Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Interviews with Artists

Wrapping up our month of music and cinema, I thought it would be interesting to see what two of the world’s top classical performing artists had to say when asked a few questions related to film music.

Back in February, we were able to get violinist Anne Akiko Meyers on the phone to chat about her new Vivaldi album performed on the legendary Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu violin. While on the line, we asked her to name her favorite film composer. Without hesitation, Ms. Meyers told us that she loves Charlie Chaplin, who composed musical scores for his films. She told us that she loves to play “Smile,” originally composed for the 1936 film Modern Times.

In March, I had the pleasure of spending some time with flutist Sir James Galway when he was in town performing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It turns out that Sir Galway is a huge fan of movies and watches one a day with his wife. When asked to name a film he thinks uses pre-existing music in an effective way, Sir Galway responded Death in Venice which uses the slow movement to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Sir Galway then went on to tell me about his old friend Henry Mancini, who is his absolute favorite composer of film music. He compared Mancini to Verdi explaining that in Italy, everyone can sing tunes written by Verdi, more so than any other composer. In the same way, in the United States, everyone can sing something written by Mancini, most commonly “Moon River” sung by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Who is your favorite composer of film music?


Monday, April 28, 2014

Minimalism in Film

Have you ever seen The Truman Show (1998), The Hours (2002), The Illusionist (2006), Secret Window (2004), or No Reservations (2007)? If so, you have heard the film scores written by minimalist composer Philip Glass. What do I mean by minimalist composer? Minimalism is a type of modern music known for its simple rhythms and sonorities and use of repetition. The minimalist movement was somewhat of a reaction to the complexity found in the modernist music of Cage, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Carter, and Boulez. Several names associated with minimalist music include La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, John Adams, and Philip Glass. For the purposes of today’s discussion, I am going to focus on Glass.

Philip Glass
Courtesy of

His work influenced by sitarist Ravi Shankar, Glass’s work focuses on simple harmonic progressions, consonance, and melodiousness. Glass has written a wide variety of pieces including operas, symphonies, concertos, and of course, film scores.

Here are a few movie clips from several of his films. Listen to the music. Why do you think minimalist music fits so well as a film score? Or is this type of music not your preference to accompany a film? Do you think it’s as effective as the type of music we discussed in reference to John Williams earlier this month? Or does it serve a different purpose?

                                                                 No Reservations

                                                                  The Illusionist

                                                                 Secret Window

Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impression of the music. Did you find the soundtracks to effectively enhance what was happening on screen?

In conjunction with our week of horror, I plan to watch the 1934 film The Black Cat this weekend. I'll write back and let you know my thoughts on the music!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Redrum: The Music of The Shining


Continuing with our music in horror film theme this week, I’d like to focus on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining. While a variety of composers are used in the compilation score for this film, today I would like to focus on the significant use of one particular work: Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (Movement III). If you listen carefully, this piece appears three times throughout the film, each time foreshadowing the impending doom to come.

The first occurrence of Bartók’s piece begins when Danny and Wendy first enter the maze to explore. They are still new to the hotel at this point. What they do not know but the music foreshadows for the viewer, is that Danny will be chased through the maze at the end of the film by his father who intends to kill. The music hints that something frightening will happen in connection with the maze later on in the movie.

The second occurrence of Strings, Percussion and Celesta appears when Danny rides his tricycle around the hotel. He stops to look at room 237, curious what would happen if he opens the door. At this point in the film, he rides on. The music, however, again foreshadows the doom to come when Danny is attacked upon entering the room later in the movie.
The final occurrence of Bartók’s music begins when Danny enters his parents’ room to talk with his father, Jack. Frightened, he asks Jack if he intends to hurt his family. At this point, despite the fact that Jack denies cruel intentions, you can see in his facial expressions and tone of voice that he intends murder. The music significantly insinuates his plot to harm the boy.


Though Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was not originally written for this film, it accompanies it perfectly, adding to the fear Kubrick hopes to instill in his viewers in connection with the terrifying narrative.


Do you think the score to The Shining contributes to your fear when watching the film?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Music in Horror Films: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann


This week, let’s look at music as used in horror films. One of my favorite film directors has to be Alfred Hitchcock, the man known for his cameo appearances, use of blond actresses in his movies, and twisted plot endings. Though known for his work on many popular films including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and The Birds (1963), today I would like to focus our attention on his 1960 hit Psycho starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.

Composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the score for this horrific picture and many people admit that his score is more terrifying that the visual images themselves. Do you remember when we talked about diegetic and non-diegetic music earlier this month? Well, Herrmann’s score is an example of non-diegetic music because it can only be heard by viewers and not the characters on screen. Herrmann’s use of drones and dissonances when writing the score helps contribute to the physical characteristics exhibited by the actors on screen such as paranoia, anxiety, rage, and insanity . He also writes the music for a string ensemble, giving a claustrophobic quality to the sound, foreshadowing that time is running out.  

It is interesting to note that the same music used to depict Marion Crane’s anxiety as she drives through the rain early on in the film is the same music that is used to accompany her death in the shower scene.

Do you think that this musical sequence characterizes Marion or does it foreshadow her fate or both?

How do you think the use of silence at the beginning of the shower scene is effective?

Have you seen the newer, 1998 version of Psycho? Here is a clip from the shower scene in this version. In your opinion, which is musically more effective (specifically listening to the music right before she enters the shower)?


Have you ever noticed the use of this “Psycho Theme” in other films? If so, which ones? Here’s an example I found from FindingNemo. People who are familiar with Psycho can certainly discern Darla’s character based on this association.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impressions of the music. Do you feel like certain films help expose you to classical music you might otherwise have never heard?

Another classic example of setting cartoons to classical music is Disney's Fantasia and the newer Fantasia 2000. I may re-watch these this weekend to bring back memories of my childhood and first exposure to classical music. Do you have a favorite selection from either of these films? My favorite is Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue set to a scene in New York in Fantasia 2000. Here is just an excerpt from the film.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Where have you heard classical music in cartoons?

On Monday we looked at a rather serious and political Merrie Melodies cartoon from the 1940s and its use of classical music. Today, let’s lighten things up a bit and look at some fun, light-hearted cartoons containing classical music.

What’s Opera, Doc? pulls from Wagner operas as Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny throughout the show. The most famous reference to Wagner opera in this cartoon is probably “Ride of the Valkuries” when Elmer Fudd sings “Kill the Wabbit” to the same tune. Here is a clip.

A second cartoon example is A Corny Concerto. This classic cartoon opens at Corny-gie Hall, obviously a play on New York’s Carnegie Hall as Elmer Fudd introduces the various selections to be performed. The first segment contains Johann Strauss’ Tales from the Vienna Woods with Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny and the second contains The Blue Danube with what looks like a baby Daffy Duck.

Cartoons such as these exposed children to classical music at a young age in a way that is quite accessible. What are ways kids are most likely to be exposed to classical music early on in today’s society?

What are some of your favorite classic cartoons that contain classical music references?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Bugs Bunny and Classical Music

Ever noticed the use of classical music in cartoons? It abounds in the old Merrie Melodies cartoons! This week, let’s watch a few classic episodes and explore the use of classical music!

Do you remember the old Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips from 1944? The anniversary of its release date is actually this month! This cartoon was created during WWII and thus strongly reflects the United States’ attitude toward Japan at the time, showing Bugs Bunny’s dehumanization of the Japanese soldiers. In his article titled “Reading Wagner in Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944)” Neil Lerner mentions that the title of the cartoon itself is significant in referencing the slang term in the U.S. for Japanese people as well as the verb for “bite.” The cartoon also significantly uses two Wagner quotations from Die Walküre. 

Take a glance at the cartoon here before reading further.

Before discussing the significance in the use of Wagner, it is first important to note how the Japanese are portrayed. The Japanese soldiers all appear with buck teeth and barefoot and Bugs refers to them using names such as “Monkey Face” and “Slant Eyes.” They are also depicted as lacking intelligence as Bugs seems to rule over them as he hands out ice cream treats that contain explosives. Bugs Bunny was a well-known character by this time who always acted in retaliation to being provoked. He always came out on top in the end, his opponents being inferior to him. These traits are important in paralleling the action of the cartoon to real-world relations between the U.S. (represented by Bugs Bunny) and Japan.

Looking at the music, the first Wagner quotation occurs when Bugs is declaring that he cannot stand peace and quiet following the removal of the Japanese from the island. Here, notice an excerpt from the third act of Die Walküre, the “Ride of the Valkyries.” The quotation of “Ride of the Valkyries” refers to the Valkyries in Wagner’s opera taking the fallen warriors to Valhalla.  This is ironic in that Bugs “did not view the Japanese soldiers as honorable warriors worthy of an afterlife paradise,” as stated by Lerner in his article.

The second Wagner quotation occurs when Bugs spots the U.S. ship coming his way and yells that he is now saved. “The tragic motif” from Die Walküre is heard possibly relating Siegfried’s name, (meaning peace through victory) to Bugs’ situation.

What are your thoughts on this cartoon? Do you think the use of Wagner effectively parallels the narrative?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Flicks

What movies to you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know if they use pre-existing music such as the Beethoven symphony in A Clockwork Orange or new music created by a film-music composer such as John Williams.

I plan to re-watch one of my favorite films this weekend: the 2005 Joe Wright version of Pride and Prejudice. In addition to its score by film composer Dario Marianelli, there is a scene where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy dance to Marianelli’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Abdelazar Suite: Rondo. Compare his arrangement, titled “A Letter to Henry Purcell,” with a performance of the original.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beethoven and A Clockwork Orange


Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange uses Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in an interestingly ironic way. Kubrick sets the plot in a futuristic world where sex and violence run rampant. When protagonist Alex finds himself in prison following accusations of rape and murder, he decides to go through an experimental program in which he will become programmed to feel sick each time the temptation to harm someone arises. Part of the experimental program involves watching a serious of videos, one including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as the soundtrack.

Alex learns to associate Beethoven’s choral symphony with the nausea he feels when exposed to sex and violence and thus, becomes sick each time he hears the work. The choral finale of Beethoven’s famous composition is based on the idea of universal brotherhood. Is it not ironic then, that Kubrick uses this piece in connection with the disturbance of mankind in A Clockwork Orange?

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Film Music of John Williams

Most people’s minds automatically go to John Williams when asked to name a film-music composer. Williams’ output of cinematic scores is outstanding with major blockbuster hits including Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan. Today, let’s briefly take a glimpse at several of Williams’ scores as well as talk about how he got started working in cinema.

Williams grew up surrounded by music, being born to a father who was a percussionist for the CBS Radio and the Raymond Scott Quintet. He attended UCLA, the LA City College, and Julliard studying orchestration, composition, and piano. He got his start playing piano in the orchestras for Columbia and 20th Century Fox and working as an orchestrator with the giants in the film industry including Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, and Dimitri Tiomkin.

Early on, he did composing jobs for television including Checkmate (1960), Gilligan’s Island (1964), and Lost in Space (1965). Following this, he wrote Emmy-winning scores for Heidi (1968) and Jane Eyre (1970) as well as his first Oscar for adapting Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Due to this success, he caught Steven Spielberg’s attention and worked with him on Jaws (1975) giving him his first Academy Award for an original score.

Looking at his scores, he typically uses music to sustain unity throughout the film. He also is known to create a correspondence between the music and narrative. Let’s look at a few musical excerpts from several of his films to see how he fits his themes into the narrative structure:

Williams will often use music to create a mood, emotion, or portray a character. One example can be found in Schindler’s List (1993).

He also is known to use expressive melodies or recognizable and recurring themes throughout a film to represent something. Examples of this can be found with “Hedwig’s Theme” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’sStone (2001)  and the “Shark Theme” in Jaws (1975).
Williams also uses careful placement of his music in relation to dialogue as can be observed in this scene from E.T. (1982).


What is your favorite film that uses a John Williams score? Does it have any of the above features such as a recurring theme or a certain melody that is used to evoke a certain emotion in the viewer?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impressions of the music. Did it include diegetic music, non-diegetic music, or both?

I plan to watch the 2013 Alexander Payne film Nebraska this weekend. I’ll write back with my observations of diegetic and non-diegetic music.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wagner and Terrence Malick’s New World


 Many film-music scholars believe that if Wagner was living today, he would be a film-music composer. In his operas, he engaged all aspects of production including music, libretto, staging, lighting, costuming, etc. on an equal platform. Because of the connections between Wagnerian opera and cinematic works, it is not a surprise when the music of Richard Wagner appears in a film’s compilation score (a score using pre-existing music). You’ll notice the use of Wagner in cinema in several of my topics this month.

One example of an excellent use of Wagner in a compilation score can be found in Terrence Malick’s The New World in which he effectively uses the prelude to the opera Das Rheingold. As in Wagner’s opera, the prelude to Das Rheingold in Malick’s film symbolizes the loss of innocence leading to the destruction of a species, and the return to Mother Nature. This piece occurs three times throughout the movie.

The prelude to Das Rheingold is first heard at the very beginning of The New World. This opening scene gives viewers a glimpse at how the new world may have appeared to the explorers as they approached it in its beautiful and pure state. They had certainly found what they were looking for but little did they know at this point how mankind would come to lose the innocence of this land. Malick’s placement of the orchestral prelude during this opening scene is significant in that it signifies the beginning state of nature both in Wagner’s opera and in The New World. This state of nature that is seen at the onset of both opera and film does not last long. 

Malick’s second placement of the prelude to Das Rheingold in his film is significant in that it signifies the fall of innocence. In Malick’s film, the prelude is again heard when Captain John Smith and Pocahontas discover their love for one another and declare their marriage vows in the presence of Mother Nature. Though love may seem innocent enough, it is because of this that Pocahontas eventually is to leave her family and land forever. Thus, the loss of innocence.

The third and final placement of the orchestral prelude to Das Rheingold is found during the last scene of Malick’s film. During this scene, Pocahontas is shown frolicking through the garden with her young child outside their new home in the old world. The camera then shoots to the Indian princess lying in bed, taking in her last breaths of life. Her time has come to return to nature. 

If you’re interested, here’s a clip from the opening scene of Malick’s The New World which uses the prelude to Das Rheingold.

For more information on Das Rheingold to help understand these connections to the film, I recommend reading the synopsis on the Met’s website.