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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Titanic Live



Twenty minutes into the film Titanic, when Rose begins to recount the story, the camera slowly pans away from her close-up to the flickering screens behind. We see the video footage of the corroded remnants of the sunken ship. The flashback begins. The debris gradually peels off its rust and scar to regain the glossy skin that still smelled of fresh paint. Matching the spatial and temporal contours of the moving images is the musical score. The snare roll is marching on. The strings section ascends and gathers momentum at a pace dictated by the rhythm of the seamless transformation of the remnants into reminiscences. Precisely when the transition from the present to the past is complete, like the fizz rushing out of an uncorked bottle of soda, the orchestra pops open with a loud crash of cymbals. Fleeing on strings, like an enslaved bird freed from its cage, is the motivic melody that embodies the beauty and might of the ship Titanic. That crashing of the cymbals hit me like a bolt of lightning, and that, I believe, is the moment when I became a fan of symphonic music.

Ilaiyaraaja had unlocked the portal to the world of film scores, but it was still only left ajar. It was James Horner’s score in the film Titanic that swung the door wide open. Jurassic Park was the only film in English I had seen before Titanic, and at the time, I didn’t yet have the ear and acuity to differentiate John Williams’ rapturous score from the T. Rex’s thunderous roar.

I was fourteen. I didn’t know that in the score of Titanic synthesised sounds and voices were interlaced with orchestral music to create a unique sonic tapestry. I didn’t have to know. The music in Titanic was simple and earnest, and its effect direct.

I found, at a friend’s place in Salem, a Back to Titanic cassette with Jack and Rose’s I’m Flying pose on its deep oceanic blue front cover. I heard the score while I was at my friend’s place for a group study session with the other classmates. That wasn’t enough, and the place wasn’t right. It was difficult to immerse myself into the music amidst all the chitter-chatter. I couldn’t borrow the cassette. Also, the moment I noticed the price on the cassette cover, I quashed the thought of ever owning it.

I heard the score again a few months later when I watched the film on its Indian television premiere on the New Year’s Eve. I thought the end credits drew the curtains down with the Celine Dion’s song My Heart Will Go On, but there was more. I couldn’t have possibly known this earlier. The operators never let the end credits roll to play in any of the cinema theatres in India. They would abruptly switch the projection off within a few seconds, and the audience too would start to exit the hall immediately after the end.

The most exhilarating of all the cues in the score—entitled Take Her to Sea, Mr. Murdoch on the soundtrack album—played immediately after Celine Dion’s love ballad in the end credits. It was already midnight. Everyone at home was asleep. I had to keep the volume low. I had to hug tight our 21-inch CRT TV with my left ear on the speakers to hear the score. Though the sound was feeble, compressed, and mono, the music was sublime. The most vivid aural imprint of the moment is the thin church bell tolling sound which appears at the chilling transitional moments in the orchestral piece. It has in its metallic clang a ring of divinity and otherworldliness, and it sounded as if each stroke knocked open a door to a newer, higher plane of transcendence.

 

 

I was in tenth grade at the time, and I wouldn’t hear Titanic score again until after two years; when I would be in college, and when I could afford to buy cassettes. My parents would offer me some pocket money, which I saved and splurged on music. I also owned a Philips two-in-one tape recorder; a gift from my parents for securing the first rank in class in the final board examination.

I was studying mechanical engineering in Trichy, where I found the biggest music shop I had seen so far. The Rhythm Boss. I could see the interiors of the shop through the glass door in the front. The shop had audio cassettes stacked like decorative tiles on all the three walls from floor to ceiling. The walls appeared mosaic painted with multiple hues of that of the cover art on the cassette boxes. The shop had an immense collection of music and a legibly hand-written catalogue book with the names of the movie soundtracks sorted in alphabetical order, and a detailed listing of the names of the tracks under each title. It was the first time I had the opportunity to dig rare Indian film soundtrack albums with instrumental music tracks. In the catalogue, I spotted two titles I didn’t think I would find in their collection—Titanic and Back to Titanic. I made a mixtape with selected instrumental pieces listed as Theme Music from a wide range of Indian films, and I included a few tracks from Titanic, too. I knew most of the music cues in the Titanic score by heart, but I realized that I didn’t know their titles.

I picked the track titled Southampton. I remembered that in one of the shots at the beginning of the film a green luggage carrier pulled through the crowd of passengers waiting to board the ship; it had Francis Ltd Southampton written on it. I was convinced that the track Southampton must be the piece of music that plays when the Titanic departs from the port. Also chose the tracks Rose from Titanic and An Irish party in the third class from Back to Titanic.

The track Rose wasn’t what I presumed it to be. The piece I craved to listen to is in fact delivered under the title Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch in the soundtrack.

‘Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch,’ says the captain when he commands his associate Mr. Murdoch to increase the speed of the ship. I didn’t know that for a long time. I couldn’t have discerned that the musical cue playing in Jack’s I’m-the-King-of-the-World moment could be titled Take her to Sea, Mr. Murdoch. When I watched the film for the first time, I hardly understood the dialogues, for it was only the second English film I ever saw. Though English was our medium of education in school, the teachers who taught us in English didn’t have the accents of the characters in the film. And none of us students in school ever casually conversed in English either.

 

 

It has been seventeen years since I first watched Titanic at the Saraswathi movie theatre in Salem. I am about to experience watching the film on a big screen again at the London Royal Albert Hall. Conductor Ludwig Wicki with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra is performing the whole score live to the projection of the film. James Horner, the composer, and James Cameron, the filmmaker, are seated in the stalls. I am standing far from the stage up above in the general gallery.

The musicians in the orchestra aren’t seated in a dark pit under the podium like they are in an opera or ballet performance; they are up on the stage and given the prominence of that of a lead singer in a band. Subdued golden yellow spotlights on sheet music stands illuminate the stage enough for the audience to observe the musicians, their musical instruments, and the conductor and his gestures. The film projection screen is dangling high above the stage, behind the orchestra.

Titanic Live is a gala concert event meant for celebration, reverence, and indulgence in nostalgia. Many who are attending this event are here to celebrate a special occasion in their lives — birthdays, anniversaries, or a date night. Men are all suited up. Women glittered up. Couples hold each other’s hands and peck on each other’s cheeks. Outside, in the foyer, there is a mandatory souvenir stall selling the film merchandise — T-shirts, music CDs, the glossy program book. And food. Popcorn. Ben & Jerrys. Crisps. Haagen-Dazs. Wine. Coffee. It is a quiet carnival. 

We request the patrons to occupy their respective seats. The main event is about to begin. A booming voice alerts all the men hanging out at the bar and women waiting in a long queue outside the loo.

Lights are off. Coughs and claps subside. The screen wakes up. The conductor lifts the baton and waves at the orchestra. We slip into a collective dream.

Few minutes into the film, Jack is standing with his friend at the nose of the ship. So close to the edge that no part of the giant ship is in his line of sight. He is looking at the horizon. He is standing atop all earthly entities, like an emperor who just conquered the infinite ocean and summoned it to lay down at his feet.

When he begins to scream with unbridled joy, ‘I’m the King of the World,’ camera’s eye is looking at him from a distance, and from forty-five degrees to his right. The sunlight glistening on the surface of the ocean splashes over the sky in the background turning it into a glaring white. The movements are kinetic, dramatic and its effect is beguiling because everything is set in frantic motion. The ship is cruising forward, the camera is moving relentlessly in different directions; towards, away or sideways around the nose of the ship, with its eyes always fixed on Jack, who is in a state of nirvana.

Camera’s movements are orchestrated like a symphony, with all the instruments at the director’s disposal swiveling around a central motif that is Jack’s infectious exuberance. James Horner’s delirious score is applied to this sequence to unify and transform all the fervent visual acrobatics into one seamless moment of stillness.

Precisely when Jack screams ‘I’m the king of the world, with a loud thud of a percussion and the crash of cymbals, the 60-piece strings section breaks free. I am standing still, clutching tight the handrails of the gallery. Strings soar high and above all the other orchestral layers, and at its peak pronounces the ship’s theme aloud. At once, in an infinitesimal moment, the bombast of the score fires up an electric pulse through every cell in my body. A million things are set in motion. And voila! A small pearl of a tear in my eyes. Just a tiny moistening drop, forming a thin translucent film. The cruising images of Titanic I behold in my eyes wobble as if they fell on the ripples in a pool of water.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Jurassic Park Live in Concert



I was eight when I watched my first English film. Like most other mofussil town millennials growing up in India, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was my first English film too. At the time, I didn't yet have the ear to differentiate John Williams’ rapturous score from T. Rex’s thunderous roar, among the sounds I heard while watching the film. The next ten years, I grew up in the modest city of Salem, in the state of Tamil Nadu, utterly oblivious to the existence of the music of Jurassic Park.

Read the complete concert review here


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Score to Screen: Disney's UP

A new essay in which I have attempted to look and hear closely the Married Life montage from Up to examine how music (Michael Giacchino) is married to the moving images. It is now published on the Issue 09 of a multi-lingual online film magazine theworldofapu.com. 

Thanks to the editors for soliciting the essay; it gave me the impetus I needed to write something I had been thinking of writing someday for many years.







Thursday, September 13, 2018

John Williams' Music by Emilio Audissino

I always scour for books on film scores, and I have read a few before. My most favorite book on film scores was Doug Adams’ The Music of the Lord of the Rings films. It is a hefty, glossy, hardbound tome in which the author examines Howard Shore’s Wagnerian leitmotiv method of scoring for multiple tribes, cultures, characters and creatures in the Middle Earth. The book is a focused monographic study of the score of just one film, and I thought it the most definitive book on film scores. But that changed when I stumbled upon Emilio Audissino’s John Williams’ Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Returns of the Classical Hollywood Music style; an immense, scholarly study on the vast film music repertoire and the long career of the legendary film composer John Williams.

Audissino is a film scholar and a film musicologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Pisa and his PhD theses was on John Williams’ music. The book is the culmination of various papers, articles, and the final PhD theses he had written on Williams’ music. However, the book is totally stripped off of all the cumbersome academic terminologies that could have rendered it inaccessible to the general readers.

It is evident that Audissino intends the book to be accessible to all. Even those who wouldn’t have thought in their entire lives about film music might still be drawn to this book because of the names of some of the most iconic Hollywood franchise films—Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones—on the book’s title, and hence Audissino doesn’t drop us directly in a jungle of musical jargons.

The book begins with a simple, detailed explanation of the methodology and terminologies Audissino has used to illustrate the significance of music in films. Diegetic, non-diegetic, extra diegetic, micky-mousing, soundtrack, wall-paper music, contrapuntal, leitmotif, applied music, absolute music and such terms are introduced with simple, concise and comprehensible definitions. He holds our hands until we can walk on our own, explains the basics, and sets up the context before he divulges deep into the theories and functions of John Williams’ film music.

Audissino presents an all-encompassing authoritative study of John Williams’ music and his career as a musician, arranger, composer and a conductor. He makes a compelling case for the neoclassical revolution that he believes John Williams single-handedly initiated with his symphonic scores early in his career.

The book starts with a comprehensive history of the relation between films and music. There have been many books with elaborate accounts of music in the era of silent cinema written by film scholars like Rick Altman, but Audissino offers a succinct account of the evolution of sound and music in films here. In the following chapter, he defines the phrase ‘classical Hollywood music style’ and talks about its pioneers (Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner), explains how Hollywood film production worked and how its business-model influenced the kind of music used in films, and consequently the near extinction of the ‘classic Hollywood music style’ just before John Williams stormed into the scene and revived it with Star Wars.

In each subsequent chapter, Audissino picks John William’s score in Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Last Ark and does a rigorous, microscopic, scene by scene, cue by cue analysis of the score. He illustrates with ample evidence how in a John Williams’ score, the ‘applied music’ blends in with the visuals of the said film, despite the composer writing the music strictly adhering to the formal techniques of the classical, ‘absolute music’. There is nothing in the score that you cannot produce live on stage with a classical orchestra. It is pure polyphonic writing.

I did struggle with the musical terms like sforzando, fortissimo and pianissimo but then because the book tells us precisely where the music is played in the film, when I read these passages and simultaneously watched the scenes, it became easy to appreciate the insight. The book doesn’t pretend to be a leisure reading anyway, and I guess it’s intended readers, even if originally just a fan of the film, once they start reading the book, wouldn’t mind making that extra effort to do what is required to access and ascertain its contents. The stunningly thorough examination of many components of the film and its musical score made me appreciate music in films much better than I could have done on my own.

Then Audissino delves extensively into the appointment of John Williams as the conductor of one of the most popular American orchestras the Boston Pops Orchestra, which historically have always had a European as its conductor. John Williams was the first American to become Boston Pops’ conductor. Audissino presents the context against which Williams changed the way film music was represented in Classical music concerts, not as frivolous pop encore one dances and claps to, but as a serious piece of art music that ought to be heard with rapt silence that audience usual reserve for classical music.

Further, Audissino records Williams’ innovative ideas that spawned a new trend of multimedia concerts based on films and film scores. On 16th March 2002, on the occasion of the premiere of the twentieth anniversary edition of the film E.T – The Extra-Terrestrial, composer John Williams, with Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles, conducted the complete score to the projection of the entire film. That was the first ever time, a live orchestra’s performance of the score accompanied a non-silent film throughout. Since 2002, Films with Live Orchestra concerts have grown in number to become a regular event in major concert halls of the western world. There are at least five hundred such concerts performed all over the world in 2018.

Audissino offers a strong rebuttal to those who hold Williams’ popularity against his genius by comparing his works with Ennio Morricone and such composers and attempt to denounce his achievements. Despite Audissino’s evident enthusiasm for John Williams’ music, he finally doesn’t deny the fact that the ever-evolving Hollywood production system doesn’t allow John Williams’ classical Hollywood style spread far and wide; it remained just his distinct style and the other composers continued to deviate and found newer ways of scoring films; a glaring case in point, Hans Zimmer’s monophonic music and its stratospheric success. Zimmer’s music is an irrefutable antithesis to everything John Williams’ music stands for.

Audissino’s study is focused on a few specific works from the repertoire of one composer, and yet it discusses, even if briefly, many of the popular works of Williams’ contemporaries in order to substantiate Williams’ uniqueness.

Audissino’s book is a stellar example of how a piece of academic writing on an obscure subject can be tweaked to transcend beyond its esoteric scholarly boundaries and made accessible without diluting the heft of its subject matter.