When the Moon is in the Seventh House...
by Sean Cribbs
I’m of the opinion that good music is good music, wherever you find it. It’s hard to put your finger on what makes it good, but I’m convinced it’s the little things. There’s not some magic formula. There’s no overarching structural device that makes one piece of music good or bad (sorry Schenker!).
For me, good music happens when all of the details come together and those details were lovingly crafted by their creator(s) to work in harmony (small H) and achieve the desired effect. Achieving the desired effect also requires a listener who is open. This doesn’t mean that the listener drives out all other distractions and sits ritualistically silent in a concert hall while trained performers convey their interpretation of the music to the listener’s passive ears. This does mean that the listener is empathetic to the music. That is, the confluence of life events, internal and external, has placed the listener into a state where the music will move those gears inside that trigger emotional and intellectual responses.
While I am neither expert on hermeneutics nor subscriber to any Doctrine of Ethos, I know that music has that power to move me. When music is “good” and I am empathetic, I am moved.
Last night, I experienced this concordance of music and empathy. Yesterday had been a stressful and emotional day for me, in fact, as I write this I am still feeling its effects. To help relieve some of that stress, I sat down in the armchair while Elizabeth went to get take-out for dinner. I started watching Star Trek: Voyager, which we get regularly through Netflix and have been watching since early spring. We had already watched all of the episodes on this disc, but I wanted to see some of them again. One of the episodes I chose to watch was called “11:59”, which aired in Season 5 of the series.
The episode depicts an ancestor of Captain Janeway who was influential to her decision to explore space. The character, Shannon O’Donnel (also played by Kate Mulgrew), is first shown driving through a cold, snowy, Indiana around the turn of the millenium. She’s down on her luck, out of money, and desperately determined to get to her cousin in Florida when her car breaks down in the middle of a small rural town. When they first introduce Shannon O’Donnel, you hear the theme of the episode. Unfortunately, most of the score of an episode of any Star Trek series is pretty bland mood stuff, with a little mickey-mousing. However, in this case, the composer seemed to identify with the story and thus crafted his music with care, enhancing the visual mood and action.
The theme began with a simple clarinet duet in a middle treble register, followed by the construction of a cluster via a simple major scale in the strings, also in the treble. When the cluster was completed and sustained, the major harmony was reinforced through an open fifth in the low strings and brass. Brass is typically used in space epics to convey the grandiosity of space and the daringness of the explorers, and Star Trek is no exception. Brass has many connotations including fate, destiny, heroism, and power that come from long-standing cultural traditions. Think of the “trumpet sounding the Second Coming” (Tuba mirum…) or royal fanfares, and you’ll see what I mean.
I immediately thought, “what a beautiful theme!”. I felt directly the mixed emotions of the character – sorrow, expectation, the urgency of desperation – and some of the other aspects of the story, including the coldness of the weather (enhanced by the woodwinds) and the deep gravity of her later accomplishments (the low chord in the brass and strings).
The interesting part about the experience is that on a previous viewing, I had been relatively unmoved by the score. The confluence of my emotional openness and the careful crafting of the score resulted in my emotional response, primarily identification with the main character. Good music doesn’t only belong in a concert hall or in the earbuds of your iPod. It can happen anywhere, anytime, if you are ready for it.