Music Culture and Cultural Music

by Robert Lemelson

Coming up with a musical score for “40 Years of Silence” and the “Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia” was both challenging and fun. One of my goals, as a director with a psychological anthropology orientation, was to forge a type of ethnographic film that was closer in structure to documentary films. From a film perspective this meant having a score. Many ethnographic films, even today, do not use musical scores of any sort. For some it is considered improper to include a soundtrack as it detracts from the cultural veracity of the piece. I believe that ethnographic films should not only inform the viewer and function as an information transfer about different cultural issues but should also move the viewer emotionally, thus having a more “embodied” experience of watching and understanding.

To accomplish this meant creating story lines that were based on developing strong characters and the struggles they face. To accentuate this character development we needed both an appropriate musical accompaniment that supported the narrative line and the emotions therein. Appropriate means the music was both fitting culturally and right for supporting the story line and the conflicts that are being represented on screen.

The films themselves deal with a complex series of issues centered around the relationships between personal experience and violence, trauma, mental illness, family, social support (or the lack thereof), memory and its place in the social order, survival and resilience- all taking place in the context of Indonesian history and society. Given this wide range of subjects and subsequent stories, the range of musical accompaniment was both wide and deep.

We would start the process of music placement by creating a “scratch” track of music drawn from an extremely wide variety of sources: ambient, electronic, minimalist, folk, world, even new age and spa music were considered. The purpose was to find music that both fit the emotion and movement of the theme, and connected with other pieces in the film.

Once the scratch soundtrack was finalized, Malcolm began the complex process of molding the piece to fit within the complex musical universe that exists in Indonesia. Further modifications, at times frustrating and at others illuminating, resulted in the final score. The end result is a musical bricolage that ranges widely over Western and Indonesian musical modalities, tempos, tonalities, melodies and emotions. Enjoy!