Thursday, February 9, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Bronze Age

Yesterday, I boldly pronounced that John Williams might be remembered as the last of the great film composers. Even as I wrote that, I knew it couldn’t possibly be true. There are plenty of great film composers working today, even if, to my thinking, most of them don’t quite compare to the best of generations past - not yet at least. To a large extent, it’s not their fault. It’s not the standard of Hollywood music that declined, it’s the standards of Hollywood generally. In the age of the studio system, there were simply more movies to practice the craft upon, and it was almost a given that film music was another important part of a movie that should enhance a product for which quality of writing, editing and cinematography must all meet a standard. In an age when nearly every Hollywood release is focus tested to pander to a particular demographic, it becomes harder to write good movie music. It’s not impossible to write good music for dull movies, but it’s a lot easier if the movie is good. The more imaginative the film, the more possibility for imaginative music to accompany it.

(Batman Theme. Yes, the theme is pure Hindemith. But it's what he does with it.)

But it would probably shed some light on this issue if we talked about a few of the most famous among today’s Hollywood composers. Let’s start with the most obvious. Excerpting John Williams, if most movie buffs were asked to name the most distinctive among living Hollywood composers, they would unhesitatingly choose Tim Burton’s preferred composer, Danny Elfman. Elfman writes fantastically eerie music in a broad array of style that is often better than the movies he’s hired to set - nobody thinks much of the Burton Batman movies, but everybody remember’s Elfman’s scores. There is no doubt, Elfman sets movies with an imagination that is on the Bernard Hermann level. But unfortunately, there has to be a question mark next to his music - is it entirely his? Elfman is fundamentally self-taught, and has always needed reams of help in orchestration. Hollywood orchestrators are not uncommon, many of the best composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Miklos Rozsa partnered with trusted orchestrators. But a story I've heard about Elfman's lack of awareness of the capabilities of some instruments - at least during his early career - is kind of shocking. How many of his effects he thinks of are his own, and how many of them are his orchestrator's? Furthermore, what Elfman generally does is little different than most Broadway composers who farm their orchestrations out to a professional orchestrator. Elfman probably has far more input on his scores than any Broadway composer, but Broadway composers don’t live and die by their ear for instrumental sound, whereas an knowledge of instrumental timbre and color is arguably the most fundamental part of a film composer’s arsenal.

(Whose music?)

A still bigger question mark needs to be put next to James Horner. Horner can write music of stupefying gorgeousness. His score for Field of Dreams is one of the greatest film scores ever written, period. But while every successful film composer eventually has to deal with charges of plagiarism, in Horner’s case, it’s largely deserved. Time and again, Horner writes scores that seem to change around a bare minimum of notes from the original music of great composers.

Many of the best film composers can’t even be called film composers. Michael Giacchino writes as much for video games and television as he does for movies, and his most lauded work was done for Lost (imagine how lame many of that show’s scares would be without the music).

(Glass in The Truman Show)

A different kind of great film composition comes from composers like Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. Both composers are commonly called ‘minimalists,’ meaning that they take small motifs - half a dozen notes at most - and repeat/develop them incessantly. The unvarying sameness of minimalist music works extraordinarily well in movies with great formal cohesion. Philip Glass’s score for The Hours made it into a great movie, each third of the triptych gained enormous cumulative impact by the similarity of music between scenes. But in movies whose structure sprawls, their lack of variation would be stifling. Bernard Hermann could have scored The Truman Show, Philip Glass could not have scored Citizen Kane.

But Glass and Nyman are not the way forward for film music. Both are primarily concert composers, and as such are already part of a dying breed. Orchestral music was once the unquestioned standard manner in which movies were scored, it is currently one of many. Many new releases have soundtracks to existing music, and many original scores are done mostly by computer. To question if electronic music is an inherently inferior method to classical scoring is completely ridiculous. There are already dozens of great original electronic scores like Peter Gabriel’s score for Last Temptation of Christ, or Trent Reznor’s for The Social Network.

(Peter Gabriel’s Crucifixion)

Nevertheless, there is good reason to view the gradual disappearance of classical scores as a tragedy. Every orchestral/choral score secures steady jobs for hundreds of musicians who would otherwise be employed inconsistently during their peak earning years. A rock/electronic score needs far fewer musicians and occasionally only a composer and a computer. Such is evolution at work, but evolution can be a cruel process.

(Gladiator. Um Khulthum, Wagner, Vangelis, and Bjork, simultaneously.)

There’s no doubt, electronics are here to stay. Perhaps the best of today’s film composers are the ones who’ve made their peace with electronics and find ways to integrate them into traditional scoring.Of those who negotiate that middle ground, most would probably agree that the best is Hans Zimmer. The versatility of Zimmer’s scores is staggering, combining the most far-flung musical styles into a cohesive whole. Let’s take the perhaps most obvious example, Gladiator. I think Gladiator is a terrible movie - a travesty of history, clumsy action sequences, and bad writing. But if people remember this movie as better than it is, it’s probably because of Zimmer’s score, which seems to combine the whole world of music into a single movie.

(though it’s kind of ridiculous that Mr. Holland would work his entire career on a three minute symphony....)

If the film industry has a future to employ lots of musicians, it is through the hybrid experiments of composers like Zimmer and Michael Kamen which integrate popular genres and classical music into each other’s frameworks. Even if Kamen’s “American Symphony” from Mr. Holland’s Opus isn’t a particularly good piece of music, it’s difficult not to hear the innovation within it as a challenge. Here, finally, is a piece of American music that genuinely tries to integrate all the developments of a hundred years of popular music into the classical tradition. Was there ever a symphony for the concert hall meant to recall both Aaron Copland and Chuck Berry? If classical music ever goes in that direction, our children might hear Mr. Holland’s Opus with ears we don’t have.

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