Saturday, September 26, 2009

Musical Box

The musical box — a novelty toy that produces music mechanically. The crucial parts of a musical box are the cylinder and the comb. The cylinder is the programming device, the equivalent of the punched card used with early computers. It is studded with tiny pins at the correct spacing to produce music by displacing the teeth of the comb at the proper time. The comb is a flat piece of metal with many dozens (or possibly hundreds) of teeth of different lengths. The tines of the comb “chime,” or sound, as they slip off the pins of the cylinder. There are some musical boxes that have a flat disc rather than a cylinder, but the disc is still the equivalent of the operating program of the cylinder.

Although intricate, the musical box is merely a cold, unfeeling mechanism, yet it nonetheless has come to express nostalgia, delicacy, and lost innocence. British film critic Raymond Durgnat observed that musical boxes, like pianolas and barrel organs, hold a fascination for children, and “together with their ‘period’ feel, outweighs any adult diffidence about their banal ‘pop’ tunes and canned quality. As so often, the popular poetic sense of a symbol is derived [from] its meaning for children. The music comes from long ago and faraway, the popular tunes of yesterday have the charm of memory” (Films and Feelings, p. 231). He means that since the tunes musical boxes are frequently designed to play are gentle or sentimental ones from an earlier era (“lullabies”), they evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia—“lost innocence.”

On the other hand, the “too” sweet, saccharine blandness of musical boxes can make them overly or creepily sentimental, and their unsavory social origins (they were associated with the vice of snuff) allow them to be associated with crime as well. Durgnat uses Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] as an example, in which an aristocrat “expresses his basic spontaneity of soul by enthusing over the latest acquisition to his collection of musical boxes: a huge elaborate Dutch street organ. But its sound acts as background to an attempted crime passionnel, as, again, in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train the carousel organ plays, ‘And the band played on . . .’ as a brutal strangling takes place” (p. 231). Hence in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is a sinister musical box that can induce eternal sleep when its music is played. In The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2), the Max character played by Mel Gibson uses a musical box to become friends with a strange, seemingly mute child referred to as the Feral Kid. A past crime is signaled by musical boxes in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, in which a murderer betrays his identity by having a pocket watch that is also a musical box that plays a distinctive tune. In Luis Buñuel’s Ensayo de un Crimen [The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz], a musical box also plays a crucial role. An ornate musical box in the form of a monkey with Persian robes playing the cymbals is featured prominently in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. In Japan, where musical boxes are quite popular, the Sankyo Seiki company has specialized in the manufacture of musical boxes which are extremely intricate (there is an entire “Music Box Collection” from Japan consisting of several CDs, generically referred to as “J-Pop,” available on iTunes).

Pop songs incorporating the musical box are rare, but when its used is it is often memorable. The musical box has also been used as inspiration for a few songs as well, e.g., Genesis’ “The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme (1971). Here are a few songs inspired by the musical box, or incorporating it into the music.

Björk – Frosti
Mariah Carey – Music Box
The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde [Robert Cobert] – Josette’s Music Box [used in the TV series Dark Shadows]
Philip Glass – Music Box (“Candyman Theme”)
Genesis – The Musical Box
Korn – Dead Bodies Everywhere
Bobby McFerrin – Music Box
Panic! at the Disco – This Is Halloween [cover of the song from The Nightmare Before Christmas]
Rammstein – Spieluhr [Music Box]
Thrice – Music Box

Monday, September 21, 2009


I’ve blogged in the past about the figure of Orpheus in popular music, but I’ve yet to explore how the music has employed the mythic hero or heroine. A mythic hero is usually defined as a character from myth or legend that is of divine descent and endowed with great strength or ability. The term therefore encompasses demigods as well as gods and goddesses. I should note that my use of the word ability here is broad, since mythological figures such as Cassandra and Io are afflicted by madness as a consequence of the Olympian gods’ capriciousness. The cursed prophetess Cassandra, for instance, who has the gift of prophecy but is never to be believed, is an especially tragic figure. Likewise, Hera transforms poor Io into a cow because Zeus develops an erotic passion for her. Io is thus like Cassandra in that she can never articulate her tragic insight. Venus, the mythical Goddess of Love (of the erotic kind), enthralls the legendary knight Tannhäuser. In his poem Laus Veneris, Swinburne explores the tension between an older, pagan ideal as it comes into clash with the new, Christian religion. Swinburne’s Venus, with whom the young knight Tannhäuser falls in love and with whom he lives in her subterranean home, represents the life of the old religion. Tannhäuser is wracked with remorse and guilt because of his passion for her. Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” invokes the legend of “La belle dame sans merci,” the beautiful woman without pity, which the Tannhäuser legend also employs. And Fleetwood Mac’s famous song, written by Stevie Nicks, “Rhiannon,” was apparently inspired not by the Welsh myth about Rhiannon, a horse goddess, but by Mary Leader’s novel Triad. For years when performing the song live Nicks would introduce the song as being about a “Welsh witch,” but that’s not quite correct, either. At any rate, here are a few pop songs that use the figure of the mythic hero or heroine to interesting effect. They reveal how vibrant and alive these ancient myths and legends still are, even if the figure is encountered without the songwriter ever actually having read the actual source text.

Abba – Cassandra
Jimmy Clanton – Venus In Blue Jeans
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Crosby, Stills and Nash – Guinevere
Donovan – Guinevere
Bob Dylan – As I Went Out One Morning
Bob Dylan – Isis
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand
Boz Scaggs – Hercules
The Shocking Blue – Venus
Al Stewart – Merlin’s Time
Steely Dan
Home At Last
Suzanne Vega – Calypso
Rick Wakeman – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table [album]