Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 1: Spiderman and Zappa

I did not expect the Little One to connect so strongly with the Batman score when I reviewed it earlier this month, but she surely did. She got some exposure to Batman and the whole DC pantheon through the animated Justice League series this summer on Netflix, and it seems to have provided her with enough context to give Elfman’s relatively complex orchestral compositions some meaning.  Once I told her that we were “listening to Batman” in the car, she grinned and wiggled, cheering on his imaginary exploits. After that, Batman became a repeated request.  Excited and intrigued by her interest, I wanted to see if I could stretch it further. The next logical step was Superman, who has always been her favorite. John Williams’ Superman March signifies as much about that character to me as Elfman’s theme does about Batman. With very little introduction, she immediately took to this composition – in fact, it seems to have deepened her interest in the Superman character.

Superhero themes seemed to be her "way in" for orchestral music. Most of the other characters that she knows well have not been well-developed in the cinema, however, and therefore do not have a definitive theme attached to them – certainly not one that could exist in the same “world” as the work of Williams or Elfman.  Even Spider-man, who does have well-developed movies, is not associated with any particularly memorable themes.

I decided to take it upon myself to “create” some great superhero themes for her by recontextualizing music from orchestral literature and soundtracks. This would be a somewhat sneaky way to get her listening to good examples of the style while enriching her expanding superhero world.

Some rules began to emerge:
  • The composition had to have a clear melody that she could identify out of context.
  • It would need to be between two and five minutes long to satisfy her attention span.
  • I did not want to take it upon myself to edit down great works, so I felt like any composition would have to be self-encapsulated, although a movement from a larger work would still be acceptable.
  • Using theme music from already existing sources would be acceptable as long as it was from a work that would most likely not play a big role in her childhood (which immediately ruled out Star Wars).
  • The music had to co-exist in the same “world” as the Williams and Elfman compositions, which ruled out the dated 70’s Wonder Woman theme or the campy theme from the late 60’s Spider-Man cartoon.
  • I wanted to avoid playing musical “favorites” if I could, which meant that I couldn’t just give in to my temptation to run to John Williams for everything.
  • Finally, it had to be something that I could take listening to repeatedly, perhaps even endlessly, because I most assuredly would.
I plunged into my own library, pulling out everything that I could that might fit these constraints, while simultaneously taking informal polls through social media.  I was listening for themes that might fit well with the superheroes that she currently knows by name: Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Green Lantern. Very early on, I thought I had a lock on Spider-Man with Havendance by David Holsinger.

Havendance by University of Nevada, Reno Wind Ensemble on Grooveshark

I have had lots of music education experiences with this song, and it seemed to capture lots of aspects of the character. It has both heroic themes and sneaky, quiet sections that dance nimbly through jarring, arrhythmic time signatures. Part of me felt that it might be a bit too long to hold her attention as a singular composition, though, and perhaps a bit too bombastic for the character. Still, I clung to the song.

As I was searching for fast, driving songs for The Flash, however, I decided that Frank Zappa’s orchestral rendition of G-Spot Tornado from The Yellow Shark sessions was the one. Admittedly, the track pushes the length barrier to its limits, but it is also exciting, agile, and angular enough to represent the “Spiderness” of Peter Parker’s alter ego. Plus, how many other opportunities would I get to expose her to Zappa that wouldn’t require an in-depth discussion of his usually outrageous and sometimes offensive satire?


Despite the somewhat shocking video (which she will not see for many, many years) it was too good a musical match to pass up, so I planted the seed. One evening I asked her “how Spider-man went” and she looked at me quizzically. I sang the first couple of riffs from G-Spot Tornado (with a little quirky dance to drive it home) and she smiled. I left it at that. Next time we were in the car during our usual Superman and Batman playlist, I suggested we “listen to Spider-man.” She really, really liked it, dancing uncontrollably in her car seat and giggling. When I looked over my shoulder, she excitedly exclaimed “this is Spider-man!”

Success.

To see the origin story of this project, click HERE.
To go to the next post, click HERE.

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