Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Music Supervisor’s Playbook

I saw “Silver Linings Playbook” the other day. It’s a good, solid movie, following the basic outlines of your standard rom com, but unafraid to mix the usual sweetness with more than a bit of bitterness. The performances were very good all around – especially the feisty but never caricatured Jennifer Lawrence and the scene-stealing Chris Tucker – but what stayed with me most about the film is its sophisticated use of music, from both the original score by Danny Elfman, and pop music sources (I guess you could have seen that coming).

The movie opens with a smooth, subtle, funky number, buoyed by fat, Matt Chamberlain-esque drums and wurlitzer piano. It was sonically slick and created a complex feeling of darkness hiding just below the surface of a typical autumn Sunday in the northeast. I was convinced the music had to be by Jon Brion, as it bore his aforementioned stylistic trademarks and canny ability to create just the right ambience for a scene without overwhelming the action. I was thus very surprised when the generally goofy and bombastic Elfman’s name came up during the credits. He gets major props for showing off a sophisticated side to his musical personality that hasn’t really come out before.

But while the score was certainly effective at undergirding the emotional feel of every scene it colored, it was the use of preexisting music that pushed and pulled the movie around in unexpected ways. Like in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” from earlier this year, a piece of music becomes a major plot point. For “Playbook” main character Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), it’s Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” his wedding song, and the song that’s playing when he finds his wife cheating on him with a history teacher at the school where they teach.¹ Every time he hears the song, whether at his psychiatrist’s office, or the local movie theater, or sometimes just in his own head, he snaps, putting his life outside the mental hospital where he spent eight months in jeopardy. As the movie chronicles Pat’s attempts to control his outbursts and his reaction to the song, “My Cherie Amour” is gradually transformed into another Stevie Wonder song – “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” When Pat decides to enter a dance contest with similarly troubled friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in the hopes of reengaging with his estranged wife, their routine begins with this song. You can tell that Pat is getting better at dealing with his past when the two begin rehearsing with the song and Pat doesn’t even notice that it’s Stevie Wonder. [Spoiler alert] When the pair (comparatively) nail their routine in the movie’s final scene, the artist that represents Pat’s worst moments now pushes him through his greatest triumph.

Pas de Deux

While this transformation of Stevie Wonder’s music from associations with pain to ecstasy is not the subtlest use of pop music to undergird a film’s plot, you totally buy it because of how this musical plot interacts with the other songs in the film. Interspersed between renditions of “My Cherie Amour” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” are songs by Led Zeppelin, 2012 breakout band Alabama Shakes, and in some especially poignant moments, Dave Brubeck (his joyous and cute “Unsquare Dance” and unimpeachably graceful rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story”). The emotional range of the music used in the film is quite staggering, approaching Wes Anderson territory. The songs pull you back and forth through varied emotional states, attempting to create the same emotional bipolarity in the viewer that the main characters experience. This emotional whiplash reaches an apotheosis in the final dance competition scene. While the other, more serious contestants dance to canned salsas and bossa novas,  Pat and Tiffany begin their routine with the  aforementioned Stevie Wonder tune, which gets  awkwardly and hilariously interrupted by the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl.” The studio-perfect elegance of Stevie’s tune couldn’t be more contrasting with the thrashing, garage-composed White Stripes anthem. I couldn’t stop laughing with delight for the next two minutes.

And then all of that raucousness dies off,  leaving behind Brubeck’s “Maria.” Paul Desmond’s airy alto sax sucks the air right out of the room, leaving a vacuum of focus on the two dancing protagonists. When the pair nail their big move, it is not accompanied by applause and sweeping strings, just the Brubeck quartet’s cool and calm demeanor. The fact that triumph is not accompanied by musical euphoria as well shows that Pat and Tiffany have a new control over their feelings, no longer whiplashed between extreme highs and lows.

While this final dance scene may not reach the sublime Andersonian heights of a “Rushmore,” it’s crafty use of music shows how “Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t your average rom com. While the guy gets his girl in the end, the usual emotional cliches are discarded for feelings that are more honest and human. There are no straight love songs in the movie because they can’t encapsulate the dark and messy feelings the characters carry throughout the film. By using music as more than just sonic wallpaper, “Silver Linings Playbook” makes us believe in this happy ending.

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1. The real Pat Solitano’s trigger song (the movie was based on his memoir) was not “My Cherie Amour,” but Kenny G’s “Songbird.” Although I find this endlessly amusing, I am glad the filmmakers changed it because I don’t think I could get over it. It’s funny how changing one song could turn the movie into an absolute farce.

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December 29, 2012 · 12:27 pm

Improvisation Workshop!

The illustrious young saxophonist Kevin Sun (he of the great blog “A Horizontal Search”) and I are giving an improvisation workshop at Montgomery High School in Skillman, NJ this Thursday afternoon at 5:30 PM. It’s geared toward members of the high school’s jazz program, but any interested musicians are welcome to come! We’ll be attempting to take the fright and mystery out of improvisation, a subject that usually takes a back seat in school big band rehearsals to issues of rhythmic interpretation, blend, balance, all that stuff. Whether you’re an experienced improviser or a someone who’s new to jazz, you’ll be sure to get some great stuff out of it.

Check out the Facebook event listing at here! And to get you thinking about the process of improvisation in the mean time, check out these 10 illuminating thoughts about improvising from drumming/composing/improvising master Bobby Previte.

ImageYay improv!

 

 

 

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Tragedy, Grief, and Music

I don’t think I need to use space here to update you on the news coming out of Newtown, Connecticut today. The mass shooting at an elementary school there is deeply saddening, whether one has children of his or her own or not. I was listening to NPR’s special coverage earlier this afternoon and heard reporters holding back sobs when talking about the latest updates. These are the kinds of events that scar – the one’s where even highly trained reporters are pulled into the trauma in very personal ways.

As one might expect from me, I’ve been trying to figure out what piece of music to listen to, as a memorializing act of catharsis. There are the old standards like Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Brahms’ “German Requiem.” Then there’s John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” and Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11,” written in memorial of another great modern American tragedy, yet hold emotional truths that can speak to this one as well. Or maybe I should go into the pop realm for something off Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

However, what seems to sear me (and probably most people too) about this tragedy is that it happened to little kids. The victims here are not just those killed, but their forever-traumatized classmates as well. The picture of two children in the woods by the school, shielding their faces from the tragedy, has gone viral, an instant symbol of a collective loss of innocence. This has sent me looking for music that is about children or performed by children, music that captures both the despair one feels when faced with tragedy, and the accompanying loss of innocence of children that witness it.

The first piece that fits the moment for me is David Lang’s haunting “Little Match Girl Passion.” In the piece, four singers weave together the tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s impoverished little match girl and the passion of Jesus (as told by J.S. Bach). In its stark simplicity, rife with piercingly soft minor sonorities, the piece articulates how we adults feel when witnessing the suffering of an innocent child.

This next piece for the moment is quite as starkly sad as Lang’s “Passion,” but still deals with loss and is written to heard and performed by children. It is Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo Song,” used to devastating effect in Wes Anderson’s film “Moonrise Kingdom.” It is a quite simple and tonal piece, ambiguously floating between major and minor. However, what really gets me about it is the subtle despair of its lyrics – the beloved cuckoo bird goes from singing in the spring to leaving when autumn approaches. The industrial-strength melody just sears the nerves off when it reaches its peak on “away.”

After listening to these two pieces and searching for another, I came across a recording of my own piece, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child.” It too deals with a child’s loss of innocence. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, the speaker observes a child crying at the sight of falling leaves, realizing that through this observation, the child is confront her own mortality. The piece was not intended to memorialize a specific moment or tragedy. It was just that I found the poem quite moving and peculiarly musical. In my original program note for the piece, I talk more about children’s literature like the Velveteen Rabbit and Toy Story 3 than any specific moment in my life or another’s. It’s a small piece about a small, nearly universalizable moment. But just as the two previous pieces will be forever altered in my mind because of their associations with the events of today, perhaps my piece could take on a new meaning as well.

Either way, I hope you find some solace in music on this difficult day and would gladly take recommendations of what to listen to next.

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We interrupt this program for a Muppet News Flash

Muppet News Flash

We interrupt the scheduled programming on this blog to bring some peculiar analysis of news of national importance.

Last night I introduced my girlfriend to my holiday tradition of watching “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (don’t worry, I’ll be getting to her tradition of watching the the Hepburn/Tracy film “Desk Set” soon enough).  While the film has all the classic Muppet traits of zany physical comedy, gloriously earnest songs that can even melt the hearts of the scroogiest among us, and oh-so-much breaking of the fourth wall, it has some surprisingly dark moments (perhaps due to the fact that it was the first Muppet film done without creator Jim Henson and puppeteer/voice master Richard Hunt).

The film’s underlying darkness hits very early on in the offices of Scrooge and Marley, a London financial institution who seems to deal with foreclosures like its modern American counterpart, Bank of America (or Wells Fargo, or Citi Bank, or well… you get the picture). As CEO/CFO Ebenezer Scrooge (a fantastic Michael Caine who never phones it in) sits in his office, he is approached by his legion of bookkeepers and top clerk Bob Cratchit, I mean Kermit the Frog, about adding more coal to the fire to keep the office a little warmer for working (“Our pens have turn to inksicles!” notes one of the rattily- attired bookkeepers).

Bookkeepers

“The bookkeepers were wondering if they could put some more coal on the fire.”

Scrooge deals with that request in a manner that is both a bit heartbreaking, and all too relatable to the economic times in which we live. With a piercing gaze shooting lasers of fury, Scrooge asks how it would feel to spend these cold months, “UNEMPLOYED!?” In typical muppets fashion, the bookkeepers suddenly sing and dance a calypso for their boss to show how very warm they feel.

UNEMPLOYED

“UNEMPLOYED!”

While this is a pretty small moment in a movie more notable for hearing Michael Caine sing, it felt oddly prescient for our time of economic malaise and rollbacks on organized labor. While today’s bosses may not deal with employees in so brusque a manner as Mr. Scrooge, the threat of prolonged unemployment has been very effective at increasing worker productivity while decreasing real wages. As the US economy spiraled in 2008 and 2009, the accompanying decrease in consumer demand made companies of all sizes attempt to make more capital with less labor by laying off staff and increasing hours for remaining employees (though not necessarily giving appropriate wage increases as well). If employees complained about the increased stresses of work, employers had a very strong bargaining chip – a bad job is better than no job at all, isn’t it? Especially when you may be out of work for months or even years at this rate…

This idea of a bad job being better than no job at all has become an assumption undergirding national policy debates about capital and labor. Yesterday, Michigan’s legislature passed a “right to work” law, instituting that any potential employee cannot be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, even if a union does bargain collectively for that employee. The rationale for the law is that it makes a Michigan a more attractive place for businesses to work in – they can come in and create jobs without having to deal with those pesky unions. When an economy is in a depressed state, so the thought goes, excessive unionization can keep the economy from growing because businesses aren’t investing to create jobs, as excessive union wages cut into potential profit margins.

These assumptions come from a supply side view of economics, one that believes that once capital is free to move uninhibitedly, then the economy grows for everyone. In this view, corporations of benevolent heroes, “creating jobs”  for the good ol’ average American to take. However, as shown by the (lack of) efficacy of supply side economic policies like the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 (which didn’t stimulate economic growth as proposed), a supply side view of economics is incomplete at best. Indeed, a demand side model explains better how in the US economy today, companies are sitting on large amounts of capital, but are not investing it. In a depressed economy when people are not spending enough on products from cars to electronics to home appliances and beyond, it does not make sense for companies to open up new factories or stores because the opportunity costs of these new business outlets are not high enough to justify the investment. In a depressed economy, over-worked and under-payed employees (like Scrooge’s bookkeepers) don’t have the disposable income to pay for the larger house or new coal-burning stove, a cycle which further depresses the economy. In order for an economy to grow for all people, not just holders of capital (like Mr. Scrooge), ordinary workers must have high-enough wages to pay for more than just necessities, thus increasing demand for products of all kinds, a demand that justifies new corporate investment.

With this view of economics, Michigan’s “right to work” law will not create the benefits that it proposes. It will allow employers to act like Mr. Scrooge, using the lack of unionization as a way to increase productivity without increasing pay or benefits (like appropriated heated workspaces). It will then prevent these workers from buying as many products, especially luxury consumer items, causing stores and movie theaters and the like to close, increasing unemployment, and decreasing the potential for corporate investment. Labor and capital are not antagonists in economic growth, but rather partners.

Charles Dickens’ Christmas fable, whether in Muppet form or Bill Murray form or McCarter Theater form, is not just a heartwarming tale of redemption through generosity. It is a story that continues to shed light on whatever present in which it finds itself. The bookkeepers and clerks of Scrooge and Marley may just be bit players in a magic fantasy, but they illuminate real issues faced by our very friends and neighbors.

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