This post refers the the video, "The Last Laugh - Termination Notice"
Lately I have been undertaking the task of adding new music to classic silent films. It has been a fascinating project and has taught me a lot about musical form.
Form is an issue that many composers struggle with. Many of us can easily create a beautiful melody or a haunting texture, but the question always arises, "how do I arrange this in a meaningful way over time; how do I juxtapose it with other parts?"
Many composers resort to classical ideas such as sonata form and, while not adhering to it verbatim , at least employ its basic concepts, i.e. the exposition of a theme, the exploration of various permutations of that theme through modulation and, finally, returning to the theme. In my music, (which I encourage you to check out) I often play with these ideas. Sonata form (or its ghost) does quite well when busy, harmonically charged material is in play. However, much of the music I study and write deals with rhythmically charged elements that lend themselves to repetition and employ more static harmonies. Transitioning out of these static sections can be a very difficult puzzle to solve as they are generally without chord tensions that beget harmonic motion.
It often seems that static harmonies and rhythmically repetitive sections serve to create a mood or cast a spell. They often stay within one scale or mode, and have a cyclical effect, always and endlessly repeating. In fact, the more they are repeated, the more gravity towards repetition they seem to create (think funk basslines or Irish melodies). I like to start a piece with these type of ideas, because they instantly paint a clear musical picture of an emotion or psychological state. The trick now becomes, how do you convincingly break from this texture which, left alone, would lose its effect due to lack of any kind of meaningful anticipation, and move into another part of the music?
Now there are of course numerous theoretical answers to this problem. Music students study modulations, (moving from one key to they next), and how to prepare them, resolve them etc. Much 20th century music seemed to abandon the idea of convincing modulation as irrelevant; minimalists just didn't even seem to think harmonic motion was necessary most of the time (an exaggeration, but relatively speaking, true). Some chromatic music was so busy that the idea of repetitive modal themes was out of the picture. Who then do I turn to for an answer?
In the case of my latest piece I turned not to a musician, but a film maker, F.W. Murnau. I decided to add my own track to a scene from "Der Letze Mann", an expressionist film that pioneered the technique of zooming in on a subject to increase dramatic effect (a technique used in every last piece of film made today). This particular scene follows the protagonist, and old man, as he reacts to losing his job and therefore, all hope. It is truly gut wrenching to watch, especially over and over again as I had to in order to write this music.
For the music in this scene I used the banjo, a seemingly unlikely choice, because I am exploring its potential as a non-bluegrass instrument. I find it can be truly dark. So, as the scene starts, the banjo (tuned to a major 7th chord no 5th) begins with a hollow sounding, repetitive idea that could easily repeat indefintely. As the scene unfolds visually, the actors face goes through many expressions, some unbelievably subtle, that begin to betray the fact that his emotions undergoing a manifold process (a key idea here). This process then leads him to plead his case with his boss and finally to try and display his strength in a heart rending climax before collapsing back into the intial state of shock and numbness induced upon first being fired.
You can probably see where I am going with this. As soon as his face starts changing and the idea of taking action is introduced, the film has presented another mood for the music to transition into. Formal and musical questions are suddenly not an issue of my preference or conjecture, but a matter of necessity in relation to the unfolding scene, its action and emotional content. The music must tell a consistent story along with the film, as well introducing its own elements (more on that in another post). Modulations are prepared and resolved in key moments corresponding to visual changes, and where those modulations go melodically and harmonically is decided by where the film goes.
Here we are getting into an idea much maligned by both 20th and 21st century snobs: so called "Program Music", the idea that musical form corresponds to a story, or the unfolding processes of human emotion / psychology. I am in fact a huge proponent of program music, as was every great romantic from Beethoven onward. Some of their music is quite programmatic, attempting to actually tell a story, and other music is a bit more vague but still seems to have content that describes very specific states of being and how those states move from one into the next. It is my feeling that without asking the question of program music, what then is the value of form except as a mathematical exercise or a way to package a handful of musical ideas together into one piece? Indeed, even without a story as such, if music doesn't "score" life, or something pertaining to it, what is its value? I would argue that it would at that point be neglecting its potential to peer into the depths of the human in a way that no other art can.
Beethoven knew how to balance the simple and the complex, how to evoke an emotion in the moment and how to make it change and grow over time in a meaningful way. His music satisfied the mathematical and the emotional. That is what scoring this film has reminded me of, that any art, while employing technical mastery, must also remember its heart when making any and every decision.
So, my final estimation is that musical form must correspond to life, or a good story about life.
In my piece, the music starts static. It then modulates to a closely related but slightly more hopeful key as the idea of action is introduced. It is at its most chromatic and turbulent as the possibilities of numerous outcomes battle for actualization. It then returns to the main theme as the inevitable sets in (maybe sonata form was onto something....). The rest of the piece stays mostly in the home key and tracks with the unfolding tragedy, then ends in restating the material from the first modulation faintly, as a faint and unreliable glimmer of hope.
My hope is that you enjoyed this post and will enjoy the video. I will post it here soon, and also on www.chrisrippey.com