MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Leaving Space in Film Music

There’s a trend of classic film scores being played live by orchestras around the U.S., and they’re proving to be a successful programming strategy for attracting audiences. Which film composers currently writing are producing future classics? Alan Zilberman argues that there’s been “a sea change in film scores from complexity toward simplicity.” Why?

[B]ecause composers trust canny audiences to feel an emotional response when abstracted melodies contain an aural space for significance (or what feels like significance).

I talked about the power of simplicity with composer Nicholas Britell, who composed all the musical arrangements performed by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in “12 Years a Slave” (The rest of the score of the film is by Hans Zimmer). After studying neuromusicology at Harvard, Britell became deeply aware of, “patterns that trigger cascades of feeling.” The ability to invoke such feeling is instrumental to a composer’s work (pun intended): the best ones do not manipulate, exactly, and instead want their work to reflect what happens on screen.

Still, a conversation about feelings and patterns [does] not explain what it is about the notes that provokes a strong reaction, so I asked Britell to give an illustrative example of powerful music. He thought for a moment and suggested François Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mysterieuses,” a baroque piece for the solo piano Terrence Malick used in “The Tree of Life.” According to Britell, the key to the piece’s power is the dissonance.

“Throughout the piece, there are certain times where the lines continue a little longer (i.e. “suspensions”). The harmony changes yet they’re still holding an old harmony and then they quickly resolve. This process is something I always find very beautiful. It’s the main technique of a lot of music, where something overstays its welcome by a millisecond then resolves.”
[…]
Zimmer’s [“Time” from the 2010 film “Inception”] is full of lengthy suspensions that have time to resolve. But right at the very end, there’s one final note has no opportunity to decay. It’s cut off short. Do you want more? That’ll be one ticket.

Filed under: aesthetics, film music

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