Friday, July 1, 2011

Music and Narrative

Cinema and television offer some fascinating possibilities for the use of music to enhance narrative. There are two basic modes. The fancy terms for these are diegetic and non-diegetic which come from the Greek word for narrative: διήγησις (diegesis). If the music is seen to be coming from a radio or sound system within the scene or performed by a musician who is part of the story, this is called a ‘diegetic’ presentation. If the music is not part of the narrative setting but in the musical score or soundtrack, then we call this a ‘non-diegetic’ presentation. Here is the Wikipedia article on diegesis. Taking some examples from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Willow plays a Barry White record when Oz comes to visit, that is diegetic. Don't have the clip from the episode, but here is the song:

 But if we mysteriously hear Barry White when our characters are walking down the street, that is non-diegetic. In “Conversations with Dead People” the episode starts with scenes of a band setting up and beginning a tune. This is apparently diegetic, but the tune continues when the scene shifts to Buffy walking through a graveyard, so the same music becomes non-diegetic (and the band turns out not to be part of the story). On the other hand, the lyrics to the song, written, along with the music, by Angie Hart and Joss Whedon, are a kind of voice-over narration of the theme of the episode. Unfortunately, a clip from the episode doesn't seem to be available, but here is the song:

 Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film Fanny and Alexander has a scene where a few notes on piano are heard and we assume they are non-diegetic, that is, in the soundtrack. But then Fanny and Alexander look into another room and see the ghost of their dead father playing those notes on a piano. Deceiving the viewer about the origin of the music can be eerily effective.

In musicals the songs have a kind of double status as the singers are in the narrative, but the orchestral accompaniment is soundtrack. By the conventions of musicals and opera the singers are supposed to be unaware that they are singing--a non-diegetic use of song. But if the the singing is part of the story, as in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner, then the song and therefore the singing is diegetic. In the musical episode of Buffy, "Once More With Feeling", the characters are compelled by a demon to break into song and reveal hidden truths. A recurring theme in Joss Whedon's work is the truth of music. In Angel a demon opens a karaoke bar where people and demons sing and as they do so he can read their fates. In "Once More With Feeling" the characters comment on being compelled to sing and a great deal of humor comes from ordinary incidents in life, such as protesting a parking ticket, being made into song. Here is the first song, after the overture:

This seems to be a typical musical format with the singers unaware that they are singing instead of talking. But in the next scene, which is not sung, all the characters are talking about how weird it was that they suddenly burst into song the night before. In any case, the strange ways in which music and narration can interact offer a lot of room for both the uncanny and humor.

So what is so odd about singing? It is nothing but heightened speech, after all. In some languages, pitch is even part of speech. I think this just gets us up against the fundamental mystery of music: how the organization of pitch--frequency--and the organization of time--rhythm--is capable of the most remarkable expressive effect. I think the magic of this, or at least our sensitivity to it, is greatly degraded by the constant wash of very low quality recorded music that is constantly beating at us from sound systems everywhere we go. It becomes like a dingy carpet and we forget how truly uncanny music can be. But if you hear a very good piece of music, one honed down to the utmost simplicity, and if you really focus on it, then all the mystery and magic of music returns:

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