Thursday, April 22

Passing the Conch: The Back to the Island Guest Column

Aloha, folks.

I'm currently hard at work, piecing together another of my shambling creations. It'll post tomorrow on, and I hope it's enjoyed. In the meanwhile, let's pass the Conch and cede the stage to Musicologist, Music Journalist, and Musician Josh Cutchin.

Josh shot me an email this week pointing out some interesting musical trivia about this week's episode. Seeing as he's the Musicologist, and I'm the dude with a blog, I thought I'd offer him a chance to share his thoughts with all of you. He came back to me with a really interesting piece. So put your virtual hands together for Mr. Josh Cutchin, who's musical stylings can be sampled by clicking this here link.


The Last Recruit was a very special episode of ABC’s LOST. Not because of any ground-shaking, earth-shattering revelations, but rather because it was the first episode of the six-year series that dared to approach its musical content with the same fervor and depth it usually reserves for themes, mythology, and imagery.

Please don’t misunderstand me: LOST has used music in very successful ways before. The continuity of themes is admirable – Beyond the Sea and Catch a Fallen Star have popped in and out of the series in significant ways that are meaningful to the plot and its themes. However, the original score, by Michael Giacchino, has done little to inspire. In most cases, the score of LOST does what every film score should do on its most basic level: it complements the music and stays out of the way. In The Last Recruit, however, Giacchino’s score aspired to do something more, to impart meaning.

Approximately twenty-five minutes into the broadcast (eighteen, for you online viewers), I was struck by what sounded like a paraphrase of Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 third movement. Compare the Chopin to this excerpt from The Last Recruit (MMorse - I've attempted to add Josh's mp3 file to this post without success. Fortunately, Josh has helpfully provided you with the approximate time of the score snippet in question. I'll see about figuring out how to get the actual file on here). The similarities are striking.

Both compositions are built on top of a repeated minor third quarter-note ostinato; the Piano Sonata third movement (commonly know as Chopin’s Marche funèbre: Lento, or “Funeral March”) is in Bb minor, while Giacchino’s composition is only a half-step higher, in B minor. Moreover, the melodies of both compositions are built around minor thirds, while the sequence of long and short notes is strikingly similar. If the time was taken to transcribe Giacchino’s composition, more similarities would undoubtedly surface.

So why imitate Chopin’s “Funeral March”? Well, some of the reasons are obvious to fans of the series. At this particular point in the story, the ominous “Man-in-Black" is leading his ragtag group of followers through the jungle on a literal march – when coupled with the longstanding deathly connotations of Chopin’s composition, the connection is obvious. The Man-in-Black is leading them to something less-than-desirable.

M. Ziem, a fellow artist and longtime associate of Chopin, wrote this about the Funeral March’s composition:

"Some time later Chopin came into my studio, just as George Sand depicts him -- the imagination haunted by the legends of the land of frogs, besieged by nameless shapes. After frightful nightmares all night, in which he had struggled against specters who threatened to carry him off to hell, he came to rest in my studio. His nightmares reminded me of the skeleton scene and I told him of it. His eyes never left my piano, and he asked: “Have you a skeleton?” I had none; but I promised to have one that night, and so invited Polignac to dinner and asked him to bring his skeleton. What had previously been a mere farce became, owing to Chopin's inspiration, something grand, terrible and painful. Pale, with staring eyes, and draped in a winding sheet, Chopin held the skeleton close to him, and suddenly the silence of the studio was broken by the broad, slow, deep, gloomy notes. The “Dead March” was composed there and then from beginning to end."

“Nameless shapes,” albeit coincidental, certainly conjures up images of the Man-in-Black’s alternate guise, that of the Smoke Monster. Confronting one’s mortality also seems to be a theme prevalent on LOST. Most striking and important, however, are the less-obvious connections between Chopin’s composition and LOST.

Giacchino’s theme appears once more following the Sawyer’s explanation of his plot to double-cross the Man-in-Black – the former has decided to ditch the latter in a bid to escape the island. On the surface, Sawyer and a handful of his comrades are allied with the Man-in-Black. In reality, they are planning to rebel against him and leave. University of Pennsylvania and renowned Chopin scholar Jeffrey Kallberg claims that the “Funeral March” is as much about the November Uprising as it is about death.

Chopin, a Polish nationalist, had deep sympathies for his countrymen in their effort to seek independence from the Russian Empire. Needless to say, the effort went poorly, with over 7,000 Polish soldiers dying in the battle. Upon learning of the failed attempt, the grief-stricken Chopin composed his Piano Sonata No. 2. Chopin’s first biographer was so struck by the result that he heard “the pain and grief of an entire nation” within the third movement.*

At this point in LOST, there are various factions working towards numerous ends. In the case of Sawyer, he is trying to assert his independence from the Man-in-Black; however, the similarities between Michael Giacchino’s score and Chopin’s “Funeral March,” with all of its baggage, simply do not bode well for our protagonists.

*The Marche funèbre was played at the funerals of Chopin, President John F. Kennedy, and Joseph Stalin.


  1. WOW - Very interesting stuff. I am a bit of a musician myself and have been very pleased with the score of Lost as it enhanced each scene thematically. I did notice a change in the score with this episode. I passed it off as sort of a crescendo that foreshadowed the score of the finale, mimicking something familiar. Great job with the explanation!

  2. Nice Analysis, I love the way the did that, glad I'm not the only one.

  3. Fantastic piece, thanks Josh.

    Although I would disagree with the assertion that Giacchino's score "does little to inspire". Unless Josh means that it doen't always have the kind of specific references and inferences that can inspire a column like the above, in which case, fair enough.

  4. Thanks, Daniel! And thanks to everyone else for the kind words!

    I've always felt that the score has done its job, but stopped short of being as referential as other aspects of production. Generally on LOST, a given line of dialogue or episode will - as MMorse has shown us - have countless links to philophies, philophers, scientific teachings, literature, etc. I feel that thius is the first time that I have noticed such attention in the score. Of course, maybe I'm just now starting to listen more closely!

  5. Thanks for contributing, Josh! It may not look like it from the comments section, but your words have been devoured by quite a few people. My email in-box is always open - if you "spot" any other interesting musical cues/references/notes of intrigue, let me know. You're welcome to do as many of these as there are score moments to comment on.