Friday, December 29, 2017

Harmony series 3, triad pairs

Scott Murphy has published four thorough and insightful articles on film music composition and expression. (See the list at the end of this post.) In one of those articles, a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, he examines pairs of major and minor triads and documents their appearance and functions in recent film underscores. (By recent, I mean mainly post-1980.)

You'll need strong music theory knowledge to read and understand everything in Murphy's four articles. To see what they're like, you might start with the last one in the list below, as it's easily accessible through the journal Music Theory Online (link).

On the other hand, the effects of harmony that he talks about are easy to hear in the films he discusses.

The "triad pairs" that are presented in Murphy 2014a are abstract categories representing every possible pairing of major and minor triads. Here is a simple example: M2m in his notation is a major triad -- like C major in the examples below -- followed by a minor triad (D minor here) whose root is two half-steps higher (C to C# is one step, then C# to D is the second step). The effects created by use of any triad pair vary widely, of course. At (a) a relatively brief minor triad is tucked in-between two major triads, an incidental effect or neighbor chord. At (b) the two chords are equal in length, but there is a definite element of contrast, as the upper voices and bass move in opposite directions, following the requirements of older tonal voice-leading rules. At (c), on the other hand, the chords are spread out -- we hear more of each one -- and all the voices move in the same direction. Finally, at (d), we hear C first, then the chords are mingled and we either hear them as layered or as a complex chord over the C bass (it would be a C13 chord with a diatonic 11), then the C chord layer disappears.

Reference: articles by Scott Murphy on film music:
1. Murphy, Scott. 2014b. “Scoring Loss in Some Recent Popular Film and Television.” Music Theory Spectrum 36(2): 295-314.
2. Murphy, Scott. 2014a. “Transformational Theory and the Analysis of Film Music.” In The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, edited by David Neumeyer, pp. 471-499. New York: Oxford University Press.
3. Murphy, Scott. 2012. “The Tritone Within: Interpreting Harmony in Elliot Goldenthal's Score for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” In The Music of Fantasy Cinema, edited by Janet K. Halfyard, pp. 148-174London: Equinox, 2012.
4. Murphy, Scott. 2006. “The Major Tritone Progression in Recent Hollywood Science Fiction Films.” Music Theory Online 12(2). link.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Harmony series 2, postscript

In his main title cues for Warner Bros. films from about 1938 through the 1940s, Max Steiner almost always opened with his studio logo passage. I talked about its harmonies in Casablanca in my previous post (from October).

Here it is in Mildred Pierce (1945). (We discuss this film at length in Chapter 8.) The opening two bars are identical: mostly C or Cadd6 with some shorter elaborating neighbor chords (see the October post for details), plus a shift to Ab major. From that point, Steiner is likely to do almost anything (but always moving toward the main theme): from a simple diatonic continuation to some ear-bending dissonances and chord changes that I don't recommend trying at home. In Mildred Pierce he piles on both. The bass in bar 3 shifts down a whole step, from C to Bb—already an unusual progression (so much so that in traditional music theory it's sometimes called a "retrogression," with the negatives that term implies). The Ab chord changes from major to minor (see the black notes in the bass clef) and the upper parts add a Cb major triad. When the note Cb goes down to Bb in bar 4, it's a suspension resolution (Cb-->Bb over the Bb bass, or 9-8 in counterpoint language).
This 9-8 move—I've isolated it at (a) below—is identical to the last bit of the progression in Casablanca, at (b), or just as the "Arabian theme" starts.

In Mildred Pierce though, Steiner is not done yet. For reasons known only to him, the main or "Mildred" theme is in Db major, a half step up from the C major he starts with. It would have been much easier to stay put in C, but then the drama of the progression in bars 3-8 would have been lost, of course. Mildred Pierce is a woman's name -- in Hollywood at that time, that's an announcement that it's a women's film (sometimes lumped in with melodrama, though the two are distinct), but the rich harmonizations and lyrical melody we expect in this genre are missing and we get instead a cue (pun intended) that this film is really a tragedy: it doesn't end well, as Mildred's daughter is arrested for the murder of her (Mildred's) former husband.

Steiner liked to write a lot of music for a film, if he was allowed to, but he also paid an extraordinary amount of attention to details, especially those that could affect the viewer's understanding of the narrative.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Harmony series 2, bass/treble dissonance

The "expressionistic" seventh chords that we looked at in the first post in this series -- +M7 and m#7-- were used sparingly in the symphonic underscore of classical Hollywood. Much more common: a bass note that conflicts with the upper parts. Here is a prominent example from the beginning of Casablanca. Steiner gives us his trademark music for the Warner Bros. logo -- with a stationary C in the bass. The chord changes when the bass changes -- to a B major triad -- but that triad is immediately undercut by a very incompatible F-natural in the bass (see the second last chord in the example).       (click on the image to see a larger version)
Notice that the upper parts then resolve -- move to a consonance -- over the F bass, and at that point the "Arab theme" in F minor starts up.

The devices Steiner uses here have their source in 17th century practice. At that time, the element creating the dissonance was a pedal point (stationary bass), over which you could play all kinds of chords, consonant or dissonant, fitting the scale or chromatic. Here's a simple example from J. S. Bach's Little Prelude in C Major, BWV 924:

 The end of this pedal point passage shows the other element -- the resolution. Note that the 4 (G in the bass with C above) resolves at the last moment to 3 (part of the dominant chord) before the final tonic sounds.
The resolution element isn't always present -- the dissonance can be left hanging, so to speak. In the reunion scene, when Rick and Ilsa first see each other in Casablanca, there is an independent dissonance of this kind when Ilsa says "That's when the Germans marched in." The E# diminished seventh chord could easily settle into an F# major or minor triad, but Steiner just lets it fade off -- in 1943, after all, the Germans hadn't marched back out yet.

The famous chord at the beginning of the reunion scene -- what James Buhler and I call the "gaze sonority" -- at (a) -- is even more complicated, though, like "the Germans marched in," it too fades rather than resolves. This chord is a full D minor triad with an Em7(flat5) tucked in the middle -- see at (b). Joel Love has pointed out that this is a possible voicing of a C13 chord, except that the root of the chord is missing! -- at (c). The better voicing is the second one, though, with the more typical #11. We hear that version (again without bass) when Ilsa returns to Rick's Café after hours.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Writing exercises and analyses using Film Art: An Introduction

When we first conceived the idea of a film music and sound textbook nine years ago, we modeled the work on David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art: An Introduction, not only for its rare combination of high standards and clear presentation but also for its focus on film analysis. As Bordwell puts it,

[The book is] aimed at undergraduate students and general readers who want a comprehensive and systematic introduction to film aesthetics. It considers common types of films, principles of narrative and non-narrative form, basic film techniques, and strategies of writing about films. It also puts film art in the context of changes across history.  (description on website: link)
 Film Art is now in its 11th edition. With the various content transformations along the way, several short analyses were deleted, but David has generously posted them to his website (at the same link as the quote above). Here is the list of film titles, in reverse chronological order:
The Prestige. dir. Christopher Nolan, 2006.
Hannah and Her Sisters. dir. Woody Allen, 1985.
Desperately Seeking Susan. dir. Susan Seidelman, 1985.
Fuji. dir. Robert Breer, 1974.
Tout va bien. dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1972.
High School. dir. Frederick Wiseman, 1968.
Innocence Unprotected. dir. Dušan Makavejev, 1968.
Last Year at Marienbad. dir. Alain Resnais, 1961.
A Movie. dir. Bruce Conner, 1958.
A Man Escaped. dir. Robert Bresson, 1956.
Day of Wrath. dir. Carl Dreyer, 1943.
Stagecoach. dir. John Ford, 1939.
Clock Cleaners. dir. Walt Disney, 1937.
The Man Who Knew Too Much. dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1934.
 Since each of these analyses was intended as a self-contained section within a chapter, we can look at them as models for student analysis and writing exercises, even if only one of them focuses on sound (and none on music). These essays will be immediately relevant to chapters 8 and 15 in Hearing the Movies, and the compare-contrast writing exercises in Chapters 8 and 10, of course, but may be useful elsewhere for readings, assignments, or background reading for student projects. Of course, many similar analyses in the current edition of Film Art can be used for the same purpose!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Harmony series 1, a passage in Casablanca

Max Steiner's symphonic underscore for Casablanca (1943) is justly famous, even though in the first 30 minutes of the film there is surprisingly little of it (by classical Hollywood standards -- and by Steiner's own preferences).

Here is one detail from early in the first scene, when the police stop a man and demand his identification papers. After one policeman exclaims "These papers expired three months ago!" the man runs and is shot dead; shortly, it is revealed that he was holding "Free French" leaflets. Here is my sketch of the music:   (click on the image to see a larger version)

The sequence of chords is fractured (see below; click on the image for a larger version): C# diminished doesn't normally go to A minor [it does make dramatic sense, though, as the moment the man breaks and runs for it]; the A minor chord is an add6 (less stable than a major-add6) and there's a conflict between the timpani playing the root (A) and the bass that is not; this slightly awkward A minor dissolves into ambiguous whole tone chords, which then evolve into a sequence of sharply dissonant augmented-major seventh chords, which become louder and louder till the man is hit by the gun shot. A very Steiner-ish stinger -- the noisy gliss down -- follows the man as he falls. When we hear the Marseillaise in the minor key (end of my example: E-A-B-E melody), it's A minor, and the same Am-add6 we heard earlier (see the line connecting the boxes). Although we probably won't actually hear the connection, it would seem that Steiner is suggesting nothing has changed, despite a man's dying.    

Of the eight possible ways to put a seventh on top of a triad, four have been in use since the 17th century -- see (a) -- and four have only been in use since the turn of the last century -- they start showing up between 1890 and 1915 -- at (b).

Steiner was undoubtedly drawing deliberately on the German Expressionist musical style of Arnold Schoenberg, for whom the "b" chords above were favorites. Here is the end of the Little Piano Piece, op. 19n2 -- (click on the image to see a larger version).    Note the block of whole tone (circled) and the final chord, which has the aug.-M7 at the bottom and its mirror (same intervals upside down), the m#7, on top.

Steiner was a thoroughly trained classical conservatory musician -- and from Vienna, like Schoenberg! -- but, like his colleagues in Hollywood, used the expressionistic style conservatively, for emotionally intense, disruptive situations like this one in Casablanca. That's not inconsistent with extensive dissonant and fragmented music in the horror film: Hans Salter, who had been a student of Schoenberg's student Alban Berg, even became a horror film "specialist" at Universal.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Foreign Correspondent

Last year Jeff Smith published an essay on David Bordwell's website Observations on Film Art: here is a link to "Spies face the music: Jeff Smith on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT."

According to Smith, "if you want to get a handle on the basic features of the classical paradigm, Foreign Correspondent’s typicality makes it [very] useful as an exemplar.  Newman’s music neatly illustrates several of the traits commonly associated with the classical Hollywood score’s dramatic functions." The essay is in fact a detailed enumeration and interpretation of leitmotifs. Despite being somewhat understated in many places, Newman's score is densely constructed with musical themes, and Smith does an excellent job of unraveling the complicated web of themes and their uses.

Note: The leitmotif is initially discussed in Chapter 5 of Hearing the Movies, under "Characteristic Music Practices in the Later Silent Era," pp. 121 ff.