Check out this video of Tom Cruise talking about Scientology, apparently leaked from the Scientology organization (they got it pulled from YouTube, but copies are kicking around the internet). The ideological content is pretty wierd, and it’s Tom Cruise, which make it interesting enough. But check out the Minimalist use of the “Mission Impossible” theme as underscoring.
It’s a 4/4 version, played mostly on electric bass. The theme itself is two bars long, and the two halves are very similar–the rhythm is the same, and the only difference is that the last two notes of the first phrase are scale intervals 3 and 4, and the last two notes of the second phrase are scale intervals 7 and sharp 7. It thus contains internal repetition and, through the leading tone at the end, encourages repetition. By my count, in this video that two bar theme is played 118 times in a row, and given the structure of the theme it almost feels like 236 times. Various subtle background changes happen slowly over time–the drums change, you get some electric guitar, etc.–but for the most part it just grooves along in the background. The teleological payoff comes in the final 8 cycles, when big electric guitars come in followed by a horn section playing the iconic da-da-daaaaah da-da-daaaaah da-da-daaaaah da-dum.
Psychologically, this strategy is very effective. Because the music is so repetitive, it fades into the background–my first time through the video I came to a point about two thirds of the way through where I realized that I had forgotten that there was music in the background. At the same time, the music structured my experience of listening to Cruise talk. Maybe it’s because I’m not a Scientologist myself and so I lack the necessary cultural background to understand how things fit together, but my impression was that Cruise was just rambling, and that his speech lacked any sort of narrative structure. There was no argument to follow, no explaination of anything concrete, just a string of unrelated and unsubstantiated claims about how important and valuable Scientology and its practices are. But the music provided structure. Most western music suggest to the listener a distand musical goal that the music is working toward–phrases either say “there’s something else coming, keep listening” or “that’s it for a bit, now for something different.” The internal repetition and the leading tone at the end of this theme makes us want the same cell to repeat–like a serpent swallowing its own tail, the cell is its own destination. This effect creates a simultaneous feeling of continuous movement and stasis–there’s no external goal to be reached, yet we want to keep moving. It doesn’t matter that Cruise isn’t giving us a linguistic narrative that keeps our attention, because the music propels us through.
One of the original names for Minimalism, before “Minimalism” was adopted by Tom Johnson and Michael Nyman, was “hypnotic” music–Johnson talks about “the New York hypnotic school” consisting of Glass, Reich, etc., and this video gives an excellent illustration of why. The music sucks you in and holds you in a trance-like state while you listen to Cruise. In his book Repeating Ourselves: Minimalism as Cultural Practice, Robert Fink describes how repetition in Minimalist music is similar to repetition in advertising, and how both are applications of the same principle: repetition creates desire. I think he has a real point, and highly recommend his book. Advertising, then, is the manufacture of desire for a product, and uses the tool of repetition to that end. Minimalist music is in a sense the manufacture of desire for itself–an artistic exploration of the nature of desire, and of a self-reflective experience of experience itself. Minimalist music feels “modern” and serves as a representation of contemporary culture because we have lived since the beginning of the 20th century in an increasingly repetition-intensive and cycle-based environment. This video combines the features of both, employing minimalist repetition to manufacture the desire to keep listening (and to not notice that Cruise isn’t making much sense) as a tool for delivering advertising for the Scientology product. As far as I can tell, this video is intended for practicing Scientologists new to the organization, and the “product” is coming deeper in and starting to evangelize.
The other interesting aspect of the use of the MI theme is the fact that they hold the brass theme for the very end. The music that cycles through the bulk of the video doesn’t itself create desire for an external goal, and so can repeat for as long as it needs to, but at the same time we all know that other theme and we expect, or at least hope, that we will hear it. The longer that theme is withheld, the more we want it; after 110 repetitions of the bass theme with the almost tantric withholding of the horn theme, when it finally arrives the payoff is huge. That payoff, of course, coincides with the final sales pitch: “A Scientologist can be defined by a single question: Would you want others to achieve the knowledge you now have? In answering that question, Tom Cruise has introduced LOH technology to over one billion people of Earth. And that’s only the first wave he’s unleashed, which is why the story of Tom Cruise, Scientologist, has only just begun.” So after about 9 minutes of rambling and meandering, the linguistic narrative coalesces on this point, and the aesthetic satisfaction created by the musical arrival enhances the listener’s satisfaction with the statement being made by the narrator.
Final verdict? Scientology is a creepy, weird cult, but their Ministry of Propaganda, or whatever they call it, is full of evil geniuses.