It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night—program notes

Through my work in films and in cognitive science, I have developed an enduring interest in the role music plays in eliciting emotions to visual experiences. This piece focuses on the tiny and fleeting facial expressions called “micro-emotions” that while not consciously perceived, are often the root of what we call an “instinctive” response to others.  How might music influence, even bias, audiences’ perception of intention, tone and emotion of actors in film? And how might that investigation lead to creative explorations combining music, film, and various aspects of performance?


In this musical exploration, I use a clip from the film It Happened One Night, a pre-code (1934) film with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. This piece was particularly interesting to me, since in the early days of sound very little, if any music was used, leaving all the emotional portrayal to the actors. While the actors’ performances are comic in tone, their subtext and the cinematography, create a more ambiguous impression.  I wrote a “score” of this scene to explore the extreme range of perceptions music could induce with respect to a visual experience.  


In the first section of the piece I forefront the music in a way that recalls the highly stylized performances of the silent era and attempts to connect the audience to the uncanny and often undetected expressive details in the actors’ faces.  In the second section I use the same motifs, but in a more subdued way, to underscore the scene, and relate to the “naturalistic” performance style of the sound era.  


I also further explore our musical and emotional relationship to film and music, through the choices of instrumentation (violin, piano, double bass and percussion), a quartet that harks back to the cabaret bands of the early 20th century. The performance of the works that includes viewing the film projected on cloth with live musicians playing to the side, recalls the early days of movies.


As is true for much of my work, my investigation relates to the narrative qualities of music, and to the audience’s experience not simply of the music but also to all of the “theatrical” elements involved in a performance. The use of a manipulated film clip allows me to play with the linear reading of music and emotion. By using rhetoric as design element in the overall composition, my aim is to create a “dramatic” event that engages the audiences through aural, visual and emotional content.  My overall desire is to influence the delicate interplay between the aural and visual in the mind of the audience and through this to provoke fresh and vivid responses.