Friday, June 8, 2007

Musical Musings- Pulp Themes (an opinion)

Hi, folks. Don here, broadcasting from the radio room of The Flying Reaper, Dr. Lightning's all-purpose transformable armored zeppelin. This post is about music: what it means to my pulp-fan's brain.

In 1872, french composer Camille Saint-Saens wrote a "symphonic poem" called "Le Rouet d'Omphale" (or "Omphale's Spinning Wheel"). The topic of this classical music piece is the legend of Hercules: he finds himself in exile, in service of the Lydian queen Omphale. She forces the hero to dress as a woman and to perform the duties of a maid and seamstress. The piece is lilting and flowery, a soft and harmless musical composition... until the middle third. At this point in the narrative, Hercules bemoans his fate to Omphale as she forces him to spin wool at her feet. This passage of the music is mournful, full of aggression and sadness and regret. It is a bit of a downer, and not heroic at all in this light.


In 1937, the Mutual Broadcasting System first broadcast a radio program called "The Shadow", starring a young Orson Welles. The famous opening and closing lines ("Who Knows What Evil...") were not performed by Welles, but by a recording of radio actor and former Shadow (when the character was an announcer) Frank Readick Jr. Behind this recording was an orchestral version (later to be stripped down to just an organ) of...

the middle third of "Le Rouet d'Omphale".

Now, in this new light, the piece has taken on a new feeling to many that hear it: dark and vengeful when in it's full orchestral form, foggy and mysterioso when played by the organ. "Omphale's Spinning Wheel" has since become "The Shadow's theme".
Music has a strong power to create images in the minds of the listener, whether it's a piece connected with a famous scene in a movie (think of the "Jaws" theme), or whether it causes the listener to dream up the images themselves. I've always been a big fan of musical themes for stories and characters, and they've always helped me to see the events depicted in a story more clearly.

Another piece by Saint-Saens that fits perfectly with The Shadow is his Symphony No. 3 In C Minor Op. 78 , particularly the leitmotifs present in the beginning of the first and third movements. It lends itself, I believe, to stealthy pursuits. Agents move on their orders. A taxicab pulls away from the curb, the driver tersely watching his quarry as he trails a dark sedan through the night-time streets. A mobster vanishes into the darkness, only to be replaced by a cloaked and slouch-hatted figure, briefly seen under a street-lamp.

It is a powerfully visual piece of music.

Other music from other sources creeps into my head from time to time when reading pulps. For Doc Savage, I think the perfect theme would be "Olympic Fanfare" by movie-music master John Williams. Another John Williams composition, ("The Mission"- you would probably know it better as the NBC Nightly News theme) would be a perfect theme for one of my characters, Challenger Storm (shameless plug!). I admit, it may be hard to distance your head from the thematic elements and movies the pieces were written for, but trust me: it can be done.

A final example of classical-style music matching well with pulp fiction can be seen in Chris Kalb's Spider "Flash Trailer" (that's the black & white cartoon near the bottom of the page). Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" (from his "Carmina Burana") is used to great effect here. This piece has been used (some would say "overused") many, many times in the past, but I don't think it's ever fit as well as it does here. The element of grand horror and epic struggle present in those Spider novels matches perfectly with the bombastic choral arrangement and crashing symbols. "Epic" does not do the description justice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As always Don, GREAT STUFF!