I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.
So, I finally got a new pair of headphones today. That in itself is a story. When I was in grad school, I bought a pair of heavy earphones that were fantastic. Long cord, covered the ears, good balance. I used the hell out of them. One day someone broke into my UT-Austin office through the ceiling and stole my monitor and my headphones. We recovered the monitor; they’d stashed it for later retrieval and I got it back after the police fingerprinted it. But the headphones were never seen again. Why they would want my old, torn-up, earwax-encrusted headphones mystifies me a bit. But, as Robert Heinlein said, thieves will steal anything that isn’t nailed down whether it’s valuable or not.
When I get new electronics, one of my little quirks is to figure out the perfect media with which to break them in with. When I got my first DVD player, it was Saving Private Ryan. When I got my blu-ray player, it was Lord of the Rings (DVD). So what do you break a new pair of headphones in with?
If you’re me, you break them in with the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And since it is Christmas, it becomes doubly apropos.
Other writers have written more eloquently than I can about the 9th Symphony, which is simply the pinacle of musical achievement. Listened to on its own, it’s powerful, beautiful and overwhelming. But when you think about the circumstances: the most joyous uplifting music in history written by a man who was deaf and had an awful personal life … well, let me just say that I couldn’t get through typing that sentence without choking up.
As amazing as the 9th is on audio, it’s simply stunning in person. I’ve been privileged to see it live, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And I don’t think any media — digital, analog or telepathic — can convey just how special it is to watch it performed live. There’s something about seeing the hundred pieces of an orchestra and chorus working together that a recording simply can not convey.
What’s even more amazing is the response. I’ve been to many classical concerts and classical audiences tend to be a bit reserved. For a great performance, you’ll get a standing ovation. But it’s usually just politely attentive applause. When the last note of the 9th fell, however, I heard a sound I’d never heard from a classical audience before. There was a roar as the audience lept to their feet, clapping cheering and whistling. The ASO got five ovations the night I saw them. It was like we didn’t want that glorious music to end.
I’m sure wiser heads have commented on this, but I was struck by something while watching Tron: Legacy the other night: the growing influence of minimalism in American movie soundtracks.
Let me back up a bit. In the early 90’s, I saw an outstanding documentary called The Thin Blue Line. Errol Morris, who is the film-maker Michael Moore wishes he were, made a compelling case that an innocent man was on death row — such a compelling case that he was released a year later.
One of the great things about the film is the score, which was put together by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. At the time, I had no idea what minimalist music was. When I first heard the name, I assumed it was what it sounded like — an orchestra where the violin would play one note, the trumpet would play another and that would be it: a more upbeat version of Cage’s silence. But minimalism is more complex than that. And Glass’s score, with its emphasis on rhythm and harmony at the exclusion of melody, was perfect for the movie. It gave an unusual urgency to the narrative and the increasing complexity of the harmony emphasized the increasing complexity of the story you were required to believe to conclude that Randall Dale Adams was guilty.
Glass did another score for The Hours which was very similar — his music all begins to sound alike after a while. But it also elevated that movie, especially the scene where Julianne Moore hallucinates that the room is flooding.
So, back to Tron. Daft Punk’s score is very good and also very minimalist. It is built on a handful of leit motifs with lots of repetition, increasing complexity and changing emphasis. It gives the film almost all of its energy and drive. But Tron is not unique. Inception had a very minimalistic score. Doctor Who uses a fair amount of minimalism. Both Batman movies use a lot of minimalism. Hans Zimmer, in particular, has been driving the minimalist train for several years with dramatic success.
So why is minimalism so big now? I think because it is well-suited to the kind of entertainment we’re seeing — fast-paced, quickly-edited, quick moving films that have little time for symphonic scores. They need a score that moves the movie, rather than emphasizes it. This is especially true of science fiction and fantasy films where a minimalist score can match the “techie” look and feel.
That’s not to slam symphonic scores like those of John Williams, whose epic scores for the three Star Wars prequels were the best things about them. Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings, with its strong Wagnerian influence, is wonderful. But the palette has now broadened to the point where a minimalist score can not only be acceptable, but one of the best scores of the year.
We’re in a golden age of movie scores. If only the scripts could keep up.