pianos & prejudice

I have been surrounded by musical people all my life, without managing ever to actually join their ranks. Playing musical instruments is, for me, like playing with children: I’ll do it and even enjoy it, but not where anyone can see me and pass judgment on it and say stupid things like “you have no sense of timing” or “awwwkwaaaard!” or “maybe you should have children of your own.” Recorder, saxophone, mouth harp, guitar…alone in the house I’m fine, but if there are people around to critique, or to project their own desires onto me, the case is staying closed. So I never got good at anything, musically speaking.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy other people playing it, though. It just means I lack the language to talk about it properly. I don’t know the difference between a stanza and a measure (this isn’t entirely my fault; the year we were supposed to learn to read sheet music, our music teacher’s husband left her, and she spent most of music class crying into the sixth grade teacher’s arms), but I will listen to you practice foreeeever to get a piece right. And I won’t tire of it. Most of my good memories of a close friend I had for a number of years involve me sprawled on her leather couch as she plunked her way through the feather theme Alan Silvestri wrote for Forrest Gump. In the pre-youtube era, we would rent that movie weekend after weekend just to listen to the opening and closing credits. When she entered a Beatles phase I couldn’t share—I eschewed the soiling of sound with words—my compromise was “Imagine,” the learning of which she devoted herself to relentlessly. Again with the couch sprawling and the loyal ignoring of fumbled fingers or missed chords, as her mother’s Honduran cooking seeped through the slats of the kitchen door and made the whole living room thick with a dreamy hungering haze.

To the piano, then, I was reconciled, and it is as easy to woo me with piano as it is with narrative. Often, one can make up for the other, and in rare cases compliment it, as is the case below:

The Painted Veil’s River Waltz

Okay, you get some strings in there eventually, but by the time they show up the song has already assured you that you are at last receiving what you have spent the last hour desperately hoping for. The visuals are slow to assure you of this—it is the music that is letting you know that these sweeping vistas are not an extravagant cover-up for failed attempts at forgiveness. It is really happening, you are told, with this piano. That it is a waltz (my mom taught me to count out waltzes!…to a Melissa Etheridge song.) is important, what with the implication of there being two people to partake in it…which we haven’t seen willingness to do, so far. 

God, that is a good movie. So much better than the book.

Theme from Love Affair

This is the re-issue of An Affair To Remember, which, like The Painted Veil, outdoes its predecessor. (I think. I haven’t seen this in over ten years.) But hello, Ennio Morricone. Humming this song in a tiled bathroom is a damn good reason to stay home from an outing. Long after what remained of the movie for me was reduced to that painting and Annette Bening’s desperate GTFO-so-you-don’t-see-how-fucked-I-am face (and I respect that face!), this song stays. Especially as accompanied by the old woman humming it in Fiji. Which, I guess, isn’t straight-up piano either, but that’s not the point.

Opening Theme to Pride & Prejudice (Dawn)

Every part of this soundtrack is so perfect because it is so tactile. This, at the beginning (and it does resurface, but its most important appearance is the first), is delicately easing us, with warmth, into a world it is expected that we know and love and are returning to. This is not a “first glimpse” piece of music, for all that it appears in the first seconds in the movie: this is a welcome back—not just a welcome back, but a welcome home. I had to pick this over “Liz On Top Of The World,” even though that is also awesome, because a lot of its awesomeness depends on the strings and the cliff, while this can stand quiet and alone and still move you the same way it does in the film.

(Aside: where Clair de Lune plays in Atonement is also perfect, but I don’t suppose that’s fair, since part of the way it strikes you there is that you know exactly where that music is going before it gets there, and what you have to look at as it picks its way down a path you are certain won’t waver is wrenching. You know Clair de Lune, even if you don’t know it by name—and I did not. Everybody else here had to make something move you from scratch, and had to manage your hopes of where the music might go vs. where it in fact goes. That seems harder.)

Comptine d’un autre été from Amelie

Yes, this is better than the main theme, La Dispute, Sur le Fil, and that crazy bit on the bike at the end. All of that is crap compared to this. I cannot and could never play it, of course, but I separated it into layers by ear and clicked-and-dragged them into FL Studio, back in the day, just so I could listen to it over and over. I spent the better part of two years mooning over this song. Like the River Waltz, this plays during a montage, and sure, the amount and kind of visual information we receive while it plays may strongly enhance its quality. But even in the movie it stands alone. The rest of the soundtrack wants to play with you, like the visuals do—the scissors snipping along to the music; the trumped-up national signifier of the accordion in more than a few songs; the detuned music-box style of the flashbacks. Comptine is not playing with you. Comptine is telling you how it goddamn is. And it is sad. But there is a rhythm to it—that four-note repetition goes up or down, but is always there for you, and the way everything else winds around it is beautiful in an un-quaint, un-cutesy, unaffected way that the rest of the soundtrack (and potentially the movie itself) lacks. 

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