Film noir is a style of cinematic expression that is not always recognized as a bona fide genre. Nevertheless, a sufficient body of film noir work exists to substantiate its place in the discussion of modern filmmaking.
Those acknowledging the art form generally apply film noir to only “Hollywood crime dramas,” but the term may be used more liberally to describe movies representing the darker, brooding, disturbing or melancholy side of life. The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a textbook example, but works such as Vertigo (1958), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Mulholland Drive (2001) fit the broader definition.
Similarly, many musical creations may be classified as “music noir.” While some entire works such as symphonies and albums — or even artists — may be labeled as such, it is much easier to name specific song titles that follow the interpretive definition.
In classical music, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) is almost entirely noir in feel while only the second movement (the adagio) of J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Strings in E Major fits the mold. Note: the second movement in sonata form is the most likely place to find examples of music noir since that is where composers insert passages that are slower, less dynamic or in a different time signature (e.g. 3/4 time) to contrast with the opening allegro movement.
Moving far from the classics, music noir may be found in all parts of rock music.
In the alternative sub-genre, The National’s “I Need My Girl” qualifies with its dark and melancholy melody and vocals, and scattered guitar chords that sound like “broad strokes on a canvas.”
Elsewhere in rock, consider “Master of Puppets,” the title track of the 1986 Metallica album as further evidence of music noir. Here, heavy metal guitar hooks, riveting drums and chilling lyrics such as “needlework the way/never you betray/life of death becoming clearer/pain monopoly, ritual misery/chop your breakfast on a mirror” paint hair-raising images of cocaine addiction.
Music noir morphs into a much angrier form at the hands of extreme metal bands such as Megadeth. The menacing lyrics and vocals on their debut album, “Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?” (1986), express disdain for government and big business in conjunction with music that makes most other metal bands seem like Boy Scouts.
Downshifting to the realm of hard alternative music, the 2009 single “New Divide” by Linkin Park frames the planet with ominous overtones: “There was nothing inside/But memories left abandoned/There was nowhere to hide/The ashes fell like snow/And the ground caved in/Between where we were standing/And your voice was all I heard/That I get what I deserve.” The dark lyrics are supported by emotional vocals and powerful drum parts that conjure images of a desperate war against omnipotent interstellar forces.
Death metal and alternative bands are not the only ones penning music noir in rock. In mainstream popular music, Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” presents haunting vocals and lyrics: “I set fire to the rain/Watched it pour as I touched your face/Let it burn while I cried/’Cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name.”
Music noir even has its tentacles in rap. Lupe Fiasco has carved out an interesting niche in the realm of rap and hip-hop hybrids. “Break the Chain,” his 2011 duet with Eric Turner and Sway, exposes a young man’s struggle to free himself from ghetto oppression: “I waited all my life to play/I still can’t find a way/But if I work it one more day/I might just break the chain.”
In folk, Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” from his 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate describes a tragic love triangle between the speaker, a woman and the speaker’s brother. Written as a personal letter, the words and vocals are intensely somber: “And what can I tell you my brother, my killer/ What can I possibly say?/I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you/I’m glad you stood in my way.”
Half a world away in Tibet, a type of chanting called “overtone singing” practiced by Monks in the Gyuto order is intended to inspire profound spirituality. Nevertheless, the singing sounds eerie and grotesque in ways that resemble the vocals of Megadeth as described above.
Further east, ensemble versions of Gagaku (Japan’s high court music) are unyielding in formality and structure while presenting haunting impressions with shrilling sounds of flute and barren mouthorgan.
In Turkey, musicians use a beautiful sounding flute called ney to produce deep and dark melodies. Played without a mouthpiece, the instrument requires a difficult technique called “circular breathing” to be performed correctly.
There are many examples of music noir in jazz, including entire albums and individual pieces.
Booker Little’s Out Front album (1961) is a collection of seven somber, intellectual pieces that challenges the mind with portraits about the serious side of the human experience. The album features Little on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, and Eric Dolphy on saxophone, bass clarinet and flute. This is cerebral, sensitive jazz at its finest.
Jazz innovator and trumpeter Miles Davis released Bitches Brew in 1970, and shocked many a critic with this dark and oft times angry hybrid of jazz melodies and rock rhythms. Rubato sections of the title track extend so far beyond the fabric of traditional jazz that some period critics called it “anti-jazz.” Still, the all-star lineup of jazz musicians including Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland gives no quarter in its presentation of Davis’ genius.
“We Work the Black Seem Together” from Sting’s 1985 album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles captures music noir with its lyrics, vocals and instrumentation. A repetitive electric piano line provides the backdrop for melodic jazz saxophone on top by Branford Marsalis in conjunction with Sting’s monotone singing of solemn lyrics opposing the worldwide abuse of energy resources: “One day in a nuclear age/They may understand our rage/They build machines that they can’t control/And bury the waste in a great big hole/Power was to become cheap and clean/Grimy faces were never seen/Deadly for twelve thousand years is carbon fourteen/We work the black seam together.”
Finally, “Winter Solstice” from guitarist Ralph Towner’s 1975 album Solstice captures a tranquil yet dreary expression of the darkest season in the northern hemisphere. This hybrid of jazz and modern classical music was the first installment of what would later be labeled as “new age” music before it got consumed by more popular, and less sophisticated, renditions that bear the genre.
Both film and music noir serve as counterpoint to the existing feel-good offerings from their respective art forms. Noir is an invaluable instrument that allows humans to experience the finer things of everyday life while vicariously sampling its dark, sinister side upon demand. Participants submerge themselves in a virtual dark space for however long they chose to engage, but can willingly surface to what is generally a more joyous real-life experience anytime they wish.