Music, pt. I

I am not musically inclined.  I can neither play an instrument, nor read a note; I can barely carry a tune.  Yet, I have a rather strange relationship with music.My mother was really big into classical music.  Her favorite composer was Chopin, but it wasn’t as if she turned her nose up at Bach, Beethoven, or Handel.  She tried – repeatedly – to build a classical music collection, but this always seemed to get thwarted by money, time, and occasionally, my father (who was decidedly not a classical music fan).  When we were very young, she would play a piece – any piece – on the Hi-Fi (really!) for my brother and me and ask us to identify the various instruments being played.

It is because of my mother that I’ve developed a love for classical music, but more specifically film soundtracks, whose composers are the modern equivalent to Mozart, Mahler, and Tallis.  I have a few favorites, but in particular, I prefer those tracks that are instrumental over those with vocals, and I generally avoid soundtracks that are nothing more than collections of pop music or “inspired by” nonsense (I’m looking at you, Matrix).  A soundtrack should not only enhance the film it is a part of, but if listened to independently, it should tell its own story.  I love to listen to music with no context of the film that it supported – and then imagine my own tale, based solely on the music.

I mention this because, due to recent reorganizations at home (i.e., I cleaned my office), I’ve located CDs of music that I’ve not heard in years – music that I doubt that I could find or order nowadays, even if I’d wanted.  And it’s strange because in revisiting these brilliant pieces of art, I find myself somewhat depressed.  It’s my own fault; I tend to tie music to events in my life – to sentimentalize things, if you will.  And as you might guess, when I hear the music, I remember the event.

I think, for example, Carter Burwell’s soundtrack to The Alamo (2004) is one of the finest things he’s done, and this is a composer who did most (if not all) of the films by the Coen Brothers.  But when I hear it – as much as I like it – it reminds me of my father’s death.  The CD had just been released and I was playing in my car as I drove away from my father’s house on the last day I saw him.  I couldn’t listen to anything from that disc for years afterwards.  In fact, Friday marked only the third time in eleven years that I listened to the disc in its entirety.  It’s still painful to hear that beautiful music, but I’m slowly getting used to it.

I’ve also rediscovered Hans Zimmer’s The Thin Red Line (1999), a moody (trust me) work.  Terrence Malick’s film was a mess: any war film that came out immediately after Saving Private Ryan (1998) was naturally going to suffer comparisons (and disappointments), but Thin Red Line would have had a tough sell under any circumstances.  The soundtrack does not help, but when taken independently from the film, it’s a very dark, brooding piece that is quite moving (until you get to the chants at the end, but that’s a different issue).

Willow, anyone?  Confession: I hated Ron Howard’s Willow (1988) when it came out.  Not having any interests (at the time, anyway) in wizards, ogres, or any other Tolkien-ist mythology, the movie scored zero points with me.  James Horner’s soundtrack just seemed like noise.  Then something weird happened: Two years later, I had a job where a co-worker expressed her interest in (and love of) the film.  It coincided with a cable showing, so I watched it again.  I didn’t dislike it as much with this showing, but it still wasn’t something I’d go out of my way to record for future viewing.  The soundtrack, however, was something of interest.  In the two years that passed, I developed a fascination with Horner’s compositions, and Willow was considered one of his better endeavors.  Even though the work relationship between that co-worker and I collapsed (she was a rather nasty person), this composition reminds me of the good times we shared at work (rare as they were), and the fact that she thought enough of me and my friendship to share something that she personally loved.

I find most music to be repetitive and noise-driven, but soundtracks are a pure joy.  They’ve been a comfort and a release.  They’ve defined my moods, and to some extent, even my life.

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