Breaking Bolcom: Structural Similarities between William Bolcom and Breaking Bad

In actuality, William Bolcom – a prominent living postmodern composer – and the creative forces behind Breaking Bad – a critically acclaimed TV drama about a cancer-stricken former high school chemistry teacher who resorts to manufacturing meth – probably have very little in common.  Both are have been pampered with awards and praise for their respective works, and both have created art that responds to modern life in unique and fascinating ways.  Yet, I have no idea if Bolcom watches Breaking Bad, and there is a good chance that few (if any) of those in the show’s writers’ room have ever heard of Bolcom.  There is a good chance that very little inspiration passes from one side of this arbitrary connection to the other, and there is an even better chance there is none whatsoever.

But art is funny like that.  Sometimes artists use similar abstract processes in their creations even when they achieve wildly different concrete results.

Take, for example, “Scherzo Vitale” (the second movement from Bolcom’s Third Symphony) and “Shotgun” (the fifth episode from Breaking Bad’s fourth season, written by Thomas Schnauz and directed by Michelle MacLaren).  The former comes from a remarkable larger work, but this movement easily stands out as my favorite because of its perpetual interweaving of stark contrasts that utilizes musical language spanning classical to modern.  The latter is very much a table-setting episode in the context of the fourth season’s slow burn towards its riveting finale showdown (the season has 13 episodes), and it most notably serves as a turning point for two of the show’s supporting characters (Jesse Pinkman and Hank Schrader).

Breaking Bad S4

Upon rewatching this episode, I was struck by the extreme divergences that occurred formally, both globally and locally.  There were multiple story arcs that, in typical TV drama fashion, were spaced across the episode’s duration.  However, within each scene existed great contrast between different characters, where characters were distinguished not only by physical traits but also by their approach and response to the conflict at hand.  It occurred to me that this is essentially what Bolcom was doing in the aforementioned movement, but instead of telling a story with narrative and characters, Bolcom did so with musical themes.  Though they are utterly unique from one another, both of these works achieve dramatic motion through radical juxtapositions of matters concerning extreme oppositions.

***** “Scherzo Vitale” *****

To better understand this abstract connection, it will be beneficial to first establish a cursory understanding of each.  “Scherzo Vitale” features two distinct sections that alternate back and forth throughout the movement’s seven minute duration.  The first group of sections is defined by a series of breakneck runs and clusters, while the second prominently features a luscious foxtrot theme.  The following table presents the large-scale form, with section labels and time indications included:


0:00-0:25 (25”)


0:25-1:03 (38”)


1:03-1:27 (24”)


1:27-2:59 (1’ 32”)


2:59-3:53 (54”)


3:53-5:47 (1’ 54”)


5:47-7:05 (1’ 18”)

(Purchase an mp3 of this track for $0.99 here)

Not only are both major types of sections significantly distinct from one another, each self-contained section often features radical juxtapositions within it.  For example, the very first section is out of the blocks at a dead sprint with chunky string chords and numerous dissonant runs spread across the orchestra.  This character only lasts for ten seconds, and the sudden chasm that results is only filled with soft and sustained string pads.  An ascending high woodwind riff then leads into a full orchestra hit, which in turn gives way to an electric piano (which has a reedy organ effect in this recording).  This latter character gives a particularly jarring effect, as it is highly unusual to feature an electric instrument in an acoustic orchestra.  The keyboard solo only lasts for two seconds, at which point another orchestra hit triggers yet another cluster of scattering runs that sound like pigeons conforming to the rules of society.  The electric piano returns amidst these runs at the 21-second mark, and then at 25 seconds everything vanishes into pure silence.  The music has been nothing but sporadic and schizophrenic to this point with constant shifts between extreme levels of tension and virtually no significant development of ideas, and all of this occurs in less time than a standard commercial.

The remaining A sections are essentially variations on these ideas.  These sections are united more by general aesthetic qualities than specific themes, and the only substantial new idea that emerges in these later sections is the galloping wind idea that kicks off A” (2:59).  This motive serves as a somewhat unifying element throughout A” and even returns towards the end of the final section (6:40), but all four A sections are guided by unpredictable detours that obliterate any sense of linear motion within them.

Although the B sections are more thematically unified than the A ’s, they still possess a degree of this spontaneous shifting between ideas. Oddly enough, the main theme of these sections – a luscious foxtrot – is not presented in full until B’, although it is briefly foreshadowed in the first B section (0:53).  (B ’s combination of a relaxed vibe with a short attention span almost warrants it having its own independent label, but this allusion to the theme of the later B sections is what earns it this classification.)  B’ and B” (1:27 and 3:53) are the most strongly linked in the movement, as they both present a luscious foxtrot in AABA form.  Both feature the same melody and chord progressions, and while B” clocks in slightly longer, this is only due to the greater freedoms taken with tempi.  However, both are distinct from one another because of their use of supporting material played by the rest of the orchestra in conjunction with the theme.  These ideas are juxtaposed with varying degrees of cohesion, but unlike the back-and-forth nature of the A sections, this juxtaposition occurs simultaneously.

The B’ section is fairly conventional in the way it combines primary and secondary material, as the theme sounds clearly while supporting material does just that.  The countermelody gets a bit denser when played in the lower reeds during the second iteration of the main theme (1:57, for example), but at no point does secondary material overwhelm, let alone overtake, primary material.  This is not the case in B”, however.  During this section the horns begin with a dissonant counterline that extends from material from A” and is played against the high strings’ main theme.  The secondary material from B’ returns in the same spots here, which only serves to create an even richer tapestry.  The orchestration progressively thickens, and the horn idea gets even bolder over the theme’s AABA structure, which leads to a cataclysmic pinnacle in which the intensity shatters like stained glass in the form of descending flute runs.

Structurally, Bolcom also creates dramatic momentum by juxtaposing the contrasting ideas of these two alternating sections.  The frenetic pace of A sections, both in regard to tempo and duration of linear motives, is complemented by the tranquil nature of B ’s theme.  Even when B” escalates in tension beyond anything in the A sections, the smooth and consistent orchestration still sets it off from its counterparts.  “Scherzo Vitale” is driven by its perpetual juxtapositions both locally and globally.

***** “Shotgun” *****

[Minor SPOILERS for up through Season 4 of Breaking Bad]

“Shotgun” has a similar way of toying with juxtapositions.  Where “Scherzo Vitale” pits musically distinct characters against one another, “Shotgun” achieves this by using physical characters who having conflicting personas and objectives.  And while the former will veer recklessly between chaotic counterpoint and sparse pads, the latter couples moments of extreme action with sudden and extended stasis.

Below is a basic formal outline with basic descriptions of the events in “Shotgun:”

Scene 1 0:00-7:34 (7’ 34”) Walt drives in panic to Los Pollos Hermanos, waits for Gus
Scene 2 7:34-12:55 (5’ 21”) Mike/Jesse driving into desert for dead drop
Scene 3 12:58-15:14 (2’ 16”) Hank gets asked to help on a murder case
Scene 4 15:14-17:10 (1’ 56”) Mike/Jesse at another deap drop
Scene 5 17:10-20:15 (3’ 5”) Mike/Jesse driving montage, ending in confrontation
Scene 6 20:16-21:51 (1’ 35”) Walt cooking alone in lab
Scene 7 21:51-25:41 (3’ 50”) Walt/Skyler purchase car wash, end up having sex
Scene 8 25:43-28:59 (3’ 16”) Walt/Skyler get discovered by Walt Jr.
Scene 9 28:59-31:14 (2’ 15”) Walt vents frustration over cooking alone, joined by Tyrus
Scene 10 31:14-33:51 (2’ 37”) Mike/Jesse at final drop, which ends in a near ambush
Scene 11 33:51-35:14 (1’ 23”) Mike calling for a ride, only to be picked up by Jesse
Scene 12 35:17-37:12 (1’ 55”) Walt/Walt Jr. having breakfast
Scene 13 37:12-38:40 (1’ 28”) Walt returns to lab to find Jesse already there
Scene 14 38:40-39:55 (1’ 15”) Mike/Gus meet behind Gus’ restaurant
Scene 15 39:55-45:02 (5’ 7”) Walt & family have dinner at Hank & Marie’s
Scene 16 45:02-46:27 (1’ 25”) Hank revisiting murder case the next morning

(This episode is available on Netflix, and certain scenes are included below.  For basic explanations for who characters are, click here.)

This episode is essentially about two characters’ return to form: Jesse Pinkman (Walter White’s former high school student, who is now his partner in his meth business) and Hank Schroeder (Walt’s brother-in-law, who is a DEA agent in physical rehab from, oh, let’s say a work-related injury).  Jesse has been wallowing in remorse over a crime he committed at the end of season 3, and after being made to accompany Mike (the meth crew’s hired muscle) on a series of dead drops in the desert (AKA, picking up money left by various distributors of their product), he is rejuvenated when he finds himself in a situation where he must save the two of them from a couple of would-be hit men.  Hank had been in a similarly depressed state since being physically incapacitated, but he finally gets inspired to contribute to an ongoing murder investigation using his mental prowess.  It is interesting that the similar trajectories of these two characters inhabit the same episode since they are on polar-opposite sides of the law.

In a global sense, the juxtaposition of these mutual character arcs gives the audience an abstract way of connecting these otherwise disparate characters by showing that they are both headed in the same direction, albeit towards radically different targets.  Locally, Schnauz uses juxtapositions of contrasting characters to create dramatic momentum, intrigue, and, often, humor.  This actually relates to one of the traits that makes Breaking Bad such a strong show: the characters are so thoroughly developed from every aspect, which includes outstanding contributions from writers, actors, and even wardrobe.  When viewers have such a strong sense of whom each character is and what his/her motivating forces are, drama exists simply in the way these characters’ individual frictions play off one another.

The best example of this occurs in the scenes between Mike and Jesse.  Mike is such a stoic, self-confident, and cerebral force, while Jesse is a nervous, self-loathing, and finicky embodiment of the id.  What I have labeled as Scene 5 is a fine demonstration of how these two opposing characters are played off one another.  The scene begins with a montage of the two driving throughout the desert in which Jesse becomes increasingly antsy (he doesn’t yet understand why he’s on this trip) and Mike remains stoic.  Several shots use sped-up film, which serves to emphasize the difference between Jesse’s unrest and Mike’s unfazed nature.  After just over a minute, the montage tapers off and gives way to another attempt by Jesse to start a conversation and figure out exactly what the plan is, which prompts Mike to suddenly snap, pull the car over, and utter his first words of the scene (“You are not the guy…”).

Not only does Schnauz create motion and humor by pitting these characters against each other in a vacuum, he forges nice dramatic momentum by showing how Mike and Jesse ultimately influence each other by becoming gradually more like the other.  In the moment, Mike snaps and counteracts Jesse’s immaturity by adopting a bit of Jesse’s confrontational nature.  But by the end of the episode, Jesse’s heroics have him gaining some of Mike’s self-confidence and stoicism (as demonstrated in Scene 13, where Jesse seems calm and in control while Walt is now anxious), and the scene with Mike and meth kingpin Gus Fring shows that even Mike is far from the biggest Zen master on the show.  This is not unlike how musical characters bounce off one another in “Scherzo Vitale.”  The organic climax that builds throughout B” is the result of conflict between its two main musical gestures, and even A and B sections influence one another throughout with their respective amounts of chaos and calmness.

The episode’s first scene with Mike and Jesse (Scene 2) demonstrates how Schnauz also uses pace of action to create a more abstract sense of juxtaposition.  Because the show’s characters are so strong, the writers do not always feel obligated to rely on dialogue to tell their stories, and as a result, they will often use extended stretches of silence while still moving the story along.  Mike and Jesse are beginning their trek into the desert, and because Jesse does not understand what they are doing (he assumes Mike is going to kill him), he asks some nervous questions and makes some idle threats.  Mike ignores these, and after Jesse’s final threat there is a period of nearly three-and-a-half minutes where there is no dialogue (that’s half the length of “Scherzo Vitale!”).  During this stretch, Mike pulls into some gravel driveway, grabs a shovel from the trunk of the car, uncovers a sack hidden in an underground bin, and returns to the car to leave before finally asking Jesse, “you coming?”  Since their characters are so well-defined, the scene’s lack of dialogue creates a palpable tension because it mirrors Mike’s stoicism.  Since Mike’s demeanor dictates how the action is being presented, viewers recognize Mike as having control and wonder if this gives credence to their concern for Jesse’s fate.

Extreme use of pacing is also employed effectively in the episode’s cold open, which then extends into the remainder of the first scene after the opening title sequence.  The very first shot is of Walt gunning it through traffic set to an energized, beat-driven soundtrack, and this blistering pace lasts all the way through to the show’s title sequence (1:37).  Aside from two calls Walt makes – one to his lawyer, one to his wife; both of which are underscored with an intense panic – the viewer has no idea what is going on, and the reason for why Walt is driving this way remains a mystery until later in the scene.  We just know that Walt thinks he’s driving towards his demise, which is an incredibly gripping way to start an episode.  Furthermore, the fact that many of the shots come from the perspective of the car add a nearly nauseating energy to the scene, making it even more intense.  Watching this opening feels like I was channel surfing and happened to land on an action movie right in the middle of its climactic chase sequence – no context, just pulpy action.

What makes this even more effective is how this intensity is almost immediately juxtaposed by extreme stasis.  The breakneck speed of the cold open picks back up after the title sequence, but then it is revealed that Walt is heading to the fast food restaurant owned by his boss, Gus, concerned about the safety of Jesse.  Walt charges into the restaurant after loading his gun, and he demands to speak to Gus.  After the cashier tells him Gus is not there, Walt tells her that he will wait and proceeds to sit in an empty booth.  From this point, there is zero dialogue for the next 2:20, and the audience is left to wait with Walt in gripping suspense.   It is a chilling sequence – because we are as clueless as Walt, we gaze around with him and wonder if the onlooking people in the restaurant are dangerous or just regular people.  But what really makes it so powerful is that it comes as a contrast to that blistering cold open.  Silence has replaced both the frantic music and the desperate dialogue of Walt, and though we know more about the situation, we only know enough to know that the threat for danger is very real.  This achieves a similar effect to the numerous peaks and valleys in “Scherzo Vitale,” where the constant juxtapositions create both relative unease for the listener and forward dramatic motion.

One final example of juxtaposing forces driving the action occurs in the episode’s penultimate scene, which also happens to be the turning point for Hank’s reemergence.  Walt, Skyler (Walt’s wife), and Walt Jr. have come over for a dinner at Hank and Marie’s (Sklyer’s sister), and the conversation leads to the murder investigation brought to Hank earlier in the episode.  Hank was linked to the case because the murder victim was allegedly the master meth chef known as Heisenberg that he had been pursuing, even though (unbeknownst to him) this identity actually belongs to Walt.  As Walt listens to Hank describe what a twisted genius this Heisenberg was, his hubris ultimately gets the best of him.  After a few glasses of wine, he confides that based on the evidence Hank has presented, this murder victim sounds more like a mere copyist, and his real Heisenberg is still out there.  This seems to be the push Hank needed, as he begins investigating the case the next morning.

Although this scene is filled with conversation and does not use silence beyond organic conversational pauses, MacLaren’s camera provides another sort of juxtaposition by focusing on the non-speaker at crucial moments, particularly with Walt.  Hank is the primary speaker throughout much of the scene, yet when Hank is gushing about Heisenberg’s prowess, the camera steadily zooms in on Walt.  This proves to be an effective decision because it gives the viewer a strong sense of how Walt’s pride is being hurt, and the tension builds to a fever pitch in anticipation of what Walt will finally say or do.  Walt ultimately shoots himself in the foot with his interjection, and this moment is made all the more dramatic with MacLaren’s juxtaposition of speaker and non-speaker in the scene.

***** In Conclusion *****

Both “Scherzo Vitale” and “Shotgun” are remarkable for their use of juxtapositions, and these can be detected on levels that are concrete and abstract as well as local and global.  Granted, Breaking Bad uses more specific characters than Bolcom does, but both combine characters in ways that allow them to evolve organically because of their interactions.  There are some specific parallels between the two, such as the way both works start out at blistering speeds before giving way to a sudden valley of stasis.  Though the two works have substantially different lengths, they also both follow similar contours of tension that extend beyond their aggressive openings.  However, the most meaningful connections exist on deeper structural levels, and these speak to a greater understanding of the creative process in general.

The strongest such connection between these two otherwise distinctive works is that neither uses purely linear motion in their dramatic arcs, opting instead for a more nuanced and multi-faceted way of conveying a narrative structure.  This is not to say that they do not both have a linear dramatic narrative – they do.  However, both offer hidden treasures to their more attentive viewers by embedding other types of conflict beyond those found in the basic plot.  Either theme or character ideals are pitted against each other (the foxtrot theme and the interrupting horn figures; Mike and Jesse clashing against each other on their trip), or extreme shifts in pacing of dramatic unfolding are combined (frantic wind runs giving way to soft string pads; Walt’s road rage giving way to extended silence).  Both Bolcom and the creative team behind Breaking Bad are masterful storytellers, but more importantly, both are as effective with how they tell their stories as they are with the stories themselves.



One thought on “Breaking Bolcom: Structural Similarities between William Bolcom and Breaking Bad

  1. Exceptional post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?

    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further.

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