Soundtracks of Significance: “The Truman Show”
or, “Hymns of Praise for a Television Christ”
Is this a film about a fictional television show?
Someone is being interviewed; is this a mockumentary?
Is this a comedy? Are we supposed to laugh at Truman, or rejoice in him? Here in 1998, the only straight roles Jim Carrey has ever played were in The Dead Pool and that TV movie no one saw. Does the fictional audience watching the fictional television show think that his television show is a comedy?
In any given scene, are we watching the show itself? Where, precisely, is the fourth wall?
Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? We are so used to the luxury of always knowing exactly how many walls there are and where they’re located in psychic space. Now we’re being asked to imagine a world, and a world within a world, where that is no longer the case.
At first this is a fun philosophical adventure. But then a cold edge starts to form. . .
And guiding us through all of this conceptual jiu-jitsu is a score by German-born Australian composer Burkhard Dallwitz and the quintessentially American Philip Glass. The music is alternately whimsical and somber, saccharine then brutal, Hollywood then Bauhaus. As with the story, we’re constantly being ripped back and forth across the terminator between light and dark, because that’s what this movie is about: the pervasive dialectics of reality and the hard divisions that we can’t always see but which inevitably touch our lives.
In the music, we also have the fun diegetic “problem” of trying to parse out whether what we’re hearing is in the soundtrack to the movie, or the soundtrack to the television show, or something even more interstitial.
We can occasionally garner a clue about how to make this decision by looking at which of the two primary composers is credited on any given track. Dallwitz’s more melody-oriented pieces, in their simple (though no less moving) sweetness, seem to be good candidates for in-world television soundtracks. They wear their emotions on their sleeve, and as such manage to simultaneously seem both safe and emotionally intense. They remind me of the music of David Hamburger, who has scored the TV shows Heavy and My 600-Lb Life. Absolutely legitimate and beautiful compositions, but you would never mistake them for “actual” classical music.
The compositions by Glass, however, bring with them several additional layers of musical and emotional complexity. They insist on our attention in a way that a television soundtrack would never tolerate. Glass’s pieces might be considered the score of the film, as a distinct entity from the television show. While both composers’ contributions are absolutely vital to the film’s impact, one could be forgiven for considering Glass the film’s “real” composer; when we are experiencing the film’s outermost conceptual layers, where all of its primary emotional payloads are delivered, it is his music that is almost always playing.
All that said, there are so many exceptions and nuances to this that we need some concrete examples to hang our conceptual hats on. Fortunately some enterprising individuals have played fast-and-loose enough with copyrights to provide us with some audio aids.
“It’s a Life” (Dallwitz)
This is almost certainly the theme music from “The Truman Show” television show. It’s beautiful and sweet, and (or should I say “but”) has a simple emotional profile. The arpeggiated chords are a simple I-IV-V progression, the gentlest possible sequence that makes the Western ear feel good. A short piece, just long enough to cover the few credits that such a show would have (not that the crew would be small; just that Christof wouldn’t be all that generous with attribution of effort).
This piece accompanies the scene where Truman reunites with his “father” who he thought was dead. We get the greatest insight into the actual production process of “The Truman Show” during this scene. The engineering booth of “Seahaven Island” is given significant coverage, and it is in the midst of Christof’s “live editing” of Truman’s reunion that we first see that the music we’ve been listening to has been being performed live by a studio musician (played by real-life pianist John Pramik). We see the pianist take real-time direction from Christof in what is a mildly comic moment; the presence of this musician surprises us, like seeing Count Basie in Blazing Saddles. We hadn’t noticed the music, or if we did, we assumed it was in the soundtrack to the movie, not the television show.
From this, what can we infer about the nature of the scoring process of “The Truman Show”? Perhaps the composer is given clues about the emotional textures expected to occur in Truman’s upcoming life, and he or she prepares pieces containing extended periods of vamping and repetition, to be altered and improvised around in the moment.
Perhaps there is a pre-prepared database of such cues, themes, and vamps which are tagged and cross-referenced to all of Truman’s (or the audience’s) possible emotional states. Perhaps the studio musicians routinely rehearse “Contentment”, or “Whimsy”, or “Agony”.
“Truman Sleeps” (Glass)
This is the other piece that we see being performed “live on the air”. This time the pianist is Philip Glass himself, and this time the moment is not played for laughs.
It is a lonely piece for a lonely scene, containing in its chord progression two exquisite examples of the Glassian major-third modulation: F minor to D-flat, A-flat to C. The effect can be jarringly modern the first time you hear it, but it is still the best musical technology in existence if you want to produce a weepingly sweet melancholy moment, which is what this is.
The scene involves three characters in a moment of dark and calm. Christof, “the creator”, watches Truman sleep, on a night-vision video feed projected twenty feet high. They are separated by some indeterminate number of miles, and Truman is unaware of this intimate relationship that he is in.
Here we get some sense of the tragedy of Christof’s position. His life and work and his sense of purpose have bound him to the well-being of this innocent, conflicted white guy, a person that Christof had intended to use as just another art material, but who has become so much a work of art all by himself that Christof is feeling the parental bittersweetness of becoming unnecessary.
The scoring Christof’s pet-the-dog moment is a lone pianist on a keyboard. He plays for Christof and maybe for himself and for some indeterminate number of people around the world who, for lack of a more technologically appropriate term, “love” Truman, and who watch him sleep because it makes them feel somehow safe and full of joy.
Piano Concerto #1 in E minor, Op. 11 – Romanze & Larghetto (Chopin)
In 1829, Frédéric Chopin was studying at the Warsaw conservatory when he met the young soprano Konstancja Gładkowska and immediately fell in love with her. He was nineteen years old and was first learning the potential of music to bridge the gap between what he feels inside and what he can make other people feel. Her presence in his life at this formative time first compelled him to attempt to capture the beauty of the human voice in his music, greatly informing his now trademark lyrical melodic constructions.
In a letter to a friend, Chopin secretly dedicated this movement of his first piano concerto to Gładkowska, whom in many correspondences he called his “ideal”. Chopin left Warsaw the next year, and the correspondence between him and Gładkowska ends the year after that. Gładkowska marries a rich landowner the following year. Chopin never marries.
This piece is about that perfect female beauty which exists at a distance but which life interferes to keep away from you. Even if you don’t know the story behind this piece and how closely it mirrors Truman’s situation, the piece clearly demonstrates that sweet-sad, lonely, pining piano music was not an invention of the late twentieth century. Its inclusion in this soundtrack is a brilliant artistic choice.
“Raising the Sail” (Glass)
This is the piece that leads us up to the emotional pinnacle of the film. Truman has died and been resurrected, and now he is ascending to the sky where he will walk upon the water and speak to his own personal god and father. He does not yet grasp the true nature of his world, but he knows that the battle that he is fighting, the one that he has been unknowingly fighting his whole life, is worth the fight.
The music is subdued, no brassy exultations or synth explosions, but in Glass’s inimitable way there is a pulsing, anxious current running through the piece which causes the listener’s heart to surge like a horse in its traces. How often do we wish that we had Truman’s bright blue certainty of the rightness of our quest? The film is not over; no resolution is in sight, and we know that despite the smile on Truman’s face he is still (at this point) a prisoner. But the music tells us what is in Truman’s soul: faith in his convictions, the joy of bold adventure, and a sweet suffering hope.
The piece is structured similarly to “Truman Sleeps”: active bass, static treble, frequent mediant modulations. But where “Sleeps” has the melody locked in a limited tonal box, “Raising the Sail” seems to be continually exploring new twists and outward reaches, eventually dragging the chords outside of their four-square comfort zones into new combinations and fresh voicings. And then in the last minute, the piano sings, just some simple two-note harmonies, but with an aching upwards trend, like fingers reaching for the sun.
On the page, Truman raising the sail is a pathetic, hopeless act, a tiny bug shaking his fist at a steamroller. But music has the power to recontextualize what we see on the screen, and the contributions by Glass and Dallwitz fill in the gap between the “image” and the “moment”. The music of The Truman Show is significant because of its willingness to seemingly work at cross-purposes to the text and the image, and in doing so it causes the film to achieve an oblique and intense impact on the audience.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that the soundtrack is not just something to listen to as the movie happens. The composer is a storyteller too. What story are they telling?