Sunday, August 26, 2007

Rick Astley Has Taken Control of Your Computer

It's probably a gross failing on the part of Firefox's developers that when I opened this link in a new tab, I couldn't shut it again without force-quitting the program, but as malware goes, this is pretty benign stuff, and its comedic value probably makes up for any inconvenience it causes.

No doubt this video was chosen as an illustration of all that is most annoying about '80s pop music, and Rick's combination of black turtleneck and weirdly high-collared trenchcoat, his absurdly peppy dancing, and the cuts to the groovin' African-American bartender to give him some street cred are pretty damning -- even if we manage to forget for the moment that he was the most unlikely physical specimen to emit such deep and resonant tones until Tay Zonday. Nonetheless, I would like to say a few words in defense of the much-maligned Mr. Astley.

I find this song kind of catchy, but his other inescapable hit from the '80s, "Together Forever", is one I actually went to the trouble of pirating and uploading to my iPod. You remember it -- "Together forever and never to part, together forever, we two."

That first line begins on the 5th scale degree, moves up to 6 and down again to 4, then leaps up a seventh to 3 on the syllable "for". (Ah, it's so nice to be able to wax technical and know that I'm not losing my audience, because they've all made such careful study of my music primers.) I hope to have occasion in the near future to rhapsodize about melodic leaps of a seventh, but suffice to say that they don't happen all that often in pop music, they're wonderful when they do, and 4 to 3 is a more interesting seventh than the more common 5 to 4 or 1 to flat-7. "Ever" comes down from 2 to 7 -- the 7's relationship to the melody's lowest tone (so far) insinuating a tritone, my other favorite melodic interval. Two words, and we've already covered six of the seven notes of the key. (Compare, for instance, James Blunt's "You're Beautiful", which I intend to slag off on this blog, and which consists almost entirely of three or four notes.) "Never" lowers the melody's floor from 4 to 3 -- expanding the range of notes it covers. "To" is another leap of a seventh (hurray!), from 3 to 2, in what the music theorists call a sequence -- a repetition (or at least an approximate repetition) of the preceding pattern of pitches, but begun on a different pitch. "Part" brings us, finally, to the only note in the scale that the melody has not traversed so far -- the root, the tonic, the "home base" of the key.

I submit that the melody to the lyrics "together forever and never to part" in Rick Astley's song "Together Forever" is about as interesting a pitch sequence as the major scale has to offer. And I think it's because I concentrate, when listening to pop music, more on things like pitch sequences and less on things like the singer's hair and the cheesy synth arrangements that my tastes so frequently confound my friends' expectations. (I sometimes suspect that that's also the reason nobody seems to like the songs I write as much as I do.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

These Are Moving Pictures; the Camera Should Move

In his recent elegy for Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen says,
In film school (I was thrown out of New York University quite rapidly when I was a film major there in the 1950s) the emphasis was always on movement. These are moving pictures, students were taught, and the camera should move. And the teachers were right.
Back when I worked for a film company (1993-1995) and was writing screenplays for movies I planned to direct--none of which ever got made, of course--I hewed to the same principle, although I had arrived at it through my own devices. To that principle--"the camera should move"--I appended a corollary: no shot--no camera angle or composition--should be repeated, unless the repetition itself has some formal significance--to indicate stasis, say, or to recollect an earlier scene.

Few film directors have much allegiance to either of these dicta. They prefer to concentrate on things like story, character, psychology, emotion, whatever. Nevertheless, movie history is studded with the names of directors reputed to be great movers of the camera. The opening shot of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil is justly celebrated; less well known is another one-shot scene later in the movie--the one where Welles's Quinlan plants evidence on an incidental character. Less flashy if no less virtuosic, the second shot is just as well motivated narratively as the first: its continuity allows you to see that sticks of dynamite have magically appeared in a box that was previously empty.

But neither of these shots is the tour de force that was the ballroom scene at the heart of Welles's earlier film The Magnificent Ambersons--before it was butchered by the studio. Welles made Ambersons when he was still riding high on the success of his radio show and commanded the biggest budgets in Hollywood history; the single shot that was to constitute the ballroom scene originally lasted 10 minutes. Much of the scenery was devised to be lifted away as soon as it disappeared from the camera frame, to make room for the track that was being laid down as the camera moved, and for the camera itself. For the most part, the camera followed the movie's two main characters, but there were occasional divagations. One involved a conversation among a random assortment of upper-crust party guests about a recent, fascinating, but also kind of frightening import from Europe, which no one could quite summon the courage to sample: the olive. It's exactly the kind of period detail that novelists relish, and it even had thematic significance, indicating both the opulence of the world in which the Ambersons moved--they were the first to be able to afford an imported delicacy--and its quaint antiquity. The studio complained that the conversation did "nothing to advance the story" and cut it, along with a couple other segments of the shot. It is one of my fondest hopes that I will live to see digital technologies progress to the point that the scene can be reconstructed, from the surviving stills and script and from samples of the movie's other scenes.

The early Renoir was a great mover of the camera, and even devised his own technology for tracking shots, a set of reconfigurable, interlocking, polished wood platforms over which a camera mounted on felt feet could slide, but he claimed he had to stop using it because it violated union guidelines. Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi, Minnelli, Demy, Ophuls -- all were masters of the tracking shot. But to me, the most virtuosic mover of the camera is Luis Bunuel.

Lots of cinephiles are shocked when I say this. Bunuel is thought to have a rather dry style, and indeed, he seems to deal mostly in medium shots, which have neither the drama of the closeup nor the pathos of the long shot. But his camera is always moving. I pointed this out once to a guy who was teaching a class on film appreciation at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and he said, "That's not moving, that's framing." By which he meant, Bunuel's camera movements are generally motivated by his characters' movements. Fair enough. But who decides the characters need to move? In a lot of movies, they don't. They stand or sit, and the camera cuts back and forth between them, in what, in my film days, I would disparagingly refer to as "composition tennis". Bunuel finds reasons to make his characters move precisely to have a reason to make the camera move.

A good example is the opening of Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about three minutes into the Criterion disc. The scene in the Senechals' house takes exactly two shots, and the characters are constantly moving about, dragging the camera with them. Indeed, sometimes, when you start paying too much attention to Bunuel's direction, his shots begin to seem incredibly contrived, with characters moving into the background and positioning themselves so that they exactly fill in the visual gaps between characters in the foreground. But of course, if you're watching as you normally would in the cineplex, you hardly notice what the camera is doing. You just find that you have a very clear sense of the three-dimensional space of the scene, and a general impression of elegance.

All of this is apposite because Criterion -- God bless Criterion -- has just released a DVD of Bunuel's Milky Way, my favorite of his films. In it, he makes my corollary to the NYU aesthetic principle -- don't reuse a shot once you've left it -- a structural conceit, disdaining to reuse settings and even, with the notable exceptions of the two protagonists, characters once he's left them. He actually takes this structural principle even further in The Phantom of Liberty. Perhaps he takes it too far -- or perhaps, without the ready-made imagery of the history of the Catholic Church, he's just unable to repeat the combination of comedy and pathos that he manages so brilliantly in Milky Way. Either way, I've always found Phantom the lone disappointment among his late, European films. But The Milky Way is a masterpiece.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Music primer, part (hopefully) the last

Okay, it occurred to me that I would probably have regular recourse to a couple more music-theoretical ideas, so I should just go ahead and get them out of the way now.

Relative and parallel minor

I mentioned in my last post that the natural-minor scale is a permutation of the major scale -- the major scale begun on the sixth scale degree and wrapped around on itself. That means that for any given major key -- C, E, B-flat -- there is a minor key that uses all the same notes. On the piano, the C-major scale uses all white keys; so does the natural A-minor scale. The E-major scale uses black keys at F-sharp, G-sharp, C-sharp, and D-sharp; so does the natural C#-minor scale. Etc.

If you read the section on whole and half-steps carefully, you will have noticed that the minor scale that shares all its notes with a given major scale begins a minor third down from the first note of the major scale. A is a minor third down from C; C# is a minor third down from E. The minor scale that shares all its notes with a given major scale is called the relative minor of the major scale; the major scale, naturally, is the relative major of the minor.

But of course, you can build a minor scale on any note, just as you can build a major scale on any note. You just have to make sure to follow the pattern of whole and half-steps we established last time:


So you can build a minor scale that starts on C or E, too. But those scales will use different notes than the major scales starting on the same notes and, perforce, different notes than the major scales' relative minors, too. On the piano, the minor scale built on C uses black keys at E-flat, A-flat, and B-flat; the minor scale built on E uses only one black key -- at F#. What are the relative majors of C-minor and E-minor? Count up a minor third from the first note of each scale (C and E); answer below.

The minor scale that begins on the same note as a given major scale is called the parallel minor. The major scale that begins on the same note as a minor scale is, of course, the parallel major.


I want to say at least a little about harmony (chords). As I mentioned in my first post on music theory, a chord is a set of notes played simultaneously. Any set of notes can constitute a chord, but in classical music of the classical period (not the pleonasm it seems, pending some better term than “classical music”), and in the vast majority of pop music, the chords that predominate are what used to be called “common chords” -- the major and minor triads. Technically, any chord with three notes is a triad, but musicians generally use the word to denote three-note chords constructed from stacked thirds.

By “stacked thirds” I mean that the triad’s second note is a third above its first note, and its third note is a third above its second note. If you were paying attention to my discussion of intervals, however, you’ll recall that a third can be either major or minor, i.e., it spans either four or three half-steps. Two types of thirds give you four types of stacked-third triads, named as follows:

major third on major third: augmented triad
minor third on major third: major triad
major third on minor third: minor triad
minor third on minor third: diminished triad

Of these four types of triad, however, the major and the minor are by far the most common. If you’ve ever sat down to learn a couple chords on the guitar, you were probably learning to play major triads, with possibly a few minor triads thrown in. If you can play “Heart and Soul” on the piano, you can play a few major triads. Etc.

Qualitatively, major triads partake of the brightness of the major scale; minor triads partake of the melancholy or ominousness of the minor scale. If you know any pop songs that have a kind of spooky or gloomy feel to them, they probably feature a lot of minor triads.

There are seven notes in the major scale, so there are seven natural triads in any major key. (For instance, the natural triad built on the first scale degree would consist of the notes 1, 3, and 5; the triad built on the third scale degree would consist of the notes 3, 5, and 7.) Of the seven natural triads in a major key, three are major triads, three are minor triads, and one is a diminished triad.

The three natural major triads are the ones built on the 1st, 4th, and 5th scale degrees. The triad built on the first scale degree is known as the tonic, and it’s kind of the “home base” for the key: most pop songs that are written in a single key probably start on the tonic, and almost all of them end on the tonic. The chords built on the 4th and 5th scale degrees are called the subdominant and dominant, respectively. As their names imply, they are very closely related to the tonic. If you’ve ever heard the term “three-chord pop song”, the three chords in question are the tonic, dominant, and subdominant.

The natural triads built on the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th scale degrees are minor triads. That means that a major triad built on one of those scale degrees perforce takes you into a different key (or at least into a different mode).

Finally, I’ll just mention that the next most common chords after the major and minor triads also consist of stacked thirds; it’s just that the stacks keep getting higher. A seventh chord, for instance, consists of a triad with another third stacked on top of it. (The second note of the chord is a third above the first note; the third note is a fifth above the first note; and the fourth note is a seventh above the first note, hence the chord’s name.) A ninth chord consists of a seventh with another third stacked on top of it. Etc. Sevenths are very common: in any given key, the seventh chord built on the fifth scale degree -- the dominant seventh -- is almost as common as the natural major chords. Again, if you’ve ever fooled around with the basic chord shapes on a guitar, you probably learned a couple dominant sevenths.

Answer key: the relative major of C minor is E-flat major; the relative major of E minor is G major.