They walk among us, prodigies, people whose abilities are distinctly superior, so remarkable that I find myself retreating to my room, drawing the blinds, humming tuneless, repetitive nonsense syllables, and determining to no longer afflict the universe with my uninspired commentary on things observed. I don’t know why it still catches me by surprise.
What sets off this particular appreciation of the distance between normal people and those who possess true genius? The latest jarring insight came from a trio of documentaries, any one of which might have been more than enough to convince me that some abilities simply cannot be taught or inspired.
The first was CineSpace 17, the latest in an ongoing competition sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in which enterprising makers of short films make use of imagery and video captured by NASA over the last fifty years. I hadn’t realized that documentation of every adventure in space has been placed in an open source from which any of us can access images of spacewalks and the variations in the rings of Saturn or on the surface of Jupiter. The short films were impressive, but as they appeared on-screen, I was reminded that somebody with a brain conspicuously larger than mine had imagined the fabrication of devices that travel the universe and the mechanics necessary to extraterrestrial adventure. Engineering a supercomputer able to direct a lunar mission was impressive; the thought of engineering a phone with greater computing power than a supercomputer boggles the mind. Oh, and I’ll take any comprehensible explanation of how the operation of duplex radio systems have anything to do with my ability to tell my wife to pick up some yogurt on her way home.
So, yes, science and engineering operate in realms I cannot negotiate. Hats off! Kudos! Please find a way to clone Polar Bears and Tigers before they disappear and good luck with weather and earthquakes.
The second documentary, Score, presents an inside look at the process by which film scores are created. I’m always eager to get the inside story on anything having to do with film, and when teaching Film Studies frequently asked students to pick a sequence that was substantially enhanced by its score. The shower scene in Psycho offered the most dramatic illustration; shown without sound, the manipulation of camera angle and pattern of editing become transparent and the shock of horror is lost. So, I walked in expecting to hear a bit about Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, maybe Henry Mancini, and I did find out a great deal about them … and another twenty-six composers whose scores have absolutely shaped my response to the films they have scored.
The first level of genius then is with the composers, all of whom appear to play at least thirty instruments and understand composition so completely that knocking down an original score that is entirely appropriate to a director’s vision on what is a very demanding timetable seems no problem at all. Imagine screening a film with a director.
There is no sound. The director grunts clipped commentary: “I want suspense … here! But romantic suspense, you know? Not scary, just you know tightens up the sphincter”.
The composer takes notes, asks questions, walks away and produced a musical analog to the film in something like two weeks, fully orchestrated and ready for production. The work of John Williams can be taken for granted until we realize that even though we feel Star Wars was always with us, there was no Star Wars Theme, no celebratory music as the rebel alliance presents medals to Han, Luke, and Chewie. There was no ominous theme as Darth Vader appears. There was no jolting rasp of cello, bass, trombone, and tuba indicating the relentless grinding approach of the shark in Jaws.
I’ve seen Schindler’s List at least fifteen times, weep every time, and know by heart the music that accompanies each scene; I have only to hear one of Williams’ themes, and I feel the texture of the moment it was composed to convey. And yet, I have considered Spielberg the genius, overlooking the essential role Williams played in my response to the film.
As the composers were interviewed, I understood what they had brought to films that I had considered primarily visual experiences. Edward Scissorhands — Danny Elfman, The Silence of the Lambs — Howard Shore, The Shawshank Redemption — Thomas Newman, The Royal Tenenbaums — Mark Mothersbaugh, Gone Girl — Atticus Ross.
My favorite film of the last five years, perhaps on the the ten best films in my pantheon of films, Mad Max: Fury Road, spectacular in any presentation, including a fabulous large screen version in black and white, Mad Max: Fury Road in Black and Chrome, is absolutely dependent on the bizarre and brilliant score by Thomas Holkenborg who is also responsible for an almost equally compelling score for Deadpool. I knew drums were a key element in keeping the fury in Fury Road, but I had no conception of the number and variety of drums Holkenborg assembled to beat the audience into satisfied submission.
Composers now belatedly but emphatically recognized, my attention then turned to the orchestras summoned from their various other employments to sight-read scores of incredible complexity and pull together a concert worthy performance in the course of a few days. Of course these are virtuosos, among the best orchestral musicians, but the precision and art with which they transform the composer’s intent into a fully scored soundtrack is stunning. The good news is that scoring films probably keeps orchestral music alive and well; the better news is that there are some hundred musical prodigies on call day and night.
The third documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, is Ron Howard’s tribute to the Beatles in their touring years, from the Cavern Club in Liverpool to their last concert in San Francisco, from 1962 to 1966.
Let’s just start with several unlikely circumstances. Eight Days a Week reminds us that there was no expectation that the phenomenon that was the Beatles would last any longer than the usual combustive teen frenzy. Albums were scheduled at six month intervals in order to pack in as many as possible before the bubble burst. “The bubble burst” conversation fills year after year of the Beatles’ dominance of popular music. It is equally significant that the entire catalog of music composed and performed by the Beatles was completed in the course of four years.
How many songs are in that catalog? That turns out to be more complicated than one might think. Without considering experimental pieces that were never released and various other unrecorded pieces, the Beatles recorded 429 songs, 172 of which were covers, 237 which were original compositions. Toss in the various unrecorded and unreleased and the number of original songs is probably closer to 300, remembering that McCartney and Lennon also wrote for Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Peter and Gordon, Cilla Black, and Badfinger.
No matter how the account is settled, on average, they wrote a song every week. Howard’s film primarily concerns the years in which the Beatles toured, a regimen Ringo asserts that derived from the relatively paltry income they derived from record sales and their need to play as many concerts as possible to bank what they could before, you know, “the bubble burst”. So, excusing the less than remarkable songs, and the very few regrettable songs (Maggie Mae? Piggies? Revolution9? Rocky Racoon? Wild Honey Pie?), the preponderance of the spectacular catalog was written or conceived on the road. McCartney playing left-handed guitar, Lennon playing right-handed, they traded melodies across the beds in hotel suites, in limos, on airplanes.
How many songs deserve to be termed truly memorable (in a good way)? Leaving sentiment and memories of a lost youth aside, most students of popular music would give them between 50 and a hundred. More informed critics than I have argued that the only comparison in terms of numbers of excellent compositions would be with Mozart, which opens yet another composition about the nature of genius as Mozart composed alone while the Beatles’ work is collaborative to some degree. I happen to be equally impressed with genius as it emerges in collaboration, recalling every collaboration and meeting I have ever attended as lessons in patience and not likely to result in groundbreaking brilliance. As my favorite supplier of posters, Despair Inc., provider of Demotivators, reminds me, “Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us” .
This piece set out to explore genius as exhibited by individuals, however, and no matter how strictly the definition of genius the singularity of remarkable ability, there seem to be a lot of them out there.
What a treat it is to run into them when they surface. Since I truly am delighted and confounded by choreographers, dancers, actors, artists, mathematicians, computer scientists, athletes at the top of their game, and stunned by the fluidity with which they meet challenge and the ease with which they summon invention again and again, I probably have to pull the blinds, leave my room, open my ears and eyes and see them as they soar by.