videodrome

The man disinterestedly watches a videotape in which a televangelist extends the theory that television shapes reality. Drilling his point home, the televised figure inexplicably addresses the viewer by name. Brought to attention, the man watches as the killer appears onscreen, calmly binds the televangelist’s arms to the chair, and garrotes him to death. The killer seductively summons the watching man into the television screen. A woozy fugue of synthetic organ builds to a miasma of shrill sound as man and audience lose hold on reality.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) achieves a balancing act between prescient satire and disturbing gross out, the kind of movie that shocks visually as well as raises probing questions about the media and our insatiable appetite for violence. The story of sleazy television producer’s investigation into “Videodrome”—pirate broadcasts of actual murder and rape—spirals into a hallucinogenic journey marked by bodily transformation, respirating television sets, and an atmospheric score performed on the Synclavier, an instrument that also blurs the line between real and unreal. Composer Howard Shore’s embrace of nascent sampling technology lends an aural complement to the bizarre imagery. But just as the themes of Videodrome led to spirited discussion over the role of television in society, the introduction of the Synclavier triggered debate over the authenticity of sampled instrumentation.

The New Flesh

Introduced at the end of the seventies, the New England Digital Synclavier and Australian-produced Fairlight CMI promised a quantum leap from the constraints of analog. Combining a keyboard and “digital memory recorder” (sequencer) with state-of-the-art computing power, these musical workstations touted the ability to sample and manipulate natural sound, which could then be cataloged on hard or floppy disk.

Prohibitively expensive, the first crop of Synclaviers and Fairlight CMIs wound up in the studios of wealthy producers and superstar musicians. Peter Gabriel used the Fairlight CMI extensively on his fourth solo album, Peter Gabriel (Security). For Gabriel, sampling enabled a fresh, unorthodox approach to capturing sound as he demonstrated for French television in 1981.

The Human Touch

Perhaps the best known use of Synclavier is the distinctive gong heard at the beginning of “Beat It” from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Generally, though, sounds crafted on these machines don’t draw attention to themselves in the manner of vintage analog synthesizers like the Moog. When not utilized for industrial and unnatural tones, the main goal of sampling machinery is mimicry. The listener might not realize that the violins and brass of a song were not tracked by musicians, but exacted through meticulously recorded samples. Early musical workstations could suddenly do the work of an entire orchestra. Consequently, the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI became quite popular with film composers. But as Keith Emerson told The Today Show in 1983, the move toward sampling caused concern in the music community.

Perhaps the greatest proponent of the Synclavier was firebrand musician Frank Zappa, who recorded several albums on the instrument before his untimely death in 1993. Zappa immediately grasped the capabilities of the Synclavier, and even pulled a prank that demonstrated its power to deceive. As recounted in The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa had been commissioned by a small ensemble—two percussionists, two keyboardists, clarinet, and flute—for a recital taking place at the Los Angeles County Museum. When the musicians complained that the submitted piece was too difficult, Zappa suggested that he could program their parts and instrument voices into the Synclavier, and play the results at the recital. All the musicians would need to do is mime their parts. The result? Though attended by fairly sophisticated crowd, including arts critics from several newspapers, according to Zappa, “Nobody knew that they didn’t play a note.”

As Zappa illustrated, our senses cannot entirely be trusted. David Cronenberg would play on this notion with Videodrome.

An Explosive Demonstration

Few partnerships between director and composer have been as bountiful as that of between David Cronenberg and Howard Shore. With the exception of The Dead Zone (1983), Shore has scored each of Cronenberg’s films since The Brood (1979). From the outset, Shore showed a willingness to experiment. But no matter how the score is derived, composition is paramount, as he tells in an interview with Index:

I don’t think of the sound. I just think of it compositionally, how the notes fit together. People think music is what you hear—which, of course, is the realization of what’s on the page. But music is actually a relationship of values on a page.

Sci-fi thriller Scanners (1981) features a mix of dramatic orchestral themes and hypnotic electronic pulsation, as well as cut and splice tape manipulation. The resulting score heightens the action while dishing out an air of dread, as in this scene from the film’s finale.

Welcome to Videodrome

With Videodrome, Shore not only stretches beyond traditional instrumentation by way of the Synclavier, he largely does away with accustomed themes and cues. Like the scrambled signal from a far-off television station, recognizable fragments appear and disappear in a static haze. The seeming randomness of the score was completely by design, as Shore made clear in a 1991 interview with Matthias Büdinger:

I wrote a full score. The Synclavier, at that time, was not what it is now. It was much more primitive. Then, I input the notes into the computer; I made sounds of what I wanted the score to sound like. It’s very electronic. It’s not always tonal sounds.

Though Shore programmed the score into the Synclavier, for several scenes, he also employed a small string section. Within the film, the performances of live musicians are deftly blended with Synclavier, creating a chilly soundscape that muddles the distinction between man and machine—a theme echoed by the film itself.

As we follow television producer Max Renn’s (James Woods) descent into the strange masochistic transmissions of Videodrome, Cronenberg continually pulls the rug out from under Max and the audience. During a pivotal scene, Max watches skeptically as media critic Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) expresses that television is the “retina of the mind’s eye.” The action unfolds unexpectedly; as does the music, which resists traditional shock and awe, favoring instead subtle and chilly timbres.

Despite lacking the kind of hummable central theme essential to many films, the music of Videodrome holds lasting appeal. Though nearly thirty years old, the score sounds timeless, an ever-shifting tonal palette full of surprise. Howard Shore would go on to score over eighty films, including his Oscar winning work for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Synclavier would become commonplace in the mid-eighties, though few would use it with such finesse. Videodrome proves that the right tool in the right hand can produce powerful results.

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