A Composer's Adventures

Music and Imagery

ArtistI just saw The Artist, and was struck by how essential music was to silent film. Even though some of The Artist was schmaltzy, its music supported the film’s exaggerated mime-acting very well. It probably contributed a lot to the standing ovation the film got at the Toronto International Film Festival.

But I wonder why Hollywood felt it was necessary to continue using excessive musical accompaniment with talkies. Most real actors are offended by music that tells the viewer how to feel, since they can convey those emotions themselves. Granted, music creates an atmosphere, but does it have to mickey-mouse scenes, with heroic brass instruments and drums accompanying war, or sentimental strings signaling the feelings of lovers as they look longingly in each other’s eyes?

I also wonder if this habit of doubling the visual with music is behind a question I often hear from music listeners, especially in North America: “What should I see when I listen to your music?” I usually tell them, “You’re not intended to see anything in particular.” But Hollywood and TV have conditioned listeners into thinking of music as accompaniment, not an art that stands by itself, as it has in Europe for centuries. The ability to listen to symphonic music for its own sake is rare in North America. Even pop music is driven by lyrics to hold people’s attention.

So I think it’s not by chance that much of today’s symphonic favorites are associated with story and visual imagery: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Contemporary symphonic works too: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Copland’s Billy the Kid, and Charles Ives’ Housatonic at Stockbridge with its romantic theme accompanied by soft dissonant chords. Ives’ complex and dissonant Symphony No 4 is embraced by many because it mixes marching bands and church hymns, recalling small-town America.

My own experience as a composer bears this out. Arctic Dreams with scenes of the aurora borealis and the sun reflecting off of icebergs arouse quick responses from listeners, who report that they can easily relate to the music — even though much of it is abstract and dissonant. (See a video excerpt on colgrassfilm.com.)

This reluctance to listen without visual images is important for classical musicians and composers to understand when forging a career in music. After all, music is communication. Because our education systems rarely teach children about music, we must become the educators. When speaking to audiences, we can point out the visual “hooks” of music: the colors or any imagery or story that might aid the listening process.

The future will be interesting because of the ways children use their senses. They generally have a livelier imagination than adults and will easily make up their own visual world to suit the music. They are also more open to new music than they are to the classics, which — ironically — may come from the variety of music they hear with films, games and TV.

Michael Colgrass

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