06.15.2010

The Third Man (Score)

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:52 pm

My lovely wife and I watched the 1949 movie The Third Man last week. It was a good movie, with an interesting mystery plot and featuring Orson Welles in what he called a “star role” (where people talk about his character for 45 minutes before he actually shows up). I was disappointed in the score, though. It was comprised entirely of zither music; the zither is a stringed instrument common in Eastern Europe, and since the movie was set in Vienna I suppose it made sense, as it would have been a style of music native to the movie’s time and place, and the carefree, happy folk music it played provided a nice artistic contrast to the film noir elements of the movie. But it did get annoying pretty quickly.

But it also set me thinking about the interesting challenge of setting the whole score of a movie for one instrument. I’ve written before of how I like the idea of a self-imposed limit on one’s palette of colors, and this seems like a great example. What would be a good instrument for such a challenge? (Solo piano doesn’t count.) Stringed instruments suggested themselves immediately; a violin or viola could certainly be used to striking effect, although a cello would have a richer tone and range. It’s hard to think of another instrument that could be used as effectively by itself throughout the course of a whole film (whether short or not). What do you think?

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    Idhrendur on 06.16.2010

    In the percussion world, I think only vibraphone or marimba would stand a chance. And it would be quite difficult; the player would have to be phenomenal and the composer would have to know and push the limits of what can be done.

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    Mark Harbison on 06.17.2010

    I’m obviously not a musician, but what about a harp? From what (very) little I know, it seems like a harp has a pretty wide range, and it can cross the spectrum of feel from haunting to beautiful. The limitation would be (among others, I suppose) that everything would have kind of an ethereal quality to it, but for the right kind of movie I think that could work well.

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    ajharbison on 06.17.2010

    Fascinating comments, thanks, guys! I agree that probably only a keyboard-type percussion instrument would work; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Steve Reich or Philip Glass had scored a film or two for solo marimba. (Although part of me would love to see a short film scored only with bass drum.) And a harp is an intriguing suggestion, too; I think the difficulty would be that the ethereal quality of the music might get tiresome pretty quickly. But used selectively in a short film, it could be very effective.

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