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Narrative conventions from a different angle

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I went to the symphony, and we heard Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, Opus 34. It’s available here, with just a still image on the Youtube link, not any kind of montage as far as I’m aware (I didn’t watch all the way through). It’s like the soundtrack to the nonexistent fourth Indiana Jones movie. (No, they didn’t make a fourth Indiana Jones movie lalalala I can’t hear you no magical anti-radiation fridges lalalala what.) It’s just a lovely little piece, just over 15 minutes, adventure and excitement, one thing after another.

It also sounds deeply conventional in some ways, and there’s a reason for that. Ever wonder why modern movie soundtracks sound like they do? One of the reasons is because Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the book. Literally. The book is called Principles of Orchestration. He wrote it. He said, “here’s how it’s all supposed to sound and what you use things for,” and it’s a very useful book indeed, setting down how this particular Romantic style of orchestral composition goes. So now when you listen to a movie and the violins swell at the right emotional moment, thanks Nikolai, that’s what you told them to do.

This is bad? This is good? Well, no. This is a tool. If Rimsky-Korsakov hadn’t written the book, people would still have fumbled around figuring out what the heck the Romantics, particularly the Russians, were doing with their orchestras, and we’d probably still be able to listen to a piece like Capriccio Espagnol and point out what the story’s doing, because it’s culturally embedded. It’s just kind of fun to play spot-the-theorist sometimes, and what he’s doing when he applies his theories, or what he’s doing before his theories congeal.

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