The Language
Music and Soul
On God Being in the Details
Music and Magic
Beyond All That
Music for Non Musicians

Music and Magic

Iíve been aware for many years how profound an effect music has on experiences that are not themselves "musical." A friend of mine once made a surreptitious tape recording of another friend entertaining a woman in his apartment. It was supposed to be a joke, one of those menís things that delight in embarrassing other menómost men are reluctant to admit to intimate talk, much less hear themselves in the act. When I heard the tape, I squirmed for the friend and his date, but I was astounded at the other effect on me. A record player in the room was oozing Johnny Mathis, and Hollywood couldnít have created a more moving love scene. The music turned something in rather poor taste into art.

I used to fantasize about merging music with stories, particularly in motion pictures. When I was an adolescent, many of my favorite classical pieces conjured up scenes in my head, and Iíd play out the scenes as I listened to the music. Sometimes the connection was pretty obvious, such as with Richard Wagnerís The Flying Dutchman, so clearly about the sea. Other music seemed to bring up scenes not at all like those intended by the composer. For example, Ravelís Daphnis and Chloe suite sounded like nothing so much as an old Western movie, chase scene and all.

Iím not alone in this, of course. The movies have been using music to set moods or emphasize dramatic scenes ever since they began. The live accompaniment that was usually played with the old silent movies was an important part of the film experience. Some of Americaís foremost classical composers have written music scores for motion pictures. Over the years audiences have been conditioned to expect certain kinds of music to accompany certain kinds of drama.

A startling exception to that was a French picture from the 1970s, a drama about a young woman. I donít remember the title of the film, but Iíll never forget the background music: Brahmsís First Piano Concerto. The movie wasnít about music at all. But the filmmaker had used that music in different scenes almost as counterpoint to the drama, with a wonderful and powerful effect.

Much "background music" isnít intended to be noticed in a film, only responded to. Itís supposed to push your emotional buttons, nudge you toward the state that the drama is trying to create. (I remember a preacher in my youth who used the organ for the same purpose when he was trying to get people to "come forward" during evening services.) In a scary movie, if the producer really wants you to pay attention to whatís coming, he or she will leave out the background music instead. The silence can be as powerful as the best tremolo string score.

So when I began making my own films some years ago, music was always a part of every production. Only my "home movies," those collections of candid shots of family picnics and birthdays, made it to the screen without background music. Since the development of video, just capturing the dialog and natural sounds along with the motion snapshots seemed a great advance. Trying to put music to them would have been an impossible task, for music makes demands upon the films as well as adding its own dimensions. Music has structure, and home movies seldom do.

And thatís an important point: since I cannot compose my own music to accompany my films and videos, Iím forced to make the movie fit the music. I can search all over for just the right music to go with a movie, but when the two come together, I have much more flexibility in selecting and timing scenes than I do in editing the music. Sometimes the result is serendipitous.

Last spring I made several of what I call "home documentaries" on videotape for relatives, recording special events in family life. A home documentary is more structured than a home movie. The scenes relate to one another, however loosely, and there is a flow of sorts, a direction and if possible some kind of climax. I suspect that these productions would have been considered "finished" by most members of the family had I simply edited them to get rid of the obvious mistakes and too-long shots, and allowed the action in front of the camera to carry the whole significance of the productions. But I couldnít leave "well enough" alone, in part because, frankly, I now have tools I never had before. So they all had music added. It wasnít too hard to find popular songs that went well with the pictures. Actually, some of the scenes came already containing music, since there was live music in the events being videotaped.

Last month there was another family celebrationóthe wedding of Judithís daughter. Debra and Jim had eloped to Las Vegas last June and were married in a little storefront chapel. Some of the rest of us convinced them to have a party, at least, where family members could participate in the celebration of this marriage. The bride and groom didnít want anything formal, so it became a lawn party, with a tent in the back yard and games for the children and opportunities for the two families to get acquainted informally. I spent the day taping whatever I could. It was to be another home movie, simply a record of the day that the bride and groom could look at later, their souvenir of the event.

Editing the videotape in my computer, I took out the obvious mistakes and trimmed some of the longer shots to keep the pace from dragging too much. I knew, however, that my "customers" would rather see more of the guests and not feel rushed through the video, so I tended to err in the direction of longer rather than shorter. When it was fairly complete, I sat and watched it through, trying to get the feel of the whole thing. It was a home movie, no question about it. It showed what happened through the day, and no one who was not a family member or close friend would be able to sit through it beginning to end.

I tried to think of some music that would at least give it some color. I listened to a lot of music from my collection, staying away from classical music and concentrating my search on popular songs and tunes that I thought the bride and groom would enjoy, even if it were completely in the background. I watched the video more times, and fiddled with the editing. Then I remembered a song that had struck me the first time I heard it, over the ending credits to the movie "Finding Forester." It was a medley of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," sung by Israel Kamakawiwoíole, a Hawaiian, accompanying himself on a ukulele. In the beginning it had seemed positively hokey, but by the end I was so impressed by the piece that I copied it off the rented video. It had gathered dust on a shelf until I suddenly remembered it.

With a little tinkering, I prepared the recording for the end of the home movie. I didnít really expect much from it. I thought perhaps the bride and groom would like the piece, and that was enough. It just fit, beginning at the point where the two were cutting the wedding cake and playfully feeding it to each other, and ending with the final fade out. I also inserted, at the very beginning of the movie, some light pizzicato music that I happened to have on the same audio tape. Then I sat back and played the whole video through, one more time. It was wonderful!

As Judith said later, when I played it for her, the movie was "transformed." She had tears in her eyes. (Of course, it was her only daughter who had gotten married.)

A stranger still might not want to sit through the whole 28-minute video. It will not win any Oscars. But four and a half minutes before the end, this simple voice with ukulele very gradually comes up behind the typical sounds of people having fun, and "Itís a Wonderful World" performs its hokey sentiment and creates a mood that lifts the whole thing out of the ordinary. Informal and unpretentious, both music and video become, somehow, magic.

A long time ago I gave up trying to take credit for how my films turn out. This one, like most of them at some point, took over its own destiny. And just as when oneís own children at some point in their young lives take over their process, thereís little we can (or should) do to control it.


Donald Skiff, October 8, 2002

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