Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Scoring Scores

When I first discovered that my listening pleasure was something that was not dependant on the calculated tastes of a radio DJ or bump producer for MTV; that I could actually purchase music and listen to it I found this to be a remarkably freeing thing. I was not into music until I decided to partake in the consumption of sounds in their neat genre specific tid-bits. My first experiences with music were in the forms of soundtracks. So I decree that this weeks them shall be film scores.
Now there are all sorts of sounds in films diegetic, those that belong in the world of the plot and non-diegetic. Most soundtracks take the form of the latter category. This music is composed and scored to a finished film to guide and in some cases manipulate the emotional cues of the audience. A film without a soundtrack is a rare thing and usually has a flatter effect.
For my money most musical scores are overly sentimental and corny. However there are a few cases where the composer has managed to get in tune with the movie and add something to it without becoming "too much".
For me there are a few good examples. James Horner in the early part of his career did the soundtrack for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and forever know as the Star Trek with the greatest amount of both wrath and Khan (essentials to making a good Star Trek film). What Horner did with his classical and romantic era style of musical composition was create grand and epic sounds to fit the scope of this film as a space opera about sacrifice, duty, family, and friendship. There is one core melodic theme that pervades the film it works as the Enterprise is shoves off from space dock and when Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice. Each time evoking the intensity of the moment and the scope of the event or the object. We do not have synthesized new wave sci-fi backing up this story we have something more elegant as a score something identifiable as familiar and classic.
For capturing the innocence and unadulterated adventure of childhood imagine John Williams has worked well to support Spielberg in such films as ET, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Hook. In each of these films the issue of being a kid with the youthful exuberance and joy of curiosity and adventure that Spielberg is dealing with in the subject matter of his films is greatly reenforced by Williams’ use of strings and playful tunes to build fun crescendos that time to imagery that can be powerfully melancholy, completely fun loving, and generally uplifting. In this team we can see how the careful orchestration (pardon the pun if you like) of director to composer can work to make stuff that audiences will sincerely connect with to the tune of millions of dollars. Like in the scene in ET when the common melodic theme (ET’s theme I suppose) kicks back in after sputtering to a stop after the aliens demise. The flower goes from a wilted flaccid weed to a bright blooming celebration of life and the music tells the audience that everything is going to be ok.
Danny Elfman and Tim Burton is another teaming that has produced some great sonic successes. Elfman’s scores for Edward Scissorhands, and Batman to name a few mesh well with Burton’s aesthetic sensibilities and darkly quirky storylines. With his use of chorus voices, sweeping melodies, church bells, and industrial like sounds Elfman, like Burton, is able to create a score for an environment that is exaggerated and yet strangely familiar. In listening to the score you stay in Burton’s specific world but you are not assaulted by music that is aggressively foreign. It is strange but fun and irreverent.
Most good scores do not stand alone on their own without the potency of the images associated with them and natural the opposite can be said of the images on the screen without the power of the music to underscore ( this pun is ok) their significance. A good score is something that should only occur to a careful audience member with a good ear after pondering elements of the film over time and multiple viewings. After citing some of my favorites I can realize that they were not the biggest concern to me at the time when I first saw the film but later upon reflection these great scores emerge from the illusion of the cinematic process and stand as a vital part of the piece.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Nostalgia What It Can Do

I personally understand obsession with nostalgia. As it seems that our culture has accelerated full on into the information age the dissemination of data has become so rapid such that something is lost in the processing. We take in so much rapidly that one finds it difficult to appreciate a moment of being aware. Like a 24 hour shipping and receiving depot our minds don’t take much time for a lunch break. It’s cliche but I feel this fast paced consumption of sensory information prevents us from stopping and smelling the roses. So rather than appreciating the unique emotional aspects and intellectual take on a moment we file it away for a later time.

At some point we can think back and things will seem better, simpler, since that moment is contained not within the complexities of a complete life but rather just the flawed memory file that is colored primarily by the somewhat fluid sensory and emotional cues associated within that file. This I think is the obvious appeal for personal nostalgia. A recollection of an aspect in a moment of life that held enough cerebral value to be worth replay. A rainy Friday evening when I watched a good movie and ate a good dinner and slept well. These are all pieces of a sensory appreciation as well as an intellectual understanding of time and space and what I get from the specifics of those factors. But this is more than likely not the case. It was drizzling not a pleasant rain and it was Friday but I had a stressfully Monday to prepare for, as a consequence I ate a mediocre dinner watched something pleasantly distracting on TV and then slept in a mild torment about the ensuing Monday. Nostalgia smooths that out and the historical facts become irrelevant. There is nothing dangerous about this since it does not inform my personality in a negative way or motivate me toward incorrect actions in my day to day life. It is a fun intellectual exercise for me to compare these pop culture aspects and recall the previous anecdotes of my life and those of my friends and family.

When we have a cultural nostalgia then it becomes a less personal issue this I feel is where people can encounter a loss of identity. Everyone remembers blah or how blah was back before blah became uncool and stale. What do we get from cultural nostalgia? The effect of such a rapid nostalgia by the media as it processes culture is almost like a service for people. In a sense the media is saying to you: "Don’t bother going through your own process of recollection we’ll throw together some graphics and the appropriate soundtrack and witty commentary to tell you how it was/is." With that done for me, I am ready to take in more data knowing that within the next week or so it will most likely be well on its way to becoming nostalgia; making room for fresh product. I would liken it to an assembly line. Our brains have become workers arriving at a common product in many cases. This is fine so long as there is still a checker somewhere that can critically analyze the nostalgic spin being put on our world.

Sure it looked like a fun time back in the day but history tells us that the fears, anxieties, social injustices were still around if not worse. Things only can get better in the future they cannot get better back then because that will never be again. It’s a nice place to visit this construct of an event or a moment that you can create with a little knowledge of history and a review of old tapes and pictures, but it is only a temporary vacation from our existence since like it or not we are trapped in the present. Nothing can be appreciated as joyful until it has happened. Alleviation of this inevitable anxiety about the unknown future is what the appeal of nostalgia offers. The danger lies in wanting to live in a world that is supported only by flawed memories and superficial joys can pacify us to the concerns of the immediate. If our generation is the post-slacker constantly looking backwards for something of substance to draw motivation from then we will forever be chasing an illusion.