May 20

Matt’s Film Soundtrack Of The Week (20th May) – Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the rapidly aging Caden

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the rapidly aging Caden

Synecdoche, New York is made of the stuff that even film bloggers don’t understand (including us). It is a decidedly ‘multiple viewings needed’ film about a playwright, Caden Cotard, injecting his existential fears about death and loneliness into an increasingly large-scale autobiographical play, within which the same character puts on the same play, within which……

This is high art and I feel I won’t properly understand it for years. The soundtrack is not high art, yet it highlights certain thoughts from the movie at certain points in a way that is more easily digestible than the whole picture. Jon Brion (known for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson) doesn’t try to create any new musical language but instead uses incredibly simple forms to bring out the subtext(s) of this film and its characters. This piece is a good example. In a way, the music doesn’t show us what the cameras don’t, it just points towards it.

A lot of the music in Synecdoche, New York starts with a child-like melodic or chordal figure, each one growing organically into something more or, in certain cases, something unchanging. While the former are usually tied into characters’ emotional climaxes, perhaps the more static cuts are saying something about the film in a removed, unbiased way. Then again, it’s difficult to know what does and doesn’t belong to the reality within this movie and to understand it, you have play a part in it.

Long stretches of the soundtrack are piano-based, with very economical accompaniment, such as the bleeping electronics in ‘Piano Two’, which seem to reflect death despite being wholly mechanical. Others juxtapose large string sections with chamber ensembles, adding to the already confusing sense of scale in this film. There is also a piece for three unaccompanied electric guitars that ought not to work but, when heard in context, really hits the mark.


The vast dome in which Caden's play is rehearsed

The vast dome in which Caden’s play is rehearsed


Brion wrote the song Little Person for the ending, being a clear enough message on the feeling of insignificance and how love can at least slightly mute it. It is simple and purposeful without the film, highly disconcerting within it. Musically, it sits on the fence between minimalist balladry and cool jazz. Song for Caden uses the same singer and style but contains none of the hope; in fact, it gets bleaker and bleaker with each of its dark key changes.

Synecdoche is a film with literally huge aspirations and its music only deals with a few of them. The themes are treated with delicacy though, almost too much. You feel as though everything going on could fall apart at any moment. There is also that constant threat of insanity that pervades the movie and, in that sense, if we agree that Brion’s score belongs inside Caden’s world, this makes the music become like an unreliable narrator. I like that, even if it makes the film all the more impenetrable.


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