Two recent trips to the cinema provided some food for thought about the way music is used and abused on film soundtracks.
A few months ago I saw A Quiet Passion, the biopic about the US poet Emily Dickinson, which closes in a gloomy mood. As the final credits rolled on the emotional unfulfilment of her life, slow-moving strings provided the accompaniment. These caught my ear first for their beauty but immediately after because I recognized them. They were written by the composer Charles Ives and were taken from his 1908 piece The Unanswered Question. What was striking was that the trumpet part and the woodwind quartet which are integral to the piece were both missing. I felt this was a typical example of the film industry’s disregard for the artistic integrity of musical works, which it has often cut and paste for its own purposes.
More recently I saw Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, about the legendary few days in June 1940 when the British army was evacuated from northern France. The film was impressive in many ways, and the musical score had a crucial role in piling on the sense of tension with a series of dissonant repeated-motifs which gradually accelerated. In its own terms I thought this was very effective.
The surprising moment came toward the end of the film when a moment of small triumph and pride was supported by a brief statement of the melody of Edward Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ – one of the Enigma Variations, deeply associated with English history and still played at many commemorative events. But the melody was played on synthesized strings and at a drastically slower pace, so that I think many people would not have recognized it. This fitted the nightmarish feeling of the events unfolding on the beach and in the sea.
During August I taught a week-long course on Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring. Always on that course several people will mention how their first exposure to the music was on the soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia, where a mangled version of parts of the Rite accompany the dinosaurs. It takes awhile to get those images out of the way, but the film at least brought something of Stravinsky’s idiom to a much-bigger young audience.
Greetings and hope everyone is well. Sorry to say my blog has been quiet for a time as I’ve been busy teaching on the Oxford Experience summer school. Of the four week-long courses I delivered, two were concerned with music: ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and Sixties Britain’ and ‘Scandal in Paris: Stravinsky, Modernism and the Rite of Spring’. In addition I gave an evening talk about the animated version of the Rite created by Stephen Malinowski, two other lectures on British popular music, and a 50-minute set of songs performed with my friend Oxford-based singer-songwriter Roger Dalrymple. This proved very popular and it is probable we’ll do at least two or three performances next year.
For the gig I used a Roland 30-watt acoustic guitar amp which is a pleasing and compact unit. I’ve been playing it at home. Its reverb helps fill out the acoustic guitar sound if you’re playing in a carpeted, acoustically dead room. Very inspiring, and I’m tempted to get one myself.
These past two weeks I’ve been taking a holiday. But there has been time the past couple of days to revise the four-movement piano piece I mentioned a couple of months ago. I will soon be able to make a new recording of it and put it up on soundcloud. It is striking what six weeks away from a creative project does to freshen your perspective on what needs to be fixed and how to fix it.
I have various creative projects awaiting my attention. It is a question of deciding which one to go with next, and which will fit in with work commitments, such as revising my book Chord Master.
Mention of Stravinsky’s Rite means I should add that a recent CD purchase was a Stravinsky disc recorded by Les Siecles Live (on Harmonia Mundi) which tried to recreate the sound of the Rite and Petrushka by re-assembling the earliest states of the score (i.e.1911, 1913) with period instruments. The results are most enjoyable. I’ve also been listening to Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Chandos SACD of Ravel’s two piano concertos. The slow movement of the Concerto in G is a wonderful fusion of deep emotion elegantly recollected.
Uncut magazine has had some interesting articles in its recent issues. There was a revealing piece on Robert Plant who releases a new album next week which promises to be something out of the ordinary. The current issue has a good Nick Drake article. A book that has come to my attention is David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’ which focuses on popular music in 1970. That is a year which has always interested me – partly for obvious reasons of transition between one era and another, but also as a time when some 60s music came to maturity. I’m thinking in particular of Motown’s releases that year which are amazing.
And talking of amazing …. meanwhile in London Kate Bush has returned to live performance – something many thought unlikely to happen. The broader media coverage has been in part a melancholy warning of the injustice of a songwriter / performer getting trapped by a single song / image. In her case ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978), which has tended to obscure her later achievements (see my earlier blog about Kate’s last album).
A piece of music which is on my mind very much at present is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, or to give it its English title The Rite Of Spring. 2013 marks the centenary of its first performance on 29 May 1913 in Paris. This centenary is being celebrated all over the world, with live performances, books and CD releases. I’ve a small part in all this, as I’m teaching a course on the Rite for Oxford University Dept. of Continuing Education in the summer.
The first performance of the Rite is legendary because of the so-called ‘riot’ that broke out among the audience. A certain percentage of the audience reacted angrily to the Rite‘s flouting of their expectations of what ballet and music should be. The ballet was created by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, with choreography by Nijinsky and scenery by Nicholas Roerich. The dancers wore costumes, used postures and movements that were contrary to traditional ballet.
The ballet is set in an imaginary ancient Russia and centres on a ritual to bring the spring in which a girl is selected from the tribe and who dances herself to death. As such, it is a work which could be seen to synchronously anticipate the sacrifice of youth during the First World War.
Stravinsky’s music may only have been partially heard. It is recorded that even the large orchestra crammed into the pit at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was often drowned out by the noise from the auditorium, and the dancers often couldn’t hear it. Given the irregular rhythms and time-signatures, this made their task even harder. The legend of this first performance had problematic consequences for the arts in the C20th, since it set up a false expectation that being shocking was a guarantee of a work’s profundity and relevance. Thus, by the late C20th, it became assumed that an audience’s shock was by definition an inauthentic response (which is not the case – sometimes being shocked is an appropriate and human response). But that’s a big topic …
The Rite later became one of the centrepieces of C20th concert-hall music and rightly so. It reached a generation of children via an adulterated version in the Walt Disney film Fantasia. It remains a startling, invigorating and thrilling 35 minutes, in which Stravinsky discovered a new continent of rhythm and harmony which composers have been exploring ever since. His use of dissonance is at times strikingly beautiful. The Rite is also a paradoxical work in which Russian folk tunes are re-worked into irregular un-folk-like forms, just as a sophisticated orchestral score is used to evoke the primitive.
A few weeks ago I heard a live performance of the four-hand piano version made by the composer. With the elaborate orchestration removed, the rhythmic and harmonic effects stand-out in bold relief. I’ve been looking at this version closely myself for the course and it is fascinating. I know of no more unearthly and seemingly inexplicable chord progression than that which forms the introduction to part two of the Rite (which I read recently was originally titled ‘Pagan Night’), where minor triads oscillate over an unrelated D minor. The Rite is full of the most amazing harmonic and melodic sounds which you can never experience if you only listen to popular music.
If you want to explore the Rite there are many orchestral recordings available. There are also recordings of the piano version, though I would not start with this. The films Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky and Riot at the Rite evoke something of the reality of the first performance. There is also DVD of a recreation of the original ballet with Gergiev conducting. If you find you like the Stravinsky of the Rite you should explore the earlier ballet Petrouchka and the later Symphony in Three Movements.
I’ve been enjoying the new Fleet Foxes album ‘Helplessness Blues’ and pleased they did not seek to overhaul their sound too much. This one sits well as a follow-up to the debut album of a few years ago, with more confidence in the arrangements and the recording. Quite apart from the musical trademarks of the songs, it is interesting how reverb plays an important role in their sound, lending ethereality to the signature vocal harmonies. This is noteworthy because for some years many popular recordings have gone for a very dry and airless production. I’ve always preferred something that suggested depth and distance.
I’ve also been listening to some early Elton John. Connecting with my previous post about SACD, I’ve now heard Elton’s Honky Chateau album on SACD and again the sound is a revelation. It’s available on amazon for very little at all. (There is also a Nick Drake SACD compilation that’s unexpectedly good considering that his mixes tend to have relatively few instruments in them, so you would think that they wouldn’t lend themselves to multi-channel.)
For songwriters the thing that strikes me most listening to Elton John again is the vital role that inversions play in his songs. He makes far more use of them than most guitarist songwriters (they’re easier to play on a piano). They occur more frequently in his songs and in a greater number of types. It is surprising how much emotional charge they carry in songs like ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’, ‘Your Song’, ‘Into The Old Man’s Shoes’, and ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight.’ There’s also a feeling with the songs that they have a lot of music in them – by which I mean they don’t have any of the aura of laziness which I hear in a lot of post-2000 songwriting, where one short idea is deemed enough to carry most of the song and if you’re lucky you might get an 8-bar bridge.
Also on SACD I can recommend the new Stravinsky SACD of the Rite of Spring and Petrouchka on BIS by the Bergen Philharmonic. Incredible sound that lets you experience the genius of Stravinsky’s orchestrations.
… or to be precise, the Kensington Orchestra who, a couple of weeks ago, gave a terrific concert in London. What drew me was two of my favourite pieces of music unusually linked on the same bill: Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony in Three Movements’ and Vaughan Williams’ third symphony (‘Pastoral’), along with a short third piece I hadn’t heard before, Martinu’s ‘Memorial to Lidice’. The Martinu made an immediate impression – a colourful and humane work on a terrible historical subject (the Nazi eradication of the town of Lidice). Martinu’s star has been rising of recent years, and his sixth symphony is a firm favourite of mine. The Stravinsky piece may have a questionable grasp on what a purist would consider true symphonic form but what drive, colour, melody and invention! It is another example of how, despite his reputation as a dissonant and shocking modernist, Stravinsky’s music is full of intriguing melody. It was great to hear the Vaughan Williams live again – his pastoral symphony is one of the great works in any medium inspired by the First World War. Evidence again that his symphonic cycle is so remarkable – 9 symphonies that sound unmistakably his and yet each forges its own world. And you can pick them up in a box-set for about £20 these days. I should mention that a couple of Vaughan Williams previously unrecorded pieces are being released this year, including his choral setting of Swinburne’s poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ (published in 1866). I wrote something about it on the CD sleeve and also in the current issue of the RVW Society Journal.
I’ve noted also first reports of the new Fleet Foxes album. Their debut made a big impression and I’m looking forward to hearing the new music.
On the home front, I’ve completed a piano quartet of about 15 minutes, and unexpectedly sketched a violin sonata whilst working on something else entirely. Sometimes you just have to follow wherever the ideas lead.
It looks like the long article on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is going to appear in two parts in the next two issues of the magazine Tight But Loose. See the tbl website for details of subscriptions, etc.
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