RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Initiation into the implausible

img  Tobias Fischer

Many film composers tend to see their trade as a compromise between an autonomous career as a "serious artist" and the profanity of making ends meet. David Julyan, on the other hand, has never found it hard to put his talent entirely at the service of directors. Although his scores have rarely been appreciated as accomplished musical works in their own right, Julyan, even after fifteen years in the business, still seems to be living his dream. His approach has always been to regard cinema as a contemporary form of opera, as a multimedial blend of words, images and music. In accordance with this philosophy, visual cues and sounds are naturally becoming so closely conflated that they can no longer be separated from each other without loosing their meaning: One of the most effective uses of music in 2006's The Prestige occurs when magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) visits a performance of his eternal rival Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) in front of a tiny, unappreciative audience and is unexpectedly confronted with what he considers the "greatest trick he's ever seen". During the entire preparatory stages of "The Disappearing Man" - a full one and a half minutes filled with trivial action, including Borden having an audience member inspect a rubber ball and demonstrating the set-up - a darkly glistening orchestral drone is gradually building from all but complete silence into a wall of sound brimming with inner tension and suspense, a dramatugical cliché seemingly leading up to a powerful erruption. And yet, when the prestige actually occurs, the camera turns away from the stage and the music is abruptly cut off, leaving nothing but an unresolved echo and a feeling of frozen expectation. Despite its anti-climactical resolution, it is one of the most striking scenes of the entire movie, still, it hardly even registers on the soundtrack album, which, to Julyan, was one of the few instances where he consciously re-organised his music to work as a stand-alone composition. The disparity is a mystery that leaves the listener as puzzled as Angier, who will spend – and ruin - the rest of his life chasing for explications.

Radical dualism
The Prestige is generally regarded as a turning point in Julyan's career, as it equally marked his biggest assignment, his final collaboration with Christopher Nolan as well his possibly most heavily criticised soundtrack, considered by many as merely functional, stale and predictable. In reality, of course, not all that much has changed since his first offical contributions for Nolan's short Doodlebug and the subsequent almost-feature-length Following. The latter in particular proved to be a showcase for the expressive repertoire and timbral palette which he would come to hone and refine over the next one and a half decades and which expressed itself in a radically dualistic style juxtaposing pensive, slow-motion strings arrangements on the one hand and a fusion of dark, experimental sound art and mysterious ambient soundscapes on the other - an enigmatic and reclusive music inspired equally by producers like Aphex Twin and Vangelis's Blade Runner soundtrack. Much has been made of the fact that Following was realised over a one-year period of on- and off-shooting in London, with no one on the cast receiving any kind of financial renumeration and the score written on a primitive setup at Julyan's home studio – the quip goes that the only thing paid on the music score was the blank DAT tape on which to record it. And yet, unlike the heavily debated acting by main characters Jeremy Theobald, Lucy Russell and Alex Haw – whose careers never profited from the movie's artistic triumph to the extent that Nolan's and Julyan's did - the score never once actually reveals its limitations. On the contrary: By infusing contemporary elements from the realms of electronica, ambient and dub with a sense of radical minimalism, it would turn out to be as important to the movie's aesthetics as Nolan's camera work.

Slow-downs and hallucinations
In fact, as as a short stretched to 70-minute proportions, Following would simply not have worked without its soundtrack. Contrary to a classic soundtrack, the music foremost functions as a structuring device, keeping the slender narrative from ripping apart at the seams. Unlike its successor Memento, Following, shot entirely in grainy, retro-style black and making use of a modular rather than linear chronology, offers few readily identifiable markers. Rather than using the music to speed up the development or to magnify the emotional impact of a scene, Julyan is foremost using it to slow the action down, to award it a breathing space the breathless storyline can't provide. Rather than supporting the images, he is questioning and confusing them, adding a hallucinatory quality to what outwardly appear to be quite unspectacular events.

In doing so, he is actively shaping the unfolding of the movie. It has rightlybeen remarked that the denoument of Following is, strictly speaking, fairly improbable, an exceedingly complicated construction wrapped up in excuisitely elegant images. And yet, the music marks the entire movie as a fantasy anyway, located in the same sphere between reality and dream as later works like Memento and, of course, Inception. While Nolan is gradually tightening the noose of motives around the spectator's head, Julyan is initiating him into a world where implausibility follows a logic of its own: After fifteen minutes, the hero (simply called "The Young Man" in the credits) is walking down a narrow staircase and enters a basement bar, where he will meet and chat up a blond girl he's followed and fallen in love with. It is the emotional centerpiece of the work, the kind of key moment all of Julyan's scores revolve around. For the first time, the music switches from industrially-tinged, propulsive rhythms to ethereal strings, suggesting that, as already announced in the very first minute of the movie, "things are going wrong". As the camera descends into a world of cool eroticism and forbidden pleasures, so does the music, describing a falling line dropping from ethereal heights to mysterious mid-range sonorities. When it finally touches bottom, things are no longer in the young man's control.

Absence and presence
At the time of its release, German newspaper taz commented on Following that it had the air of a great boxer – not an ounce too much fat and with a hard and precise punch. The music follows a similar approach, feeding as much from its absence as its presence. There is a rhythm between gripping compositions and silence, which continually has the audience oscillating between almost antiseptically delivered dialogues and moments of mystery and magic. It is telling that Julyan is not just credited with the score here, but also with the movie's sound, as environmental noises and the overall sonic design complement each other in a completely organic way. When the music does come in, it is marked by the composer's recognisably naked arrangements, with barely more than four tracks running at the same time. Rather than many of his colleagues, which like to envision themselves as conductors in front of a symphonic orchestra, Julyan favours chambermusical settings. In his oeuvre, if cinema is indeed larger than life, then only to contrast it with the inner insecurities, fears and smallness of the protagonists populating it. In the worlds of Christopher Nolan, lies and deceit are preventing protagonists from living their life in freedom. In the music of David Julyan, they are all that is left to save themselves from going insane.

Julyan once noted that he loved subtlety in music. The smallnes of his score to Following was indeed what made it work, but it may also have been what excluded him from joining Nolan on his epic Hollywood adventures later on. By suiting his sounds to the movie, his own profile never rose beyond it - it seems entirely apt in this context that Nolan's audio commentary for Following should only mention the music and its composer on three all but neglible occasions and one of them involves the director pointing out the composer as an extra in the background. Others may have taken this as a sign of disrespect, but he will probably have seen a confirmation of great trust in his abilities and of a mutual understanding about the fundamentals of cinema, as part of which there is no separation of a movie into its constituent parts, no image, sound, lighting or special effect outside the parameters defined by the camera lense. And so fans on forums may debate whether or not he was disappointed by being replaced by Hans Zimmer for Batman Begin and Inception, but is not a question someone like Julyan would ask himself. Forever putting himself at the service of the director, that was simply never a decision for him as a film composer to make.

By Tobias Fischer

This article first appeared in Fovea #0, a magazine on Indonesian and international film culture.

Homepage: David Julyan