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The Sound of Skyscrapers

The attacks of September 11, 2001 reinstated for more than a decade the Empire State Building as the highest structure in New York City, a distinction it had held from its completion in 1931 until 1972 when the north tower of the World Trade Center supplanted its midtown rival.  Rising in defiance of the Great Depression, the Empire State Building dwarfed the short-reigned emperor of the skies, the Chrysler Building.

Chrysler had been on top for only a year from May of 1930 until May 1 of 1931, when President Hoover turned the electricity on for the Empire State Building from a switch in Washington, D. C. The lights of his skyscraper may have been on, but few were home:  the building remained largely unrented, giving rise to the nickname the “Empty State Building,” which, in contrast to the successful Chrysler tower, didn’t become profitable until two decades later.

The Empire State Building held its reclaimed primacy on the Manhattan skyline until 2014 when the new One Word Trade Center was finished: it stand 1,368 feet tall, exactly the height of the building it replaced. In recent years three more buildings have surpassed the the Empire State Building including, just this spring, the skinny Steinway tower, said to be the highest residential building in the world.

The earliest footage of the Empire State Building is soundless, coming as it did in the first years of cinematic sound technology. Andy Warhol’s eight-hour Empire of 1964—a movie that doesn’t move—returns the building to silence and stasis with its one long shot of the skyscraper.

Within two years of its opening the Empire State Building would be forever clad not just in limestone but also in music written by a Viennese émigré who virtually invented the classic Hollywood soundtrack. Max Steiner’s 1933 score for King Kong mixes modernist angst with the dreamy wisps of romance. Terror and redemption have been the twin towers of Hollywood’s movie music ever since.

So symbolic of hubris, skyscrapers are lightning rods for disaster, both real and imagined. It now has the feel of the inevitable that the Empire State Building should have provided the setting for the first horror film of the skies and the impetus for Steiner’s seminal score.

The giant ape is captured on Skull Island, a primordial place of ritually dancing black natives and mean-spirited dinosaurs. The beast is brought back to brutal civilization by the camera-wielding, bomb-thrower film director to the hyper-modern island of Manhattan—home to its own tribal behavior, a shared survival of the fittest philosophy, and voodoo economics. Once the giant ape bursts his shackles in the Broadway auditorium where the director has made him the attraction of show, the escapee makes for the tallest tree on the island: the Empire State Building. That is why in the 1976 remake with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, the ape scales the World Trade Center, as new as the Empire State Building had been back in 1933. With the Peter Jackson version of 2005 set in the 1930s it was back to the future, Kong reunited with the once and future King of the New York skyline.

Steiner’s King Kong score marked a declaration of musical independence. The era of silent movies just past had never really been silent: music emanating from a pit orchestra, organ, or piano had been crucial to the entertainment. But once characters started talking on screen they seemed to threaten the rationale for orchestral underscoring. If they could tell us how to think, why should the music do the same? As late as 1944 Alfred Hitchcock famously questioned the viability of musical accompaniment for his film Lifeboat, pointing out that there couldn’t be an orchestra in the middle of the ocean. It was a curious reservation, since Hitchcock’s work was hardly concerned with realism. The oft-cited reply came from David Raksin, who would compose one of Hollywood’s greatest soundtracks and one of its most popular tunes in Laura that same year of 1944: “Ask Mr. Hitchcock to explain where the cameras come from and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.” Hugo Friedhofer eventually provided the soundtrack for Lifeboat, though the best music is made by one of the characters: the rescued U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) sings Schubert’s “Heidenröslein” as he rows the survivors of the ship he has sunk: it is a song not of the sea but of the dry land.

Hitchcock did eventually make a film without a score: The Birds. Its eerie soundtrack of bird calls, cackles, and screams was designed by cinema’s greatest composer, Bernard Hermann. The movie is Hitchcock’s most unsettling and, indeed most “realistic,” in large part because it has no traditional musical soundtrack. Had Hitchock used movie music it would have helped cage the birds more safely in fantasy.

In Steiner’s score for the Cimarron of 1931, a Western that is the motherlode of frontier racism, he produced what  were then longest stretches of orchestral music for a film. Never one to underestimate his own talent, Steiner claimed that reviews of praised the composer above all else: “The picture opened. The next morning, the papers came out and reported that the picture was excellent. And what about the music—it said that it was the greatest music that ever was written. The producers’ faces dropped, and I got a raise of fifty dollars.”

At the 1931 Academy Awards Cimarrontook home an armful of Oscars, including that for Best Picture.  There was as yet no prize for music, but when the award was given for the first time in 1935, Steiner won it for his work on John Ford’s The Informer.

In spite of the persuasiveness of Steiner’s ambitious, not to say grandiose, approach to composing for movies, the crucial role allotted by Hollywood to music has not gone without comment: the soundtrack is often taken as an emblem of the dream machine that is the American screen, be it silver, Technicolor, or 3-D. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles spends nearly as much time sending up Hollywood’s use of music as it does the Western’s relentless bigotry (especially that of Cimarron). The black sheriff in his swank buckskin outfit and riding a horse outfitted with Gucci saddlebags sets out across the desert to a brassy jazz number, one no more anachronistic and literally out-of-place than Elmer Bernstein’s brash theme to The Magnificent Seven. After a covering few feet of the open West, Mel Brooks’ sheriff comes across the full Basie Band with the Count himself at a white piano swinging hard amongst the sagebrush and tumbleweed.

Many a faux-documentary in the vein of the Blair Witch Project has exploited the paradox of artfully fabricating movies which feign reality by running without any music.  The Dardenne brothers’ realistic Palme d’Or-winning films about life in post-industrial Belgium forsake a soundtrack and are all the more powerful and grueling for it. So central is music to our cinematic experience that stifling it can be as opportunistic as deploying the soaring strings.

This also explains why news footage of the September 11 attacks are so difficult to watch. Those montage sequences of the attacks in which a soundtrack has been added turn the event into an action movie. It is no accident that compilations of visual “evidence” of the September 11th conspiracy to be seen in their hundreds on YouTube make abundant use of music. In one typical example the short overture resorts to portentous chromaticism and string haloes worthy of Wagner and his epigone Steiner, before bursting out in Orffian ostinatos as the planes smash into the towers.

This music, like that of Steiner, is trying to convince you what to think and how to feel—to make you believe what is unbelievable. But the point of the soundtrack is quite the opposite: movie music’s main task is try and keep at bay the realization that what you are seeing is a lie.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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