The Song or the Silence | Sarah King


Danish author Hans Christian Andersen once said that “where words fail, music speaks.” In film, music plays an integral role in telling the story. Two characters fall in love, and the music swells. Music in a minor key sounds eerie and implies something negative is about to happen. Songs with a fast tempo create a sense of urgency or chaos. In Jane Campion’s The Piano, music takes on an especially powerful role because the piano serves as Ada’s voice, shattering the world of silence in which others believed she lived.

Director Jane Campion reached out to composer Michael Nyman to construct the score for this film because she was a fan of his work on The Draughtsman’s Contract. “Jane had the vision to see, through that music, that I could do the emotion she wanted,” said Nyman, but he realized that writing a score from the point of view of a mid-nineteenth century Scottish mute woman was more challenging than he has originally anticipated (Tims). The audience learns of the importance of the piano in the opening scene of the film when Ada’s voiceover says “The strange thing is, I don’t think myself silent. That is because of my piano.” It is interesting that, although Ada is mute, the movie begins with a voiceover. This humanizes her to the audience even though she is displayed as “the other” or an “outsider” in the film. Because the film begins with her telling the viewers that the piano is her voice, we are then more receptive to Nyman’s score, listening to what Ada is telling us and feeling her emotions.

Silence, in films and in life, creates a sense of discomfort. As humans, we are communicators, and the most common form of communication is through verbal conversation. In Ada’s case, the audience sees the discomfort between Ada and her husband Stewart early on because of their inability to communicate. Even using her daughter, Flora, to translate, Ada is unable to effectively communicate to Stewart the importance of bringing the piano with her. In contrast, Baines, the Englishman in the area who has assimilated into the natives’ lifestyle, is able to hear and understand Ada through her playing. A pivotal moment in the film is when Ada, Flora, and Baines spend the day on the beach and Baines hears Ada speak through her music for the first time. Despite the initial forcefulness of the relationship with Baines and Ada, he ultimately gives her a choice, and in turn, her voice. This allows their relationship to flourish, something her relationship with Stewart is never able to do because of his inability to hear her.

In addition to being uncomfortable, silence is also often associated with inferiority. Dalton and Fatzinger, however, view Ada’s silence in the film as being empowering, as they explained in their article “Choosing Silence: Defiance and Resistance Without Voice in Jane Campion’s The Piano.” They argue that Ada asserts control by choosing silence, knowing that the piano would serve as her voice to those who would take the time to listen and understand. When composing the score, Nyman asked Campion: “If Ada could speak, what would she be saying?” Campion, in turn, gave him an annotated script describing the emotions Ada was experiencing as the scenes played out. Nyman decided that since “Ada was a radical character, I thought she could have been a radical composer,” so he wrote music that gave her not only a voice, but a powerful one.

Music is often referred to as the universal language because of its ability to reach across language barriers and communicate emotions on a deeper level than words. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “without music, life would be a mistake,” and this is also true in movies. As exemplified by the role of music in Jane Campion’s The Piano, music goes beyond being only background noise or sound effects, but is a necessary part of telling the story of a film. Grammy award winning singer and songwriter Jon Foreman wrote “The song or the silence: This will always be our choice,” but I would argue that Ada is able to do both—by choosing silence, she also chooses the song, giving her a voice stronger than most.

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