Continued from Part 2…
Apologies to Wixon·Music·Works Blog devotees! It’s been a busy couple of weeks for yours truly, between putting on District New Music Coalition’s first weekend of concerts on March 3rd and 4th, finishing the score and parts to Trailing Image for the University of Maryland Repertoire Orchestra, and a few weekend work commitments at Washington Revels; combine that activity with my proclivity to write blog posts on the day that they are due, and before you know it you’ve had a three-week hiatus!
But today the blog is back, and I’m going to start wrapping up my musings on Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp. (If, understandably, you’re a little foggy on the details of the previous two installments, you can catch yourself up with Part 1 and Part 2 before reading on.)
Perhaps you’ve had this sensation when listening to film music: “Hmm… that sounds so familiar, I know I’ve heard it in some famous orchestral piece.” This is pretty common, and helped along by the fact that most film composers are working from “temp scores,” sometimes cobbled together from a director’s classical CD collection. The composer is given the task of recreating the spirit of a well-known orchestral work while changing the notes just enough. In one famous case, 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick liked his temp score so much that he opted for his own selections over the original film score composed by Alex North. You can compare North’s opening title with the beginning of Also sprach Zarathustra (by Richard Strauss).
I often have the opposite problem, hearing beloved film music in classical pieces. (My typical response is, “Hey, that sounds like [insert John Williams score here]!” at which point my wife reminds me: “Yes dear, but Tchaikovsky wrote it first…”) I guess this explains why I’m writing a series on Korngold.
As I mentioned in Part 1, I planned to point out the places in Symphony in F-sharp where I most strongly hear the connection to Williams’ later scores. But that brings me to the second part of this sensation—this certainty—that I’ve found the direct link from one composer to another: I start trying to prove it… And that’s where everything falls apart. To start off, let’s hear my absolute favorite moment in Korngold’s composition: rehearsal numbers 48–53 (stop at 2:05).
I love this expansive melody, the rhythmic flexibility Korngold exhibits, the orchestration choices, and the way the theme emerges inevitably from the playful, even frenetic, scherzo that precedes it. And, the first time heard this, I had two certainties: 1) the beginning of the theme had to be the inspiration for Williams’ E.T. melody; 2) the conclusion of the first statement was to be found somewhere in William’s Harry Potter score. (Whether you agree with me or not, I refer you to the final paragraph of Part 1 and my disclaimer about the academic rigor of this series… proceed down this rabbit hole at your own risk!)
Let’s start with the Harry Potter moment. Unless you spent your high school years listening to the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack while completing four hours of homework, this may not have leapt out at you. You can hear the spot I’m thinking of in Korngold’s work below (stop at 2:04):
You’re listening for the repeating “Fa, Re, Mi, Do” line in the horns, which happens twice before the beginning of the woodwind arpeggios. I could have sworn that this moment happened verbatim in Harry Potter, and so one morning I set out through the soundtrack to isolate the exact cue. An hour later and my sense of certainly had drained away. All I could point to as being remotely close to Korngold’s four-note motive was a triumphant brass figure from “Harry’s Wondrous World” (stop at 1:53):
The relative melodic pitches used are the same (“Do, Re, Mi, Fa”) and the sense of repetition is there, but of course the arrangement of these notes is different, as is the underlying harmonic motion. It would be a heavy lift to argue that Williams is really imitating Korngold in this musical moment.
And so, grudgingly, I abandoned that line of inquiry and moved back to the beginning of the horn melody, one that I was certain would reveal a direct line between Korngold’s symphony and Williams’ E.T. theme. However, with my current post approaching 750 words, I think this part of the adventure is a tale for another time… Will Ross prove the connection between these two compositions? Will his readers throw up their hands at the pointlessness of this blog series? Tune in next week for (what we all desperately hope will be) the thrilling (or, at least, the not completely lame) conclusion!
Last week I included an excerpt from my Fall 17 composition syllabus course description. The final sentence sets out my basic philosophy: “composing [is] an act of self-exploration that advances the composer’s output—and the art itself—with each new work.” Basically, I hope that each piece I (or my students) write will be different in some appreciable way from the works that come before. I realize that our ears guide much of our harmonic and rhythmic language, so commonalities between compositions are inevitable and, frankly, help to define our individual voices. But every work is a chance to challenge ourselves to try something different.
In my own process, I find that stretching my voice is actually pretty easy to do early on in a new project. As I wrote on November 12, 2017 in “A Mini Composition Lesson,” “[w]hen any composer sets pencil to paper (or track-pad to screen) at the beginning of a new composition, he or she immediately establishes some “rules” of the piece.” So if you begin by defining a rhythmic or harmonic language that differs from your previous works, it becomes easy to continue in that mode. In my current project for the University of Maryland Repertoire Orchestra, I’ve tried to stretch in both of those directions, and especially to achieve a sense of rhythmic space in my counterpoint (you can see my note-to-self below).
Another element that I like to push myself on is structure: how larger segments of a composition relate to and define each other. Throughout this latest orchestra project, I’ve felt like I’ve struggled in this area. When I compare the shape of the piece to other recent works, I can’t shake the sense that I’m riding in the same organizational groove. Most challenging, especially as I’ve approached the conclusion in the last two weeks, is what seems to be an inevitable recapitulation— something I feel like I’ve exhausted in my previous four major compositions. Yet, with a deadline looming, there’s no time to reimagine the arc that I have set in motion.
So what to do? Besides taking a long walk while humming the measures I’m working on, I listen to the MIDI playback of the full piece over and over and try to hear what comes next. And, as happened this afternoon, I occasionally get struck by a lucky lightening bolt!
As you can see in the first photo of this post, I’ve made a note for myself, and since my hand manuscript is inscrutable, I’ll transcribe it for you: “Looking Glass” moment. What am I getting at here? Well, since a recap seems inevitable, I decided on a fresh way to conceptualize what returning to the opening material might mean. About two minutes into the composition, the winds and vibraphone execute a shimmering gesture that kicks off a musical path that I didn’t expect when I jotted down the first few measures. Perhaps the music passes through a portal and everything that happens after that point exists in a parallel universe. What does it mean if the music slides back into its own timeline? How does that influence a reprise of the opening material?
I don’t know if any of these ideas will be audible to listeners who haven’t read this blog post. I do know that this narrative element will give me the direction I need to be artistically satisfied with the ending of my composition. And, since it’s due in a week, that’s a very reassuring feeling!
“Music composition combines elements of creativity and craft; both are honed through score study, listening, reflection (individually and in lessons), and practice. Composition lessons help students develop technical skills, solve compositional problems, find inspiration (both musical and extra-musical), and evaluate their music honestly. This foundation transforms composing into an act of self-exploration that advances the composer’s output—and the art itself—with each new work.
Some of you may recall that I was the temporary instructor of Composition at St. Mary’s College of Maryland this past Fall, where I taught a single student. I revisited the above description—excerpted from my private lesson syllabus—following a lesson in which, as usual, I learned something fascinating from my student. In general, a college composition lesson is designed to be an hour long, but I (and I’m sure many other composition students) have had plenty of short lessons, whether because I hadn’t written very much or, always gratifying and usually rare, I had written with such command that my teacher had little to say that day. As an adjunct, I was supposed to provide my student with a certain number of hour-long lessons and, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to actually hit the hour mark. Of course, my earlier observation about week-to-week progress holds true: some weeks, there’s not that much to look at; other weeks, there’s fabulous music that I don’t really need to comment on.
Through working with my student at SMCM, I quickly learned that it was best to keep quiet and let my student talk in those moments when I didn’t have much to say. I was so busy with a week’s worth of work, personal composition time in the evenings, and a four-hour round trip on the weekend to teach this lesson, that I’d forgotten what it was to be a residential undergraduate with time to be absorbed by music. My student would walk me through math-based compositional processes that he was adapting from Xenakis with such enthusiasm that, some weeks, it felt like I got a twenty-minute lesson! Certainly, I was learning about a branch of music to which I hadn’t given much of my own energy.
The most interesting part of these moments, from my standpoint, was seeing the elements of my “composition statement” that, while I had set them down on paper, were minimized in my personal workflow, yet weighed heavily in my student’s process. I tend to emphasize “musical and extra-musical inspiration” and “self-exploration,” always rooted in the Ellington maxim, “If it sounds good, it is good.” This was sometimes thrown into conflict with my student’s prioritization of musical systems, such as proportionality. (Employing such systems could certainly be categorized as “technical skills” that solve “compositional problems.”) I would point out places where I could use more of a particular current musical idea, which usually did not fit into the controlling methodology. On the other hand, when a system turns out compelling music, there’s not much to improve: the music works on an aesthetic level and the procedure ensures that there’s intelligent musical structure. And my student’s excitement about the systems he employed quickly made it apparent that designing processes that allowed him to build increasingly larger works was his own an act of “self-exploration” (just a different conception than the one that I carry with me).
For the most part, I think I provided useful advice and helped my student incorporate more narrative ideas into his conception of large-scale form. But I also learned how important it is to remain engaged in and excited by the music of others, to delve deeply into this music, and to draw inspiration from new models regardless of my satisfaction with my current musical approach.
Yesterday, my colleagues and I hosted the first event of our contemporary music project, District New Music Coalition. Our first New Music Happy Hour at The Wonderland Ballroom was a big success, with about 35 composers, performers, and even some avid music fans in attendance. Over and over, I heard the wonderful comment, “We’re so glad that somebody finally made an event like this happen, it’s long overdue!” I also fielded lots of questions about DNMC’s long-term goals and what opportunities existed for attendees to get involved. One set of questions struck me in particular: “How do you find venues? Are you just picking up the phone and calling? How can you afford to do this?”
As you can see from my recent Facebook post, this question has been on my mind, and the answer, of course, is “Yes, we pick up the phone and ask if we can use a space for free.” Well… sometimes we start with an email, but when a phone call or an in-person visit is required, we go ahead and make it. It helps that there are five of us--Bradley Green, William Kenlon, Dave Molk, Michael Oberhauser, and myself—working on this project, so no individual needs to bear the complete burden of cold-calling venues. We’ve also done some legwork to research venues that have a community mission and offer space for free; bars and restaurants are often glad to host an event to bring in customers on a slow day; and sometimes we have to shell out rental fees, but we impress upon venues our limited budget and don’t overextend ourselves.
Producing concerts and other events takes planning and, depending on your organization’s conception of an appropriate venue, it can get expensive quickly. If you expect to spend lots of money, you probably will. If, however, you plan to get discounted or free space, you’ll find there are many options. Plus, people like to help start-up initiatives, especially artistic ones. So look up likely locations (what we marketers would call “warm leads”), get on the phone, and ask for what you want. A venue might say “No”—but then, they might say “Yes.”
Don’t forget to check out DNMC’s upcoming events in March and April!
Just over a week ago, I made a brief appearance on a TV news segment for work. It was the first time I had been interviewed in the course of my job and I will admit that I was extremely self-conscious throughout, overthinking everything I was saying, worrying about what to do with my hands (which, by the way, never even made it into frame), and trying very hard to look relaxed and confident. Afterwards, I couldn’t really recall what had come out of my mouth, but I was certain that it had been inadequate.
I was able to watch the segment a few days later and, of course, my tiniest of appearances made clear that anything I said would have been made to fit the reporter’s narrative; I would have needed to make a conscious effort to say anything so off-message as to change the story’s angle. Even more valuable was seeing how I carried myself—head moving a little too much, shoulders held up around my ears. Good lessons all around for a marketing/PR person.
Since watching myself, I’ve given some thought to my posture by focusing on my core to keep my spine from rounding, especially while seated, and by trying to relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders (flashbacks to trumpet lessons here). I’ve been attending a weekly yoga class, too. Our instructor regularly reminds us to maintain the “integrity of the spine,” and I’m always amazed by how much more height I have when she comes by and, just by pushing up on my lower back, makes a small adjustment.
This past week, she had us working on our torsos, with lots of sitting twists. We all had been instructed to bring a bolster of some kind; I almost always sit on a block anyway (my hips seem not to have been built for twisting or leaning while seated), but because of the session’s special emphasis, our instructor used a new phrase that, combined with my recent experience, struck me as particularly poignant: “Using the block allows us to sit with dignity.”
“Dignity” is a fascinating word. We often talk about respecting “the dignity of all people” in a very broad sense. But, as I considered our yoga teacher’s remark, I realized that I hadn’t thought about dignity as it applies to individuals in quite some time. Certainly I hadn’t considered my self to have or lack dignity. The idea of sitting in a dignified manner, one that reinforces self-worth, self-confidence, self-respect, felt very fresh. At the same time, it suggested that the way we carry ourselves is a habit. We can be in the habit standing up straight or slouching, of meeting people’s eyes when we speak or looking around the room. We also believe that certain types of people—especially the successful or outgoing—comport themselves with excellent posture and good eye contact, and those of us who, perhaps, let our shoulders stoop a bit are reminded to straighten up when we have a chance to set ourselves apart from the pack.
As anyone who has ever learned an instrument knows, however, you can focus on playing with better technique in a practice session only to fall back on your bad habits in a performance. The same seems to be true of how we present ourselves. We can occasionally remind ourselves to stand up nice and straight, to speak slowly and clearly, to look people in the eye, but these adjustments will likely be temporary and our habits will quickly reassert themselves.
Trying to be someone who we aren’t in order to succeed in professional situations seems like an untenable approach to life. For example, I worry too much before my networking opportunities and overanalyze afterwards. This is not so say that projecting confidence in a meeting is undesirable, only that the appearance of confidence cannot be manufactured consistently. For my own part, I hope to build habits of good posture and articulate speaking through practices like yoga, meditation, and gentle self-evaluation—not to schmooze more effectively, but rather so that I can “sit with dignity” in all parts of my life.
Sometimes, being on the inside of an industry—especially an artistic industry like music—can make it very hard to think like a businessperson. From an early age, we’re taught that art has timeless and intrinsic value. This only gets compounded in college/conservatory training programs where we learn theory and history, but not necessarily salesmanship! (Though this trend is beginning to change, thanks to entrepreneurship courses and programs at many universities.)
For artists, the word “marketing” can feel slimy, but I’ve found that marketing is actually about practicality. It’s about understanding what people want and/or need, determining how a product meets that need in a unique way, letting people know about that product, and convincing them to try it (and hopefully, to become loyal customers).
Today, I took an online training course titled “Understanding Your Customer,” from one of my favorite resources, the U.S. Small Business Administration. It just happened to coincide with the opening chapter of Digital Marketing for Dummies, which I started reading last week. Both discuss the concept of creating Customer Personas or Customer Avatars: imagined individuals that you create by using what you know about your current or desired customers, and which guide your marketing decisions (you can see a handy Customer Avatar description and worksheet referenced in the For Dummies text here). Besides distilling basic demographic data, the Persona/Avatar allows you to make educated assumptions about your ideal or desired customers’ motivations, needs, and pain points—uncomfortable or distressing fears or outcomes that they are trying to prevent.
Both of these resources use commodities like consumer products (TVs) or business services (marketing certifications) as examples, and it can be hard to reconcile these with our notions of Art. And it’s OK to believe that “Art,” with a capital “A,” is different, maybe even superior to, a flat-screen television. But that does not rule out the wisdom of researching, or even imagining, why patrons come to concerts of contemporary classical music. What do these people look like? What are their interests? Where do they get information: i.e. what books/magazines/newspapers/blogs do they read; which social media sites are they on; what TV channels do they watch? What are their wants and needs? Why choose a concert of new music for soprano and live electronics over the latest blockbuster film, or a nice dinner, or a quiet evening in? What are their pain points? What fears or concerns motivate them to make art music part of their lives? And, most importantly, how does your product—your concert or composition—address these wants, needs, and concerns in a way that no other product can?
The flipside of this coin is to create personas for the customers who you haven’t reached but would like to convert. Ask all the same questions, and then ask how your product can be repackaged to meet their needs. Or, what needs do they have that aren’t being addressed by your or any other product, and what new offering could you create that would bring these people into your orbit?
The next time you have a music event you want to generate awareness for among people who are likely to attend, think about the above questions and use the Customer Avatar resource. As you do so, think about these two pieces of advice, which I found so incredibly stress relieving that I thought I should share them. Remember:
Continued from Part 1…
Clearly I’m on a John Williams kick! As promised, here’s the second installment of my exploration of Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp, Opus 40. It’s been a while since December 3rd, so here’s a quick recap if you don’t have time to skim through Part 1. Last time I looked at the similarity between the conclusion of the first theme in Movement 1 and the main theme of the radio drama Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. But I also mentioned that there are a number of other places where I hear melodies that are reminiscent of the Studio-Era sound and, of course, of John Williams’ Symphonic Revival scores.
I planned to continue in that vein today, but as is often the case when you hear a strain that makes you think of another piece of music, the connections are so personal (and, once you try to find the music in question, tenuous) that publishing my personal associations seems rather unhelpful. Instead, I think I will continue this short series by unpacking the orchestration techniques in my favorite movement. (And if I happen to mention John Williams along the way, so much the better!)
Take a listen to Korngold’s second movement. It’s only 10 minutes long and it’s a thrilling scherzo (and if you hear any John Williams in there, feel free to comment on this post and let me know where)! There are three moments in particular that stand out to me—musical passages that, upon hearing this movement, I immediately knew that I wanted to imitate. (In fact, in Rapid Transit, being released soon on Transit Brass’s forthcoming album, I try my hand at one of them.)
Today, let’s take a listen to measures 45-46. You can hear this short section in the video below (0:40-0:43):
This shimmering moment is one of those orchestrational treats I associate with Williams’ style, but it’s all the more interesting to find it here in Korngold because it combines a Strauss-like instrumentation, which we’d expect, with a Stravinskian conflict between major and minor sonorities. I’ve transcribed the pitches, grouped by choir, in the example below:
As you both see and hear above, Korngold creates a sense of suspension by combining an ambiguous major-minor sonority with extreme instrument ranges. Here, G major (with an added raised scale degree 4, or C-sharp) in the upper register (muted trumpets, flutes/piccolo, and 4 soli violins) competes with G minor in the low range (muted trombones, cellos, and basses). The space between the two registers is filled by arpeggios in the harp and clarinets. These arpeggios only enhance this juxtaposition, however. The harp introduces B-natural in the range of G minor (where we expect B-flat) and the clarinets similarly present B-flat in the range of the trumpets (where we expect B-natural). However, Korngold arranges the arpeggios such that clarinets play B-flat when the harp plays B-natural (and vice versa), while at the same time interrupting the presentation of the clarinet triads with a series of interlocking lower neighbor tones (F-sharp and C-sharp).
From an orchestration standpoint, the voicings of the trombones and basses reinforce this sense of ambiguity. Close-position triads placed this low in any instrument choir’s range sound muddy (and typically earn an orchestration student some points off); but here, lack of clarity is exactly what Korngold wants to create, and he’s accomplishing it through pitch and timbre.
In the same moment in which he sows confusion, Korngold manages to create iridescence. Some of this is accomplished by the sustained upper register pitches in the flutes/piccolo and soli violins, the metallic edge of muted trumpets (marked ppp and in a very comfortable range), and the rolled cymbal. The harp arpeggio enhances this effect by dotting the texture with points of light.
The above techniques are fairly typical for creating this kind of shimmer during a held sonority. What sets this passage apart, I think is the clarinet writing. An average composer would have doubled the harp arpeggio, note-for-note, in the clarinets. A good composer might have gone a step further and swapped the major and minor passages between the two groups, as Korngold does. But what makes this moment dance, for all its harmonic suspense, is the way that Korngold uses the neighboring tones C-sharp and F-sharp to enliven the clarinet parts. The F-sharp, in particular, appears in no other instrument group. It doesn’t substantially change how we hear the overall sonority—its presence isn’t consistent or strong enough that it causes us to hear G major 7 or a “film noir-esque” major-minor seventh chord. Instead, F-sharp and C-sharp push the clarinets towards the chord tones G and D, sometimes together but often enough at different times, so that the clarinet parts bubble up from the depths and evaporate. And this is an excellent reminder that, while we often think of orchestrating as assigning color to pitches, a great composer considers instrumentation and pitch selection simultaneously to create fresh, exciting, and organic effects.
I think I’ll call it here, for tonight, and I’ll tackle a few other spots in this movement in the coming months. Until then, happy listening and, if you’re like me, imitating!
I finally saw the new Star Wars film last night. Don’t worry – there are no plot spoilers in this post! But I thought that this latest franchise score provided an opportune time for a quick rumination on my favorite film composer.
I don’t love everything about this soundtrack. You’ll hear the cut-and-paste action music that’s recycled from Harry Potter, and the major new theme is not among my favorites. In fact, I was happiest during this movie when hearing the music from the original trilogy – there’s something about the beefier orchestrations, the more homophonic textures, and the more chromatic melodies that has helped those scores stand the test of time and compete, in my mind, with their late-Romantic concert-hall counterparts.
Nevertheless, I will take a John Williams score for a big sci-fi blockbuster, hands down, over any other composer working today. The difference is that, even when Williams’ orchestrations employ the full orchestra, there’s a transparency that no other composer seems to achieve. The orchestra just sounds… well, like an orchestra. Groups of instruments are allowed to have distinct identities, to perform different kinds of music. You hear a stratification that imbues the soundtrack with more color. And this is what makes John Williams’ music sound so fresh and inviting, even as the ideas feel more and more familiar.
Instrument groups fulfill distinct musical functions throughout this action cue.
Compare this with soundtracks for other major films. Every Marvel movie is a wash of sound. All the instruments are playing, but it doesn’t really matter, because the effect is one of uniformity. It’s as if the composer selected the “epic orchestra” setting on a synthesizer. (Kirk Hamilton’s 2016 article for Kotaku addresses the “forgettable-ness” of these movies’ themes, and I think the orchestration plays it safe in the same way.)
The Age of Ultron theme features one important melodic idea: instrumental/choral forces either carry the theme or provide formulaic accompaniment figures.
The main Avengers theme is carried by the horns, trumpets, and violins. Rhythmic elements exist underneath to provide activity and energy: in neither layer do the orchestration choices matter.
I'm not as plugged in to film music appreciation as I used to be, nor do I see as many movies or pay attention to which composer takes home the Oscar, so without the time to remind myself of the broader state of play today, I'm reticent to make any claims about specific composers. But it seems to me that this kind of sound is the current vogue: big, loud, and homogenous. Fortunately, John Williams continues to offer moviegoers music that makes use of the symphony orchestra's huge timbral range – I'm looking forward to seeing The Last Jedi again soon, and to listening through the soundtrack while I wash dishes! And maybe it's time to start thinking about a longer, more detailed post on how Williams' sound has evolved over the last 40 years...
Adapted from a 2011 Paper, "One Theme’s Journey: Musical Representations of “New Man” Masculinity in The Incredibles"
Continued from Part 2...
Having performed this illicit act of heroism, the Main Theme makes a subtle return as Bob sneaks into his home; interestingly, as the theme plays softly, Bob briefly hums along (00:24:17) (9). I propose that this diegetic acknowledgement of the motive demonstrates the way in which the Incredibles theme is directly linked to Bob’s emotional state.
As the film continues, the Main Theme creeps towards the surface whenever Bob’s inner hero is stirred; at 00:29:04, Bob begins to walk out of a to stop a mugging (10). In this sequence, the Main Theme is ominous rather than heroic, reflecting the tension between Bob’s hero instinct and his boss’s threat to fire him if he leaves the room. Shortly thereafter, Mirage (Buddy Pine’s agent) offers Bob the opportunity to resume his “Mr. Incredible” identity (00:31:59); as he contemplates this chance, the heroic Incredibles theme returns, accompanying a pan across souvenirs from his glory days (00:33:16) (11). Upon successfully completing his first mission for Mirage – destroying a robot run amok – Bob achieves financial success and the promise of more work; and, as we watch a montage in which Bob gets back in shape and experiences a renewal of his love and family life, the music reinforces his elation with an extended statement of the Main Theme in the form of a jazz waltz (0:41:25) – on the soundtrack, this cue is aptly named “Life’s Incredible Again” (12). (see Fig. 3)
Fig. 3: “Life’s Incredible Again” (Main Theme as Jazz Waltz), transcription by the author
(You can hear this in the video below)
Bob’s second assignment as Mr. Incredible ends in his defeat by Syndrome’s improved Omnidroid robot (00:50:24) and eventual capture (01:02:44) (13); with Bob momentarily removed from narrative agency, his wife Helen and their children, through the process of rescuing him, take over the story. It is through their endeavor that the Main Theme expands beyond Bob’s identity – the motive accompanies his family members as they come to terms with their abilities. On the one hand, this highlights Helen, Dash, and Violet’s decision to reject their forced mediocrity; on the other, it shows how Bob’s evolving concept of masculinity will include reliance upon his family.
The first hint that the Main Theme will define the Parr family occurs at 00:46:00; Helen begins to suspect that Bob has not been entirely truthful to her about his work when she finds a silver hair (belonging to Mirage) on his suit coat (14). (see Fig. 4)
Fig. 4: “Helen Suspects” (Main Theme), transcription by the author
When her suspicions about Bob are later confirmed (01:02:09), Helen resolves to go after him; martial rhythms (hinting at the Main Theme) underscore her determination to win her husband back (01:03:06) and, as she prepares to pack her super-suit (the moment of decision), Giacchino reinforces her determination with a brief statement built from the ascending fifths and sixths of the Incredibles motive (01:03:57) (15). (see Fig. 5) When Helen finally lifts off behind the controls of a jet plane (01:05:01), her transition from homemaker to superhero is heralded by a bombastic rendition of the previous figure (16). (see Fig. 6)
Fig. 5: Variation on the Main Theme, transcription by the author
Fig. 6: Bombastic Reprise, transcription by the author
(You can hear this at 1:55 in the video below)
Helen is not the only family member to take ownership of her superpowers; Violet had rejected her abilities in favor of normalcy. When the family is stranded on Syndrome’s island, however, she struggles with the sudden demands placed on her abilities; Helen exhorts her, “Don’t think, and don’t worry. If the time comes, you’ll know what to do… it’s in your blood” (01:14:52) (17). As Violet dons her mask, at once protecting and assuming her identity as a superhero, the Main Theme quietly marks her transition (01:15:26) (18). Dash’s transition from child to superhero is far more rambunctious – both visually and musically. While lost on the jungle island, the children attract the attention of Syndrome’s guards (01:22:23) (19). As Dash uses his super-speed to escape, he runs blindly onto a lake, expecting to sink (01:26:15); upon realizing that his speed allows him to run on the surface, Dash laughs mischievously and takes off across the water, his identity solidified by a wild big-band rendition of the Incredibles motive (01:26:20) (20).
Helen successfully rescues Bob from captivity (01:23:50) and the family, reunited in the jungle, makes a stand against Syndrome’s minions (01:28:22) (21). As the four superheroes battle on the guards, the heroic Main Theme from the film’s opening moments finally returns (01:28:49); in this incarnation, however, the theme has taken on meaning for the entire family (22). The viewer now hears this music as representative of the Parr’s dependence upon one another – the communal strength that Gillam and Wooden describe.
The reunited Parr family makes its stand, screenshot by the author
While he has been rescued, Bob’s journey towards “New Man” masculinity requires one final step: the acknowledgement of “his own dependence, both physical and emotional,” on women. When the Parr’s return to the mainland to defend their city from Syndrome’s robot, Bob initially commands his wife and children to stay in their van (01:36:07) (23). When Helen confronts him about his perceived macho behavior, “he confesses to [her] that his need to fight the monster alone is not a typically alpha (‘I work alone’) sort of need but a loving one: ‘I can’t lose you again’[…].” Gillam and Wooden submit that this admission signals Bob’s ultimate rejection of the alpha model and his attainment of “New Man” status. At this pivotal moment, Giacchino’s score responds by transforming the once heroic and masculine Main Theme into a lyrical, feminine statement (01:36:37); Bob admits that he is not strong enough to face the thought of losing his wife, and the music is comforting as Helen assures him, “If we work together, you won’t have to be” (01:36:53) (24). Bob’s character and his theme have arrived together at this new awareness, in which relying on others is viewed as an asset.
Ultimately, the “New Man” model proposed by Gillam and Wooden proves highly effective as a tool with which to analyze Michael Giacchino’s score for The Incredibles. This perspective allows us to see that the Main Theme embodies the narrative on a purely musical level – a function far beyond providing a sense of coherence and unity for both the music and the visuals. The music defines Bob’s development while simultaneously enlisting his family members in his cause and commenting on their relationships with the superhero identity. In so doing, the score transcends the semiotic function of leitmotif and, through it’s agency in shaping the characters’ self-perceptions, becomes an active participant in the narrative.
While all four of the Parr’s arrive at a new relationship to their gifts, Giacchino’s technique is particularly effective because it affords varying shades of insight into an individual character’s journey. The two most striking conversions are those of Bob and Violet; Bob’s acceptance of his feminine dependency represents a complete departure from the man he was at the start of the movie; and yet even he was and remains, at his core, a hero. Violet, who repressed her abilities throughout her life, must make the decision to embrace a side of herself in which she has never believed – Giacchino’s gentle treatment of this quiet transformative moment provides the audience far more information than would a bombastic action cue. Those are reserved for Helen and Dash. Helen, who, in her own right, was a successful superhero, need only simply don her costume to regain that status. Similarly, from his introduction, the audience has been left little doubt about Dash’s inner hero; all that his transformation required was the opportunity to utilize his gifts, which he does to appropriately uproarious music. Thus, Giacchino’s music is effective and well constructed and provides, on the surface, a heartfelt nod to the jazz and spy scores of the 1960s; as one looks past the superficial elements of Giacchino’s structure, his music’s carefully orchestrated participation in the drama becomes clear.
Endnotes (citations continued from part 2):
 (9-12) The Incredibles; Michael Giacchino, The Incredibles Original Soundtrack, Walt Disney Records, 2004.
 (13-14) The Incredibles.
 (15-16) The Incredibles.
 (17-20) The Incredibles.
 (21-22) The Incredibles.
 Gillam and Wooden, “Post-Princess Models of Gender,” 6.
 (23-24) The Incredibles.
Adapted from a 2011 Paper, "One Theme’s Journey: Musical Representations of “New Man” Masculinity in The Incredibles"
I submit that Michael Giacchino’s score for The Incredibles is primarily concerned with the evolution of the film’s central character, Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible), and his journey towards “New Man” masculinity, characterized by dependence on his family. The music thus serves as an expression of the narrative development suggested by Gillam and Wooden. Rather than assuming a leitmotif function, the main theme takes on a participatory role. I will employ Gillam and Wooden as a lens through which to view the interaction between music and narrative that Giacchino’s approach enables.
Leitmotif, or Something More?
A common convention in film music is the use of the leitmotif; Prendergast, writing in 1972, suggests that film composers adopted Wagner’s basic idea of “having a different melody or motif for each character.” These themes can be modified to “give the listener some indication of that character’s state of mind.” While Prendergast notes that “this definition […] is an oversimplification,” he maintains that it is “not far from the mark.” Currently, scholars debate whether or not these themes truly function as leitmotifs; Larsen cites Claudia Gorbman’s assertion that the alteration of themes throughout a film diminishes their semiotic function. Similarly, Larsen suggests that film motives do not carry the same “‘metaphysical significance’” as their Wagnerian counterparts. On the other hand, Larsen references Wagner’s insistence that his leitmotifs were primarily structural in function and enabled him to create musical unity. Larsen thus suggests that employing a structural rather than representational understanding of the leitmotif technique may be helpful in interpreting mainstream film music.
Though his model of leitmotif is simplistic, Prendergast presents a thorough overview of its practical applications in film music. First, he describes the common approach to the film leitmotif as “variations,” wherein “a motif varies and develops alongside a character or dramatic situation;” Prendergast cites Friedhofer’s score to The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), in which the composer created all of his musical material from only five motives. Second, Prendergast describes the monothematic score, “in which the composer uses only one tune (usually popular in nature) for an entire score.” Here the melody takes on an important “dramatic role.” Finally, Prendergast outlines the developmental score; the opening title functions as an exposition, followed by “altered and unaltered recapitulations of material” as decided by “the film’s dramatic necessities.”
Ultimately, notes Larsen, the purpose of film music is to “transform a stream of fragmentary, visual and auditive information into a cohesive whole;” therefore the music must have its own unity. I submit that Michael Giacchino achieves this by synthesizing all three of Prendergast’s examples; for example, Ratatouille (2007) is built around the original song “Le Festin.” Similarly, Up (2009) is characterized by a single instrumental melody: “We’re in the Club Now.” In both cases, a majority of the melodic material is crafted from these themes to meet the demands of the narrative, much like Prendergast’s “variation” and “development” scores. Giacchino’s use of limited thematic material lends cohesion to his final product and the music for The Incredibles is no exception.
Rather than utilizing his material for its semiotic functions, in The Incredibles, Giacchino allows his primary theme to function alongside the narrative in a parallel register and to thereby inform our understanding of the characters’ relationships towards both their own identities and, in the case of Helen and the children, towards Bob’s development. Van Elferen notes a similar phenomenon in Giacchino’s music for Lost. She points to his use of a violin glissando to denote questions about “Being,” “Nothingness,” and “Time,” with which the series grapples. In one sense, it has the semiotic function of emphasizing “the undefined ‘other sphere’ of the island and its powers,” but Van Elferen proposes that the glissando also impacts the viewers’ perceptions of time. By both outlining and participating in the philosophical questions that the show raises, the motive becomes a commentator on the events. I propose that Giacchino’s Main Theme for The Incredibles functions in a similar way; it both outlines the changes that the characters undergo and shapes our understanding of these developments.
Realization of Musical Narrative:
For The Incredibles, director Brad Bird wanted the music to change with the main character (Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible) rather than remaining a static signifier like Indiana Jones’s march in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bob’s initial theme, which Giacchino describes as a “generic superhero” motive, therefore grows with the character. Its first appearance, however, captures the narrow-mindedness of Mr. Incredible. (see Fig. 1)
Fig. 1: Main Theme (Incredibles Theme), transcription by the author
(You can hear this theme at the beginning of the video below)
Characterized by an ascending perfect fifth and minor sixth, the motive is at once bold (perfect fifth) while also jazzy and ominous (minor sixth), immediately referencing the superhero and spy genres to which the film is indebted (3). While Giacchino refers to this motive as “Bob’s Theme,” I intend to show that it ultimately co-opts Mr. Incredible’s entire family; I will refer to the theme henceforth as the “Main Theme” or the “Incredibles theme.”
In its first outing, the Main Theme announces the beginning of the narrative (00:02:04) as the “Incredibles” icon and title flashes across the screen. The audience is dropped into a violent car chase (00:02:14); as a young Mr. Incredible pursues two armed gunmen, an energetic jazz set, which derives from the key intervals of fifth and sixth, accompanies the action (4). (see Fig. 2)
Fig. 2: Main Theme Derivation (as heard at 00:02:38), transcription by the author
(You can hear this at 0:32 in the video below)
While this music creates a fast-paced atmosphere, it also serves to reinforce Mr. Incredible’s one-dimensional alpha role. At this point in his career, he is young, successful, and basically invincible; he apprehends the gunmen by crushing their car with a tree trunk (00:03:44), survives being smashed by an exploding bank vault door (00:06:42), and prevents an L-train from falling through a break in the rails (00:08:23) (5).
Mr. Incredible faces plaintiffs in court, screenshot by the author
However, once the weight of civil lawsuits forces all superheroes into retirement – symbolically emasculating Mr. Incredible (00:10:12) – music disappears from the film until 00:19:25 (6). When Mr. Incredible reads in the newspaper that a former superhero friend has gone missing, an ominous cue surfaces at this reminder of Bob’s past and just as quickly fades as a quarrel in the dining room snaps him back to the present (7). Music makes a complete return at 00:22:13, as Bob and his friend Lucius (formerly the hero Frozone) sneak away from their wives to pursue vigilante hero work (8). In a sense, these two examples suggest that music in The Incredibles is tied to Bob’s identity as a superhero; when this aspect of his life is repressed, the score is also silent.
Concludes in Part 3...
Endnotes (citations continued from part 1):
 Roy M Prendergast, Film Music: A Neglected Art (New York: W.W. Norton and Company,1992), 231.
 Peter Larsen, Film Music (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 214.
 Larsen, Film Music, 216.
 Larsen, Film Music, 217.
 Prendergast, Film Music, 232-33.
 Prendergast, Film Music, 233.
 Prendergast, Film Music, 233-34.
 Larsen, Film Music, 217.
 “Ratatouille Soundtrack,” Amazon, accessed December 1, 2011, http://www.amazon.com/Ratatouille-Orginal-Soundtrack-Michael-Giacchino/dp/B000PKG7HK/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1322750156&sr=8-1-spell.
 “Up Soundtrack,” Amazon, accessed December 1, 2011, http://www.amazon.com/Up/dp/B002A4ZN1A/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1322767726&sr=1-1.
 Isabella Van Elferen, “Music of Other Spheres: Diagonal Time and Metaphysics in Lost,” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 3, no. 2 (2010): 258.
 Van Elferen, “Music of Other Spheres,” 262-63.
 Hasan, “Isn’t it Incredible,” 14.
 (3-4) The Incredibles.
 (5) The Incredibles.
 (6-8) The Incredibles.
I write music, but I also love to write prose of all kinds! Here you will find journal entries about my creative work, scholarship on film and video game music, and thoughts about effective arts-marketing strategies. Read on and enjoy!