Living On Borrowed Sounds

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“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” wrote Shakespeare.  It’s a great line, but let’s face it, there’d be no economy to speak of without both borrowing and lending.  Borrowing allows people who are not wealthy to be upwardly mobile, owning homes and cars and paying insane amounts of money to educate their kids. 

In the music world as well, borrowing allows people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.  Composers, poets, painters, even Shakespeare himself, have always borrowed ideas, and sometimes actual recordings, artworks, and passages of writing, to create new works.  But for some of our listeners, the film The Artist crossed a line when it used a famous bit of music from another film, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in a critical scene.   No one seemed to mind that composer Bernard Herrmann borrowed one of the most famous moments in opera, the climactic chord in Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, for his “Scene d’Amour” in Vertigo.  But in The Artist, they actually used a recording of Herrmann’s resulting music – at some length, too. 

Is this any different from the nearly ubiquitous use of pop songs in movies?  Well, the fact that Herrmann’s music was specifically tied to another movie made its use in this movie problematic for some.  We got lots of responses to our segment yesterday about this, including an email from Barbara M, who wrote this:

“For me this music is so closely associated with Vertigo that I found it quite a distraction.   I told myself that perhaps many moviegoers who are younger would not remember the music from Vertigo and so that wouldn't be a problem.  I think I understand why this piece of music was selected; it's hauntingly evocative and romantic.

"I was glad to see that people did notice it and that some people found it a distraction, as I did. That distraction, however, did not preclude my over-all enjoyment of the film.  I did think that the piece that was composed as part of the original score that should have been used where the Vertigo music was used, would, in fact, have been better."

Film maker Josh Waletzky agreed with Barbara about the Ludovic Bource cue that we played yesterday.  In his email, Josh, who directed an Oscar-nominated documentary about Bernard Herrmann in the 90s, put it like this:

“Quoting a phrase is one thing.  How many times have we heard the "shrieking violins" from the Psycho shower scene or the shark motif from Jaws quoted!  But these are ironical or affectionate references of a single phrase.  Imagine hearing the entire cue from Jaws or Psycho quoted.  We'd think to ourselves: this isn't a reference, this is a film composer who ran out of ideas or ran out of time or (as your show informs us) a composer whose cue was judged to be less effective than the temp music it was modeled on.  Compare what Herrmann did to Wagner's music to make it work as Herrmann's music to be part of Hitchcock's movie.  Or compare what Julio Iglesias did with the song La Mer for his superb score for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy --  also nominated for an Oscar for best score!!  If movie music fans and the film music community (I include myself) are made uncomfortable by the Artist nomination, the extended length of the quotation is one major source of the irritation.”

We got calls and comments on both sides of the issue, but if there was a consensus emerging from the various opinions, it was this:  borrowing is okay; but that doesn’t mean it’s good

What do you think about the use of the Vertigo music in The Artist?  Leave a comment.