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The spheres of the music

 =conductor_r_kaufman.jpgWhat do you think of while you listen to classical music? Do you have an education in music, and think of the composer's strategies, or the conductor's interpretation? Do you, in short, think in words at all? I never do, and I suppose that would make me incompetent as a music critic. I fall into a reverie state.

With some music, my thoughts simply drift, and I daydream. I'll be surprised where I end up. The music has untethered logic and freed me to go in places chosen by the music itself by obscure means. Other times, with music that is very, very familiar, I will find myself drifting into the music itself, without conscious thought at all.

Consider Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I've heard it so many times for so many years that it creates its own self-contained reality. I haven't the slightest idea what it is "saying." It proceeds implacably, majestically, inevitably. Even those three words are irrelevant. It is. It exists. It reaches a part of me that finds it irrefutable. I am pleased that it was recorded in some permanent form and put on board an early space craft that was sent on a limitless journey beyond our solar system. If it is ever found and heard by another intelligence, I imagine it will speak to them somehow.    

But such thoughts are fancy. Perhaps it will sound only like...noise. Perhaps noise itself will be meaningless at the other end. Noise needs atmosphere, and the entire universe is completely silent, except within a few infinitesimal local oddities like our planet's atmosphere. The Big Bang was silent, not because there was no one to hear, but because the conditions for sound were absent. 

I have just fallen into one of my idle drifts of thought. I began with Beethoven and ended in abstraction. I betray my ignorance. I have much ignorance to betray. Readers have lectured me that I rarely discuss the music on a movie's sound track. They're right. I don't. I fear to. I don't have the vocabulary. If I say a sound track is "beautiful," what have I said, and what good did it do to say so?

I think one of the scores most perfectly suited to a movie is the zither music by Anton Karas in "The Third Man." Why do I think that? Why does it evoke the dark tilted shadows of that film--when if it were played on an accordion it might inspire jolly polka dancers? Indeed, on a PBS pledge re-run of an ancient Lawrence Walk program a few years ago, didn't I actually witness Mr. Welk dancing to "The Third Man Theme" with "the lovely little Champagne Lady, Alice Lon" while Myrin Florin smiled at them benevolently above his accordion?  

So the music, the instrument, the visuals and the story come together in "The Third Man" to make something perfect. One of my readers told me it was the worst score he had even heard in a movie, and even its producer David O. Selznick famously would have preferred a conventional orchestral score. Yet when I was asked to suggest some film music for a special evening at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, "The Third Man" was the first score that came into my mind.

The CSO has for several years produced concerts called "Friday Night at the Movies," usually involving a silent film projected on a screen above the orchestra as it plays a score. Sometimes a sound film is shown, with the music performed live; last autumn, Chaz and I saw them doing "Psycho" with the Bernard Herrmann music. The CSO invited me to join with Maestro Richard Kaufman, who has a special fondness for movie music, and program one of the Friday nights. At first I declined. I explained I didn't feel competent. But then Maestro Kaufman wrote telling me how much fun it would be, and I knew he was right. That the evening eventually became "A Tribute to Roger Ebert" was astonishing.

Chaz and I met with Maestro Kaufman, who, like many musicians, radiates a good deal of inner cheer. He'd asked me to name my five favorite composers, and the first on my list was Nino Rota, whose music embodies "The Godfather" and whose scores for Fellini have inspired me to do a blog page titled, I Could Watch a Fellini Film on the Radio. At dinner with him, I opened with a frank declaration: I did not feel competent in the area of music, and the Maestro would have to do most of the heavy lifting.  

It was a field where he was expert, and together "we" planned a program including these scores: Maurice Jarre's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), Dimitri Tiomkin's "The Sundowners," Rota's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Fellini Amarcord," Malcolm Arnold's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), Ennio Morricone's "The Mission," Alex North's intended score for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the music eventually used by Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss II, Bill Conti's "The Right Stuff," Karas' "The Third Man," Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in "
Apocalypse Now," Miklós Rózsa's "Ben Hur," Max Steiner's "Casablanca," Herrmann's "Citizen Kane," Henry Mancini's "The Pink Panther," "Moon River" and "Two for the Road," Max Steiner's "Gone With the Wind" and John Williams' "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial."

It was a magnificent evening. My thoughts did not wander as usual into fields of abstraction, because the scores were so closely associated in my mind with their movies. There is a famous story about how Alex North's score for "2001" hadn't been recorded in time for a test screening, and Stanley Kubrick put together a quick soundtrack including "The Blue Danube" and "Also Sprach Zarathustra." The music worked so well that MGM executives insisted he keep it. The North soundtrack has been recorded and is available, but let it be said Kubrick's last-minute choices were inspired.

We had box seats for the evening, and a good view of the orchestra. I had rarely seen the stage in Symphony Hall so crowded. The Maestro had augmented the full complement of the CSO with a zither player, two harmonica players, an accordion and a piano, and had added a tambourine to the percussion section. The musicians were of course superbly disciplined, but I was delighted to see a violinist briefly unable to restrain herself from nodding her head in time to the first notes of the Pink Panther theme. She quickly caught herself.  

I wrote a blog not long ago about drawing, and how when you begin to sketch you fall into the "zone" and lose track of time. I have never been a musician, but I suspect they're familiar with the Zone. To become such a superb musician that you can play for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra means you have a oneness with your instrument. You desire, it responds. Technique is not thought about consciously. The music flows from the mind of the composer through you to minds of the listeners. The conductor is the means of gathering this process and offering it. To be part of a symphony orchestra must provide a mighty emotion, a great elevation. I imagine musicians must certainly lose track of time.

A symphony orchestra is a pinnacle of civilization. Mankind has brought forth music, found ways to notate it, devised instruments to give it sound, and found notes to express the voices of those instruments. The existence of an orchestra gives composers a meta-instrument on which their imaginations can play. Musicians at the level of the CSO must prepare themselves for a lifetime, again every day. They must have a vision of the Ideal, of the union of music, composition, instruments and listeners. They must sometimes be very happy.

This is not true only of the members of a symphony orchestra. I have known many musicians pretty well. Folk singers. Guitarists. Vocalists. Pianists. Jazz musicians. The good ones seem happy. Stories of tormented musicians are part of our folklore, but I have never to my knowledge seen a musician who was unhappy during the act of performance, and I have a pretty good eye for such things. They say we only use a small percentage of our human minds. I believe music has its best existence in those parts we do not otherwise employ. It's possible I've had my wisest and most profound thoughts while listening to Beethoven. I wouldn't know, would I?    


Photo at top: Conductor Richard Kaufman and the Pacific Symphony. Photo by Kelly A. Swift, Orange County Register.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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