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.

6 Responses to “One Billion People of Earth”
  1. Must be a slow day for you to actually talk about this. Pretty sad.

  2. Dean Rosenthal says:

    That being said, the Raelian culture also intrigues me. But I find Scientology a tough sell. I think that the assumption is that everyone finds Scientology creepy, which is why you express yourself in this post, but perhaps there’s offense to be taken. Anyway, the music was horrible.

  3. David,

    I agree with you that repetition _can_ promote active listening, but I would say it depends on the context. To me one of the most interesting things about minimalism is that it works so well for active _or_ passive listening. If you’re engaged in active listening the repetition reveals great depth of subtlty. But if you’re engaged in passive listening it makes a really smooth mood-setting background.

    The definition of “cult” that I’m using isn’t about wierdness of beliefs, it’s about whether the organization practices coercive persuasion. This Wikipedia list in the “cult” article is pretty good:
    1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
    2. their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
    3. they receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from the leader;
    4. they get a new identity based on the group;
    5. they are subject to entrapment and their access to information is severely controlled.

    I’ve also read reports about how Scientology practices include thought-stopping techniques — if you have a thought contrary to the condoned beliefs of the organization you use these techniques to not think about it.

  4. Sparky P. says:

    …until I discovered I didn’t get any holidays off! (rimshot) Two years ago I drove past the head church of scientology (lower case intended; so sue me!) in LA (we were down there to see a performance of the Feldman SQ2 at the LACMA) and, frankly, it looks like Disneyland, fancy castle, flashy lights and all. And any viewer of South Park knows the silly implecations of them (and also what they did to Mormons as well).

  5. David Toub says:

    Galen, when that video first got leaked, one of the liberal blogs I read took pains to point out the repetition of the MI theme, interestingly.
    You don’t need to know an engram from a thetan to understand that while minimalist music initially had been considered to promote a trance-like state in its listeners, the reality is very different. Repetition in music actually promotes active listening. Subtle things matter. My composition teacher in my high school years would have considered this all mind-numbing boredom, but any of us who listen to and/or compose music with repetitive structures easily distinguishes minimalist music from muzak. Even in late Feldman (as I write this, I’m listening to Piano and String Quartet), the slight variances matter and require active listening. I’m listening as I work, and while it’s wonderful, I prefer to be able to devote my entire attention to the music. And I’ve heard that from many others, as I’m sure you have, about music that is truly minimalist (Feldman isn’t a true minimalist, of course).

    And yes, Scientology is strange. But what’s the difference between a cult and a religion other than the former is small in number? And while I can’t get the concept of the universe being trillions of years older than science would suggest, or that alien consciousness is at the root of all our neuroses (I’m sorry, but in my case it’s my mother, although she can resemble an alien at times, living in NJ and all that…), how is that any more absurd than the notion of finding a bunch of gold plates that claim that Jesus returned to the US heartland (Mormon), that Jesus was born out of parthenogenesis and his flesh and blood are consumed during communion (Catholicism), etc.? That’s why I thank god I’m a devout atheist…

  6. Jay Batzner says:

    In all honesty, they lost me when their version of the theme was in 4/4. I remember the “club” version of the theme that came out when the M:I movie came out, also in 4. I hate it in 4. It is awful in 4. Thou shalt only speak of the M:I Theme when it is in 5.

    Your description of what happens musically is fascinating, and probably the work of evil geniuses (as you describe). The fact that they don’t use the theme in 5 is enough of a reason for me to avoid Scientology. As if I need more reasons to avoid Scientology…

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