Film Music: "American Beauty" Analysis

These transcriptions were made for my essay "American Beauty : Three Levels of Representation in Thomas Newman's Score", in which I analysed the score. During the research work I made on this film, I noticed that the film works on three different layers which are thoroughly followed by Newman's score. These are: the representation of real elements, such as geographical and social characteristics, the representation of the surreal, that is Lester Burnham's daydreams and sexual fantasies about the teenager Angela, and finally, a layer that functions in between the two, which engenders visual and acoustic elements of the first two.

Newman's score follows this subdivision musically, using very interesting compositional choices, which I highlighted in the examples above.

Starting with Ex 1 ("Dead Already", the opening cue), we can see the main feature of the whole score, the use of patterns of repetition in a minimalistic fashion. The use of mallet instruments, although following a precise request by director Mendes, is also redolent of the patterns used by minimalists such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Nevertheless, in my study I argued that in fact this is only a simplistic view of this music, for there is a fundamental difference between the two musics. . In his article ‘Thankless Attempt at a Definition of Minimalism’, Kyle Gann attempts to define the main characteristics of minimalism in music and lists twelve peculiarities in minimalist composition, which include the use of static harmony, repetition, an additive process, a steady beat and linear transformation. He also adds ‘No minimalist piece makes use of all these, but I could hardly imagine calling a piece minimalist that did not use at least a few of them’. Therefore, we cannot label Newman's score as minimalistic, for the simple reason that he does not make use of any of these compositional tools in the same way minimalists do. For example, the use of patterns is not continuous throughout the score, but it is interrupted by the use of silence and it is very often reorchestrated to give freshness of timbre and to follow the scenes.

What is more, Newman also juxtaposes other parts on top of this pattern, using a well varied instrumentation (appalachian dulcimer, tabla, saz just to name a few).

This additive process is shown in Ex 2, where other ostinati are added to the main Marimba parts. Harmonically, this is all built on a C dorian scale (second degree of Bb major) and this is confirmed by the typical alternation between the minor triad on the tonic and the major triad on the subdominant. Rather than calling it harmony, we should speak here of a cycle of two repeating chords. This simplicity is somehow opposed to the richness and variety of timbres used throughout the whole cue, which derive from the composer's experimentations in the recording studios with his fellow musicians.

In my essay I called this 'minimalism of means' rather than pure minimalism. This is not just a matter of nomenclature, but it is a fundamental characteristic of the whole score, as we will see later on.

In the example 1.3, from the cue "Lunch With the King", we can see how Newman uses a very simple piano theme, built on the E mixolydian mode. Harmonically, the bass plays an ostinato on the modal tonic, while the piano makes use of the A major scale pitch collection. This is an example of the use of thematic - rather than motivic - material in the process of accumulation.

Example 2.1 is drawn from the cue "Spartanette", where Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) sees Angela (Mena Suvari) for the first time and imagines rose petals coming from her breast while she is dancing with the school cheerleaders.

Here comes the second level of representation I mentioned earlier, that is surrealism.

According to director Mendes and director of photography Conrad Hall, some of the visual choices they made were influenced by Belgian surrealist painter Renee Magritte. Magritte was somehow different from the other surrealists because he used ordinary objects in combinations which evoked a state of daydream. As a byproduct of this juxtaposition, we are able to reconsider such objects, which are part of our everyday lives, thus being able to see the world with a different perspective, as we were kids contemplating the world for the first time.

In the cheerleaders scene, the reality is bent over: there is a precise moment when Lester delves into daydream; during this very moment, Newman's cue breaks in. As we can see in Ex 2, there is an overall abundance of sliding sounds (lap steel guitar, synth flute, fretless bass) and one fixed sound to counterbalance this kind of 'slippery ground' which is daydream. In my analysis, I argued that this uncertainty of pitch is what musically follows this shift into Lester's imagination: as a western audience, we are accustomed to well-pitched sounds and instruments and that is our ordinary, daily experience of musical sounds (noise does not come into account when we are talking about our daily experience of music). This is confirmed by the tendency in music production of using tools such as Melodyne or Autotune to correct vocal performances and to get near to perfect intonation. Thus, the shifts in intonation in this cue suggest that we are experiencing a world that is not real and in which something unnatural is happening.

Another approach to the same problem is Newman's use of detuning. In Ex 2.2 from the cue "Choking The Bishop", the composer uses ostinati of detuned mandolins to accompany Angela bathing in roses. Of course, my transcription is an approximation of what is actually going on in the music, nevertheless we can easily notice the use of a diminished triad that clashes with the chord in Mandolin III. Again, there is a wide use of sliding pitches.

In Ex 2.3 we can observe another compositional tool used in the surrealistic scenes, the use of unresolving lines. In the "Root Beer" cue - again, another fantasy about Angela drinking beer near the fridge - comething very interesting is going on. Firstly, there is an alternative way of defining a tonic: in this passage, the pitch Bb can be clearly identified as being a pole of attraction for the other sounds. This is not set up by harmonic movement as usually happens in tonal music, but it is set by repetition of this pitch, notably by the use of a fixed drone on Bb. Tension is thus created by the fretless bass line that does not resolve to the 'tonic': we hear that it is hovering around that frequency, but it is not going to end up on that, causing an upsetting reaction in the listener.

Ex 3.1 is a transcription of the cue accompanying the famous bag scene. This cue can be considered as a way to represent musically a surrealistic scene that is in fact happening in reality. Here, harmonic unity is provided by the same modal chords that appeared in "Dead Already", Cm and F (add6/9), with some appoggiature that create inner movement. The use of different time signatures is obviously dictated by filmic needs, nevertheless it conveys a sense of 'timelessness'. Again, there is an interesting use of drones in the synth parts. Also, note the use of parallel fifths in the piano part, which are redolent of early 20th Century piano music (Satie, Debussy...).

Finally, in Ex. 3.2 we can observe an even simpler piano texture. The counterpoint between the first two staves is minimal, nevertheless it is very effective. The lower part is contrapuntally correct in their use of contrary motion and resolving appoggiature over a very simple evocative theme. This is "Angela Undress" cue, a resolving point in the plot: Lester finds out that his fantasies on the 'provocative' teenager Angela are in fact a figment of his imagination, because the girl is still a virgin.

The use of drones is particularly interesting here, because the sonic elements involved in this practice are not limited to musical sounds. The rain pouring outside the Burnhams' mansion can be considered as a grainy texture, a kind of drone that resonates throughout the whole scene. Additionally, Angela's breath can also be seen - with some imagination - as a pulsating drone, even if with an irregular rhythmic activity. This is an interesting way of reading a film scene, because in many occasions music analysis is limited to the study of notes, textures and instrumentation, whereas in my opinion the cinematic medium is a visual and sonic world, cohabited by elements of both dimensions.


Please note that this writing is just an overview of my essay on American Beauty, it is missing references, notes and some other elements that are essential to provide a complete analysis on this topic. All the material here provided can be used provided its author is cited.




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