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Is Bach playing? Look out!

When the composer's music arrives in a movie, it often means trouble. It's a psycho-killer favorite.

August 24, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

When the strains of classical music break into a movie, the music often plays the same role that a glass of chardonnay might on a first date: as a suggestion, however mild, of civilization, of "classiness." A sighing string instrument can connote genteel romantic love, like gauze covering the camera. In Merchant Ivory films, classical music represents a kind of well-upholstered high culture, piping through the soundtrack as Bentleys roll past deep green lawns to country homes.

But Kristi Brown, a musicologist at the Colburn School of the Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles, says the music of J.S. Bach often works differently. These days, when you hear Bach in a film, he tends to accompany serial killers, Nazis and mad scientists. One of an emerging group of scholars who study classical music's resonance in pop culture, Brown is looking at how movies borrow Bach's music for scenes of stabbings, flayings and falling bombs.

What intrigues her is the peek the movies offer into the contemporary American unconscious, into the way mass culture understands, or misunderstands, high culture. The pop associations, she says, are an important part of the music's meaning, even if the composer never intended his music to work this way.

"I became interested in the films that were violent and that had a certain kind of protagonist," says Brown, 39, a daughter of the Central Valley who's surely among the nation's perkiest musicologists. These protagonists, she says, tend toward geniuses driven mad by technology and rationalism, or exemplars of a decadent European culture who've had the morality burned out of them -- from Benson, the crazed computer scientist in "The Terminal Man" (1974), to the erudite and malevolent Hannibal Lecter of "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) and "Hannibal" (2001). Both men gruesomely kill, she points out, while playing the same piece, the 25th of Bach's "Goldberg Variations."

Other homicidal Bach lovers include the brilliant, shape-shifting title character in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999), who plays jazz to impress friends but favors "The Italian Concerto" when alone; the Nazis in "Schindler's List" (1993), who pause to play a Bach piano suite on their way to ransack a Jewish ghetto; and the brainy, technologically savvy serial killer in "Kiss the Girls" (1997), who gives a victim menacing advice on how to play Bach on the violin.

By all reports, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a good Lutheran who spent most of his life in a linden-lined Saxon town, playing organ, siring children and writing church music. Among his life's biggest conflicts was a disagreement with a provincial church over his embellishing of chorale music. He went, of course, from small-town obscurity to fame -- his compositions are as basic to classical music as the blues are to rock 'n' roll -- but only after his death, unaware of the dark associations he would provoke.

Most of the scholars interested in the way classical music resounds through pop culture's echo chamber are trained musicologists who draw from cultural studies and what's called reception theory, in which meaning comes from the way a "text" lands in the real world.

In May, Stanford University was the site of an international conference called "Reviewing the Canon: Borrowed Music in Films," at which scholars presented papers on the music in the "Godfather" films, the cinematic use of Gershwin and "Authentic Appalachia," and the BBC's kitschy altering of stock classical pieces for science-fiction programs in the low-budget 1950s and '60s. Tobias Plebuch, the Stanford professor who organized the conference, has written about Bach's organ music as a signifier of mad scientists in films such as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "The Black Cat."

A fledgling publication called the Journal of Film Music has also ventured into this area. This fall, the Illinois-based journal Beethoven Forum will publish an issue devoted to the use of Beethoven in movies; Brown is contributing a piece on his music in the Coen brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001).

Stephen Hinton, the chair of Stanford's music department and editor of Beethoven Forum, says he respects Brown's work because of her "ability to read the film in a very sensitive way" and her strong sense of humor. Film musicology, he says, has become "a very flourishing subdiscipline, just in the last few years."

"I'm interested in what music means when people use it," says Robynn Stilwell, a film musicologist at Georgetown University who's writing for the Beethoven journal and started on the subject with a 1997 paper on the composer's music in the 1988 movie "Die Hard."

"Musicology had told me that music didn't do anything, that it just is," she says. "But I knew from living in culture that music does things -- it's an actor." Stilwell is working on a book on the field.

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