Monday, January 14, 2008

looney toons appreciation

My children had a revelation the other day: Music can be almost as important to a story as words and pictures,
The three of us arrived at the conclusion by a roundabout way that begins at Gary Barker Charter School, where I'm on the board of trustees. In his monthly report to the board -- and may I say how sympathetic I am to everyone tangled up with such mind-dulling bureaucratic requirements -- the music teacher shared how he is introducing his youngest students to composer Maurice Ravel.
I had never heard of Ravel before reading Mike DeBlasio's report, and still have no idea what his music is like for having read it, but DeBlasio explained that his youngest students will be studying Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite. He writes: "It is the musical setting of five well-known fairy tales, and students will be exploring how music can tell a story just as well as words."
That's a technique I've heard of before, particularly with Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Peter and the Wolf," but I have to admit that it's not something that ever exactly "worked" for me when I was a child. I didn't see a wolf, a young boy, his grandfather or anything else I was supposed to; I heard a bunch of instruments, and resented having to listen to such crap in music class when I'd rather read a book.
(By the time I reached high school, I was a little more in tune with musical symbology and could follow the general flow of Napoleon's invasion of Russia as it was depicted in "The 1812 Overture," particularly since I was in the brass section and we really got to belt out the Russian victory.)
Still, DeBlasio's comments triggered some thoughts in me. I had noticed in "High-Diving Hare" and some of the other Bugs Bunny shorts what an integral role the music played. There are the standard sound effects of sawing wood, and splashes and so on, but the soundtrack on these old cartoons is a seamless and indispensible part of the experience. Every time Yosemite Sam climbs the ladder, it's accompanied, step-by-step by notes that also climb one step at a time. Every expression, every movement, every action and mood has its own set of notes that accompany it and both develop and maintain the character.
So as we watched some Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, I started pointing out to the children how the music picked up its tempo with the chase sequences, and how Sylvester's movements were accompanied by a lower register than Tweety's. By the time the second cartoon started, they were noticing the relationship between the action and the music as well, and even noticed the use of Tweety's them in different arrangements, at different times, for different purposes.
I won't say that they've decided to become professional composers, but they made the connection, and it's sticking. We were listening to John Williams' "Star Wars" soundtrack this morning while getting ready for school, and Evangeline recognized Leia's theme when it played, and correctly deduced when there was action, intensity, or calm in the story -- all from the music.

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