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 Posted:   Jun 10, 2014 - 6:19 AM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

One of the pleasures afforded by the symphonic music is the possibility of extreme dynamic contrast. The modern orchestra, as developed by, e.g., Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler is capable of tremendous weight and volume, and yet it can make the most delicate sounds as well. Modern music can range from the threshold of audibility (pppp) to the mightiest climaxes (ffff). Good music, obviously, is not loud all the time. It's the quiet quarter-hours that set off the big moments. Take Wagner, whose music is sometimes characterized (in a much abused term) as "bombastic." If you've ever heard Wagner in a big house like the Metropolitan (3,800 seats), you know that most of the time the audience is sitting in rapt silence, straining to hear the subtle blend of voices and instruments. It is long stretches like these that make something like the final cataclysm of Götterdämmerung so spectacular. And -- you have to experience this live to appreciate it -- the rapt silence of 3,800 listeners is qualitatively different from the solitary silence of your living room.

Now here's my question: Does this sort of dynamic contrast even exist in film music? I mean in the movie theater. (Forget records for the moment.) Obviously there was no such thing in the old days (studio era or "golden age"). Movie audio simply didn't have the capability. Everything was mixed from mezzo piano to mezzo forte for maximum clarity. Now that we have Dolby and DTS and Lord knows what else, things can get really loud. So there's lots of, yes, bombastic music and explosions and fist blows that sound like a buffalo stampede. But is there ever any really quiet music? Do moviemakers even dare to mix the soft with the loud and approximate the pleasures of real live music? Or have movie audiences become so addled that they don't even know what they're missing?

 
 
 Posted:   Jun 10, 2014 - 6:51 AM   
 By:   waxmanman35   (Member)

One of the pleasures afforded by the symphonic music is the possibility of extreme dynamic contrast. The modern orchestra, as developed by, e.g., Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler is capable of tremendous weight and volume, and yet it can make the most delicate sounds as well. Modern music can range from the threshold of audibility (pppp) to the mightiest climaxes (ffff). Good music, obviously, is not loud all the time. It's the quiet quarter-hours that set off the big moments. Take Wagner, whose music is sometimes characterized (in a much abused term) as "bombastic." If you've ever heard Wagner in a big house like the Metropolitan (3,800 seats), you know that most of the time the audience is sitting in rapt silence, straining to hear the subtle blend of voices and instruments. It is long stretches like these that make something like the final cataclysm of Götterdämmerung so spectacular. And -- you have to experience this live to appreciate it -- the rapt silence of 3,800 listeners is qualitatively different from the solitary silence of your living room.

Now here's my question: Does this sort of dynamic contrast even exist in film music? I mean in the movie theater. (Forget records for the moment.) Obviously there was no such thing in the old days (studio era or "golden age"). Movie audio simply didn't have the capability. Everything was mixed from mezzo piano to mezzo forte for maximum clarity. Now that we have Dolby and DTS and Lord knows what else, things can get really loud. So there's lots of, yes, bombastic music and explosions and fist blows that sound like a buffalo stampede. But is there ever any really quiet music? Do moviemakers even dare to mix the soft with the loud and approximate the pleasures of real live music? Or have movie audiences become so addled that they don't even know what they're missing?


I'm not sure it exists if you're sitting at the back of the family circle at the Met either, especially compared to most movie theaters today, which are far smaller than the Met. Off the top of my head I can think of any number of scores from the 'thirties that had delicate passages or featured celesta solo, so I don't agree with your contention that "movie audio didn't have that capability." En contraire, some golden age film composers cited the ability to feature instruments and combinations that couldn't be used in a concert hall.

That's all moot, however. I go to the movies frequently and I haven't heard a single film score I'd want to hear if played apart from the film. Just my opinion, but I find film music today a generic wallpaper. Pounding chord progressions and moody, drifting lines. Whatever happened to melody?

 
 
 Posted:   Jun 10, 2014 - 7:23 AM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

d.p.

 
 
 Posted:   Jun 10, 2014 - 7:24 AM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

Good to hear from you, Waxmann. I agree that sometimes (at the Met) I could wish for more volume. Have our ears been corrupted/spoiled by too loud amplification? The Met is a very large house and poses real challenges for the singers. Since we're talking about Wagner (Well, I was), it's worth noting that Wagner kept his own theater at Bayreuth fairly small and shielded the orchestra pit from the main auditorium. That way, even the hundred-piece orchestra would support, rather than overwhelm, the singers.

Agree that old movies had solos and unorthodox combinations. But I'd say that either the quiet passages were dialed up or the tutti were dialed down. There was some contrast. Good editing could enhance the effect. But could the optical soundtrack even approach the kind of dynamic range we've come to expect from LPs and CDs? I think not.

 
 
 Posted:   Jun 10, 2014 - 8:36 AM   
 By:   Ludwig van   (Member)

Rozsaphile, I know you're probably talking about the films of today, but how about Chrissie's Death from JAWS? There's a wonderfully chilling moment when, in the midst of the shark attack (fortissimo), there's a cut to the drunk guy on the beach practically passed out, and the music drops to what sounds like pianissimo, a single soft dissonant chord hanging in the air as we hold our breath to see the (fortissimo) conclusion of the attack.

Just for fun, since you mentioned pppp and ffff, in his Symphony No. 6, Tchaikovsky was the first to write SIX pianos, pppppp. It would almost be easier to mime the parts and have the audience imagine they were hearing six pianos than to actually play pppppp.

 
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