I once saw Boyd Rice perform a live soundtrack to John Parker’s Dementia (aka Daugther of Horror, 1955), playing waterphone and bass harmonica, backed by Dwid Hellion from the hardcore band Integrity, in a cinema in central Paris. But mixed in among Rice and Hellion’s loops lay spectral traces of the film’s original orchestral soundtrack, by the former ‘bad boy’ of new music, George Antheil. Re-watching the film some years later, it’s clear that a major contributor to Dementia‘s singular atmosphere of oneiric noir is its score – one of the composer’s last, but by no means least, works.
As an American in Europe during the interwar years, Antheil had been at the very frontline of the avant-garde, collaborating with Dadaists and associated, for a time, with the machine music of the German November Group (Novembergruppe). But from the late 1930s on, the Trenton, New Jersey-born composer would embark on a career in Hollywood, composing comparatively unremarkable (and often uncredited) music for directors such as Cecil B. DeMille (The Plainsman, Union Pacific), Nicholas Ray (Knock on Any Door, In a Lonely Place), and William Castle (Serpent of the Nile, New Orleans Uncensored). In the mid-50s, however, at the time Dementia was in production, the now quinquagenarian composer would start to revisit some of the pioneering work of his youth, revising both the Ballet Mécanique and Jazz Symphony.
Following the murderous dreams-within-dreams of an unnamed female protagonist through a nighttime world of deserted street corners and jazz clubs, Dementia‘s soundtrack is alive with popular rhythms – from the cool, west-coast jazz of Shorty Rogers in the nightclub scene to the various transformations and transpositions of a simple habanera, which seem to crop up whenever the gamin (as Adrienne Barrett’s part is listed in the credits) encounters some attempted seducer. Antheil eschews stepwise melodic movement in favour of motifs made up of serpentine cadences in minor seconds and diminished sevenths. The soundtrack is full of neat touches like the brief flurry of a toy piano in the Rich Man’s apartment, or the sawing cello portamento as the gamin hacks off his dead hand in the street outside. The repeated thrumming of harp strings establishes the dreamlike mode from the very beginning of the film, in time-honoured fashion.
What is perhaps spookiest of all about this score, however, is the voice, often blended with woodwind to create a weird, theremin-like sound; singing eerie chromatic peals of wordless vocalese; Marni Nixon’s voice haunts this soundtrack like a guilty secret. A former child actress turned opera singer, you are most likely to have heard Nixon’s voice dubbing Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or as the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember and Natalie Wood in West Side Story (unbeknown to Wood herself). In this film without dialogue, Nixon provides a similar function in supplying her own disembodied voice to the voiceless body.
From the numinous off-stage voices of the very earliest operas to the various talking automata of the 18th and 19th centuries, there has always been something deeply uncanny about a voice without an apparent (human) source – and all the more so if that voice is stripped of a clear lyric to anchor its meaning. As the Slovenian philosopher and author of A Voice and Nothing More, Mladen Dolar has suggested, ‘What defines the voice as special among the infinite array of acoustic phenomena, is its inner relationship with meaning. The voice,’ he continues, ‘is something which points towards meaning,’ and yet when that implied meaning is refused and obscured, the voice becomes a kind of fetish, pointing only towards the absence of meaning and the gap between sound and its source, or sense and signification. In the context of Dementia, then, Nixon’s voice is both that what bridges the gap between the real and the dream, between the work and its audience, and also what draws attention to the very existence of that gap. Antheil’s use of the voice here recalls finally Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, in which the voice is ultimately that which reminds us of the impossibility of communication, of our isolation in an ocean of sounds.