Friday, December 18, 2009

Feedback on Final Project

This semester, I’ve been challenged to look at several mediums in popular culture and analyze the sort of sociological impacts that they’ve had on our culture as a whole. We looked quite a bit at the narrative arts: fantasy and science fiction novels, comics and television, as well as their adaptations into the media of film. When choosing what to do for my final research project, I had a hard time trying to choose between different subjects. At first, I was set to write a paper on Alice in Wonderland, then Watchmen, then essentially nothing. I decided that in order to complete such a project, I would have to turn to something that I knew I would be comfortable with: music. This is how a simple task, writing an essay, became a creative labor of love. But how would I incorporate this wildly different medium into a look at narrative art?

It was a challenge to decide what to use and how to execute my idea. At first, the entire project revolved around my comparatively little knowledge of film scoring. I am a Music Composition major here at SUNY Fredonia, and have been trained to listen for patterns and structure in music. I was to take several examples of film scores and look at how they represent adapted characters, situations, settings, etc. Among them were the aforementioned film adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Watchmen, along with Lord of the Rings, Batman and several others. By looking at these similarities in scoring processes I was to examine cultural reactions through a sociological standpoint.

But again, something didn’t feel right. I feel I can write essays well, but I didn’t want to half-ass something that I consider a close personal subject. And this is how I came upon the creative project.

Through the guidance of Dr. Simon, I was able to decide on something that I could both be interested in and something that would actually comment on these views of culture that I was to research. The idea is simple: take a previously scored film (again, a film produced from an adapted source), remove the sound and re-score it. It took quite awhile to narrow down some options. At first, I again turned to Watchmen, a personal favorite of mine. Then I chose The Prestige, another dazzling work based on a previous text. But these two both dealt with the same problem: dialogue. The original basis for choosing such films was that while they are so well done, and have great soundtracks, there is a bit to be desired from these scores. Watchmen has a soundtrack that features an original score, popular music from every era in which the story takes place, as well as current songs written for the movie. This is an interesting concept, but leaves the mind sort of wandering, trying to find grounds for what exactly is supposed to be represented musically: the characters themselves don’t have themes representing them, and the songs don’t directly comment on the situations at hand. With The Prestige, the problem is a bit different. There are tendencies and themes in the score, but the music never quite takes center stage. Understandable for such a movie, as it is focused so much on the actors, dialogue and actions of the characters. This is where I ran into a problem. The reason I chose both films were that they were visually appealing and could use a new soundtrack, but I had run into problems of not being able to remove dialogue, and therefore they had become unusable.

Finally, I remembered an adaptation that I hold quite dear. 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, which itself is saying quite a bit considering his stellar body of work. One reason that I look to 2001 in such high regard is that it seamlessly blends Kubrick’s aesthetic with the dazzling beauty of both space and artificial color. It also opened an opportunity to find that one of the most dazzling visual scenes in the film contains absolutely no dialogue. But where the other films lacked the support of an adequate soundtrack, 2001 had an amazing set of pieces as a soundtrack. Kubrick had originally asked composer Alex North, known for his score of A Streetcar Named Desire, to create an original score for the film. North, enthusiastic about writing a score for such a broad-scoped film, wrote the work only to have it eventually discarded by the director. Kubrick instead went with a series of classical pieces that he had been listening to when editing the film. Among them, Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, Johann Strauss II’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”, and perhaps most importantly, a series of pieces by 20th century Hungarian composer György Ligeti. Ligeti is known as being a pioneer of electronic music and experimental, sound and timbre related music. One of Ligeti’s most important musical developments is known as microtonalism, or more commonly “sound mass”. Ligeti often wrote focusing less on specific chord function, tonality and other conventional guidelines of composition, and looked more at how timbres, sounds and textures interacted with each other. Among the pieces chosen of Ligeti’s to be in 2001, Kubrick chose excerpts from his “Lux Aeterna”, “Atmospheres”, and “Aventures”.

One reason I chose 2001 is not that its soundtrack falls short. In fact, I feel it is one of the most important soundtracks in film history, considering its use of modernist classical music in it as well as Romantic era material. The reason I ended up choosing 2001 is based on its final scene, the “Stargate” sequence. This sequence is a 10-15 minute study in early visual effects as a means of advancing a narrative. The dazzling colors, lights and spatial images prove to add to the already aesthetically pleasing and distinct 2001. The scene contains no dialogue, and is all based on the images produced by Kubrick’s genius insight into the story. The music originally in place for the scene was a work of Ligeti, his “Atmospheres”. This highly dissonant piece was chosen to add to the disorienting quality of the scene’s setting: a “stargate”, where the character of Bowman flies through space and realizes the overwhelming quality of the outside galaxy. The piece is a personal favorite, and itself is quite groundbreaking.

So, why should I rescore this influential piece of cinema? I feel that the answer lies in my look at the impact of the film. While groundbreaking and almost completely novel in every way, it’s soundtrack relied completely on previously written music. The original score, while still recorded and realized as a concert work, was never actual place in the movie. As well, I also believe that North’s original score for the film didn’t quite capture the heart of the scene, and was never quite as popular as the adapted works used in the film. These works, while already quite popular in their own right, became much more famous after the film’s successes. Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, which is almost instantly recognizable now as a huge, epic theme used to portray larger than life events, became an iconic work. It was later used in sporting events and concert of other musicians, Elvis Presley among them. On the Beautiful Blue Danube, already quite famous at the time, was used in the film to represent the graceful pace of spaceships slowly moving through the universe. But the only one of these close to actually representing characters, setting or actions is that of Ligeti’s music. But even then, we face the fact that Ligeti did not write the work as being programmatic, therefore not representing any part of the action or setting.

This is why I have chosen to rescore this wonderful piece of cinema: while Kubrick’s soundtrack did make a lovely companion, it did not accurately enough portray exactly the settings surrounding the events of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hope that this project has met the criteria of looking at the adaptation of the source material, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also, my hopes are that in doing this, one can pay more attention to music’s important role in defining film in it’s ever aspect. And with that, I present my original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I’ve take to calling “On a Kubrick Visual”. (Original version) (Project version)

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