2014年9月18日 星期四

AMusTCL Film Music 試題的迷思 - Voicing in the "Other" Voice


The students' results of the film music question in the last May AMus examination were not satisfactory. Many complained severly that the question was very tricky.That the question looks easy in the surface when the students encounter with it at the first moment, in my opinion, is the underestimation of their realization of what is meant by "innovative and new". Indeed, the examination results reveal the fact that this question is proved to be more difficult than the student preliminarily expect. The following discussion is not focused on seeking a perfect definition or answer for what is artistic "innovative" and "new" for film art. But, rather, it only reflects my contemplation of a moot issue about artistic creation and aesthetic appreciation for film musical art, which has obsessed me for a long time.


To define what is meant by "innovative and new" is as slippery as explaining what is art. However, in the broaden sense, we usually commend a product, say, a smart phone, is innovative or new because of its multi-functional capability. This generalization of the term is not unreasonable, even not unconceiveable. To many customers, a phone that is not only for chatting but also for working as a personal computer or music player is already a new and innovative design. You cannot imagine how a phone could work in such a way in thirty years ago. Similarly, every scene of a film speaks of its story and plots in a voice through images, dialogues, and actions on the screen. But a passage of music, however succinct, can always add a unique extra-voice to that particular scene, forming a multiple web of voices narrating simultaneously. In such case, music definitely can convey more and richer meanings, leaving a vaster and deeper dimension for further contemplation. If the first voice is enhanced directly by the images on the screen, the music narrating behind can be regarded as the second voice.

In many movies, the former first voice constitutes the fundamental core for the understanding of the plots, going hand in hand with the musical second voice to enhance the moods, the characters, as well as their actions and emotions in the scene. In some occasions, however, this easily neglected musical voice moves against the moods and actions, or at least voicing independently from the dramatic context of that particular scene. In such momentary instance, the music is creating an "other" or "new" voice, expressing a new  level of meaning to the audience. Is there any subliminal messages concealed behind the scene? At this time, the "other" voice is creating an expectancy of the forthcoming plots for the audience to speculate. How can this expectation be realized in the later scene? Such an emotional suspense is one of the sources of artistic pleasure. As such, the meaning of the "other" voice is often a trigger for aesthetic contemplation.

Regarding a cliche function of music in a film, say, leit motive (leading motive), a term coined by Richard Wagner for his music dramas in the 19th century, is never failed to appear in many audiences' minds. All film music composers exploit the uses of leit motive. Indeed, the basic function of a leit motive is for unifying the story-line of a film. Every single event is cohered each other when the leit motive is recognized by the audience. However, leit motive used in a film per se is not innovative enough for the creation of film art. We need to step forward to a deeper level by investigating its musical meaning, understanding why it is transformed, and how it elevates the aesthetic meaning of a particular scene to the higher state. The artistic innovation for film art, I believe, is originated from the understanding of the meaning of this musical "other" voice.
It needless to repeat the effectiveness of leit motive. The power of music can also easily be experienced when the music is used to create a unique voice in a particular moment. One of the exemplars of using transformed leit motives in such an innovative way may be found in Casablanca (北菲諜影, 1942): the reunion scene. The scene before this one acts in many respects as a prologue to the reunion scene: the evening after their arrival in the city, Ilsa and Laszlo go to Rick’s café; after a while Laszlo walks to the bar to talk with a man, and Ilsa tells a waiter to ask Rick’s friend, Sam, also the Jazz pianist of the café, to come over to her table. Sam arrives and she asks him to play “As Time Goes By.” From this point, the audience hears that motivic melody four times in a row: sung (hummed) by Ilsa, then played and sung by Sam; then heard twice in the nondiegetic orchestra, first as the slow-motion reaction music in the oboe (transformed), and then as a slightly distorted (transformed) waltz when Ilsa refers to Paris in the conversation. Each time the tune is varied in some ways – not only in orchestration and tempo but also in its stylistic and aesthetic significations.

The first appearance of this now-famous melody in the film is through Ilsa’s self-humming, and brief wordless singing: instantly it becomes the love theme as it is literally embodied in her while the audience sees her in the close up. Here, the interaction of music with images  on the screen all together in the particular instant aims to convey a new meaning to the audience. Since the song, a lyrical tune dispersed with droplets of somber memory, is hummed by Ilsa, it is both of her point of view music, which can conjure her unforgettable, however painful, memory up, and of a diegetic music voicing to her herself and Sam in the café. Sam’s repeating it reluctantly but fluently tells audiences that this leit melody has an undisclosed history, a seemingly ‘perfect, good thing’ associated with it in the recollections of Ilsa’s and Sam. Is it a love affair of Ilsa with someone else? The audience is supposed to know nothing at this moment. The love  story about Ilsa and Rick has not yet been disclosed to the audience. The director employs the technique of flashback for Rick's recollection in the forthcoming scene to re-tell the deepest, yet poignant, romantic love story happened in the past.  While the first voice is narrating a general meeting of two old friends in a café, the hidden "other" voice of this self-humming diegetic melody undoubtedly creates a broader space for audiences' numerous speculations.

The suggestion of the undisclosed love affair in Ilsa's humming is powerfully realized her “point of view” recalling voice that immediately follows a stinger chord, working as a musical punctuation pronouncing in loud volume by tutti orchestra, to dramatize the moment of the sudden encounter register in the minds of Rick and Ilsa. The bombarding chord signals the audience that Ilsa is awakened from her deep immersion of the recollection. Again, using a distinctive instrumental timbre, the oboe, for the return of the transformed melody -- "As Time Goes By" -- is an appropriate choice. In fact, the oboe voice is capable of eliciting a feeling of missing, perhaps a even more anguish recall of her unwillingly separation from the ‘distant’ beloved, in Ilsa’s inner heart, as she is so missing of this unrequited love. When being compared with the other woodwind timbres in orchestra, oboe sound is always regarded unique, characterized and heterogeneous in nature because of its double reed color. Together with the slow moving pace, this exotic oboe tune seems narrating to the audience that the immeasurable sorrow of Ilsa is deep rooted in her far off memorable past. Here, the old, already faded out 19th Century Romantic sentiment of longing and yearning is relived again through the innovative use of such a poetic, yet slightly distorted (transformed), leit motive. 

Finally, the audience learns where the whole memorable history can be localized – in Paris (through dialogue), as Ilsa makes a reference to the city and the audience hears “As Time Goes By” in waltz, however greater distorted, form. It has been widely known that dance of waltz is beautiful in nature and can easily be associated with a delightful context. But now it is transformed, or  more directly, distorted, in a certain level, seemingly voicing something unusual happened in Paris. The leit melodic theme is distorted in such a way that not only the melodic notes are chromatically inflected, creating a somewhat out-of-tune melody, but also several massive sound blocks are intruded to the originally eloquent tune, bringing the audience a disconcerting feeling. Indeed, the audience can realize later that this distorted (transformed) leit motive speaks of a miserable story between Ilsa and Rick meeting in Paris, which is a tearful but memorable place for both of the lovers. In fact, Paris was the place where Ilsa tasted her both the happiest and bitterest moments with Rick in her life.

Compared with the voice crying out from the uneasy, embarrassed conversation among Ilsa, Rick and others, the eerie second voice ("As Time Goes By") murmuring behind seems more important for one to reveal the subliminal message between Ilsa and Rick. Are they previously known to each other? Is Rick the protagonist of Ilsa's recollection? If that so, does such a distorted tune aim to herald a message that the love between Rick and Ilsa doomed to be a failure? Is their falling in love only a ‘distorted’, yet beautiful, illusive memorable dream even in the beginning of their first acquaintance? Here, this "other" voice of the now-famous love theme has already disclosed Ilsa’s sorrowful but unforgettable story  to some extent to the audience.

While the music in a movie mostly operates together with the characters, their actions and dialogues as the first voice to carry out the basic plots, there is music, at times, works against the scene, creating a second narrative space to speak in an "other voice." The use of music as such is capable of deepening the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of the narrative context of a film. Thus, musical voice is always open up to multiple readings, creating an expectancy of the forthcoming plots for the audience. As I believe, one of the factors to determine whether the music in a particular scene of a film is innovative or new largely depends on the interpretation of how such a musical voice narrates in the "other" voice.


David Leung (theorydavid)
2014-09-18 (published)