Sunday, November 15, 2015

Wagner in Apocalypse Now

Fascinating piece by Walter Murch, film editor and sound designer on the movie Apocalypse Now, several other Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas films of the 70s, and a lot of other things. Murch tells about fitting Richard Wagner's Ride Of The Valkyries to the famous “Charlie's Point” scene in Apocalypse. A version conducted by Georg Solti, recorded in 1965, was chosen for the scene, and it was edited with that version. But late in the process the record label denied Coppola permission to use it, and Murch had to scramble to find an acceptable substitute, which turned out to be hugely problematic— none of the 19 available stereo recordings of the piece worked.

Here's the scene:

The entire piece is fascinating, but Murch has some things to say about rhythm that are very interesting:

The greatest conductors and orchestras, and Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic were certainly in that group, are able to shape these minute adjustments to the rhythmic signature so closely that they are perceived as regular but in fact are not, thus enhancing the organic, living and breathing nature of the music itself. The problem with many of the versions of “Valkyries” that I rejected was that they were monotonously rhythmic: A metronomic signature had been decided upon and stuck to, regardless of circumstance. The result was a robotic stagger, a simulation of musical life rather than the real thing. 
This is reflected in our intimate relationship with the rhythms of our own bodies, their heartbeat and breathing. We may think that most of the time our heartbeat is regular, but in fact it is not. It is constantly being micro (and sometimes macro) adjusted on a beat-to-beat basis, responding to neurological feedback between the heart, the brain, and the needs of the body for oxygenated blood. And the same applies to our rate of breathing, which is intimately related to our circulatory system. 
The medical term for a healthy but slightly irregular rhythm is “ectopic,” and it is our largely unconscious awareness of this dynamic pulse which reminds us that we are alive. In cases of medical emergency, that closely monitored feedback between the heart and the needs of the body is often weakened or severed, and a machine-like regularity of heartbeat appears, signaling trouble or impending death. 
Similarly, music that lacks this dynamic, quicksilver pulse is perceived, consciously or not, as lacking an essential spark of life. 
Solti’s conducting of the “Valkyries” was instead a sublime example of what we might call ectopic music—a powerful embodiment of the living, pulsing heart and breath of Wagner’s composition.

After the break we'll have the complete recordings of the different versions discussed in the article, and you can get a feel for what he's talking about yourself:

Here's Georg Solti's 1965 complete recording— in the film it was edited for the scene. It's not only slower than the other versions, but there is a little extra tension getting to each downbeat— just a slight time stretch. The others have an almost march-like quality by comparison.

Erich Leinsdorf's 1978 version, which Murch found to be the only possibly acceptable substitute for Solti's recording. Strange that they would have considered a version with no vocals— the scene certainly would've been weaker without them.

Here's Leonard Bernstein's NY Philharmonic recording, which must have been one that Murch listened to, and rejected. Obviously more driving rhythm here:

Leopold Stokowski's 1960 London Phil version. I believe it is a stereo recording, so it must also have been considered:

No comments: