Creativity’s Fountains of Youth | Freedom of Flight & The Rhythm of Oceans
Before ANYONE start talking about Ponyo’s or Princess Kaguya’s music…Let it be known that it has become borderline tradition for composers to be inspired by grandiose concepts rooted in nature. So let’s talk a bit about flying and water as inspiration for musical masterpieces waiting to be written.
Flight is an universal human dream. To many it optimises the concept of freedom, expression and to be one with nature. For others, diving into large bodies of water and the resulting sense of weightlessness can also be considered gaining a spiritual connection with the natural forces. Music embodies that notion of an universal language; a language that literally every human can understand, so musicians and composers worldwide would certainly have written or conceptualised ideas in expressing these above sensations through music. In fact, this drive is so powerful…when a composer scores a film, more often than not, tracks that are written specifically to express the sense of flying or diving into water, are often the best tracks written for the entire film:
International film music legend John Williams’ flying theme for Buckbeak was composed with exhilarating complexity, but the honest emotion expressed by the entire track is clear: percussion’s intense start offers instant perspective on suspense and a frantic heart beat, before a layer of strings and woodwinds glides across the soundscape with effortless grace, following Harry as he races across Hogwarts’ surrounding lakes and rivers, unable to contain his excitement, as are the trumpeting brass that tried in vain to contain their urge to burst forth in full force.
What if a composer was fortunate enough to score a film that lives and breathes expressive freedom, blissful children’s imagination and flying? Having gained back his creative voice after suffering a family tragedy, Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s love letter to childhoods came in the form of a film score that relishes in its expressive freedom: composers almost never get to write music like this for live-action films any more. Absolutely entrancing in its depiction of long memories past, harps and the recorder introduces Paper Planes’ flying theme in ‘Ready to Launch‘. With still the rest of the orchestra to utilise, the theme slowly builds momentum as the strings slashed with impatience, the percussion joins in, the lone triangle, trumpet and oboe following along as well. Finally, the paper plane leaves the throwing hand and the orchestra erupts. Hardly done, Westlake’s utilisation of the full ensemble showcases its versatility in ‘My Journey Starts Here‘, this time barely even trying to mask that sense of glee in finding melodic inspiration from the likes of classic adventure fantasy film music as the track reaches the 03:00 mark. Needless to say, the film’s entire runtime is blessed with music of this quality.
How about I give you people a reason to like something, that came as the result of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender adaptation? Listen to the music. Taking inspiration from the four elements, veteran film composer James Newton Howard readily utilised the orchestras’ various sections to personify the musical textures related to each element throughout the film: the percussion for Earth, the woodwinds for Air, the brass for Fire and strings for Water. Not only that, the climactic musical finale ‘Flow Like Water‘ was written with direct influence from all four elements, with obvious emphasis on Air and Water. The resulting musical gem is a glorious passage of curious sounding textures, lyrical beauty and inspired artistic vision. Music more than fit for a cinematic masterpiece…rather than the film it was written for instead.
So what does this have to do with the rest of the post? Everything. You’ve got films taking place under the sea, a princess from the heavens and worlds of Vikings and dragons. Might as well let you know a little about just how much composers love writing for flying scenes and oceans.
Ponyo | Musical Landscapes, Personalities And the Sublime Nature of it All
At this point in Joe Hisaishi’s career, it would be overly obvious to say that his ‘Studio Ghibli sound’ has very much solidified. However, that is not to say that the composer is willing to sit idle. His respective film scores for two different directors showcases musical experimentation that are very much unique to modern Hisaishi, including the increased utilisation of a sizeable choir ensemble, opera soprano solo, and rather ironically… exploring soundscapes that are more of an oriental personality.
The loose narrative inspirations Hayao Mizayaki took from the classic The Little Mermaid for Ponyo can be considered to be too minute for critical detailing, however, when examining the music from a more comparative angle, Hisaishi’s creative inspirations and his own touches becomes diverse and colourful.
For one thing, how about we start off with a little exercise? After closing your eyes and with putting your headphones on (or with your stereo on high in a quiet room), listen to the track below ‘Deep Sea Pastures’ for one whole minute (or…when the choir dies down).
As a combination of checking how many people made it this far into the post…and as an interesting experiment: in the comments section describe the sensations, mental images, the feelings and state you find yourself in upon listening to that passage.
Alright, let’s…think about this. Miyazaki purposefully opened Ponyo with an almost diegetically silent atmosphere-building scene, showcasing underwater sea life with subdued sound effects that quietly flows along. In contrast, the entire cinematic frame is abundant with life, ambience and texture. And so, for the entire four and a half minute pre-opening scene, Hisaishi’s music was given complete sensual control. And boy does he take advantage of that.
In terms of describing the first minute…the performance of the main theme is a perfect showcase of musical texturing to create tangible, sonic environments that completely envelops the listener, and Hisaishi perfectly emulates the weightlessness and sensations of being underwater with wave-like progressions in the orchestral and choral undertones: the harps glides underneath and over the steady flow of strings, the woodwinds trilling continuously upwards and downwards, along with the choir awwwing majestically, as if attempting an impression of the gentle ocean waves. Dare I say it sounds absolutely heavenly?
Incidentally, allow me to point out that Hisaishi sought out quality inspiration for music like this. This ‘Deep Sea Pastures’ segment and of course sections that repeats its basic tonal progression follows a particular brand of symphonic writing that is very much impressionistic and rather…harmonically abstract at first glance. However, as one learns to listen more closely…the seemingly bizarre orchestral colours all coincide to form a rainbow, metaphorically speaking.
Listening to impressionist composer Maurice Ravel’s so-called choreographic symphony ‘Daphnis et Chloe‘, the inspirations sounds as clear as day, and it’s certainly not hard to guess why Hisaishi chose to follow this particular influence for Ponyo’s first scene. (I implore you to at least listen to Ravel’s piece from the beginning to 05:11. Wonderful stuff.)
Much like Ravel, Hisaishi’s intentions in scoring this scene were to convey a sense of flowing movement, taking into account the masses of individual energies that interact within the landscape simultaneously, creating an environment that sounds and feels overwhelming, alive and breathtaking.
Ponyo herself also gets a whimsically childish theme, usually carried by flighty woodwind and strings passages or charmingly simple glockenspiel solos. This was immediately introduced in the first film track as well, after the second musical climax helmed by the main theme (from 03:55 in ‘Deep Sea Pastures’). And much like Laputa, Hisaishi had a little fun playing around with the theme.
From the innocuous mickey-mousing in ‘The First Meeting‘; where Ponyo’s theme was deconstructed and performed by an ensemble of plucked strings, harp and xylophones, to the hilariously epic British fanfare rendition in ‘Ponyo Flies‘, the composer was able to capture a wide range of character-based antics; whether Ponyo is depicted as being stuck in a glass bottle, or gliding across a sea-storm; just by altering her theme performances.
The minor characters were also catered to with themes that composed with their unique qualities in mind. The stern by gentle mother Lisa was given a warm theme in ‘Night Signal‘, performed by a violin section, piano and clarinet (curiously similar theme to what Hisaishi wrote for Granmamare, but we will go into that later), while Fujimoto’s eccentric quirks and a rather weird sense of fashion was depicted musically with a slightly heavy and clumsy theme.
Finally, one simply cannot leave this conversation without mentioning Hisaishi’s absolutely stunning theme for the Mother of the Sea.
Masako Hayashi returns from Princess Mononoke to lend her voice to Ponyo’s soundtrack, this time showcasing her vastly improved vocal range and control, having introduced a more aggressive operatic tone that absolutely soars in vibrato. For such a mystical and graceful character, I couldn’t think of a better musical style with which to depict her.
Also…not sure if it was a coincidence, but the final notes of this track seems to echo Alan Menken’s ‘Part of Your World‘ composition for The Little Mermaid.
Within the blue, the sea lilies sway,
I spoke with countless siblings
In the language of bubbles.
Do you still remember?
In the distant past, you and I lived together in the blue sea,
The jellyfish, sea urchins, fish, and crabs
Were all your siblings
Do you still remember?
In the distant past, you and I lived together in the blue sea
Within the blue, the sea lilies sway,
Do you still remember? Your brothers and sisters
Hardly done, Joe Hisaishi afforded this master stroke with a few more instrumental performances, the best of which being a violin solo with full orchestral and choral backing in ‘Song for Mothers and the Sea‘. The track also blends the former motif with the main theme for one final monumental explosion of musical colours, before leading into the grand finale.
Oh, and the end credits is where you get this diabetes-inducing track, turning Ponyo’s theme into a children’s song.