Music inspired by birdsong (Part 3): Birds in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, known as his ‘Pastoral’ symphony, has moments when the music is explicitly depicting sounds from nature. The fourth movement, for example, re-enacts a thunderstorm: beginning with droplets of rain (short, fast violin notes) and distant thunder (timpani rolls), it builds to thunderclaps and lightning (timpani hits followed by single loud woodwind chords) before subsiding to gentler music again as the storm recedes. Knowing that Beethoven was taking great care to create nature realism in this symphony, it nevertheless took me by surprise when I turned my attention to the famous section of birdsong towards the end of the second movement, and realised just how closely Beethoven was re-creating the actual birdsong he would have heard on his walks in the countryside.

The clue was probably in the fact that Beethoven names the birds in his score. In the flute line we read “Nachtigall” (nightingale), the oboe is labelled “Wachtel” (quail), and the clarinets are the “Kukuk” (cuckoo) [1].

And in excerpt (having transposed the Bb clarinets to C instruments):

So here is my  rendition of Beethoven’s score for birds (at this point in the score, all the other instruments have stopped playing). 

Granted, I’d already spotted that the two clarinets, playing in unison, are extremely cuckoo-like. Surely, this has to be the most recognisable bird in the history of music. Two notes, usually in a falling interval of a minor third. There’s even a musical instrument called the cuckoo, which plays these two notes, and makes a solo appearance in the ‘Toy Symphony’ (composed by Leopold Mozart…or Franz Josef Haydn…no-one’s quite sure).

Here is Beethoven’s clarinet cuckoo, followed by a cuckoo that was recorded in June 2019 that sounds pretty similar. (Yes, I did deliberately choose a recording of the cuckoo at the same pitches).

Ireneusz Oleksik, XC478852. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/478852.

Composers actually vary in which musical interval they use to depict their cuckoos. Here, Beethoven is using a falling major third, but elsewhere in music it has been a minor third (Leopold Mozart/Haydn’s Toy Symphony), or even a perfect fourth (Mahler’s first Symphony). The actual musical interval, it turns out, is seasonal. The falling minor third is generally the sound made by a cuckoo in spring, but this interval tends to widen to a major third, then later a fourth as the season progresses. (I should add, this listening is made by people with ears acclimatised to Western classical music, no doubt making microtonal shifts in order to ‘resolve’ them into classical intervals). So it would seem that Beethoven’s cuckoo was heard slightly later in the season than early spring, as was the example given above (it was recorded in June), and the famous Pastoral symphony storm was probably a summer storm rather than spring storm.

Having readily identified the cuckoo, my curiosity was piqued by wondering (as a relative newbie to learning to identify birdsongs) what a quail actually sounds like. Imagine my delight when I discovered this wonderful three note call, in the distinctive dotted rhythm scored by Beethoven, in quail recordings. Also, pretty much all of the quail recordings I auditioned in xeno-canto.org were pitched at or close to this high D chosen by Beethoven. (Although multiple harmonics are present and it can be difficult to determine which is loudest.) Here’s the oboe part, followed by a quail recording.

Joost van Bruggen, XC483556. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/483556.

Freshly emboldened by my success, I now turn to the nightingale. The nightingale has a complex and rich repertoire of calls, songs and phrases. Here’s how Simon Barnes describes it in his book ‘Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed’ [2]. First he points out that in one study a male nightingale demonstrated 250 different phrases, using a repertoire of 600 song units. Hmmm. Finding Beethoven’s phrase could prove tricky. But then he points to two ‘basic and unmistakable bits of nightingale song: the first, an unbelievably clear and passionate whistling, short notes that gather in intensity and volume’. (The second is a ‘deep, throbbing drumming’.) Is the first what we have here? Here’s Beethoven’s flute nightingale again:

This recording of a nightingale (in Germany) appears to start the whistling phrase after about three seconds. It gets louder, speeds up, and erupts into energetic trilling.

Stephan Risch, XC568090. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/568090.

I find myself wondering if Beethoven’s choice of birds in his Sixth Symphony (completed in 1808) was influenced by the Toy Symphony (perhaps written in the 1760s)? After all, he studied composition with Haydn, in Vienna. As well as the cuckoo, the Toy Symphony also features a part for quail and nightingale, which can also be played on dedicated musical instruments built to simulate these birds. (The nightingale is a strange affair involving blowing into a small canister containing water, and the resulting bubbling whistle sounds like a nightingale trill). The Toy Symphony composer scores the nightingale as just a trill, and the quail as the distinctive three notes in dotted rhythm [3].

As for Beethoven’s instrumentation in the Pastoral symphony, he chose unison clarinets for his cuckoo. The instrument makes a lower sound than the flute, and when played quietly has a pure timbre that perhaps suggests a more diffuse sound coming from a distance? Why two clarinets, and not soloists, like the other birds? Two instruments create a different timbre compared to one soloist. Perhaps the ‘chorus’ effect in his instrumentation suggests the slight echoey effect of a distant cuckoo sound echoing through a forest? The quail, however, makes a more strident sound, better suited to the strong tonguing attack an oboist would need in order to reach those Ds in a somewhat high register for the instrument. And flute for the nightingale seems the obvious choice for the whistling phrase Beethoven chose to score. But perhaps a composer would need to use many more effects if they wished to represent more sounds from this bird’s vast repertoire, such as a flautist slapping their fingers down on the flute’s keys to make the clicking beats that feature in nightingale song.

One final point. The second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony is entitled ‘Szene am Bach’ (Scene by the brook) and begins with gentle repeating string phrases that imitate flowing water. I am reminded of the opening of Daphnis and Chloe (Suite 2) — see part one — which also simulates a flowing brook but through woodwind and harp repeating ‘bubbling’ phrases, and with programmatic elements also written into the score such as ‘On percoit des chants d’oiseaux’ (we hear birdsong).

 

[1] First Edition Score from Breitkopf & Hartel (Leipzig), from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

[2] Simon Barnes: Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed. Published by Short Books, 2011, quotation from page 258.

[3] Score from Breitkopf & Hartel, Haydn Kinder-Symphonie, from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

Music inspired by birdsong (Part Two): Tweets, trills and flourishes.

In Part One of this series, (Generic bird sounds in flute music), we looked at some of the musical devices used by composers to represent the sounds of birds, using examples from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (Suite No.2). In this post, I’ll take three of these devices (grace notes, trills and flourishes) and offer examples from real birds that may have inspired these musical sounds, alongside how they would sound as I play them on the piccolo. It’s worth mentioning at this point a few things about using birdsong in music: birds sing incredibly fast and at much higher pitches than we find easy to follow or play, they don’t sing in discrete musical pitches that comply neatly with our Western musical system of tones and semitones, and they don’t observe regular beats with regular subdivisions. Having said that, let’s plough on looking at musical devices that represent them in music!

1. The first is the grace note. We usually see it written in notation as a very small quaver note with a slash through it, leading into a main note.

It has to be played very quickly, just before the main note, sort of squashed in before it, with the first note tongued but then slurring into the second. Here are a few piccolo examples of the above.

To me, these two notes (grace note followed by main note) is your universal generic ‘tweet’. Compare it to a house sparrow. In this audio, each chirp is not just a single pitch, but begins with a higher-pitched, more strongly attacked sound that moves down. It’s actually more of a chir-rup than a chirp.

[Pere Josa, XC600002. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/600002]

And here’s my attempt to reproduce what I’m hearing in the above audio, played on the piccolo. I’ve moved it to much higher notes to more accurately imitate the actual frequencies.

And again, this time with the piccolo and sparrow recording combined…

2. Trills involve alternating between two adjacent notes very quickly. On a flute it’s usually a case of lifting and replacing one finger very rapidly (it should look like a motion blur). It’s written with the trill abbreviation ‘tr’ above the note, and a wavy line.

And here are examples of this, played on the piccolo.

Trilling is so common to birdsong it is even part of the birdsong descriptive language. I’ve chosen the wren for my comparison because of the way a wren’s song is almost always described as having the distinctive trill at the end of its song (as well as being incredibly loud).

[Jacek Betleja, XC632487. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/632487]

To me, I’m actually hearing several trills in succession, at different speeds. When it came to reproducing this song on the piccolo, I actually played trills for the slower alternating sounds, but for the buzzy trill towards the end, (presumably the ‘distinctive trill’ everyone is referring to), I opted for a flutter-tongue technique (see future post). My fingers simply could go fast enough. Hats off to the wren!

And the two recordings combined:

3. For a flourish, the notation is usually a stream of short notes, beamed together, which must take place within the given duration. Here’s the example from Daphnis and Chloe, followed by my flute rendition.

For this comparison, I’m thinking of a blackbird, with its beautiful fluid flutey phrases.

[David Tattersley, XC629598. Accessible at https://www.xeno-canto.org/629598]

As I made the piccolo rendition, there were moments that reminded me strongly of the opening of Messiaen’s flute piece ‘Le Merle Noir’ (‘The Blackbird’). (Watch this space for a future post!)

Here’s the piccolo:

And, again, combined with the original audio I was copying:

So, here’s what I learned as I did this exercise. Birdsong is fabulous! Trying to copy their song with regular beats and pitches feels almost mechanical. And yet, as a composer, there was something liberating about attempting to copy it, as if I was somehow being freed from the limitations of Western music and its notation! Part three to follow soon!

Music inspired by birdsong (Part One): Generic bird sounds in flute music

Depicting birdsong in music seems wonderfully obvious; birdsong has pitch, rhythm, structure, repetition, and timbre – the components that make up music. We perceive the sounds of songbirds as musical. Anthropomorphically, we call it song. Composers through the centuries have used birdsong in music to symbolise the idyllic dream, the beautiful rural landscape, the escape into nature that benefits our mental health. (The fact that birdsong is actually about territorial wars and attracting mates is conveniently absent.)

Using the flute to depict birdsong is also obvious: the flute’s high pitch, the easy virtuosity (trills, runs, and grace notes come more naturally to playing the flute than, say, the trombone – sorry, trombonists) and the flute’s birdy timbre makes it the obvious choice to represent birdsong in music. Give the score a handful of flute trills, pop some grace notes in here and there, and we know we’re in the countryside, and there are birds present.

Before I became fascinated by the actual songs of birds themselves, I also took this rather general approach. To me, birds made generic bird sounds: tweets, trills, and whistles. ‘Birdsong’ was an umbrella term that included anything birdy, and could be created through musical devices such as grace notes, trills, flourishes and repeating notes.

A fantastic example is found in one of my favourite pieces, Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ (Suite 2), completed in 1912. Ravel’s orchestration uses a piccolo, flute and three solo violins to depict the birds in a dawn chorus.

Here’s an excerpt of the piccolo part (petite flute 1)1: The player begins playing in the third bar after figure 156 (the small notes before that are cued cello notes, to help the performer know when to come in). It would sound an octave higher than written. In this section, we can see grace notes, flourishes, repeated notes and trills; four effects that composers have traditionally used to recreate birdsong:

Here’s a rendition of how that part would sound on its own2.

(Frankly, it can be disheartening as an orchestral player when you realise just how quiet you are in the mix from the audience’s position of listening. It sounds so much louder from where you’re sitting in the middle of the orchestra.) 

But, master orchestrator that he is, Ravel takes his score a little further. After the piccolo has started, the flute joins in with a new effect: flutter-tonguing (rolling an ‘r’ while simultaneously playing a note), which captures the raspy sound sometimes heard in birdsong. (It’s the last note of this bar).

Flute 1

Here’s how this sounds on its own3.

At the same time, three solo violins are playing three different sets of harmonic notes, simultaneously, which simulate the sound of a single bird whose tone includes multiphonics (more than one pitch sounding at a time).

Heard in the full orchestral context, the birds are harder to pick out individually, being just one in a chorus of nature sounds, including a bubbling brook effect. In the orchestral version linked below, the three violins begin their harmonics at 39 seconds, the piccolo bird can be heard at 43 seconds, and the flute bird begins at 53 seconds, with the flutter-tongue notes at 57 seconds.

To me, this passage is possibly one of the most sublime orchestral renditions of sounds in nature in the history of Western music. However, stunning though the music is, to an ornitholgist the bird sounds themselves might be unsatisfyingly generic. I certainly wouldn’t be able to identify exactly which types of birds might have been singing here. (If anyone can make suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear from you.)

In further posts in this series, I will look at music inspired by composers who had really listened to the songs of individual birds and created music based on recognisable features, albeit stylised, of actual bird songs, rather than using generic birdsong effects. But before that, I will be taking the musical devices discussed above (such as trills and grace notes), and comparing instrumental audio renditions with audio examples of birds tweeting, trilling and whistling that might have inspired the devices, as a direct comparison.

 

1 All scores: Publisher: Paris: Durand, 1913, from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (public domain).

2 Yeah, OK, it’s me (Fiona Taylor) playing this. I’m probably a bit rusty after all this time…

3 Also me playing.

Meeting a Cameraman for Iguana vs Racer Snakes

IMG_20191019_183341At a recent zoology conference I attended (TetZooCon), one of the guest speakers was wildlife cinematographer Paul Stewart.

Now, I am someone who has watched the Racer Snakes vs Iguana sequence from Planet Earth 2 multiple times, analysed how the music fits the visuals, blogged about it three times (part 1, part 2, part 3), marvelled at the editing, and wondered about the awesome camera work. So, it was a very exciting moment when I realised that Paul was one of the actual cameramen (camera operators? cinematographers?) for the footage, working alongside cameraman Richard Wollocombe.

I actually felt a bit like a fangirl, requesting that he pose with me for a photo, and asking questions about how certain bits of the sequence were filmed. In particular, I was keen to know about the section where, to me, it had seemed the camera person had overshot slightly while tracking a running iguana, because it had been caught by snakes very unexpectedly, and had to swing back slightly to catch the action. Paul confirmed it had been very sudden, that particular moment lasting only about 4 seconds.

I also got a bit of an insight into the lives of people involved in filming it. Teams visited the Galapagos across two years, clocking up about 400 hours of field time, sometimes staying on the island itself in inhospitable and dangerous conditions, for a sequence edited down to less than 9 minutes. (Admittedly it did win a BAFTA).

 

Scoring a fly playing marimba!

This summer, I spent a lot of time watching and filming insects in my garden. (A short excerpt is below, followed by the full film, ‘Insects’).

The part I enjoyed most was scoring the 15 second sequence of a fly on a flower, playing marimba. First it is approached by another fly (ominous French horns over a pedal bass). It raises its wings defensively (tremolando violins), fends off an attack (timpani roll), wipes its feet (hands?) together gleefully (violin pizzicato), then resumes its marimba playing while also continuing wiping its hands of its attacker.

Perhaps a little too much anthropomorphism?

Scoring a dancing leaf video

A few years ago, I was searching YouTube for a video to practise scoring music to. In particular, I was looking for expressive visual movements that could translate into music, a little bit like a dancer might move spontaneously to music, but the other way round.

This connection across the modes is at the heart of how non-verbal interactions between a mother (or primary care-giver) and child might occur, for example, in the way a baby’s excited arm waving might be matched in the mother’s excited tone of voice. These sorts of connections move me, it feels very human, recognising expressive connections across the modes.

The video I eventually found was called ‘Dancing leaf in the autumn forest’ and was posted back in 2014. And there’s a story behind it being filmed….but first the video.

It has a perfect set of random and natural movements; sometimes the leaf is gently swaying in the breeze, suspended presumably on a strand of spider’s web. Sometimes the breeze causes the leaf to appear to dance, sometimes the twirling and spinning speeds up, then it slows down again and starts gently rocking.

From an emotional point of view, it also carries a certain sadness to it: the leaf looks fragile, it’s a brown, dead, autumn leaf, in a damp looking forest, caught on a strand of spider’s silk….dancing alone.

I scored the music by watching it a few times, then improvising at the piano, in one take, as I watched it on screen, and responded to what I saw. Then I added some strings and woodwind (I’m a flute-player). The resulting music received, for me, the highest accolade I can get – a group of professional and student composers (on the ThinkSpace course in Chichester) said it made them want to cry. (Yes! This is my life’s ambition – to make people cry).

But the fact is, it’s a gorgeous video. Beautifully framed, filmed by someone who obviously has an an eye for the artistry of what they were witnessing. Which is why it came as no surprise that when I approached “GullwingPhoto” (who posted this video) to ask for permission to post it here, I discovered that he is a professional photographer who specialises in photographing musicians!

http://www.gullwingphotography.co.uk/music/

Guy Carpenter, the photographer, remembers filming it, saying “I…just shot with my phone while out on a run in the woods, years ago! It was rather a beautiful sight though, spinning away”.

Thank you, Guy. So inspiring!

Musical story-telling in Racer Snakes vs Iguanas (Part 3)

iguana

Photograph: Charles J Sharp

This blog post is about 25 seconds of music, (beginning at 24 mins 45 seconds of the BBC Planet Earth 2, ‘Islands’ episode) [1] and features the climactic ‘near miraculous escape’ of an iguana from racer snakes. The music tells this story with breathless clarity.

Because of the story so far (see part 1 and part 2), we are now rooting for the iguana with heightened emotional involvement. Director Liz White described it as ‘a big, emotional piece where people are going to feel like they’re rooting for a character’. [2] The melody rises, the iguana ascends the rocks, our hope rises. We are drawn into the growing possibility that the miraculous escape may actually happen: we are now emotionally engaged in the outcome.

Firstly, the tempo has changed: the composers have increased the speed of this (and the previous action sequence) by about 12 beats per minute, from around 138 bpm in the first three action sequences, now up to 150 bpm. The emotional message is increased energy, like our heart-beat stepping up to meet additional extreme tension.

The percussive action rhythms and string paired spiccato repeating notes are now joined by the epic sound of French horns. Brass is the sound of the action hero, the fanfare is the sound of celebrating victory; our iguana is a brave little soul, battling against the odds for survival.

The harmonies have gone from being the somewhat static sound of pedal notes and drones, to the moving and developing chords of noble endeavour. We move between F# major and F# minor and alternate between two alternative chord sixes, D# major and D major (I’m spelling it as Eb for ease of reading); this tells us the outcome is not yet certain and yet the heroic sounding brass is positive – we are gaining hope.

Screen Shot 2019-06-27 at 06.49.59              F# minor                    Eb (or D#) major       F# major                      F# minor

Screen Shot 2019-06-27 at 06.50.09                D major                                            F# minor

We hear a similar spirit in the opening brass chords of Sibelius’s Finlandia (written to express heroic patriotism and protest) which also includes the changes from major to its minor chord, and the use of two alternative chord sixes (natural and raised).

The sense of growing hope is reinforced through the rising melody, played in soaring strings. Each time the melody moves upwards through a passing note, it uses a raised fourth note from the scale, (from the Lydian mode), a sound which is thoroughly associated with wonder, mystery and the miraculous. Add to this the human touch: admittedly low in the mix, the Hollywood-style chorus of voices is now supporting the rising string melody. This epic struggle is now about us, as humans. We fight to achieve, to overcome, to survive.

And then the best moment (for me) of all: the climax of this rising melody is not a blazing triumphant chord to announce the arrival of the iguana to safety, but a drop-out of music to an eerie-sounding gong, lots of reverb and a faint hint of a final drone, (the tonic F# – neither major nor minor). This dropping out of music instead of a climax was foreshadowed when the iguana failed to make it to the rocks (24 mins 09) at which point the composers gave us a rising phrase that failed to resolve. It is therefore not an unsatisfying surprise to have no triumphant arrival in the music, but a reinforcement of the story that the life of these creatures is harsh. One miraculous moment of survival, yes, but a life-time of danger still to come.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p048sflc/planet-earth-ii-1-islands

[2] https://www.vulture.com/2017/02/planet-earth-ii-iguana-snakes-scene-story.html

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE0RbPsC9uE

Using unusual sounds to create music

Lots of composers are at it! Taking the audio files of unusual sounds and manipulating and processing them (using computer software) to produce new and distinctively different-sounding music.

I first became aware of this as a digital composing technique in the songs of Imogen Heap (in her album ‘Sparks’). For example, in the track ‘Telemiscommunications‘, we hear a series of pops, pings and clicks which are structured by some beautiful piano chords and evolving drones. In ‘The Listening Chair‘, all the sounds come from her voice, from which she creates rhythms, pitch slides, reversed sounds and echo effects. In the track ‘Lifeline‘ she invited fans to send her audio clips to incorporate, and includes the heartbeat of a baby in the womb and a slinky going down some stairs.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir created the entire score for the HBO mini-series ‘Chernobyl’ [1] by using the sounds she and her team recorded in a power plant in Lithuania. In it we hear highly processed sounds that contain both rhythm and pitch.

‘Planet Earth II’ composers Jasha Klebe and Jacob Shea had access to the natural sounds that the directors had been recording in the wild, incorporating them into the score in a way that ‘blurred the lines between what were natural sounds and what was music’ [2]. Wind sounds from the tops of mountain were shaped into pitches and incorporated into the score for the ‘Mountains’ episode, rustling grass from was turned into a percussion instrument for the ‘Grasslands’, and the sound of swarming locusts made it into the score for ‘Deserts’.

Christian Henson shows how to process the sound of rain to create pitched, fantastic ethereal sounds. [3]

I wanted a go: so I took, as my source audio, the clacketty sound you get when slamming fingers down on the flute (without blowing).

I then copied it twice, to create three tracks, and put different effects on each track: such as EQ, compression, pitch shift, tremolo, stereo delay, and distortion (guitar amp), later adding reversed celesta, with tremolo and high pass filter to capture the ticking sound (I’m using Logic Pro X).

Digital Audio Workstations – fun toys to play with!

Musical story-telling in Racer Snakes vs Iguanas (Part 2)

iguana

Photograph: Charles J Sharp

As mentioned in part one, the music for Racer Snakes vs Iguanas falls into five sections, each section consisting of tension music followed by sudden action music. In part one, a hatchling emerged, was chased by racer snakes, but ultimately achieved safety on top of the rock by the sea.

The next four sections tell more stories. Starting with tension, (a low B drone at 22 mins 10), the scene is set for the next baby iguana to attempt the journey. But first, a tiny metallic sound cuts through the musical mix as we see a dead creature on the sand, leading us to feel horror at the thought of death by snakes. We are reminded that, although the snakes missed their chance to capture the first hatchling, sometimes they are successful; the softer low string note that follows is warmer and more expressive as our eye is drawn to the next iguana, suggesting a sense of compassion for the baby that is facing such a harsh life.

For a group of snakes waiting, motionless but alert (22 mins 25), the B bass note drops away and a strange, faint alternating pair of tones cuts through, like a very distant siren; an alarm. It gives a sense of being suspended in mid air, as if we are holding our breath. More associations follow: the music now has a passing resemblance to the John Williams’s score for the famous snakes scene in ‘Indiana Jones’: both feature faint rattling sounds (perhaps suggesting rattle snakes?), notes sliding upwards in pitch, atonality (no steady tonality), and no pulse. The sound of instruments sliding upwards, traditionally a glissando on violins, is the stuff of cinematic horror. We all associate this with previously heard tension soundtracks, but may also recognise in the music, perhaps subliminally, what growing panic feels like: as our body physically prepares for attack, with adrenaline causing our hairs to stand up on end (like the upwards pitch bend) and the sense of insecurity (no tonality) and time slowing down (no pulse).

As the hatchling pauses to look round and a snake immediately freezes, the music also pauses. The music is inviting us to become emotionally invested in every movement, every tense wait, and every sudden spring into action. This time, the action music has a tonality (before it was just percussive), firmly established in Ab minor (or G# minor…I haven’t seen the notation!).

Here are the conventions of cinematic action music; over pounding percussion, a tune in a strongly minor tonality (Ab minor) is played in fast pairs of notes played by violins and violas using a bowing technique called spiccato (in which the high-speed bow appears to bounce off the string).Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 17.01.18

Erupting from silence, the effect is one of heightened excitement and energy. This hatchling reaches the rocks, but the music informs us it is still in danger. The pounding music momentarily changes to tremolando string notes (where the bow moves backwards and forwards incredibly fast) producing a sound reminiscent of the physical sensation of trembling. The bass note is a D, a tritone away from the Ab tonality, a pairing of notes that are the least stable tonally. This time the iguana is caught by snakes, but instead of pausing with tense music, the action music resumes, another hatchling races forward, is caught, and then another tries. As the music presses onwards through each of these captures, we feel the breathless pace of these attempts, edited to occur one after another. We sense that maybe even the camera operator was surprised by the second capture, having visually tracked further to the left after the attack happened.

It’s when the next iguana is caught that the music draws back onto a new drone, on Eb, (23 mins 18) with a single deep ‘thump’ similar to those we often hear in movie trailers. This is the feeling of our heart ‘missing a beat’. When the bass lowers to a C for an extended stretch of tension music (the third section), there is a brassy edge to the note, suggestive of the ‘Braaam’ sound which, since the film ‘Inception‘, has become the ubiquitous sound of the Hollywood dystopian nightmare. This tension section is longer than the others and has a stillness to the low note, and little narration. We, the audience, now know what might happen. We have been invited to watch the images of murderous writhing snakes through the eyes of an emerging hatchling. The wait heightens the tension further (although I notice the music in the TV album soundtrack is cut by approximately 14 seconds at this point).

For the next chase, the action music is now in F minor (23 mins 59), lower than before. As the iguana fails to make it to the rocks, the music also fails to resolve from a rising phrase (24 mins 09). The final F is missing, but slowly emerges as another held drone note.

Screen Shot 2019-06-14 at 18.37.08

The tension/waiting sequence that follows features an extraordinary shot of five snakes simultaneously straining forward (24 mins 12). The musical drone that marks this moment includes an almost ‘slurping sound’ mixed in (suggesting death by squashing?), as well as a menacing gong with a long reverb, and the beginning of a slow bass note descent from Ab to G to C.Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 18.59.47The effect is dark and full of foreboding. Anyone who is a fan of Rachmaninoff will recognise in these notes (when transposed up a semitone) the long slow opening of the C# minor Prelude, with a similar feeling of darkness and creeping danger. A stillness comes over this bass note, C. The iguana must hold its nerve keeping still.

A crescendo leads into, not action music, but a moment of silence, as it breaks into a run (we hear just the sound of its feet on the gravel). These touches of withholding hearing what we’re expecting keep our attention finely tuned for any eventuality – there is not a predictable moment in the whole sequence. Instead of action music, three slow strikes on the drum, as new snakes slither out of a hole in the rock, like the sounding of a death toll. Again, the sound of horror: string sounds sliding upwards, a brassy sound sinking downwards in pitch. Here, we are invited not to feel the exhilaration of a chase, but a horror of the pursuers. (The iguana now appears to be being chased by eight snakes.) Director Liz White describes how the music for the whole iguana/snake sequence was the one the composers ‘really, really had to work on to get it just right’, and that they did a fantastic job of getting ‘the right amount of tension’. [1]

When the music finally reverts to the chase action theme, it is now in F# minor, a semitone higher than before, subliminally giving it a feel of increased energy. Just as the iguana’s run is interrupted by a sudden capture, so the action music is halted abruptly, and a tense D minor drone creeps in, with rising strings notes representing the snakes. However, this morphs into D major, a more hopeful-sounding tonality, as the iguana, amazingly, escapes their grip.

It is in the fifth and final action sequence that the truly epic nature of this cinematic music is revealed. I would like to describe its story-telling power in part 3.

 

Musical story-telling in Racer Snakes vs Iguanas (Part 1)

iguana

Photograph: Charles J Sharp

 

Analysing the music of Racer Snakes vs Iguanas: how is it telling the story? (Part 1)

We all know the sequence of racer snakes chasing iguanas from the BBC’s Planet Earth 2 is breath-taking (if you haven’t seen it yet, check it out!). It won the ‘Must-see Moment’ BAFTA award in 2017.
But what part is the music playing in this emotional roller-coaster? The director, Liz White, admitted that ‘If you watch it without the music, it hasn’t got anywhere near as much impact,’ [1] (a comment reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s claim that Hitchcock only finished his films to 60%, but that his music had ‘to finish it for him’) [2].
The composers are Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe (with the main title music by Hans Zimmer), and both have a background in writing for Hollywood cinema. Yet for Jasha Klebe, the iguana scene, with its ‘phenomenal editing’, was ‘a chase scene that beats any Hollywood movie out there’ [3] and for Jacob Shea, this moment was ‘a harrowing, post-apocalyptic chase scene like no other’.[4]

This article is not an exhaustive analysis. Rather, it presents a selection of some of the musical techniques that these composers have used to tell the story of this incredibly exciting and engaging sequence.

With our first glimpse of an emerging hatchling iguana (20 mins 58 seconds into the episode ‘Islands’), David Attenborough is explaining that these hatchlings are ‘vulnerable’. This is accompanied by two long chords – D minor followed by B minor (also the beginning of the TV soundtrack album version).

Dm:Bm

D minor                            B minor

Several musical techniques support this word ‘vulnerable’.

– We hear no pulse – there is a sense of waiting, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
– The instrumentation is muted strings, lacking warmth and expression, giving the impression of frailty and tentativeness.
– There is no low bass instrument underpinning these chords, which leaves us feeling unsupported. – The first chord, D minor, is scored in ‘second inversion’ (D/A): instead of having the solid feel of the D as the lowest note, we feel suspended by having the A as the lowest note, giving the impression of being emotionally ungrounded.
– These two chords do not traditionally belong together in the same key. Chord VI in the key of D minor would normally be Bb major, but by choosing B minor the composers introduce a chromatic shift in the top note from F natural to F#, and this leaves us unsure about the overall tonality (what key we’re actually in). The first chord has an air of sadness, but the unsual shift of tonality introduces an element of suspense and impending threat.

The story begins – we are introduced to our ‘vulnerable’ main characters, and the music perfectly paints this scene.

Following the word ‘dangerous’, a low drone begins on the notes D and A (21 mins 17). Why do low drones sound so ominous? Perhaps we have a visceral reaction to low sounds because we associate them with threats such as thunder, or a growl, or earthquakes? John Williams exploits this effect with his shark theme in the film ‘Jaws’. This drone is not static, it is full of evolving sounds; sounds gently moving up and down in loudness and harmonic frequencies, a random throbbing effect that gives the impression of lurking danger, rather than death and desolation.

And then a hit point occurs – almost imperceptible (at 21 mins 30). At the split second the head of a racer snake appears far right of the screen, a quiet mid-range note (A ) enters. A second dissonant note above it (Bb) joins it, followed by another snake. Then a third note (C) is added, along with a third snake. Harsher, clashing notes begin, getting louder, as the snakes are getting closer and closer to the iguana. The story paints these snakes (who no doubt also have to eat) as the terrifying villains.

A sudden deep strike on a bass drum (at 21 mins 45) ushers in the first (of four) ‘action’ sequences, like a jump scare, as the iguana erupts into a sudden run for its life, chased by the snakes. The high-speed ticking sound in high percussion appears to match the speed of the iguana’s footsteps. Our emotional reaction is no doubt based on more associations: this is the classic sound of Hollywood action sequences, even down to the 1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2 pounding rhythms. But there are other associations based on physical human reactions; the fast pulse resembles our own speeding heart-rate during fight or flight; the accented percussion crashes feel random and unpredictable, therefore frightening because we cannot control them.

This unpredictability is enhanced by what feels like an additional two beats inserted after four bars of four beats of this ‘action’ rhythm. This results in a strong downbeat occurring precisely with a new close-up shot (21 mins 53), which also sounds slightly louder, as if we ourselves are simultaneously closer. Closely synchronising music with the images gives a sense of immediacy that the composers wanted, by making the audience feel they are right there with the characters, as they fight about life and death.[5]

The action music pauses as the first iguana reaches safety. But, interestingly, the music tells us that it isn’t reaching the rocks that signifies safety, but gettting his foot down firmly at the top. The pounding rhythms stop not when the iguana first jumps up onto the rocks, but in a slowing sequence marking each steady step to the top.

The iguanas and snakes story is told in five musical sections, each section consisting of tension music followed by sudden action music. (The music just described here was the first section of five). In the next part of this blog, I’ll look at the other sections.


[1] https://www.vulture.com/2017/02/planet-earth-ii-iguana-snakes-scene-story.html

[2] Royal S. Brown ‘Overtones and Undertones’, page 148.

[3] Interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwO3uRfrzAQ

[4] Interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pC-yUSAAiJM

[5] Interview – https://www.spin.com/2017/02/planet-earth-ii-composers-talk-music-david-attenboroughs-voice-interview/