The End of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:53 pm

The other night my lovely wife and I watched the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, the musical with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. It won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, the most Oscars ever awarded to a musical. My wife had seen it before but it was my first time. I enjoyed it for the most part, although both of us felt that the last third of the movie was a little weak, both dramatically and musically. But I was struck by the way that Leonard Bernstein handled the music at the end of the film.

In the closing scene, [SPOILER ALERT] after Tony dies, Maria tells off the rival gangs and they begin to disperse, there is a pause in the underscoring before Bernstein begins his final chordal progression. It consists of high woodwinds and strings playing a D-flat major chord, punctuated with a G-natural (the tritone to D-flat) in the low bass. (Incidentally, this is the same progression that Stephen Schwartz uses in the closing bars of the first song and the finale of Wicked.) It contributes to the uneasy feeling of the scene: peace has been achieved, at least for the moment, but it isn’t pretty and it wasn’t won without a terrible cost. In the end, the high D-flat chord is played and rings out before dying away, but the bass is not resolved to a D-flat as you expect, leaving the music hanging on a consonant major chord but without a feeling of satisfying resolution.

(Start the video around the 5:20 mark)

However, at the end of the final credits, Bernstein repeats the same progression–but this time, at the end, he resolves the bass to D-flat as well, so that the movie does close with a satisfying and grounded resolution.

(Start the video around 4:15 to see the slightly amusing way Bernstein highlights his own name in the credits; the final progression begins shortly thereafter)

It’s a great way to illustrate musically the emotion at the end of the movie, while still providing a satisfying conclusion at the very end.


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?


Anything Goes (Film)

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:54 pm

If you’re interested in the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes, and you’re considering seeing the 1956 film of the same name starring Bing Crosby and Donald O’Connor, here’s a word of advice: Don’t bother.

Anything Goes is one of my wife’s favorite musicals, not least because she acted in a production of it in high school. She introduced me to it, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know the music by listening to the soundtrack at work. It sounds like a great show, and I’d really like to see it live someday. I thought that getting the movie from Netflix would be the next best thing, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

The film has a completely different plot with completely different characters, features multiple new songs not in the show, and takes a few of the songs from the musical and puts them in a completely different context–not to mention rewriting the feel and orchestration of the songs so they’re sometimes barely recognizable. The style of the movie is the same style of every Bing Crosby movie from the 50s, White Christmas being the example coming most readily to my mind. Crosby plays the exact same character, Donald O’Connor plays the exact same character as Danny Kaye does in White Christmas, the music style is exactly the same, even the plot is very similar (two male entertainers who get romantically tangled with two female entertainers as hilarity ensues). It’s a perfect example of a formulaic movie, made simply to feature Crosby singing songs in a particular style. There’s nothing inherently wrong with formulaic movies, I suppose, but in this case they took a perfectly wonderful musical and disfigured it to the point of being unrecognizable in order to shoehorn it into the formula.

I’m not a fan of that general style of music, either. It all tends to sound the same, and in many ways it’s just as formulaic as the movie. The melodies can often be bland and staid, the harmonies are predictable, and the orchestration is always in the same style without much variation in timbre or texture. There’s much more energy and creativity in the music for the show.

So, unless you’re a fan of the Bing Crosby formula, you can avoid Anything Goes. Just get the soundtrack to the show, or better yet, see it live instead!


2001: A Space Odyssey Soundtrack

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:44 pm

Last week my lovely wife and I watched the classic 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’d seen it once before, and she had seen it several times (including watching it with her family on the night of December 31st, 2000; when she told me that story I got jealous and wished I’d done that too). It’s a great film and enjoyable to watch, if you can appreciate it for its cinematography and artistry while enduring the fact that it moves very slowly.

This time around I really enjoyed the pacing of the film. It’s a long one–just under two and a half hours–but it sets up that length perfectly from an artistic point of view. The movie begins with several minutes of a black screen with creepy music playing, and when images start appearing, they are long, lingering shots of open landscape with no action (as well as no dialogue for the first 25 minutes). This slow opening sets the pace for a long movie beautifully; if the opening had been fast-moving and action-packed, but then the film continued into a slow-moving artistic piece, it would have been artistically incongruous. The ending of the movie is also several minutes of black screen with music playing, which creates an arch-like form and is a nice way to complete the film the way it began.

I’ve never liked the way Kubrick chose Richard Strauss’ waltz music for the space scenes, particularly in the beginning of the movie (partly because I’m not a fan of the music itself). But my wife, who is often more astute at picking up on these things than I am, helped to elucidate it for me a bit more. The simple explanation, of course, is that the gently lilting waltz music mirrors the graceful floating and spinning of the ships as they move through space. But she also noted that the whimsical, happy music of the beginning sets the viewer up for a somewhat jarring contrast later as the “horrors” (as she called them) begin to unfold. So in addition to matching the action on screen at the time, it also puts us into a particular mood so that the events happening later in the movie will have a greater impact.

The final thing about the soundtrack that was interesting was a fascinating tidbit we found while rewatching one of the scenes in French. My wife is a fluent French speaker and I am an aspiring one, so when we watch movies we’ll occasionally go back and watch a scene or two in French if the language is available. In this particular case we went back to watch the scene where the astronaut Bowman disables the memory of the supercomputer HAL who is running the ship. In the English film, as HAL’s mind begins to disintegrate, he starts singing the song “Daisy” (also known as “A Bicycle Built For Two”), which is a classic American folk song. However, in the French dubbed version, he didn’t sing “Daisy” but rather “Au Clair de la Lune” (“By the Light of the Moon”), which is a classic French folk song that is the approximate cultural equivalent of “Daisy” in American English. Isn’t that cool?


I received this article this week from Avid, the company that makes Sibelius, which is the music notation software program that I use. It details how James Horner, one of the A-plus-plus-list film composers in Hollywood and the composer of the score for Avatar, used Sibelius and ProTools HD (another
Avid product) to create the score for the movie. It’s mainly an extended advertisement for the products, but also provides an interesting look inside the composer’s studio in how the score was written, played and recorded.

“Avatar – Creating an Otherworldly Soundtrack with Avid Tools”


My friend Jessica today pointed me to a cool video on Michael Giacchino’s score for the movie Up (which incidentally is a great movie; it won the Academy Award for Animated Feature Film and Giacchino won the award for Best Original Score). Giacchino is one of the fastest-rising young composers in Hollywood today, and he’s becoming a household name (at least as much as any composer can be) for his work in movies like Up, the latest Star Trek movie and The Incredibles, as well as scoring J.J. Abrams’ TV shows Lost and Alias (which I’ve written about here). The score for Up perfectly captured the simplicity and emotional power of the story, and the video is an interesting look at the way Giacchino portrayed the characters with their musical themes, and how those themes evolved and interacted throughout the film. Worth a watch!


The Matrix Score, Don Davis

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:08 pm

A little while ago, my lovely wife and I made a movie-watching deal with each other. She wants me to watch the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice; I’m not opposed to watching it, but since it’s such a feat I thought I’d make a deal out of it. So the deal is that I’d watch Pride and Prejudice with her if she would watch the Matrix trilogy with me. (She had seen the first one and parts of the second one before.) Last week we watched the original Matrix film to start off the deal.

I was reminded why The Matrix is my favorite movie of all time. Great story, brilliant symbolism, great casting/performances, innovative special effects, killer action scenes, trenchcoats and sunglasses. And a stunning score. The composer is Don Davis, who scored all three Matrix movies and The Animatrix, but otherwise nothing too significant. After listening to the score again, though, I’m not sure why. The score is just as brilliant and innovative as the rest of the film, and is a perfect counterpart.

The main motif of the movie, which most people would immediately associate with the Matrix score, is swelling brass chords in alternating octaves. You can hear them in the opening moments of the movie, over the Warner Bros. and Village Pictures logos, and throughout the movie, usually at points where something particularly unbelievable has happened in the Matrix (Trinity’s leap between two buildings in the opening sequence, for example). On the Amazon product page you can hear them in track 8, “Bullet-Time;” if you watch the movie, listen for them as a recurring motif throughout.

The score also makes effective use of a wordless choir to evoke the otherworldliness and horror of the human fields (which you can hear in track 3, “The Power Plant”). The choir enters in very close intervals, creating clusters of notes that grow with the addition of brass clusters and other elements to create a big dissonant soundscape that corresponds with the emotions that the visuals create. Another effective use of vocals in the score is the wordless boy soprano, who sings a simple alternating melody over the montage of Neo’s awakening in the real world and being restored to health. In a similar manner as the choir, the wordless voice creates an otherworldly effect that corresponds to the literal other world that Neo is experiencing.

If you haven’t seen The Matrix in a while, or if you’ve never seen it, give it a watch and let me know what you think. Were there any other aspects of the score that you noticed, liked, or disliked? What stood out to you?


La Moustache Score

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:10 pm

A few nights ago my lovely wife and I watched La Moustache, a French movie with English subtitles that she had heard about somewhere. It’s a story about a man who shaves his mustache on a whim, but is then baffled when his wife and friends don’t notice–and then is more baffled still when they insist he’s never had a mustache. We weren’t sure whether it was a comedy or a drama–since it seems like that premise could go either way–but it turned out to be a mysterious drama which was kind of frustrating because it never explained all the weird happenings in the movie. I don’t mind ambiguous endings, in general, but it never even tried to explain the increasingly strange things that kept happening. And the hilarious part was that in the special features, even the lead actress admitted she had no idea what was happening in “the mustache story,” and even the director himself said he didn’t really know what was going on. Weird.

But in any case, the music for the film was interesting. There was really only one piece that was used throughout the film, and really only two sections of the piece. The main part that was used consisted of repeated chords and arpeggiated figures in the strings. It had a haunting, ominous quality to it, so it was used effectively in situations that required that feeling; but it seemed a little repetitive by the end. As we watched the credits, I discovered that the piece was the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Philip Glass, one of the most successful modern American composers. The piece is from 1987 and is a good example of his tonal, repetitive, and minimal style. And it worked, more or less, as the only score in La Moustache.

You can listen to clips of Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by clicking here and then clicking the “listen/watch” button on the left side of the page. Then click on “Violin Concerto” in the second list that pops up.

P.S. I’m sure most, if not all of my TLB readers have heard this news through other channels (email, website, Facebook, Twitter…), but just in case you haven’t: I’m going to be releasing a new recording of an original Christmas song, called “Paradoxology,” this Christmas Eve 12/24/2009. It’ll be my first released recording in four years–the first since my album Following A Star was finished, on Christmas Eve of 2005. You’ll be able to download “Paradoxology” from my website, for free, next Thursday. So check it out! http://www.ajharbison.com


Also Sprach Zarathustra in Movie Previews

Posted by AJ Harbison at 10:24 am

This past weekend, my lovely wife and I went to see Up, Pixar’s latest movie (I know, you don’t have to tell me how far behind I am in seeing it…). It was really awesome, by the way–probably the most emotionally powerful and best-looking animated movie I’ve ever seen. But before the movie started, we were watching the previews, and I noticed that two of them in a row used the exact same music in their trailers. (One was Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but I can’t remember what the other one was.) The music was the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, perhaps best known as the theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I guarantee you know this theme; if that doesn’t sound familiar, watch the YouTube clip below.)

This piece has been used bazillions of times in movies, commercials, previews, etc.; in these two trailers, it was being used as a parody of itself–a monumental, epic theme played humorously against animated films. But it struck me as pretty ridiculous that two animated previews in a row used the exact same music for the exact same purpose. Doesn’t anyone have any original ideas for music anymore? Why don’t they get a young up-and-coming composer of rocking music to write a new theme for them?


Sideways Score, Rolfe Kent

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:25 pm

My lovely wife and I watched the movie Sideways for the first time last night (and drank a 2007 Robert Mondavi pinot noir to commemorate the occasion). The movie is about two middle-aged men who take a trip through Napa Valley wine country the week before one of them gets married; along the way, as the movie’s tagline states, they’re “In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves.” It was an enjoyable movie; it’s billed as a comedy, and the first half was quite fun and had a lot to do with wine (which of course I enjoyed). The second half, however, was much more of a drama, and had much less to do with wine (and I was a little disappointed). But overall it was quite a good movie.

The score was written by Rolfe Kent, who has written music for many of director Alexander Payne’s movies (including About Schmidt and Election) as well as other popular movies such as Wedding Crashers, Thank You For Smoking and Legally Blonde. It was a jazzy, piano-driven pop-music score–reminiscent in my mind of the style of Hitch‘s score by George Fenton. There was a lot of music in the film, probably because the movie covers the period of an entire week and thus there are a lot of short scenes and transitions that the music helps along, and the upbeat, poppy music definitely kept the atmosphere light and kept things moving. I was especially fond of the theme that plays on the DVD menu (you can hear samples on the score’s Amazon page; that particular theme can be found in a more subdued version in “Los Olivos,” track 8). But there was also some melancholy piano solo music that helped set the tone of the second half of the movie as well, that followed a common bass line progression: G minor – F# augmented – B-flat major over F – C major 9 over E – etc. (You can hear this theme in track 11 on the Amazon page, “Abandoning The Wedding.”)

Sideways progression

We watched the movie all the way through the end credits, as we always do, and it was interesting to note that through most of the credits the music was the jazzy, upbeat style of the first half of the movie; but the very last part of the score at the end returned to the doleful piano theme and ended on that. I wonder if it was an intentional statement by the filmmakers that although there are happy and upbeat times in life, the underlying theme (or perhaps the final theme) is melancholy. It certainly did seem that way for the characters in the film.


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