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Thinking in Music

Bernard Herrmann. One of my favorite film composers, a big personality, an often deeply cantankerous person: he was fascinating and maddening. I just re-read the biography A Heart at Fire's Center: the life and music of Bernard Herrmann, so he's even more at the forefront of my mind than usual, and I once said that my mental soundtrack sounds like "Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman yelling at each other." (I'm sure those two would yell at each other.) I've been digging out my CDs of his music; YouTube clips, too.

He was a pioneer in writing original music for radio, then had one of the great film scoring careers, starting with 1941's Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster and ending with 1976's Obsession and Taxi Driver. (And he died in his sleep only hours after recording Taxi Driver's last note.) Had he lived a year longer, Herrmann would have scored Carrie for Brian De Palma, the Seven Per-Cent Solution for Herbert Ross and Nicholas Meyer, and Larry Cohen's exploitation film God Told Me To; after he'd had a few fallow years — partly because a lot of studio people found his style old-hat and partly because he'd pissed off so many in Hollywood — young Turks were discovering him and his work.

Music is a language I can appreciate, but I only barely, if at all, understand it. I've never had much training, self-taught or otherwise. I play no instruments (I joke that I play air-guitar — no, I used to, but I retired that joke a while ago). Reading about how Bernard Herrmann thought about music, and instrumental color, and how you can emphasize any emotion with the right notes, makes me wish I did a better job of thinking in music.

I've written lyrics. That's about it. And even I know that poetry-writing (which I've done more of) is similar to lyric-writing but not quite the same. Poetry doesn't necessarily need music; lyrics do. And I hear music in my head, but mostly derivative music; I don't feel any snippets of tunes I think of would be original. (Standard disclaimer that there are only so many melodies and tunes we can write, based on musical scales, but actual-trained composers know how to work within those parameters.)

Now I more admire people who do think in music. I know some of them: Kielen King, a.k.a. Pwn Toney, the PDX Broadsides, the Doubleclicks, S.J. "Sooj" Tucker, Alexander James Adams. I'm also a Portlander, so I'm likely only a couple of degrees of separation away from especially famous composers. I certainly don't pretend I can do their work. My most likely creative work that'd be worth doing is my writing. I know words. I like using them.

"A man's gotta know his limitations," said Dirty Harry, played by Clint Eastwood, who's also a composer...

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