Friday, May 4, 2018

Nathan Platte on Gone with the Wind (and others)

A very interesting play off the famous "Tara" theme in Gone with the Wind could form the basis of a comparison paper. Nathan Platte reveals that the composer, Max Steiner, had actually written jazz/blues versions of the tune for two films just a year or so earlier: link. The films are They Made Me a Criminal (1939)—starring John Garfield, Claude Rains, and Ann Sheridan—and Crime School (1938), which stars Humphrey Bogart and Gale Page. As the titles suggest, both belong to the distinctly Warner Bros. genre of inner city crime and gangster films.

Quite a distance from southern plantations! Platte's explanations and speculation about the transformation from crime film to antebellum romance are stimulating in themselves, and one or more of them might well be explored further in a paper that forms and argues a thesis.

Nathan Platte is the author of Making Music in Selznick's Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2017): link to publisher page.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Christopher Doll on The Inception

SMT-V is the Videocast Journal of the Society for Music Theory; it has been publishing since 2015 using the Vimeo platform. The most recent title is Christopher Doll's “Was it Diegetic, or Just a Dream? Music’s Paradoxical Place in the Film Inception”: link.

Here is the abstract:
Between "diegetic" film music (heard by the characters) and "nondiegetic" film music (heard only by the audience) is a paradoxical space called the "fantastical gap." A film such as Inception (2010) makes traversal of this gap into an overt theme, obscuring our sense of place to such a degree that even the literal plot of the movie is open to interpretation, and thus also illustrating the extent to which filmmakers can manipulate an audience's understanding of the filmic world through the blurring of the diegetic/nondiegetic divide.
The video opens with succinct example clips for the categories of diegetic, nondiegetic, and "fantastical gap," then traces the connection between the latter, musical themes, and narrative. Although posted to a professional music theory site, “Was it Diegetic, or Just a Dream?" is very accessible and would be an excellent accessory to the opening pages of Chapter 3.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

La La Land and Top Hat -- comparison

Students looking for a topic for a comparison paper might do well to start with Steven Cohan's post on the Oxford University Press blog: link. Cohan mentions references  in La La Land (2016) to several classical Hollywood musicals, but makes a number of comments comparing it specifically with the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat (1935). 

Cohan's list of numbers and their generic status as "challenge dance," "show number," etc., could easily be applied to other musicals.

His statement about the status of song and dance numbers certainly chimes with our generalizations about the musical in Hearing the Movies. Cohan asserts that "the numbers direct the progress of the narrative, with the boy-meets-girl plot pushed forward by the musical elements, which is also to say that the numbers are where the substance of the film resides, not the plot. The numbers are its flagship sequences."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Hollywood Musicals Quiz

A Hollywood musicals quiz is available on the Oxford University Press blog: link.
The quiz is based on a chapter in a book by Todd Berliner. The chapter "traces the history of the convention that characters in Hollywood musicals burst into song without realistic motivation."

This idea is related to—but is distinct from—the audio dissolve that we discuss in Hearing the Movies, chapter 3. Although we do say that the audio dissolve "serves as a transition to song and dance," we use the term as Rick Altman defines it, for the transition from diegetic song and accompaniment to song with a non-diegetic accompaniment. In such cases, the initial status is clearly diegetic ("The character seems to know very well that he or she is singing"). In fact, "one very common device in classical Hollywood musicals is to show one or more characters gathered around a piano." Once this is established, and "as the song progresses, nondiegetic orchestral accompaniment enters, replacing the piano."

Berliner is concerned, then, with what happens before the singing starts and with the transition into it. This notion that musicals permit "bursting into song without realistic motivation" is consistent with our generalization that film "musicals do not maintain the clear separation of diegetic and nondiegetic registers and so cannot rigorously enforce the boundaries of the diegetic world, which seems to constantly dissolve under the force of song." (Quotes are from Hearing the Movies, second edition, p. 69).

Monday, April 9, 2018

More to the YouTube exercise

Recently I rewrote a post from 2011 in generic form in order to compensate for the problems arising from deleted YouTube videos: link to that post. I discussed three of the five options from the original post.

Here are the other two.

To begin, a reminder of task, goals, etc.:
Task: describe different visual tracks as they relate to a single audio track (different performances of the same musical composition).
Goals: Make students aware of their learned viewing habits and provide early practice in describing sound in relation to image.
Justification: The format aids practice of some basic skills while isolating that work from the complex narrative contexts of feature films. The limits of the musical text make the sound track act as a control, against which to compare different collections of images. Tempo remains a variable in the audio track as well.
Procedure: Begin by playing a recording of the composition without any video track. Point out or discuss simple formal articulations, so that markers will be available to aid detailed analysis and discussion of the video examples.
Version no. 4: compare tempos (speed) of different musical performances.
Here the task is to describe and evaluate the effect of different tempos in two audio tracks on their visual tracks. (Ideally, this would be done with the same visual track and different music performances, but those clips would most likely have to be newly prepared by the instructor.)
Version no. 5: filmed performances.
These are of two types: single camera and static image; multiple cameras and subsequently edited. Students who are musicians can be particularly sensitive to the editing and can thus be prompted to analyze a clip or compare two or more.
Not that these two options involve more than one video track and therefore are really variants of the commutation test from Hearing the Movies, chapter 1.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Film music and psychology (articles by Si-Liu Tan)

Here is another interesting twist on the commutation test: shifting the same music from apparently diegetic to apparently non-diegetic status.

On the Oxford University Press blog (link), Professor Si-Liu Tan reports on an experiment she ran with collaborators Matthew Spackman and Elizabeth Wakefield. They used a scene from Minority Report (2002) in which the two lead characters are in a mall attempting to evade the police while "Moon River" is played softly (so it would seem to be diegetic, coming from the mall's sound system). The researchers re-recorded "Moon River" to play louder and more crisply, trying thereby to simulate non-diegetic music. As a foil to that, they also played non-diegetic generic chase music.

Experiment participants listened to these different versions. Questions focused on the relationship between the two characters, and results showed surprisingly different reactions to "Moon River" depending on its presumed diegetic or non-diegetic status.

Professor Tan says it was
not our intention to draw any grand conclusions about the definitive and predictable effects of diegetic versus nondiegetic music. . . . The specific effects of migrating a piece of music from diegetic to nondiegetic depend on the unique interplay of music and moving images. However, our study suggests that the diegetic/nondiegetic distinction is perceptually salient to a general film audience. In some cases, it may lead to dramatically different perceptions of the tension of a scene, the attitudes, motives, and relationships of characters, and other judgments fundamental to one’s understanding of the unfolding film narrative. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Using YouTube for comparison exercises (update)

I wrote here about the utility of YouTube for elementary comparison exercises that draw on audiovisual analysis. Students can practice some basic skills very early in semester (as they read Hearing the Movies, chapter 1) while isolating that work from the complex narrative contexts of feature films. The pedagogical goal—making students aware of their learned viewing habits—is crucial to studying film music and sound productively.

Alas, much has happened since 2011, when that post was made. Specifically, three of the post's five video clips have been deleted from YouTube. Because of this unpredictability, I have rewritten the 2011 post here in generic form.

Task: describe different visual tracks as they relate to a single audio track (different performances of the same musical composition).

Goals: Make students aware of their learned viewing habits and provide early practice in describing sound in relation to image.

Justification: The format aids practice of some basic skills while isolating that work from the complex narrative contexts of feature films. The limits of the musical text make the sound track act as a control, against which to compare different collections of images. Tempo remains a variable in the audio track as well.

Procedure: Begin by playing a recording of the composition without any video track. Point out or discuss simple formal articulations, so that markers will be available to aid detailed analysis and discussion of the video examples.

Version no. 1: the static image.
These are of course very easy to construct. A portrait of the composer, an image of an appropriate ensemble, or reproduction of an LP or CD cover will do, all preferably with some black space surrounding the image. It is also not difficult to find videos like this on YouTube, undoubtedly because they require the least effort on the part of the person wanting to post a dub of a recording. 
Show without warning the class about the static image, as the goal is for students to be placed in the position where they pay attention to their attention. Once they guess that the image is probably not going to change, attention shifts away from it to the music. A point of discussion could be to relate the starkness of the background to the audiovisual sparseness of a video clip that is only music.
Version no. 2: a slide show of images.
Questions to consider: How are changes to a new image timed to the music track? Are music and image completely, partly, or not synchronized? What is the effect of any lack of synchronization @ important form articulations in the music? (If images had changed at those moments, the images would suddenly have seemed relatively "important", leading to speculation about reasons for that importance. Something similar happens when a slide is onscreen noticeably longer than others.) What kind of narrative content (or expectation for narrative continuity) is provoked by the slide show? (It is not important to come up with answers -- what is important is to notice the fact of imposing—or trying to impose—narrative continuity on the images.)
Version 3: a different slide show of images for comparison.
Here students should be free to consider questions of both intention and design and to evaluate. Is the second version better done, more effective, than the first, and if so, how is that achieved? Does either version show signs of a rhetorical goal (point of view that is being pushed)?
These are three of the five options I presented in the 2011 post; I discuss the other two here: link. Of course, the different tasks can be mixed and matched or selected as the needs of a class dictate. The three presented here "flip" the commutation test from Hearing the Movies, chapter 1, by making the music the same but changing the video track. This is undoubtedly a more primitive exercise than our study of different musics for the “temptation” scene in Psycho (pp. 30-33), but the ability to think of a specific piece (or passage) of music as the benchmark against which to examine changes in the image track is a skill that is routinely called on in more sophisticated analysis, as well.