Art Rules: A Brief Example

In my last post, I described the process of discovering affirmative formal rules during the process of composition. I thought I’d share an example from my own work, a short piece for piano four-hands entitled Odell Lake.

Most of my compositions for piano are in a ragtime style, and while Odell Lake started off that way, it took off in a different direction as I composed it.  Formally, it is not a rag: it doesn’t follow the typical AABBACCDD arrangement of themes, and the themes are not 16 bars long.  It does, however, contain repeated sections, and as I composed it I focused on how to use repetition as a constructive element: was there a way to change the context of a repetition so that it sounded different, or had a different musical function, each time it was played?

The rule that emerged was twofold: first, everything in the piece (except the very beginning and end) would be repeated, sometimes more than once (two sections contain “nested” repetitions, echoes within echoes).  Second, most of the phrase endings don’t correspond to the points of repetition, giving the impression of phrases that end in two different ways, depending on whether the music circles back to a previous point or continues into the next section.

This formal approach led to a piece that is fairly sectional (appropriate, given the ragtime influence), but in which the themes and ideas are continually developing, as if the listener were examining them from every angle.  I didn’t worry too much about thematic consistency (although the initial ideas return at the end in the manner of a recapitulation), given that everything would be repeated.  Because it was a duet, I also gave thought to where the repeat signs would fall on the page, in order to avoid excessive page turns; that was also a contributing factor in the sectional design.

The end result was a piece that had formal integrity without being predictable, and was fun to play.


Art Rules (or, “Freedom! Terrible Freedom!”)

You could say I’m a formalist, both in my work and in how I relate to others’ work.  Formalism has often been a term of abuse, implying a concern only for formula without regard to “content,” as if they could somehow be separated.  But I think my previous posts have made clear my interest in the different ways ideas can be organized and expressed, and the layers of meaning that can be suggested by a smart deployment of familiar elements.  Concern for formal elements doesn’t preclude evaluation of ideas and execution as good or bad, nor need it imply a completely intellectual approach by which quality is an objective truth that can be proven one way or the other.

It does allow for some wiggle room, however.  A symphony, a film, or a comic book can be evaluated on its own terms, asking “What is this work setting out to achieve?” and “Does it succeed?”  Does it work within the established boundaries of the medium and genre or seek to challenge them?  Most people nowadays have varied interests, and are accustomed to engaging works of art or entertainment pitched at different levels, adjusting their expectations based on cues within the work itself (or implied by its marketing or venue, which can lead to disappointment or the occasional pleasant surprise if the work doesn’t match expectations).  In this pluralistic environment, we are all formalists, to a degree.

What does this mean to the process of creation?  Is it just a matter of hitting the right story beats or composing four-bar phrases, of Drawing Comics the Marvel Way?  Obviously not, although those are the starting points of craftsmanship as traditionally understood.  When people dismiss stale or soulless formula, it’s often this kind of basic “how-to-do-it” stuff that they’re referring to: “By the numbers.” “Hackwork.”  Sometimes the contempt is richly deserved, and we’ve all encountered enough impersonal, indifferent work to understand that calling something “merely” professional isn’t meant to be a compliment.  It’s one thing to cling to formula, to imitate, when just starting out; it’s quite another when you feel the artist isn’t trying or thinks you’ll be satisfied with the bare minimum.

The reverse, though, can be a search for “originality” with no foundation of technique or (sometimes) knowledge of what has already been done.  And that contempt for “rules” can lead would-be artists to actively avoid formal training: “You don’t learn what you can do in school, you learn what you can’t do.”  “I don’t want to be made to fit into a box.” “I want to be able to color outside the lines.” Et cetera.  Never mind that any artist worthy of the name should hope to graduate to drawing their own lines to color in (metaphorically or otherwise).

So, yes, I’m on the side of discipline, whether it’s channeled by an established institution or developed individually on one’s own. (The point that is often overlooked in this school vs. autodidact debate is that, when you come down to it, all artistic discipline is self-discipline; no one is going to do it for you, no matter where you are.)

As for rules?  Like any other artistic resource, they can be a help or a hindrance, and this is where the formal approach comes in.  Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music contains a famous passage which nails down the problem with unlimited freedom:

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. . . .  I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.  If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.

For a long time I considered that my mantra, placing sometimes-arbitrary restrictions on my compositions in the name of “structure,” but frequently alternating this approach with an anything-goes, all-inclusive aesthetic.  Thus did I refute Stravinsky!  My guide at this opposite pole was Frank Zappa, who defined his approach as “Anything, Any Time, Anywhere—for No Reason at All,” and who did as much as he could to upend and undermine what he called the “hateful practices” of music.*  Sometimes I found a happy medium between these two extremes, but I caused myself a great deal of trouble by misunderstanding musical rules and how to apply them.

There are negative rules and affirmative rules: rules that say you can’t do something and others that say you must do something.  Unfortunately, the early years of musical training are often filled with the negative kind: don’t have parallel fifths, don’t use retrograde chord progressions, don’t double the leading tone. There are good reasons for all those rules, but it can be awfully restrictive if you see yourself as a loner working outside the system: save those exercises for the sheeple in Theory I—I’m going to do things my own way.  It gets worse when you get into historical counterpoint (in the styles of Palestrina and J. S. Bach), and even Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system had quite a few “don’ts,” as he originally intended it to avoid tonal implications.  It’s not hard to see why school sometimes seems to be all about NO.

It can also be easy to carry that mindset into composition: sometimes the “don’ts” are merely pedagogical tools, obstacles put in the student’s way to make them avoid the obvious, or to prevent bad habits, and as such they are useful.  Many composers (and other artists) never get past those rules they’ve internalized, turning a brace that was meant to make them stronger into a crutch they depend on.  I’ve spoken to many mature composers who said they still heard their teacher’s voice in their heads when working, but whether they heed or ignore it is part of the decision-making process.  I remember vividly the first time I included a bass drum roll in a composition, something that my first composition professor had discouraged me from doing.  I had a good reason for using it, but it still gave me an illicit thrill—and I had been out of school for eight years!  Composition education, at least in schools, is still very much a one-on-one teacher-student relationship; I don’t know if my remarks apply fully to other disciplines, but I’d be surprised if writers and studio artists didn’t have similar stories to tell.

I might have made smoother progress if I had kept in mind a passage from a few pages earlier in Stravinsky’s book (emphasis added):

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it.  For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.  What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out.

An important principal of form that isn’t always obvious is that very often the “rules” of a given work of art are discovered in the process of the “working out” Stravinsky describes.  Rules set out beforehand are apt to be negative: formal boundaries of the sort described in the first passage from the Poetics, and they may or may not fit the material chosen to elaborate.  Rules discovered in the process of creation are more apt to be both affirmative and organically related to the material, leading to the kind of creative freedom that is the goal of all this discipline.  Sometimes the discovery of internal rules is part of a painstaking process at the writing desk or in the studio, and sometimes it takes place on the fly, as in an improvised jazz solo, but either way it comes across to the audience as freshness and spontaneity, in which developments can seem both surprising and inevitable.

As an example, comics writer Alan Moore is known for the tight formal approach and attention to detail he brings to his work; his discovery of the guiding principles he would apply to Watchmen (in collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons) is worth quoting at length (from an interview with Tasha Robinson):

I was writing the opening pages [of Watchmen No. 3] and, as is my custom, making tiny little thumbnail sketches to actually be able to envisage what the page would finally look like when it was drawn. I had two or three strains of narrative going on in the same page. I had a truculent news vendor giving his fairly uninformed commentary on the political state of the world, the likelihood of a coming war. Across the street, in the background, we have two people fixing a radiation sign to a wall. Sitting with his back to a hydrant near the news vendor, there’s a small boy reading a comic, which is a pirate comic. And I think while I was doodling, I noticed that an extreme close-up of the radiation symbol, if you put the right sort of caption with it, could look almost like the black sail of a ship against a yellow sky. So I dropped in a caption in the comic that the child was reading about a hellbound ship’s black sails against a yellow Indies sky. And I have a word balloon coming from off-panel, which is actually the balloon of the news vendor, which is talking about war. The narrative of the pirate comic is talking about a different sort of war. As we pull back, we realize that we’re looking at a radiation symbol that’s being tacked to the wall of a newly created fallout shelter. And finally, when we pull back into the beginning, into the foreground, we realize that these pirate captions that we’ve been reading are those in the comic that is being read by the small boy. . . . But, like I said, it was purely while I was scribbling, doodling, writing bits of dialogue and crossing them out that I suddenly noticed these possibilities for things that could be done in a comic and nowhere else.

Thus, Moore and Gibbons developed a visual language in which images are paired, never standing for only one thing, but in relationship with other ideas.  The use of mirrors, symmetry, and double meaning became the underlying formal principle.  In another interview, Moore discusses his series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brought characters from nineteenth-century fiction together in a single narrative continuity:

Round about the second issue, I suddenly thought ‘Hey, what if I did this so that any character that’s mentioned by name had got to be a real character from fiction?’ . . . Well, a genuine character from fiction, someone that has existed in other people’s work. And I think that it was when, possibly in the first issue, where I suddenly got to a bit where I realized that I’d got Emile Zola’s Nana being killed on the Rue Morgue by Mister Hyde, I thought, well, ‘This is great! This is going somewhere!’

The relevant point here is that in both cases the rules Moore set for himself, discovered in the process of creation, are affirmative, opening up possibilities rather than closing them off.  They set up challenges, but ones that require invention and creative thinking to overcome.  In the language of improv theater, such rules are the equivalent of “Yes, and . . . “ rather than the “NO” that often comes to mind when the topic of rules comes up.

To bring it back to the audience, does it help to be aware of such processes when reading, watching, or listening? I think it does, but I’ve already revealed myself as someone who geeks out over these things.  Not everyone wants to dig so deeply into their entertainment, and that’s fine. Despite appearances, I’m actually a strong believer in the “gut reaction:” it’s okay to like or dislike something without preparing a thesis about it or reading volumes of background to appreciate it.  Sometimes things just strike us a certain way, and the surface is as legitimate a layer to interact with as any other.  In some cases all that formal scaffolding is for the benefit of the artist, and a façade is erected to hide it from the public.  There’s something to be said for both the “holistic” and “granular” approaches to art—but I think I’ll leave it for another post.

* It is now widely known that Stravinsky wrote very little, if any, of the Poetics published under his name.  Indeed, as Richard Taruskin notes, Stravinsky had a life-long relationship with ghost-writers, and in any case Stravinsky’s public comments were often deliberately misleading, as if to throw armchair analysts off the scent.  Similarly, Zappa (for whom Stravinsky was an important influence) frequently downplayed the rigorous structure of his own compositions, preferring to be seen as an audacious prankster and provocateur. My struggle to reconcile these contradictory teachings was, in part, the price of reading too much at a young age and taking it all at face value.

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with American Brass Quintet

Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Maestro Daniel Hege:

Thunderhead Singers (Drum circle)

John Barry: Concert Suite from Dances With Wolves

Eric Ewazen: Shadowcatcher (concerto featuring American Brass Quintet; accompanied by projected images of Edward Curtis’ photographs of Native Americans)

Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World”

Here’s what I wrote for The Wichita Eagle.

Stop! In the Name of Motion

Speaking of stop motion animation, my son, who is three and a half years old, has recently discovered the stop motion masterpieces of the late Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans. I had purchased a tribute issue of Famous Monsters with some of Harryhausen’s iconic creations on the cover, and my son started asking about them.  I explained the technique of stop motion animation—taking hundreds, sometimes thousands of successive pictures of slightly adjusted models, creating the illusion of motion when projected in sequence—always being clear that they were models, like toys, not real.  As fascinated as he is by monsters—he’s a boy, after all, and before Harryhausen he was curious about the Godzilla movies I had lying around, and of course we have lots of discussions about dinosaurs—I wanted to make sure he could draw a distinction between creatures of fantasy like the Kraken and real but extinct animals like Tyrannosaurus rex.  Overprotective?  Perhaps, but I remember being kept awake at night by fears of the giant ants from Them!, and at an older age than my son is now.  If I give him nightmares, I’ll hear about it from his mother.

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

From my explanation it was a short leap to hunting for clips on YouTube and the excellent documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan on Netflix, which explained Harryhausen’s methods better than I could and held my son’s attention for a good twenty to thirty minutes at a stretch (the documentary is feature-length: we watched it in installments).  For a few weeks after, my son would ask about the “model movies” and we would watch a scene or two from Clash of the Titans, the only Harryhausen movie I have on disc.

Harryhausen is nostalgic to me for a few reasons.  I remember seeing Clash of the Titans when it was new in 1981, at the downtown movie palace that would close a few years later, replaced by the four-screen “multiplex” at the mall.  The mythological references went over my head, but I’ll never forget the terrifying and fascinating Medusa and its gruesome death scene. Even more than that memory, I associate Harryhausen with holidays: most of his movies I saw on television during Thanksgiving or Christmas breaks, probably counterprogrammed against football games in those days when cable TV meant having a few dozen channels instead of hundreds.


I’ve previously indicated my obsession with animation and effects as a kid.  Any time there was a behind-the-scenes show about movie special effects, I was there.  The best parts of these shows were often clips of other projects the filmmakers had a hand in, the kind of thing that was unlikely to show up on TV by itself.  For example, I knew who Phil Tippett was because of his involvement with Star Wars and the big special effects movies that followed in the 1980s, but I was never able to get more than a glimpse of personal projects like Prehistoric Beast, from 1984. Unless they were part of a film festival showing or I was lucky enough to catch them on Night Flight or MTV, there wasn’t much I could do to track them down in those days.

A number of speakers in the Special Effects Titan documentary comment on stop motion’s “dreamlike” quality.  That’s a polite way of saying it doesn’t look real, but realism wasn’t exactly the point.  To my knowledge, Harryhausen never proposed replacing human actors with stop motion likenesses in the same way computer graphics have been put forward as a “fix” for aging actors or a replacement for the long-dead.  There is something mysterious about the sometimes-jerky movements of stop motion; even when done by a master like Harryhausen, it has a certain distinctive “look.” Along with other film tricks like rear projection and altered film speed, the ratcheted movements of stop motion are burned into my mind as a filmic style that isn’t “real” but is aesthetically gripping.  As a less obvious example, Dragonslayer’s composite landscapes, with their fast-rushing clouds, heightened lighting, and blend of full-size and miniature models, are just as artificial as the computer-assembled Middle Earth of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but I still cherish them.  Perhaps it’s simply the density of elements that are brought together that grabs me.

I don’t hold that traditional stop motion is superior to computer graphic animation because of its difficult and time-consuming nature: that line of thinking is to my mind a moral rather than an aesthetic argument.  The goal of either technique should be involvement in the story rather than calling attention to itself.   If we accept the premise that film—all film, from The Great Train Robbery forward—contains shifts of viewpoint that were once associated with either dreams or godlike omniscience—the ability to jump from one point in space to another, to cut between views—then CG’s ability to create images purely from light and numbers represents the culmination of cinema’s potential: it is of a piece with all effects work that has come before.  If cinema would continue to be vital, why cut off any avenue of development?

Of course CG is understandably used to save time and money, and sometimes by filmmakers who have more of both than they have imagination.  If anything it’s the low barrier to entry that has given CG such a bad rap; nevertheless, a bad film is a bad film.  I will say I prefer practical effects for their sense of heft and reality in space, and I appreciate the level of craftsmanship and dedication that handmade filmmaking shows off, but I wouldn’t deny that those can be qualities of CG. Perhaps the joy of practical effects work is in the ingenuity with which filmmakers solved problems; it could be the “personal touch,” sensing the involvement of an animator handling a model (like the marks left in King Kong’s fur by Willis O’Brien) or dragging a brush across a cel.

Ultimately the effectiveness of special effects lies not only in their execution but in how they are used—how effects shots are framed, how they are built up to and cut away from through editing, and their function within the story.  Jurassic Park, still a landmark of CG effects after more than twenty years, looks better than many CG films made last year simply because of the care with which Steven Spielberg and his crew combined CG with models and other practical effects, edited seamlessly together to create an illusion of reality.  Conversely, a carelessly executed effect will look crummy and take the viewer out of the film whether it’s CG or practical.

One reason traditional stop motion looks eerie compare to actual moving objects on film is the uncanny clarity of each frame: when live motion is filmed, there’s a slight blur as the actor or object is caught in motion while the shutter is open.  Animators have ways of getting around that (even in hand-drawn animation), introducing more naturalistic blur after the effect (or even in-camera, through a process dubbed “go motion”).  Nowadays, CG can be used to smooth out the inconsistencies and simulate the blur of motion even when models are still animated by hand (such films as Coraline and Paranorman are examples of this hybrid style).

As it happens, The Lego Movie, which I wrote about enthusiastically last time, is animated almost completely in CG rather than stop motion, but the constraints of animating a world made (almost) completely out of Lego bricks lead to some interesting results.  In an interview with fxguide, CG Supervisor Aidan Sarsfield of Animal Logic (the studio that animated The Lego Movie) spoke of the filmmakers’ desire to “stay true to the medium” of Lego, treating it very much as if it were a stop motion film on a real Lego set (albeit one of huge scale and complexity).  The CG bricks were treated as rigid: there was no stretching or distortion, and the only movement was at points of articulation.  Even effects that are generally ephemeral or subject to fading (such as flames, laser beams, smoke, explosions, and moving water) were virtually “built” out of bricks or other Lego pieces, which were “binary”—either there or not there.  Sarsfield describes the process by which colors or brick sizes could be cycled through to give the impression of fading clouds of smoke or moving waves; the effect is unlike anything I’ve seen, and more to the point most of it could by recreated in actual bricks and animated by hand (even though it would probably take forever).

Sarsfield also noted that very little motion blur was used, giving most of the action a staccato feel similar to old-school animation. For extreme fast motion, however, the animators devised a technique for what they called “brick blur:”

Brick blur was created by a little strip of bricks. The colors of the character matched the string of bricks but the silhouette was defined as if someone has structured the motion blur with bricks.

I previously mentioned how much I enjoy the abstraction of animation, especially stop motion.  In this case, the squared-off forms of Lego bricks and minifigures are matched perfectly by the jumpy, ratcheted motion of the animation style. (It’s worth noting that the Lego characters’ faces are smoothly animated—there are limits to abstraction, after all.) Subtleties like “brick blur” and the audacity of (for example) an entire surging sea made of constantly shifting Lego bricks are great examples of filmmakers exploiting the unique aspects of their medium to create something truly novel; and the end result shows how computers can be used without losing the handmade qualities that made the project appealing in the first place.  Aidan Sarsfield mentions that the animators knew they had been successful when the first trailers appeared and audiences couldn’t tell whether stop motion or CG had been used; I wouldn’t be surprised if The Lego Movie inspires another generation of animators and model makers.


Pictures Prove: Nineteen Bassoons Converge in Concert

As part of Monday night’s Friends University Band concert, nineteen bassoons (including two contrabassoons) were played together on the stage of Sebits Auditorium.  Stix, the performing arm of the Wichita Bassoon Society, was joined by guest artist Nancy Goeres.  They performed Daniel Baldwin’s charming Echo of the Spheres (scored for four bassoon quartets) under the direction of Dr. John Taylor.  What kind of encore could follow such a piece? Leroy Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday, of course!

UPDATE: Video of the two pieces can be found here and here.

Lego House on the Prairie

I saw The Lego Movie this weekend, and I loved it.  This isn’t a review, and I won’t spoil anything, although I will direct you to Charlie Jane Anders’ review at io9 and its (accurate, in my view) contention that a successful genre spoof must authentically partake of the genre it sends up (in this case, the summer blockbuster and the hackneyed “chosen one” motif).


Like all the recent movies based on beloved toys, The Lego Movie is at least partly pitched toward the nostalgia center of viewers’ brains.  Sure, I played with Lego bricks as a child, and still enjoy them now that I have my own children to provide cover. If that were all there were to it, however, I doubt I would have reacted so strongly to the film; the other Lego spin-off video games and cartoons I’ve seen are entertaining, but not profound.  No, what I feel compelled to explore is how successful the film is at building an elaborate world out of familiar components, and its connection to the student films and music videos that did the same thing with toys when I was a kid.

The idea of toys (or other inanimate objects) coming to life is hardly new, of course: before the Toy Story movies there was Corduroy and The Velveteen Rabbit and Raggedy Ann, back to the fantasies of E. T. A. Hoffmann and beyond.  In all likelihood we could trace it all the way back to the idea of “household gods” and the pervasive spirits of pantheistic animism, or perhaps the unity of self and environment in earliest infancy.  In any case, that’s not really my point; what connects my memory of playing with Lego bricks to the new movie (and makes it successful at driving its themes home) is the constructive nature of Lego: all imaginative play gives back only what you put into it, but Lego is explicitly open-ended.  Since the first bricks were produced in 1949, every piece is part of a compatible system and can be connected together in some way.  That’s the first prong of the movie: the pleasure of digging up and recombining the different “worlds” Lego has produced over the years (including some “deep cuts” like Fabuland).

The second prong of the movie’s appeal is how this world is set in motion cinematically.  As a kid, I was obsessed with stop motion animation: my first exposure was probably on shows like Sesame Street, which, among its many other virtues, was often a showcase for inventive (and sometimes downright experimental) film.  The Carmen-singing orange was one I remember (although I had forgotten the rubbery ‘70s-era synth soundtrack, another element that connects it to many childhood memories):

Obviously, there’s a lot more where that came from.

What remains captivating about many of these little films is their handmade quality, and their use of everyday objects: toys, food, utensils.  As with furnishing dollhouses, creating dioramas, or assembling Rube Goldberg-like marble slides (think of the game Mousetrap!), there is an obvious pleasure in the handicraft involved in the creation of a tiny world, playing God on a child’s scale.  When given the illusion of movement, it made it easy to imagine the ordinary objects I saw all the time having a secret life when I wasn’t around, both tapping into and feeding that sense of domestic enchantment alluded to above.

It also made it look easy to get into the game: I recently discovered this short Super 8 film, made in 1980, and starring 12-year old Stefano Paganini’s Lego collection:

It’s rough—I know I wouldn’t have been able to do any better at that age—but it has the same sense of play that the makers of The Lego Movie explore on a grand scale.

It’s the limitations of Lego—where they can fit together, the articulation points of the minifigures—that give it character and provide something for the filmmakers—for whom there are practically no limits anymore with the use of computers—to bump against.  As Brian Eno wrote in 1995 (published in A Year with Swollen Appendices),

Whatever you find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature.  CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.

Eno was mostly speaking of audio formats, but his prescient words have also proven true for visual styles.

The aesthetic qualities of Lego—abstracting familiar shapes into a grid, designed as “bricks” but able to approximate all kinds of shapes—are something that every child encounters one way or another.  Although Lego has introduced many angled and curved pieces to its arsenal, it’s the jagged sawtooth of the square pieces arranged in stair-step fashion that is still an essential part of Lego’s “look.”

Eno mentions 8-bit sound; I think the abstraction Lego encouraged was a reason I was similarly fascinated with the blocky graphics of the the video games that emerged in the late 1970s; just as with the stop motion videos that appeared to bring Lego bricks or candy to life, Space Invaders and Pong gave movement—controlled by the player!—to simple, even primal, geometric shapes.  I was so fascinated by this level of abstraction that I would practice breaking down pictures into their component pixels using graph paper.  I even briefly took up cross-stitching because it looked to me like video game graphics; the only tangible proof of that brief flirtation that I left behind was a sample sheet with a few segments of the Centipede from the game of the same name, rendered in cross-stitch.

I’m reminded of Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten and its thesis that the first generation of twentieth-century modernists were shaped in early childhood by the highly abstracted geometric play that was a core component of nineteenth-century kindergarten. As developed by founder Friedrich Froebel in the 1830s and ‘40s, the geometric elements of kindergarten were centered around the series of about twenty “gifts,” playthings that were meant to introduce primary forms—the sphere, the cube, the cone, for example—and encourage young children to model aspects of the real world in a progression of graduated complexity.  Architect Frank Lloyd Wright would later credit Froebel’s system for developing his spatial faculties, but he was far from the only one.  According to Brosterman,

During the system’s heyday—roughly the half century before World War I—Frank Lloyd Wright was merely one of millions of people, including most of the so-called “form-givers” of the modern era who were indoctrinated, in effect, programmed, by the spiritual geometry of the early kindergarten.

Brosterman’s book is full of pictures juxtaposing nineteenth-century kindergarten projects made by small children with artwork made by adults of the same generation years later. The comparisons are suggestive, to say the very least.

From Norman Brosterman's Inventing Kindergarten

From Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten

In addition to the Froebel gifts, there were also “occupations,” which consisted of paper, string, and clay, media that could be used to create finished projects.  Brosterman quotes American kindergarten leader W. N. Hailmann as describing the distinction between gifts and occupations:

The gift gives the child a new cosmos, the occupation fixes the impressions made by the gift.  The gift invites only arranging activities; the occupation invites also controlling, modifying, transforming, creating activities.  The gift leads to discovery; the occupation, to invention.  The gift gives insight; the occupation, power.

Without wishing to overstate the case, Lego bricks descend from the same progressive concept of early childhood development as a process of discovery and mastery, and lend themselves to a similar kind of abstraction of the real world.

Interestingly, the debt Wright and other modernists owe to Froebel’s kindergarten, as described by Brosterman, has not been lost on modern educators and toy makers (in this context “toy” may sound dismissive, but it’s relevant: Milton Bradley, for example, was an important U. S. maker of Froebel gifts).  Froebel USA now makes a “Prairie House Block Set” of abstract building blocks, both a tribute to the credit Wright gave to the Froebel system and, in all likelihood, an appeal to parents who might hope for a similar start for their own children.


And while Lego has expanded its original system of interlocking blocks to include very young children with its Duplo blocks, it’s also moved in the other direction with its “Architecture” line aimed at teenage and adult model-builders.  Detailed Lego versions of real-life architectural masterpieces, including some by Frank Lloyd Wright, are available as kits.  (Here’s a more detailed description of the Prairie-style Robie House model shown below.)  With the Architecture line, the emphasis is on faithful recreation, but the pieces are just as compatible with the Lego system as any other.  That’s the beauty of it: whether following the instructions or building freely, it’s all up to you.  That’s a core component of Lego that The Lego Movie gets.


This is the Story: The Cyclical Nature of the Expository TV Theme Song


If it seems that the art of television theme music has made a comeback lately, it’s not just you.  As television has taken on more cinematic qualities and attracted viewers with higher production values and artier production (especially on premium cable and through such new outlets as Netflix’s original programming), the opening credits sequence and theme music have returned to prominence.  Just a few years ago, this wasn’t the case at all: networks tried to squeeze as much commercial time out of their programming as possible, as well as trying to avoid any lull—such as a lengthy opening—that might tempt viewers to click away.  Thus, we had a spate of super-brief openings like that of Lost or Better Off Ted, which were just a logo and a chord or two at most.  In 2010, the Emmy Awards nearly eliminated the award for Outstanding Main Title Theme, leading to a lot of hand-wringing about the end of an era.  However, as critic Robert Lloyd pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, memorable themes were continuing to be written, just not for prestigious prime-time genres: tween programming and cartoons carried the torch for the theme song even in those dark days.  Ultimately the award was kept, and there has been a bounce back to more lavish opening sequences since then.

However, one subgenre of television music has mostly remained dormant (with a few exceptions): the expository “story song” that describes the premise and characters of the show in detail in the manner of a Shakespearean prologue (even if the shows themselves were hardly highbrow).  Many of the most iconic TV themes from the 1960s, the “golden age” of the expository TV theme, fit this description: The Beverly Hillbillies (1962), Gilligan’s Island (1964), and The Brady Bunch (1969) all have memorable, catchy songs that bring viewers up to speed, whether watching for the first or the fiftieth time (dates given for these and all series mentioned are premiere dates only).  Admit it: you’re probably hearing one of these songs in your mind right now, aren’t you?

One might expect such elaborate theme songs to be a holdover from the days of radio programming, but that appears not to be the case. In fact, a cursory survey of radio show themes turns up far more introductions consisting of an instrumental theme with a voiceover by an announcer, a format mostly found on late-night talk shows today.  In fact, with a few exceptions, the songs repeated week-to-week on the radio usually sang the praises of the show’s sponsor, placing them squarely in the history of commercial jingles rather than theme songs.

The mania for story-telling TV themes appears to coincide with the popularity of ballads in general in popular music: Fess Parker’s “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” used as the theme song for The Adventures of Davy Crockett in 1954, reached No. 1 on the U. S. pop chart the following year.  While ballads shared the pop charts with dance crazes, standards, and rock ‘n’ roll, there was no shortage of hit songs in the format: Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” in 1959 and, later, Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966).  “The Beverly Hillbillies” fit firmly within this tradition.*  As late as 1981, the short-lived Open All Night featured what is probably the densest summary of a character’s life story to be found in a TV theme:

It’s no surprise that the expository format was most often used for comedies (although not only “situation” comedies, as we shall see) and adventure shows, two genres that lend themselves to “high concept” approaches.  While adventure shows continued to explain their premises into the 1970s and ‘80s (often through voiceover, as in the introductions to The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), Charlie’s Angels (1976), The Incredible Hulk (1978), and Quantum Leap (1989), to name just a few), comedies began to adapt an impressionistic, low-key approach, using songs that described a mood rather than a situation (a long-lasting trend that covered at least three decades’ worth of programs, including the themes to Taxi (1978), Cheers (1982), and Friends (1994)—maybe it has something to do with one-word titles?).  The theme to WKRP in Cincinnati (1978) is almost in this category, although it’s clear enough from its lyrics that it’s set at a radio station; compare it to the themes for later radio-bound sitcoms NewsRadio (a purely instrumental theme, 1995) and Frasier (a show about tossed salad and scrambled eggs, 1993).**

Interestingly, as storytelling songs declined in pop music, they continued to be prominent in rap and country, both genres that exploded in popularity in the 1990s.  The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which began airing in 1990, was developed around the likable persona of Will “Fresh Prince” Smith, already known for a family-friendly rap style that spun shaggy-dog stories out of the foibles and ironies of everyday life.  The theme song he and producer Quincy Jones came up with is spun directly out of his act and sets up the fish-out-of-water comedy that was the show’s bread and butter in early seasons. (At almost three minutes, the song is fully as long as a typical pop song, and was edited to be much shorter after the first few episodes; effectively, the opening credits sequence was like an introductory music video.)

There are many, many theme songs for cartoon shows from the 1980s that have expository qualities; a large number of them appear to take Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” as their model.  The theme for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is among the most detailed, describing how the four title characters came to be, naming them individually and describing the qualities they bring to the team (not to mention their love of partying, dude). When the series was resurrected in 2012, the theme song was remade in a more current style, with the lyrics turned into a rap that fits in even more narrative detail.

Indeed, as Robert Lloyd alluded to, the expository theme song is common for children’s programming in general.  Whether this reflects the practical realities of syndication (which makes it even more likely that any episode could be a viewer’s first) or television executives’ dim view of a younger audience’s ability to follow in-context clues I couldn’t say, but anecdotal evidence suggests the latter.

In any case, it is striking to consider how many expository theme songs, both for children and adults, begin with the words “This is the story . . . “ or some variation thereof.  It invites the viewer to settle in and enter the world and mindset of the narrative, and in some cases it’s a literal invitation to “come inside” or “come along,” as if the show were a real place, just on the other side of the television screen.  The introduction to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986) takes that premise about as far as it can go, not only with the opening invitation and the lyrical inclusion of the many, many characters on the show, but with a wordless, “Quiet Village”-style introductory section that further separates the ordinary world outside the Playhouse from the manic sugar-high to be found within.

The extent to which these songs have penetrated the collective memory is evident in the number of parodies and remakes that have been done, and secondary references in movies and other TV shows.  They have the quality of received folklore, which is perhaps part of their cyclical appeal: as kids for whom they are part of their childhood grow up and move into positions of influence in media, a new crop of explanatory story-songs are composed for television shows that reflect their experience.  In the late 1980s, comedy game show Remote Control (1987) and bad-movie powerhouse Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988) both drew on this tradition (interestingly, both centered on the viewer’s relationship to the media, its influence, and the desire to reshape or talk back to it; the stock footage-driven Dream On (1990) fit a similar pattern, although it was introduced with a wordless opening-credits sequence rather than a song).  MST3K’s theme song is quite possibly the ultimate example of the genre, not just for its breakdown of the show’s premise and “robot roll call” but for its trope-defining final couplet: “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts, then repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.’”

Now, the generation that came of age with those programs is making its mark and bringing back the expository theme song, particularly in animation, with such programs as Phineas and Ferb (2007), Adventure Time (2010), and Sanjay and Craig (2013).  Outside of their theme songs, these shows make frequent use of songs in montage; the humor found in the “literal” narration, baldly describing events that can be seen occurring onscreen, hearkens back to the theme for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986), another late ‘80s touchstone that challenged classic sitcom structure by calling attention to it at every possible turn.

Will the expository theme song return to prime time?  It doesn’t seem likely right now, but who knows?  Perhaps the kids watching Disney, Nick, and Cartoon Network today will become the creators and composers of tomorrow and continue the cycle.

* This leaves aside programs based on popular songs, of which there were several: Harper Valley PTA (1981) was a spinoff from a 1978 movie, based on a hit song from ten years before; a number of holiday specials have been based on narrative songs, most notably “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but also including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  Naturally, the songs that inspired these programs were used as themes.

** Not to dismiss those theme songs, of course, but they have a different function, exploring the theme or character of their show rather than the plot.