Illusions, Musical and Otherwise

Jonathan Bellman

This past weekend, we had the pleasure of seeing The Illusionist, superb new period-piece film with Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton. Beautiful visuals, craftsmanship, acting—just a superb, artistic bit of entertainment. Not least attractive was the soundtrack by Philip Glass: dark and atmospheric, from the low string music at the beginning it had a wonderful sonic feel throughout.

Aside from the harmonic changes that sounded typically Glassian and minimalist (one note in a chord moves a step or half-step, e.g., to make a new chord), I can’t remember a single actual lick of it. I imagine it is available on a soundtrack recording, but cannot imagine why anyone would want it apart from the film. (When Koyannisqatsi came out, a relative assumed that I would immediately run out and buy it, which puzzled me completely. Why? The visuals were so central to the effect.) Does anyone still talk about “incomplete music”?

When I was a full-time ballet pianist (National Academy of Arts in Champaign, IL, and at the San Francisco Ballet and Ballet School), I was taught that so-called “incomplete” music made the best ballet music. Too much musical interest means the audience isn’t watching the dancers. Rather, the choreography should complete the music, which is incomplete in and of itself. Soundtrack music works, at least to my ear, pretty much the same way, though sometimes set pieces rise above the level of incomplete. One example is William Walton’s “Passacaglia: The Death of Falstaff” from the old Henry V and another is the Maurice Jarré’s “Building a Barn” from the soundtrack to Witness.(That one is synthesized, but it always sounded to me as if it was written for string orchestra with a trumpet solo later. Utterly beautiful.) The magic is, for the most part, how it works as a soundtrack, not as self-standing music.

One of the 1980s bons mots about minimalism was that it was hip easy listening music, music sufficiently euphonious for the Volvo-and-brie set (not an original phrase) to stand while extolling its aesthetic value. This, so the thinking went, could not have been said about more “uptown” kinds of art music being composed then. It was fine incomplete music, if I may have the cheek to put it that way; evocative sonic backdrops that bring the visuals into stronger relief. I’m not specialist enough to know if the the soundtrack for The Illusionist is minimalist or merely minimalism-influenced, but in my eye and ear it gives the concept of incomplete music is given rather splendid life. I once read that Alexander Glazunov felt that composing ballets was good discipline for younger composers, because they were given many (often changing) musical constraints by the choreographer; it would be hard to interest a young composer in composing incomplete music, but “composing soundtracks” sounds much more upscale. Ultimately, I suspect, composing not purely to your own muse but rather to the requirements of the guy with the wallet is not necessarily a betrayal of anything, and it does make for good compositional discipline. As Exhibit A, I give you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Glass’ excellent, unmemorable soundtrack.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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1 Response to Illusions, Musical and Otherwise

  1. Scraps says:

    It makes sense that the barnraising music would be more “complete” than other soundtrack music, since that’s a scene with no dialogue (and, if I remember correctly, no sound at all apart from the music), one of Peter Weir’s specialties. I think almost all of his movies have at least one extended scene that has only music.

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