Category Archives: TV themes

Musical Game of Drones …

Since it has been some time since I wrote about a theme song, I thought I would have a look at the music of a current hit: the theme song from the HBO series “Game of Thrones” (an adaptation from A Song of Ice and Fire, fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin).  The first series debuted in April last year, and as I write this, Series Two has just concluded. Despite the title of this blog entry, I AM a fan of this series – it is joyous escapism, combining a Dark-Middle Ages aesthetic with fantasy elements like sorcery and magical creatures, and quite a few salacious bits too, which adds to the spice and entertainment value.  The script is also well constructed, and the characters are appealing and more than one-dimensional.  But this blog is about the music, and in particular, about the theme music, which in my opinion, lets the show down.

Music for theme songs in television series fall neatly into the category of programmatic music: subordinate to a narrative or story-line. In fact,  music for motion picture soundtracks and the small screen has followed the model of programmatic music since the advent of talking pictures, and with such strong visual leads, it is not unreasonable to argue (although some of you may do so) that it is the primacy of IMAGE that guides the musical form and shape in these contexts.

So before I go on to deconstruct the music, let me contextualise the visuals first.  The graphics for the opening titles depict the major centres or locations of interest in the fictional continent of Westeros. Each title opening changes to reflect where the action will take place in that episode.  For example, titles of the first episode depicted Winterfell (ancestral seat of the house of Stark); the Wall of the North, an enormous barrier of ice guarded by the Brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, erected to keep out “the Others” (mythical creatures alluded to during the first Season, who we finally glimpse at the end of Season Two); and Kings Landing, where the King of Westeros sits on the Iron Throne.  Each of these locations rise out of a quasi-two-dimensional map, in an elegant mechanical manner inspired by Meccano, but a LOT more sophisticated. Allusions to the mediaeval worldview come in the portrayal of the sun as a giant Astrolabe, soaring over the landscape. Visually, it is clever: it conjures up notions of an old-fashioned fantasy board game or even something like the old Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing games. If you want to know more detail about the process of the credits, click here:

http://www.artofthetitle.com/2011/05/12/game-of-thrones/

The author of the theme song (and general incidental music for the series) is Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi, who has a strong list of musical credits as a film and TV score composer (see image attached).  His most successful efforts in the past include Iron Man (2008), Prison Break (2005) and Blade: Trinity (2004). A protege of the extremely prolific Hans Zimmer (who now heads up the film music division at DreamWorks studio, and was a pioneer in combining electronic and acoustic orchestral arrangements in scores), Djawadi has more recently branched into scoring for animation and games, and this really seems to be where the influence for the the theme song of Game of Thrones is situated.

 

The orchestration and trajectory of the score is as follows: the rhythmic-melodic introduction begins on lower strings accompanied by drums.  The drum sound is akin to a tapan, but they could be tenor or bass drums.  A cello solo introduces the main theme in a four bar phrase, which is constructed out of the driving lower string accompaniment:

I’ve notated the work in 12/8 rather than the more typical 3/4 for a specific reason: the main theme has a doubled pulse of four, appearing over the three-pulse rhythmic cell.  I could have notated it in 3/4, but it makes far more sense to notate this in compound time.

Back to the music.  The four-bar theme is doubled by a viola, who plays the occasional ornament  around the theme. The theme repeats again, legato, on full string section; it is varied rhythmically in the 5th and 6th bar.  Finally the theme is extended, first on middle violin range, and then up the octave.  The credits conclude with the rhythmic cell now played on a plucked zither instrument – either harpsichord, dulcimer, psaltery or a zither.  Here’s the ‘official’ show open – sometimes credits show a slight variance, with an extra two beats added during one of the sections.

Harmonically, the arrangement is in C natural minor, with a naturalised Eb in the second bar, for some presumed ‘effect’.  The use of a natural minor is used, presumably, to evoke a pre-modern musical system – it conforms more readily to our imaginings of church modes, and a more ancient Western musical system.

Having explained all of this in such detail, you might be tempted to ask me why I find this theme so lacklustre, so unrelated to the actual series.  The answer is simply this: it is stock-standard-derivative, boring in the extreme, and everything that Game of Thrones is not. Eeach device used by the composer is meant to evoke the unattainable quasi-mediaeval world of fantasy.  But the blunt, unsubtle and ham-fisted manner of using such clichés in abundance just disappoints. It certainly sounds like an accompaniment to a fantasy game for Xbox. But the theme to Game of Thrones (the HBO series) is an unsatisfactory pastiche of stock mediaeval/fantasy musical devices, cobbled together in a truly predictable and disappointing manner. It’s a shame: HBO usually does a lot better with their musical accompaniment. I’m guessing that the expression on Ned Stark’s face below came just after he heard the theme …

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Mad Men music

I’ve been indulging in a Mad Men marathon. Many friends and acquaintances have recommended the series to me, so I  watched all 52 episodes over the past few weeks – a visual distraction and personal reward after the submission of my dissertation. The show is a visual feast – a glorious tribute to the glamour, style and aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s. But more than this, it is a multivalent feast to my ears, beginning with the opening music and credits.

The theme music is a small sample of the instrumental track, “A Beautiful Mine” by the producer/DJ/musician RJD2, who produces some really interesting funk/hip-hop/electronica (see http://www.myspace.com/rjd2).  The choice of artist is matched by an equally engrossing visual: a silhouetted male executive approaches his office, attaché case firmly clasped in his right hand.  As he takes a few final steps and places his case on the floor, what appears to be advertising boards begin to fall, closely followed by the entire office falling (some say it melts away).  Cut to the next image: the silhouetted man is free-falling past huge glass skyscrapers, covered in stylised advertising imagery.  According to Gary Edgerton (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2009/04/19/falling-man-and-mad-men-154), the images include seductive women, whiskey, hackneyed advertising slogans, a nuclear family, hands wearing wedding rings and four vintage photographs – as Edgerton so rightly points out, “a lot going on in just thirty-six seconds”.

As deceptively simple as the music may appear on the surface, a lot is going on not only in the imagery, but also in the music, and that this element also plays a crucial covert imprimatur for setting the scene of the entire series. In support of this hypthesis, let’s to Matthew Weiner, the creator and Executive Producer of the series.  Weiner discusses the opening sequence for the program “Inside Media at the Paley Center: Top TV Stars in their own words” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqX_WMNi_gM).  In the interview, he states that the initial concept for the opening sequence involved the live action of a man jumping out of a window and freezing the frame with a title coming up.  This idea was put to the network (AMC), and they came back with justifiable objections on the ground of feasibility. In relating this story, Weiner expresses a sense of respect at this reaction, seeing it as an indication of the the interest and commitment of the studio.  He goes on to explain the consequent rigorous process of refinement for the concept of the opening sequence, leading to the stylized end result.  Then comes the crucial statement regarding the music:

“… and then I heard this piece of music on the radio, that kind of was like everything. Once we got the piece of music … and the image at the end of the titles was in the presentation that they gave us, and it was a cut out of that shot that Alan Taylor and Phil Abraham constructed for the opening of the pilot.  Once I saw that image I’m like ‘we want to work to this’ …”

Weinberg goes on to explain that the imagery on the buildings was about the internalized fears to be found within the faceless silhouette; and that the image of falling man, while perhaps still a raw image in public consciousness after 9/11, was even more a uniquely American symbol from an earlier era.

My writing here is not going to enter the debate on the iconography of the falling man in the opening sequence and its relationship to the erased image of the falling man in 9/11 photography (airbrushed out of press reports after countless objections); nor the more obvious reference to iconic newspaper reports of suicidal actions of stockbrokers and businessmen during the 1929 crash.  You can read about that stuff on Gary Edgerton’s post, and the comments following his article are engaging and interesting. What really interests me is the process of hearing RJD2’s track on the radio crystallized the abstract concepts in Weinberg – to reiterate his words, “then I heard this piece of music on the radio, that kind of was like everything“. What is it in the track that makes this music serve so well its programmatic context? How does the music reflect the imagery and metaphor that makes up the opening credits?

Initially the instrumentation appears traditional: for the first four measures we hear a string quartet, with the addition of a subtle rhythmic pattern on the closed high-hat cymbals, with an occasional open cymbal punctuation towards the end of the pattern.  A very subtle synthesized element is added at the sustained last note, conjuring in our audial imagination the slowed-down pattern of some sort of automated machine (timed with the image of a fan).  As soon as one notices this, a fairly complex rhythmic pattern is introduced (full drum kit and bongo accompaniment).  The quartet reiterates the four bar pattern without modification underneath this new rhythmic movement, as a harp figure cuts a counter-melody in what appears to be a coda.  The music concludes with a tonic pedal note, movement in the string bass and then a final iteration of the last two bars of the string pattern.

Harmonically and melodically, the music appears very conventional.  The accent on the suspended melodic pattern is a figure known in conventional musicology as an appoggiatura – each note is leaning towards resolution on the following note.  There is a rising bass which switches octaves unexpectedly; the harp’s counter-melody spans a large range with some pleasant dissonances.  The most interesting dissonance is in the concluding chord – an added diminished 7th gives an air of unease.

Overall then, the music presents a solid conventional structure constantly being undermined by subtleties and counter-claims: the ground is shifting.  What appears at first to be a very clever, snappy quasi-classical offering, morphs into something far less stable.  The addition of a rhythmic section that sounds live (but feels grounded in an electronic rhythmic genre) undercuts the expectation of a traditional presentation.  We expect some sort of rhythmic syncopation in the string section when the percussion is introduced, but the strings continue on intransigently, jarring against the new rhythmic form and making us even question if they are ‘acoustic’ or acting as a sample for the greater work.  The harp counter-melody parallels the fall of the the string melody, but in a completely different and unpredictable way.  Synthesized sounds take us further out of the comfort zone, and the final harmonic clash completes the feeling of unease, uncertainty and displacement.

All of this music contributes to my perspective of Mad Men as a show about displacement, unease and uncertainty. For all intents and purposes, the primary characters present as insiders, but underneath they embody the turbulent changing times. Don Draper is the consummate slick, intelligent and handsome WASP advertising man, a war veteran and self-made man. But the writers have drawn a character that hovers precariously between self-made and invented.  Peggy Olsen challenges the stereotypes and negotiates her way to a position of power, constantly compromising her own inner independence because of necessity in this very male, very heterosexual world. These are the characters of greatest interest in the script, although there are many other minor characters who also encapsulate such tensions.  What is most wonderful about the music is that embedded within it is the kernel of dissemblance that operates to unite this brilliant, engaging work.  A final word about music: one of the aspects of Mad Men I most appreciate is the space for silence and words, away from some sort of dull musackal undertone that seems to be present in so many of today’s dramas and comedies.  It allows us to appreciate the very fine writing for what it is, without unnecessary distraction.  This feature alone deserves praise …

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