Several decades ago, Polish fantasy and science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem—now best known in the West for his novel Solaris, which was recently (re) made as a Stephen Soderbergh movie with George Clooney—took his readers along on a fascinating thought experiment. He asked, How might you write book reviews for imaginary books—that is, for books that never existed? To answer this, Lem wrote a series of just such reviews and the witty result is published as “A Perfect Vacuum,” (1971; translated into English in 1979).
If we consider how it is possible to write reviews of books that never existed, we realize the task is not impossible at all, if we appreciate the different kinds of books that already exist—that is, the genres that books conventionally fall into—and also the different kinds of reviewers that already exist. On the latter score, we can glimpse the wide but predictable variation in reviewers by re-reading another old favourite—The Pooh Perplex, by Frederick Crews—in which imaginary reviewers of different persuasions (Marxist, Freudian, stuffy academic, etc.) analyze the classic Winnie the Pooh children’s stories.
So by combining imaginary but predictable plot lines with imaginary but predictable reviewers, one can—if imaginative enough—generate imaginary book reviews.
Now, translate this enterprise to the world of music, because that is what Ronald Royer has done in composing Overture to an Unscripted Movie. After viewing enough Hollywood movies—hundreds if not thousands will suffice—the movie genres and their accompanying musical scores become immediately evident. True, their execution varies somewhat over decades and from one composer to another. But, despite this variation, we find characteristic uses of instruments, themes, and orchestral ornaments to support key plot and character developments. There is, indeed hero music and villain music, love music and tragedy music. What’s more, we audience members have all become accustomed to these types of musical adornment, so we scarcely notice them.
Yet, though these musical tricks often occur below our consciousness, we respond to them nonetheless. We feel excited when we “hear” the hero coming, and frightened or angry when we “hear” the villain. We grow excited when the music is scripted to excite us, depressed when the music becomes slow and morose to depress us, and so on. In short, we have become programmed to respond like Pavlov’s dogs.
What Ronald Royer has done is combine these tricks to play a joke on us. He has given us a brief orchestral suite that pushes all our emotional buttons in the customary ways. He gives us hero music and villain music, etc, all in the service of a story that does not exist. In doing so, he makes clever references to many of the leading composers of American movie music—for example, John Williams and Danny Elfman—and also to leading composers of modern “serious” music, including Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. Royer knows the classical musical literature and he knows the screen composers, and he knows the relationship between them. He also knows how we have been programmed to respond and he makes us respond that way. So, we sit listening passively as his music tells us a generic Hollywood story, becoming happy, sad, excited, and so on as required.
When it is all over, we realize that we—not the music—have been played. Royer’s music is “about” listeners and the listening public. It is “about” tired, jaded ears and over-programmed palates—music listeners who have consumed the equivalent of one too many musical Big Macs. Some listeners will feel like a good dose of Bach or Bartok after hearing Royer’s send-up of the Hollywood sound experience. In short, Royer’s music is an entertaining yet educational experience for all of us, crafted by a masterful and witty composer who has given us something both real and imaginative to think about.