Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Week 7 Lectures

I'm a little late getting this up. This week we jumped to Chapter 8, "Film Style and the Sound Track," and looked at style topics and leitmotifs. I do this so I can cover all of the scene types at once. Because I need space to prepare the practicum assignment, where I have students create a sound track for a short film, I have to condense the text to fit it into a basic schedule of one week per chapter. I make the adjustment primarily in week 8, which I use to cover chapters 6, 7 and 9. I will have more comments about this particular compromise in my next pedagogical post dealing with Week 8 lectures.

Chapter 8 deals with leitmotifs and style topics. Both draw on the overt signifying capacities of music, with leitmotifs forming relationships that are intrinsic only to a particular work, whereas style topics apply to those relationships that transcend the particular work and are properties of style in general. In terms of signification, the meaning of a leitmotif attaches primarily to characters, places, objects and ideas of the work (or film), whereas the meaning of a style topic is not determined by the particular work, but the signifying field of style generally construed. This means that style topics can be lifted from one work and transplanted to another without affecting their signifying properties (battle music in one work continues to signify battle music in another), though it is important to recognize that this says nothing about whether the particular battle music is a good expression of its type or whether it will seem appropriate in the new context on other grounds. It just means the signification transcends the work in which it is embedded. The issue can get somewhat confusing, however, in that leitmotifs are often also instances of style topics: the heroine will be represented by a "love theme," the solider by a military march—and it is the recurrence of a particular theme and its relationship to the unfolding story that determines whether a particular usage of a style topic is also a leitmotif.

I begin my discussion with style topics, noting that music has many conventional figures. I then suggest four categories—primitive, storm, funeral, and grotesque—and play appropriate examples from Zamecnik's Sam Fox Moving Picture Music and have students do a matching exercise to show how effectively these categories still signify for us. We then examined the issue of stereotyping through style topics, looking first at the "Indian" style topic and then the Arabian or, as it was known in the early part of the century, "Oriental" topic. For the Indian topic we looked not only at the example from the Zamecnik collection (the opening of which is reproduced in HtM, p. 207) but also its very crude form in Stagecoach (see image on right), where cuts from the stage coach to the Indian's preparing to attack are underscored by abrupt musical shifts. For an excellent overview of the issues involved with this style topic, see Michael Pisani's Imagining Native America in Music (2006).

From Indians we next move to the Oriental topic, which I trace a little more extensively. The Oriental topic has a particularly long and rich history, due to a number of factors: the importance of Biblical stories to European culture; the proximity and perceived threat of Islamic culture from the Middle Ages through to the First World War; and European imperialism are three of the most significant. The signification of the Oriental topic is also broad and slippery: it was used to indicate Arabs, Turks, and Persians, but also North Africa and the Middle East in general, Jews, Moors and even Hindus and India. This broad signification was at least in part due to the fact that the primary representation was simply "other" and "primitive," which is one reason why the music could occasionally be interchangeable with other "others," such as Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese or Japanese, especially if the signification was primarily in terms of primitive and barbaric. As examples, we looked at the "Oriental Music" from the Zamecnik collection, then turned to the Blue Parrot music from Casablanca (a transcription is given in HtM, p. 206) and to three examples from Lawrence of Arabia (HtM, p. 208). The third example from Lawrence is particularly worth noting because it records a call to prayer; its seeming authentic quality can disguise a representational character that is every bit as stereotyping as the clearly composed "Oriental exotic" topic of the main theme associated with Lawrence. (I mention in passing that The Hurt Locker also makes extensive use of calls to prayer—though never as overtly as this instance in Lawrence—for much the same purpose. I will probably incorporate The Hurt Locker into a future version of this lecture.) I then turn to the opening of Black Hawk Down, where the apparently indigenous music is combined with orchestral underscore to paint a rather traditional musical representation of Somalia as other, as a dangerous and exotic place. (This example is briefly mentioned in HtM, p. 206.) Senegalese singer Baaba Maal provides the vocals, indicating again the wide signifying capabilities of style topics of the Other—as Senegal is on the opposite coast of Africa from Somalia. More could and probably should be said on this point with respect to globalization, the failures of imperialism, pan-African identity, its relation to Islam and the civil war in Somalia—all of which is to say that the signification of this scoring decision is complicated and subtle even if it is ultimately rather traditional in function. For general issues of exoticism in music, Jonathan Bellman's collection The Exotic in Western Music and Ralph Locke's Musical Exoticism serve as useful entries into the field.

In order to emphasize that diegetic status and appropriateness for the setting neither remove music from being a style topic nor diminish the signifying capacities of the music, I play the Christmas party scene from Die Hard, where a small diegetic orchestra plays a Brandenburg Concerto as background. Here, as we note in our discussion of the scene in HtM, p. 204, the music serves most obviously as a marker of class, an important thematic concern of the film. On some of the issues of the music to Die Hard, see Robynn Stilwell, "'I Just Put a Drone Under Him...': Collage and Subversion in the Score of 'Die Hard,'" Music and Letters 78.4 (1997): 551-580.

For explaining the leitmotif, I focused on two films: Captain Blood and Fellowship of the Ring. For Captain Blood we looked at how the three themes (transcribed in HtM, p. 198) become associated with Peter Blood and signify different aspects of his character. For Fellowship of the Ring, we focused on the prologue and the precise nature of the signification of the theme that arrives with the title. In fact besides for the title card, it shows up three times in the prologue: when Isildur cuts the Ring from Sauron's finger; when Isildur loses the Ring, and when Bilbo finds it. The point is that the theme is not here associated with the Ring per se but with its passing from one character to another (and indeed Howard Shore refers to the theme as "The History of the Ring"). Moreover because the theme has these broader associations it can also serve as an effective means of audiovisual phrasing: through the appearance of the theme, the music helps divide the prologue into epochs: a long opening segment concerning the history of the forging; a very brief second segment on Isildur, a longer third segment about Gollum, and a brief coda when Bilbo takes over the Ring. Each of these "audiovisual phrases" except Gollum's is initiated with a sync point of the theme with the Ring, and in general it is the way the leitmotif establishes such sync points that makes it such an effective tool for film composers.