Five easy pieces

Welcome to a little music history and education. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but I am a trained musician who plays anything with a keyboard (including piano accordion, thank you), and was lucky enough to be well-grounded in both the theory and history of music. It’s a fascinating subject.

Here, I’ll be dealing with some tunes that probably everybody would recognize after the first few notes, but very few people could actually name. For the most part, they were created for very different purposes, and a number of them are only known as small pieces of larger works. For all but two, they became iconic once they wound up in film or television — although it could be argued that the pop culture of the pre-mass media world did the same for the other two.

I encourage you to at least sample the linked videos so you can hear what I’m talking about, although most of the “Why you know it” sections will probably make the tunes play in your head automatically.

And-a 1, and-a 2, and-a 1, 2, 3, 4…

1.   Marche funèbre d’une marionnette

Funeral March of a Marionette, 1872, by Charles Guonod

Why you know it: Alfred Hitchcock. He mentioned loving the piece on a BBC Radio show called Desert Island Discs, in 1959. The show was basically one of those “If you could only take X things with you” question formats with celebrities, with the subject being eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item. This was one of Hitch’s eight pieces — probably not a surprise at the time, since he had already chosen it as the theme song for his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which debuted in 1955.

How he stumbled across it is anyone’s guess, but it had already been used in a few films very early on, including Sunrise, Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus, and Buster Keaton’s Welcome Danger, all before 1929. Here’s the section from the opening of Hitchcock’s show.

Its original intent: Most likely, Guonod was aiming for a cross between macabre and whimsical. After all, this is a funeral cortege for a “dead” inanimate object, and the score itself plus a change to a D Major near the middle tells us that the “mourners” do stop for what is basically a buffet along the way. In other words, serious, not serious.

How it’s used: To create a general atmosphere of the macabre or sinister, leaving out any bit of whimsy or joy from the original.

Why you don’t know all of it: Hitchcock uses a tiny snippet. The whole piece is about four minutes — way too long for TV credits.

2. Vjezd gladiátorů

Entry of the Gladiators, 1897, by Julius Fučík

Why you know it: Ever been to the circus? You can’t hear this tune without seeing that parade of elephants and lions and clowns, all led by the ringmaster down the street and to the big top.

Its original intent: Pretty much the same as now. It’s from a genre of music called “screamer.” These were marches used in order to pump up a crowd, quite often at events like circuses or state fairs, and frequently right before the entrance of the main act or the famous clowns. What makes them notable is that they focus on the heavy brass in the band instead of the lighter woodwinds, and they are at a tempo that is actually too fast to march at comfortably. If you’ve ever been at any kind of performance that’s used pre-show music, then you’ve experienced this concept, although probably with a much different genre of music. Comedy clubs and live TV “tapings” (they really still use that word) use the same trick — fast-paced, upbeat music right before things start in order to get the audience in the mood.

How it’s used: As originally intended. It’s just that this particular piece happened to win out over all of the other screamers from the era. Oh — and don’t let the title fool you. Fučík never intended it to have anything to do with gladiators, either. He just had a jones for the glory that was Rome.

Why you don’t know all of it: Again, it’s short, and you may have heard the whole thing, but you only remember the hook. Bonus points — it was lifted by Three Dog Night. (God, the 70s didn’t age well.)

3.   O Fortuna!

AKA Oh Fortune, Empress of the World, from Carmina Burana, 1936, by Carl Orff

Why you know it: It’s been used as the soundtrack for countless films and movie trailers since forever. Here it is in Excalibur.

Its original intent: Somebody found a bunch of poetry written by 13th century monks, originally assumed to be from Beuren, but later determined to have actually been created in Austria. Oops! The title stuck, though. Carmina Burana means “songs of Beuren.” Written in a mix of Latin, German, and French of the era, they were not religious songs at all, but, in fact, were rather secular and earthy. Probably not surprising, though, considering that the authors were probably young men only just realizing what they had given up when they chose the monastic life. So, yeah… Orff didn’t start out with high art at all. The raunch is just hidden in the age of the language. Kind of like Shakespeare.

A great and probably honest description of the source comes from an NPR story on its history: “Carmina Burana,” Music of Monks and Drunks. Yeah, like I said, college kids. By the time it got around to Orff, though, he intended it as a pretty serious cantata, to be presented with dance and masks and all kinds of stage craft. After all, he titled it a “scenic cantata,” meaning that it would have scenes and scenery and stuff.

How it’s used: This is the “Shit’s about to get real” theme. Or, when used as satire, it means “Much ado about nothing.”

What you don’t know: It’s the opening and closing of the aforementioned song cycle, but none of the rest of it ever reaches this level of brilliant. I mean, the first four bars of O Fortuna are in a 3/1 time signature. Musicians will instantly get how balls to the wall that choice was. And while all that stuff between the beginning and ending isn’t well known, at least it’s good — unlike our next piece.

4.   Also sprach Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896, by Richard Strauss.

Why you know it: Stanley Kubrick.

Come on, really. If this isn’t the first movie you think of when you hear this song, you need to get out more. But even if you haven’t seen it, you do know the tune. Kubrick used it three times in the movie — under the opening credits, right before the most epic time span in a jump-cut in movies ever (hundreds of thousands of years, if not a million or two), and at the end as Bowman is… let’s just say, given a jumpstart in evolution.

Its original intent: Strauss was writing a tone poem based on a treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche of the same title, and probably most well-known for the statement “God is dead,” which appears as a question in the prologue and a statement in part two. It was this work that Strauss was trying to capture musically, although he proved that philosophical works probably don’t make the best source for emotionally moving art.

How it’s used: Whenever someone wants to parody or reference 2001: A Space Odyssey or indicate something profoundly epic is happening.

What you don’t know: Similar to Orff, this piece is the beginning and ending of a long song cycle. The difference is that while O Fortuna serves as the cookies outside of an Oreo, Also is just the bread on a shit sandwich. I’ve listened to the whole thing and, trust me, it’s less exciting than watching paint dry. There’s a reason that Johann “The Waltz King” is the better known Strauss, although he and Richard were not related. But Johann did get a piece in 2001 as well.

5.   Treulich gefürht

The Bridal Chorus, from Lohengrin, 1850, Richard Wagner

Why you know it: Come on. You’ve been to some weddings in your life, whether as guest, part of the wedding party, part of the family, or one of the two co-stars. This tune is now known as Here Comes the Bride, and it’s inspired more happy tears than have ever been cried by all of the fans of all the winning teams of every big sports ball championship final match ever.

Its original intent: Again, pretty much as we know it, except for the sole purpose of providing a dramatic, suspenseful, and emotional entrance for a wedding scene in an opera. It wasn’t written to be used in weddings at all. But you know how people are. It only took one socialite at the opera to announce, “Mother, we are using this song when I get married, and that’s it.” Boom. The rest is history.

How it’s used: Whether literally or ironically, it says “someone is about to get married.” It is most always played as the bride enters the wedding venue.

What you don’t know: Probably most of the rest of that opera, Lohengrin. And you probably don’t also realize the irony of weddings often using this song as an entrance and Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as an exit — which is, sadly, not called There Goes the Bride. Why? Well, Richard had no love for Felix because Mendelssohn was Jewish and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. In fact, whenever the latter had to conduct the music of the former, he would wear gloves so that he didn’t have to come into contact with the score, and then throw the gloves away when he was done. Yes — Wagner was talented, but he was a jerk-ass.

What are your favorite “Songs everyone knows without knowing the source?” Tell us in the comments!

Image by Grzegorz Dymon, used unchanged under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

On the shoulders of giants

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!