SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER: AN EXPLORATION IN RHYTHM
When I heard that La-La Land Records was going to be releasing an expanded and remastered recording of James Horner’s score for the 1993 film, Searching for Bobby Fischer, I was overjoyed. Horner’s work for this is one of his greatest masterpieces in his amazing career. It is also, perhaps, one of his most underappreciated scores. Horner has always been a master at tugging at our emotions by so perfectly accompanying what is happening on the screen, and his work on this film is certainly no exception. It is with pure joy that I rediscovered this score through the LLLR remastered release and cemented my admiration and respect for the score through all the music presented, both newly released and from the original motion picture soundtrack.
Another treat accompanying this new release is the fantastic liner notes written by Brian Satterwhite. These liner notes provide copious analyses of the melodic motifs that create the framework of the score, and also explore many of the compositional devices that Horner uses to develop these motifs. As a formally-educated music teacher and composer myself, it was wonderful to read an in-depth analysis by such a studied individual. The intellectual and aesthetic mastery of Horner’s work extends even beyond Satterwhite’s exceptional analysis; it would be truly impossible to explore every element that Horner employed. Horner’s rhythmic manipulation of meter and subdivision never fails to reveal deeper layers of complexity. An example from Searching for Bobby Fischer can most notably be heard in the track Josh and Vinnie. Horner has used this technique in several of his films (Sneakers and Titanic, among others) and it is at the heart of what gets our blood pumping in this scene.
Josh and Vinnie begins with a flute solo playing the “Bobby Fischer Theme” heard throughout the score, only this time, we’re in F Major. The clarinet plays a scalar passage to add harmonic elements. There is a brief interjection (0:14) by the piano and lower strings. The theme is stated a second time; this time an oboe joins the flute and a bassoon joins the clarinet. The strings enter to echo this in beautiful contrary motion (0:38) and lead into the next section. Here is where Horner’s rhythmic manipulation begins and where the intensity starts to build. A brush on a suspended cymbal (0:51) leads us into extreme complexity. A solo clarinet enters playing a sequential line. We are in triple meter with duple subdivisions (such as 3/4). Accompanying the clarinet are string pizzicatos and bongos. The tempo is slow. The bassoons enter (1:11) and bring along flutes who play little riffs on top of the clarinet and the lower strings who play the root of each chord. Around 1:20, things start to get cloudy. Throughout this, the tempo is getting a little faster, and the harmonic stability begins to deteriorate. Another brush on the suspended cymbal (1:28) pushes us ahead into the next section. Now we are in a duple meter with a triple subdivision (such as 6/8). The cellos take over the melody and the piano becomes the driving force rhythmically in the accompaniment with the guitar also assisting. Occasional bassoon burst are heard (1:37) amidst the action. The tempo continues to increase. Still in the same pulse, we begin to hear duple subdivisions (1:57) in the string bass under the triple subdivisions heard in the piano and guitar. This is called a “hemiola” and creates a “two-against-three” feel and adds to the growing tension. The hemiola strengthens as more instruments change from three to two (2:06). The entire cello and string bass section plays a downward-moving chromatic scale in hemiola (2:12) as the tempo continues to increase. This leads to another transition, though this one is not as clouded as the first. The tempo keeps getting faster and a roll on a suspended cymbal begins to heighten the tension (2:16). The piano and guitar switch from triple to quadruple subdivision (2:18). There is an A Major chord heard, and the piano moves more into the extremes of its range. All is released at 2:22 with a cymbal crash. There is a key change to D Major. The meter changes to triple with a quadruple subdivision. The upper strings and horn enter and play “Josh’s Theme” while the lower strings play accompanying sustains. The woodwinds double all this, while the piano bangs out the quadruple subdivision. Now, consider what we’ve just been through. We went from triple to duple to triple meter. We went from duple to triple to quadruple subdivisions. Modally, we went from F Major to D Major. All of this happened within two minutes. This piece is playing over Josh’s return to Washington Square to play chess with his friend, Vinnie. This return comes after banishment from the park by his mentor saying that speed chess would ruin his playing. It should be noted that the meter changes back to duple (2:32) in a way that makes the music feel like it must push forward, no longer confined to the triple meter. As we most often hear “Bobby Fischer’s Theme” in a triple meter and “Josh’s Theme” in a duple meter, perhaps one could make the argument that THIS is where Josh finally breaks from Fischer’s shadow and is free to be his own person.
Josh’s happiness and excitement is really masterfully captured in this track, largely due to the rhythmic manipulation that Horner used to increase intensity. The ingenious thing is that through the changes in meter and subdivision, the notes of subdivision appear to simply accelerate! A perfect analogy would be the shifting gears of a car. Once the wheels’ rotations are too fast, the car shifts into a lower gear. The same can be said for the ever-accelerating subdivisions in this track – once they go “too fast,” the meter is changed and the notes are divided into a different subdivision. Using this analogy, consider this as you listen to this track:
The developmental technique is simple but brilliant and masterfully executed! You can focus on a number of elements as you listen to really gain a sense of what is happening rhythmically. First, try to clap your hands with the meter. You will notice that you will speed up as you approach your next “gear,” but the tempo will slow down again once the meter has changed. Once you can feel the changes in meter, go back and tap your hands to the notes that are subdividing each beat. You will be able to hear them first played by the clarinet when you’re in “1st gear,” and then by the piano when you’re in “2nd and 3rd gears.” As you do this, you will, perhaps find that the notes become almost too fast to keep up – as if the whole machine will come apart and it is always at this moment in the music where I feel like I’ve been set free (just as Josh has been) and am flying!
In the film, unfortunately, we don’t get to experience all of this ingenious building of tension and release. Josh and Vinnie actually start their match at 1:28 of the “Josh and Vinnie” track, and the music heard in track 27 of La-La Land Records’ release serves as the introduction as Josh enters the park just prior to the start of the match. Using our “shifting gears” analogy, the music is already in “2nd gear” at this point. One has to wonder… as powerful a scene as this is, imagine how more thrilling it would be if the action on the screen were a bit longer to allow Horner’s music its full life!
I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of La-La Land Records’ new release of Searching for Bobby Fischer. Between the additional music, the exceptional sound quality, and copious analysis provided in the liner notes, it is truly not one to miss! I also hope you will take a close listen to Josh and Vinnie and be able to pick out some of what I discussed in this article. The rhythmic manipulation is just one of Horner’s countless ways he takes something so intellectual and creates something so aesthetic. It is also among the many reasons why I consider him to be one of the greatest film composers of his generation.
Many thanks to Matt Verboys, for giving us the opportunity to write this article in the best possible conditions.
Photo credit: © Paramount Pictures
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