01 February 2013

The Challenge of Music

A painter paints pictures on canvas. 
But musicians paint their pictures on silence. 
~Leopold Stokowski

One of my favorite Disney movies is Fantasia.

The first time I saw it was about the year 1976. I was eight years old.

I can recall sitting in the darkened theater with the surround sound blaring. The live action orchestra came on the screen lead by Leopold Stokowski as conductor in silhouette with the Philadelphia Orchestra around him. It was so unlike anything I had ever seen.

I remember vividly when the narrator introduced the Soundtrack to the audience as a vertical shaft of light like an oscilloscope. This quivering line becomes a character in the show, at first timid and quite shy and then bold and proud as it shows off its musical patterns. I was mesmerized by the way that sound could be shown to have movement like this, whether it was the dialogue of the narrator, music or the sound effects. The Soundtrack demonstrates the sound of a harp, violin, flute, trumpet, bassoon, bass drum and triangle. And I recall hoping that there would be more of that in the film.

The narrator goes on to tell us that there are three types of music: music that tells a definite story, music that paints a series of pictures and 'absolute music' that exists for it's own sake. What follows is a musical kaleidoscope that takes the viewer on a purely fanciful journey through all three types.

To prove the point about 'absolute music,' the orchestra plays those haunting first notes of J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. As it is played colors come alive on the screen. Yellow streaks of light fill the backdrop and abstract shapes and forms start to move about in circles and swirls in tune with the notes of the instruments. The music builds and blasts off like fireworks, with colors and sparkles dazzling in a synchronized dance of light, color and sound. Stokowski stands on the podium backed by a glorious sunset until the music dies down and the screen fades to black.

That is the first time that I realized that music had color, texture, pattern, movement and light.

Fantasia was the first commercial film shown in stereophonic sound. This is where the sounds are recorded onto separate tracks so that you can play them back and have the illusion of audio perspective. No longer were soundtracks flat and one dimensional, but with the different channels of sound you could have the notes cascade over you like water and come at you from all directions. I remember that it was as if I were sitting in the midst of all those wonderful instruments and I was a living part of the symphony!

The idea for this film actually started with the creation of the short The Sorcerer's Apprentice, as a way to increase this little mouse's flagging popularity. The eight minutes when Mickey dons that famous blue cap is one of the most enduring images of him - and the most famous segment of the film. This little short set in motion a groundbreaking piece of cinema showcasing eight beloved classical music compositions with over 1,000 animators and staff composing, creating and conducting this masterpiece all on a $2 million dollar budget (which was a lot of money in 1940 when the average live action film of the day cost 1/4 of that!).

Although the initial reviews of the film were positive, the public didn't seem to get on board. They preferred the simple animations and die-hard music fans found it very low-brow to be placing such pure and revered music with animated and, at times, downright silly images of dancing hippos and prancing satyrs.

For a child who grew up tuning into The Wonderful World of Disney every single Sunday night, it was magical. I recall that the images were funny, quirky, somber and even scary at times, like Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. Definitely evoking images and telling stories.

Now that I am older, I can't say that I entirely disagree about how juvenile some of these animations made the music seem, but there was no denying that it was a wonderful way to be exposed to these classical and instrumental pieces of music that are part of our common experience. And I still get a thrill watching this movie.

Today this film is regarded as a classic. It has been re-released many times over the years, and it even spawned a sequel called Fantasia 2000, which carried on the tradition (although my heart is with the original).

Individual Instrumental Interpretations

To this day I have a hard time listening to the music on this soundtrack and NOT thinking about dinosaurs during Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or dancing mushrooms during Tchaikovsky's Chinese Dance from the Nutcracker Suite. But even so, it remains a marvel of animated delights and it all comes down to the music. Each piece is so powerful and masterful, so individually intriguing.

These instrumental pieces of music sparked some amazing interpretations. Each piece of music has a personality filled with color and texture and shape and life. As a part of our collective human experience, these classics are accessible to anyone, no matter where they are in the world, because they are not limited by culture or geography or language barriers. That means that each person hearing them can bring their own experience to the music to interpret it in new ways.

Poetic License

I used to teach a poetry unit to my 7th graders. It is hard to get them to see that poetry doesn't have to rhyme, so that was my goal. Back then I was a multi-disciplinary teacher before that was even an idea. I just did it naturally. In our study of poetry, we crossed over into art and math and science and music.

One of my favorite poetry activities involved instrumental music.

I would play an exerpt from the Nutcracker Suite asking them to free write while listening, sharing the images, the colors, the movement, the feelings that the music evoked. Invariably, they would tell me stories of the dancing mushrooms, and winter fairy sprites drawing delicate patterns in the ice, and fights with mice and ballerinas. They always had the same answers.

Then I would play a completely different instrumental piece, something they likely had never heard before, and ask them to write again. They would be so moved by the piece that they would scarcely look up, their pencils scribbling furiously, filling page after page. And the images and colors and feelings that they spoke of now were each completely different, influenced by their own unique experiences and colored by their imaginations.

I would have them fold that piece of paper into fourths and cut it. (They always balked at this.) Because they no longer could read the whole story they had written, they were able to highlight words and phrases that were powerful and colorful and full of force and life on their pages. We would then call out the lines randomly and assemble a class poem from their collective offerings. The result was always incredible. All inspired by a piece of instrumental music. And not a smidge of rhyming to be seen.

If you are up to it, I would encourage you to try this technique. It is fun to do! And maybe your words, your poetry, will have a cherished spot in your creation!

Are you getting inspired yet?

When I was in college I had to take a fine arts class. I took a classical music appreciation course commonly referred to as "Clap for Credit" (you got points for attending musical events and bringing in the program). At that point in my life my musical landscape was populated by Madonna and Depeche Mode, not Mozart and Brahms. I thought it was a snooze-fest. But I stayed through those concerts and grew to appreciate the incredible nuance of that music. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is a favorite and Mozart's Requiem still gives me chills (note: the Latin voices are more instrumental than choral to me).

So, if you haven't figured it out yet, our Challenge of Music for 2013 will involve finding a piece of instrumental music - meaning no recognizable lyrics - as our inspiration. We are looking for one of these three types of music: music that tells a definite story, music that paints a series of pictures or 'absolute music' that exists for it's own sake.

Instrumental music doesn't have to just be orchestral or classical in nature, and it doesn't have to be boring. I can assure you that it won't be for lack of choices... the challenge will come in deciding on which piece to choose! It can come from any genre - solo instrumental, chamber music, jazz, rock, contemporary, new age, etc. World cultures that have instrumental music as part of their tradition are a good choice as well. I am sure that whatever your prefer in musical styles,there is an instrumental choice for you! Or maybe you want to make this a true challenge and find a new-to-you piece of music to enjoy.

I am asking you to stay away from choral music simply because those words of the lyricist tell a story. I want you to find a piece of music that moves you so that you can tell your own story with it. That is not to say that there can't be any vocalizations in the music (the vox humana can also be considered an instrument to be sampled, like the Latin in Mozart's Requiem), but I would suggest that it be secondary to the instrumental accompaniment. While you could certainly choose a very well-known piece, like those on the Fantasia soundtrack, I would strongly suggest that you try to find something that is not so heavily influenced by another person's vision. Otherwise you might only see dancing hippos and that might be hard to translate to jewelry or accessories. ;-)

Ready to take the Challenge?

1::Go to the tab above that says 'take the challenge' and sign up. Participation is limited to the first 80 who sign up between February 1st-February 4th.

2::Start thinking about a piece of instrumental music for your inspiration. (Don't worry, you don't have to know right away what song, just start thinking!) If you can't think of something, try going to a music site like Pandora and listening to their stations of instrumental music. Remember that it can be from any genre, any time period, any culture. Select a song that moves you. It can be one that speaks to your soul, moves your feet, brings back a memory or never fails to put a smile on your face. Something that brings powerful emotions. Spend some time listening to it before settling on a song that makes you feel inspired. You might be surprised to find something new that you really like!

3::Mark your calendar: Blog Hop on Friday, March 1st.
We will be creating whatever you want inspired by the piece of music that you chose. My choice is usually jewelry, but why not painting or drawing or sculpting or writing poetry or any creative way to channel the music. Or why not combining your creative outlets? You will need to find some way to share a bit about that music, and hopefully a snippet of some sort, so that we can all enjoy it and be taken on a magical journey with you and be moved by the music, too.

I hope you will join me on a musical journey!

I don't know how successful I will be, but I plan on bringing you some more musical inspiration posts each week until the reveal day. There was so much information that I gathered while researching this that I just have to share some of it with you!


Anonymous said...

Just signed up Miss Erin, looking forward to it. I'll be humming for days while I refine my musical choice!

Jess Green said...

Yay! Challenge time!

I already know what this piece will be design around - a song called 'Seattle' by an instrumental post-metal one man band called Cloudkicker. That songs has serious colours!

The joys of synesthesia :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, Erin, what a wonderful challenge this will be! I do wish I could participate, but am unable due to health isues. Flat on my back and my only entertanment is the radio or 5 minutes of coumper time, I will find a piece of music that inspres me and ty out your exercises. That will keep my litte ADHD brain from stagnating. Wishig everyone a fun time.

Annie said...

Like you, I LOVE Fantasia! I remember seeing it in the cinema (though I am 9 years younger than you!). Now here is an interesting little fact that I learned about my family connection to Fantasia (and I didn't know ANY of this until a few years ago!)... My grandmother was a dancer and she had a connection with Walt Disney. She went down to the studios and danced for the animators and then they animated the flower scene (one of the Tchaicovksy pieces)...! SO COOL!! Alas, my great-grand-father did not approve and she returned to Canada (where she went on to have Canada's first televised fitness show, "Slimnastics" - I used to read her fan mail!!). :) It is no wonder that I loved the movie so much!

Maneki said...

Funny thing is, I've read about Fantasia loads of times, but only ever seen snippets of it (Fantasia and Fantasia 2000).

I signed up, but it's going to be tricky to choose a piece of music as there's so much instrumental music I like, both old classical music and modern music (ranging from folk to electronic). In fact, I did go with an instrumental piece in the last challenge.

Yesterday, I ended up finding a new group when listening to some of my modern favourites (Detektivbyrån), but not sure yet if I'm going to pick one of their songs or not. Need to go through my stash of old CDs first, have a whole series of classical music compiled into themed albums (e. g. summer nights, melancholy, a night at the opera etc) and then there's Göran Månsson's flute music and who knows what else.

Alicia said...

Oh, Erin, you had me at 'Fantasia' :)I don't know what I am going to do about this challenge - but surely I am getting out of my box :)

Michelle Mach said...

I'm going to try this! I have no piece of music in mind right now, so this will be a true challenge.


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