Friday, 6 May 2011

Alien | Music | Let there be leitmotifs!

‘It seems they’re trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,’ notes one of the wisecracking line of scienticians during the scene from CE3K that James chose to kick off this week’s festivities with. Indeed they are: John Williams’ famous five-note phrase is the sound of a vastly superior species of space invaders talking down to a planet full of backwards retards – the sound of the sentiment, dissonance or a minor key or even more than five notes would probably be too much for them. The precise musical sentiment, in other words, that also seems to be behind Mumford and Sons’ lusty, publicschool singalongishness, The Vaccines turgid, literally nonsensical publicschool laziness, and a whole bunch of the other elitist, patronisingly half-arsed bullhickey currently selling by the bucketload.

But anyway. John Williams’ Close Encounters score is ridiculously brilliant, hugely significant because of its relationship with Stockhausen-esque aleatoric experimentation and non-tonal modernism, because of its ultimate decision to draw upon oboes and tubas instead of synthesisers (SF’s very own Peter and the Wolf), because Hans Zimmer said it was ‘as good as anything Stravinsky wrote’ and so on.

What I’m much more interested in, though, is the way that it has come to define the simple, arpeggio-like, easily-remembered one- or two-bar phrase as a symbol of, or even a metaphor for the alien, the otherworldly, the unexplained. Just as one hears a two-note ascent up a chromatic scale and thinks of sharks, and a couple bars of high pitched, monotone, mid-pace martellé and thinks of knives and shower curtains, whether they’re listening to the Jaws and Psycho soundtracks specifically or not, so the cultural residue orbiting the CE3K theme means one makes extraterrestrial assumptions about certain related phrases of notes regardless of their context. An observation that has, I think, the potential to radically redefine the meaning of a whole range of compositions, if one re-listens to them in a slightly different (by which I guess I mean more orange – see the image I opened with) light.

First though, a couple fragments of proof. What was it about the X Files theme that made it so uniquely evocative, so immediately recognisable as a precursor to strangeness? Could it maybe, just maybe have been the two six-note arpeggio-like self-contained phrases at its heart?

And why is it that so many people responded to the 800% slower version of Rebecca Black’s Friday with the words, ‘it sounds kinda…spacey…’ (or something along those lines)? Might it be that slowing it down makes it even more apparent that the song literally never deviates from the same five notes, which when broken down into measured, ambient phrases, come laden with trippily SF connotations?

Let us consider, then, a variety of other manifestations of CE3K-esque phrasing, and what they might therefore mean.

One, Dmitri Shostakovich…was an alien

Eleventh, on my list entitled ‘my twenty nine favourite things about Shostakovich’, is the fact that he inserted a musical signature, comprising his first initial and the first three letters of his surname (DSCH – or D, E Flat, C, B in German nomenclature) into various of his pieces. Two particularly striking examples are his String Quartets Nos. 5 and 8 – here’s the first movement of the latter, and the signature is the first little melody you’ll hear…

That’s right, Shostakovich actually defined himself in precisely the same way, even using some of the same notes (E Flat and C) as Spielberg’s aliens. No wonder Stalin wanted to keep him on side.

Two, Richard Wagner…wrote SF operas

Wagner’s Ring cycle is, famously, structured around little repeated melodies called leitmotifs, which both characterise and, in a way, recognise significant characters in amongst the big, throbbing mass of the most grandiose composition ever conceived. Here is a nice little video about leitmotifs which also serves as an introduction to Siegfried’s theme, probably the most well-known leitmotif of all…

You will not be surprised to discover that Wagner was clearly attempting to infer, with this, that Siegfried was an alien. Wagner wrote SF. Deeply, deeply anti-Semitic SF. (Incidentally, the fact that the CE3K leitmotif was intended as a symbol of sophisticated patronisation, rather than mere simplicity, offers a compelling rebuttal to Adorno’s infamous critique of Wagner: ‘The degeneration of the leitmotiv is implicit in this [the reduction of emotional complexity into a mechanised, crudely characterising shorthand] it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmotiv is to announce heroes or situations so as to allow the audience to orient itself more easily.’)

Three, The late-nineties Balearic trance phenomenon…was an attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials

But then you probably knew that already. Here’s the most prominent example of all, ATB’s 9PM (Till I Come), which should really have been called 9PM (Till They Come, They Being Aliens, As A Response To This Track’s Utter Dependence Upon Close Encounters-ish Phraseology)…

See also the various trance ‘remixes’ of the X Files theme and, indeed, the CE3K theme itself. And thus, we come full circle.

To summarise, aliens and their messages are everywhere, deeply embedded within our highest, and lowest, cultures – and I can say that without even resorting to posting wonderful videos proving Barack Obama is, in actuality, a reptilian impostor. As my fellow Chitauri-spotters are prone to doing, bless them, bless them all. Shit, I think you'll agree, just got real.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

No comments:

Post a Comment