Category Archives: Film music

Herrmann-induced vertigo

For his main title music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann used alternately ascending and descending arpeggiated chords in contrary motion in the treble and bass voices; no clear direction, up or down, is established, nor is a harmonic center confirmed.

With its almost uninterrupted, destabilizing undulation, the music provides a musical evocation of vertigo that is reinforced by Hitchcock’s spiraling geometric images.

This according to “The language of music: A brief analysis of Vertigo” by Kathryn Kalinak, an essay included in her Settling the score: Music and the classical Hollywood film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992) and reprinted in Movie music: The film reader (London: Routledge, 2003).

Today is Bernard Herrmann’s 110th birthday! Below, the virtiginous title sequence in question.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Film music

Re-encoding Carmen’s identity

 

The 2005 film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a South African adaptation and reconceptualization of Bizet’s Carmen. The change in culture and context affects the interpretation of the character of Carmen, who emerges as a strong black woman striving for autonomy within a patriarchal and sexist postcolonial South African society.

The film involves an interpretation of identity as a social construct dependent on the interaction between character and place within a specific period of time–in this case, Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, at the beginning of the 21st century. Its portrayal of the modern Carmen as an emancipated woman within a postcolonial and postmodernist context can be traced by interpreting semiotic signs and specific narrative strategies.

The re-encoding of Carmen’s identity questions intransigent or stereotypical perceptions of Carmen as the iconic femme fatale to which audiences have become accustomed; the indigenized production offers recourse to alternative perceptions of Carmen’s identity. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha does not deny the sensuality and femininity attributed to Carmen in the precursory texts, but it depicts her as an even more complex character than the one in Bizet’s opera.

This according to “The same, yet different: Re-encoding identity in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” by Santisa Viljoen and Marita Wenzel (Journal of the musical arts in Africa XIII/1–2 [2016] 53–70; RILM Abstracts 2016-49747).

Below, the trailer for the film.

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Filed under Africa, Film music, Opera

Uday Shankar’s “Kalpana”

 

The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.

The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:

“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”

“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”

“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”

This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).

Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.

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Filed under Asia, Dance, Film music, Performers

Musimid: Revista brasileira de estudos em música e mídia

 

In 2020 the Centro de Estudos em Música e Mídia launched Musimid: Revista brasileira de estudos em música e mídia (ISSN 2675-3944), a peer-reviewed journal published every four months. Musimid focuses on interdisciplinary texts on music with an emphasis on musical semiotics, along with topics in musicology, history, and criticism.

Among the topics of interest to the journal, issues related to performance and its models stand out: relationships with the body and its different layers of mediation throughout history; the role of technology and media platforms in the processes of poetic communication; the conception of a musical instrument and its interpolation with various devices, existing or obsolete (microphones, amplification, high-fidelity), and media platforms; variations in listening patterns, taste, and aesthetic sensitivity, through the introduction of different sound media; soundscapes and changes in sensitivity; the interfaces of the musical language with other artistic languages; issues related to contemporaneity, globalization, identity, belonging, and affective bond, through music; cultural, musical and media memory; and the constitution of stable values ​​in the ephemeral era.

Below, a music-forward excerpt from Back to the future, the subject of an article in the inaugural issue.

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Filed under Film music, Mass media, New periodicals

Tosca and James Bond

The 2009 James Bond film Quantum of solace marks a change in the conception of the opera visit in film, which typically shows opera in an idealizing light. Quantum’s opera visit, which may be a first in an action film, signifies detachment and encapsulates the subjective isolation of the protagonist.

The scene’s distance comes from the floating operatic venue (the Bregenz Festival), the voyeuristic production (techno-opera), the frenetic montage in much of the sequence, and the work itself, Tosca, which has parallels with the filmic story. Detachment is further promoted by a dry sound environment, a rearranged temporal scheme, and opera music that approaches underscore in its distance from operatic idioms.

Comprised of slow harmonic rhythm and considerable repetition, the two musical excerpts—the Te Deum that ends act 1 and the instrumental music after Scarpia’s murder in act 2—are noticeably static and impose a groundedness that separates the scene from the film’s other set pieces, which are extremely fast in music, sound, and image. The disposition of the operatic music points up the cinematic bent of Puccini’s score and its remarkable ability to accommodate the needs of the film.

Although Quantum’s opera visit is cynical toward opera culture, it captures the post-millennial malaise of the long-running Bond franchise and forms the high point of a film that disappointed critics and fans alike. But while opera may redeem the film’s larger narrative, the protagonist remains aloof from opera’s transforming qualities as he shuns engagement with the spectacle and the resonant music on the soundtrack.

Bond’s detachment is embodied in the symbol of the set’s iconic big eye, which not only reverses opera’s scopic dynamic by gazing at the audience more than the audience gazes at the stage, but also represents mediated looking at opera in general, as in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD cinecasts. While an operatics of detachment may seem like a contradiction, Quantum of solace persuades the viewer that it can be a vibrant reimagining of the special filmic ritual that is the opera visit.

This according to “The operatics of detachment: Tosca in the James Bond film Quantum of solace” by Marcia J. Citron (19th-century music XXXIV/3 [spring 2011] pp. 316–40).

Today is the 120th anniversary of Tosca’s premiere!

Below, the scene in question.

Above, Floating Tosca Stage, Bregenz by John Abel is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Filed under Curiosities, Film music, Opera, Romantic era

Hitchcock and music

 

Alfred Hitchcock held an ambivalent position toward the sound elements of cinema. He remained faithful to the idea of pure cinema realized through shots and sequences, and considered dialogue as a lesser expressive resource due to its tendency to break down the narrative tension gained by the images.

On the other hand, he considered sound effects and music to be highly effective devices, with their ability to modify the rhythm of the action, or to voice the depth of characters and the hidden forces of dramatic situations. He often gave sound effects and music central roles in dramaturgy and structure.

The 1956 version of The man who knew too much is a film completely pervaded by music. The recurring song Que sera, sera is one of Hitchcock’s most remarkable examples of diegetic music, informing the audiovisual structures in concurrence with concepts developed by Gilles Deleuze in L’image-mouvement.

This according to “Immagine, suono, relazione mentale in The man who knew too much (1956) di Alfred Hitchcock” by Matteo Giuggioli (Philomusica on-line XI [2007]).

Tomorrow is Hitchcock’s 120th birthday! Above and below, Doris Day’s iconic performance in The man who knew too much.

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Musiri’s moustache

 

The revered Karnatak vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer only acted in one film: Thukkaram (1938), in which he portrayed the 17th-century Hindu poet and saint Tukaram.

The shooting of the film ran into an unusual problem. The hero had to sport a bushy moustache, and in those days makeup materials were crude and even primitive. Moustaches and beards were stuck to the actor’s face with spirit gum, and when the gum dried the skin would burn and pull, the degree of irritation depending on the sensitivity of one’s skin.

Musiri suffered unbearable irritation, and he threatened that he would walk out if he had to endure the suffering any longer. Left with no choice, the producers permitted him to grow his own moustache. The shooting had to be stopped while Musiri waited for his lip hair to grow to the degree of bushiness required by the script.

This according to “Filmsinger in saint’s clothing: Tuka-ram” by Randor Guy (Sruti 176 [May 1999] pp. 35–38).

Today is Musiri’s 120th birthday! Above, a publicity shot for the film.

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Filed under Curiosities, Film music, Performers

Disney and Musorgskij

 

Night on Bald Mountain, Walt Disney’s animated rendition of Modest Musorgskij’s Ivanova noč’ na Lysoj gore, follows the structure of the work, linking the main theme to the demonic figure of Černobog and introducing new ghostly or monstrous creatures for each new musical section.

The climactic orgy includes all of the previously introduced characters as well as newly introduced ones, often depicted in an expressionist style that contrasts with Musorgskij’s own realist aesthetic—indeed, expressionism was an overt rebellion against realism’s Romantic ideals.

Disney’s version also follows the program of Musorgskij’s work as the village church bells put a stop to the hellish festivities, but a happy ending was deemed necessary, resulting in an unfortunate segue into an inappropriately Romanticized arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

This according to “Klasična glazba u crtanom filmu <Fantazija> (1940.) Walta Disneya” by Irena Paulus (Arti musices: Hrvatski muzikološki zbornik XXVIII/1–2 [1997] pp. 115–27).

Today is Musorgskij’s 180th birthday! Below, the full segment from Disney’s Fantasia.

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Filed under Film music

Hip hop teen dance films

 

Hip hop teen dance films flourished in the 2000s. Drawing on the dominance of hip hop in the mainstream music industry, films such as Save the last dance, Honey, and Step up combined the teen film genre’s typical social problems and musical narratives, while other tensions were created by interweaving representations of post-industrial city youth with the utopian sensibilities of the classic Hollywood musical.

These narratives celebrated hip hop performance, and depicted dance as a bridge between cultural boundaries, bringing together couples, communities, and cultures, using hip hop to construct filmic spaces and identities while fragmenting hip hop soundscapes, limiting its expressive potential.

These attempts to marry the representational, narrative, and aesthetic meanings of hip hop culture with the form and ideologies of the musical film genre illuminate the tensions and continuities that arise from engagement with musicals’ utopian qualities.

This according to “Space, authenticity and utopia in the hip-hop teen dance film” by Faye Woods, an essay included in Movies, moves and music: The sonic world of dance films (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016, pp  61–77).

Above, a scene from Save the last dance; below, a scene from Honey.

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Filed under Dance, Film music, Popular music

Disney music legacy libraries

snow-white-score

In 2015 Hal Leonard launched the series Disney music legacy libraries with Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the seven dwarfs”, a bound, glossy facsimile of the master score for the 1937 animated film Snow White and the seven dwarfs.

This 200-page MS guided the construction of the film’s final mix of music, dialogue, and sound effects—in effect, it represents the entire soundtrack of the world’s first full-length animated feature film.

Unlike many film studios, Disney has always saved its written and recorded music assets. Over almost 90 years, dating back to the earliest Mickey Mouse shorts and Silly symphonies, millions of pages of music have been preserved, most recently in climate-controlled conditions. Over a million of these documents have now been digitized, streamlining the time needed to find one from two weeks to three minutes.

Above, a two-page spread from the book (click to enlarge); below, the related sequence from the final film. More about the book series is here.

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Filed under Film music, New editions, New series