[Content warning for disturbing, racist, and violent film imagery.]
As we’ve discussed, the way that music and image interact can change, enhance, or even contradict the meaning of both the music and of the image.
We are all familiar with the ability of image to define, revise, and re-write not only past history, but even the present moment. One of the earliest examples of visual culture in the service of cultural revisionism is the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras with the Ku Klux Klan as the good guys. The Birth of a Nation was considered controversial even at the time of its release. It presented destructive and tired racist tropes about African-Americans — most of whom were played in the film by white actors in blackface — and portrayed the Klan as a patriotic and heroic force for good.
In spite of its objectionable content, the film itself is considered groundbreaking for the innovative dramatic and visual techniques used by its director, D.W. Griffiths. Equally innovative was its score. Silent films were accompanied by pianists or organists who were hired by movie theaters, and the film score for Birth of a Nation, in a piano reduction, was sent to every theater that screened the film so that the theater musicians could play along, aligning the music with cues in the score. The film’s composer, Joseph Carl Breil, wrote original music, as well as making arrangements of popular songs and Civil War-era ballads and using excerpts of works by Beethoven and Wagner, including the Ride of the Valkyries (in a scene that portrays the KKK as a liberating force). Breil and Griffiths wanted the music to underscore and enhance the dramatic force of such scenes and to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Inspired by this innovative use of music to enhance the emotional charge of a visual narrative, Francis Ford Coppola also used “Ride of the Valkyries” in his 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, in a scene in which U.S. Army helicopters destroy a Vietnamese village.
(And of course, you’ve seen this.)
Since the early 2000s, composer, multimedia artist, and turntablist DJ Spooky has been performing his own version of Birth of a Nation, entitled Rebirth of a Nation. Spooky calls Breil’s original score “an early, pivotal accomplishment in remix culture” for its use of both original and received music. In his remixed version, Spooky has manipulated the film, shuffling scenes and adding new visual footage, and has also contributed a new score.
You can watch a live performance of Rebirth here.
Do you think that DJ Spooky’s visual and sonic remix changes the meaning of D.W. Griffith’s film?