August 19, 2006

Creepy musical doodads

I was just now looking at this page from Vertigo. This is when Jimmy Stewart is pulling Kim Novak out of the bay after her apparently ghost-induced apparent suicide attempt.

The Bay.jpg

In the first two bars here, the strings and horns are trading off a little whiplash figure in sixteenth-notes while the rest of the orchestra plays nauseous chromatic scales. Then, at the double bar, the figure in sixteenth-notes becomes a figure in eighth-notes and is played by the strings and winds together. Herrmann’s idea, I think, is that the frantic moment is beginning to subside, so the rhythm is altered to be less wrenching. But to me this sort of switch – from sixteenth-notes to eighth-notes – is a little unnerving in its own right. The motif itself, as it passes from one rhythmic speed to another, is revealed in a disturbingly naked sort of way. I was put in mind of something similar in Janáček’s Sinfonietta (the only work by Janáček that I’ve heard enough times to hum – but my sense is that the basic technique is found in many of his other works as well). Janáček’s overall approach to composition seems to deal, like Herrmann’s, in discrete units of musical material: musical objects that one hears being altered, played with, and rearranged, but in a fabric where the seams are always turned outward. The patches of material do not melt into one another; they remain distinctly movable within the larger context. In Herrmann’s film music the short, repetitive packets are first of all useful for communicating to an audience listening with only “half an ear,”* but they have their own peculiar character, as well.

The particular strangeness that I find in Janáček and Herrmann has something to do with this foregrounding of musical figures as manipulable items. When individual musical items are so discrete and item-like (itemic?), they begin to be disturbing. The principle is the same as with Yves Tanguy:

Globe de glace (1934)

Because these smudges and blobs are portrayed as objects, we are confronted with all the uncomfortable ways in which they do not live up to their responsibilities as objects. “What sort of horrible fucked-up objects are these?”

If it’s handled a certain way, the substance of music begins to take on the same, queasily insufficient quality. If musical motifs are “figures” to be handled and altered – are, in essence, things – then what sort of terrible off-world do they come from? Of course, that response is never conscious or nearly so stark. In practice, something like this Vertigo moment, which bluntly exposes the “material” quality of the material (to my ear, anyway), would just create a mild sense of oddness. But that’s plenty.

Why ‘change of rhythmic scale’ is what sets me to hearing music this way, I’m not sure. A visual analogy is tempting: it’s like moving the camera, pulling back from or zooming in on an object. The features that remain coherent and undistorted are more readily identifiable as an object and not just as a feature of the background. A parallax sort of thing.

Well, anyway, all those discrete musical “cells” can get unnerving in Herrmann. The technique flirts with clumsiness but the end result is something much more ominous than clumsy. Bartók also sometimes strikes me as having given his music the power to disturb by veering toward clumsiness. “Rough” is probably a better word: not a roughness of sound but a roughness of manipulation.

I recall being transfixed by a not-very-good piece, David Del Tredici’s Tattoo (1986), because of how viscerally uncomfortable it was making me. The whole piece is a huge, much-too-elaborate fabric built out of spiraling iterations of a single rhythmic figure that’s a sort of spiral in itself. The little thing appears in constant juxtaposition with itself on various scales and at various speeds. This is Del Tredici’s big technique, or was in the 80s, and he used it to death in all his works, so far as I can tell. It’s sort of the shameless, aggressive version of what I’m trying to point out in Herrmann and Janáček, and in that particular piece it really made my skin crawl. Really, like nails on some existential blackboard, like the guy in Sartre’s Nausea. I’m not sure if that’s what Del Tredici was going for – my explorations into his other music turned up a lot of grotesque self-indulgence and some other distasteful qualities, so it’s hard to guess what he wanted to achieve – but I give him credit for it.

The gothic, morbid qualities of Vertigo and Tristan und Isolde before it seem to me related to this sense of being confronted with the uncanny “stuff” of music, but that’s a different thought for another time. But there, I said it anyway.

* This is someone’s line about film music but I forget who. Aaron Copland or someone like that.


  1. I regret not knowing Greek. H.

    Posted by Anonymous on |
  2. Parallax. I never exactly understood. There’s a priest. Could ask him. Par it’s Greek: parallel, parallax.

    – James Joyce, Ulysses, chap. 8

    But more likely you’re saying that this is all Greek to you. I’ll try to get some sound clips to make it more accessible.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. I agree with whoever said that the audience listens with only “half an ear”. In my opinion the movies music is there to give us clues to what’s about to happen on the screen and to play on our emotions. We don’t expect much more of movies music. (Once in a long while, we encounter an unusual piece of music that deserves to becme a classic, like The Warsaw Concerto). But then we, your average movie goer, we are mere mortals. You, on the other hand, you have an inner ear that is built differently from ours. You hear notes and sounds which we don’t. You have a built-in micro analyzer, which I believe not many have. And when you talk about Janacek, Hoffman and Del Tredici, obviously you’re not talking to me. Am I forgiven for the long tirade? H.

    Posted by Anonymous on |
  4. You call that a long tirade? Ha!

    The main thing I took away from my college education was that analysis of art and music and literature can be relevant to our normal, “mortal” experiences of those things, even when the analyses seem drastically more attentive and picky than is natural. It took me a while to be convinced of this, because it’s not actually intuitive, even though the people teaching these subjects generally seem to think it is. It does at first seem like someone “breaking down” a novel (or a piece of music) is doing something completely distinct from enjoying it in the normal way. But this is mainly because “the normal way” is unreflective – someone who reads for pleasure and then moves on probably won’t quite know what to say when asked why they liked a book. That would take some kind of analysis to work out, even though the fact that they liked it in whatever way and for whatever reason is already true.

    This is especially true of music. I would agree that what movie music does is “give us clues” and “play on our emotions” – one could argue that that’s what all music does – so if I were to try to “break down” some piece of movie music, I would only be trying to work out how to answer if asked why I had liked it when I was listening with only half an ear. But course, to answer that question requires a full ear after the fact.

    So: Talking about something analytically is different from claiming to experience it with that kind of awareness, and I don’t think I experience any of the stuff I have written about here any differently than you might. In fact I think I find it satisfying to approach things analytically because my “mortal” response to most things seems very dull and vague – especially to music, which I find hard to follow and remember without many repeated hearings. Explicitly talking about it is a way of speeding up the process of “getting” something; it’s sort of a crutch.

    One last thing: the thought in the entry above was sparked by looking at a page of movie music, but it is not really about that piece of movie music. Which I’m sure is confusing. But I should have mentioned that in the muddy recording in the movie you can’t even really hear the thing I’m talking about from that page. So you should probably just take the above as being about a generic sort of thing that happens in music.

    Oh, and also, right, I’m not talking to you. I’m trying not to think of myself as talking to anyone. That’s gotten more difficult now that I know exactly the eight people to whom I am talking, but if this site is to be of any use to me personally, I have to do my best to continue to pretend that I am not talking to anyone. That’s harder now and sometimes I’m tempted to start another site where I will feel less watched, but I guess the whole psychological point here is for me to face the music in that regard. So the price you as readers pay is that it continues not to be for you, per se. It’s all about me-ow. Sorry!

    Posted by broomlet on |
  5. From observation of other people’s comments, I concluded that one is supposed to be concise and to the point. Therefore I thought that I ought to apologize for the length of my comments.
    Corrections: When I wrote Hoffman, I meant Herrmann.When I wrote “you’re obviously not talking to me”, what I meant to say is “the likes of me”.
    Should I deduce from your writing today that you would rather not get any comments? I totally understand, if as I suspect it is indeed so. I am ready to comply. I’ll just keep on reading and enjoying it. No matter what you write, it is music to My ears. So keep up the writing, as you do, don’t adjust to anybody’s musical knowledge or intelectual level. As they used to say in ancient Rome: Age quod agis. H.

    Posted by Anonymous on |
  6. You may be as verbose as you like! And of course I want you to feel free to comment however you like whenever you like. My psychological outlook on what I write here and/or how it gets received is my own problem – I only mentioned it as a point of interest and by way of apologizing for/excusing the audience-less pitch of my writing. I still definitely want to hear any comments you have.

    Vix ulla tam iniqua pax, quin bello vel aequissimo sit potior.

    That’s not in the least bit apropos, it’s just some Latin for you to look up. I found it looking up your saying, which I’m afraid is no longer part of even the most expensive education. At least in my case.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  7. Vix ulla tam pax…Five years of Latin didn’t help me at all. Any knowledge that I once had, has long ago evaporated. Determination and pressing the finger to the pad made me find a trove of Latin sayings, among them this new to me saying from Erasmus. I am standing up to Erasmus and dare to disagree with him.
    I remember that Bullwinkle translated a Latin saying as “you don’t chew your cabbage twice”. Good to remember this whenever you’re faced with a translation difficulty. Do you know who Bullwinkle is, was? If you ever come across him, invite him in. A great character.
    Latin, Erasmus and Bullwinkle, I Do Declare !!! H.

    Posted by Anonymous on |
  8. I assume you were standing up to Erasmus the way he meant it, which is perfectly reasonable of you – but I notice now that 90% of the online English translations of this quote are missing a crucial “NOT.” It doesn’t make any sense at all, that way.

    Posted by broomlet on |

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