Thursday 15 January 2015

Boites a Musique - Music Boxes

I spent yesterday evening helping my daughter make a music box out of Lego and an old credit card - it sort of works - and it got me inspired to look for some real music box music.

It's weird that music boxes are such a little mentioned phase of European music, yet still so ubiquitous. Their manufacture was mostly centered on Switzerland in the 19th century. I spent 16 years not far from the Swiss border so maybe I was in the area of influence, but anyway, it seemed like the thing in France to try to put your kids to sleep with CDs of pseudo music box lullabies.

I always found them sinister, filled with too many associations with the past. There's the personal past of childhood with its innocence that is and isn't really, and which only looks carefree to adults who find its fears and heartaches inconsequential. And then, it also feels to me like a line straight into European history. Sounds good? Well, there's this particular image that always comes to me when I hear a music box, of myself sitting in the sun in a cafe in the peaceful main square of a French town, looking up at an ancient building. In it, one of France's most prominent novelists lived out his upper-middle-class childhood to the sound of music boxes perhaps, and to the sight of corpses swinging on the public gibbet outside his window, while war, pestilence and famine roamed the land at all too regular intervals. So yes, there's a sort of nostalgia there, but also the ache of uncomfortable memories and the sense that the relative freedom and affluence of the present is a fragile thing.

 It's an impression which isn't unique to me and which really comes through in the use of the music box in film. I can relate to this lullaby from Pan's Labyrinth and the Davy Jones theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. But I also found a couple of musician composers I'd like to get to know better.

Colleen made a whole CD of music box compositions called, obviously enough, Colleen et les Boites a Musique. I'll Read You a Story plays on the idea of a child's bedtime, and I like the official video with a real ballerina in place of the dolls which traditionally danced on top of the boxes. This piece is definitely embracing the darkness.

As far as I know, Rhian Sheehan only made one music box composition, La Boite a Musique but I want to explore his work more anyway. This piece has a rather Far Eastern feel to it and I wonder if he was influenced by the use of music boxes in Japanese anime.

I've heard music boxes in a few other places. My favorite band, Katzenjammer, have used them, and I gather Bjork has too.

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