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“Swiss Film Music features great diversity and high quality”

“Swiss Film Music features great diversity and high quality”
Mathias Spohr, artistic director of the project “Swiss Film Music Anthology”, is a musicologist and media scientist with lecturing positions at Universities in Bayreuth, Berne and Vienna.
Photo: Markus Ganz
Guest contribution by Markus Ganz
The box-set “Swiss Film Music”, containing three CDs, one DVD and a book, released by FONDATION SUISA, provides fascinating insights into the history of Swiss film music between 1923 and 2012. A conversation with the musicologist and media scientist Mathias Spohr who acted as artistic director for the project.

Film music is usually hardly noticed. Do you think it is undervalued?
Yes, especially when it does its job really well. That’s when you perceive it hardly or not at all, because you don’t listen to it intently – and that’s usually its job. Vice versa, you often do perceive film music when it doesn’t fit that well. There are of course film music concepts which deviate from this principle.

But isn’t it exactly this kind of functionality of film music why it is often undervalued? Wouldn’t this also imply that the film music cannot work without the images?
No, this anthology contains a lot of film music without film, and I don’t think that it loses any of its impact. It’s true that you have to read up on some of the pieces what their context is. But the music works just as it is, and you realise how it’s meant to work. You even perceive the structural character and the complexity of some film scores better when you don’t watch the film at the same time; in the film it both merges together.

Does this mean that you perceive the quality of film music better without the images?
Yes but it really depends on the kind of music. There is film music which you cannot separate from the image, and there is film music which you can listen to without watching the film rather well.

You have added a DVD to the three CDs of this anthology which shows images accompanying the music of these examples. What were the criteria for the DVD selection?
There are some examples where the coordination between the music and the image is decisive in order to be able to realise its quality. This particularly affects cartoons and commercials where you have to get your point across in a few seconds. We also limited ourselves to short films for the DVD which we could show in their entirety so that the entire music concept becomes clear. With short films, it is easier to convey the cooperation between music and image than with excerpts which have been taken from an unknown context.

How did this elaborate project come about?
The FONDATION SUISA wanted to include the topic of Swiss film music in its anthology series. We have been discussing many ways to implement this idea, as it is a rather complex field. There is no style or genre “film music”, as all kinds of music are used for films, and there are few academic works which focussed on the subject of Swiss film music. The decision was made that our anthology should show the history of Swiss film music. A working group was subsequently founded which mainly consisted of music and film academic experts, plus two representatives of FONDATION SUISA and the Cinémathèque Suisse each. There were a few meetings where a concept was fleshed out.

On what basis did the involved experts select the examples?
We worked with a catalogue of criteria which encapsulated very different aspects. The focus should be placed on Swiss films and Swiss topics but not exclusively. International films where Swiss composers wrote the music should also be considered.

And then you went off to search in the archives?
Yes, I for one was often looking for historic examples in the archives of the Central Library Zurich or the Paul-Sacher-Stiftung (foundation) in Basel, as they all have music scores for films. In the majority of cases, however, the music material was no longer available because the music creation in the last 30 years has moved to computers.

But it wasn’t about specific recordings?
Yes it was. But we wanted to show examples for music scores and needed them as a basis for our comments. There are many archives for the recordings where we were looking such as the media information centre of the ZHdK (Zurich University of Arts) and the Cinémathèque Suisse.

What surprised you most when you listened through the entire material for the first time?
The huge variety and high quality, from the beginning all the way to today. It was my motivation to evidence this, especially as this is hardly known.

How does this variety establish itself? You mention in the accompanying book that you did not discover anything specifically Swiss in the film music.
What surely plays a role here is that three linguistic regions come together in Switzerland. This leads to contacts abroad where the same language is spoken; Berlin, Paris or the Italian Cinecittà as production venues also play a significant role for Switzerland.

Did you notice any striking differences compared to film music in other countries which often exhibit a much bigger and therefore more specialised film scene?
One fundamental difference stems from the fact that Switzerland isn’t centralist. In other countries there are big centres for many sectors – which consequently exert a certain attraction. In Switzerland, on the other hand, small niches can hold their ground better. You can see it in many products – not just films and film music – that they stem from a niche culture which hasn’t been sucked in by one major centre.

Has this maybe contributed to this great diversity?
Yes, it is likely to have played a role.

People often look down their noses at jingles due to their commercial character. What is striking in the anthology is that there are early examples whose music sounds surprisingly modern – how do you explain this openness?
In the time of the first TV commercials people didn’t have that much experience with this type of advertising: Musicians were given the freedom to create and experiment. Today, more people are involved in the process because the risks are higher, too. But if it serves the product, a lot is possible nowadays.

The anthology goes back to 1923. Have you found any striking turning points where music or artistic access to the musical setting has changed?
Of course there are fashion fads. Many changes are, however, also triggered by technical developments. In the early days of the sound film, music had to be recorded parallel to the dialogue. That type of music is inevitably different as if it had been recorded separately onto an audiotape, as it was the case later on. A completely new situation arose with the home studio where people can create and record music at home without any major technical efforts, first with audio tapes, later with computers. Video technology was also simplified. In this context, an important innovation was that image and sound could be recorded onto and arranged on the same carrier. All of the above has influenced film music, and of course media from radio, TV, cinema all the way to the internet.

Electronic instruments were used surprisingly early …
Yes, even in the silent movie era there was an instrument called “Russolophon” with which you could create sounds, later on, the Ondes Martenot was invented.

These were used as early as the 1920es for film music. That’s really early, if you think that it took electronic instruments so long to reach a broader audience not until so much later …
Yes, this was possible from the very beginning. It seems to be in connection with the medium film that you were more open vis-a-vis the deployment of new technology. Arthur Honegger used the Ondes Martenot several times, both as a solo and an orchestra instrument as you can hear rather well based on the example “L’Idée”. He provocatively promoted the idea that electronic instruments should be admitted to symphony orchestras – something that has only happened for a handful of projects today.

What’s important to you once you have finished this big project?
It is close to my heart that the “chapter film music” is not going to be considered as closed. I regard this anthology as a starting point and a great prerequisite to further look into film music. I would envisage that the website that has been set up for the anthology could act as the basis for some kind of film music wiki which all interested parties can contribute to.

“Swiss Film Music Anthology 1923 – 2012” Box with three audio CDs, one DVD and a 400-page book in German, French, Italian and English language. Ed. Mathias Spohr on behalf of FONDATION SUISA (Chronos Verlag, ISBN? 978-3-0340-1265-2, CHF 69).
The “Swiss Film Music Anthology 1923 – 2012” is available in (book) stores and can be ordered via the website (Photo: zVg)


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