When music plays in a movie, it usually works in one of two ways. First, the music can be diegetic, existing in the world of the film—like music coming from a car stereo, or from a band playing in the background. Second, the music can be non-diegetic, existing outside the world of the film to underscore the emotions of a particular scene—like a sweeping crescendo leading to a dramatic plot twist. However, sometimes film music doesn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. The music could appear to be non-diegetic, but then gradually slide into the scene’s reality. The music could sound one way in the world of the film, but different in the soundtrack that the audience hears, perhaps illuminating the mental state of a particular character.
“The Party at Otto Kahn’s” explores this borderland between the diegetic and non-diegetic through the depiction of a lavish, jazz age party on a North Shore Long Island estate (parties at Mr. Kahn’s mansion, Oheka Castle, inspired scenes from The Great Gatsby, and the estate itself has been used frequently in popular American media, from Citizen Kane to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” music video). The piece takes an almost cubist approach to the setting, constantly shifting the camera’s lens, flitting backward and forward through time, moving within and without the minds of the party guests. Sometimes, the music will sound clearly from the world of the party. Other times, it will appear as non-diegetic underscoring. And yet other times, it will be ambiguous, perhaps a psychological distortion of party’s music from the perspective of a particular character. The piece takes the busy and multi-faceted scene and miniaturizes it, like a scale model. Though we may not be at a lavish, jazz age party in this concert hall, perhaps for a few moments we will imagine that we are.
The Party at Otto H. Kahn’s was written for Exceptet and premiered by the group at Rose Recital Hall, The University of Pennsylvania, on March 29th, 2017.