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Of Scalpels and Synthesizers: The Music of THE KNICK

Of Scalpels and Synthesizers: The Music of THE KNICK

The latest series from director Steven Soderbergh begins
jarringly, with an uncomfortably intimate, front-row seat view of a disastrous C-section
operation.  This widely discussed scene
set the tone for what has evolved into a consistently disconcerting and
uncompromising show, one that immerses viewers in the grimy, gory, greedy world of a
turn-of-the-century New York hospital. 
Soderbergh has said that he wanted to give a vision of the past that was anything but nostalgic, and in this he has certainly succeeded. 

One of the more jarring manifestations of this
anti-nostalgic vision is the show’s innovative synthesizer score, composed by
long-time Soderbergh collaborator, Cliff Martinez.  After a steady diet of Ken Burns
documentaries, one might have expected to hear the stately rhythms of ragtime
or perhaps the Irish folk music or Italian opera that one could reasonably have
expected to hear blaring from the New York bars and music halls of
yesteryear.  Instead, the images of
horse-drawn carriages and gaslit streets are accompanied by the kinds of sounds
we might associate with dystopian visions of the future.  The combination of old and new is both
unsettling and revelatory.

Martinez has worked with Soderbergh for some twenty-five
years, ever since he composed the score for the director’s explosive debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape.  Since then he has continued to hone his
signature sound: a taut, tensile aural web where melody and rhythm are
inextricable.  Sequenced melody patterns
emerge and evolve slowly, like a Philip Glass symphony, adapting to the
changing dynamics of the film.  Martinez’
music does not so much accompany scenes as insinuate itself into them: what begins
as a barely heard rhythmic tapping may slowly blossom into vast, crystalline
sound structures, as in his mesmerizing soundtrack to Solaris; elsewhere, a subtle heart-beat will mount in tension along with
scraping industrial noises before fading to lurk in the background, as in Contagion.  His masterpiece may be the score for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, where his brooding urban nocturne takes on a presence as substantial
as that of any of the film’s characters. 

The soundtrack for The
Knick
does not stand apart from Martinez’ previous work so much in its
sounds and melodies as in its relation to context.  We first hear it in the sequence leading up
to the disastrous C-section operation, where we see Dr. John Thackery waking in
an opium den, calling a horse-drawn cab, and surreptitiously shooting up in the
back seat before ascending the steps of Knickerbocker Hospital.  We’ve certainly seen similar seedy dealings
in previous portrayals of turn-of-the-century life but never with a soundtrack
so jarringly modern.  Combining elements
of house music and old-school German electronica, The Knick’s opening number wouldn’t sound out of place in a hipster
bar or a zombie film soundtrack; in the context of 1900s New York, it is so
blatantly anachronistic as to risk undermining any possible suspension of
disbelief the director might have achieved through the show’s painstaking set
design and costuming.  And this may well
be the point.

Consider The Knick’s
premise: a once state of the art but now struggling hospital finds itself in
thrall to its major donors, and unwittingly involved in a host of illegalities
thanks to its double-dealing financial manager. 
Head surgeon Thackery copes with the mounting pressures of his job
through chronic drug use.  In a bid for
racial progressiveness, the hospital’s chief benefactor pressures them into
hiring a black surgeon, who must struggle against the entrenched racism of the
medical institution.  In short, nothing
central to the show’s premise requires that it be set in the past: all of these
elements unfortunately remain part of American life in the twenty-first
century.  Indeed, one might even regard
the show as timely, given its depiction of the greed running through the
medical industry, and the reluctance of even its most enlightened members to go
against the status quo.  While the show’s
portrayal of race is necessarily one that involves more blatant forms of
oppression and disenfranchisement than we typically see now, to regard the
problems it portrays as a thing of the past would be disingenuous or naïve.

Given the show’s contemporary resonance, then, it is
somewhat baffling to hear director Soderbergh say, as he did in a recent Rolling Stone interview: “Your
overwhelming sense watching the show is one of happiness that you’re living in
2014. I wanted to make sure that’s what people were feeling.”  The overwhelming sense I get, which for me is
a central appeal of the show, is that not much has really changed since 1900,
and that the messed-up health care system we have is the product of decades of
greed and failed ambitions.  Ambulance
drivers in the show are paid a bounty according to the number of injured or
sick patients they are able to bring to the hospital.  Though presumably this doesn’t happen any
more, is it really any more shocking than doctors getting money from drug
companies for peddling their wares to patients, regardless of whether these
products are going to do them any good? 
Though doctors might not shoot cocaine with silver-handled needles
before going into surgery, some very possibly take painkillers pilfered from the
pharmacy’s stock before scrubbing up. 

What is most challenging about the series is the way it
makes us ponder the relationship between present and past; the soundtrack fosters
this.  The synthesizer itself is a
complex signifier: long used in film to conjure sounds and visions of the
future, it has also taken on a retro patina through its association with
nineteen-seventies progressive rock and disco. 
Martinez’ soundtrack exploits the disjunction, as he shifts from his signature minimalism
into more brazen territory, alternately evoking the soundscapes of 1970s Berlin
and 1990s British rave culture.  It is also
telling that one of Martinez’ signature instruments is an arcane construction
called a “baschet cristal” that makes sounds from vibrating rods and fiberglass
plates.  Used by mid-century avant garde
composers who saw it as an instrument of the future, now it sounds more like a
relic from some long-lost world’s fair exhibit. 
Martinez’ music occupies a similar aural twilight zone.

Notwithstanding Soderbergh’s own observations regarding the
distance between past and present, The
Knick
offers one of the freshest manifestations of what dramatist Bertolt
Brecht called “defamiliarization,” in which the audience is reminded that what they
are watching is a performance.  Brecht
achieved this effect through epic dramas, often set at epochal moments of the
past, which the audience gradually came to recognize as a defamiliarized
version of the world in which they were presently living.  The
Knick
also seems to traffic in what has been called “hauntology,” where
forgotten or unrealized visions of the past are felt to linger on, ghost-like,
into the present.  For Jacques Derrida,
the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 left unrealized communist utopias to
wander like specters through the Wall Streets and shopping malls of
capitalism.  When we watch The Knick we might wonder whether black
doctors like Dr. Algernon Edwards really operated secret hospitals for black
patients in the bowels of white institutions, and whether these secret locations might have
offered a more positive model for health care than what we have now.  By scoring Soderbergh’s series with such a
rich array of musical anachronisms, Cliff Martinez helps to raise challenging
questions about present and past; a lesser composer might simply have
offered ragtime.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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