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Critical Mass: Sound, Story and Music in David Cronenberg's Crash

Author: • Jun 29th, 2006 •

Category: Australia, Brian Eno, David Cronenberg, features, film, music


As part of our Ballardian Music series, Cat Hope looks back at Howard Shore’s soundtrack for the David Cronenberg adaptation of Crash.

Cat Hope is an Australian musician and academic, based in Perth, Western Australia. Besides performing in the bands Lux Mammmoth and Gata Negra, she also performs solo noise music using bass guitar. Cat lectures in classical music at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

‘Crash is a psychopathological hymn and I’m singing it’ — J G Ballard

JG Ballard has always had a musical sensibility, despite his claims to possess a ‘tin ear’. He’s quoted in The Face as saying ‘there’s no music in my work. The most beautiful music in the world is the sound of machine guns’. In an interview with the French magazine Paris Review in 1984, Ballard says he didn’t even own a single record or player, though he didn’t mind listening to Serge Gainsbourg if his girlfriend put it on. Then again, his short story ‘Sound Sweep’ (1960) discusses the ultrasonic possibilities for music, and he was quoted in 2001 as saying that music by Brian Eno alongside architecture by Frank Gehry would best describe the ‘leisure world’ depicted in his Vermilion Sands stories. In an interview with the New Musical Express in 1985, he claimed that the music genre in the arts is the carrier of the ‘real news’.

And some of Ballard’s favourite films are created by directors who work in a fruitful and continuous tandem with composers. David Lynch, whose Blue Velvet (1986) was the best film of the ’80s according to Ballard, usually collaborates with composer Angelo Badalamenti. Alfred Hitchcock, who Ballard has written about in many contexts, had a long-standing partnership with Bernard Herrmann. Fittingly, the film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash was made by one of the most important director/composer teams of the last 40 years: Canadians David Cronenberg and Howard Shore.

Ballard declared that Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) was ‘the first film of the 21st century’, and in a review of the director’s latest, A History of Violence (2005), he wrote that ‘all Cronenberg’s films make us edge back into our seats, gripped by the story unfolding on the screen but aware that something unpleasant is going on in the seats around us’. True enough, though this author tends to believe that it’s the complex relationship between Cronenberg and Shore that creates this effect.

Shore understands about space, silence, dynamics and layering in the context of film music and its ability to manipulate the viewer’s perception of the images, and he says he uses his visceral reactions to the director’s rough cut in order to start creating a score, allowing it to fuel his ideas. Before Crash, Shore and Cronenberg had made six films together, starting with The Brood (1979). Shore says Cronenberg has always granted him considerable freedom, often remarking that Cronenberg was his favourite director to work with — not bad from someone who has scored over a hundred films. Shore says he ‘thought of movies as BEING film scores’ — that for him, film and music are intertwined, not unlike film and sound editor Walter Murch, who says we ‘see/hear film’. Shore claims that the act of writing music for film actually allowed his music to eventuate in the first place, and that films perform his music for him in a way.

Crash features a reverb-drenched score that mixes electronic, modified and acoustic instruments, classical arrangements and experimental electronic manipulation. The score successfully creates an atmosphere that allows the violence and sexuality to seep out, rather than representing it in some way. It is unlike any other score Shore has created before or since, and saw him return to a smaller ensemble. He had created full-blown orchestral scores for Dead Ringers (1988) and Naked Lunch (1991) but the budget wouldn’t allow for such indulgence in this film. As in the more experimental scores in the earlier films, this led to a much more interesting musical product. The repetitive melodic patterns, the limited tonal and thematic range, and the reluctance to change key creates a claustrophobic environment for the film enhanced by an unusual instrumental combination.


Image: © Fine Line Features

Around a quarter of the score was written, then recorded, then manipulated electronically in the studio. As the film progresses, the music becomes stranger, perhaps representing the psychological unravelling of James Ballard, the main character. In the car-wash scene, Shore creates a sort of ‘music concrete’ by sampling Foley recordings gathered by the sound designer (music concrete can be best described as electronic music produced from editing together fragments of natural and industrial sounds) — not unlike Wilder’s tape-recorder manipulations or Laing’s observations of the acoustic properties of water pipes in Ballard’s High-Rise (1974).

The car-wash piece begins with detailed recordings of the convertible as it reconfigures: the sound of the window enclosing the occupants in the hermetic booth of the car, giving way to the mixture of shimmering water sounds and thick wads of cloth against metal. The sound of the pulsating machines builds to an intensity measured by the sexual activity inside the car. Elsewhere, the music is rarely louder than other film sounds — dialogue, breathing, car engines and traffic noise dominate the sonic landscape.

The throaty sound of Vaughan’s huge car is perhaps the most prominent sound in the film, a delightful contrast to the delicate, interweaving music score. Shore’s contribution almost acts as a sublime muzak, never intruding on the fabric of the film yet evoking qualities from it. Shore and Ballard have both expressed a dislike of background music, yet muzak plays an important part in Ballard’s vision of a bland future. Similarly, the intelligent balance of music and sound in Crash creates an interesting equilibrium between the idea of music creating an environment for action — magnifying the images and meanings — and the non-music often featured in Ballard’s work, like Super-Cannes (2000).

I wonder what genre of film Shore would classify Crash. In some ways, he has included elements of the ‘love story’, as the lush strings featured in the film’s conclusion suggest. In another film, this music could be heard as romantic, but here it adds a type of lyricism to the possibility of death, to the ugly distortions of form. The only other place this writing style appears is in a jump cut to James’s bedroom after the car wash and its score of sound effects — a similarly distorted ‘romantic’ scene.

The score uses six electric guitars, three harps, three woodwinds, prepared piano, strings and a percussionist. The guitars are the only instruments run through effects, creating what Shore calls a ‘harp sound’. This subtle use of electronic effect is mirrored in Ballard’s comments about technology in Crash: that the car is a part of technology that we are most involved with, providing a kind of marriage of human imagination and technology. These terms could apply to the modern electric guitar, but also to describe Shore’s take on his score for the film. The ingenious mixture of electronic instruments (guitars) with acoustic instruments (winds, piano, strings, percussion) is left raw but at times subtly altered — in the studio or through preparation. Whether it’s manipulated guitars or classic string arrangements, each idea is carefully considered, tapered and applied. The luscious antique sound of harps — strings plucked over images of slow-moving, heavy traffic — provides a connection between old and new technologies. The sensuality of the flute in the sex scene between James and Catherine belies the crudeness and somehow formal nature of Catherine’s sexual monologue about Vaughan.

The different colours provided by these instruments reflect the relationship between the cold machine and the warm body. The electric hum of a guitar amp, the slow decay of a delay effect, the eerie breath of flutes — music has long held a power to effect the body, and the construction of instruments may arguably represent one of the earliest uses of technology for art. This score polarises that most ancient of instruments (the harp and flute) against the more contemporary (electric guitars, computer manipulation), perhaps reflecting Ballard’s pairing of basic human needs (sex) with contemporary culture (cars).

Image: © Fine Line Features

The prepared piano is an excellent addition, carefully embedded in the score. It delightfully mirrors the adapted body of Gabrielle, with her additions and adjustments to what is considered a ‘normal’ body, as well as James’s ‘prepared leg’, examined in silence after his accident. The prepared piano is the musical parallel to the modified body — a classic structure adapted. When Vaughan rams Ballard’s car in the scrapyard, the prepared piano brings out the sound of metal on metal — via metal objects placed in the piano.

Unlike many film soundtracks, much of the best music from the film is included on the CD release. The CD frees the pieces from the heavy sound effects of the film, and tantalising titles such as ‘Mechanism of Occupant Ejection’ and ‘Chromium Bower’ add to the new experience of listening without seeing, and also cause us to wonder if this music would indeed be so interesting without having seen the film. This is perhaps answered by the occasion of a live performance of the score in Australia in 1998, when the music was presented as an assemblage of the cues from the film, configured to a continuous 40-minute piece. The musicians were positioned in a spatial pattern to reconstruct the spacing used for the recording of the score, which was originally produced in 7.1 (SDDS). The film was not screened for the presentation; the focus was on the music and its live spatialisation.

Film director Bernardo Bertolucci apparently told Cronenberg that Crash is a religious masterpiece.

Maybe it was Shore singing Ballard’s psychopathological hymn after all.

Cat Hope, 2006

>> Buy Howard Shore’s Crash soundtrack from Amazon.

Online (all web sites accessed April 2006)
>> Ballard, JG. The Killer Inside. Guardian Unlimited.
>> Boston, John (rickmcgrath.com). JG Ballard’s Second Wave. rickmcgrath.com.
>> Fine Line Features. Crash: Official Site.
>> Hall, Chris. Future Shock. Spike Magazine.
>> Kadrey, Richard and Stefanac, Suzanne. J.G. Ballard on William S. Burrough’s Naked Truth. Salon.

>> Brockman, Mikita (ed). Car Crash Culture, 2001, New York: Palgrave Macmillan
>> Brophy, Philip (ed). ‘Howard Shore in Conversation: Composing With A Very Wide Palette’, Cinesonic: The World of Sound In Film, 1999, Sydney: AFTRS
>> V. Vale; Ryan, M (Eds.). JG Ballard: Quotes, 2004, San Francisco: RE/Search Publications

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8 Responses »

  1. Excellent piece, definitely the best I’ve seen on Shore’s soundtrack. I’m completely fascinated by this work, and I wonder, does a bootleg recording of the “Crash” Australian concert exist?

  2. i’m not sure myself, pedro, but i’ll ask cat for you. cheers, simon.

  3. yes, there is a bootleg going around… you didint hear it from me though!

  4. I remember Howard Shore on SNL. Among other things like being music director, he was the cocktail lounge piano player behind Bill Murray.

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