Thursday, September 29, 2016

What's your favorite Nino Rota film score?

You may have heard the music of Academy Award-winning composer Nino Rota (1911–1979) if you’ve tuned into 90.9 WGUC…or if you’re a fan of The Godfather (1972)! Rota was a famous early-film composer, who was known for his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Franco Zeffireli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), and many directed by Federico Fellini.

Born into a musical family, Rota was considered a child prodigy known for his composing and conducting. He attended the Curtis Institute in the early 1930s and then returned to his native Italy where he taught. While he wrote opera, ballet, and orchestral works, his film music is probably the most well-known.

Below, you can enjoy a few Rota-hits. What is your favorite of his film scores?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Look at James Horner

If you enjoy movies such as Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), or Avatar (2009), then you likely are familiar with and enjoy the music of composer James Horner (1953–2015).

Beginning his music studies on piano as a child, Horner quickly jumped into the film industry following college, working on scores for B movies. It wasn’t long before he received a major opportunity, working with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. From there, he began to make a true name for himself, working with major directors and film projects. Sadly, Horner died in a plane crash in 2015.

Horner is perhaps best known for “My Heart Will Go On,” made famous by Celine Dion and the film Titanic staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Though remembered as a film composer, Horner dabbled in orchestral works. One example was released in May 2015, just prior to his passing. This piece was commissioned by Mari and Hakon Samuelsen, a famed brother and sister duo. Horner titled the work Pas de Deux, as it is meant to depict the players “dancing” together. Enjoy this lovely work below.

Join me next time as we look at another famous film composer, Nino Rota. 

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? 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Musical Ambiguity in Unfaithfully Yours

Are you familiar with the 1948 Preston Sturges film Unfaithfully Yours starring Rex Harrison? This film provides the perfect example of diegetic ambiguity. Before looking at whether the music can be considered diegetic or non-diegetic, it’s first important to understand the overall plot.

Sir Alfred De Carter is an orchestral conductor who suspects his wife has been unfaithful. While conducting his orchestra, Carter imagines multiple scenarios on how he could handle the situation. The film transitions between showing Carter conduct famous music by Rossini and Wagner to scenes of him carrying out the “plan” in his mind. What’s ambiguous is whether or not the music can be considered diegetic or not. We see a music source (the orchestra) so it is diegetic for Carter as he conducts, the musicians, and those watching. The scenes in Carter’s mind, however, display the music as non-diegetic, as the people in his mind cannot hear the music that occurs in real time. 

How would you classify this music in Unfaithfully Yours? Can the Carter in Carter’s mind hear the music?

Next time, join me as I take a look at the latest from Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ambiguity in Amour

Last time on Clef Notes we defined diegetic and non-diegetic music in film. While it may seem apparent whether or not something is diegetic, or what the musical “source” may be, often times, film directors leave this area ambiguous, allowing the viewer to make their own interpretations. Today, let’s look at one example of an ambiguous source in Michael Haneke’s 2012 film Amour.

Georges and Anne are retired music teachers who are enjoying life together. When Anne has a stroke, Georges jumps in to care for her. The film follows their trials and love for one another. In the scene above, Anne plays Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90 #3 at the piano—or does she? We believe the piano is the source of the music we hear, however the scene then shifts to Georges turning off a radio, stopping the music suddenly. Was the radio, then, the source of the Impromptu? Was Georges reflecting back to memories of his wife playing the piano as he listened to the piece on the radio?

What do you think?

Next time, we’ll look at another example of diegetic ambiguity found in Preston Sturges’ 1948 Unfaithfully Yours

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Music in Cinema

This month I’d like to re-explore a fun topic in musicology that we touched on in the past: music in cinema. There’s an endless amount of movies to explore so this is a great topic to keep coming back to.

Everyone watches movies and thus, everyone has encountered the soundtrack to a film. While some film directors use pre-existing music to underlie their cinematic project, others will use a film composer to write a new score to fit the images and plot they aim to create.

Before diving into a variety of films and discussing the types of music (new or existing) used as the soundtrack, I wanted to introduce you to several impressive musical terms you can use when discussing movie music with your friends: diegetic and non-diegetic.

Diegetic music is the type of music that is not only heard by the viewer, but also by the on-screen characters in the film. An example would be:

As in this example, typically the viewer can see the source of the music on screen to help determine whether or not it is diegetic. In this case, you can see the ensemble in the background as they provide entertainment during Connie’s wedding in The Godfather (1972). Composer Nino Rota wrote the score for this film and we will look further at his career later this month.

The opposite of diegetic music would be non-diegetic. This type of music serves as a background to the film and can only be heard by the viewer, not the characters on screen. An example would be this from Titanic (1997): 

Here, the music enhances the moment for the viewer in the iconic “I’m Flying” scene. The characters, however, cannot hear the music themselves. James Horner, whom we will discuss more later this month, wrote the famous “My Heart Will Go On” for this film.

Can you think of any examples of diegetic or non-diegetic music from your favorite films?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

More on Women Composers

This month, Clef Notes looked at several talented women composers—from Hildegard von Bingen of the eleventh century, all the way to Lili Boulanger of this past century. Some of these composers and their stories were inspired by a new book, just released by cultural historian Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music.

If this is a topic you enjoy, you can learn more about this excellent book by listening to an interview with Anna Beer.

Join me next month for a return to an annual favorite: Music and Cinema!