Bring on the Wascally Wabbit

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The Richmond Symphony season is winding down. But this weekend we’ll be busy performing the popular touring show, Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II with conductor George Daugherty. The show is a tribute to the music of classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Generations of viewers gained an exposure to classical music through these zany cartoons, which included:

Schoenberg Meets Looney Tunes

Cartoons had an interesting influence on John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, written in 1992. Here is an excerpt from the composer’s website:

I originally set out to write a children’s piece, and my intentions were to sample the voices of children and work them into a fabric of acoustic and electronic instruments. But before I began that project I had another one of those strange interludes that often lead to a new piece. This one involved a brief moment of what Melville called “the shock of recognition”: I was sitting in my studio, studying the score to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, and as I was doing so I became aware that my seven year old son Sam was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the ’50’s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive, and I realized suddenly how much these two traditions had in common.

The witty, spare instrumentation of Adams’ Chamber Symphony is a direct reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, written in 1906. Listen to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 and you’ll hear what happens when you push the chromaticism of Richard Strauss’ music just a little further and over the edge into atonality.

Beyond the instrumentation, Adams’ Chamber Symphony, “infected” with its cartoon-inspired elements, goes in a slightly different direction. Its outer movements drive forward with an unrelenting pulse as exhilarating musical volleys fly by. At moments it’s Stravinsky with a drum set. The wandering trombone solo in the second movement seems to have taken a wrong turn from some unwritten chorale line in Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1934).

We hear a host of outrageous and indestructible characters. Despite crazy, fast-paced adventures, collisions, explosions and other mishaps, the beat goes on. And in each movement, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is what happens around this steady and undisrupted pulse.

Here is the Aurora Orchestra’s performance from their recording, Road Trip, released last year:

1. Mongrel Airs:

2. Aria with Walking Bass:

3. Roadrunner:

What did you think of John Adams’ Chamber Symphony? It’s a piece that can inspire strong emotions. Regardless of whether you loved or hated the music, take a moment and tell us about your experience in the thread below, as well as any other thoughts on music and cartoons.

Waltzing into a New Year

The Vienna Philharmonic began its tradition of performing an annual New Year’s Concert in 1939. Ever since, New Year’s Day and Strauss waltzes have become intertwined in popular imagination. In celebration of a new year, here is Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube from last year’s concert, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Austrian conductor Welser-Möst is currently the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. You may notice that in the Viennese style of playing waltzes the second beat comes slightly early and is stretched (One,TWO-three):

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Shaping a Film to Its Score[/typography]

If you’re a film fan, The Blue Danube probably brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work he described as “a mythological documentary” and “a controlled dream.” The film delves into issues of technology and human evolution. In one scene a tribe of early hominids discovers that an animal bone can be used as a weapon as well as a tool. It’s a crucial moment of uniquely human ingenuity. An ape-man throws the bone into the air and it suddenly turns into a Pan-Am spaceplane, cruising to a space station which is orbiting earth millions of years later. Both the bone and the spaceplane represent technology. Have we really come so far?

Typically, composers write film scores after a movie has been made. 2001: A Space Odyssey may be a rare example of a film which was influenced by its music. Kubrick began working on the film with a “temporary track” of existing classical music. Meanwhile, the respected Hollywood composer Alex North began working on the score. It wasn’t until late in the process that North realized, to his disappointment and frustration, that Kubrick had abandoned the entire original score in favor of existing music, which included Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and music by twentieth century composer György Ligeti. You can get a sense of what the movie would have been like with North’s unused score here and here.

In Kubrick’s film the grace and elegance of Strauss’s waltz accompanies spinning satellites:

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Like other aspects of 2001, there are many contrasting interpretations regarding how the music is functioning in the film. Clearly, Kubrick was looking for something more than background music. In many scenes dialogue takes a back seat to music and image. For a complete analysis of the role of music in the film, read David W. Patterson’s Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

[quote]Music in Kubrick’s films is used inventively and narratively and flamboyantly, causing the viewer to listen so that he can see. -Vivian Sobchak[/quote]