Musical Modernism in Brian May’s Australian Film Scores


Film music has provided a useful space for the exploration of modernist composition. It is through this association with popular film texts that audiences who were otherwise dissociated from new music composition consumed modernist techniques. Modernist techniques adopted in film scores include the conscious use of atonality and dissonance (often linked to specific film genres such as science fiction and horror), short musical forms (as in the musical ‘cues’ underscoring cinematic narrative), motivic adaptation and repetition, and unusual instrumental arrangements. Cinema as a medium and an institution helped to define and mediate the experience of modernity and modernization. This occurred in specific ways in national contexts such as Australia where the transition from ‘silent’ to synchronised sound cinema coincided with musical experimentation influenced by European musical modernism.

This article investigates such modernist musical features in a selection of film scores by Australian composer Brian May (1934-1997). May was a pioneer of the Australian feature film ‘revival’ period (commencing in the late 1960s) and one of the more prolific composers of this period, writing scores for 22 Australian feature films from 1975 to 1994. His compositions are heard in some of the more significant films of Australian cinema, including two of the Mad Max trilogy that, due to box office success and popular appeal, continue to attract a following. This research reports on a qualitative content analysis of a small selection of film texts, mapped against manuscripts and other materials accessed through the Brian May archive,[1] and contextualised within literature about Australian cinematic history and musical modernism.

Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978), Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and Bloodmoon (Alex Mills, 1990) have been selected to demonstrate May’s musical approach used for Australian features from early to late film composing career points. Produced using three different directors, the films employ various film genre associations, and illustrate a range of May’s musical choices. Furthermore, each score demonstrates employment of different modernist techniques. Patrick features dissonant underscoring for horror scenes contrasted with harmonic sequences in a largely string-based score. The Mad Max score employs a strident brass section often played at extreme ranges to create an unsettling effect. Bloodmoon exploits the 1990s popularity of electronic instruments by including synthesizer cues. The selected films, while released in the (broadly) ‘modern’ period, are not necessarily self-consciously modernist. However, they incorporate aspects of cinematic modernism in montage sequences, in the displayed obsession with the corporeal body and its visceral qualities, and in the relationship with technology.[2] The authors contend that May’s modernist musical techniques extend the unifying film music function of anchoring and illustrating the image and, instead, draw attention to the onscreen action using music and sound. Furthermore, these features of modernist music both informed musical developments at a critical moment in Australia’s cinema history, and assisted in shaping modernist—and postmodernist—aesthetics per se.

Musical Modernism and Screen Music

Modernism in music is often applied loosely to disparate musical styles that originated in the post-Wagner period and into the 20th Century. Modernist music placed an emphasis “on the new, on construction, rationality, integration and, above all, abstraction”.[3] In the international movement of musical modernism there was a central “belief in universal aesthetics, that ‘art music’ transcends social and cultural context”.[4] According to Derek Scott,

The romantic and modernist interpretations of music history emphasised formal and technical values, novelty and compositional ‘coups’. The stress was on the composition itself and its place in an autonomous musical process”.[5]

Musical modernism is primarily associated with the atonalism and twelve-tone (serialist) techniques of the German composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) and his followers. However, other strands of modernism have been identified, such as the French-Russian approaches championed by Igor Stravinsky; German Expressionism; ‘national’ schools including Charles Ives in America, Béla Bartók in Hungary and Leos Janácek in Czechoslovakia; and the experimentalism of Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Henry Cowell and others. Modernist music was (and to some extent remains) generally unpopular with mainstream classical music audiences due to perceived abrasive harmonic, rhythmic and melodic techniques. Musicologists Beard and Gloag note that composers like Schönberg “faced hostility and rejection” because of their elitist and radical approaches to music composition.[6] When applied to screen music, these techniques could be used to explore—or indeed, to challenge—the narrative possibilities of music; and to contest the link between music and narration. Leon Botstein in his article on modernism in the New Grove music dictionary argues that

Modernity demanded the shattering of expectations, conventions, categories, boundaries and limits as well as empirical experimentation (following the example of science) and the confident exploration of the new. This would inspire the continued search during the [20th] century for new systems of pitch organization as alternatives to tonality, and for new instruments, often the result of technological advances, from the theremin (1920) and the ondes martenot (1928) to the synthesizer and the computer.[7]

Added to the musical innovations briefly outlined above were the innovations in cinema and pre-cinematic predecessors. The ‘silent’ (non-synchronised sound) films screened in the late nineteenth century (for example, those by the Lumière Brothers) were greatly admired, creating public support for the cinematic medium despite its technical limitations at the time. By the 1920s, films by German Expressionists including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) and Nosferatu (F.W. Marnau, 1922), and by Soviet directors such as Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925, for example) introduced audiences to new approaches to mise-en-scène and, in the case of Eisenstein’s collaborations with ballet and opera composer Sergei Prokofiev, a close correspondence between image and sound. The development of synchronised sound technologies enabled further experimental advances between the world wars but also, as Kevin Donnelly argues, caused music to become “surreptitious, to weave in and out of other sounds”[8] especially dialogue. In the post-war era, some directors (notably Alfred Hitchcock) specifically targeted the relationship of image and sound as a critical stylistic feature, and they relied on the development of close collaborative links with composers and musicians to achieve this. In his scores for Hitchcock’s films, Bernard Herrmann used musical techniques such as contrasting consonance and dissonance to highlight the director’s narrative twists. Furthermore, as Royal S. Brown notes, while Viennese musical traditions had largely dominated film music, “from the outset Herrmann broke with standard practices by making harmonic and instrument color the most important elements of his film music”.[9]

Modernism is a vexed issue for those who wish to offer the ultimate definition, whether in reference to cinematic modernism[10] or to musical modernism. Nevertheless, the identification of certain elements in film texts as modernist assists an awareness of affective operations, particularly in relation to the film’s original production and exhibition. Cinematic modernism coincided with the spread of urban-industrial technology and challenges to social (including gender) relations, enabling new modes of representation. Miriam Bratu Hansen notes the seeming contradiction between Hollywood ‘classicism’ (or neo-classicism) and European-centred cinematic modernism, and argues that the Fordist production practices associated with the ‘classical’ Hollywood studio era appeared modernist in their original intent. Furthermore, “classical Hollywood cinema succeeded as an international modernist idiom on a mass basis”[11] because of its appeal to different peoples and publics, using a narrative address that was open to interpretation based on experience rather than universal. Music contributed to this scenario by its ability to be both abstract and non-literal (thereby suiting the modernist agenda), while also performing functions such as aiding narrative flow and emotional content. These can be observed in Brian May’s scores discussed below.

The predominant philosophical writer on musical modernism is the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno who studied music with Schönberg’s composition disciple Alban Berg from 1925-27 before publishing several works addressing these and other techniques of musical modernism.[12] As an émigré from war-torn Germany, Adorno commenced his critical analysis of mass culture industries, one of which was cinema as employed by (most famously) Leni Riefenstahl for Nazi propaganda. While in the USA, Adorno (together with other German refugees such as Max Horkheimer who participated in what became known as the Frankfurt School) also critiqued what he perceived to be ideological intervention into public opinion operating in supposedly democratic capitalist societies via consumer culture. Adorno investigated the mediation between the artwork and ‘the world’, arguing that music should be in part autonomous while also providing commentary on the everyday. This is clearly evidenced in the role of film music in relation to narration and mise-en-scène. In Los Angeles, Adorno collaborated with film composer Hanns Eisler on a groundbreaking treatise on film composition—Composing for the Films—published in 1947 and republished 2005. In this book the authors critique the then-predominant Hollywood studio approach to film composition that commonly employed Western ‘Romantic’ expressive techniques, and offer ideas about how modernist music might better serve the medium of film.  While Adorno and Eisler were by no means the only authors writing about film scoring practices in the early period of synchronised sound film,[13] they were preeminent in overtly promulgating modernist musical techniques in film music composition. Furthermore, they were prolific in publications and film music, with Eisler applying his theory of film music to his own scores, for example in Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, 1955). Theirs was one of the earliest political critiques of film music, which they argued was often used to obscure the mediated nature of film.

Adorno and Eisler deemed modernist musical practices pertinent to ‘advanced’ motion-pictures in the first decade of the synchronised sound era, arguing that “objectively they are more appropriate than the haphazard musical padding with which motion pictures are satisfied today, and are superior to it”.[14] They critique what by then had become film music conventions that had derived from earlier cultural and entertainment forms such as vaudeville and pre-synch sound films—the so-called ‘silent’ cinema—that often relied on cue books for the musical accompaniment. The techniques deployed in Hollywood studio music that Adorno and Eisler most disliked include:

  • leitmotifs used in a manner that did not well represent the Wagnerian opera approach;
  • ‘sweet’ harmonic and melodic approaches;
  • unobtrusive music used around the dialogue;
  • illustrative music that merely supports the events on-screen;
  • stock music or pre-composed cues; and other musical clichés.

Along the lines of modernist composers, they eschew excess, “prefabricated emotionalism”[15], and overly decorative, elaborated styles. From the outset, Adorno and Eisler assert that standard historical practices in film scoring persist even though there is no compelling reason for this to be the case. They see the “clichés” that have developed (such as violin tremolo for the accompaniment of suspense scenes for example) as devices developed in by-gone days but now lacking potency. And they are opposed to the “standardisation” of instrumental expressiveness such as keeping dynamics in more or less the same (mezzoforte) range.

While it is relevant to consider these ideas as critiques of film scoring practices of the mid-1940s, an important transitional period for cinema, what is particularly salient is the authors’ modernist thinking about the medium of film and the place of music in it. This is where their arguments can be applied to more recent contemporary practice. Indeed Adorno and Eisler point the way forward, setting an agenda that is still relevant today:

The development of avant-garde music in the course of the last thirty years has opened up an inexhaustible reservoir of new resources and possibilities that is still practically untouched. There is no objective reason why the motion picture should not draw on it.[16]

Adorno and Eisler proceed to outline more modern approaches to the use of music in film. They begin by stating that the new modernist approaches established by composers such as Schönberg, Bartók and Stravinsky demonstrate the “dissolution of the conventionalized musical idiom”[17] and that in the new music “everything is the direct result of the concrete requirement of structure, rather than of the tonal system or any ready-made pattern”.[18] This allows for the avoidance of musical clichés. Furthermore, Adorno and Eisler consider the extreme dissonance of modernist music to be more appropriate to express tensions in film drama than traditional tonal music (where only limited dissonance is acceptable).[19] They also consider the new music to be more adaptable to the sharp contrasts and abrupt changes of film than the longer repetitive forms of tonal music such as the sonata.[20] While not particularly emphasised, Adorno and Eisler noted the affinity of modernist musical techniques with the generic needs of horror films, notably King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1934).[21]

Despite their championing of new music resources, Adorno and Eisler are none the less aware of the “dangers” of their application in film music, citing “excessive complexity of details”, “making every moment of the accompanying music arresting”, “pedantry” and “formalistic trifling”, and “hasty adoption of the twelve-tone technique” as examples.[22] They note also that “certain modern techniques, like the ostinato of the Stravinsky school have begun to sneak in”[23], perhaps hinting at the greatest “danger” of all, that the language of modern music in the years ahead would become a compendium of clichés in its own right. As James Winders, in his discussion of European Modernism, argues,

One of the central ironies in any discussion of seemingly radical or disturbing artists is that their shock value inevitably seems to ebb away and they become incorporated within standard histories of art (or literature, music, etc.).[24]

For[I4]  example, some of these new music resources derivative of musical modernism and advocated by Eisler and Adorno were taken up in Hollywood productions especially as underscores for fear and horror sequences, although film studios generally eschewed these compositional approaches. As Neil Lerner argues,

… film music absorbed some of the practices of aesthetic modernism from the concert hall, and … in particular the genre of the horror film turned to unresolved dissonance, atonality, and timbral experimentation as part of its characteristic stylistic qualities.[25]

While Adorno and Eisler’s specific ‘instructions’ as such were not adopted in a wholesale manner, their general critique was influential. Some screen composers consciously employed modernist techniques to compose in innovative and arresting ways. Composers such as William Alwyn in the UK eschewed modernism for his concert music but employed twelve-tone serialism, dissonance and elements of orchestral colour in his scores for films in the 1940s to 1960s, notably Life For Ruth (Basil Dearden, 1962). Alex North’s score for Viva Zapata! (Elia Kazan, 1952) is generally acknowledged for its modernist style, as was Leonard Roseman’s orchestral score for The Cobweb (Vincent Minnelli, 1955) which features polyphonic textures and solo piano, and a theme based on a tone row. In the 1960s and ’70s, modernist techniques featured in Pierre Jansen’s scores for Claude Chabrol films, and Henry Mancini used microtones for thriller elements in Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967). Jerry Goldsmith exploited unusual instruments for the alternative world conveyed in Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968), and later scored Runaway (Michael Crichton, 1985) in an entirely synthesizer-derived modernist style. In the 1980s, too, Ken Russell’s films employed modernist techniques, especially for films such as Altered States (1980) using the non-film composer John Corigliano. Modernist musical techniques for the abnormal were highlighted in David Cronenberg’s films, such as Howard Shore’s score for The Brood (1979). Overall, however, the most influential film composer (on Brian May and others) in terms of modernist techniques was Bernard Herrmann, whose collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are widely acknowledged in contemporary popular culture via, for example, the oft-cited shower scene in Psycho (1960) that features an aggressive stabbing technique for the strings performance.[26]

Australia’s nascent film industry of the late 1960s and 1970s was open to suggestion from international cinemas, including US entertainment corporations and film music initiatives by composers like Herrmann. Some Australian directors and producers were supported by the government to create an Australian cinematic ‘canon’ of arthouse-styled films modelled on European art cinema, while other filmmakers aimed for the commercial international market, attracting international and private capital and attention for their pop culture approaches. Brian May was informed by, and a product of, this context through his association with Antony I. Ginnane—a producer of horror/thriller/gore genres that prevailed from the late 1970s into the tax-incentive (10ba10Ba) period of the 1980s (generating, for example, Patrick in 1978, Harlequin in 1980, and Turkey Shoot in 1982). Adorno and Eisler’s conceptual challenge to music as well as to cinema was largely unappreciated by an industry obsessed with reigniting its dormant feature film industry, yet elements of such influences are identifiable in the work to be discussed. The modernist musical techniques that May incorporated into his film scores may have been relatively conventional within their international industrial and aesthetic contexts but, for Australian feature films of the revival period, they were innovative and remarkable.

The next section begins with an overview of May’s background that led to his compositional approach; then analyses his employment of modernist devices in the film scores of Australian films Patrick, Mad Max and Bloodmoon.

Brian May’s Screen Music Oeuvre

Brian May is established here as a pioneering film composer of the Australian feature film revival period that began in the late 1960s. May studied piano, violin and conducting at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. After working in Adelaide for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) as a conductor and arranger for the Adelaide Big Band, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Singers, he took on the musical directorship of the ABC’s Melbourne Showband in 1969.[27] May’s first feature film score was for the sex comedy The True Story of Eskimo Nell (released in 1975), which began his association with Richard Franklin (a young director who had been mentored by Alfred Hitchcock). May is best known for his scores of Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and its sequel, Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981); but May also produced scores for 22 Australian feature films and around 20 Australian and US television series including Bellbird (1967-77), Carson’s Law (1983-84), Return to Eden (1983; 1986) and Blind Side (1993)[28]; and he composed for several films produced for the US market.[29]

Although Brian May had not formally studied modernist music composition, he had a strong interest in new music. In his personal papers and library donated to the Queensland University of Technology are scores of works by Berg, Bartók and Stravinsky and later modernist composers such as Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki and (early) Richard Meale. May’s professional library also contained many of the standard textbooks for modernist composition; and interestingly Brian May’s lecture notes for teaching film composition include analytical materials relating to Bernard Herrmann’s modernist score for Psycho. Rather than the conventional use of strings in a lush, romantic style, May admired the percussive, edgy use of them to create tension and he employed this technique in a modified form in his own work. In their director/composer collaborations, Hitchcock and Herrmann had demonstrated an interest in discordant, atonal and experimental sounds, represented, for example, in the use of the theremin in Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945). Graham Bruce, in his book chapter titled ‘Orchestral Color and Narrative’, charts Herrmann’s unusual instrumentations, and notes that

While current Hollywood practice also favoured the use of the conventional symphony orchestra, Herrmann’s extensive experience in radio scoring taught him the effectiveness of widely differing and often-unconventional groups of instruments in allying music and drama.[30]

Like Herrmann, May (with a few exceptions) did all his own orchestrations because he was able to work quickly. Although May embraced atonalism and other trends of musical modernism, he had reservations about the extent that a screen composer could exercise innovative approaches to scoring. The composer had to work to the director’s and producer’s brief in a relatively conservative environment driven by commercial imperatives. In the early 1990s, he observed that it is “the people who are making the movies or in control of what it’s going to be like who have greater control of everything these days”.[31] One of the factors discouraging modernist innovation in film music is the practice of “temping” (laying a temporary music soundtrack as a guide for the composer by using existing commercially available recordings). And where the screen composer is expected to create music in the styles of a “temp track”, it usually means that s/he is required to be purposely derivative. On the other hand stylistic eclecticism is expected of screen composers and, with experience, the screen composer may develop an identifiably unique compositional style or sound, which becomes one of the markers of musical modernism.

Another factor that helped mitigate the opposition towards modernism in screen music was the traditional convention of industrial filmmaking to use a medium–sized symphony orchestra (comprising 60-80 players). Australian cinema, particularly in the early revival period before the availability of soundstages for orchestral recordings, was constrained by budgets in the use of large ensembles and orchestras. The use of modest scale ensembles can make film scores sound ‘one dimensional’, whereas twentieth century modernist music uses alternative configurations to standard ensembles like orchestras and string quartets and eschews traditional ways of writing for instruments and voices.

Yet modernist musical styles were not used in Australian feature film scoring in any significant way until Brian May produced the score for Patrick, released in 1978. In the 1930s and 1940s composers skilled in orchestral music composition—such as Hamilton Webber, Lindley Evans and Henry Krips—produced film scores that were conventionally tonal in a range of nineteenth and conservative early twentieth century European classical styles. In English, American and French film productions in Australia during the 1950s, international composers wrote in classical music-based styles that followed their conventional film scoring traditions. In contrast, the considerable volume of sex comedy films released in the Australian film revival period of the late 1960s and 1970s contracted Australian composers with musical backgrounds in jazz, cabaret, popular and folk styles (many of whom had experience in television and advertising).[32] Composers with media industry backgrounds tended to employ those musical elements required by the brief, and they included Bob Young, Peter Best, Brian May, Bruce Smeaton, Tommy Tycho, Sven Libaek, Don Burrows, Eric Jupp and Graham Bond/Rory O’Donoghue. When the trend for period dramas emerged by the mid 1970s, however, the practice was to use either existing classical music or especially composed historically-appropriate styles. Brian May’s scores demonstrate the use of modernist musical techniques ‘by convenience’, to signal horror elements within commercial, populist film productions.

Although modernism flourished in Australian concert music in the 1960s with the emergence of Australian composers such as Richard Meale (1932-2010), Nigel Butterley (1935- ), Larry Sitsky (1934- ), Ross Edwards (1943- ), Barry Conyngham (1944- ) and to some extent Peter Sculthorpe (1929- ), none of these prominent concert composers (excepting Sculthorpe) were involved in the development of feature film music in the revival period. Sculthorpe’s contribution to film scoring in projects such as Age of Consent (Michael Powell, 1968), Essington (Julian Pringle, 1974)[33] and Manganinnie (John Honey, 1980) were largely tonal in style, and there are very few instances of scores with modernist elements in 1970s’ Australian feature films. A notable exception is Michael Carlos’s score for the horror feature Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1978) that employed dissonant elements scored for synthesizers and string orchestra. Carlos’s musical background was in rock music (as former keyboardist of the cult band Tully), and his efforts in modernist composition were ill-informed and thus crudely crafted and unconvincing.

Brian May’s first feature film score for the sex comedy The True Story of Eskimo Nell focused on parodies of tonal music styles used in the American Western genre, but involved some atonal elements in scenes involving violence. May’s music for Patrick appears to be the first modernist Australian feature film score of substance; requiring over 200 pages of fully orchestrated music. This laid the groundwork for subsequent explorations, and May’s oeuvre includes several variations to the standard orchestra for screen composition. In Harlequin (Simon Wincer, 1980) a synthesizer is used to sonically represent the magical powers of the lead character Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell) and the young boy Alex Rast (Mark Spain). The identifiable sound of the banjo is used in The True Story of Eskimo Nell. The absence of woodwinds in the orchestral ensemble for Mad Max gives the score a particularly percussive edge (see below). May used ocarina, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet but no bassoon in Thirst (Rod Hardy, 1979); and guitar, harmonica and euphonium in Roadgames (Richard Franklin, 1981). While additional brass band instruments are used in the opening title music of The Last Outlaw (Kevin Dobson and George Miller, 1980), May’s scores for Bloodmoon uses synthesizers but no brass instrumentation (as discussed below).

May specialised in horror, thriller, and post apocalyptic action films; genres that lend themselves to modernistic composition techniques to assist in conveying threat, peril, nightmares and terror. Film genre techniques function as “mental frameworks”[34] for action or characters and these include musical elements such as: specific musical timbres produced using instruments like the organ; performative techniques such as violin tremolo (rapid alternation between two pitches played on the violin bridge); ‘stings’ (such as loud chords) on points of sudden action; ostinato to convey tension; and drones to build to a climax.[35] Such musical elements, together with dynamic variation, metrical irregularity and other techniques, demonstrate modernist approaches that are employed in May’s scores. The next section entails analyses of significant music cues from three Australian films as examples of May’s use of modernist techniques in his scoring. The selected films—Patrick, Mad Max and Bloodmoon—employ horror and thriller conventions within generically malleable films and consequently are useful vehicles for discussing the ways in which modernist musical techniques are applied to specific film genre approaches. Of the three, Mad Max was the most successful in terms of box office and critical acclaim, and it has remained a cult classic in Australian cinema.

Film Music Analysis I: Patrick

Patrick is described by Tony Harrison as “a simple but contrived psychic thriller”[36] and by Brian McFarlane as a melodrama[37], but it also has elements of black comedy and romance. A comatose private hospital patient, Patrick (Robert Thompson), has been kept alive for three years for medical experimentation by the eccentric Dr. Roget (Robert Helpmann); however, he responds in mysterious ways to a newly employed nursing sister, Kathy Jacquard (Susan Penhaligon). Although thought to be incapable of any movement or sensory experience, Patrick begins to exercise psychokinetic powers. He uses these on Kathy and other hospital staff, attempting to harm the men who are romantically inclined towards Kathy—her estranged husband Ed (Rod Mullinar) and a playboy neurosurgeon, Brian (Bruce Barry).

Brian May notes that the producer Antony Ginnane “required a score which underpinned the film in not too heavy a way. So there is no brass in that film purely strings, with a couple of woodwinds, and a bit of piano”.[38] May also made considerable use of harp and tuned percussion (mostly vibraphone) in composing his score. There is minimal use of drums, including some use of drumkit in the few light contemporary popular music cues used in the film.

Although there is a focus on dissonant underscoring, Brian May uses some cues with tonal and modal melody and harmony. For example, after the dramatic atonal cues used in the opening scenes of the film to accompany Patrick’s anger towards, and then murder of, his mother and her lover, there is a cut to the city skyline and the beginning of the main titles. This cue is scored principally for violins (melody) and harp and cello (modal melodic patterns of parallel chords). The texture is light and the melody gentle and lilting. On a cut to the interior of Kathy’s flat a momentary jarring element is introduced when the film title—PATRICK—appears on the screen. This is the Patrick motif: a rising perfect fifth played by cellos and double basses and repeated a semitone higher. Following this, a second tonal melodic idea—Kathy’s theme—is introduced. This wistful tune is used at key romantic points throughout the narrative (for example when Ed is trying to win Kathy back by fixing up her flat and cooking her dinner; and when Ed is trapped in a lift by Patrick’s psychokinetic powers while attempting to bring a bunch of flowers to the hospital for Kathy). George Miller noted that before working with Brian May on Mad Max, he had associated May with “ABC Showband middle-of-the-road type music”.[39] These tonal cues exemplify this style but they are used in Patrick (and in May’s other thriller genre scores, including Mad Max) to provide stark contrast to highly chromatic or atonal cues.

For the most part Patrick’s psychokinetic mischief, his ill-treatment by Dr. Roget, and other suspenseful scenes are scored with dissonant textures. For example when Roget tries to kill Patrick with a lethal drug injection (beginning at 1:35:46) there is a series of shots underscored with a complex orchestral music cue. When we see Patrick lying motionless in his bed (Fig 1), high violin chord clusters moving chromatically up and down over a low held bass tone signal the danger that he is in. On a cut to Roget preparing the syringe, a three-chord motif associated with Roget is followed by a series of chromatic descending lines played tremolo by violas and celli (May marked these to be played “Edgy and Evil” in the score manuscript). As Roget moves menacingly towards Patrick’s bed, a low rumbling texture consisting of strings and piano tremolo and a bass drum roll pulsates wildly, increasing in volume as Roget approaches, then diminishes in volume as Patrick repels the doctor with his psychic powers. At the climax and abrupt conclusion of this musical section, there is a cut to the hospital lift mechanism then another quick cut to Ed trapped in the lift. A non-tonal development of the first three notes of Kathy’s theme accompanies this brief shot of Ed. As the doctor edges closer to Patrick, a high string two-note motif (a falling dissonant major seventh interval) rises in pitch, is performed faster, and leads to a dense tremolo chordal climax as Roget thrusts the needle towards Patrick’s face (Fig 2). Roget’s attack is thwarted by Patrick who causes a pot plant on the window ledge to fly through the air and hit the doctor on the head. The orchestral music cue ends at this point (1:36:59) but, as Roget attempts other ways of killing Patrick, such as using a chair to try to smash him (Fig 3), a low disturbing electronic rumbling continues, accompanied by the ubiquitous sounds of Patrick’s breathing and of the monitoring machine bleeping in the hospital room. The sequence ends (at 1:37:40) with a massive dissonant full orchestral chord crescendo accompanied by a rush-of-wind sound effect as Patrick causes the hospital room door to burst open and Dr. Roget to fly through the doorway backwards, slamming into the opposite wall of the corridor. The impressive crescendo effect sharply cut on the impact was achieved (according to directions in the score) by recording the chord sforzando to pianissimo (very loud to very soft) and then dubbing the sound backwards; thereby changing the attack of the note and creating dramatic effect.

Figure 1: Patrick lies in bed, and violins signal danger.
Figure 2: Roget tries to kill Patrick with syringe, and dense tremolo chords highlight the action.

Figure 3: Roget attempts to hit Patrick with a chair, accompanied by electronic rumbling.


The orchestral music in this episode of the film (from 1.35.46 to 1.36.59) closely follows the action but it could also be heard as an independent aphoristic modernistic musical composition accompanying the images. The music cue is unified by low drones, initially on the tone D and then moving to and remaining on E. All the motivic material has a strong orientation to the interval of a minor second (or to its inversion, the major seventh), musical intervals associated with unease. There is a gradual build up of tension, a moment of respite (the more gentle texture accompanying the shot of Ed trapped in the lift), and then a sonic assault leading to the climax. As with much modernistic music, there is no reliance on metricality for structural coherence, and a wide range of dynamics and instrumental techniques are employed.

May’s score for Patrick generally features a high degree of motivic developmental processes along the lines of the variation techniques codified in 12-tone composition, the benchmark of twentieth century musical modernist trends. The four–tone Patrick motif, for example, is subject to multiple tone re-orderings and other forms of melodic manipulation such as interval expansion.

The soundtrack of Patrick also includes some licensed fragments of a modernist classic, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913). This is initially used diegetically: it is playing on Dr. Brian Wright’s underwater sound system in his pool and audible when he dives below the surface several times during the party attended by Kathy and her nursing colleague Paula. In this context it suggests the economic resources and urbane musical tastes that the character Brian has acquired. However, the music soon becomes a non-diegetic aggressive soundtrack to Brian’s desperate struggle when Patrick uses his psychokinetic powers in an attempt to drown him. While serving as a powerful sonic backdrop to this drama, Stravinsky’s music comically contrasts with the diegetic blues-rock instrumental party music that is heard above the water level of the pool. May’s music also operates with elements of sound design such as the buzzing of shorting electrical circuits (Fig 4), the operations of the lift, medical equipment, and other modernist-styled references to technology.

Figure 4: Emergency sign shorts out, with buzzing sound.

Mad Max was the next feature film project for May and it operated on a bigger canvas in terms of locations and character interactions. The music also needed to work around the sounds of vehicles, explosions and the characters’ tense vocal utterances including screams, yells, curses, and the monosyllabic, sparse dialogue of the main character, ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). Here the adapted vehicles of the central protagonists and antagonists are used as extensions of their bodies and personas, with the music contributing to these sounds and aiding scenes of conflict.

Film Music Analysis II: Mad Max

Mad Max portrays bikie-gang culture set in a near future in which society becomes uncontrollably lawless. The police attempt to keep law and order by patrolling the highways in souped-up ‘pursuit’ and ‘interceptor’ cars, often acting out levels of violence matching those of the outlaws. According to Adrian Martin,

The film captures many of the social and personal ‘phantasms’ that are embodied in what Miller himself has referred to as the nation’s ‘car culture’: complex, collective ideas and emotions relating to freedom, space, community, speed, confinement, escape, risk, threat and gender roles.[40]

In George Miller’s view, “film is sound and pictures, not talking and pictures. And on Mad Max we needed a very strong soundtrack involving motorcycles, cars and explosions. Most scenes were written for the sound.”[41] In briefing May, Miller indicated he required an “uncomfortable feeling” and a “gothic, slightly atonal score with lots of jagged edges”.[42]

Mad Max is scored for an orchestral ensemble of strings, brass and percussion but without woodwinds or piano. Harp is used prominently but only in Max and Jessica’s love theme, and sparingly in a few other cues. The brass section—of three French horns, three trumpets, three trombones and one tuba—plays a very prominent role in the score, and is often used to highlight dramatic moments. For example, a short brass fanfare becomes associated with the Halls of Justice, and Max has an angular trumpet theme typically used to dramatise his actions (when, for example, he gets out of his interceptor to view the burning car of The Nightrider). May remarked that in Mad Max, he often used the brass with “unusual tessituras” (in extreme high and low parts of their ranges).[43] This strategy provides an unsettling, edgy effect to the orchestration.

In keeping with the emphasis on sound as per Miller’s instruction, Brian May attempted to integrate sound effects with the music where appropriate. Referring to a scene where the bikie gang attacks a car and its occupants using axes and crowbars, May explained that he “treated all the FX like a percussion section playing very freely and wrote something against that”.[44]

Exemplifying this melding of sound effects and music is the night-time crash scene (from 0:17:11 to 0:18:16). Here Brian May interweaves a freely textured trio of timpani, snare drum and cymbals into a sound effects texture of police sirens, tow-truck drivers arguing, and general acoustic mayhem. The score manuscript directs the percussion players to play ad lib (that is, unscored or improvised). This works well for the shot of Max’s boss Fifi (Roger Ward) driving in and weaving around the vehicles at the scene. A low dissonant trombone and tuba chord is added as a sting for the medium close-up of a bloodied head of one of the accident victims. The music then fades in volume for the conversation between Max and Fifi; then the cue is brought to a climax when the gang’s threat to Max is revealed and he laughs it off. A dramatic high string dissonant chord is added and the percussion increases in volume to its previous prominent level. The end of the cue overlaps with the cut to the next location, the main street of the town where the bikie gang is just about to ride in and terrorise the townsfolk. This provides the viewer with an inkling of the violence that is to follow.

As with Patrick and Mad Max, Bloodmoon—released a decade later in 1990—is a horror film that contrasts tonal music for domestic and romantic sequences with notably modernist techniques for scenes of violence, suspense and horror. The visceral emphasis in the camera work here is heightened by May’s way of creating tension and, once again, the music works around significant sound effects and design.

Film Music Analysis III: Bloodmoon

Bloodmoon is a serial killer horror film set in and around a Catholic girls’ boarding school called St. Elizabeth’s, and its horror sequences lend themselves to modernist music techniques. The film is scored for an orchestra without any brass instruments or oboes, however all cues include electronic music parts—using the Roland D-50 Linear synthesizer and the Kurzweil K250 12-voice polyphonic digital synthesizer.

Eleven of the thirty-six cues written by Brian May are scored entirely for synthesizers—usually six parts using different combinations of both types of synthesizer. These entirely synthesized cues are applied for both the tonal and atonal styles. This mixture of orchestral instruments and synthesizers can be interpreted as a way to cut the cost of hiring brass players[45], but it also provides the composer with an opportunity to explore new combinations of traditional and electronic instrumental timbres; and to contrast electronic and orchestral sonic textures. For example, one of the terror sequences early in the film is a combination of a fully synthesized cue and a cue scored for orchestra and synthesizers. Jackie (Jo Munro), one of the St. Elizabeth’s schoolgirls, sneaks out late at night and enters the forest adjoining the school, an area known as Lover’s Lane. She is intending to rendezvous with Rich (Gregory Pamment), a boy from the Winchester Boys’ School who she fancies. To evoke the spookiness of the forest with moonlight filtering through the trees, Brian May uses a static electronic music texture without any discernable beat. A low-held string-tone signals imminent danger. Some scatty flute notes (referred to in the score as “short bits”) are subjected to echo effects that further reinforce the unsettling atmosphere. A high violin-like trill and more flute echo accompany Jackie as she searches vainly in the near-darkness for Rich. The addition of a dissonant minor ninth interval to the low-held tone adds to the tension; followed by the layering of a strange pitch-bending of vocal-sounding chords and high string-like chords, which leads to the scene’s climax where Jackie discovers the mutilated body of Rich.

This sequence merges seamlessly with a following cue scored for percussion, harp, woodwinds, strings and two Roland D50 synthesizers. On a zoom to Rich’s body we hear a complex texture consisting of a loud tam tam (flat gong) and a bass drum crash, an agitated repeated angular cello figure, a high dissonant synth and strings chord, and a strongly performed repeated harp pattern, immediately followed by a dramatic low tremolo strings chord.  As Jackie takes off running, action music consisting of a dense texture of very rapid repeated patterns overlapping in the strings rise higher and higher until she stops running. At this point the music, a high tremolo dissonant held string chord, becomes relatively static, reflecting Jackie’s pause and accommodating the audibility of the murderer’s breathy voice: “Hello Jackie I’ve been waiting for you”. Cutting to a medium shot of the full moon glimpsed through trees, May uses a shimmering texture of rapid harp glissando up and down, a triangle tremolo, and a higher held strings and synth chord. As Jackie takes off running again, there is a return to the previous high-held note, which is combined with a new low angular melodic pattern in cellos, basses, synth and timpani that adds a plodding effect to suggest Jackie’s physical exhaustion. This idea ceases for Jackie’s next pause and the murderer’s threat—“Jackie did you think you’d get away from me?”—but the high held note continues. Jackie takes off running again, accompanied by the previously heard dense texture of rapid repeated patterns in the strings rising higher and higher in pitch until she stops once again and the voice is also heard. An octave triplet pattern in the violins accompanies a three-note falling semitonal motif as Jackie picks up a rock and starts to run again. The motif is repeated a step lower against the octave triplet pattern, which itself is repeated a semitone step lower. The falling music patterns further emphasise Jackie tiredness. As Jackie throws the rock in the direction where she thinks the murderer is hiding, there is a falling semitone two-note motif, followed by a climactic flourish of tremolo strings and a timpani roll as she screams, then is strangled with a ring of barbed wire placed around her neck from behind.

Both these music cues demonstrate clear uses of modernist techniques. The all-synth cue uses complex rhythms and textural organisation and is clearly non-metrical. The archived score manuscript for this cue is not fully notated, indicating that some of the detail was improvised in May’s electronic music studio. The cue employs not only digitally generated electronic sounds but also electronic manipulations of sounds. The second cue follows the action and dramatic mood of the scene very closely, but the structure of the editing provides the opportunity for May to use a large number of different musical ideas within a very short space of time. None of the musical ideas can be related to the structural conventions of tonal (pre-modernist) musical styles but, instead, angular melodic patterns, dissonant chords, changing time signatures and complex textural interrelations between the different instrumental and electronic music parts are featured.

May’s scores for Bloodmoon were followed by compositions for films such as Freddie’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991) in which the techniques he introduced in the Australian features were exploited in productions intended for the US as the primary market. The modernist compositional techniques employed by May in the Australian film scores discussed above assisted in identifying these films as a new approach for Australian cinema for local and international audiences.[46]


Brian May’s modernist compositions contributed to Australian feature filmmaking over two decades. His approach was to employ an overtly modernist musical vocabulary alongside pre-modernist ‘common practice’ film music vocabulary; becoming part of a tradition in screen music where different musical styles are chosen to create or reinforce a particular mood in film sequences as suggested by film narrative. May’s scores can be analysed using the framework for modernist film music proposed by Adorno and Eisler thirty years prior to his compositions. Adorno and Eisler were significant authors that set an agenda for musical modernism and film music, writing about what could exist, not just what was being created at the time. Their conceptual map was drawn up at an important period in cinematic history, when ground rules for the relationship of image to (synchronised) sound were still in transition. Their idealistic ‘audio-vision’ remains relevant today, offering a critique of scoring approaches that provide little motivation for the viewer to deeply engage in the film narrative. Nevertheless, Adorno and Eisler’s challenge to film music ignores the operation of it as essentially what some may call postmodernist, by drawing on those elements that suit the immediate needs of the image and narrative.

In many ways May’s compositions embody postmodern aesthetics of pastiche, collage, and the conscious intertextual referencing and juxtapositioning of texts from other periods and cultures. May’s modernist musical techniques may be interpreted as imitative and derivative, and less the product of a modernist aesthetic. His compositions were the result of a conscious attempt to produce a certain mood or emotion rather than to innovate in a way that would consciously or purposely progress the discipline of musical composition. As a composer his compositions are born of necessity, and constrained in their use of modernist techniques by director and producer requirements. Similarly, the films analysed above were not presented as highly modernist or experimental audiovisual texts. That said, at the time of their release, the films were certainly bold and modern for Australian cinema. It is undoubtedly the case that May’s modernist music techniques contributed significantly to this effect. In this industrial context, May’s modernist music represented a brave new approach to the sounds of Australian cinematic culture.

[1] An archive of documents, manuscripts and other items was bequeathed to Queensland University of Technology music department and is discussed in Michael Hannan, ‘The Brian May Collection: Two Decades of Screen Composition’, Screen Sound: The Australasian Journal of Soundtrack Studies, number 1 (2010) 59-66.

[2] This article does not aim to discuss cinematic modernism per se, as it is beyond its scope. However, for relevant discussions, see: Michael Wood, ‘Modernism and film’, in Michael Levenson The Cambridge Companion to Modernism (Cambridge etc: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Adrian Martin What is Modern Cinema? (Santiago: Uqbar, 2008); William D. Routt ‘“Shall We Jazz?” – Modernism in Australian Films of the ‘20s’, Senses of Cinema, 2000, i9, unpaginated.

[3] Alastair Williams, New Music and the Claims of Modernity (Aldershot [Hants]: Ashgate, 1997) 46.

[4] Derek Scott, ‘Postmodernism and Music’, in Stuart Sim (ed), The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought (Cambridge: Icon, 1998) 139.

[5] Scott, 137.

[6] David Beard and Kenneth Gloag, Musicology: The Key Concepts (London/New York: Routledge, 2005) 111.

[7] Leon Botstein, ‘Modernism’, in Sadie, Stanley (ed) The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd Edn) (London: Macmillan, 1980) 869.

[8] K.J. Donnelly, The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television (London: BFI Publishing, 2005) 10-11.

[9] Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1994) 153.

[10] See David Trotter’s discussion in ‘Hitchcock’s Modernism’, Modernist Cultures, 5.1 (2010) 106–126.

[11] Miriam Bratu Hansen, ‘The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism’, Modernism/Modernity, 6.2 (1999) 59-77.

[12] McCann, Graham, ‘New Introduction’, in Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (London: Continuum, 1947 republished 2005) x.

[13] See, for example, Irwin Bazelon, Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music (New York: Arco Publishing, 1981); Roger Manvell & John Huntley, The Technique of Film Music (London/New York: Focal, 1975); Frank Skinner, Underscore: A combination method-text-treatise on scoring music for motion picture or T.V. (New York: Criterion Music Group, 1950).

[14] Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (London: Continuum, 2005) 32.

[15] Adorno and Eisler, 33.

[16] Adorno and Eisler, 18.

[17] Adorno and Eisler, 33.

[18] Adorno and Eisler, 13.

[19] Adorno and Eisler, 37.

[20] Adorno and Eisler, 38-39

[21] See further discussion of such techniques in Philip Hayward, ‘Introduction: Scoring The Edge’, in Philip Hayward (ed), Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema (London: Equinox, 2009) 7-8.

[22] Adorno and Eisler, 43-44.

[23] Adorno and Eisler, 44.

[24] James A Winders, European Culture Since 1848. From Modern to Postmodern and Beyond (New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) 185.

[25] Neil Lerner, ‘Preface. Listening to Fear/Listening with Fear’, in Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (New York: Routledge, 2010) ix.

[26] See James Wierzbicki, ‘Psycho-Analysis: Form and Function in Bernard Herrmann’s Music for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece’ in Hayward (ed).

[27] Jude Magee, ‘From Fine Cut to Mix: An Exploration of Processes and Issues in Australian Film Score Composition’, unpublished Honours thesis (Lismore: Southern Cross University, 1996) 174.

[28] May scored for the following television series:

Australian Television:

Bellbird (1967-77)

New Wave (1974)

Countdown (1974)

The Sentimental Bloke (1976)

Barnaby and Me (1976)

No Room to Run (1976)

Catspaw (1978)

Twenty Good Years (1979)

The Last Outlaw (1980) mini series

And Here Comes Bucknuckle (1981)

Deadline (1982)

Carson’s Law (1983)

Return to Eden (1983) mini series

Return to Eden (1986) TV series

The Last Frontier (1986)

Darlings of the Gods (1989)

US Television:

Tales from the Crypt (episode “Split Second”) (1991)

A Dangerous Life (1988) mini series

Dark Justice (1991)

Blind Side (1993)

[29] Franklin used May on a raft of subsequent films including Roadgames (1981) and the US production Cloak and Dagger (1984) and was keen to have him score Psycho II (1983). However, the producers felt that May was too much of an outsider to be considered for this high budget project. Later in his career May secured the scoring contract for several other high profile US film productions including Freddy’s Dead: the Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991).

[30] Graham Bruce, Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative (Ann Arbor (MI): UMI Research Press, 1985) 75.

[31] Anton Koch, Interview with Australian Film Composer, Brian May, (August 5, 1993, no location given; unpublished interview transcript, Brian May Collection, QUT) 11.

[32] For more discussion of film music backgrounds and training in this era, see Rebecca Coyle and Michael Hannan (2005) ‘Marking Time in the Barry McKenzie Films’ Music’ in Screening the Past (special issue: Popular Music and Film) online

[33] Although Sculthorpe did encourage the use of modernist approaches in this film. See Michael Hannan, ‘Scoring Essington: Composition, Comprovisation, Collaboration’, Screen Sound: The Australasian Journal of Soundtrack Studies, number 2 (2011) 48-63.

[34] Donnelly, 88.

[35] See Peter Hutchings chapter ‘The Sounds of Horror’ in his The Horror Film, (Harlow [UK]: Pearson Education, 2004) 127-47.

[36] Tony Harrison, Australian Film and TV Companion (Sydney: Citrus Press, 2005) 122.

[37] Brian McFarlane, ‘Patrick’, in Scott Murray (ed) Australian film 1978-1994: a survey of theatrical features (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995) 22.

[38] Arnold Zable and Ivan Hutchinson, Brian May: unpublished article typescript (Brian May Collection, QUT, c. 1981) 4.

[39] Quoted in Zable and Hutchinson, 8.

[40] Adrian Martin, ‘Mad Max’, in Scott Murray (ed) Australian film 1978-1994: a survey of theatrical features (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995) 41. See also additional studies of the Mad Max score, including Ross Harley, ‘Creating a Sonic Character: Non-Diegetic Sound in the Mad Max Trilogy’ in Rebecca Coyle (ed) Screen Scores: Studies in Contemporary Australian Film Music (Sydney: AFTRS/Allen & Unwin, 1998); Rebecca Coyle, ‘Sound and Music in the Mad Max Trilogy’, in Philip Hayward (ed) Off The Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema (Eastleigh UK: John Libbey, 2004).

[41] Quoted in  Zable and Hutchinson, 5.

[42] May, in Magee, 176 and 177.

[43] May, in Magee, 178.

[44] May, in Magee, 177.

[45] A poster prepared by Brian May’s Los Angeles agent (The Robert Light Agency) in the early 1990s advertises “The Richness of a Philharmonic Orchestra with the Economy of digital technology” [bold in original].

[46] Mark Hartley’s 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! about 1970s and 80s Australian genre films includes an interview with Quentin Tarantino in which he admits to being highly influenced by Patrick. Given Tarantino’s own employment of music and sound with image in his oeuvre, it is likely that the musical score was an effective device in drawing his attention to Patrick.

About the Author

Rebecca Coyle and Michael Hannan

About the Authors

Rebecca Coyle

Rebecca Coyle is Associate Professor in Media Studies at Southern Cross University in Australia. She is Director of Research and Research Training for the School of Arts and Social Sciences. She has edited two anthologies on Australian feature film music, is editor for Screen Sound: The Australasian Journal of Soundtrack Studies, and currently leads an ARC Discovery project around this work.

Michael Hannan

Michael Hannan is Professor of Music at Southern Cross University in Australia. He is a composer, performer and music researcher. His research covers professional music education, creative music practice and screen music. In 2010 Hannan was a visiting researcher at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) working on the collection of screen music manuscripts bequeathed to QUT by Brian May.View all posts by Rebecca Coyle and Michael Hannan →