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.