Sunday, January 30, 2011

Musical Narrative

In Jay-Z’s memoirs Decoded he proclaims that in order to understand our history—who we are and where we’ve been—we must tell our story. Although he was citing the lack of hip-hop while he was growing up that he could relate, the idea still applies to all and has been around since “humans” have been.

Ever since a clever and grieving Neandrathal got the idea to mark the place where someone whom he cared for died, we started the process of commemorating our lives. Of appreciating our existence. And, shortly thereafter, we started the process of making sense of this crazy world we're in with cave paintings and ancient myths about Stars, Gods, and the way things work.

But, for as long as we’ve had stories, maybe even longer, we’ve also had music and the two have been intrinsically combined. Symphonies are riddled with themes, motifs, and characters. It’s hard to deny the presence of a narrative when we hear the Star Spangeled Banner.

In my experience, musicians have always been extremely good storytellers and the best musicians have always been the best storytellers. VH1 would agree.

Amongst the best storytellers have been country singers. Every country song tells a story. Every single one. Hell, if it doesn’t, than it ain’t country.

Lets take a look at the King of Country: George Strait.

"Sometimes I feel like Jesse James/Just trying to make a name/Knowing nothing's gonna change who I am..."

George Strait recently released a song called “Breath You Take” off his album Twang. The first verse goes:

He looks up from second base, Dad’s up in the stands
He saw the hit, the run, the slide, there ain’t no bigger fan
In the parking lot after the game he said:
“ Dad, I thought you had a plane to catch.”
He smiled and said, “Yeah, son, I did.”

If that doesn’t melt your heart than you don’t have one. The song goes on to proclaim that life is not about “the breaths you take” but the “moments that take your breath away”. As well as document multiple moments in the father-son relationship as the son got older where the father is present for the most monumental moments in one’s life—like being a nine year old and stealing second, or being thirty and having your first son.

On top of this but the way Geore Straight structures his music—the way the guitar plays a softly picked melody for the verses, and how the strings gently rise and fall during the chorus—play to what the song is about. It’s a marriage between the visual narrative and the auditory music. The best example of this in modern film is in Pixar films.

I make grown men cry.

If it weren’t for Pixar’s music I wouldn’t have cried at the end of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Up. Granted, there stories are brilliantly told, touching on “real” issues the way George Strait can and turning them into excellently poised and crafted stories of the most innocent—yet important—aspects of living. But, the music, the soft piano and strings that float in and out of the scene that add such texture, such depth to what we’re watching that it’s inevitable to be overwhelmed with emotion.

God damn Randy Newman with his soothingly soft yet rash voice and delicate piano melodies. There’s something about a man that has smoked and drank too much who still has the heart to tell these touching. It gets you every time.

So, in conclusion, if you’re having trouble writing your script or play or whatever, think of your characters and the situations they’re in. Then think of what music they would listen to. Then use that to help guide you on your journey. 


Evan said...

Matt, I have always felt that the audible side of a film is equally important to the visual aspect. I cant say that the pixar soundtracks brought tears to my eyes, but I definitely agree that a silent scene does a lot less then a perfectly scored version. Many time the soundtrack speaks louder than the dialogue. This is especially true in many horror movies when the music builds up the suspense, as well as a story of triumph in which the victory music plays just as the underdog triumphs in the end and everyone rejoices.
Also, heres a little something that might put a new spin on your pixar ideas:

Andrew said...

I think my favorite film soundtracks or songs are ones that you can listen to without watching video and still picture the scene they are from/the feeling you get from it. Every time I hear the Indiana Jones theme song, I feel like jumping onto a truck and punching somebody (but in a good way). If you've seen Tron Legacy, I feel Daft Punk failed in creating a great soundtrack for the sole reason that their songs had no theme or dynamics that you could link to any specific part.

On a side not, Jan, if you read this, I am sorry, but I cought myself listening to some Kanye West when I was reading your act. Not sure if that was the ambience you were going for.

Cate Hahneman said...

I'm with Andrew, in the impact that score can have on not only the film itself but our pop culture. Think about the James Bond theme or the theme from Chariots of Fire, used over and over again to symbolize suave men or triumphant moments. What about the theme from Jaws? But when you started talking about country music and the lyrical story, I thought back to Bruce Springsteen's song for "The Wrestler." Though it didn't win some of the awards it should have (I'm looking at you Oscars) the words Bruce sings feel as though they could be lines of dialogue straight from Mickey Rourke's character. Great Post!

JPK said...

Matt, if you were a gal, this post could have started an internet romance. Funny that you mention country music--as it turns out--with a music theatre background, I always considered them country musakk folk VERY theatrical. I'll argue that the theatre composers are the best storytellers--but the country crowd comes closely after (in my twisted brain, at least). Maybe I should start listening to more country tunes. I don't care how great the acting, the photography, the writing, or anything else, the music always gives the story its soul.