The music of ‘Begone Dull Care’

July 19, 2006

Norman McLarenValarie T. Richard’s out-of-print book Norman McLaren, Manipulator of Movement contains a fascinating account of how Begone Dull Care was made. The film is truely a collaboration between artist and musician. From Richard’s book:

“[Oscar Peterson and Norman McLaren] worked together for four days developing the music. At times Peterson would play variations enabling McLaren to visualize colors and movements, and other times McLaren would describe specific music he wanted for a special effect.”

The score was recorded by Peterson’s trio, featuring Auston Roberts on bass and Clarence Jones on drums (as confirmed in David Meeker’s book Jazz in the Movies). I’ve seen several websites that claim the trio in the film was Peterson’s group with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums, but the music speaks for itself on this issue. Listen as the medium tempo groove goes into double-time in the first musical segment. The drummer lags way behind the beat, and his brushwork is not nearly as refined as Thigpen, who wrote the book on playing with brushes. Additionally, Peterson’s last record prior to working with McLaren was Rockin’ in Rhythm (1947), which he recorded with the Roberts/Jones rhythm section for the Canadian label RCA Masters. So it makes sense that O.P. would be working with Roberts and Jones for his 1949 collaboration with Norman McLaren.

Musicians tend to think about shapes in music moving hoizontally, from right to left. At least, I do. Interestingly, almost all the motion in Begone Dull Care occurs vertically. Take a look.


Begone Dull Care (1949)

July 18, 2006

Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1949) is probably my all-time favorite animated short with a jazz score. The music to the short is provided by the Oscar Peterson Trio. This film avoids tying the music to any kind of representational imagery, using shapes and color to illustrate the music of O.P.’s trio. McLaren deals with the music on its own terms.

My favorite aspect of the film is the way it supports the musical wit of Oscar Peterson, resulting in some laugh-out loud moments (a remarkable accomplishment for a cartoon with no characters or story).

When I showed this film to a friend of mine, an alto saxophonist, she mentioned that she liked how it never repeats itself. The animation is a stream of conciousness, much like O.P.’s improvisation. The film follows the musical structure of three “movements,” each with its own individual identity.

Begone Dull Care is often compared to the work of Jackson Pollock, but I think it more closely resembles the work of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

In the first “movement” of the film, McLaren uses white lines against black to augment the musical unison lines which O.P. plays in octaves on the lower register of the piano. McLaren achieves this effect by scratching directly onto the film stock.




I can’t help but notice the similarities between these drawings and the charcoal-like paintings of Willem de Kooning, made just one year prior to McLaren’s film.

Willem de Kooning. Painting. 1948. Enamel and oil on canvas. On view at MoMa, NYC.

First trip

July 17, 2006

In a January 1, 2006 press release celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Animation, ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive director Steve Worth wrote:

“From its humble beginnings with J. Stuart Blackton’s film, ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ first released on April 6th, 1906, animation has gone on to become one of the greatest American creative contributions to the arts, second only to Jazz.”

Mr. Worth is keen to note the historical relationship between animation and jazz. However, I’ve long felt that animation is one of our most missunderstood art forms, second only to jazz.

Both fields have experienced tremendous growth and innovation in the relatively short history of 100 years. During 1940s and 50s, jazz and animation were each undergoing significant stylistic change. The music of jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk was evolving the language of jazz into a sophisticated new language called be-bop. Similarly, animation artists were developing a new visual language. By the 1950s, the independent animation studio UPA had replaced Disney as the new artistic standard in animation. Many animation artists during this time were amateur or even professional jazz musicians. Some animation directors collaborated with jazz musicians such as Oscar Peterson, Shorty Rogers and Dizzy Gillespie on their short films. So there was a lot of “crossing over” going on.

I’ve always found it interesting that many viewers describe animation art from this period with the same adjectives music critics use to describe jazz from the same period: words such as “angular,” “avant-garde,” and “modern.” But I haven’t seen much discussion on why this is. What prompts someone to call a piece of animation “jazzy?”

Current scholarship on the relationship between jazz and animation has dealt almost exclusively with racial representations of jazz musicians in cartoons. The goal of this blog is to explore the influence of jazz music on animation design in the 1940s and 50s by looking at animated films from this period that feature authentic jazz music. I’m also interested in finding similarities in how jazz musicians and animation artists visualize music. Though my research will focus on the 40s and 50s, this blog will have a broader scope, covering other decades as well.

I hope this blog might prompt dialogue between musicians and artists. So post comments! Thanks for visiting, and stay tuned as this whole thing develops.