LAWRENCE – When the pickup truck carrying Ku Klux Klansman Felix rolls onscreen in “BlacKkKlansman,” Oscar-nominated composer Terence Blanchard employs a harmonic device that has signified villainy since the days of another anti-Semite, Richard Wagner.
Scott Murphy, University of Kansas professor of music, said his ears pricked up when he heard “the evil triad,” as he calls it, while taking in “BlacKkKlansman” in the theatre.
He says it’s the relationship, or distance, between two triads – triads are groups of three notes arranged in a particular pattern – that a piece of music cycles between that creates the gloomy effect. (See related video above.)
Murphy has written extensively about movie music. His YouTube video, “How to Imitate a Whole Lot of Hollywood Music in Four Easy Steps,” has nearly 2 million views. He’s available to comment on this year’s Oscar-nominated original scores.
In the case of the “evil triad,” Murphy says, the root notes of the two minor chords are eight semi-tones apart – an arrangement he calls a “minor-8-minor.” Moving back and forth between those chords seems to create a sense of unease or foreboding.
Murphy credits “Star Wars” composer John Williams for establishing the “evil triad” in the film world.
“Starting in the 1980s with ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,’ he will begin to use this progression very clearly for the antagonist, for some kind of evil presence,” Murphy said. “There is a precedent for this in 19th century opera. When we think of John Williams’ scores, we often associate them with Richard Wagner, the 19th century German opera composer, particularly in the use of themes for various characters and other aspects of the narrative, as well as writing very lush, romantic orchestral music.”
Murphy points to the existence of the so-called evil triad in Wagner’s most famous work, the four-opera cycle "Der Ring das Nibelungen."
“In one of Wagner’s operas we indeed have a progression, which is exactly a minor-8-minor, that is associated with a magic helmet that the dwarf Alberich wears. Alberich is a very dark, insidious character in some ways, and he uses this helmet for nefarious things,” Murphy said.
“So maybe Wagner was the first to associate it with all things evil and dark, and then it gets resurrected in the ’80s with John Williams. And ever since then composers know it and take advantage of it.
“‘BlacKkKlansman’ falls in a long line of films that use this, but they tend to be fantasy films. So to use it in this dark comedy…. The gesture itself is pretty simple. But the choice to use it — to bring in all these associations with other characters and bring that to bear on what we, the viewer, are seeing and hearing – that’s what’s profound."