On weekends, I participate in a local community orchestra, in an attempt to remain connected to the musical community and keep my skills sharp. I also just enjoy playing. This semester, we are preparing a concert of movie music and show tunes – my favorite kind of concert to give – and although I am enjoying our rehearsals and our repertoire, rehearsing with this small orchestra of devoted amateurs is only a shadow of the experience of playing music from Broadway and film with my college symphony to a full concert hall years ago.
Nevertheless, I don’t want the semester to end, because sometimes, as we rehearse tunes from Showboat, I am transported back eight years to the stage in Burruss Hall in Blacksburg, where I am dressed all in black, sitting under hot stage lights, accompanying our guest soloist as she sings, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (As an aside, Showboat is either progressive for its time in how it depicts black Americans, or it’s regressive – it depends on who you talk to). Or I’m in the student center, rehearsing Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, making the walls shake with sound, or I’m poking my friend as we watch Sin City in the theater, excitedly whispering, “That’s Sensemaya! We’re performing that this year.”
There’s something about playing the score of a film that makes you feel like you’re a part of the movie – like somehow you have more right to loving it than others, because you’ve recreated it, and therefore you understand it in a way that other people simply can’t. You know that the soli part at the beginning of Lord of the Rings, which sounds so simple, is actually syncopated in such a way that it’s pretty difficult to nail the rhythm. You know the feeling, not just the sound, of horns reverberating through your body during Batman. You were there. You were part of it.
Unfortunately, my career as a symphonic violinist probably peaked when I was 20. Despite repeatedly putting myself out there, I have crippling stage fright. Crippling, in that I tremble so violently that I lose control of my performance. This is actually no problem on stage with full orchestra, but the issue is that you have to audition to get into that orchestra, and in an audition you’re completely exposed.
If it weren’t for the stage fright, however, I would have at least minored in performance, and then perhaps I could have recaptured that feeling of being a part of something by not just giving a concert of movie music, but by actually recording music for film. How cool would that be? To be a fundamental part of the setting AND story. Manipulating the audience’s emotions. Feeling those emotions yourself.
Because the music in film is fundamental. If it’s not there, you know it – it’s a deliberate artistic move. If it’s not done well, or done haphazardly, you know it – it’s like reaching for sugar but tasting salt. The music supports the plot, tells you what’s happening, what’s about to happen, etc. (for more on this, see Jack Black in The Holiday). Before there were even spoken lines in film, there was music.
In some cases, the music even leaves the movie behind, and becomes a part of our cultural canon. Consider the screeching from Psycho, or the two notes of Jaws. Many know the meaning of that music, and use it to help tell stories or make a point, before they have any idea where it came from. Then there are popular songs that have lived on while the films they came from lose popularity: “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, for example, or “’Til There Was You” from The Music Man. (Both were musicals made into films, of course, but films nonetheless).
This influence means that the composer is powerful, like the director or the screenwriter, in shaping your experience… yet they receive a fraction of the popular recognition.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll do my small part to change that, by introducing you to a few of the names behind historical and contemporary musical scores, and exploring the music of recent box office behemoths. In the meantime, imagine a world without themes from Star Wars… Indiana Jones… Harry Potter…
…you can’t do it, can you?