Of all arts, music is one of the most un-symbolic. Of all filmmakers, Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of the most symbolic. Thus, despite the often excess use of music (Bach in Accattone, Vivaldi in Mamma Roma, Mozart in Teorema), his films are ultimately unmusical – they are assemblages of imageries used as visual polemics.

But in a stroke of genius, Pasolini made the best of music in probably any film. Yes, I’m talking about his 1969 picture Medea, which stars Maria Callas in her only non-operatic film role. No, Callas didn’t sing a single line in the film, yet her ferocious silence is supremely musical in itself. More importantly, her natural savageness betrays a kind of raw emotion that gives credibility to the unusual “world music” Pasolini used in the film. 

Now it’s not unusual for contemporary non-Western filmmakers to use Western classical music in their films. Two prominent examples coming to mind is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Boys from Fengkui and Abbas Kiarostami’s Under the Olive Trees. Hou’s film is about country lads seeking new lives in the city. Lots of Vivaldi was used –  I suspect Mamma Roma‘s influence here, considering the thematic proximity. Kiarostami’s film ends with a Cimarosa piece, having our hero’s romantic joy conveyed beautifully. In both films tradition meets modern sensibility. It’s only fit Vivaldi and Cimarosa were used, for classical music, despite the word “classical”,  is in essence modern through and through.

But in Medea Pasolini wanted to create some primitive sensibility. Pre-historical music is not re-creatable, so he opted for traditional music outside Western mainstream. According to Jon Solomon (The Sound of Cinematic Antiquity): “For the rituals in Colchis he selected Tibetan chant for the elders, Persian santur music for general Colchian atmosphere, and Balkan choral music, characterized by a female chorus doubling in two parts a second apart, for the women promoting the growth of new crops with the blood of the young victim of sparagmos, the Greek Dionysiac ritual of dismemberment.” I believe I also heard Japanese traditional music during the screening.

Again, like many aspects of Pasolini’s art, there is only symbolic validity to use “ethnomusic” to convey primitiveness, for those music are only primitive, “raw” and “uninhibited” to Western (or modern) ears. To original listeners, they might well be refined and urban. But Pasolini’s originality is undeniable, so is the effectiveness of the music in the film:

Medea (Callas) oversees ritual dismemberment under Tibetan music

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