Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Reincorporation and Repetition in Art

My friend Dustin recently asked me why improv audiences are so delighted with reincorporation.

Reincorporation is bringing back ideas and phrases from earlier in a performance (typically, but not always, the same scene).

I don't think it's really known why it works so well, but I am very certain from my personal experience that it does. In this entry I will speculate on why, from a cognitive science perspective.

When you experience something again, you encode it into memory, in some new context. The first thing that happens is you are aware that some stimulus has repeated-- every time you see something it increases the probability that you will see it again. As a result at some level you think it's important. We are wired to pay attention to patterns so that we can better behave in our environment.

The other thing is that whatever we're re-experiencing we're learning more about. We are deepening our understanding of the stimulus by associating it with a new context.

I love the book "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" because its thesis is that things are only meaningful to us because they repeat. Indeed, the book recounts the same events over and over with new perspectives.

This works not only for improv, but for the arts in general. In visual art, repeating visual patterns (sometimes called "rhymes") are effective.

Commedians will often end their act with a joke told before. For example, Jerry Seinfeld had an act in which he complained about people saying "say hi to him for me." Then we talked about Jared, the Subway diet guy. At the end of the act, he said "And if you see Jared, say hit to him for me." The audience roared with appreciation. They were in effect saying "thank you for enriching my memory system."

In music and poetry we have rhyming and alliteration, which is a re-incorporation of phonemes.

Also in music we have repeating beats, melodies, and lyrics. A good example for lyrics comes from the song "Nothing" from "A Chorus Line." In this song Morales tells of being in an acting class in which she was supposed to feel like an ice cream cone, or a bobsled. Unfortunately, as the chorus repeats, she "felt nothing." The acting teacher tells her she's worthless. At the end of the song she recalls seeing that the teacher had died. She cried because she "felt nothing." Notice how feeling nothing takes on a new meaning at the end. I notice a lot of good songs have choruses that mean something different at the end of the song.

2 comments:

joe kraemer said...

Your post on repetition in art details a crucial skill needed for
successful film-score composition, in my opinion.
I think a score's effectiveness hinges on repetition. (Musicals and
musical-films work the same way, to a lesser degree.)

The core unit of a film score is the motif or theme. The composer
assigns a particular motif or theme to a certain dramatic element -
maybe it's a character, maybe it's a certain situation, maybe it's a
concept the film is trying to deal with. One of the strongest examples
of motivic writing is the theme from Jaws. 2 alternating notes.
Meaningless on their own, and somewhat meaningless the first time
they're presented.

It is their repetition throughout the film that gives them their power.
The first time we hear them, it is over the opening credits, which
appear superimposed over underwater photography, presumably from the
shark's POV. Throughout subsequent events, we are essentially "taught"
that these 2 notes signal the approach of the shark, to such a degree
that the filmmakers can abuse this "lesson" to trick us into thinking
the shark is coming by playing the music, when in fact it is only a
prankster wearing a fake shark fin.

JAWS uses a fairly static repetition. That is, the motif is presented
in pretty much the same manner (low orchestration, steadily increasing
tempo) everytime it is used. More creative use of motif and theme can
be found in the cumulative scores the Star Wars movies, an example I use
because everyone seems to have at least a passing familiarity with the
canon of themes.

In SW, the composer took great liberties with the presentation of the
themes, presenting them very fast, very slow, very high in the
orchestra, very low in the orchestra, in a major key, in a minor key,
sometimes with their rhythm changed, and sometimes with the melody
exxagerated beyond its original constraints. Take for example, the
sequence where Luke Skywalker flies down the trench to blow up the Death
Star - as the tension mounts, the music takes his theme (the main theme
of Star Wars) and stretches the intervals between the notes. By
distorting the theme in this way, the composer plays with our knowledge
of what the theme actually is supposed to sound like and conveys to us
that something is not right with this situation. Conversely, when Darth
Vader dies in the end of Return of the Jedi, the brassy militaristic
theme of Darth Vader is instead presented very slowly and delicately by
a solo harp, and harmonized in the relative major key. These changes in
the repetition of the theme give us all sorts of information about what
we're seeing - that Darth Vader has been "de-fanged", that he has moved
from a heavy, dark place (low instruments, minor key) to a lighter, more
positive place (higher instrument, major key).

In the Star Wars prequels, the Darth Vader theme is used to foreshadow
events to come, connections the characters in the movie aren't even
making yet. (Although, admittedly, if you watch the movies in numerical
order rather than the order they were made, this foreshadowing is
essentially nullified). We can see young Anakin (the future Darth
Vader) going through something in his youth - the score can play the
Darth Vader theme, and we the audience are able to connect what we're
seeing, which on the surface may have little relation to Darth Vader, to
Anakin's eventual fate.

Maybe all of this is really obvious, but I thought it was interesting
how your post reinforced my entire approach to scoring movies.

joe kraemer said...

Your post on repetition in art details a crucial skill needed for successful film-score composition, in my opinion.
I think a score's effectiveness hinges on repetition. (Musicals and musical-films work the same way, to a lesser degree.)

The core unit of a film score is the motif or theme. The composer assigns a particular motif or theme to a certain dramatic element - maybe it's a character, maybe it's a certain situation, maybe it's a concept the film is trying to deal with. One of the strongest examples of motivic writing is the theme from Jaws. 2 alternating notes. Meaningless on their own, and somewhat meaningless the first time they're presented.

It is their repetition throughout the film that gives them their power. The first time we hear them, it is over the opening credits, which appear superimposed over underwater photography, presumably from the shark's POV. Throughout subsequent events, we are essentially "taught" that these 2 notes signal the approach of the shark, to such a degree that the filmmakers can abuse this "lesson" to trick us into thinking the shark is coming by playing the music, when in fact it is only a prankster wearing a fake shark fin.

JAWS uses a fairly static repetition. That is, the motif is presented in pretty much the same manner (low orchestration, steadily increasing tempo) everytime it is used. More creative use of motif and theme can be found in the cumulative scores the Star Wars movies, an example I use because everyone seems to have at least a passing familiarity with the canon of themes.

In SW, the composer took great liberties with the presentation of the themes, presenting them very fast, very slow, very high in the orchestra, very low in the orchestra, in a major key, in a minor key, sometimes with their rhythm changed, and sometimes with the melody exxagerated beyond its original constraints. Take for example, the sequence where Luke Skywalker flies down the trench to blow up the Death Star - as the tension mounts, the music takes his theme (the main theme of Star Wars) and stretches the intervals between the notes. By distorting the theme in this way, the composer plays with our knowledge of what the theme actually is supposed to sound like and conveys to us that something is not right with this situation. Conversely, when Darth Vader dies in the end of Return of the Jedi, the brassy militaristic theme of Darth Vader is instead presented very slowly and delicately by a solo harp, and harmonized in the relative major key. These changes in the repetition of the theme give us all sorts of information about what we're seeing - that Darth Vader has been "de-fanged", that he has moved from a heavy, dark place (low instruments, minor key) to a lighter, more positive place (higher instrument, major key).

In the Star Wars prequels, the Darth Vader theme is used to foreshadow events to come, connections the characters in the movie aren't even making yet. (Although, admittedly, if you watch the movies in numerical order rather than the order they were made, this foreshadowing is essentially nullified). We can see young Anakin (the future Darth Vader) going through something in his youth - the score can play the Darth Vader theme, and we the audience are able to connect what we're seeing, which on the surface may have little relation to Darth Vader, to Anakin's eventual fate.

Maybe all of this is really obvious, but I thought it was interesting how your post reinforced my entire approach to scoring movies.