild Sound/MDS.

[20] Chris Abrahams, interview with Jane Galbraith and Tony Mitchell, UTS, 2nd March 2005.

[21] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[22] The group's second album, Next, first released in 1990, also contained a number of short tracks. Thus The boys was not the only album by the group to deviate from their normal procedure of including one or two one-hour pieces, although it was an unusual deviation after seven years of much longer pieces.

[23] Chris Abrahams, interview with Jane Galbraith and Tony Mitchell, UTS, 2nd March 2005.

[24] Lloyd Swanton, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[25] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[26] Lloyd Swanton, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[27] Liner notes to The Necks' The boys, Fish of Milk/ReR Megacorp, 2004.

[28] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[29] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[30] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[31] Louise Gray, Review of The Necks' The boys, The wire 246, August (2004).

[32] The first sequence of music starts during the credits; the second occurs in no. 9 of the 18 chapters in the DVD version, given the title "Boys and girls"; the third in the 17th chapter of the DVD version, entitled "Peace and serenity." The three corresponding tracks on the soundtrack CD are given the titles The boys I, II and III.

[33] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[34] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[35] Rowan Woods, The boys, Filmmaker's Edition (Madman Cinema/Arena Films DVD, 2003).

[36]The Necks' The boys, Fish of Milk/ReR Megacorp, 2004.

[37] Chris Abrahams, Interview by email, 22 March 2005.

[38] Helen Garner, "A hand for the boys" The Australian's review of books, June (1998), 27.

[39] Bernard Zuel, Review of The boys soundtrack, Sydney morning herald metro, (1998).

[40]Ben Goldsmith 'Metal Skin and the cinema of noise'. Senses of cinema, September-October (2002).

[41] Rowan Woods, The boys, Filmmaker's Edition (Madman Cinema/Arena Films DVD, 2003).

[42] Stephen Sewell, The boys: the screenplay (Sydney: Currency Press, 1998), 46-47.

[43] Stephen Sewell, The boys: the screenplay (Sydney: Currency Press, 1998), 46-47.

[44] Music for the movies: Bernard Herrmann (USA 1992, Alternate Current/Les Films D'Ici).

[45] Michel Chion, Audio-vision: sound on screen, edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), xxvi.

[46] The Necks have worked on one other film project: in 2000 they were commissioned to produce music for a series of three-hour documentaries, In the Mind of the architect (produced by Tim Clark and Janne Ryan, written and directed by Tim Clark, and narrated by David Wenham) for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. As Swanton has indicated, "the Architect music was commissioned, and we went about it much the same way [as The boys], (although we'd learnt by this stage not to do such lengthy rough versions--this time they were an arbitrary five minutes duration) and again we left the editor to drop in the music where he saw fit'. The Necks' music, especially a figure involving a repeated single note on Abrahams' piano which gradually increases in volume, often produces a dramatic effect, and underscores shots of some important public architectural sites in Australia, such as the Federation Square project in Melbourne, the Sydney Opera House and the East Circular Quay project. The association of the music with architectural surfaces and public buildings gives it a locational grounding and a cartographic function which identifies it as having a distinctively Australian identity.

 


Page maintained by: Editor © 2005. NO SPAM. Email addresses throughout this site are provided to facilitate communication with bona fide researchers and students. In accordance with the Spam Act 2003 (Australia) the provision of email addresses is not to be taken as consent to receive unsolicited commercial email, malicious code or spam.

Created on: Monday, 11 July 2005 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 July 2005