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I want to have your Winsome Tendril

from Friday, July13th of the year2007.

Last night I went to see the new Harry Potter movie; I am a big enthusiast of the whole enterprise, really, although I have a lot of problems with those books. Last year, just when the new book (No. 6) came out, I bought it in hardcover and ended up in a house in Iceland that had English editions (aren’t we all happy I didn’t have to slog my way through Harry Potter og Fanginn frá Azkaban) and I re-read the lot of them. I feel like the books are delicious and vague (usually), and the ambiguity of a lot of the central characters is something that I think will be useful for kids to think about. However, there is a lot of messed up stuff about class & gender in them which I don’t need to rehearse here. Plus also I think she names her characters like Flava Flav. But all of that aside, I want to write a little list, though, so, here we go.

– The girl who plays Luna Lovegood appears to be completely batshit crazy. Be sure to read her correspondence with J.K. Rowling at the bottom of the link.

helena_l.jpg– Helena Bonham Carter is my favorite-favorite. I don’t know why she always gets cast in lunatic roles, but she sure is good at them. Do you all remember when she said, “I want to have your abortion” in Fight Club? Or was that only in the book and I’m just imagining that she delivered it beautifully? Read this interview, and pay especial attention to the bit where she says,

“I did something terrible. By mistake, I poked him in his ear. I thought I could brandish the wand like a sort of Q-tip, and clean out his ear. Sort of torture it. But unfortunately he moved toward the wand as I was prodding it. And it actually perforated his eardrum. Isn’t that horrific? I damaged him! He’s such a nice young man, he didn’t admit to me that he actually had some internal bleeding about three days later.”

images.jpg– Why is it that that school is co-ed, has hell of Indian people and Chinese people and no gays? Boarding school!? She could have at least made one of the bad ones gay; she already made them blond with a flat-iron, which is close enough for jazz. Seriously, where they at? Maybe, though, just as the canon of homosexual English writers would have found no space in their novels for Joanne from Gloucestershire, she has found no room for them. I’m not asking for, you know, The Swimming Pool Librarywith magic up-in, but still.

– Teen Angst Music. The composer of the score for this movie has introduced a new theme that sounds suspiciously like Once in Royal David’s City. English people need to expand their emotional range out of those BBC-ass scores; a sort of post-Brideshead compositional agenda is in order, here. Normally I am all in favor of the English musical past being more relevant than people my own age there would think (I went to the Royal Academy for a hot minute and people looked at me as if I had just confessed to eating babies when I talked about learning about how to extend a line from Herbert Howells), but Harry Potter scoring is a chance, my beloveds, to turn to the continent. Here is some anxious music:
and here is some really anxious music:

Isn’t that way more what it’s like to be an angry teen? (Those are both Boulez, by the way: A snippet of Anthèmes 2 and the second nugget from Messagesquisse, both available on this handsome disc). Anybody who went to high school with an impossible administrator knows a specific frustration which I’m pretty sure does not sound like pizzicato strings and a clarinet marked giocoso, a style that comprises a lot of the “institutional” music in this score. “I feel so angry all the time,” Harry says. wagner_370.jpgWhy not have a circular, menaced set of notes with occasional winsome tendrils? I wonder, sometimes, how film music (especially expensive film music) got stuck in this weird overblown yet budget-Wagner stylistic rut; even Wagner, though, despite the sizes of his orchestra, only uses exactly what is necessary to express what I would say is pretty much the entire available range of emotional and dramatic content, and there is not much suspended cymbal up in there.


  • My educated guess, based on watching a couple of the movies and being forced by an ex-girlfriend to read the first two or three books, is that Rowling assumes the reader can infer the homosexuality of a couple characters, rather in the manner of Kingsley Amis and Lucky Jim. By the by, am I alone in thinking that John Williams main theme from Harry Potter is conspicuously similar to his theme for Hook?

  • Hah, Nico, I ought to put you in touch with my daughter, who’s studying film sound design in Potsdam. She has some very decided ideas about film music, particularly the music/sound continuum.

  • Hi, I’m a professional. Sorry for the crazy italics at the end of that sentence. Only the movie titles should’ve been italicized.

  • She says “Have your abortion” in the book and “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade-school” in the movie.

  • I guess the problem is that John Williams has become famous for doing a tiny handful of things extremely well–everybody wants him to do Pop Wagner over and over again, whether it’s appropriate (space opera) or not (boarding school).

    [Nico responds: Tótally. Movies with scores by John Williams are always satisfying; it’s always just interesting enough that you don’t want to kill yourself and always splashy enough that you feel like you are In the Movies. So, that’s fun. I think he’s the only person who can even come close to doing an okay job of ytt.]

  • Do you really think that the Harry Potter books and films aren’t largely aimed a middle-brow audience? And as such, why wring our hands about the music?

    We all get excited when we recognize some more sophisticated references in Rowlings, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is sophisticated stuff.

    You and I might not think Boulez’s music it’s too high falutin’ but as Alex Ross wrote in a recent New Yorker essay on Sibelius, “Emerging from the process [of composition] is an art work in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel.”

    Film–for all it’s strengths–isn’t a Gesamktkunstwerk, music plays a largely supporting role and, even if the aesthetic of the score of the latest offering allowed the insertion of these musical suggestions, it would probably leave most viewers irritated and Boulez’s code is too difficult for them.

    I’m happy that many unsuspecting viewers will find themselves watching a film of a much darker genre–especially politically–than before.

    I’m gay myself and despite Marc’s (gay-friendly) comments, I hardly recognize any of the characters as gay. A bit of ying-yang sexual tension between Ron and Draco would have hit to spot.

    Nico comments: Hi Fergús: I’m pretty sure that all those great Hitchcock movies were aimed at a “middle-brow” audience, too, and the scores for those have lots of secret nuggets and good stuff up-in. Thinking about North by Northwest in particular… and I guess my main objection is less highbrow/lowbrow than “modern notion of tension and anxiety” versus “19th century notion of tension and anxiety.” Thanks for your comments!

  • Also, on top of no gay people, no religious people in Harry Potter world! Are these not the two most obvious omissions, again esp. given English boarding-school context?

    (Also it is not clear that anyone in HP world reads a novel. This is perplexing to me. But perhaps I am forgetting? And do they listen to music?!? Not very much, eh? They certainly don’t seem to do music or art at school. They seem to have newspapers, various interactive media including photographs and sports-figure cards and comic-type stuff…)

    Nico responds: True, there is no art class or no music class. It’s a vocational school, I guess? Juilliard was like that too; there was this class called “Humanities.” There does appear to be a choir, though, conducted by that dwarf. Too bad; Magic Orchestra would be much preferable to those endless قدج matches. So-spelled because one time, in Arabic class, I had to write about a movie I had recently seen and was forced to describe how I found the “Qidj” match a little bit long. Anyway, yes.

  • Continuing with Fergus, I think any upbeat discussion of Potter requires a little Harold Bloomian dissent:

    “Her prose style, heavy on cliche, makes no demands upon her readers. In an arbitrarily chosen single page–page 4–of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven cliches, all of the “stretch his legs” variety. Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.”

    Ain’t he funny? As for John Williams, Mr. Bloom has politely declined to comment.

  • So I suppose this is the point where someone (pick me! pick me!) finally just goes ahead and posts this….

  • Hairy Botter.

    It’s not as funny when you leave a comment logged in as “admin.”

  • god nico…what an antagonist you are! Firstly, I am not sure why it is expected that harry potter movies act as the ambassador of English culture any more than 1989’s Batman which was filmed in England? I believe, despite their popularity, that they are only slightly better quality than average main stream movies. To me, it’s tantamount to commenting in any way about Transformers cultural impact. And besides, despite being filmed in england, these are thoroughly non-british movies (Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, John Williams financed by WB).
    For the music: Considering people care less about orchestral music than ever before, whether for concert hall or for film, I think John Williams is a great ambassador for all of us who do care. I believe careful consideration went into his Philosopher’s Stone score which acted for so many kids as a Williams ‘young person’s guide to the orchestra.’ His scores to Potter I and Potter III are excellent in this way. And Patrick Doyle, a certifiable A-list composer, wrote a wonderful score for the Goblet of Fire. A film music fan could not have asked for a better effort. To get on Hooper is ridiculous. And by all means, someone please as Pierre B. to score the next Potter film. I would think he has not the talent, interest nor the ability to score a motion picture well.
    As for the cultural and sociological implications of the Hogwarts demographic and the conspicuous lack of gays at this private school-I too am offended. I here this is a general trend in films:less homosexual characters in main stream movies.
    However, not being gay I am equally offended by the lack of any manifestation or demonstration of masculinity in happry potter. I think all the characters are saccharin. And for the record, I probably think that most American males (bud light/football/chevy trucks) this the whole harry potter franchise is “gay.” I also found it curious that Rowling refers to “blacks” in her book. It occurred to me that I don’t know what to call an african-american in england. It’s all just so inappropriate.
    The music for this film may be unremarkable and this may ultimately be true too of the films themselves. But how often are we treated to a truly ground-shaking score? The last remarkable score I can recall is Alexandre Desplat’s score to ‘Birth’ three years ago. And that score, is no where near North by Northwest, Vertigo or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. How many symphonies have been abandoned in the dust bin of time? Why put stock into a large budget commercial film score from an unknown composer? How much were you hoping for?

    [Nico repsonds: Dear Richard, Yeah, I liked that Birth. Also the movie was pretty great and weird. And her husband totally ate it right where I used to run all the time. And I may have mis-spoken or -typed; I do like those John Williams scores because he knows his way around the orchestra, and he knows his way around character development through music. My objection to the score to this one was just that I felt like I was taking a bath in 98.6° water. As for the Englishness/Americanness of these movies, I cannot speak to it…]

  • [Nico’s responses embedded in brackets.]

    Do the soundtracks to Empire of the Sun, JFK, Munich and Catch Me If You Can sound like “budget-” or “pop-Wagner”? I can understand people saying that for some of his scores, and I’d wager that even he’d admit that he phones some of them in. But what do you expect? Given the amount of time he’s likely given to produce a score for a feature-length film and the expectations, there’s likely to be some cribbing, both from himself and from others.

    [You know, I really didn’t mean “Budget Wagner” in a pejorative sense. Obviously, a film score is a thing that gets turned around in about six weeks and is not usually the intellectual or emotional centerpiece of its composer’s life’s work. So, I’m not accusing anybody of anything bad. I like those Williams scores. I am more interested in thinking about the tradition of it, at least here…]

    Considering that Wagner took nearly 30 years from conception to completion of the Ring cycle, it seems only natural that it’s going to be more refined than any film score out there. Williams and his colleagues don’t have the luxury to take a six year break from writing out a film score like Wagner did for Siegfried (or Boulez from Anthemes to Anthemes II, for that matter).

    [Good point! Ha. He did take that little breather, didn’t he.]

    I for one see no problem with a film like Hook, Harry Potter, or Star Wars having a quasi-late-Romantic sound (although in my mind he cribs more from Sibelius, Korngold, Szymanowski and early Stravinsky than from Wagner), since the subject matters of the films are basically watered-down Northern European fantasy storytelling intended to be “popular”. When the subject matter goes beyond that, Williams usually delivers and does so quite well. Similarly, in films that deal with fantasy or sci-fi in a more original way, the composers typically produce corresponding scores (Pan’s Labyrinth and Gattaca come immediately to mind).

    [Yeah, you’re right about Sibelius. And I’m not sure how what I originally posted turned into “let’s be mean to John Williams” or “let’s defend John Williams” because that really was not my intention, so, I’m sorry to have been oblique. I really like the John Williams scores to the first few H.P. movies, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that this new film sounds like budget Wagner because dude has to write it using JW themes but without what I would imagine to be JW’s technical facility and never-failing sense of what is appropriate in film music. His music is like the band at a great wedding; they’re there, you can listen or not, and their tuxedos are appropriate and not ratty and they never let you catch them smoking pot in the back by the dumpster, if you know what I mean. Appropriate, fun. So, there you go. I love that Gattaca and haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth. I remember seeing Gattaca in the theaters in front of somebody who actually said, at one point, “Dag, Uma,” which should slap a date on that right quick.

    Also, thank you for your point about the Northern European Fantastic. While I agree that the Wagnerian model is “appropriate” in that sense of the word, these stories are meant to be happening now, so I don’t see any reason why other anxious musics of northern europe shouldn’t have crept into that framework. I could imagine a fully spectral score for that movie, too: anxious and ravishing. Film music is a site where you can do basically whatever you want, at least in terms of budget, so if what you want is a really over-amplified harp, that’s great, wonderful, take that shit to the bank. Or, for instance, if you want to get out of a temporal reference point, music can be a great way to do it, for instance, the first chord of Star Wars says that we are not, in point of fact, in Hi-Tech Space. If they had hired Wendy Carlos, that would have been great for other reasons, but it would not have transported the films to the Epic Place. Those weird, brief, creepy moments in HP always seem a little bit throw-away in the score in a way that they are not in the production design, which is taking advantage of all the fanciest technology in the world to make things that reference the tradition but also expand the boundaries into the modern age in which those films are set.

    In any case, thank you for your comments; I will try to be more clear if I start having other composers’ names in my mouth! And I’ve been enjoying your blog, too; that concert in the Basel Gare du Nord sounds amazing!]

  • Have you heard the incidental music for “Lost”? That sounds like it might be what you’re calling for … very creepy and anxiety-ridden. That composer seems to know what he’s doing, without resorting to Williamsisms.

    But is it “kiddie” enough for a Harry Potter movie? (Need music for a Harry Potter movie be “kiddie”?)

    [Nico responds: you know who loves Lost is violists. That whole thing is built on weird viola sul ponticello effects. I like that music, inasmuch as I like that show. It does a good job making me continue to like it and doesn’t get in the way.]

  • The score for the Order of the Phoenix was not composed by John Williams.

    [Nico responds: I know. Did anybody say that it had been?]

  • Heya – Thanks for responding in such detail! I guess we could agree that the OothPh score is Budget-Williams?!? I think it would be great for somebody to really push the boundaries on a 100% mainstream film like this, but I still think the “style” of channeling late-Romantic music for the film score is kind of spot-on. Hogwarts is modeled after an Anglican boarding school, no? Everytime I’ve walked into one of those (at least in New England), I’ve felt like I’ve been transported back nearly a century…

  • Star Wars is in my opinion the beginning of the end of film music.
    Or at least the start of cookbook film composition.

    [Nico responds: Oh no, girl, it’s a totally different thing. I mean, it’s tacky and big and crazy, but I think it’s very brave. Can you imagine the “sci-fi” score, or the score with too much emotional investment in that dippy story? It’s a Big American Operatic score, and I think it works great. Now, that said, the last 3 are a nightmare. But the first three I think work very very well WITH THE FILM. I’m not about to sit down and listen. So maybe we’re both right. Or something. Nico]

  • […] to be taking anything too seriously. But on its own, it’s brilliant satire of what I think Nico Muhly was talking about when he was decrying the Harry Potter scores for not being angsty back in July. It’s in that English schoolboy choir style that’s gothic, but not really […]

  • When I attended a screening of Star Wars back in 1977 while studying for the bar exam (ach, that dates me), I thought that John Williams’ score had lots of Prokofiev and Walton in it….