The Associational Power of Sound in Film

This is part one in a four-part series between Matt Zurcher and Glenn Kenny. Matt has the first post.

“Oh, bliss. Bliss and heaven. It was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures.”

-Alex DeLarge on the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

A Clockwork Orange


The story of Alex and his Droogs is Kubrick’s most fitful and sensationalist work. Having established his affinity for orchestral masterworks and modernist music with 2001, Kubrick designed A Clockwork Orange to mimic the diabolical theatricality of Beethoven and Rossini. The film often functions like a musical, with several set-pieces choreographed and cut to match the manic alacrity of the soundtrack. Try recalling a moment from Clockwork that isn’t anchored in music--it’s difficult. We all remember William Tell and the fast-forward bedroom escapades, the rape scene set to “Singin’ in the Rain,” Alex’s dancing Jesus quartet and the ironic use of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, sarcastically heralding the arrival of government leaders.

But Clockwork also affirms Kubrick’s belief in musicologically informed soundtracks. The film’s dramatic appositions of music and image outline the closest thing Kubrick ever made to a philosophy of film music. Kubrick used his soundtrack to smuggle his own bit of conditioning into the theater. Just as the Ministry destroys Alex’s ability to enjoy some of his favorite music, Kubrick corrupts the viewer’s ability to associate certain sounds with any imagery other than those he sees fit. By film’s end, the audience can barely think of Gene Kelly twirling and tapping in the rain, or the Lone Ranger riding in to save the day.

Singin' In the Rain

Singin' In the Rain

Throughout his career, Kubrick repeatedly uses literal theatricality in his work--from the fight scene at the concert in Barry Lyndon to the secret-society ritual in Eyes Wide Shut. A Clockwork Orange develops performance as a theme more than any other Kubrick picture. Often staged with meticulous, balletic precision, the film frequently mimics the pacing and playfulness of Hollywood musicals. Early in the film, when Alex and his Droogs storm a writer’s home, the brutal portrait of sexual violence echoes the rhythms of Gene Kelly’s dance, with Alex bouncing around, striking blows to the beat of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Malcolm McDowell channels Kelly’s graceful timing, but turns the intended effect from Hollywood-manufactured love to the limit of sexual violence. Thing is, McDowell’s performance is so slick and musical, snipping cloth and hammering his cane on the weight of downbeats, that it makes the two extremes--purity and perversion--seem like different movements of the same symphony. Earlier in the film, another attempted rape takes place, but this time by a rival gang. Kubrick shoots the scene in an abandoned theater with the initial violence taking place on stage. The scenario’s theatricality is amplified by one of Rossini’s most recognizable operatic overtures. Not only is Kubrick literalizing the performative aspect of the scene by using a stage, he is using one of the most exciting and popular overtures in the history of opera to add a kind of graceful bombast to the scenario. Kubrick’s sense for high drama could be seen as operatic, but his use of opera’s archives involves the same associative realignment that he made with “Singin’ in the Rain.” Instead of employing the music to trigger the playfulness that it naturally conjures, he programs it to accompany more sexual violence and a gang battle. But just like “Singin’ in the Rain,” it becomes impossible to imagine the scene with any other soundtrack.

The force of Kubrick’s musical choices should not be understated, even where there is little thematic interplay between image and sound. He understood how radical and sensational his images were and chose his accompaniment accordingly. Outside of Barry Lyndon’s period considerations, Kubrick had no need for gentle Romanticism in his often contemporary or future set films. He only chose soundtracks that could keep pace with his own brand of drama, anchored in broad, theatrical strokes. Perhaps it was the operatic intensity of Beethoven’s Ninth that drew him to Clockwork in the first place.

Alex undergoing the Ludovico technique

Alex undergoing the Ludovico technique

Of course, Kubrick was probably also attracted to the moral psychology of the material and, specifically, how it was developed through musical cues. In the film’s second half, Alex is exposed to the Ludovico technique, a type of aversion therapy meant to forge associations between violence and extreme physical discomfort. An unintended side effect of the therapy, however, causes Alex to associate his beloved Ludwig van with the sickness, which eventually leads to his suicide attempt when exposed to the music. Kubrick wasn’t trying to hide his philosophy--associations between image and music are personal and powerful, especially when the mixture is radical or controversial. If you have seen Clockwork and were to watch the bedroom sex scene on mute, your memory would supply William Tell. And it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if, when hearing William Tell on the radio, you thought of The Lone Ranger amidst brief flashes of a lightning-fast ménage a trois.

Even when the subject was far from comic, Kubrick frequently supplemented his pitch-black humor through ironic musical cues. In A Clockwork Orange, he saves his sickest gag for last. “Singin’ in the Rain” is heard three times in the film. First, Alex performs the song as he prepares to rape the writer’s wife. Second, Alex sings it in the bathtub on his second visit to the writer, triggering a conditioned response from his host. And finally, we hear Gene Kelly’s original version playing over the credits. The film proper ends on a question mark, Burgess’s infamous “Chapter 21” removed--the opulent finale of the Ninth blaring over an image of Alex screwing a woman in the snow before an approving crowd as he says in voiceover, “I was cured, all right.” But Gene Kelly’s voice seems to destroy the ambiguity of the final seconds. Alex was conditioned to associate ultraviolence with Beethoven while we, Clockwork’s audience and Kubrick’s guinea pigs--were conditioned to associate violence with “Singin’ in the Rain.” When those credits roll over a rich, red screen, no one is thinking about Gene Kelly dancing with his umbrella and swinging around lampposts. It’s an obviously manipulative gesture, but isn’t that the point?

Clockwork's "Singin' in the Rain" scene

Clockwork's "Singin' in the Rain" scene

A Clockwork Orange makes a simple and straightforward argument for the associational power of music. But what does it say about the thematic core of the film? I cringe any time someone refers to Kubrick as cold or heartless. It’s true that his self-awareness kept him at a distance, but he knew how to communicate deep emotions like love, joy, regret and confusion. In Clockwork, he tells the story of corrupted joy. The most famous section of Beethoven’s Ninth begins with a baritone bellowing “Freude!” or “Joy!” But, in the end, what opportunity does Alex have to enjoy Beethoven’s genius. He’s a criminal, capable of rape and murder, but Kubrick seems to be arguing that it’s the opportunity for joy that matters. “Singin’ in the Rain” represents the summit of Hollywood-manufactured love. At least for a time, Kubrick robs us of the ability to associate that song with that idea. By appropriating the music and applying it to imagery that directly opposes its original purpose, Kubrick demonstrates that there is no dialectic involved here--the re-purposing creates a powerful conditioned response. A Clockwork Orange, restless and sensational as it is, derives its greatest power from its use of music, experimenting with and arguing for the associational power of sound in film.

Glenn, I’m interested in how Kubrick shows his hand here. Sometimes his cues seem like they’re pulled from a compilation record of The Most Bracing Works in Music History. But, as I hope we discover, there’s also a shrewd musicological awareness on display. There might not be a specific philosophy there, but I think Kubrick continually used music as an associational tool throughout his career.  Has that been your experience, Glenn? There’s so much to consider--Barry Lyndon’s changing of the guard from Classicism to Romanticism, 2001’s seismic impact and context, the anti-war messages of Full Metal Jacket and Paths of Glory, or the dreamy repetition of Eyes Wide Shut. We’re on a wide-open playground. Your move.