​​'Sound on film' (i.e. the sound track physically attached to the film) began in 1929. It permitted a close synchronization of the music with the images on the screen. Very soon afterwards, composers of 'film music' took the approach of motivic writing, borrowing from Wagner’s operas, in which a character or an idea was given a specific musical motif, a short segment of two to six notes. The idea was that when the motive re-appeared, listeners would think of that character. This was the approach that Bernard Herrmann used in his scores for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Vertigo; John Williams followed in that line. 

The musical motive for the shark in Jaws is probably the most famous motif ever. The infamous two notes are a semitone apart and begin in the double basses. The motive represents a creature that is big, menacing, coming from the deep, and beginning to move faster.

The flexible, versatile motive could be sped up, slowed down, put in different ranges, turned upside down, and in short manipulated to express what the film needed. In fact, Williams does all of this in the course of the movie. Once, there is a false alarm (a cardboard fin) and we do not hear the musical motive; if we are paying close attention to the music at that point, we realize that it is a false alarm before even the characters know it.

Everyone knows the Jaws motive. Once I was on Waikiki Beach, looking out at the water, watching a war canoe come into shore. Swimmers were in the way. An islander stood in the front of the boat and blew a conch shell; no one moved. He began to play the shark motive from Jaws on the conch shell; immediately, the swimmers got out of his way. Indeed many people when they hear the motive, move their fingers back and forth imitating the flipping of the shark’s tail.

Shark attack--calling all double basses!
Photo Credit: Universal Studios 

The double basses worked hard to promulgate the motive in the lowest range followed by the lower brass instruments and then the rest of the orchestra. The audience paid much closer attention to the music than it would have done in an ordinary cinematic showing.

The balance and volume of the orchestra were very well chosen and maintained. The co-ordination of music and image in the second-half was razor sharp. The piano was employed with no lid and a large microphone clipped onto it. 

Altogether I found the performance very well undertaken; the audience was most appreciative. It is to be hoped that the TSO puts on more events like this.​

​Next up for the TSO is Classical Kids: Gershwin's Magic Key at 2pm and 4pm on Saturday March 24th 2018 in Roy Thomson Hall

Dissonance on the beach!
Photo Credit: Universal Studios 

Why play this film score live when it is already recorded and synchronized on the DVD? Because, as my friend who came with me tonight observed, the experience is very different. Before 1929 in the silent film era, Toronto had at least six 'film music orchestras' in any one year, and to judge from the cinema posters of the era, they advertised those orchestras as a draw for the movie showings. A night out at the cinema was also a opportunity to hear the orchestra. And so it was tonight.

Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos succeeded admirably in using an earpiece with a 'click track' for his tempos, and a monitor to synchronize the orchestra with the film sequences. In a few scenes, music was played against dialogue. As an example, when the character Quint was talking about the disaster of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the music was presented in a different range and rhythm from the dialogue.


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​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC

Toronto ON March 22nd 2018

Jaws by TSO: Double Basses, Trombones, and a very big Shark!

"​You'd need a bigger boat."
Photo Credit: Universal Studios