Friday, November 9, 2012

An unexpected influence

When I got home, I decided to watch The Fellowship of the Ring. I hadn't looked at any of the movies in at least four years, and the Fellowship in longer. But a few days ago, I joined my roommate well over halfway through the Fellowship, and I realized how badly I wanted to watch the parts I'd missed. There's a tremendous attachment I wanted to rekindle.

At age twelve or so, I got a hold of the Fellowship's soundtrack, which had made something of an impression on me. I listened to it for months on end, over and over. The several themes got under my skin and I started playing them on the piano. And as I grew more familiar with the nooks and crannies of the soundtrack, I started to fall in love with various one-off cues, like specific iterations of a theme or other musical expressions that didn't end up being re-used -- and I learned to play those in detail as well.

So I rewatched, and as the movie approached where I had started watching a few days ago, I tensely awaited what I remembered to be my favorite cue -- in this or any movie, and possibly my favorite minute or so of music, full-stop. It's the cue that prepares and soon afterward accompanies the magnificent shot where the Fellowship emerges into an enormous, cavernous hall that was once a dwarf city.

I've embedded the track below where this appears. I've cued it up to the moment I'm talking about, although the beginning is worth a listen too for the low-key tension.

Listening to this brought to mind a debate I was having with my collaborator Will. I found myself defending to him my insistence on observing counterpoint. As I come down to it, I don't have a great reason for seeing that as aesthetically preferable: it's just an essential part of my musical voice. Will's great question was whether, when I learned counterpoint formally in college, it spoke to my existing musical sensibilities, or whether it was something I learned to value.

Revisiting this score, and this moment in particular, I think I got an answer to that question.

This is something that spoke to me really deeply as I was first developing an ear for what I liked, what I wanted to play, maybe even what I wanted to write! And it is deeply contrapuntal. Well, deeply may not be the right word; near the beginning the top line doubles the bass, and there are probably other flaws. But what makes it work is flurries of stepwise motion throughout the middle lines, and eventually in the top line as well, largely in contrast to one another.

My aesthetic attachment to counterpoint doesn't feel quite so contrived, now that I can trace it back to this. And one particular aspect of that preference that Will gently called into question -- why the insistence on no parallel fifths? -- is also vindicated within this score. Another of my favorite moments comes at 1:15 (OK so the orchestral color is a little over the top but fuck you it's awesome!!); I've cued it so you get a little bit of introduction/context:

(Upon review, it also looks like I'm a real sucker for effectively deployed brass and suspend cymbals; but I'm going to stick with the counterpoint for now.)

Of course this theme appears throughout the movie, but this is by far the strongest statement of it. In some ways I put that to the independent melodic operation of the various voices at work. (This begs for a reduced transcription, that right now I really don't have the time to do.) I noticed this when I realized the music had avoided a very tempting parallel fifth. As the phrase circles back to itself at around 1:26-1:27, the bass ascends F-G-A while the lead trumpet descends C-B-A. It would have been pretty standard of a Hollywood score to harmonize that G in the bass as a G-major chord -- the other two pretty much have to be F-major and A-minor, respectively, and FM-GM-AM is a familiar progression. But something happens that changes the tenor noticeably: instead of a D above the bass G, the middle voices play an E. It's an inverted E-minor chord! We avoid an F+C to G+D parallel fifth in favor of F+C to G+E -- intervals 5 and 6. It's also worth observing that this changes the cadence from a more widely used, poppy VI-bVII-I to VI-v6-I instead. I'm having trouble articulating why this should be more dramatic, especially when VI-bVII-I works so well in pop contexts e.g. the end of Stairway to Heaven, but I find it simply true that with the trombones at full blast, with the orchestra giving this all its might, that cadence would have been unacceptably bland.

Inverted chords are pretty much the best possible sign that counterpoint is being used, or at least something more complicated than a harmony that simply echoes what's in the bass. In a way, I think that's what I think I like best about counterpoint -- or the less strict version of it that I practice, anyway. If you want harmonies that have any independence from the bass (without which things can get boring pretty quickly), it makes sense to have your voices more or less independent from each other. From where I sit, you need counterpoint to make that workable. The upside is that freed from slavishly following the bass, so many different sonorities are possible! The sky is the limit!

Nothing makes that clear for me quite so strongly as this film's score. There's a lot to listen to in it, and many things I'd love to explore here that I just can't. And it's clear now that it played some role in giving me the voice I've got now. I'm looking forward to writing more with that explicitly in mind.

12 Nov: Corrected chord symbols in the tenth paragraph: the A chords are major, not minor.

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