Breadcrumb Trail: Music

The Breadcurmb Trail and a brown path with bread crumbs making a trail

Ever wish your favorite song would never end? Instead of replaying it on an endless loop, try diving into the stories behind the songs. Welcome back to the Breadcrumb Trail! In this edition, we take a look at the tales that go into making our favorite tunes, as well as the power of music to affect us and shape the stories of our lives.

Covers of Pitch Perfect, Whiplash, A Visit from the Good Squad, and Norwegian Wood

When listening to a talented musician, what can often go unrecognized is the tremendous effort and practice necessary to make them sound so good. Often this education takes place at a specialized school where intense training and nerve-wracking performances are the norm.

Looking at the lighter side of learning music, the 2012 film Pitch Perfect follows college freshman Beca, played by Anna Kendrick, who begins her journey into the drama-filled world of a cappella. Reluctantly entering college, Beca only wants to pursue her passion as a DJ. Rather than study, she spends her time making mash-ups of her favorite songs and interning at the school radio station. When she is overheard singing in the shower, she is enlisted to join the Barden Bellas, the all-female a cappella troupe. Here she meets the other members, made up of classic stock characters typified by college and high school films.

               As she learns to navigate her way through the drama and politics of the group who are seeking to beat the all-male troupe, the Barden Treblemakers, at this year’s competition, after an embarrassing defeat at the previous contest, Beca’s new ideas about what songs the group should perform get her in hot water. But as the group and the audience comes to love the mash-up styles she favors, enemies become friends on stage and off.

Loosely based on a biography of a collegiate a cappella group, Pitch Perfect is part musical, part comedy, and part classic college flick. Filled with a star-studded ensemble cast the film is a dazzling display of singing and performance as well as a story of how music can bring together even the most opposing personalities.

Where Pitch Perfect looks at the struggles to perform through a heartfelt and humorous angle, the 2014 picture Whiplash tells a much darker tale. Following another first-year student, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, at a prestigious music conservatory in New York City, the story revolves around his relationship with his abusive yet inspiring teacher and conductor of the school’s highest jazz band, played by J.K. Simmons. Dreaming of becoming one of the greats like his hero Buddy Rich, Andrew is a drummer who only wants to play with the best. After being overheard in a practice room late at night, he is invited to try out for the top jazz band.

Once a part of the band, Andrew learns the hard way how to become great at the hands of Terence Fletcher, the cruel perfectionist conductor of the group. An intensely dislikable character, Fletcher berates his students into playing better or quitting in tears, justifying his style as a way to motivate his students and weed out those who don’t have what it takes, namely an all-consuming obsession for talent. He uses the story of Charlie Parker, a legendary jazz saxophonist, who became so after a band leader threw a cymbal at his head. Miles is determined to rise to the occasion through any means necessary, leading to fractured relationships, a traumatic accident, and eventual withdrawal from the school and drumming. The film ends with his and Fletcher’s reunion, initially in conflict but brought together in the end through music.

The film received the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons portrayal of the terrifying teacher Terence Fletcher, as well as Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing, both earned for displaying the hectic and wild patterns of jazz with special emphasis on close-up shots of instruments.

After learning to play and getting some gigs, the next and most difficult part of being in a band is getting a record deal. It can seem like luck or even fate that some bands should be discovered while other great acts never break through. In her book A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan tells the disparate stories of those connected to record executive Bennie Salazar. Spanning generations, from Bennie’s days in an upstart punk band, to his top of the world executive office in downtown L.A., and many characters the he knows or are only related through a string of others. Egan’s novel tells humorous and heartfelt stories about different facets of the music industry and those closely related.

One chapter follows Bennie in his earliest days of trying to get in a band and falling under the influence of an older, cooler record producer. Another chapter finds this producer on his deathbed in his luxury mansion, once the site of outrageous parties and now nearly desolate. An entire chapter consists of a PowerPoint on silences in music, laid out in presentation style that note songs that the narrator found particularly moving, calculating time of break versus emotional impact, interspersed with funny commentary on her family in pie charts and bar graphs.

Another chapter is an article on a movie star whom the interviewer finds so uninteresting he is forced to lash out and assault her just to get a story. The interview is written from jail and the interviewer plays a role in another chapter after he is released and tasked with writing about the career revival of an aged rock star. Like Egan’s other work, The Candy House, the novel is humorous and insightful, delving into family and relationship issues, tragedy and the will to live on that can only be captured in a work that spans decades. It even features characters from The Candy House, placing both works in the same universe, allowing the reader to trace the evolution of characters over multiple works.

Often listening to music can open a whole world of memories inside us, connecting the past to the present through a single song. This is the premise for Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood, named after the Beatles song. After Toru, the narrator, hears a muzak rendition of the song on an airplane he finds himself driven to write down the story of his relationships in college, namely with his friend Naoko and their connection through their deceased best friend, Kizuki.

Inseparable in high school, the friends’ lives change drastically after Kizuki commits suicide. To cope, Toru and Naoko bond over long walks and sharing silence. But when they attend different universities they become estranged, Toru leading a life of an anti-social outcast and Naoko suffering a nervous breakdown, eventually moving into a sanitarium in the mountains. While at school in the city, Toru enjoys his solitude, spending most of his time reading and taking aimless walks. He is uninterested in school life and the civil upheavals on campus. His few connections to others are his womanizing friend Nagasama, with whom he goes out drinking, and Midori a classmate who becomes Toru’s girlfriend, though he still harbors feelings for Naoko.

After Naoko moves to the mountain retreat to focus on her mental health, Toru often visits her, also finding the remote landscape healing. He meets her roommate, an older woman who teaches piano and plays guitar. It is her renditions of Beatles songs that becomes in immovable memory for Toru as he reflects back on his life filled with sorrow, heartbreak, and love. Norwegian Wood tells the story of friends whom tragedy forced to grow up too fast, their relationships, and their struggle to overcome their sorrowful pasts.

Music can contain a world in itself, and listening can shift your mood or match it perfectly. The stories behind the music can be equally as compelling, whether in film or novels, and can create an even larger world filled with emotions and ideas unheard in the original song.

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