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.