Thursday, February 17, 2011
Television: How TV Music Moves Me - LOST Edition
Hey again! As I mentioned last time, I’m taking a quick break from television storytelling in order to take a look at television music. This article will explore why orchestral music moves me so deeply in the context of a long running television show. Enjoy!
Besides television, music is my favourite artistic medium. Unlike many other forms of art, music is dynamic. As the melody rises and falls and the harmonies shift, my emotions soar and plummet along with them. When the same melody comes back, played over different harmonies, it evokes a sense of nostalgia, while allowing for different moods to take me. If I listen to music while doing something happy or something sad, then those new emotions are incorporated into how I feel about that particular piece the next time I put it on. If a typical Romantic symphony can do this over the course of a mere thirty or forty minutes, then what does that say about the power of a symphony that lasts around 100 hours?
Music is fundamental to the way a show makes the viewer feel.
I’m going to explain my point through the use of an anecdote involving pretty much all six seasons of Lost. As such, spoilers abound. You have been warned!
The first time I watched Episode 20 of Season 1, entitled Do No Harm, I was a little bit emotional. The episode culminated in the death of Boone and the birth of baby Aaron. Towards the end of the episode, Jack was tasked with delivering the awful news of Boone’s death to Shannon while the rest of the survivors fawned over the newborn child. These two disparate scenes cut back and forth and ended with Shannon crying over Boone’s now lifeless body. These scenes also included the aptly named and now iconic piece of Lost music:
Life And Death: The music starts at about 0.39.
I was legitimately upset about Boone’s death. He was one of few genuinely well-meaning guys on the island. It hurt a little to see him succumb to the machinations of more important players, namely Locke. Still, as sad as I was, I wasn't moved to the point of tears. He had only appeared in twenty episodes and had spent most of that time creeping around the jungle. I wasn’t as attached to Boone as I would later be to the likes of Charlie and most of the other major characters who wound up dying.
What the episode did provide was a lot to think about. Boone died at a simpler time on LOST, when the mythology was very vague and unclear. His death was a very touching moment and its juxtaposition with Aaron's birth has often caused me to think about ensoulment and reincarnation.
That juxtaposition of birth and death was probably one of the first times that LOST was truly beautiful.
A year or two later, during the airing of season 4, I watched the episode again. This was the first time I had seen it since my first time through season 1. When Shannon started crying over Boone’s lifeless body, I promptly proceeded to bawl my eyes out. I tried to figure out what was happening this second time around that had caused it to be so much more intense than the first time. I knew that Boone was going to die. I was prepared for the death. That should have lessened the blow!
What I learned is that musical context is everything.
I will concede that some people were moved to tears the first time around, without the need for the evolution of the music during the proceeding seasons. I will concede that some people still couldn’t care less, beautiful changing music or no beautiful changing music. I will also concede that something completely unrelated to music may have changed in my life between the two viewings to upset me more the second time around. Maybe that something was simply the emotional journey that the four years of Lost had provided. My point here is that the context of music is a very personal thing. While the intention of the composer at the time of composition will always remain the same, the way that the theme moved me isn’t the way it would move another individual.
The Life and Death theme had been played here and there throughout the first season; however, Boone’s death was the first time it had been given a major context and application and, ultimately, was from where it got its name. Life and Death has since grown and evolved and has been played time and time again during the most tragic events the show has had to offer.
When Life and Death first played, it started with some soft chords played very subtly on the piano, between which very emotive solo string instruments would play two notes that ascended in pitch. When Charlie was dying, these two emotive notes were expanded upon and they became the beginning of a short melody. This beautiful track is called:
Looking Glass Half Full: It starts at about 2.20 and ends at about 3.50.
Keep this clip in mind.
Later, upon starting a season 2 re-watch, I noticed that the aforementioned expanded melody was actually used during some of Charlie’s more tumultuous, usually drug-related, scenes; however, it was underscored by some very quiet and yet intense strings playing very quickly. This was likely to underscore his very serious drug abuse issues. The music is from the season 2 soundtrack and is entitled:
During his death, this expanded melody took on a very different context. Charlie had evolved well beyond his drug-user days and so the intense strings couldn't have represented his need for drugs. It was likely used to underscore the fact that he was dying. More on this aspect of the theme in a bit.
After some quick research on Lostpedia, it became apparent that Charlie's Temptation was essentially Charlie’s character theme. Michael Giachino is a genius! Combining a character’s theme (leitmotif) with Life and Death DURING their death is an incredible bit of storytelling. The fact that Charlie’s Temptation started with the same two notes that the original Life and Death contained on the emotive strings added to the subtlety. When I watched the Season 3 finale, I had assumed that that melody was actually a part of the original Life and Death track.
Upon comparing Life and Death and Looking Glass Half Full, the change becomes apparent!
My girlfriend had an awesome take on the new context of Charlie's Temptation. The original Charlie’s Temptation was very dark, low, and ominous. In Looking Glass Half Full, Charlie's Temptation seems to have changed registers and, though still very sad, is a lot brighter. What matters is that, whether or not Charlie was doing drugs or sacrificing himself for his friends, the end result was the same. Drugs were going to kill him because of his selfishness. His destiny actually did wind up killing him, but for his selflessness instead. Both times, his life was at risk and yet this time, his death was for something greater than himself. As such, the music doesn't come across as stressed or tumultuous at all, but rather, bittersweet and uplifting.
The key here is that the same music was used for the same kind of situation, but with different arrangements and very different interpretations.
All of the musical development this theme has undergone throughout the seasons hit me while watching Boone's death. I wasn’t just seeing Shannon cry. I was feeling Charlie die. I was hearing Sun crying over Jin’s grave. I was seeing the Season 1 Finale as all of the characters arrived at their seats aboard the ill-fated Oceanic Flight 815.
Music tells a story just as interesting as the images on a screen. When sight and sounds are put together, we get a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Michael Giachino is an absolutely brilliant composer. The way he varies and combines his themes depending on the situation affects my mood in a way that a lack of music wouldn’t.
I will concede that a sudden lack of music can be moving too, but not in the same way. Music tells a story that parallels what we see onscreen. When it disappears, it makes us realise the importance of what we are watching. It tells us that this scene is indescribable through music. When the music abruptly stopped as Desmond flashed back to “Not Penny’s Boat” during Happily Ever After, I was affected intensely. The extreme example of this is the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled The Body, which contained no music at all. It was one of the most emotional hours of the show ever.
On a brief tangent, I want to quickly defend the character of Boone.
I really enjoyed Ian Somerhalder’s acting and I loved how earnest he made the character. There are a lot of Boone haters out there and this has always kind of bothered me. His placement in the series made perfect sense. Not everyone you know is a doctor, or a technology expert, or able to hunt boar. Many of us have very few deserted island related life skills. Boone just wanted to help people. He was young and idealistic and believed that thinking positive thoughts and going on peace marches could save the world or something naïve like that. He found in Locke someone who trusted and needed him. This, of course, ultimately led to his death. He was NOT simply a filler character. He represented a large number of people who would likely act similarly in the same situation. Minus the sleeping with his stepsister thing.
Thanks for reading this. I’ve been meaning to write something about musical context since I found myself crying the second time through Do No Harm. I’m a classical trombone player and I spend a lot of my time listening to symphonies. I absolutely love the works of Brahms and Beethoven. I’m doing a minor in music and have a reasonable working knowledge of music theory. Music is very important to me and I’m glad I could share these thoughts and feelings with you.