Friday, June 20, 2008

Do You See What I Hear?

Since I've been on vacation, I've been doing lots of non-musical things like yardwork, housecleaning, and paying attention to my kids. This has slowed the output of Songs Without Singers, score visualizations, and the like, but I do have another little musical visualization to post about. My daughter and I spent the odd hours of a few different days assembling a Hogwarts castle from Harry Potter building cards she got for her birthday. (Full Disclosure: I've never read any of the HP books, which I suppose makes me a muggle, or some such. However, Daughter of MMmusing is a true fan.) In order to show off our creation to the various Harry fans among her far-flung cousins, I took a few pictures and a little video. (The castle was filmed on location in a thoroughly uninspired setting atop my Steinway. Hey, I'm just glad I can see the top of the piano, which often looks like a remainders table outside a Borders.)

Naturally, we snagged John Williams' lilting little waltz theme to accompany the montage. I'd never even paid any attention to this soundtrack, but it was remarkable to me how the music made the images seem to come to life. In fact, the music inspired some cool visual effects that I'm proud of, and I now wish I'd thought through the camera-work more purposefully - for example, I should have saved a wide-shot of the whole castle for the second statement of the theme, about 48 seconds in. As it happens, that second statement underscores the second pullback of the camera, the swirling strings seeming to lift the perspective upward as the spires and steeples are unveiled in a dizzying manner that exaggerates their height.

I mention this not because I planned it that way, but rather because the video and soundtrack just fell together that way, purely by chance. I love it when this sort of thing happens, because it shows how naturally the mind is conditioned to find meaning where meaning wasn't intended. Here's the other thing I like about this little video creation. As it begins, it's quite obvious that we're looking at a roughly assembled card-castle - windows oddly placed, brick colors not matching, misaligned joints, a few randomly added pieces that should've been removed, etc. However, as the video progresses into a few still pics, it settles on a slightly blurred wide shot that could almost be mistaken for a real castle, partly because the piano surface is less apparent. Then, just as gradually, this virtually realistic image becomes more and more abstract, shifting from three to two dimensions and becoming unreal again, but in a quite different way than we saw at first. A series of impromptu visual effects suggests a magical transformation that seems to lead the cardboard castle off into the world of fantasy, a world in which magic is more real than what looks real.

I know I'm overselling this - and yet, the evocative music really does make me see these images as poetic, certainly much more poetic than they deserve to be given how casually they were produced. At the end of the day, I come away more than anything with an appreciation of Williams' craft - particularly his ability to write suggestively. This and all my other humble video/animation creations also make me excited about how easily anyone can now create interesting motion pictures. Surely we're just at the tip of a whole range of possibilities when you consider how technology that once would've required a whole studio budget is now available to pretty much anyone. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this democratization of the film medium opens up extraordinary new art worlds.

Regular readers here will know that I see enormous potential in using visual imagery as a catalyst for musical understanding. See here, here and, of course, MMtube. Also, check out the cleverly executed text visualization (not my work) of a Family Guy discussion below. (Thanks to Youngest Sister of MMmusing for the link.) Notice how, in the absence of the original animation, the visuals animate and elucidate the dialogue - like subtitles on steroids. [Youtube has removed the video, sadly. Here's the original scene on which it's based.]


Fusedule Tecil said...

Nice little video. Like you, I've never read a HP book (I did see the first movie and found it rather dull). That said, John Williams' music does indeed evoke tremendous images, even if you've never seen the movie. The "little waltz" you used is Hedwig's theme, the owl who makes his first appearance early on in the series (so I am told). So your pull back technique near the beginning actually fit quite nicely if you're flying around and viewing the castle from the air in an "owl's eye" view.

The subject of film music - and whether it is not only the most successful but also, at its best (in the hands of a John Williams or Howard Shore, for instance), the most widely embraced "contemporary classical music" of our time - is a box whose lid you have just lifted a bit. If you opened it completely, something more than a snowy owl might fly out.

By the way, bravo for the mention of your blog in Geoff Edger's Boston Globe blog. Even if he did misspell your first name. People are reading you and, like me, not only in Boston.

-Fusedule Tecil


Oh, that's right, Hedwig is an owl. I had noticed thought that theme was called "Hedwig's Theme," but I had Hedwig mixed up with Hagrid - I wondered why the burly giant had such a delicate tune. So, another meaningful coincidence, given the owl's eye effect. I love it.

As for the soundtrack question, yeah that's a big one. It seems to me that the potential hasn't really been fulfilled on the musical end - or, rather, that the way in which the music is almost always subservient to the plot/images makes me think that even the best soundtracks aren't competing on the same turf with the best operas or even ballets, to say nothing of more absolute musical forms. However, the time may yet come. Film is still a very new medium and, though its history has mostly been dominated by the commercial market, new possibilities may open up as technology becomes more widely accessible. I'd guess that various multi-media genres could end up being the most important of 21st century forms - and not just movies, but more interactive possibilities we've just seen the beginnings of.

Fusedule Tecil said...


I'm reminded of the oft-told story of a collaborative moment between Stephen Spielberg and John Williams. When writing the score for E.T., JW came to the "Flying Theme," the moment where Elliott, pedaling furiously on his bike with E.T. in his front basket, takes flight over the police cars. It is one of the most exhilarating moments in film - and in music. When JW wrote his music for the scene, it was too long and Spielberg told him to cut it. "No." said JW. "The music is perfect. Lengthen the scene." Which Spielberg did.

The music WAS perfect, and the scene is a remarkable marriage of the visual with the aural. Williams knew better than Spielberg how the scene would best play out.

I don't agree that the music in film is "almost always subservient" to the film itself. Think of the first time you hear the two note theme from "Jaws." Two notes. E and F. Slowly. No shark in sight. But you know, with two notes, that something bad this way comes. There is no film action - the ear shrinks in horror.

In my last post, I was thinking more of film music as divorced from the film, as in a soundtrack recording or in a concert performance.

You wrote that, "even the best soundtracks aren't competing on the same turf with the best operas or even ballets, to say nothing of more absolute musical forms."

My question (which I should have made clearer in my last post):

"What are the best operas and ballets and absolute musical forms being created TODAY that are more interesting, more marketable, more creative and more forward looking than the best film scores?"

Agreed: John Williams is not Mozart. But when it comes to "classical music" being written today - 21st century - the score to the newest Indiana Jones movie is being embraced by far more people than the Elliot Carter "Horn Concerto." My original musing was to wonder if film music is the most widely embraced "contemporary classical music." Who is getting more play time by people who choose the classical music they want to hear: Carter, Babbitt, Lieberson, Harbison, Adams - or John Williams and Howard Shore (among others). I don't mean JW's "Violin Concerto" either (although his best Concerto is generally thought to be his Bassoon Concerto, "The Five Sacred Trees", whose success can likely be traced to the fact that JW was telling a story with the piece, not unlike a film score).

Going back to your post on your recently purchased subscription to the Boston Symphony, the question remains: most of the "music of our time" is irrelevant to most listeners. The CDs don't fly off the shelves. Relatively few people hear it in the concert halls; radio stations avoid it like the plague. But ask any 16-40 something CD or digital audio download purchaser what 21st century "classical music" they have recently downloaded and I'd bet Euros to nickels that it's a film score.

An aside: beware the dangling participle (... we've just seen the beginnings of.

Western civilization hangs in the balance.

-Fusedule Tecil