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.

Two years after Cimarron justification for music’s place in the movies was no longer deemed necessary. The writer/director/producer Merian Cooper of King Kong, whose own swashbuckling adventures as a pilot in World War II and a documentary filmmaker in 1920s Persia provided the model for the director in King Kong, was worried whether audiences of the novel would relish the special effects of his movie, especially during the ape’s battles with dinosaurs on his native island and later with planes back in “civilization.” Cooper came to Steiner for a score, famously giving the composer free rein to do what he felt was necessary to draw viewers into the film’s fantasy world. Given Steiner’s ego and energy, the result is hardly surprising: aside from a twenty minute stretch near the beginning of the film in which the boat sets out from New York and crosses the ocean for Skull Island, music dominates the movie. This lack of music only makes its later use all the more striking.

Still, King Kong offers its own arch commentary on the power and purpose of music. The film begins with a  rather restrained, though somewhat foreboding, overture before the thunderous descending chromatic notes of the Kong then pounded its breast and stomped its feet with title credit.  A music of symphonic sweep then dominated the first several minutes of screen time, moving from the credits to scenes of New York Harbor, where the “picture ship,” the Venture, is at its wharf, about ready to shove off though not before the director, Carl Denham, determines to find a star for his picture in the middle of Manhattan, even, he says, “If I have to marry her myself.”  But on the outward voyage it is woman-hating first mate Jack Driscoll who eventually succumbs to her charms, but not before Denham cautions and chides him: “You’re a good tough guy, Jack, but if beauty gets you, I’m going right into a theme song.” Steiner would do precisely that a bit later in the film, when lush music accompanies Jack and the starlet-in-the-making, Ann, kiss on deck. The music repeatedly disappears each time the film cuts back to the skipper and director talking manly talk in the cabin above: music is a sign of not just romance, but of escape from duty.

When the Venture approaches Skull Island through the fog all is hushed. Then a rhythmic murmur troubles the unseen realm beyond.  The water is getting shallower as the sounder’s shouts confirm. Could it be the surf?  Then Jack realizes what he—and we—are hearing: “That’s not breakers. That’s drums.” But the beat of native ritual is also accompanied by Steiner’s underscoring: music has sneaked back into the film, and it will soon enough overwhelm those drums and conquer the island’s sonic space, indulging in its own deafening silence only for special emphasis: the death throes of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the screams of a crewman crushed in the jaws of a formerly vegetarian Brontosaurus who’s suddenly acquired a taste for white meat.

After this continuous musical spectacle, one of the most extended  and self-confident orchestral essays in cinematic history, the return to New York return is bridged by a Broadway Overture coming from the pit of the theatre where Kong is shackled behind the curtain.  This flapper music—Steiner could write fluently in any style—alludes to the old ways of theatrical music when confined to a place beneath the action above. When Kong bursts free and heads out for the evening, the music goes with him. Steiner leaves the orchestra and suave style behind and returns to his close matching of the action on screen with stabbing harmonies from ominous brass and frantic strings.

Pushed upward by the rising music, Kong conquers the Empire State Building. But then the planes are scrambled and the music cuts out again to make way for a symphony of swoops. The engines of the Sopwith Camels scream and shudder. Machinegun fire punctuates their relentless, mechanized melody like snare drums. Now we realize that, although Steiner’s music was highly chromatic and harmonically turbulent, it provided a certain comfort by wrapping the onscreen action in a paradoxically calming theatricality. With this aural backdrop—or perhaps foreground—suddenly hoisted up like a theatre flat we are left without our safety net. Things feel suddenly much less comfortable: Steiner’s music is at its most threatening when it is silent: perhaps that’s the true meaning of disconcerting. A point of view shot of from the cockpit of a plane spinning down from the sky confirms the momentary embrace of realism, never mind that an outsized ape is perched on top of the Empire State Building.

Only when Kong realizes he is mortally wounded does the music kick in again, now mighty and pathetic as Steiner’s score tells us that the beast really did love the beauty, and that he was felled by her as much as by the planes’ merciless strafing. Having cast aside qualms about the source of the music in the movie, King Kong arrogated to the soundtrack the supreme power to lead the way towards escape. As long as there is music nothing has to be real, except the emotions conjured in the viewer.

Many a faux-documentary in the vein of the Blair Witch Project has exploited this paradox in 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 latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at