If someone asked where did it come from, most film studies scholars or media scholars, would probably say Wagner, and they wouldn’t be wrong by any means. This prolific composer and director at heart created many techniques of merging different arts into one spectacle (with music in mind, of course) and he was quoted by film music forefathers (specifically — Max Steiner) as their mentor. That’s undeniable but there are other people who must be mentioned, because film music was steadily implementing emerging genres of the XXth century into scores for various reasons and evolving. Some, like ambient and minimalism, are often used by composers such as Cliff Martinez, Philip Glass or Jesper Kyd 90 years later as a standard scoring practice. Even though they don’t always realise the full extent of theories behind those genres, the spirit is nonetheless there. This article is about the birth of one of those influences, about one weird composer.
People weren’t ready for that kind of idea when music was still a domain of concert halls, made to be received in a focused, celebrative way.
According to Brian Eno, the beginning of XXth century was a time when music was perceived as more of an immersive experience of finding yourself in music’s world. Some followed it, some not, but Erik Satie certainly did. This avant-garde eccentric is remembered for his music theories, being a part of the Dada movement as one of the most influential icons of the time, and being the author of a „great” experiment regarding perception of music. In 1920, during the entract of his friend’s opera, he placed 5 musicians (three clarinetists, a trombonist and a pianist) around the room full of people discussing the opera and having drinks. Then, the musicians started playing the tunes composed by Satie. But he did not want his music to be listened to, and seeing gathered people going silent in order to focus on the music, he shouted loudly: ”Talk, for heaven’s sake! Move around! Don’t listen!”.
Absurd? Most likely. Why do this? Why call yourself a composer and not have your music celebrated? Well, Satie was way closer to our times, than he was to his. He is the creator of a notion to think of music as an almost unnoticeable backdrop for other activities. He was postulating the „furniture music” which floats in a room among discussions as a warm breeze smoothing away uncomfortable silences (those awkward, too!). He was writing about it and of course he was composing it, but left not that much, considering other composers’ ouvres. Nevertheless, some of his compositions aren’t less recognizable than the 9th and the Funeral March, making their way into pop-culture. What’s interesting, the XXth century went on and his ideas hadn’t gained that much popularity until ambient appeared in the 1960s-70s. As thematic beauty isn’t always an option in illustrating music, Erik Satie’s approach found its way into scoring techniques of various media and everyday life. Time showed it was needed.
What does Satie have to do with videogames, then? I think most of us have come across this moment when we notice that for the last 15 minutes there was in fact some music playing, and we simply forgot about it. It was made to be unnoticeable (in a positive way!) and looped continuously, because we are doing more important things, such as hunting for monsters, sneaking our way through a room full of clickers or picking dialogue options. Satie wanted his compositions to work in that exact way — to be noticeable when the situation requires it, yet unnoticeable when we don’t need it. It was supposed to soothe and not allow the silence to spoil a discussion, and here — experience. And this is what games that suck the player in for long hours need to include, so — for me — Witcher 3 or Far Cry 3. Both of these games include elements that are „non-fun”, such as travelling from point A to point B endlessly. And this is when I would usually notice the music had been there all along. Otherwise, hearing completely nothing, I grow completely bored and this is the main reason that’s keeping from replaying Far Cry 2 (even though I adore its setting and themes).
That sort of music goes in the same vein as ambient, as we can see and hear that Satie’s approach was to create this musical atmosphere around the listener.
“Furniture music” is very close to what nowadays is known as background music, so a type of music that is assigned to a general mood of an area that is visited. Supermarkets deafen us with chirping music, waiting rooms relax us with lounge, dentists offices try to get our minds off the horrid metal devices. Videogames use the same tactic of persistently affecting our minds and include music as air that flows around, pleases us and accompany us, whatever it is we are doing. In Assassin’s Creed 2 we hear Florence as a childhood city of our beloved Mentore, and its music is almost magical (Home in Florence). When the area changes and we seek people who killed our family in the undergrounds, music’s mood changes as well, as it is the space itself that changes, not necessarily the emotional state of Ezio. Jesper Kyd „furnishes” Assassin’s Creed 2 with many memorable background pieces of each city and place, and I’ve always taken it as a great example of music that accompanies you in your journey (through time), instead of being tightly bound with the lengthy story sequences and scripted, directed events and drama.
The structure of Satie’s music should also be mentioned. It’s repetitive, not that dynamic, flowing and relaxing, it has low requirements for the listener’s attention, hypnotizing mood. Which is how a nice background piece should be. In some way, it is a golden mean — it creates a mood, but not so prominently that turns what’s on screen into a music video. That sort of music goes in the same vein as ambient, as we can see and hear that Satie’s approach was to create this musical atmosphere around, but he didn’t have the tools that would further push the experience as much as modern ambient pieces. Yet, his thinking was on point. When placing the musicians around the hall of people, he placed them evenly, so that the listener could not recognize the main source of sound and further increase the effect of being surrounded by music. His mad genius reached way beyond 1920 and exceeded the common understanding of music in his times. Just as many before and after him…
The solutions he proposed and previously unmet way to perceive music were truly innovative.
The solutions he proposed and previously unmet way to perceive music were truly innovative. His method of keeping people focused and giving them something to retreat to when a topic was exhausted was something that people a hundred years later are accustomed to. The backgrounds he proposed weren’t even taken seriously back then — people weren’t ready for that kind of idea when music was still a domain of concert halls, made to be received in a focused, celebrative way. His idea lived on in the end, we celebrate that kind of music and hold its effects as important and meaningful. How it influenced other scoring techniques, I will describe in further articles.
1. B. Eno in Introduction. In: M. Prendergast, The Ambient Century, UK 2000.