As the composer of a short film in this week's Sundance Film Festival, I’ve been eager to see as many as I could of the other short films being screened here. Of course, I’m always most curious about the music they employ.
The term Source Music refers to music in a film that is experienced or created by the characters on screen. It’s the music that is not the underscore. For example, in a nightclub scene, it’s the music performed by the singer on stage and the band backing her up.
A few of the films I saw here at Sundance were beautifully enhanced by the use of Source Music. One entry to the festival, SEIDE, Elnura Osmonalieva’s moving film about a Kyrgyz woman and the horse she loves, that she’s told must be slaughtered for her wedding feast, relies mostly on sound design. We hear the wind blowing through the desolate, snow-covered steppes of Central Asia. We hear the galloping of horse hooves. But near the end, as the young woman is being dressed for her wedding, with tears in her eyes, her grandmother sings a traditional Kyrgyz wedding song – the melody of which seems to speak of the windswept land where they live.
I AM YUP’IK is Daniele Anastasion and Nation Golon’s heartwarming documentary about a high school student from an Eskimo village in Alaska who leads his basketball team to their championship. In the final scene, the young man, Byron Nicholai, leads his teammates in a song of pride for their culture and heritage that he himself wrote. The rhythmic chanting of the phrase “I am Yup’ik” in the Yup’ik language echoes in our ears as the credits roll.
I have one other example that is less Source Music and more Sound Design. Katarzyna Gondek’s visually lush, ironic film called FIGURA about the manufacture of a huge plastic statue of Pope John Paul II relies almost entirely on sound design. When you see the white flakes of plastic flying through the air, she uses the sound of a blizzard to fool the audience. And then, you see the masked worker sanding the fiberglass and we hear him whistle what sounds like a children’s song. It’s slightly out of tune. It starts with a bit of pep and kind of dies out by the end. This whistled theme recurs twice more and serves to anchor the whole aural experience. It’s the only music in the film.
As a film composer, I might want every film to have an underscore, but not every film really needs or calls for one. These three films are haunting and beautiful, and musically satisfying, just with the a cappella singing or whistling of the people who are in them.