The Unanswered Question and Over-used Music

Occasionally, random viewing habits will reveal an unexpected link between two otherwise wholly unrelated films. A few years ago I noticed this quite strikingly when I happened to watch The Graduate and Jackie Brown within a few days of eachother and was surprised that they have the exact same opening sequence (see this blog post here for more info).

Well I recently happened to watch The Thin Red Line and Run Lola Run within the space of a week, and couldn’t help but be distracted by the overuse of the same piece of music, Charles Ives‘s The Unanswered Question.

Using pre-existing music in a film can work really well when its done right. Even when viewers recognise the music, this can often be a great tool to enhance the meaning of a scene. But lazy track laying can be bland, and recognising an overused song can throw you out of a scene, in an otherwise enjoyable film. (The use of an Imogen Heap song at the end of Zach Braff’s Garden State is really well done, and would be really effective if you hadn’t already heard her music popping up in loads of other films and TV shows around 2004.)

To be fair, both The Thin Red Line and Run Lola Run are not lazy films.  They’re both well-made stylish productions, which employ the music by Ives quite successfully. The piece itself is probably the most famous work by the early 20th Century composer. Ives is widely regarded as the father of American modern music, not least for the fact that he was making radical innovations throughout the 1900-10s, and going largely unnoticed, whilst completely separate from heart of the avant garde movement of the time in Paris.

The Unanswered Question is made up of 3 distinct parts – 1) a sequence of lush chords played in the strings, 2) a dissonant choir of chirruping flutes, and 3) an enigmatic solo trumpet melody. These separate blocks of music are layered together throughout the piece in a collage-like fashion to magnificent effect. (And all the while, across the ocean Picasso was developing similar techniques in the visual arts.)

In a way I can see an aesthetic connection between this modernist piece of music, and Run Lola Run – a film which is itself such a hyper-real mashup of cultural influences all the way through. And Terance Malik often uses picks of classical orchestral music in his work, which are exploited effectively and with great respect. Indeed in The Thin Red Line there’s a lot to be said for the metaphorical reading of a lone military-like horn call at odds with the beautiful bed of stings around it. So this really isn’t a case of easy tracklaying of over-used classics, and I can only put it down to coincidence that two feature films of 1998 happened to use the same piece. But then films like David Fincher’s Zodiac come along, with an original score that owes so much to The Unanswered Question, that even without quoting Ives directly, his influence is impossible to ignore. (1)


About jackwestmore

Jack Westmore writes music for film, television and media, and is currently based in Cardiff in the UK.
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