man tells all
a column by bass player and musicologist Hans Mantel, on his current state of mindmaestro mantel
the Sound Track Drag
With the release of Al Jolsonís movie The Jazz Singer in 1927, the movie industry took a
quantum leap forward. Sound was now possible on movies. Until that historic event,
theaters had used an in-house pianist or small band that accompanied the events as
they unfolded on the screen. Naturally these performers would try to musically illustrate
what was happening in the various scenes.
This would later become sort of an artform in itself.
I remember seeing an old Tom & Jerry cartoon on tv and shutting my eyes to concentrate
on the soundtrack. Everytime Tom would fall down a flight of stairs there was this incredibly
fast and complicated marimba passage illustrating what was happening.
And it was all scored by the composer! This type of program music
(music that describes or portrays effects, feelings or impressions)
is so deeply connected with the visual effects that we hardly seperate them anymore.
But in the production there was a moment when the cartoon didnít have a soundtrack and
the musicians came into the studio to record the soundtrack live with the cartoon!
Next time you put one on for your kids, concentrate on the music and marvel at the
incredible prowess of these musicians! Fantastic music, newly composed and tailor-made
for that cartoon.
Later on however, well-known (mostly classical or light-classical) music was used for
movies and thatís where my problem with movie sountracks lies.
Letís look for instance at Straussí Also Sprach Zarathustra. If you had heard this for the
first time while watching Stanley Kubrickís 2001: A Space Odyssey, chances are that
you could never listen to it again in your livingroom or in the concert hall without
feeling a weird combination of weightlessness and impending doom.
Such can be the power of the soundtrack. It would render it virtually impossible
to appreciate the music on its own intrinsic merits, as you would have had you
played it on your stereo first.
The other way around is even stranger: certain works you know (and love)
have evoked a set of emotions and feelings that are unique to you.
Itís what you feel; what the music tells you. If you see a movie and that music is
the featured soundtrack, new images and resulting emotions will differ wildly from your own.
The music is telling you to feel something else. The music changes meaning.
Not only that, itís someone elseís meaning. Somebody (the director) takes away
your emotional connection to that music and replaces it with his own.
A lot of music has been more or less spoiled for me that way. DvořŠkís Symphony No. 9,
From The New World and Beethovenís Symphony No. 3, Eroica were thrust upon me with
images so outlandishly out of my own context, I couldnít even have imagined that combination.
Rimsky-Korsakov and Ottorino Respighi suffered similarly at the hands of unscrupulous
(or musically insensitive) directors. Iíll have my own images with my music, thank you very much.
This is not to say that there are no great soundtracks of music that werenít written for a
specific movie, but these are lamentably few and far between.
My problem mainly concerns those movies that need classical music for bombastic,
dramatic or romantic effects. The director associates a specific scene with specific music he knows.
The simple fact is, heís not you: he is unlikely to put images to the music that reflect
exactly what you have in your own head.
But it isnít always music you know. Many composers have also written movie music in the
vein of the great late-Romantic classical composers but the quality of that music is such
that it is best preserved on celluloid and should stay away from the concert stage,
which (in most cases) it mercifully does. Should I abstain from going to movies where I run
the risk of getting my feelings for my music warped beyond all recognition?
The answer is no.
Luckily, most of these musical masterpieces are so strong in themselves that their stories
will remain standing tall and the beautiful melodies will stay with me long after
the memories of the scenes from the movie have evaporated.