Taking a cue

My freshman writing seminar was named, with a nod toward the post-modern tradition, "Writing/s about Music." This course still stands out as one of my favorite academic experiences for many reasons. The one relevant to this post is that it made me aware of just how frequently music is used to move us. One of our assignments was to record every instance of music (defined as sound arranged with conscious intent to avoid including car horns and bird chirps) we heard for a 24-hour period and also to respond to it. Try it sometime. Eye-, I mean, ear-opening. Har har.

The professor specialized in film music, so the interplay between visual and aural cues received careful emphasis. The most straightforward cognitive science explanation of how music works with movies points to three aspects, 1) music reinforces, or adds a layer of, meaning, 2) music enhances memory, 3) music aids suspension of disbelief. Now, those are a blog post (or a dissertation) of their own. For our purposes, consider only that perception of visual images is changed when they are accompanied by music. This possibility fascinates me. I would say I am hyper-aware of music in film, often wishing I could talk to my teacher as I'm walking out of the theater, while also wanting to bring awareness to everyone else in my world. Two movies recently have motivated me to finally write about it:

Little Miss Sunshine

If you haven't yet heard about this movie, I don't know what rock you've been living under, but crawl out! The sun's shining! And there is much laughter to be had, so much it might kick you off your plush seat, or is that just me. Where I felt completely disconnected from Napoleon, I empathized with all six members of this ragtag family, who in the end seemed to my sister and me far less dysfunctional than they'd lead us to believe.

Enough about the movie, now the music: scored by this great little band, Devotchka. I had never realized how similar Ennio Morricone's music was to gypsy music until I heard Devotchka. They make sad music, and not just a chin flopped in your hand sigh, but epically sad, like everyone you care about will be tortured for generations but you must go on. And that's what's really great: it doesn't wallow. There's all this life-affirming energy in the bouncy plucking beneath the wail. I'm mostly writing about the album How it Ends, because that's what I have, but the soundtrack has the added bonus of Sufjan singing a couple of the songs, still written by Devotchka.


Yesyes, the new Woody Allen movie, in which Woody Allen plays, but mercifully not as the romantic lead. I laughed. Sometimes the plot has the feeling of a tossed-off, this'll give us the tension, or resolution, or situation, that I'm looking for, but the thing is, he's right: it does give him the (fill in the blank). Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson are mostly left alone to be charmingly dapper British gentleman and refreshingly down-to-earth plucky American college girl, respectively.

Now, let me take a little detour into how the ballet world works. This'll all tie together in a second, promise. The big ballets are recreated over and over again, not just on the grand stages of the world's capitals, but in the studios of the small towns. Strict teachers rap the centuries-old combinations into thirteen-year-old heads, then on breaks they all watch videos of Dame Margot Fonteyn, Sylvie Guillaume, pick your hero. One of the variations taught from the repertoire is called simply "Little Swans," from possibly the most performed ballet of all time, Swan Lake. Hands held with overlapping arms, the four dancers make absolutely synchronized movements, from one foot to the other, across the floor on bent legs, then straight. It's a very difficult set of steps but is always given to young dancers and taught to everyone as both rite of passage and test.

The opening credits of Scoop roll with the "Little Swans" music. To an outside observer, it might sound kind of Nancy Drew detective story, but to a former dancer, that music plunges you back into the wide open space and your adolescent body, trying not to grip too hard on your partner, not to trip, not to bob your head, but yes to glide, yes to keep going. Amazing. Later in the movie when it recurs, possibly to bring back the memory of the first scenes, it really just dredges up smells of satin and hairspray. In fact, Allen ends up using several selections from the Swan Lake suite, a big corps de ballet number, part of the swan queen's big show, the white swan's solo (the harp piece), and the finale, I think. As if that weren't enough, the musical director tops it off with the toy soldier/rat fight scene from the Nutcracker, the awful ballet Americans insist on revisiting every year. I struggled not to lose my focus on what was happening on screen.

What's your favorite film score? Or story of hearing a song out-of-context that just transported you back somewhere?


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