Malick’s Music of the Spheres: The Tree of Life

The small but accelerating output of Terrence Malick has largely been approached via its visual poetry. Balancing this, each film has also brought a distinctive soundtrack, in particular the extended use of voice overs. The music channel has frequently combined an original score with increasingly long (unedited) excerpts from classical music. Via a brief survey of earlier Malick film scores, this article examines the role and context of classical music in The Tree of Life (2011). The sonic core of this film has an abundance for which even the earlier films fail to prepare us. Supplementing an original score by Alexandre Desplat, classical music is an aspect that demands attention both in interpreting the film, and in contextualizing it within film (music) history. It will be argued that The Tree of Life’s acoustic address to viewers has film-historical implications; its music bears an affinity to the compilation score of the silent era. That backwards glance corresponds to the film’s narrative return from the second half of the twentieth century to the beginnings of life on earth. The iridescent succession of classical music then forms a microcosm of the film’s narrative time structure, while its polyphony accords with the multiple layers of this structure. Ongoing film reception of nineteenth century music in turn affects the way we understand Hollywood movies, a challenge addressed by the recent work of musicologist Peter Franklin.[1]

Apart from the original score, over thirty wide-ranging musical works are credited, bringing historical and cultural-historical resonances that are not generated directly by the film’s narrative.[2] Yet early academic critiques of The Tree of Life have only hinted at this richness.[3] This film alone qualifies Malick for Claudia Gorbman’s “pantheon of auteur mélomanes”, directors for whom “music participates forcefully in what used to be called, in the simpler days of auteurism, the director’s worldview.”[4] Music that plays such a prominent role is of course in constant interplay with images, an interaction that ideally fuses into what Michel Chion has termed ‘synchresis’[5] , where each aspect of the sound-image relationship can only be separated out to the impoverishment of the other. As but one aspect of the soundtrack, music needs to be profiled against others, especially voice over in the case of Malick. An approach that balances image, sound and narrative must do greater justice to this filmmaker in particular.

Malick’s film is an illuminating example of what John Bruns has termed the ‘polyphonic film’, one which ‘preserves the independence of its individual elements’.[6] Independence, within an overall fusion – the term ‘polyphonic’, already taken from music, also applies to Bakhtin’s sense of the multi-focal novel exemplified by Dostoyevsky, as opposed to the overarching unity of perspective in Tolstoy and others. Bruns’ prime example is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), which for him avoids the pitfalls of many fractal films,[7] where daring geographic leaps span an encompassing narrative:

It is … this false sense of unity that characterizes so many contemporary multi-plot films, that undermines any genuine claim to polyphony. It is as if we have lost an ear for polyphony, so strong is the compulsion to unify disparate elements, so tempting it is to bring separate lines to some sort of tonal accord.[8]

Malick has not “lost an ear for polyphony” in this sense, and certainly does not impose a false unity. When news of their son’s death reaches the parents, it opens up a cosmic wound that is expressed in the vastness of time, allied with space. The film does not seek to contain that vastness in the interests of narrative cohesiveness, and the soundtrack matches that ambitious reach. Polyphony here extends to voices evoking a world before humanity.

The other main strand of argument in this article, paradoxical though it will sound, is that this sonically saturated film, characterized by polyphony, extends within film history to a world before sound, or rather to the so-called silent era. This film-historical aspect then becomes a microcosm of the narrative flashback to prehistory. With its compilation score, The Tree of Life has an affinity to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), of which a relatively early text on film music asked: “Is this a retrograde step, a return, in fact, to silent film?”[9] Malick’s film is a return, not a retrograde step; it is consistent with the age rings of The Tree of Life.  Music is a further microcosm as a narrative player in this film, almost as a theme. Malick’s narrative universe oscillates between the domesticity of small-town America of a particular era, and the boundless cosmic contours of prehistory, or (in the concluding beach scenes) of post-history. Music is fleshed out at the domestic level through shots of instruments and scores, and the sounds of music-making, not always correct notes. It is technologically embodied with the recording of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 that diverts table-talk at dinner. But like the visuals, music also frees itself of this materiality, and casts off its moorings during those early and late sequences in the film, also casting off the moorings of earlier film music terminology. For in a sense quite different to David Lynch’s complex sound designs, this might best be deemed ‘trans-diegetic music’.[10] Diegetic, sourced music is witnessed in the domestic scenes. Non-diegetic music, emanating beyond the narrative frame, is a term that is not adequate to the washes of sound with which Malick accompanies cosmic grandeur. What emerges in The Tree of Life, especially in early and late sequences, is more akin to “the idea that the only reality at hand involves music that is somehow ‘in the air.’”[11]


Seeds of The Tree of Life

To approach classical music in Malick’s latest released film, examples from his prior work will stake out its origins. Badlands(1973) is memorable for very simple music by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, especially the piece ‘Gassenhauer’ from vol. 1 of Musica Poetica. It is effective in evoking childhood, staging (over the title of the film) the first encounter between Kit and Holly. Originally directed towards Kit, the camera progresses to Holly dancing and twirling a rod, almost a circus routine. Among many further appearances, the music accompanies visuals of their tree-house in the wilderness, the most childlike and vulnerable of Malick’s Edens. After the first murder original music is heard that melodically evokes suspense, but it is so soft, brief and insubstantial that it further confounds genre expectations. While they are on the run, two dance routines evoke youth culture in an impossible context. They jive to the song ‘Love is Strange’, and later respond to Nat King Cole on the car radio by dancing gracefully in the middle of nowhere (‘nowhere’ as the illusory original meaning of ‘utopia’), all visual contours lost in the background of impenetrable night. The childhood link is strengthened by an arrangement of Erik Satie’s ‘Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear’ matched to visuals of Montana landscapes. ‘Gassenhauer’ – the word simply means ‘street ballad’ – was a melody from the late Renaissance, integrated into the 20th century ‘Orff Schulwerk’, a musical primer for children. In Badlands, these kids are hopelessly lost in a world of adult genres, he “a wannabe James Dean”,[12] she an unlikely gangster’s moll. The soundtrack constantly reminds us of childhood, and the film also features popular music surviving centuries of human dead ends and wrong paths. That dual historical span will be important for The Tree of Life.

On three occasions Days of Heaven (1978) repeats the tinkly unreality of the ‘Aquarium’ section of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, a further musical gesture towards childhood.[13] Here Ennio Morricone’s original score is a pendant, in its “use of melodic themes from Saint-Saëns’ piece.”[14] In particular, the downward arch of Saint-Saëns’ opening is virtually mirrored by the upward arch of the key melody in Morricone’s elegiac score. (And hence it is a kind of musical equivalent of reflections in mirrors as signatures of Sirk or Fassbinder narratives.) This gesture is interwoven into the film’s fable-like narrative, as can be established for instance by visual, musical and narrative links across a sequence just under eight minutes long, starting with the wedding ceremony of Abby and the farmer, and finishing with the return of Bill and Abby from their watery tryst. The Morricone score accompanies the wedding. When they leave on their honeymoon, Bill takes up the farmer’s invitation to move into the house. As he enters, the camera lingers on photos on the wall, and then on a rear-lit still life composition of a wine decanter and glasses. These are seen again as props to a meal shared on the porch, once the wedding couple has returned. But passion persists across the pretend siblings, as Bill lures Abby to the water while the farmer sleeps on. Seemingly carefree, they drink from wine glasses that Bill has brought, until his glass drops beneath the surface of the water. The Morricone melody accompanies a typical Malick shot, a ‘timeless’ aerial view of ripples on the water, which breaks up any sense of causality and almost asserts an independent temporality of nature. The melody continues with an underwater shot (anticipating the later scene of Bill’s death) of the glass on a diagonal. It is a different glass to those in the original still life. To the strains of the Morricone, itself an inversion of the Saint-Saëns, a fish swims towards the camera and around the now anchored wineglass, an aquarium image transposed to a charmed outdoors setting. Such a complex linkage of motifs across image, sound, and the symbolic level of the narrative suggests a web of connections. Similar patterns in The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life relate to far more ambitious narratives, which by their nature remain more amorphous.

Musical choices in The Thin Red Line (1998) are balanced clearly in favour of the original, highly effective score by Hans Zimmer. Yet even here, brief renditions of classical music are crucial. First, the ethereal final movement of Fauré’s Requiem (‘In Paradisum’) complements the utopia of the community where Witt finds initial harmony. Then a series of rhetorical questions, conveyed by voice overs as the Japanese defeat is (momentarily) sealed, finds its only response in a musical quotation emerging from Zimmer’s score, Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question. Thus the soundtrack provides a poignant philosophical summation of the agonizing over war and evil. (To illustrate the ‘synchresis’ achieved, it is worth comparing the same music used as coquettish philosophizing in Tykwer’s Run Lola Run [1998]).

The New World features an original score by James Horner, and two counterposed classical pieces, the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which accompanies the evolving relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas, and an inspired recontextualization of the opening of Wagner’s Ring, the Prelude to Das Rheingold. The Prelude gradually creates the sonic ballast of Wagner’s most epic myth; with Malick it functions as a gesture of similar theatricality and authority. Emerging from the darkened screen of the opening credits, the Prelude continues for well over four minutes, including a low angle, below water shot of two swimmers (a passing evocation of Wagner’s Rhine maidens, transfigured as Edenic figures). Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk combined the arts. At the end of Wagner’s century, film succeeded his pantheon of artforms, and a sequence like this (anticipating the best of The Tree of Life) functions in Malick’s hands like a palimpsest, adding both a further musical layer (film music) to Wagner’s notion, and an expanded interaction of the arts. At the same time Malick almost reverentially stages this opening sequence as opera, not a soundtrack confined to the wings, but one that is interwoven with other sounds and with visuals. Art music blends with Nature’s ‘music’ (e.g. the cries of gulls), and the camerawork comes to mirror the progression of the music from static opening chords (matching credits and lithograph-type stills at the level of image), to the generation of musical flow (and narrative flow, of the waters of the Rhine/the waters in which Pocahontas swims alongside fish). Wagner’s sustained opening chord emerges here from a screen initially darkened, and then filled with otherwise soundless images.

The Indians who appear on the banks, watching the entry of the ship to the bay, are figures from opera, not remotely from documentary, while shore-based drums which succeed the Wagner give an even stronger sense of an affinity to Werner Herzog.[15] In Wagner, fifteen-plus hours of music grow out of an opening triad which very gradually transitions an audience from the everyday to his world of myth. With Malick, the Prelude bookends the film, anchoring the final images of Pocahontas rediscovering balance, integration and joy in the transformed surrounds of her English garden.

Classical music in The Tree of Life

a) compilation score:

The range and importance of classical music in this film are reminiscent of Kubrick, above all, and the sonic connection between Malick’s film and 2001 may well yield more than their overlap with visuals of a prehistoric era. The animated figures of Walt Disney’s Fantasia [1940], backed by Stravinsky’s then far from mainstream score The Rite of Spring, are a shared precursor. In addition, Malick uses sound to combine the realms of Nature at different temporal points of the universe. Where ‘sound bridge’ normally refers to a sonic continuity across visual edits, it really seems the apt term for Malick’s attempt to link not just successive scenes, but to integrate a vast sonic flashback into the flow of the present.

Julie Hubbert finds in the late 1970s and early 1980s “the self-conscious return of the thematic orchestral score. This final ‘postmodern’ period is defined in part by the increasingly dense and allusive use of not just popular songs but also preexisting classical music in soundtrack formulas.”[16] But viewed across film music history, the latter phenomenon primarily signals a return to practices of the silent era, a less slippery assertion than any postmodern quality. The relationship between Malick’s films and silent cinema deserves examination in its own right. It is implied by the self-sufficiency of the stand alone images that characterize his films, and is also present in the inflection he gives to voice over. In the example already mentioned of Ives’ Unanswered Question in The Thin Red Line, Malick has contrived a musical voice over, a philosophical commentary via the work’s title, that goes/has to go beyond verbal language. Given the cosmic canvas of Tree of Life, the notion of a musical voice over could prove very productive. Bersani/Dutoit claim that a parallel, silent film is created in The Thin Red Line by the spoken voice overs, via the relationship they establish between the human voice and the written text of intertitles.[17] As an extension of this evocation of the silent era, Tree of Life both spans film history with its extended compilation score, and lends voice to the human spirit expressed through music, as a human counterpart to the voices of Nature. The final concrete image is a bridge over water, one last leitmotif entry of a river such as the one that has wound through the boys’ childhood, and through prehistory. The manmade bridge spans the river, a synthesis of civilization and nature, and a soundless bird flies towards the camera, as the choral and orchestral forces of the soundtrack also come to rest.

So the ‘soundtrack formula’ of classical music in Tree of Life signals a return to silent music practices. This locates Malick’s listener/viewer in a historical continuum of American film music, given that by the early 20s “in most metropolitan cities (…) the cinema was second only to the symphony and the opera in terms of articulating significant musical repertoire.”[18] The sheer range of moods, types and historical contexts of classical music in Tree of Life creates a sense of the sweep of time, and blurs the once territorial boundaries of ‘classical’ music. Contemporary compositions (e.g. Tavener’s Funeral Canticle) give intimations of earlier times and non-Western alternatives in their use of much older modes, while more standard associations also continue to operate (the Baroque order and elegance of Couperin’s ‘Les Barricades Mystérieuses’). The effect of this body of music is more cohesive than the visual timescale, from a return to the dinosaurs, to the futuristic landscape/dreamscape towards the end of the film.[19] Itself a compilation score of sorts, the score of Tree of Life is also a compilation of genres of classical music, with sacred (vocal) music prominent – Tavener, Górecki,[20] the Berlioz Requiem – but also secular instrumental music such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and keyboard works. At least one musical bridge is created across a sacred/secular divide, with the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Preisner’s Requiem for my friend, dedicated to Kieślowski. This work also crosses visual and acoustic intertextuality, with its allusion not to a film, but to a director in a European artistic tradition on which Malick’s musical choices draw. Finally, Preisner’s composition is typical of the balance of affirmation in Tree of Life, with the ‘Lacrimosa’ the only section repeated in both parts of his own work, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Life’.[21]

A number of performances are witnessed, at the keyboard of a piano or an organ, plus the tentative essays on the guitar by the favourite son (R. L.), viewed from outside by his excluded brother (Jack). These integrate music differently into the plot. A sampler performance of sorts is provided by Jack’s distortion of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (a classic example of program music), when his fingers on the grooves slow down the record turntable. This is psychologically convincing, a frustrated intervention in the bond between father and favoured sibling (right down to this being the piano, rather than the orchestral version of Mussorgsky’s work). The father’s regimented approach to music characterizes him effectively. While demanding silence from the boys at the meal table, he drowns any communal sounds with a recording of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, where what obsesses him is the discipline behind the performance, the sixty-five takes required by conductor Toscanini, who was still not satisfied. Such commentary on the father’s brand of musicality is more problematic when he does go with the flow of music linked more with the world of the mother, unless it is intended as a comment on his potential, best realized when he is least assertive.

b) a Gesamtkunstwerk

In Wagner’s notion of opera, this concept referred to a fusion of artforms preceding the advent of film. In Tree of Life, Malick establishes an inter-relationship, a ‘synchresis’, between the image as rendered by cinematography, and music. All elements, including the soundtrack beyond music, interact with the narrative. The birdsong that punctuates the soundtrack is absent from one of the most memorable visual sequences, a swarm of (silent) birds near the skyscraper that houses the adult Jack, still haunted by the lost domain of childhood. Wagner’s music is absent from this film, but his influence on film history is implied beyond the concept in the title of this section. He was present in compilation scores of the silent era (e.g. ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ in Birth of a Nation), but also in the late Romantic orchestration of European exile composers in the classical Hollywood era, and in their transfer of a simplified notion of the leitmotif to original scoring.[22] He was also the towering figure in a European Romantic movement that extended from Berlioz[23] to Mahler, both of whom are present on Malick’s soundtrack. Program music was not confined to the 19th century, but it peaked then. Both ‘program’ symphonies and Romantic tone poems reversed the notion of music expressing the otherwise inexpressible, and extracted a verbal narrative of what the music supposedly ‘represented’. This is relevant to the place in music history of symphonies present in Malick’s film, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. But it is also easy to see its relevance to Malick’s project, some of his sound/image combinations at least attempting to parallel this (pre-filmic) enterprise, in their symphonies of light.

Dramatically, too, both the Berlioz and Mahler excerpts function as much more than mood music. The music accompanying the parents’ assimilation of their son’s death is repeated later over a low angle underwater shot of a boy drowned in a swimming pool, continuing through to his funeral. This Mahler symphony has its own parody of a funeral march in its third movement, but the section repeated in Malick’s film comes from the first movement, and according to Mahler’s own program (subsequently retracted), it relates to intimations of Nature coming to life, rather than being extinguished. Within Mahler’s output the Symphony No. 1 marks the beginning, not the end, of his journey in his most productive genre. There is a similar balance between life and death in another work featured in Tree of Life, Preisner’s Requiem for a Friend, with Part 1 (‘Requiem’) succeeded by Part 2 (‘Life’). Mahler’s intimations of Nature extend to art music’s attempts to depict birdcalls in a kind of mimicry of a creature seen but not heard in the final frames of Malick’s film. But his soundtrack also strains for a liminal stage between Nature – and manmade music such as we hear elsewhere with windchimes.

The long excerpt from the opening movement of Berlioz’ Harold in Italy starts over R. L. (the blond brother) painting contentedly, with father away indefinitely, a potentially idyllic situation. Berlioz’s title refers to Byron’s hero as a pilgrim in the country of the European Romantic imaginary. The musical excerpt seems to be generating harnessed energy (like the Mahler) as images range far from the family house, loosely linking classroom scenes with underwater shots and others of more primal vegetation. However we are wrenched back into the present with the off-screen honk of a car, announcing father’s return from an overseas business trip. The moment of his return coincides with a chord on which the swelling musical build-up arrives, an operatically[24] staged re-entry of a hero who is briefly staged romantically, or at least exotically. To my knowledge this is the sole example of this work by Berlioz on film soundtracks. It straddles genres with Malick, who mounts as opera this symphony, which was commissioned by Paganini as a viola concerto, all in the context of film visuals set in mid-20th century America. It also confounds neater notions of an ‘underscore’, with music only heard by viewers of the film remaining subordinate to dialogue, and sound effects viewed as advancing the narrative.[25] Arrival on this long prepared and delayed chord is rather overscore, or at least score as equal partner in the choreographed combination.

The centrepiece of the film is a scene set to Smetana’s The Moldau, a Romantic tone poem whose program traces from its source the river that flows through Prague. In Malick’s hands this becomes an almost perfect example of the inseparability of image and sound, precisely because it is as if the music is communicating at every step with the cinematography as it conveys those images. For the duration of this scene it seems that Smetana could have been commissioned to write this music for it. That alone bridges the distance usually existing between pre-existing music and the images and narrative of a film, making the overall effect more akin to an original score.[26] As with the inspired adaptation of the Rheingold Prelude to Malick’s New World, the director here is in his element, and his favourite element seems to be water. It is a magical sequence of gracefulness and flow, through Halloween, the childhood reminiscence of Beatrix Potter stories and Mr McGregor’s garden segueing into their own, a garden hose, sparklers, the night sky, and children who are alternately sleeping, playing games on the lawn, and romping in the fields. A sense of exultant, natural energy fills the screen and the auditorium. The camera is completely infected by the flow of the music, and the fluidity of the camerawork is closer to a genre with a very different kind of music, the musical. Such a normally unlikely parallel again implies that music is at the core of this film, not peripheral or superimposed. Simultaneously, the camera respects the musical flow, and its mobility forgoes zooms.[27] That more natural, seamless quality is an equivalent to the extended, non-edited excerpts from classical music; for its part, the musical flow becomes an acoustic Steadicam. In a film devoid of American classical music, one barely notices the ‘universality’ of this family portrait, till juxtaposing the original context of Smetana’s composition, the height of Czech nationalism in music. In an informative section on program music, Dean Duncan lists this work as part of a wave of Czech and Russian compositions, peaking in the 1860s and 70s: “all (…) were dependent upon a familiarity with the source material.”[28] Precisely this kind of notion is confounded by Malick, in translating the ‘program’ into film technique (the flow of the camera, rather than the original musical lines, though in the screen/sound combination perfectly matched to those lines). And in doing so he virtually creates a new program, the ‘magical sequence’ as described above, as a palimpsest on the original one.

Malick then achieves a different Gesamtkunstwerk,[29] radiating from the music as did Wagner’s, but of course with radically different visuals to 19th century stage scenery. French New Wave critics had claimed film’s entry to the pantheon of the arts via its capacity to write through the camera, Astrid Astruc’s caméra stylo. In a soundtrack as prominent as that of, say, American Graffiti (1973), the ‘stylo’ has become the implied stylus, the needle functioning as social scribe in its record of a jukebox culture. With Malick, above all in a scene such as the one set to The Moldau, the camera’s writing is foregrounded less than its capacity to dance. Such combinations disarm a listening viewer after earlier sequences of the film in which the camera’s movement further implies a succession of epiphanies, in its rendering of already portentous objects. Towards the end of the film, the vast orchestral and choral forces of Berlioz’ Requiem seem designed to prop up the unreality of figures converging in a dream landscape. But the Moldau scene is pure synchresis, and then some; a capsule of family life, blending beauty and wistful memory/fantasy in equal measure, that is shot like a cosmic home movie, and set to the musical glue of that cosmos, music of the spheres. It advances a purposeful narrative and a distinctive mood with an innovative blend of sound and image, and on this score joins some of Malick’s other inspirations, Orff in Badlands, Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ in Days of Heaven, Ives’ Unanswered Question in The Thin Red Line, and the Rheingold Prelude in The New World.

The Tree of Life extends the cosmos beyond just the visual beauty of the constellations. “Where were you?” the opening citation of the Book of Job asks, “when the morning stars sang together?” All things shining, all things sounding; both in harmony.

[1]  See Peter Franklin, Seeing through Music: Gender and Modernism in Classic Hollywood Film Scores (OUP, 2011). This book in turn builds on his two proposals in an earlier book chapter: “First, that film historians might have overlooked a major historical source of cinematic narrative techniques in the practice and reception of nineteenth-century symphonic music. Second, that this could help us understand the peculiarly musical quality of early film – particularly of the sound era – in its more “art”-aspiring mode.” Peter Franklin, “The Boy on the Train, or Bad Symphonies and Good Movies: The Revealing Error of the “Symphonic Score” ”, in Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, Richard Leppert (eds), Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 13.

[3]  Moritz Pfeifer, “Either and Or: On Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life”, Senses of Cinema 60 (2011) notes “the pathos of the film’s music and images”, but the former is not documented. David Sterritt has a suggestive paragraph relating this film to Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a notion that will be contextualized differently in the present article. See his “Days of Heaven and Waco: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life”, Film Quarterly 65/1 (Fall 2011), 56. Steven Rybin refers to “a cosmic bath of image and sound, the vastness of which repeatedly threatens the discrete shape of individual autobiography itself.” Steven Rybin, Terrence Malick and the Thought of Film (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 176.

[4]  Claudia Gorbman, “Auteur Music”, in Beyond the Soundtrack (see n. 1), 150-51. She continues: “For many filmmakers music is a platform for the idiosyncratic expression of taste, and thus it conveys not only meaning in terms of plot and theme, but meaning as authorial signature itself.” (151) Beyond the sheer number of examples in The Tree of Life, Malick’s overall ‘authorial signature’ is different again from the more eclectic use of classical music by a Peter Weir or a Werner Herzog.

[5]  ‘Synchresis’ is “the forging of an immediate and necessary relationship between something one sees and something one hears at the same time.”  Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, transl. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia UP, 1994), 224.

[6]  John Bruns, “The Polyphonic Film”, New Review of Film and Television Studies 6/2 (2008), 191.

[7]  A term not used by Bruns, but related to European cinema by Wendy Everett, “Fractal Films and the Architecture of Complexity”, Studies in European Cinema 2 (2005), 159-71.

[8]  Bruns, 208.

[9]  J. Manvell and J. Huntley, The Technique of Film Music (London: Focal Press, 1975), 253.

[10]  Isabella van Elferen, “Dream Timbre: Notes on Lynchian Sound Design”, in James Wierzbicki (ed.), Music, Sound and Filmmakers (New York: Routledge, 2012), 182ff.

[11]  van Elferen, 182.

[12]  M. Woessner, ‘What is Heideggerian Cinema? Film, Philosophy and Cultural Mobility”, New German Critique 38/2 (2011), 144.

[13]  This is certainly the primary connotation for viewers contemporary with Malick. It arises from the music-box quality of the original glass harmonica or else what often replaces it, the celesta (most familiar in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite). The Carnival of the Animals is also an iconic introduction to classical music for children. Even for the timeframe of the film’s setting, the second decade of the 20th century, I doubt that this would have been eclipsed by Richard Power’s claim for the primacy of class: “Because of its status as ‘classical’ music, The Aquarium is associated with a privileged upper class”. Richard Power, “Listening to the Aquarium: The Symbolic Use of Music in Days of Heaven”, in The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America (London: Wallflower, 2007), 104.

[14]  Power, 107.

[15]  The drums evoke Fitzcarraldo, operatic in style and theme. Herzog had used the same Rheingold music to great effect in his Nosferatu, perfectly suggesting the liminal stage of Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania.

[16]  Julie Hubbert (ed.), Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History (Berkeley: Uni. of California Press, 2011), xi.

[17]  See Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity (London: bfi, 2004), 146: “voice overs (…) allow(s) Malick to give us the face as pure visuality, almost to make, within the sound and images of The Thin Red Line, another film, a silent film. But unlike the often frantic straining toward expressiveness characteristic of faces in silent films (a striving toward a visual equivalent of the accompanying written texts in those films), the silence of Malick’s faces clears the facial field, so to speak, for the deployment of the world their features are recording. Thus the soldiers in Malick’s ‘war film’ are individuated not as personalities but as perspectives on the world.”

[18]  Hubbert, 18.

[19]  Similar in sense, but tighter in narrative, is the volcanic landscape at the end of Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), accompanied by another sacred work, Mozart’s Requiem. Pasolini’s film, like Tarkovsky to whom Pfeifer (n. 3) alerts us, also includes the motif of levitation, present in Tree of Life in a scene with Jessica Chastain, who plays the at times ethereal mother.

[20]  Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, highlights in its reception just how fluid the boundaries of ‘classical’ music have become (which is definitely celebrated, rather than viewed as problematic, in this film). For this work’s breakdown of distinctions such as high/low culture, past and present, even pop musicians and classical performers, see Luke Howard, “Production vs. Reception in Postmodernism: The Górecki Case”, in Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner (eds), Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought (New York: Routledge, 2002), 195-206.

[21]  A piano reduction repeats the music with Malick, too, at the stage of ‘Life’ where the adult Jack dwells on his betrayal of his brother’s trust. While a parallel between cosmic and private tears (‘lacrimosa’) is not drawn more explicitly than in the musical score, it harmonizes with the parallel drawn between small-town America of the immediate postwar years, and universal, even mythical history (the travails of Job vis-à-vis the grieving process of this family).

[22]  For a fuller picture, see Jeongwon Joe and Sandor Gilman (eds.), Wagner and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010.

[23]  Back in 1971 Thomas Elsaesser drew attention to the following “aesthetic features [of American films of the 50s and 60s – the very timeframe of Malick’s film - rh] (…) which hitherto have been neglected”: “In other respects, however, notably its overall structure, its semantics, its duration in time, its emotive effect and dramatic line, its elements of audience participation, the movie approaches rather more romantic and post-romantic music, for instance that of Hector Berlioz [at the head of a list of Romantic composers, finishing with Wagner - rh]”. Thomas Elsaesser, “Why Hollywood?” (first published in Monogram 1 (April 1971), 4-10), The Persistence of Hollywood (New York: Routledge, 2012), 86.

[24]  Music theatre, and music as ritual, are never far away in this film. As Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) takes in the news of his son’s death an Eastern-style bell is heard, as it is elsewhere in the film. It is a sound effect familiar from The Thin Red Line, and in turn resonant with some of the oriental timbres of Mahler’s Song of the Earth.

[25]  See James Wierzbicki (ed.), Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2012), 6.

[26]  See Robyn Stilwell and Phil Powrie, “Introduction”, Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), xv: “the awareness that the music was not originally written for a specific film scene puts a distance between the music and any straightforward interpretation of it in the manner of conventional film scores.”

[27]  For technical details of this film, emerging from interviews with its cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki and some of his team, see B. Benjamin, “Cosmic Questions”, American Cinematographer 92/8 (August 2011), 28 – 39 (here, 30).

[28]  Dean Duncan, Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and the Narrative Film (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), 99.

[29]  The term can still be productive in terms of the range it implies, though it is less so in relation to notions of unity. “The emblem of the Gesamtkunstwerk reinforces the use of Wagner’s own name (along with concepts such as the leitmotif) as a talisman set up to ward off the ghoulish threats of film’s material heterogeneity, discontinuity, mass production, and mechanical reproduction.”

Scott D. Paulin, “Richard Wagner and the Fantasy of Cinematic Unity: The Idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the History and Theory of Film Music”, in James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer (eds), Music and Cinema (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 79.

About the Author

Roger Hillman

Roger Hillman teaches Film Studies and German Studies at the ANU. Other research interests include Turkish-German cinema, representations of Gallipoli in novel and film, and the use of classical music in European cinema (e.g. the book Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music, and Ideology (Indiana UP, 2005)).