Posts in: MU228
I have a confession to make: I do not enjoy listening to music played by The Beatles. I am fully aware that this should result in me having my musician’s card removed, my guitar taken away from me and me being locked in a room with a TV playing “Yellow Submarine” until I can recite every line and song in the movie backwards. Unfortunately (or fortunately for me) this is Colorado College, and we are accepting people here. Thus I have my right to exercise my free-speech. However, I shall hold my tongue for arguably the first time of my life, and instead attempt to evenly discuss what the topic of our class has been for the past two days: The Beatles.
This being a Stage to Screen class, we not only focused on The Beatles’ music, we also focused on some of their uhhhh… Interesting endeavors into other forms of performance, such as movies. Before diving into their cinematic trials, I want to state that I have great respect for the Beatles as pioneers of the British Invasion. I think that they were extremely important for music as a whole in relation to the start of the “Classic Rock” era. They proved that a British band could experience huge success in the United States. Yes, I’ll even admit that some of their songs are catchy. However, there is one element of the Beatles which really leaves a sorry feeling in my stomach: their authenticity as artists.
Much of what we have been discussing in class recently pertains to how authentic a group of musicians are, and what makes them authentic or inauthentic. According to Philip Auslander, there is one element which is paramount in authenticity: the live performance. The live performance validates what we hear on the record. If you attend a show and the singer sounds like an emaciated camel with a hoof in its mouth, you are going to think “Wow, these guys are awful; I can’t believe I wasted my money on them” and write them a letter laced with your finest and most eloquent language. I could just be the minority, but I expect that the music I have paid money for to be real, not something thrown together for a chunk of change. A prime example of this is the 1990 Grammy scandal where Milli Vanilli had their Grammy revoked after it was revealed that they hadn’t even sung on the record. They had hired people who could actually sing to record it for them, and then toured and lip-synced along with the music as if they had recorded it. What if we learned that some modern day performers didn’t actually write their own music, or that one man actually wrote and produced Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold” Ke$ha’s “Tik-Tok” and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”? Oh, wait, one man did. Now, I know you’re probably saying “But i saw the Beatles perform live in 1964 on the ’Ed Sullivan Show!’ They didn’t have the ability to pull such shenanigans in the sixties!” And you’d be correct, but the Beatles did begin to pave the way for such acts.
The Beatles started their last tour in 1966 a week before Revolver was released. And they never performed any of their new material live. Why? Because they couldn’t. Many of the tracks on Revolver required special instruments or special effects that could not be reproduced in a live performance. Essentially, their music became a thing only for the stereo at home. And yet, the Beatles were– and are– still worshipped world wide as being the greatest rock band of all time. What does this say about Philip Auslander’s insistence that live performance is necessary for musicians to be taken seriously? What does this say about the Beatles and modern music? Do we even care if the musicians are actually performing what they played on the record?
As much as I found “Yellow Submarine” to be an intriguing display of psychedelic art, I felt a bit cheated– as if the Beatles were trying to compensate for their lack of live performances with cartoon caricatures. This is even without acknowledging that the Beatles didn’t even voice themselves for the film, and only appeared for a few minutes at the very end. It was thoroughly discussed in our readings for class (by Kenneth Womack and Todd Davis) that later in their careers, the Beatles wanted to be taken seriously as artists, and not just be the record selling pop-group that they had been before. To accomplish this, they released movies and albums. The music itself was some of the best that the Beatles ever recorded, and yet, to me it feels hollow. It’s like when you have a huge chocolate rabbit from Easter and you’re really excited to engorge yourself on the creamy goodness only to discover that it’s hollow. To me, studio music is exactly that– it lacks substance until I can see that it is real. The half-baked cinematic efforts such as Help! the Magical Mystery Tour (which was so bad that it wasn’t even broadcast in the united states) and Let it Be didn’t exactly give the Beatles a more mature appearance. In fact, it seems more like they only cared to turn a dollar without actually having to go on tour. It makes me sad.
I again encourage you to leave comments. If you don’t, I shall automatically assume that everyone agrees with me.
If you are feeling that your brain is very happy and content and have a desire to change that, I would encourage you to watch Swan Lake and immediately follow it with Black Swan. The juxtaposition of the smooth, ethereal dancing of Tchaikovsky’s ballet– which was first produced in 1870– and the gritty and rather disturbing Black Swan is rather drastic. However, the two are more similar than may be initially thought especially when the music is considered.
It is a testament to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s prodigious talent in composition that the music of Swan Lake is versatile enough to be used in a Ballet and in Black Swan. If you are unfamiliar with either the ballet or the movie, I shall attempt to come to the rescue here and here. There is one particular piece of Tchaikovsky’s composition that I would like to focus on, and that is the Swan Theme (of which I shall embed a video at the bottom). In the ballet, the music is used to underscore the moment when our fine hero Siegfried and his new-found love, the Swan Princess Odette, are separated by the nefarious von Rothbart who is to blame for transforming Odette into a fowl in the first place. In typical Hollywoo– errrr, Russian fashion, Siegfried vows to marry her to break the spell. How exactly this is communicated through dance I shall never fully understand. This is a touching moment in the ballet, as it portrays Siegfried’s love for Odette. In Black Swan, the Swan Theme, which is the most well-known segment of the whole score, is only hinted at (it is played in 8-bit form as Nina’s ringtone, and a variation of the theme is used in the very opening of the movie) until the finale of the movie where [SPOILER] Nina discovers that she never killed Lily, but instead stabbed herself in the stomach with the glass. What is of interest is how the same music functions so differently. As noted before, in the ballet the theme is used to underscore romance, and Siegfried’s intention to save Odette from the tyranny of von Rothbart. In Black Swan, the theme is used as the utter climax of the film where Nina realizes that she has let herself go and “lost herself” in the role of the Black Swan.
The question that arises, for me at least, is: In which instance is the music more powerful? Does the music fit the ballet or the movie better?
In my relatively humble opinion, the music was used to incredible dramatic effect in Black Swan, which causes me to go as far as to say that it surpasses the original usage. Of course, this can be viewed as a sacrilegious statement, especially in the eyes of our good friend Walter Benjamin who was discussed in an earlier post. Benjamin would say that it is impossible to replicate the Aura of the original composition and usage, thus making the use of the same theme in Black Swan inferior. This is a point of conflict for your dear author. as I truly do understand the brilliance of Swan Lake and Tchaikovsky’s composition. I don’t however, believe that “original” is synonymous with ”the best”. Tchaikovsky was accused of “borrowing” the Swan Theme from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. However, no one remembers Lohengren in the same way that they remember Swan Lake. Is the original still superior if the “remake” is better in every conceivable manner? I am not saying that Black Swan is better than Swan Lake. That would be preposterous and would likely result in me ending up on some sort of The-Secret-Organization-of-the-Defenders-of-the-Superiority-of-Ballet-Over-Other-Media Orginization’s black list. I am, however, saying that to me, the usage of the Swan Theme is more powerful in Black Swan than in the original ballet. I strongly encourage anyone to disagree with me and to voice your concerns of my incredible ignorance in the comments. In the mean time, have some swan:
Allow me to paint you a figurative picture, not a real one because I have the artistic ability of a one-flippered penguin. Anyway, you’re sitting in the absolute worst seat in a concert hall. You can barely see the performers and your neck is craned to an angle that would make a giraffe uncomfortable. And yet, you don’t care. You don’t even notice. You are so enraptured in the performance that only the music matters. You can feel the people around you moving their heads or tapping their feet. Nearly every member in the audience is leaning forward in their chair. This isn’t game 7 of the World Series, there is no elimination or tension– there is merely the magical ability of a group of performers to grab your attention in a felt covered vice-grip.
Such was the case for your humble author on Friday. I, along with the rest of MU 228 attended the Ying Quartet’s performance in Packard Hall. In case the Ying Quartet are not a group you are intimately familiar with, I shall summarize their performance style in a totally non-hyperbolic manner: The Ying Quartet is a group of four musicians, two of which play violin, one plays cello and one plays the viola. Their sound is amazing– the way that they mesh as an ensemble is truly remarkable, with no instrument being lost in the mix. But that is to be expected of professional musicians! What really entranced me, and I assume the rest of the audience for that matter, was the energy with which they played. You could see them moving with every note. David Ying, the cellist, moved as if his chair was slightly electrocuted; he never stayed still. This wasn’t just watching grown men and women squirm in chairs, this was watching four incredibly talented musicians having the time of their lives performing for an audience. When you watch someone having fun, you have fun. Joy and happiness are infectious, and it was extremely hard not to smile as I watched four adults honestly loving what they were doing.
During the latter half of the week, we were tasked to read the first two chapters of Philip Auslander’s “Liveness”, which focuses on how the live performance has been transformed and has been turned into a mostly-live-event-that-will-show-up-on-DVD-next- year. Auslander discusses how nearly every live event has been “mediatized”, that is, when a performance has been “circulated on television, as audio or video recordings, and in other forms based in technologies of reproduction.” If you attend a sporting event, you have the big screen to show you what is happening. If you go to a Ke$ha concert, there will be a plethora of screens, lights, microphones and rather absurd costume changes to help replicate her music videos. Very, very rarely will you attend an event where there are no special effects, amplifiers, big-screens or recording devices present. The pure live performance has been all but lost. Now, I am not for a second saying that we should all give up our iPods and return to the glory days of slogging five miles uphill both ways to attend a performance, I am merely commenting on how live performance has changed. I am, however, saying that The Ying Quartet’s performance was so powerful because it was so natural. The music was pure– no mixing witchcraft was present– the musicians were wearing simple concert attire, and you know what? It was amazing to watch.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must now go and inform all of my friends how vinyl is superior in every conceivable manner, and then talk about Woodstock as if I had been there.
I sat in the Packard Lobby on a surprisingly comfortable blue couch that wasn’t really a couch because it lacked certain aspects of a couch such as arm-rests and a backrest, but I digress. The reason I sat upon this not-a-couch was because we, the students, had been tasked to go and find a place to sit and record the sounds of our surroundings. I looked to my left and noticed that my not-a-couch was covered in dog hair. I was getting distracted, again. I reeled my wandering eyes and thoughts in, and shut everything down except my ears– a dangerous move on the first Monday of a block.
Silence wasn’t silence at all. I heard the fans of the ventilation, the footsteps of humans walk up the stairs to my left, the cracking of the plexiglass tunnel across the room from me. The cracking of the plexiglass as it heated under the rays of the sun reminded me of the first time I entered Packard this fall as a brand-new first-year student: It was dark, I was going to band, and I was 100% sure the glass was going to immediately shatter and fall on me after hearing it pop and crack for the first time. I remembered the emotions of my new-to-college-self: fear, trepidation, hope, excitement and above all, wonder.
Curses! I was off topic again… Or was I? I paused to think for a minute. Was this what was supposed to happen? Was I supposed to sit here and let the sounds trigger memories? If the popping sound of plexiglass was enough to get me to lose myself in memory, what could music do? What does this have to do with music in film?!
It turns out that one cannot simply dive straight into the complex transformation of music as it passes through different media.
As a class, we started by reading some incredibly dense material entitled Emotions Expressed And Aroused by Music by Stephen Davies, which comes from the succinctly named The Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications which discusses how a non-sentient thing (for lack of a better term) such as music can cause emotional reactions in listeners. It was laborious reading, but the subject material fascinates me. I never appropriately wondered why I listened to songs that made me feel sad. Why would I want to feel sad? How does the music make me sad? Would the song make me feel differently if I were to encounter it in a different context, such as in a movie?
Lo and behold, we discussed my final question today in class!
Last night we were tasked to listen to “Caught in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel. In case you are unfamiliar with the song, it was written in 1972 and is by my description “a song you can listen to whilst driving an old red pickup truck along a dirt road on a clear day in Iowa.”
But today, the song was in the movie Reservoir Dogs and was not used in a carefree, “cruisin” application. Instead the sing is played during a gruesome torture scene by Mr. Blond– a character in the movie– as he mutilated a cop with disturbing glee.
The image the song conjures in my head is no longer of a red truck, but that of a psychopath torturing a young cop. The transformation of my interpretation of the song depending on its setting is extremely interesting, and I am interested to see where we go next.
Tomorrow, we are watching Fantasia. Oh yeah, I’m excited.