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.

Limitations lead to imitations which lead to innovations

The theater where I work for ComedySportz L.A. and perform on their Rec League is inside of a building known as the El Portal Theater. It was originally built in 1926 as a vaudeville house and then became a movie theater. The Northridge Earthquake of 1994 wrecked the interior of the building and exposed the asbestos in it, so the entire interior was gutted and redone. It eventually reopened, again a live theater, but this time with two spaces inside — the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage, the Monroe Forum (home of ComedySportz), and the Studio Theater, home of Stuart Rogers Studios and the Acting Tribe.

In case you’re wondering… Debbie’s and Marilyn’s names are plastered all over the building because they used to see movies there as kids, and Debbie performed on the mainstage many times and donated some of the furniture in the lobby, which appeared in her 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in which she played Kathy Bates. Er… the character Kathy Bates played in Titanic. (Bates arguably resembled the real-life Margaret “Molly” Brown much more closely, but Debbie was a better dancer and singer — unless you ask Gene Kelly, although, to be fair, he was kind of a dick, and not really a great actor.)

There’s your location. And notice that both the Monroe Forum and the Studio Theater have resident companies. Meanwhile, the big house, with its 360 seats, does not. Instead, it functions as a rather pricey rental house — starting at $3,000 an evening or $10,000 per week, plus labor, which adds $120 per hour for three techs and a house manager, although I’m sure that none of them actually get the published rates after the house takes its cut.

As a direct result of this, most of the shows that appear on the mainstage fall into one of two categories: Vanity projects by people with more money than talent — every single one a musical! — or tribute bands, impersonators, or cover shows. And the damn things tend to sell right the hell out. Meanwhile, in our theater, we do sell well, but obviously we’re only filling 94 seats a night, not 360.

Now what’s the big difference between the two? Simple. By its very nature, improv is different every single time. Okay, sure — each of our shows has the same general format: the ref and teams are introduced, the ref explains the rules and fouls, then warms the audience up. We then have the “coin toss,” which never involves a coin, and this is followed by a team vs. team game that generally is scored based on either elimination or rotations, a pair of individual team games rated by audience applause, sometimes followed by another pair, depending on which League is playing, and then another team vs. team game to end the half. The second half is team vs. team, two individual games, and then final team vs. team, which itself is usually always a pun-based “jump-out” game.

But… it’s improv, so while that skeleton is always the same, the flesh and muscle poured on top of it is as varied — or even more so — as every human being on Earth. And, c’mon — every one of us, short of amputations or medical conditions, basically has the same number of bones. Everything on top of them, though, is hugely variable.

But on the mainstage, barring the vanity projects, what do we get? One imitation after another. I can’t tell you how many Elvis shows I’ve seen pass through here. Recently, there was a John Lennon impersonator with band — although he was good — and an ABBA tribute band that looked and sounded like the real thing. A couple of months back, we had a David Bowie (not so good, but apparently he was under the weather), and, as I mentioned, way too many Elvi. There was also an old band I’d never heard of, the Four Freshmen, which has apparently completely replaced its members several dozen times since it was founded right after the end of World War II. That one sold the place out for a weekend.

Think about that, anyone who is a marketer, and especially a millennial. A theater in the Valley stuffed itself full, and the age ranges of the audiences are enormous. Most nights, they probably literally have everyone from nine to ninety. Some shows are skewed more toward the latter, but the point is that no matter how cheesy you might think these productions are, they sell.

Pop quiz. There’s going to be a tribute band show coming up. How interested are you in seeing them? Here are your choices: A) A tribute band for an unspecified group for a specified decade, from 1940s to 1990s, or B) A tribute band for a specific group or artist that you name.

You all voted for option B, didn’t you? Because of course you did, and the band you voted for is one of your favorites, and most likely is one that you either saw live when you were in your teens or twenties or one whose music you love but you never got a chance to see them live. Chances are also good that it’s a band or artist that either is no longer together or isn’t currently touring or performing. Or, sadly, alive.

We can see this need for the familiar in formats other than live concerts, though. For example, look at movies, where the dominant forms for several decades now have been franchises, some of them running for years — Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Marvel and DC Universes, and Lord of the Rings. There’s also the one notable series that made the jump from being a multi-program television franchise to becoming a long-running movie franchise, Star Trek. And we can’t forget the granddaddy of them all — James Bond, which has been cranking out movies now for nearly sixty years.

The other format of the familiar is, of course, the remake, along with its more recent cousin the “reboot,” which just seems to be a way of saying “we’re remaking this way too soon.” (I’m looking at you, Spider Man franchise.) But we’ve been seeing remakes since forever. The recent fourth version of A Star Is Born is just one example, but the remake craze hit Hollywood in the 1930s. As soon as sound became a thing, there was frenzy of remaking silent movies in this new format.

Yes, totally original works do catch on, but if you want to create a cash machine, recycle the familiar. Why does this work? Well, on the one hand, it’s because of the power of nostalgia. In short, it’s the often mistaken belief that everything was better during X era. Quite frequently, if you’re over 30, that era corresponds to when you were a kid or maybe a teen, but things only seemed better because you didn’t have any adult responsibilities at the time. If you’re under 30, then that nostalgia may settle on one or two decades before the one you were born in. That is, if you were born in the 90s, you might be nostalgic for the 80s or 70s. And this one happens because, face it, you’re young, you don’t have a lot of money, people don’t take you seriously — it can’t have been that bad for people my age ten or twenty years ago, right?

But there’s another force that has nothing to do with nostalgia, and it was summed up perfectly by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in their magnum opus The Illuminatus! Trilogy. You really should seek out and read all of Wilson’s works. I was fortunate enough to attend a couple of his live weekend-long seminars long ago, and they were amazing. Plus one of them also landed me a date (and sex) with a smoking hot nerd from UCLA — although hot and nerd are redundant in my book. But I do digress…

I’ll just drop the relevant quote from the trilogy here, because it says it all:

“All humans are irrational, but there are two different kinds of irrationality — those who love old ideas and hate and fear new ones, and those who despise old ideas and joyfully embrace new ones: Homo neophobus and Homo neophilus. Neophobus is the original human stock, the stock that hardly changed for the first four million years of human history. Neophilus is the creative mutation that has been popping up at regular intervals during the past million years, giving the race little forward pushes… Neophilus makes a lot of mistakes, but he or she moves. They live life the way it should be lived, ninety-nine percent mistakes and one percent viable mutations.”

Neophobus are still the majority, sadly, which is why tribute bands and remakes are so popular. Personally, as a total neophilus, I just don’t get it. I mean, okay, sure I have my own favorite shows and movies, but there are very few of those I watch over and over. I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are among the few movies that I will watch again and again. On the TV side of things, the winners are Father Ted, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who. Oh, all right. And Are You Being Served? But then I look at that list and realize that every single one has something in common.

They are all from the British Isles, even if the director of 2001 was American, and nearly half of them are related to Monty Python. But this just goes right back to the nostalgia thing, actually, because every one of these but Father Ted and 12 Monkeys (from the 90s) came out when I was a kid, or even before I was a human.

Oh yeah… of course the musical Spamalot! pulled me right because it was based on… well, you know. So I’m not immune to the lure of the familiar either, I’d just like to think that I’m more immune to it than a lot of people. But I think the real lesson here is this. It’s okay to fall back on the familiar once in a while, but we all need to make a more concerted effort to seek out the new and novel. After all, every single one of those artists or bands who now has a cover or tribute show has that for one simple reason: They were so novel in their own time that they made a mark and often changed artistic history. They were the giant pebble dropped in the pond of what was, and the ripples they left turned into the waves that created what is.

Elvis. The Beatles. Bowie. Elton. Queen. Prince. And so on. They may be oft-imitated now because they are deeply embedded in so many of our psyches, but the important lesson for all artists is this: imitate, and then innovate. Stand on the shoulders of giants in order to eventually make yourself taller and drag your audience with you to a higher viewpoint. Manage that, and one day they’ll be doing tribute bands or remakes or reboots of what you have created.