Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Movie music and me

I don't go to the movies that often. If there's a movie I want to see in a bad way, I'll go. Otherwise, I'll buy it when it comes out on DVD, after reading as many trusted reviews as I can. However, this piece on Slate got me thinking about movie music. Not who's best, but who's most influential - other than Gustav Holst. I think that the two composers who set out to create the world anew each time are, hands down, the most influential: Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler.

Wagner's music is the music of the world-mythic, of life, death, creation, and destruction. Mahler, on the other hand, was content with two things: life and death. Wagner created universes, even in works set in specific places like Tristan or Die Meistersinger. Mahler explored life and death in our universe. Of course, since he worked in and with archetypes, Wagner's music is better-suited for archetypal characters. Like Star Wars, for which John Williams borrowed "liberally," shall we say.

Mahler, on the other hand, works for the catastrophic and the emotional. The opening bars of Richard Robbins' music for The Remains of the Day reminds me of several moments in Mahler, not least the Urlicht from the 2nd. There are many examples of this sort of recreation or borrowing-effect. However, why borrow? Wagner and Mahler were towering genii who ended their genres, respectively. Opera (or music-drama) was pointless after Wagner, and symphonies were pointless after Mahler (pace Shostakovich). Take from them, with credit. Don't put their work through a mesh screen out of a sense of novelty. It's criminal.

The recent film, The New World, used Wagner's prelude to Das Rheingold as its opening music. Is there any other music more primal and world-creating? No. If you want to symbolize the creation of a new universe, a new reality, even, then you must go to the man who created and destroyed a universe with gods, mortals, and monsters. You must go to Wagner. The director of The New World, Terrance Malick, understood this. James Horner is adequate, but Wagner's worst note blows Horner's best out of the water.

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which really should have gotten him his "Best Picture" Academy Award, has - to my mind - one of the best uses of music in a movie. When Hughes (DiCaprio) takes the XF-11 up for its ill-fated maiden flight, the Fuge from Bach's* BWV 565 is played in an orchestral arrangement. Anything else would be a pale imitation if it tried to go for the same style. This is precisely the attitude intelligent directors should have.

Stanley Kubrick always understood this, from Ligeti's Lux aeterna in 2001 to Schubert's D.929 in Barry Lyndon, he used the composer's original, rather than letting some studio hack butcher it. Could anyone have replicated the cool, fatalistic rhythm of the Andante from D.929? Could anyone else's music have been so apt and so ironic at the same time? No. No one but Schubert. Kubrick was a genius, both as the gold standard for cinema in the modern era and as a director. He knew what he was doing when he used original music.

Perhaps other directors can learn from Scorsese (in The Aviator, as I think Peter Gabriel scored The Last Temptation of Christ, for example), Malick, and Kubrick. Or, in the words of David Byrne, "Said something once, why say it again?"

*Because BWV 565 has parallel fifths, something Bach avoided as a master of the Baroque, some assert that it isn't by Bach, but an enterprising forger of a student. I don't care, simply because only Bach could pull of the Fuge as brilliantly as it was done. No one else. Not even Mozart or Beethoven.


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