Saturday, February 11, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Silver Age Part 1

John Williams got me on a tangent. I’m deliberately working through the history of film music backwards. The reason for doing this in reverse order is that film music, perhaps more than any other type of music, has to work in familiar tropes. A composer who controls his own work can innovate everything he wishes from form to harmony to rhythm to color. But the art of the film composer is beholden to everything that’s already within the film. Film music is supposed to call associations to our mind that help explain plot, or characters, or ideas within the movie. As such, we already need the music which the score recalls within our head. If the Imperial March from Star Wars sounds particularly threatening to us, it’s in part because its sound was lodged within our heads from a hundred years before. Whether or not we realize it, those blaring six-three chords with insistent martial rhythms and menacing brass dissonances recall Hagen’s summoning of the Gibichungs from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. 99% of the people who see Star Wars have never heard of Gotterdammerung. But by 1977, the nature of what that music means, first heard in 1876, is so lodged within our minds that when we hear that blaring dissonant brass and insistent rhythm, and we immediately think of something both martial and particularly evil (no army actually marches to dissonant music). You would think that the meaning is absolutely primal, but it isn't. We had to get that association from somewhere, and we probably get it from Wagner.

(give it 40 seconds)

As an older generation gave way to a new one, so did their music. Whereas Jazz was still something new and shocking in the 1930’s, it was perfectly familiar music to the 1950’s and 60’s. Jazz was the music with which our grandparents came of age, and each jazz standard had a lifetime’s worth of memories which could be recalled by hearing one particular song. As with all eras since the invention of film music, no artist is in a better position to exploit those memories than the film composer. In the next two entries, I will talk about the different composers of this era and how they responded to the challenge of finding that new/’old’ music for a new but now old generation.

The indispensible Pierro Scaruffi points to Leonard Rosemann’s score for Vicente Minelli’s The Cobwebb (1955) as the inauguarating the new Age of film scoring. Having neither seen nor heard the movie, I’m in no position to judge. But it's difficult to ignore the fact that something in the music began changing around 1955. Whereas Golden Age film composers like Korngold and Waxmann gathered inspiration from elephantine turn of the century scores by Mahler and Strauss, the Silver Age gathered inspiration from the musical developments of roughly 20 years later. When writing in a classical style, it was as likely to be derived from the pared-down, dissonant innovations of Schoenberg and Webern as not. But the scores were as likely to be drawn from the developments of jazz and Tin Pan Alley as from classical sources. Whereas the orchestra once contained the entire world of expression within it, the world now expressed itself with new instruments, new forms, and new genres. Film music had to move on accordingly.

(Huge orchestra or not, there is nothing as American as the theme to The Magnificent Seven)

To distinguish one from the other, Elmer Bernstein was often called Bernstein West while Leonard Bernstein was called Bernstein East. They were roughly the same age, looked alike, came from similar backgrounds, had similar brushes with radical politics, had a similar reluctance to devote themselves to concert composition, and had a similar universal talent for anything to which they applied themselves. Before he became a composer, Elmer Bernstein was a child actor and dancer who played Caliban in a Broadway production of The Tempest. Of his era’s great film composers, Bernstein was probably the most traditional. Bernstein loved huge orchestras as much as any golden age film composer. But whereas Korngold’s diatonic lushness puts us as much in mind of 1900’s Vienna as 1930’s LA, Bernstein’s open chords and syncopation's give his music a completely American feeling missing in Korngold. The instrumentation might not have been American, but rhythms, the harmonies and melodies, the general exuberance of his music absolutely was. Perhaps his music bears the same relationship to Korngold which Aaron Copland’s concert music bore to Gustav Mahler’s. As his career progressed, his appetite for largeness became such an anachronism that it worked best in comedies, where his larger-than-life music could be cued up to screen histrionics.

(You know...)

Whenever a film composer uses a combination of big band and cool jazz to suggest something louche and decadent, he channels Henry Mancini. Mancini is most famous for three things: 1. The Pink Panther Theme, 2. The melody to Moon River, 3. The Theme to Peter Gunn, a TV show that nobody’s heard of anymore, yet nearly everybody knows its guitar and saxaphone riff. While he was fully trained in classical music (he studied with Ernst Krenek), Mancini was truly the musician who brought jazz to Hollywood. Mancini was also one of the only film composers to be as successful outside of film as he was within it. In addition to his movie work, Mancini was a composer and arranger of pop music who had eight gold records. For many years, he was synonymous with a kind of easy listening music that is supposed to be tasteful but defines kitsch - a shame, because at his best Mancini brought a gritty edge to Hollywood music that gave films a newer sound than any other composer of his time.


My favorite among this generation of Hollywood composers was Jerry Goldsmith, whose scores I can listen to independently with pleasure. Goldsmith brought a very different jazz sensibility to film music. Mancini’s jazz sound was brashly, almost shockingly, new to the film world, whereas Goldsmith’s sensibility was subtly integrated into a much wider panoply of sound. Whereas Mancini branched out from film music, Goldsmith never seemed to want anything more than film - starting his career in the CBS mailroom and working his way to the top of his profession. When required, Goldsmith could out-Korngold Korngold. His music can have lushness to equal anything in a Golden era score, but with far more variety than any of theirs’. Goldsmith could turn out an incredible horror score like those for Planet of the Apes or Alien that channels the most Boulezian avant-garde, yet write scores that are pure Korngold for Star Trek films in their gigantic sweep and almost cartoonish depictions of exotic characters. But then, there is Chinatown. Goldsmith’s Chinatown score balances the line between so many elements so deftly that it has to be regarded as a true original in American composition. Unlike so much film music, which is supposed to derivative so that it calls associations to our mind that help explain the plot, the music in Chinatown is an equal, almost superior character to any within the script. Perhaps there is no Hollywood movie, not even from Hitchcock, in which a composer is so required to speak with his own voice. The score from Chinatown is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written in America.

No comments:

Post a Comment