Category Archives: Culture

Posts about broader cultural topics not restricted to, but approached through, music

Music and Film

2001: A Space Odyssey

I’ve been lately intrigued by the different ways in which music is used in films and would like to share some of my thoughts in light of a few specific examples.

Most films and tv series have a theme song or music in the beginning and end, but there are others, mostly outside or in the margins of the mainstream films, in which music is used very sparsely. In many films music is also participating in the storytelling, or even has its own agency. Such techniques were already perfected by Richard Wagner with his aspiration for “Gesamtkunstwerk”; an artwork where all the artistic elements – music, poetry, acting, staging, lighting, etc. – serve more or less equally in the telling of the story. Some film composers, such as John Williams (e.g. Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potter), have taken their cue from Wagner and Wagnerian devices such as leitmotifs can be found in their works.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, without the preceding Ligeti piece.

The director Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, chose to use mainly existing compositions in his films. While there may have been an economical motivation for this practice at some point of Kubrick’s career, the artistic rationale for his choices of music are intriguing. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) begins with a fragment (ca 3 min) of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères while displaying a blank screen. This is followed by the “Sunrise” fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, beginning the composition’s journey towards one of the most used pieces of music in films up to the point of being a cliché. Both compositions are used in the film as leitmotifs. There juxtaposition, however, add another layer of reference to the film – with a real life element. While Ligeti admired Kubrick’s work, he wasn’t fond of being placed in such proximity with 19th century composers (Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz An der schönen blauen Donau is played during a scenes picturing a moonwalk and docking to a space station), nor the fact that Kubrick failed to obtain the rights for using Ligeti’s music in the film.

The space station docking scene with Strauss’ An der schönen blauen Donau. I love the way he takes his time with this scene. Something you don’t see in contemporary films very often.

These juxtapositions, however, are very powerful in anchoring the film’s depictions of future to the cultural heritage of the viewer (in a rather western-centric manner), but also supporting the main storyline of human evolution. Music in this film is also able to draw lines between the distant moments in the human evolution the film portrays and centre them to the present.

A Clockwork Orange

Poster of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwor Orange from 1971.
Poster of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwor Orange from 1971.

In A Clockwork Orange (1971, also by Kubrick) music has an important agency. (Spoiler alert: The end of the film is revealed.) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the culmination of symphonic composition, plays an important role as part of the “cure” of the overly violent main protagonist. The Hollywood hit Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is sung by the protagonist while performing his violent acts.

The Singin’ in the Rain scene from A Clockwork Orange.

While this juxtaposition of a popular, happy song from a family film and extreme violence is certainly effective in underlining the madness of the protagonist, one could also argue that the music in this film adds another dimension to the story about a man who doesn’t fit into the society (to put it mildly). Musically, the film would seem to claim that popular culture is the problem and the Classical music and culture (including science) are the solution, or “cure” – for the protagonist in a very concrete way. But this “cure” is applied by re-conditioning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (fourth movement), which the main protagonist also listened quite voluntarily earlier in the film, through the Ludovico Technique. In fact, it is his keenness on music – and “Ludwig van” particularly – that “cures” him as he is forced to witness the violation of this art in the test.

The Ludovico Technique scene from A Clockwork Orange.

So the question remains, whether the music used in this film is a statement of the particular kinds of music and their place/role/status in the society or is that relation arbitrary in the overall scheme of the film to portray the fringes of our social norms? In short, nothing in Clockwork Orange is quite what it seems and I’d recommend you to not only watch it, if you already haven’t (and if you can stomach it), but also to do some reading on the contradictory reception of this film. My apologies for spoiling the end here, but the film is more about the process the main protagonist goes through rather than the end result, in my view.

Deux jours, une nuit

As the icing on the cake as well as a form of catharsis, two exquisite musical interludes drift into the dialogue-fuelled effort as a way of re-setting the momentum. Sarah Ward (

While Kubrick was certainly aware of the interpretative layers music was adding to his works, and the extent to which they were in his control, many film makers – mainly outside of Hollywood – seem to be rather cautious in their use of music. I recently saw Deux jours, une nuit (2014) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which is a great example of this. First, there’s no music during the opening or closing credits. In fact, the film has music in only two scenes, both of which happen in a car and the music is played by the protagonists through the car stereo. Music in this film is part of the storytelling, but it’s not telling the story but rather part of the story, part of the protagonists’ life:   In the first scene, the husband of the main protagonist plays music from the car stereo while they’re driving, but the main protagonist asks him to turn it off as in her current mental state she cannot handle it. On the other scene there’s a third person in the card as well, things are looking promising and Van Morrison’s Gloria from the radio provides them with an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate the moment.

Music and Football

All set up for the evening. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen
All set up for the evening. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen


Culture distinguishes people as well as binds them together

Ethnomusicologists have known for a while already that there isn’t – and probably was –a folk or people without their own music. On a more general level, however, culture, in its many forms, at the same time distinguishes people and binds them together. In cultural encounters of people from different parts of the world avenues and channels of communication are negotiated and found along the commonalities of the various cultural forms. The evening of June 23rd 2014 in Bimhuis, Amsterdam was a good example of that. The ingredients of the evening Bimhuis catered were the Netherlands-Chile football match in the World Championship tournament in Brazil, projected on a screen above the stage, and Konrad Koselleck Big Band’s (KKBB) concert with the Chilian singer/guitarist Rodrigo Cortes Juantok. And to crown the evening chili con carne was catered from the Bimhuis’ own kitchen. All this cooked up to be a very enjoyable evening on many levels.

Dutch multiculturalism

But what first caught my attention was that this was inter- or multiculturalism in a quite specifically Dutch context. As it turned out Mr. Cortes Juantok has already established himself in this country a while ago and arrived at the venue together with his whole Dutch family, in-laws and all. The whole evening indeed had a sort of family gathering feeling to it, the hall of Bimhuis serving as our living room.

Chili con carne ala Bimhuis. Although delicious, this definitely turned out to be the side dish of the evening's menu. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen
Chili con carne ala Bimhuis. Although delicious, this definitely turned out to be the side dish of the evening’s menu. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen

Although sports, food and music are things people from anywhere can enjoy together, the different levels, or dimensions, on which such enjoyment takes place became quite apparent as the evening ran its course. The football match itself was rather uneventful until way into the second half when Netherlands managed to score first once and gave it the finishing touch with another one in the extra time. Many portions of chili con carne were still enjoyed during the hour between the game and the start of the concert and the mood was indeed like in a huge living room.

Bigband in the livingroom

As the KKBB began their concert with a blast that blew the wax out of the ears and took us into a Blues, I couldn’t help thinking that a third culture had just made an entrance to the evening’s cultural encounter. Jazz has been called “American Classical music” and the only truly American art form and big band jazz, in my view, is the quintessential sound of that idea; and big band playing a Blues even more so. Mr. Koselleck, however, is a very capable arranger and eloquently played with the musical elements of these cultural identities. His arrangements brought out different aspects of them in a playful manner without being afraid of some rather cliché-ish manoeuvres to engage the public while maintaining the high musical level of his organisation; and the living room -like mood (which is not unremarkable, since how often does anyone have a big band in their living room? 😉 ).

Complete setting

But the dinner table of this meeting of cultures wasn’t completely set yet: The third piece (if I remember right) in the program was Koselleck’s arrangement of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. To drive home his point, Koselleck announced the piece afterwards; seemingly unintentionally, switching to his native German. In fact, a couple of times during the evening he went to some lengths in educating the audience to recognise a melody he had arranged. Although Koselleck’s arranging style is respectful to the original melody, his adventurous harmonies and rhythms may indeed be challenging to the “uninitiated” listener.

Music and football (or vise versa)

By the time the evening’s guest soloist was introduced at least I had already forgot all about the preceding football match. Although Cortes Juantok entered the stage with a mock cry and Koselleck jokingly announced he’s not able to sing, the rest of the evening was a joyous celebration around the musical gumbo the KKBB served with arrangements of Chilean music (also joined by some Chilian folk dancers), their own repertoire and a couple of Dutch pop and folk tunes. The evening ended with a reggae flavoured arrangement of Mungo Jerry’s old hit Summertime and finally Queen’s We are the Champions in a recapitulation of the football theme of the evening.

Unfortunately, my phone battery died before the concert so I couldn’t take any pictures of the band to post here. For more about the KKBB, please visit their website. And while there chip in on their crowdfunded World War I project, which seems really interesting.


As already mentioned, my background in music is practical as well as academic. Since both of these approaches to music are going to be apparent in my writing here, I’ll try and open up my thinking a bit here so that you know where I’m coming from with my ideas about music.

Musical practice

With the practical side I basically mean making music; practising an instrument, rehearsing and performing, many hours on daily basis for several years. That kind of engagement with music results in a quite specific experience of music as the pragmatic questions are never far from one’s mind, even when just listening to music.


No music no life
No music no life


Academic study of music, however, may in principle take up any angle to music one can possibly think of. Musicology, as the discipline is called, has various sub-disciplines studying music as e.g. physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social, historical, political, economical or legal phenomenon, just to name a few – and often various combinations of these and other approaches. To put a kind of Heideggerian phenomenological frame to it, musicology reveals, discovers and studies the multiple dimensions of music as a way of being-in-the-world, music as a human activity through which we engage with the world around us.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011
Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

Music as cultural phenomenon

My interest in music has for a while been mostly as a cultural and social phenomenon. Many of the other dimensions, however, are more often than not integrated into the previous. A good example of this is the New Orleans brass band tradition I did my last larger study on. While springing from the aspiration of social upheaval of the late 19th century Creole and black New Orleanians, the brass bands and music of these groups quickly became vehicles for political and economical advancements as well. And being an outdoor practice the musics physical, acoustic characteristics (read: loud) were very consciously used to underline and drive home the music’s complex message. Although much has also changed with these practices, most of this still holds for the 21st century post-Katrina New Orleans brass band music as well.

I hope this opens up my thinking a bit and helps you follow my line of thought in the posts here. And of course any and all questions/ideas/comments are welcome.  Stay tuned!

Cheers,  Mikko