The soundtrack of the award-winning film 1917 (directed by Sam Mendes) subtly and significantly challenges audience expectations through its use of silence and amplified natural soundscapes. The 1917 score interacts delicately and intentionally with the diegetic (audible to the characters) sounds of breathing, birds, water, and more. It is unusual for a film to consistently emphasize these sounds, and even more unusual for it to include many moments of silence. These decisions, coupled with the generally understated score of 1917, function to heighten the film’s tension in nontraditional and exciting ways. Additionally, 1917’s respect for quietness emphasizes the few notably musical moments in the film. The rarity of these big musical swells makes them interesting even though the music itself and its timing follow established tropes of the genre. So, what were these musical moments? And how did 1917’s incorporation of silence and quietness heighten their effectiveness?
There are five moments in 1917 where the music is foregrounded. In these moments, the audience actively notices the music instead of unwittingly absorbing it. The first time the music emerges from the ambient background is when Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake approach the German front line. Until this point, the music is generally quiet and comprised of sustained pitches and occasional percussion. The rhythms are repetitive so as not to draw the audience’s ears and the orchestral instrumentation is made more ambiguous (and subsequently deemphasized) by the addition of effects, specifically reverb, to create a more generic sound. As Schofield and Blake approach the German trenches, however, a distinctive high piano enters the soundscape followed by strings, winds, and percussion. The music here asks us to notice it. So we do. The orchestra continues to swell as does our suspense. The music grows louder and we move to the edge of our seats. Then the lance corporals discover that the German trenches are empty. The music immediately stops without resolution. The peril is gone, and we breathe. This is a common method composers use to create and heighten tension in a film: make the score build as the characters approach potential peril.
This trope is recognizable to many audiences, especially those familiar with action or horror films. Thomas Newman, the composer of 1917’s original score, is one of countless composers to effectively use this technique to create and release tension. All of the big musical moments in 1917 are serving the functions of encouraging the audience to hold our breath (like when Schofield is getting chased or shot) and to release it (like when Schofield jumps into the river). Notably, we rarely get resolution. Instead, big musical climaxes end abruptly in an amplified diegetic sound (to use my previous example, the suddenly overwhelmingly loud rushing river after Schofield has jumped). The unresolved mid-climax ending upon perceived escape or safety is pretty standard. However, the immediate focus on sounds such as breathing or fast water is more novel and compelling. These amplified diegetic sounds prevent us from completely relaxing. Schofield breathes heavily and we empathize with his stress. The water pounds against rapids and we are swept away into a new dangerous situation. When we would traditionally have an auditory break to calm down, natural sounds that would typically be barely audible in a film are foregrounded so we cannot completely relax. This is a significant contributing factor in why the audience feels Schofield’s stress so palpably throughout 1917.
I should note that the “auditory break” I just mentioned is rarely actual silence. Most moments of perceived musical silence in a film are actually still underscored with a sustained, often low, generic orchestral sound or some other form of unimposing background noise. There are more moments of actual musical silence in 1917 than in many other films, and this also heightens tension.
Why does silence create tension? You might remember hearing in a science class that “nature abhors a vacuum” (Aristotle). In general, the universe likes to fill emptiness with, well, stuff. The hard science of this is debated, but I think as a concept Aristotle’s words ring pretty true. Many people are uncomfortable when they feel something is absent. This applies directly to film soundtracks. We are uncomfortable in the absence of sound. If for no other reason, complete silence allows us to wonder if something technical has malfunctioned – after all, aren’t we supposed to be hearing something? Even early “silent” films were accompanied by a pianist. Music helps the audience connect to the screen emotionally and it also makes everyone feel a little more secure. Its absence, then, creates tension. We have been taught that there should be constant sound (in some form) over the entire course of a film. 1917 disrupts this notion in an effective way.
This disruption puts 1917’s soundtrack in conversation with a growing number of modern composers who are embracing silence as a valuable musical tool. As an example, let’s look for a moment at famous American modern composer, John Cage (1912-1992). Cage creates a wide range of music from lengthy and highly structured minimalistic pieces to highly unstructured alleatory pieces. His composition entitled 4’33” is one of his most known and disruptive works. When performed, the pianist sits at the piano, prepares himself to play as though it were a traditional piece, then holds and starts a stopwatch. The piece lasts for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, hence the title, after which the performer closes the piano as if ending a song. The “music” of this piece is created by the shuffling noises of the audience, the sound of the vents, etcetera. Each performance of 4’33” is a different experience for the audience and the performer. It cannot be anticipated or recreated exactly. This piece forces the audience to reevaluate their notions of what is truly silent as well as what can be considered music. The silence and amplified natural sounds in 1917 serve the same purpose.
Interestingly, Newman’s score has other similarities to Cage’s music. Most of Newman’s songs in 1917 follow a similar structure to many of Cage’s pieces. They establish a motive (a short, recognizable musical idea) and then grow the music by repeating this motive in different instruments or with slight variations.
Cage, however, is just one of many trailblazers that laid down a musical precedent for 1917’s soundtrack. Thomas Newman’s compositions are only a part of the overall soundscape of this film. Over twenty people worked on different aspects of sound in 1917 including mix technicians, editors, recordists, foley artists, and more. These individuals were integral in creating another compelling factor in the sustained tension in the film: the amplification and foregrounding of sounds that are often dismissed as irrelevant. The labored breathing of tired characters, the loading of guns, the sound of flies on dead horses, and the burning of falling ash all become noticeable and important as other sound falls away in their presence. This focus on small sonic details heightens the tension of the film as it puts the audience in more intimate connection with Schofield. In his stress, he notices every sound around him. So do we.
Other modern composers and audio scientists explore amplification of normally disregarded or insignificant sound. Some of these composers amplify frequencies in nature that people cannot normally perceive. Mileece is a sonic artist, programmer, and environmental designer who makes music from plants using bioemmissions (electric currents coming off of plants). Mileece attaches electrical devices to the leaves of plants and uses the bioemmissions she records on these devices to create music.
1917 joins mileece in a movement to notice what is often taken for granted. Naturally occurring sounds or the amplification of recordings that would otherwise seem to be silent are expanding the western musical ear to understand more concepts of what it is to appreciate nature, the body, and the musicality of perceived silence. It is exciting to experience 1917 as a part of this slowly growing tradition, whether or not the sound designers actively sought to participate in this exploration of perceived silence.
The big musical moment in the film that I have not yet discussed is the singing of “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” The a cappella version of this old and deep-rooted folk song that appears in 1917 was arranged by Craig Leon and performed by Jos Slovick. We encounter this moving performance with Schofield as a moment of relief. Schofield is exhausted. He is devastated. He is losing his hope. Then, out of the silence, out of the overwhelming and oppressive sounds of rushing water and heavy breathing and his own belabored footsteps, he hears a man singing in the woods. He sees fellow soldiers. For a moment, he rests. It is here that we know everything will be okay. There are no quiet, sustained orchestral sounds underscoring the moment to build tension. We do not hear amplified breathing. We do not hear anything except this man singing to his brothers in arms. The film is not over yet, but it is here that the audience is finally allowed to finally exhale that breath we’ve been holding all this time. “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger” gives us the resolution we have been wanting since Schofield and Blake received their assignment.
Music recommendations! “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger” has many popular adaptations. Burl Ives’ version is one of a handful that popularized the song beyond its folk and gospel roots. I personally really enjoy the version by Jack White (of The White Stripes). I also recommend the similar (and similarly named) “I Am a Man Of Constant Sorrow” – you are sure to recognize this if you are familiar with the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? If you are interested in exploring some of the modern compositions delving into and challenging our notions of silence, then check out “formations” or “plusic” by mileece, “He Hears Music in the Quietest Place on Earth – Can You? | Short Film Showcase” by National Geographic, and “Global Sunrise preview” by Gordon Hempton. Happy listening!