Harmony, associativity, and metaphor in the film scores of Alexandre Desplat
The objective of this doctoral study is to develop and demonstrate a theoretical framework to guide both the analysis and composition of twenty-first-century film music. The compositional portfolio submitted as part of this thesis includes scores for nine short films and for a feature-length docudrama. The thesis is based on analysis of twenty feature film scores by Alexandre Desplat (b. 1961), with particular attention to two: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Studying one composer’s output enables the observation of a compositional voice articulated across multiple film genres. Desplat’s work has proven a relevant and worthy subject, because the films he has scored exemplify a wide variety of styles and approaches, including skilful integration of past styles and current trends. The theoretical framework I use to discuss both Desplat’s film music and my own, draws together selected concepts from semiotics, metaphor theory, narratology, and harmonic analysis, especially transformational theory. I use the framework to explore how musical objects – such as modes, chords, and their transformations through time – might act as symbols, icons, or metaphors for one or more elements of the narrative – such as a setting, character, characters’ emotions, events, or the attitude of the cinematic narrator. It is argued that this combination of ideas provides a suitable framework – useful in both composition and analysis – for understanding how music might expressively contribute to filmic narratives. It is argued that Neo-Riemannian triadic transformations – in Desplat’s work and mine, at least – are often most usefully considered in relation to the scales and modes that they articulate, transform, and/or subvert. This is a point of difference from other recent transformational analysis of film music. Although my analyses focus primarily on pitchbased features, I also consider how these elements accrue meaning in their interactions with other musical features, such as tempo and orchestration.