Monday, June 05, 2006

Tritones... In... Spaaaaaace!

Scott Murphy, a friend from my Eastman* days, has an interesting article in the latest Music Theory Online: "The Major Tritone Progression in Recent Hollywood Science Fiction Films." The progression in the title, conveniently abbreviated MTTP for most of the article, is the movement from one major triad to another major triad with the roots a tritone apart (like C major to F# major). Scott has found this progression to be quite common in science fiction films, citing Flight to Mars (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1952), War of the Worlds (1953), Star Wars (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II (1982), Flash Gordon (1980), Dune (1984), Flight of the Navigator (1986), Men in Black (1997), Starship Troopers (1997), Soldier (1998), Planet of the Apes (2002), Lilo and Stitch (2002), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002). The last movie is the main focus of Scott's analysis. In all these cases, the particular progression is used to signify outer space. Scott demonstrates why this particular progression would be a good signifier for the mysteries of outer space, thus making it a good fit with science fiction film scores. The article anticipates every question and rebuttal I could think of, especially the charge that a signifier isn't necessary for every film about outer space:
[32] However, a study such as this that focuses just on stylistic associations only sets the groundwork for aesthetic understanding. Robert Hatten, from whom I borrow the terms type and token, responds to Scruton's criticism by arguing that making such associations--or correlations, as he calls them--is just one part (but a necessary part) of a cyclical process whereby correlations guide contextual interpretations, which may further lead to new types and new correlations that feed back into the style. My analysis of Treasure Planet followed this cyclical path: a symbolic image of Treasure Planet was not correlated with the MTTP type, but strategically combined with a voice-leading variation on the MTTP, leading to my interpretation that the symbolic image represents to Jim a preliminary step to outer space, instead of representing outer space itself. However, this interpretation occurs multiple times, suggesting a new type that is operative within the confines of the film. The converse situation, in which the MTTP type accompanies something outside of outer space, can also generate interpretations. [I removed a footnote reference, to avoid confusion.]
The only deeply technical aspects of this article are the voice-leading justifications based on theories by Cohn and Lewin, and even those can be understood by someone who knows some basic music theory. Thus it is a very accessible article for non-theorists to peruse, seeing exactly what we music theorists do with our research time.

I also want to give a shout-out to three friends whose dissertations are listed in the latest MTO issue: Brent "Baby-face" Auerbach, Peter "The Beat Goes On" Martens, and Dave "I'm too cool for Eastman" Thurmaier. Brent and Dave were at Eastman with me, Dave taught at Lawrence for a year, and Peter was a fellow double-degree student at Lawrence (he did Music Ed and Classics). Peter is also a fellow music cognitionist, so we see far too much of each other.

* At one time there were three Scotts in the music theory program at Eastman. That was over the legal limit, so one was shipped back to Santa Barbara.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Does God know?

Thanks to John Scalzi's command to clean my brain with a performance by Petra Haden (jazz bassist Charlie Haden's daughter, who is a an excellent jazz violinist and vocalist in her own right), I've become obsessed with the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." I had known about the historical importance of Pet Sounds, though I never listened to the album and only knew a few of the songs. I had certainly heard "God Only Knows" before, but something about the Petra Haden performance made me really listen to it this time. The lyrics are captivating, and there is something about the music that is quite beguiling. Greg Panfile has written an essay on this song that I use as a starting point for my own analysis.

Greg feels that the key structure is possibly confusing at the introduction:
The key is already ambivalent... Brian seems to believe it's in E (his statement about it starting on the major seventh is itself ambiguous; if the song is in E, what he means is that the verse part starts on the major chord of the flatted seventh, that is D major in the key of E. But when you add in that the intro starts on A, you have a song putatively in E where none of the parts start on the root, tonic chord). Looked at in isolation, this looks like a song in A is starting...

I disagree. The opening is a plagal motion of IV to I in E, which is a nice allusion to religious music (the plagal A-men at the end of hymns). This certainly makes sense, given the title of the song. The I - ii - I motion at the end of the introduction (E - F#min - E) is unusual in standard tonal progressions, but it also makes sense as an altered form of the plagal cadence, with ii standing in for IV. This plagal motion also occurs at the chorus, appropriately accompanying "God only knows what I'd do without you." The verse starts on bVII (D), alluding to the blues heritage of Rock-n-Roll. Quite often the V - IV - I progression in blues is translated into I - bVII - IV in rock (see AC/DC's "Back in Black" for a good example). But in "God Only Knows" the subtonic chord is not part of a blues progression. Instead, the bVII moves to a minor dominant (Bmin), giving a modal feel. It does not make sense in the key of D as Greg suggests, but it is definitely not stable in E major either. The following F#min - B (maj) progression brings us clearly to E major. This segmentation follows a reading of the lyrics. The unstable harmonies in the first verse accompany the negative opening, "I may not always love you," which switches gears suddenly to reassure the listener that the singer really does love him/her. I love the imagery evoked by "as long as there are stars above you." I visualize night-time, eternity, stars swirling around a lover's head, endless love. This switch of mood coincides with the switch to stable harmonies in E major. The same switch occurs in the second verse, "If you should ever leave me/life would go on, believe me" versus, "The world could show nothing to me."

The distinction between doubt and certitude is not as clearcut as I am making it, though. One could read the lyrics as being about a somewhat bitter lover. The first verse starts with the warning already mentioned. The other three lines don't necessarily refute that warning, as the "it" is somewhat ambiguous. "It" is usually interpreted as "my love," but it could refer to "not always loving you." Then the chorus becomes an exclamation that the singer could have been much better off out of that relationship: "God only knows what I'd be without you!" Verse Two could be read in a sarcastic tone: I can't believe you would ever get up the guts to leave me (though I will be just fine if you do, thanks!). Then the break could be a daydream about freedom, with the modulation to A major as his feint towards a simpler life (fewer sharps). The repeat of the second verse includes an obbligato that seems to mock the idea of giving up life for the worthless lover, made even more explicit in Petra's version (she laughs for this obbligato). Listen to 1:45 in both versions. And the final stretto could be a conversation between the lovers, as they both believe their lives would be improved without each other.

What's beautiful is that both interpretations can exist side-by-side. Little details complete the beauty of this piece: the little skip in hypermeter at the end of the second chorus, the "fractal" plagal shape (keys of E - A - E, introduction and coda), the counterpoint of the break, and the great timbral colors. I've now listened to the Petra version eleven times and the BB version 3 times since yesterday. Obsessed? Yeah, a little.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

What's next, hip hop?

First they lamented the death of classical music. Now Scott Eyman is concerned that film music is looking rather ill.
"I'm so sick of music where there's nothing to it," says George Feltenstein, a Warner Bros. vice president. "What we're hearing represents a continuing cultural wearing away of the arts in society in general. This is a culture where Andrew Lloyd Webber is taken seriously as a composer, so it shouldn't be any surprise that we're gradually losing musical theater or good film scores."
The article does make the good point that today's composers need to be very versatile in musical genres, more so than in the 40s through 70s. And the blogging fun comes from a list included with the article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel of twelve noteworthy scores:
1. "Gone With the Wind" (1939): Max Steiner didn't do subtle, but producer David O. Selznick's epic film doesn't need subtle, it needs some great themes that add a level of characterization that the characters might not have otherwise. A score that works, both with the film, and on its own.

2. "The Sea Hawk "(1940): Pomp and heraldry, and there's even a choral number. The film usually cited as Erich Wolfgang Korngold's masterpiece is "The Adventures of Robin Hood," but he pushes himself further with "The Sea Hawk."

3. "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1946): Bernard Herrmann's gorgeous evocation of the sea and doomed love.

4. "Sunset Boulevard" (1950): Franz Waxman's turbulent but melodic and - at the end - authentically tragic score gets closer to the essence of the operatic tragedy that is Norma Desmond than all of Andrew Lloyd Webber's anachronistic heavings.

5. "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951): Along with Franz Waxman, Alex North was probably the most consistently underrated of all film composers - director John Huston said that North "could break your heart with eight notes." This was North's first movie score, and it captures all the surging, blues-based sensuality and sad poetry of Elia Kazan's film.

6. "Vertigo" (1958): In which Bernard Herrmann first used the odd, tenuously appropriate Spanish rhythms that also enlivened "North by Northwest," another movie that's a concert with attached visuals.

7. "The Magnificent Seven" (1960): Elmer Bernstein's propulsive score pumps up what is actually a rather deliberate Western and convinces the viewers that they're watching a hell-bent-for-leather action-fest.

8. "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968): A far more romantic score than Ennio Morricone's audacious rattlesnake janglings and wailings from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," but they constitute a complete re-imagining of the art of the film score.

9. "Patton" (1970): Not great music, but a great sound gimmick - Jerry Goldsmith's fading trumpet calls signaled Patton's brilliantly archaic mind-set as much as the opening speech.

10. "Jaws" (1975): John Williams' music brilliantly gives an aural impression of a psychological state of fear. The bruuuump, bruuump of the ominous chords denoting the shark give way to spacious, beautiful writing about the open sea.

11. "Ragtime" (1981): Randy Newman in his nostalgic/lyrical mode, beautifully capturing Gilded Age America.

12. "Henry V" (1989): Patrick Doyle's score for Kenneth Branagh's re-imagining of Shakespeare was in the heroic mold but not afraid of recognizing the cognitive dissonance of the grimy visuals butting up against the splendid declamatory language.
And now, commenters, start your snarking of this list. Let me start with Patton. Was it because he felt a need to include Goldsmith? So many better war scores, including Glory or A Bridge Too Far.

(Machicotage, nice music history term just used as a spelling bee championship word)

Everything you wanted to know about AP, but were afraid to ask

Frank has written a good summary of Absolute Pitch, with many links to resources. As this message board is part of a website promoting a system of learning AP, it does not present reasons why AP is not necessary, or even a hindrance, for musicians. It is also too dismissive of the genetics theory for AP. I also point out the legal disclaimer that this program may be illegal in the US. I haven't tried the system, nor do I want to. I have quasi-AP perception, which is really a good sense of pitch memory. It does help in that I know what pitch I'm going to play on the trumpet or cornetto before I actually play it, allowing me to center that note better. But as I end up transposing things quite often, and play on 4-5 different keys of trumpets, I don't fixate on the absolute note names. What is your impression of AP (also known as perfect pitch)? My impression is that professional musicians don't think about it (after they are done with dictation classes), while non-musicians regard it as something magical that all good musicians have.