Monday, January 23, 2017

Music as the Language of the Heart and Savior of Speech: A Review of WALKABOUT by Isabelle Sasso

A French writer and romantic poet, Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), once said, “Music is the language of the heart; it commences where speech ends” (par. 2). Imagine Lamartine’s statement and how it applies to film. Picture the average film critic. He/she watches a film and analyzes the camera shots, the costumes, the actors and actresses, and most importantly, the dialogue and film script. Most film critics may also pay attention to the musical score, but only after they have looked through the script. In his 1971 film Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg challenges the traditional assumption that a film should be centered on its script. Edward Bond, the screenwriter for Walkabout, wrote a script that was only 14 pages long. One might question where audience members are supposed to draw the meaning of the film from if there is so little dialogue. If Lamartine was alive today and saw Roeg’s film, he and I would argue the answer is heard in John Barry’s musical score.

Through the wistful and eerie melodies of Barry’s compositions, Walkabout tells the story of a young girl, played by Jenny Agutter, and her loss of childhood innocence during her “walkabout” in the Australian outback. In the words of Agutter herself, “John Barry’s score evokes perfectly a sense of childhood yearning, a time gone forever” (Agutter 7). Additionally, the titles of Barry’s compositions offer further support for the events that occur in the film that ultimately lead to the death of the girl’s adolescence. The songs communicate to the audience the film’s meaning through eliciting many different emotions and moods. Courtesy of the City of Prague Philharmonic and conductor Nic Raine, many of the musical elements can be analyzed to help with a deeper understanding of the way the compositions contribute to the film’s overall meaning.

The young girl in this film, only 14 years old, has to cope with the suicide of her insane father, and look after her younger brother as they are stranded and struggling to survive in the Australian outback. John Barry’s titles for songs coincide with the events that occur throughout the movie. For example, when the two siblings are stranded by their father after he shoots at his son, puts a gun to his head and lights their car on fire, Barry includes a song with a fitting title: “Stranded.” This piece incorporates a melody in the lower range of the flute, paired with jarring phrases coming from the horn section. It also brings in short passages from the Stockhausen chorus. There are open chords within the different voices that spark a sense of wonder and confusion among the audience which match many of the same feelings that the two siblings are experiencing. There is also a winding, stirring melody within the upper string section and on vibes—with both hard and soft mallets—that gives the audience a sense of tension and urgency. It plays after the father commits suicide and the girl grabs items from their picnic while trying to distract her brother from this dreadful sight. In this scene, the girl is forced to take control of the situation and make split-second decisions. This is the first moment we see her assuming a more responsible, “grown-up” role, since she protects her brother from seeing their dead father next to a car engulfed in flames. She then further assures him when he asks questions. For example, when he asks, “Do you know where you’re going?,” she responds, “Yes, of course” (Roeg 00:17).

As the film progresses, the girl is seen as more of a caretaker for her little brother. When they decide to settle down for the night, she tries to stay strong for her brother. She avoids his constant questioning, like “It’s getting dark, isn’t it?” In response to the statement that they may stay in the outback all night, the boy says, “But we didn’t bring any blankets.” His older sister refuses to admit defeat and show how scared and unsure she may be in this situation, so she responds “I don’t think I’m quite tired yet” (Roeg 00:13). When they finally start to sleep, Barry includes a very unique song, “Night in the Outback.” In this, there are instruments, specifically the flute, that mimic some of the animals in the outback. There are passages when the flute is heard flutter tonguing, and it sounds like a flying insect. The vibes also have a short, creeping melody that is quiet and heard periodically, as if an animal or being is softly walking through the shadows of the outback. Also in this composition, the Stockhausen melodies travel in half steps, where the music sounds like it is building, creating yet again, a sense of tension and uneasiness as the two siblings are seen sleeping alone in the outback. The scene that Barry’s music sets along with Roeg’s camera shots of the girl throwing the can down the rocks, and the close-ups of each of the siblings faces while in the dark outback conveys to the audience the ability of the girl to simultaneously adapt to a different environment and look after her brother.

Further into the movie, the two siblings are shown walking through the outback, in the scorching sun, past wide open spaces and over huge sand dunes. In this montage, Barry plays “Survival Test” and “The Journey,” where many triumphant, yet melancholy, horn melodies can be heard. What is also remarkable about this song is the combination of African drums and busy background music in the melodic instruments. This rhythmic ostinato within sections of this piece conveys a sense of determination among the two siblings to get back to civilization as they blindly navigate the outback. This will to return home is especially seen within the girl. She urges her little brother to keep walking and opts to give him piggy-back rides when he complains of being tired. The bustling instruments in the background, I believe, serve as a symbol of her unending thoughts and worries related to reaching civilization again. Throughout the movie, even when the two siblings meet the Aboriginal boy, the girl is consistently adamant about finding a way back home. She even goes so far as to reject an emotional or sexual relationship with the boy, so that, when the time comes, she can swiftly exit the outback and re-assimilate into the “cultured” world without worrying what she has left behind.

This brings me to another one of Barry’s works. This key composition plays during a defining moment for the girl. In John Kenneth Muir’s critique of Walkabout, he references the “unspoken—and forbidden—romantic love,” the Aboriginal boy develops for the girl (Muir par. 13). The Aborigine boy approaches the girl while she is shirtless and performs a fertility dance, or dance of courtship. Barry’s music, “The Deserted Settlement/The Final Dance,” plays behind the dance, which lasts overnight. There are many minor intervals in the beginning, which then lead into a mesmerizing flute solo. As the song progresses, it is difficult to tell what time signature the piece is in. There are two competing melodies happening, and it is unclear which is supposed to be dominant. Additionally, there is a didgeridoo in the background playing a floating melody.

I took this competition of melodies and the didgeridoo as showing the difference in Aboriginal and English culture, and how the girl is not mature enough to appreciate a culture different from hers. The girl is confused, and possibly frightened, as to why the boy has his face painted and is performing this very long dance outside the abandoned house they are in. Here, she gets an even more intimate experience with the Aboriginal culture. While she is baffled by the boy’s actions, what she does after the dance, subtly shows her appreciation of the boy. As Muir states, “when the lovestruck Aborigine launches into a courtship dance before the English girl, she coolly and silently rejects him,” which leads to his suicide (Muir par. 14). As the two siblings find the boy hanging from a tree, the girl kindly brushes off an insect from his chest, and they continue on their way to the road they had heard about in pursuit of civilized beings. This act of brushing away the bug is small, but compared to when she was constantly rejecting the boy before his death, her action shows some maturity and appreciation for him and his culture. This reentry into the civil world may seem abrupt because the siblings leave the Aboriginal boy hanging from a tree and don’t seem to give it a second thought. However, years later, Roeg shows us the girl reflecting back on her experience.

As the girl, now much more grown up and a married woman, has a conversation with her businessman husband who has just come home from work, her thoughts wander back to her time in the outback. The film cuts to a scene where she is seen with the Aboriginal boy, and her younger brother; they are all swimming. They appear very content, and have meaningful, yet playful interactions with each other. As the girl thinks back to a time where her life was much simpler and she was blissfully innocent, John Barry’s main musical theme for Walkabout is played. The melody in the strings and winds cascades over the rich chords in the low brass and the dinky, neat harpsichord chord progression. This main theme beautifully captures the nostalgic feeling that the girl experiences as she looks back on the time the trio swam together. The huge interval jumps and non-linear pattern that Barry chooses for the melody furthers Roeg’s point that the girl’s experience on her walkabout was the start of her losing her innocence. As the main theme plays yet again, for the third or fourth time since the beginning of the movie, the audience can conclude that Barry and Roeg want to reinforce this childhood yearning through repetition of this theme.

John Barry’s score plays a crucial in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, since much of the meaning of the film cannot, alone, be drawn from the sparse dialogue. Only through a close analysis of Barry’s compositions, in part with Bond’s storyline and Roeg’s purposeful style, does the audience understand that the film is about a loss of the girl’s innocence on her walkabout. Barry’s music conveys those nostalgic and yearning feelings for childhood through artful orchestration, and hypnotic melodies that push and pull the audience’s emotions. Additionally, the angelic voices of Stockhausen remind both the characters in the film and the viewers that the film deals with the issue of the death of a girl’s adolescence; a meaning that is bigger than the script and is obtained from much more than actors reciting words written on paper.

Works Cited

Agutter, Jenny. "Walkabout." Jenny Agutter: Memories of Walkabout. Jenny Agutter, 21 Sept.    2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

"Alphonse De Lamartine." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Jan. 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Muir, John Kenneth. "John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV" :            CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Walkabout (1971)., 15 Jan. 2011. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

"Music Quotes and Sayings." Music Quotes and Sayings. Quote Garden, 05 Mar. 2016. Web. 09

Mar. 2016.

Ruhlmann, William. "AllMusic Review." AllMusic. AllMusic, 2016. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.

Roeg, Nicolas. Walkabout. Perf. Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, and Luc Roeg. Twentieth Century Fox, 1971. Film.

"Soundtracks." IMDb., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.

"Walkabout." IMDb., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2016.

"WALKABOUT." YouTube. YouTube: City of Prague Philharmonic, 08 Nov. 2014. Web. 06     Mar. 2016.

"Walkabout | Research (1971)." YouTube. YouTube: Avid Films, 10 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 Feb.       2016.

Musical Terminology for the Musically Uneducated: An “if-needed” Supplement to “Music as the Language of the Heart and Savior of Speech”

Open chords: The structure of chords depends on the style of music—i.e. jazz or classical—but the basic form is the root of the chord (do), the third (mi), and the fifth (sol), and sometimes the seventh or ninth if you’re playing jazz. Basic open chords may consist of just the root and fifth, leaving an uneasy and empty feeling when heard.

Upper string section: constitutes the first and second violin, and it could be argued the violas (but in the music world, everyone hates on the viola.)

Vibes: The vibraphone. It is a percussion instrument with two rows of metal bars each tuned and set to a specific pitch. It is set up much like a piano, and when hit with mallets, creates a vibrating sound.

Hard vs. Soft mallets: Hard mallets have a much “harder” or more alarming timber, since they are typically made of out hard materials like hard plastic, or wood. Soft mallets are also used on vibraphones or marimbas, and have a much “softer” tone. They usually are made out of rubber or other soft materials that will bounce easily on the metal and vibrate well.

Flutter tonguing: Typically used by flute players, it is an act of blowing air as normal when playing, but instead of tonguing normally, the musician “rolls” their R’s or flutters their tongue. Barry most likely uses this technique so that is creates an illusion of a flying insect.

Half steps: A half steps constitutes, for example, moving from a white key to a black key on the piano, or moving up from a C to a C# or down that way. A half step is also heard in the Jaws theme.

Ostinato: a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical style (i.e. same rhythm, voice or pitch.)

Minor: Opposite of major; these intervals and keys are not pleasant sounding. They sound crunchy, tense, or sad.

Time signature: Tells the meter the song is in (triple or duple), and how many beats per measure there are. A time signature is set up like a fraction; the top number tells how many beats are in each measure, and the bottom number tells what kind of note gets the beat. For example, common time or 4/4 time, means that there are 4 beats in every measure, and the quarter note gets the beat.

Harpsichord: An instrument that is almost like a piano, but when a key is pressed, a string is plucked. It creates this very harsh tone. This instrument was used a lot in the Baroque period (approx. 1600-1750). 

Interval: An interval refers to the amount of distance between notes. If we look at a scale, the distance between the first note of the scale and the last note is an octave (a Perfect 8th). The distance between the first and second note is a 2nd, between the first and fifth note would be a 5th, between the first and seventh note would be a 7th, and so on and so forth. Intervals come in the form of perfect (unisons, fifths and octaves), major and minor, or augmented (the distance made bigger between the notes) or diminished (the distance made smaller between notes).


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