Friday, October 17, 2008

words vs. music in film

A couple of weekends ago, I got to hear a fantastic concert by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, presented by Calgary Pro Musica -- their concert began with the gorgeous string sextet from Richard Strauss' Capriccio, featuring two former members of the quartet on the second cello and viola parts. Violinist Geoff Nuttall introduced the Capriccio sextet with a brief synopsis of the opera, the story of a poet and composer hashing out the classic debate of words vs. music, and trying to court a rich countess in the process.

Geoff wasn't going to give away the ending of the opera -- which plays coy with the countess' decision, in any case -- but the rapturous music of that string sextet already seems to settle the issue, as far as I'm concerned. No one would remember Capriccio except for the music; the libretto tries to mock its own irrelevance, self-importance, and excessive length, but the joke seems to be mainly on the listener. For someone foolish enough to watch the whole thing (as I did last year, on DVD), the only consolation is that at the end there's a bit more of Strauss' gorgeous music, uncluttered by any silly text.

I suppose it's nice when music gets its just recognition, setting the distraction of words aside for a moment. The CPO has been playing a heap of film music these past few weeks: first the Lord of the Rings Symphony by Howard Shore, and this weekend a program of "classic" movie music called Symphony on the Silver Screen.

For most people of my generation, few of the films on this weekend's program make much of an impression. I can recall a line or two from Casablanca, I saw the first Godfather, and of course I remember watching E.T. as a little kid (and eating the breakfast cereal, which had lots of sugary peanut butter flavor.) Even without knowing the films though, each of these scores makes an immediate impression -- it's music engineered to trigger a strong emotional response, and fast.

For my taste, it's sometimes a little too much like that sugary breakfast cereal I ate as a kid: quick to reach one's pleasure centers, but not too much substance. Then again, there are some themes that won't leave your head for hours, maybe days afterwards. I thought Lord of the Rings might never leave my head, until it magically segue-ed into some music from Wagner's Parsifal.

When it comes to movies, it's no longer just words vs. music -- in an updated Capriccio, the poet and composer might be contending against cinematography, special effects, marketing tie-ins, celebrity actors, etc. With so many suitors, our senses tend to get overwhelmed, if not downright cynical -- and yet really great music still manages to cut through all the b.s. At the end of the 2.5 hour Lord of the Rings Symphony, I found myself genuinely moved, as I rarely have been lately when playing concerts -- and more so than I was when watching the films. Perhaps music still has the upper hand, even with all our advances in entertainment technology. Or maybe I'm just terminally biased.

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