Monday, 4 July 2011

Temporary Musical Lexicon no.1

An entry in the Glossary project

Over the course of one working day, Nanneman showed a movie scene to eight city council colleagues (Respondents A-H) in turn, asking each of them what meaning they thought the accompanying musical soundtrack was intended to convey. The eight answered respectively:

A. Apprehension
B. The secret presence of a third character (possibly an antagonist) within the scene
C. Resentment
D. Hunger
E. That one or both of the (visible) characters has an unspoken crush on the other
F. Some kind of alert regarding the main character’s bank account
G. Boredom
H. Sleepiness

The scene and its score had been identical for each viewer.

This was the first of a series of experiments designed by Nanneman to prove to his colleagues that the film score is, in its most familiar form, obscene: undisciplined, insular, a casual insult from the composer to the other technical departments of the conventional film set.

As music has no meaning outside of itself - is merely abstract sound selected or generated and organised according to taste - Nanneman postulated that to translate it into something meaningful for the purposes of a film score would require the invention and imposition of an internally consistent musical lexicon. Thus, for test purposes he invented a language of 1024 musical sounds with arbitrarily chosen but specific meanings, which could be combined polyphonically to either express that which isn’t otherwise manifest in a given scene or to reinforce that which is. He re-scored the sample scene from this new palette, and played it again to his test group. This time, the eight guinea pigs respectively understood the music as intended to evoke the following:

A. Terror
B. The secret presence of a third character (definitely an antagonist) within the scene
C. Resignation
D. Nausea
E. Sexual chemistry
F. The main character is ruined and will find out shortly in humiliating circumstances
G. Resentment
H. Sleepiness

For Nanneman, although the results lacked the consistency he sought, the fact that the respondents’ reactions had moved in broadly the same direction was encouraging. He speculated that for the consistency of his musical lexicon to take full effect, the test group would have to sit through several examples of its use so as to be able to infer meanings through context and repetition, as we do with any language: to hear a single theme in isolation means nothing by itself. Unfortunately, it appears that middle-management had by now grown wise to Nanneman’s misuse of his colleagues’ time, as several of the latter declared themselves unavailable for the next round of tests. In order to sustain the legitimacy of the experiment, he wrote up detailed character profiles of the absentees and asked Hanni to step in for them and answer as she believed they would. This time, the test scene was, for each respondent, preceded by an hour of preliminary scenes, each scored from Nanneman’s 1024-sound musical idiolect in order to familiarise them with its terms. Unfortunately, it is not known how many or which of the original eight guinea pigs Hanni stood in for. The meanings inferred were as follows:

A. Perplexity
B. The secret presence of a third character (possibly a gangster, and even if not that would be a good idea) within the scene
C. Perplexity
D. Perplexity
E. Erotic love
F. Perplexity
G. Sleepiness
H. Perplexity

These results represented a stunning vindication for Nanneman, and if the meaning his score was intended to convey could not yet be universally understood, he considered a degree of ambiguity to be forgivable - otherwise one might as well print the meaning of a score across the screen in plain letters. Discarding Temporary Musical Lexicon no.1, Nanneman now began work on a variety of automated composing systems for creating music of integrity, anchored scientifically to a movie’s fundamental qualities, internally consistent, and no longer obsessed with telling its own senseless story.

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