Talking Movies

May 15, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

SAVE BBC FOUR!

It was alarming to hear yesterday that Lucy Worsley and Janina Ramirez were starting a campaign to try and save BBC FOUR, after word leaked that the BBC was planning to let it disappear at the end of 2020 to save money. The BBC doesn’t need to save said money of course, it’s just the Tories maliciously toying with them in the way US Republicans toy with the US Postal Service. They object to it in principle and then set arbitrary and impossible targets to justify eliminating it in practice. Rather akin to Bogie in The Big Sleep complaining a goon will knock his teeth out and then gut-punch him for mumbling. And the real kicker is that losing BBC FOUR in 2021 means losing BBC FOUR from 2013 to 2020 too. Having lost JFK, Apocalypse Now, Die Hard, The Dark Knight and season 1 of Person of Interest to the difference between RTE 2 and RTE2 I know that all my recordings of the channel will disappear with it. And that’s a lot of recordings… To watch any of these recordings is to time-travel back to watching them with Dad since 2013.  Andrew Graham Dixon’s Art of China, several series and specials by Michael Scott on Ancient Greece, Hew Strachan’s The First World War, Robin Lane Fox’s special on the archaeological origins of Greek myths, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s appearance on Jazz 625 in the 1960s, and a colossal amount of recordings from the BBC Proms including performances of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Isle of the Dead, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, Mark Simpson playing Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, Jeremy Denk playing Bartok’s 2nd Piano Concerto, and Yo-Yo Ma playing all six Bach Cello Suites. To watch any of these recordings is to remember watching them with my Dad and also to recall the well nigh parodic amounts of workplace conversations I have been part of that began with somebody saying “I was watching BBC FOUR the other night, and there was this programme on—” I struggle to think of a greater act of wilful capricious cultural vandalism and intellectual hamstringing that could be perpetrated by a British government than the shuttering of BBC FOUR as a broadcast station. How has it offended? Telling the truth about the world, informing people? Boris ‘Bullsh-t and Bluster’ Johnson is of the party that has had enough of experts; it seems that the mere existence of objective truth now offends him, and must be plucked out. BBC FOUR exists largely because BBC 2 has abdicated its original mission. Coverage of the Proms, as Clemency Burton-Hill rightly lamented, is now largely a BBC FOUR affair. Even the venerable Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for children have been booted to BBC FOUR. If you deride and discard expertise, you end up with buffoonery bungling a plague.

That joke isn’t funny anymore

The Engineer, just before Christmas, muttered that some day he would watch The West Wing. Just probably not while Trump was President, as that would amount to self-inflicted torture… I opined that it might be better to watch it sooner rather than later, Trump or no Trump, because it took its cues from the world as it was at the peak of human civilisation in 1999 in a way that was becoming increasingly unrecognisable. Deals being made in Congress. Deals?! Deals being made across party lines? People being friends across party lines?! Conservative Democrats and Liberal Republicans? This was soon all going to be every bit as far-fetched as the need for three corroborating sources before publication in All the President’s Men. And then as I cycled again thru TG4’s re-runs I hit the ‘Stirred’ episode of season three. Oh boy… There had been a potentially a radioactive spill in a tunnel in Idaho. Bartlet jokes to Leo before taking a phone call from Boise that the Governor of Idaho wants to know what the radiation levels are, and he’ll say that he’ll tell him – but first give me all your electoral votes in the fall. Well, that joke doesn’t seem farfetched anymore given that Trump is deliberately sending more ventilators and PPE per capita to states with Republican governors that need them less than states with Democratic governors, boasting about ordering VP Pence not to call ‘the woman in Michigan’ and then lying about his own boast, and making it plain that unless governors flatter his insatiable ego they will not get the materiel they need to stop their citizens dying. Trump Delenda Est.

Objectivity for … some students!

Well, now. So Fine Gael having happily presided over the degradation of the Junior Cert on the arbitrary assertion of Ruari Quinn, a complaint hereabouts over the last four years, is abruptly unwilling to stand over the same procedure being applied to the Leaving Cert. Odd that. Remember the cutesy animation that ran in cinemas explaining why Ruari Quinn’s nonsense ‘reforms’ of the Junior Cert could only be opposed by heartless monsters equally opposed to learning and out of touch with the real world? It takes mere seconds to articulate the counter-argument against Ruari Quinn’s pet project. If you and your teacher are engaged in a profoundly active balance of terror do you really want that person marking all your work for three years, or would you prefer that your work be in the final analysis independently judged by somebody else, anonymously, and far away from the grudges of your school? Quinn’s folly was based on the syllogism that the Junior Cert needed reform, this was a reform, therefore it needed this reform; without ever articulating why the Junior Cert needed reform. Now it seems Fine Gael has belatedly realised predictive grading for the Leaving Cert would replace a system of blind meritocracy with an all too personal one obviously open to abuse, from both sides; teachers and parents. What finally made the penny drop? The threat of lawsuits from well-connected students expecting places in medicine and law? Or was it the many comedy sketches about vindictive teachers victimising their most unruly pupils? And so we have students promised exams that will be marked objectively.

Gaslighting and Masks

Well. I don’t know quite what to make of this. According to Beauregarde Hinkelmeister-Schmitt, a source usually as reliable as his name is not, it is an open secret among certain journalists that the Government ordered 100,000,000 cotton face masks some time ago and is waiting for them to arrive, hence their glacial progress towards officially admitting face masks are useful. The logic apparently being there’s no point demanding people wear them before we have enough – there’d only be panic and irritation as the shops emptied out. Also, they’re probably more useful as we relax the lockdown. However, the experience of face masks elsewhere suggests they’re useful from the very beginning. Hinkelmeister-Schmitt has perhaps been spinning a party line, in finding all sorts of ways to disparage the example of every country using masks in that fashion; the connecting logic being a fatuous —It wouldn’t work here. Well, cotton masks aren’t N95 PPE. Any old paisley bandanna will do the job. For all of Status Burgundy I wrapped a merino scarf around my face before I went on the dreaded late night shopping sortie. What makes me doubt that this can be true is that I just find incredible the idea that the ‘experts’ would denigrate mask wearing for 2 months and more, and then turn around and say — actually they are da bomb, and there’s one for everyone in the audience. Actually there’re 20 for everyone in the audience. Why would anyone ever again believe anything from the mouths of people who lied to them consistently while planning all the while to do the opposite of what they were saying? How you could possibly impose a second lockdown for a second wave in the autumn after such a breach of trust? I don’t think gaslighting the nation can ever be in the interest of the nation.

April 29, 2020

Sergei Prokofiev: 5 Works

Symphony No 5

Scythian Suite

Peter and the Wolf

Piano Concerto No 5

Cello Sonata in C Major

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

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