Thursday, September 22, 2016

Leitmotifs in Film

You may be familiar with the term “leitmotif” in reference to a Wagner opera, but did you know that this term has been used to reference musical themes in film? This month, Clef Notes is looking at the use of music in cinema. Today, let’s look at a few examples of how leitmotifs can be used in film.

A leitmotif is a recurring musical theme that can be connected to a particular character, object, place, idea, etc. Many film composers play on this idea in their work and as a listener, it’s often fun to watch a movie, picking out these significant musical ideas. One famous example is the shark theme in the 1975 film Jaws. Film composer John Williams used this two-note motive to represent the shark’s presence, whether actually seen on camera or not. This theme’s association with the shark brilliantly adds suspense for the viewer, who knows the dangerous beast could emerge from the waters at any moment. This theme has become so famous that many people who haven’t seen the film still know its association!

Another leitmotif shows up in The Wizard of Oz (1939). This theme connects Ms. Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West musically, implying for the viewer that they are, indeed the same villain, simply taking on different personas in Dorothy’s two worlds (Kansas and Oz).

Finally, a favorite leitmotif of mine shows up in the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story. Prokofiev’s “wolf” theme from Peter and the Wolf appropriately depicts the neighborhood bully Scut Farcus each time he approaches Ralphie and his friends.

Have you heard any leitmotifs in your favorite films? If so, please share what or who they represent! I’ll give you a hint: if you’ve seen Star Wars, you’ve heard leitmotifs in film, as this series is famously known for this musical trait! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

An Interview with Sebastian Currier

This month, Clef Notes explores various topics related to music and cinema. This past season, we had composer Sebastian Currier stop by the WGUC studio for an interview before the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. While here, we got on the topic of film music.

Mr. Currier brought up his affinity for the film score used in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic The Third Man, starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. He mentioned that he finds the use of a single instrument—the zither—during the entire score especially effective. What I find particularly interesting about this score is that it was composed by Anton Karas, who had no background whatsoever in writing music for film. In fact, he struggled to support his family working as an entertaining musician at a Viennese Wine Bar. It was at this very bar that Reed heard Karas perform. Amazed at the sounds of the zither, he asked Karas to come on board to work for The Third Man, writing the score for the entire film.

Karas agreed to write the music for Reed’s film, thus putting his name on the map as the “Third Man Theme” gained international recognition. The film’s main theme was actually something Karas wrote 20 years earlier, yet never actually performed. Have you seen The Third Man? Do you agree with Currier in his statement that a single zither is especially effective in this film?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Meaning in Malick's Knight of Cups

Many of you may have seen the new Terrence Malick film, Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale. Since I’ve written about several of Malick’s other films in years past, I figured I’d continue the trend this year, as he is known to use excellent music as part of his compilation scores.

Knight of Cups draws from many pillars in classical music history, from Vaughan Williams, to Grieg, Pärt, and Debussy. But the one theme that struck me most comes from a lesser-known composer, Wojciech Kilar, whose Exodus captures the essence of what the film is all about.

Knight of Cups gets its title from the tarot card by the same name. When upright, it represents change, new and exciting life experiences, opportunity, and a person who is bored with life and searching for something more. If the card is seen upside down, it represents false promises and a person who doesn’t know the truth. The image used for the film shows Rick (Bale) upside down. Perhaps this has deeper meaning?

As is typical for a Malick film, Knight of Cups was improvised, for the most part, the actors not actually knowing the film’s synopsis. Throughout the film, there are references to the character Christian in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, who travels through the ups and downs of life, journeying from his home to the Celestial City (symbolic of heaven). In the film, Rick travels his own journey, forgetting his true origins, and searching for his identity. The false hopes and materialistic pleasures of the world have distracted him and the entire film uses symbolism to point Rick back to the path he needs to follow. Harkening back to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Rick is stuck in the City of Vanity Fair, wandering through life, recalling fragmented memories from his past.

Knight of Cups is divided into chapters, each with the title of a tarot card (except for the last). This last chapter is entitled “Freedom” and shows the innocent Isabel helping Rick find a way to move forward on his journey to the “Celestial City.” While earlier in the film, Malick shows Rick driving through tunnels to nowhere, the final scene shows him driving with purpose toward the horizon. Perhaps he’s found his identity?

Now before I get too carried away with my interpretations of the film’s plot, let’s turn back to Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus. The title alone relates to the overall theme of the film, as Rick is on his own “exodus” from the emptiness of Hollywood, a modern Egypt, if you will. Kilar wrote this beautiful piece for choir and orchestra and based it on the Biblical book of Exodus. The text, found near the end of the piece, refers to Miriam’s song of praise after God delivered the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians. Just as Rick travels from his world of sin and bondage toward finding freedom, the Israelites traveled from their own world of bondage in Egypt to the freedom found in the Promised Land.

Have you seen Knight of Cups? If so, do you find Kilar’s Exodus an effective addition to Malick’s compilation score?