Scores on Screen. The Soundscapes of "Orlando"

Working with David Motion, writer/director Sally Potter composed the music for the story of the time traveling, androgynous nobleman.
Clare Nina Norelli

Released in 1992 to critical acclaim, Sally Potter’s sophomore feature film Orlando follows the life of an eponymous, time traveling, androgynous nobleman who transforms from a man to a woman over the course of the film. An adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name, Potter’s stunning film is a sumptuous take on Woolf’s stream of consciousness writing; a fleshing-out of the “viable skeleton” of the novel.1 For a film with such an unusual conceit, it was important that there to be a unifying element to tie the film’s different time periods together, and this cohesion was attained through the film’s ruminative, near-constant musical score. 

In addition to writing and directing Orlando, Potter, a trained musician and improviser, also took on the task of composing music for the film. Whilst lamenting to producer Christopher Sheppard that the film had gone over budget and they couldn’t afford a composer, Potter mentioned she could hear clearly in her mind what Orlando’s score should sound like. Sheppard responded by instructing her to go into the studio and start recording. Working with composer and arranger David Motion, Potter sang to him the various melodies and motifs that echoed in her head, recording layer upon layer of lush vocalizations. The pair then arranged Potter’s compositions for a small ensemble comprised of strings, trumpet, woodwinds, guitar and keyboard. All of this musical material—from Potter’s breathy vocals to Fred Frith’s guitar improvisations and the more traditionally arranged chamber writing—was then edited together to form the larger pieces that are heard on the film’s soundtrack. 

It was important to Potter that the score for Orlando not merely function as background noise that pandered to the assumed ignorance of the audience, informing them how to think and feel. Neither should it exist on the periphery of the soundtrack with nothing vital to say about what is unfolding onscreen. The purpose of Orlando’s score, she related to composer and broadcaster Andrew Ford in an interview in 2006, was to have a “musical dialogue”2 with the narrative; to offer counterpoint, and the film’s score achieves this by existing symbiotically with both the interior and exterior worlds of Orlando.

We are brought closest to Orlando when matters of the heart are concerned. The usually confident Orlando (portrayed wonderfully by the always captivating Tilda Swinton) often breaks the fourth wall to stare directly at the camera or deliver a witty observation to the audience and is quite adept at putting others in their place with a few impeccably intoned words. However, around those he/she loves, Orlando is shown to be a vulnerable soul who is not afraid to speak honestly of his/her love or fears. During the first portion of the film, Orlando is presented to us as a spirited young man who offers companionship to Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp). Orlando’s relationship with the Queen could be deemed his first love in the film and his devotion to the Queen is implied through Potter and Motion’s score. Shortly before her death, the Queen instructs a somewhat bewildered Orlando from her bed that he will inherit her estate under the proviso that he “do not fade; do not wither; do not grow old.” The scene is underscored with sustained, ethereal strings and trumpets and a single, breathy vocal motif, all of which results in a meditative ambience that infers that a mystical tryst is taking place between the Queen and Orlando. Despite the implication of the Queen’s imminent death, the music here is not sorrowful but rich and mysterious in tone, elevating the intimate, almost claustrophobic bedside conversation into an otherworldly space.

When Orlando embarks on his first romantic love affair with the visiting Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), the score once again projects a haunting ambience.  Whilst taking a sleigh ride to show Sasha both his sprawling property and affections, Orlando spies a frail old woman in the distance. His mood suddenly changes from loving to mournful and when Sasha enquires as to why he has become sad Orlando admits that he “can’t bear this happiness to end.” During the scene Frith’s guitar tremolo shimmers alongside Potter’s ghostly vocal melodies and whispers on the soundtrack. The score’s function here is twofold. Firstly, it emulates sonically the stark white frozen landscape and bitter cold surrounding Orlando and Sasha through Frith’s shivering guitar and Potter’s heavily-reverbed breathy vocals (reminiscent of one’s icy inhalations and exhalations in extreme cold). Secondly, the intimate score highlights Orlando’s vulnerability. The old woman reminds Orlando of human mortality, and that he will one day have to say goodbye to Sasha, just as he had to do with Elizabeth. In articulating such fears, he opens himself up to Sasha and the gently sweet vocal utterings and wash of guitar seem to offer the pained Orlando consolation.

Nowhere is the score more in tune with Orlando than when he transforms from man to woman. Orlando’s excited heartbeats play alongside a choir of voices and guitar sighs in the piece which underscores the transition, crescendoing to a climax when the now-female Orlando regards her new physical form in the mirror. The music then begins to fade when Orlando declares assuredly to her reflection, “Same person. No difference at all,” and then, turning to the audience, “Just a different sex.” 

The score for Orlando retains a distinct mood and texture when concerned with Orlando’s internal world, but there are also cues and pieces which serve to highlight the different time periods in which Orlando exists within the century-spanning narrative of the film. Period-specific music appears diegetically, performed by ensembles of musicians on screen. “Eliza is the Fairest Queen,” a ballad written in the late 1500s for Queen Elizabeth, is featured when Orlando first meets the Queen and “Where’er You Walk,” an aria from George Frederic Handel’s Semele (1744), is heard when Orlando attends a high society gathering in the year 1750. The orchestrations of the film’s original score also reflect the time periods depicted within the narrative. In one of the film’s most visually arresting moments, Orlando flees from a patronizing potential suitor via a maze of shrubbery in the garden of her estate at the end of the aforementioned high society gathering. She is accompanied by a piece of music featuring harpsichord, a keyboard instrument popular in the Baroque music of the time (it is also heard in the earlier Handel piece). As Orlando gains momentum, so too does the music, which breathlessly ascends to a climax that transports Orlando into the year 1850. Emerging from the maze, Orlando is met with triumphant piano chords and the harpsichord disappears, a fitting scoring choice given that by 1850 the Romantic period was in full swing and the piano had well and truly replaced the harpsichord as the preferred keyboard instrument in salons and concert halls. 

When Orlando reaches the present day (the early 1990s), the score takes its influence from electronic dance music in order to reflect the modern technological world. The film comes full circle when Orlando has a vision of an angel played by pop singer Jimmy Somerville, who featured at the beginning of the film singing “Eliza is the Fairest Queen.” Sitting with her daughter in the garden of the estate bequeathed to her almost 400 years prior, Somerville sings to her “I’m coming through…” in his signature falsetto, as Orlando sits smiling, shedding a single tear. She is finally free and happy, secure in her surroundings and at peace with the full, long life that she has led. 


1. As related in an interview with Bomb Magazine.

2. Andrew Ford, The Sound of the Pictures: Listening to the Movies, from Hitchcock to High Fidelity (Black Ink: Collingwood, 2010), 227.


Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.

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