Taking Movie Music Seriously, Like It or Not
(New York Times)
By DAVID SCHIFF
April 22, 2001
FOR two years in a row, the Academy Award for best film score has gone to a classical composer: first John Corigliano for ''The Red Violin,'' then Tan Dun for ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.'' While cynics claim that this is the film industry's way of advertising its high-art pretensions, Hollywood may really be ahead of New York in acknowledging that the opposition between film music and concert music is a phantom of the last century. Today the two styles constantly interact. John Williams's scores for George Lucas's ''Star Wars'' movies and for Steven Spielberg's ''Jaws'' and ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'' which resurrected the symphonic style for film in the 70's, have also exerted a huge influence on the work of young concert composers. Philip Glass's music for ''Koyaanisqatsi'' made Minimalism an essential component of any film composer's stylistic vocabulary.
Now the American Composers Orchestra is catching up with the Motion Picture Academy, presenting a ''Hollywood'' concert this afternoon at Carnegie Hall that culminates a two-week series of small concerts and film screenings. The program, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, includes music for two camp classics, the Hollywood ''expose'' ''The Bad and the Beautiful'' (David Raksin, composer) and Alfred Hitchcock's Freudian whodunit ''Spellbound'' (Miklos Rozsa); the cult sci-fi thriller ''The Thing'' (Dimitri Tiomkin); and Hitchcock's unavoidable ''Psycho'' (Bernard Herrmann). Except for ''Psycho,'' none of these is a pinnacle of cinematic art, but each score is a milestone in film music.
The orchestra's warm embrace of Hollywood may be a deceptive sign of a thaw in the longstanding cold war between the musical cultures of the two coasts. Last year, when Washington had other scandals to think about, a minor Beltway drama -- call it Kamengate -- erupted around a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra that included the premiere of Michael Kamen's ''New Moon in the Old Moon's Arms.'' Mr. Kamen is a Juilliard-trained composer of many film scores, including ''Mr. Holland's Opus.'' But for Philip Kennicott, the music critic of The Washington Post, he represents everything wrong with music today.
Mr. Kennicott dismissed Mr. Kamen's symphony as ''pretentious and pernicious tonal tripe . . . scored in the usual sodden and overripe Hollywood manner.'' And he blasted the National Symphony for commissioning a ''well-remunerated Hollywood hack'' who ''doesn't need to be dipping into the paltry amount that's available to composers of serious music.'' Mr. Kennicott seemed to assume that commissions, like welfare payments, should be based on need. And he was nearly as harsh on works by non-Hollywood composers, criticizing Richard Danielpour's ''Voice of Remembrance'' as ''a succession of familiar moods and feelings.'' In other words, it sounded like film music.
Mr. Kamen's mediocre score hardly deserved so much ink, but Mr. Kennicott's bile, like Mr. Kamen's music, sounded recycled. The classical world's anti-Hollywood bias goes back to the dawn of film music in the 1930's, when Max Steiner established the genre with ''King Kong.'' During the Depression, New York and Hollywood contrasted starkly. Economically, New York was broke, Hollywood was rich. Politically, New York was left, Hollywood was right.
But sound movies were new, and Hollywood needed composers; a musical gold rush was on. As lights dimmed on Broadway, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins headed west, as did Copland, Herrmann, Alex North and Jerome Moross. While the tunesmiths happily adjusted to life in paradise, modernist composers like Copland were put off by the power politics of the studio system and the lush late-Romantic style of established studio composers like Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
In a sense, Hollywood was the new Versailles or Eszterhaza. The studio moguls were princes of patronage, but composers had grown used to neglect and forgotten the advantages and disadvantages of steady employment. Every composer who got close enough to dance with the devil had a Hollywood horror story to send back east.
Disney's ''Fantasia'' (1940) turned Stravinsky's ''Rite of Spring'' into ''an unresisting imbecility,'' in the composer's phrase, with drastic cuts and ''Jurassic Park'' animation. Since the score lacked copyright protection because of the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky had no choice but to accept Disney's modest remuneration and immodest editorial insults. Still, he continued to seek out film projects, with little success. (Music he wrote for ''The Commandos Strike at Dawn'' in 1943 ended up as ''Four Norwegian Moods,'' also to be played by the American Composers Orchestra.)
Stravinsky's archrival, Schoenberg, fared no better. Irving Thalberg hoped that Schoenberg's name would lend intellectual cachet to ''The Good Earth'' (1937), the MGM prestige epic based on Pearl Buck's novel. Whether in a state of delusion or merely seeking an escape hatch, Schoenberg wanted to compose pitches and rhythms for the actors' lines and demanded final editing rights. He claimed to be relieved when the collaboration fell through, saying, ''It would have been the end of me.''
For the oater ''Duel in the Sun'' (Vanguard, 1947), David Selznick demanded that Tiomkin whistle first a love theme, then an orgasm theme. William Wyler replaced Copland's title music for ''The Heiress'' (Paramount, 1949) as soon as the composer left town. There are more stories, and worse.
In a 1940 New York Times article on film music, Copland praised the new genre but attacked Steiner's 19th-century style, his use of leitmotifs and his dependence on ''mickey-mousing.'' Although Copland continued to work successfully in Hollywood through 1948, his writings confirmed the East Coast view that the industry was dominated by studio hacks working in a reactionary idiom. By contrast, Hollywood honored Copland with an Oscar (for ''The Heiress,'' despite its non-Copland title music) and quickly appropriated his lean, modernist style for psychological dramas and the grander horse operas.
Composers who remained in Hollywood were given the cold shoulder by New York. Paul Chihara said recently that Herrmann and Rozsa bitterly resented the refusal of the concert world to take their music seriously. But Mr. Chihara, whose ''Clouds (. . . From Out of the Past)'' receives its premiere in the American Composers Orchestra program, exemplifies the way times have changed. A student of Nadia Boulanger with a doctorate in composition from Cornell, he has won numerous prizes and commissions for his classical scores. He has also composed for more than 80 films, including ''Crossing Delancey'' and ''Prince of the City,'' and television series, including ''China Beach'' and the current A & E series ''100 Centre Street.''
The smoky, sinuous title trumpet solo for ''100 Centre Street'' begins like a film noir cliche but takes a series of surprising harmonic turns that sound more like the devices of a concert composer. ''I used to think I was writing in two different styles, but now they have come together,'' Mr. Chihara said. ''Things changed for me when people told me I wasn't weird but postmodern.''
Mr. Chihara, who teaches at U.C.L.A., is in constant demand as a guest lecturer at university music departments and conservatories that used to ignore film music. For either artistic or economic reasons, the old stigma against commercial music has disappeared. ''Today composition teachers want to make sure their students know how to write for movies,'' Mr. Chihara said.
Film music and concert music are converging in style and technology. Postmodernism, a style that emerged in the early 1970's, dominates American concert music today, but it took a while to be properly understood. George Crumb, David Del Tredici and Mr. Corigliano were, like Mr. Chihara, postmodern before the term was invented. They all mixed styles fearlessly and experimented with amplification. In his Clarinet Concerto (1977), Mr. Corigliano, whose East Coast credentials were just recertified by a Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra, placed instruments around the hall, less in imitation of Gabrieli and Ives than in anticipation of THX and surround sound.
Whereas modernist music emphasized structural and stylistic integrity, postmodern music is a polystylistic hybrid, mingling and matching incongruous elements with a heavy dose of irony -- just like film music. Listen to Franz Waxman's title track for ''Sunset Boulevard,'' and then listen to John Adams's ''Chairman Dances'': they are not just stylistically similar; they are virtually the same piece.
Mr. Raksin's score for ''The Bad and the Beautiful'' (MGM, 1952) shows how much composers today have learned from the Hollywood masters. The film itself is a couple of tall steps below such behind-the-scenes sagas as ''Sunset Boulevard'' and ''Singin' in the Rain,'' though not without its gripping moments. Teetering between conscious and unconscious self-parody, it shows a brutish genius director, played by Kirk Douglas, abusing his closest friends and lovers to make ''great'' movies.
Pauline Kael described ''The Bad and the Beautiful'' as a ''spangled, overwrought piece of Hollywood self-analysis'' but also wrote that the director, Vincente Minnelli, gave it a ''hysterical stylishness.'' A lot of that stylishness and hysteria is Mr. Raksin's doing. He captures the studio's seductive glamour with a romantic theme not far below his classic, ''Laura''; then, as the film tours the backlots, he serves up 15-second pastiches of B-movie scores. How many ''serious'' composers could evoke a cardboard cowboy-and-Indian film or a Saturday morning science fiction potboiler in such a fleeting window of opportunity?
Mr. Raksin's underscore itself is a series of ironic allusions: here a little Gershwin, there a little Ellington. In one scene, Mr. Douglas carries a limp Lana Turner in his arms against a backdrop of stormy skies. The music surges with passion in the grandest Steineresque manner. Then Mr. Douglas drops Ms. Turner into a swimming pool to sober her up, and we realize that Mr. Raksin has been parodying Hollywood's dream-factory style to sober us up as well. Interestingly, the most dramatic scene in the film, Ms. Turner driving off in terror from Mr. Douglas's ultimate act of cruelty, has no music: the ultimate form of musical irony.
Mr. Raksin's ironic juxtapositions of style make him the grandfather of current postmodernists like John Zorn and Michael Daugherty. But the collapse of the wall separating film music and art music may be a question of technology more than of style. Because it depends on recording, Hollywood has always been in the forefront of musical science, sculpturing and styling performances through microphone placement, overdubbing and editing. Both Rozsa's ''Spellbound'' and Tiomkin's ''Thing'' feature that quintessentially eerie electronic instrument, the theremin. Gregory Peck's amnesiac character in ''Spellbound'' seems to be suffering from theremin on the brain as well as what Ingrid Bergman keeps calling his ''guilt complex.''
Sixty years ago Copland enthusiastically reported on the technology of film scoring, the fine art of coordinating music and image. But today only a few composers -- notably, John Williams -- fit their music to the screen action in the time-honored way. The artistry with which Mr. Williams's Oscar-nominated score for ''The Patriot'' minutely matches the action proves the value of the traditional method, but both the artistry and the method may already be anachronistic.
''There really is no such thing as Hollywood music anymore,'' Mr. Chihara said. ''It's all done in a garage in North Hollywood.'' Composers are now expected to produce the music, not just write it. Most of the music you hear on television and at the movies uses sound synthesis instead of live performers or in addition to them. The blend of live and synthesized sounds is a signature of Hans Zimmer, whose Electronica-does-Holst score for ''Gladiator'' was nominated for an Oscar this year. Synthesized music is cheaper, and young people, the target audience, prefer its sound.
Today the audio and video components of a film come together not on a soundstage but on a computer screen. Editing software allows composers to stretch or compress the music as needed. The new technologies may reinforce the old prejudice, resurrected by Mr. Kennicott, that film composers lack traditional musical technique. Although composers like Mr. Kamen and James Horner (''Titanic'') have full conservatory credentials, it is quite possible these days to compose and produce film music with little traditional musical training. The industry is full of notorious ''hummers,'' whose careers depend on armies of unnamed technical assistants.
But synthesizers and computer editing are transforming concert music as well. Music publishing in its older form has virtually disappeared. Every composer today is expected to produce scores at home; all you need is a computer and a printer. And performers routinely ask composers to provide computer playback along with a score; conductors no longer even pretend to be able to imagine a score silently.
The next step is for the computer playback to begin to replace some or all aspects of live performance. As in film music, this development is spurred by economics and esthetics. Recent scores like Mr. Adams's ''Gnarly Buttons'' depend on a synthesizer to give the music a sound that younger listeners will recognize as contemporary. Perhaps concert music will have its share of hummers before long, if they're not out there already.
Still, there remain fundamental differences in the functioning of concert and film genres, which cause problems when composers try to cross over. The central difference is one of speed. Concert music has to fill a lot of time, but most film music cues are brief. This difference became important only with the advent of talkies. Silent movies required continuous music to cover the sound of the projector and create continuity in a flickering medium. Concert composers had room to stretch without skirting around dialogue, so they did not have to change their musical habits.
Copland's first film, ''The City,'' was a documentary, with a voice-over but no on-screen speech, and most of the music he used for the Suite From ''The Red Pony'' comes from nondramatic parts of the film. Because ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' uses subtitles rather than dubbed dialogue, it works like a silent movie with broad swaths of music; a lot of it feels like a Yo-Yo Ma video.
With the talkies, film music became more fragmentary and film composing more specialized. In Mr. Raksin's ''Bad and the Beautiful'' score, for instance, most cues after the sustained opening are less than a minute long. This imposed brevity made film music seem irreconcilable with the concert hall. Concert composers keep their music going by a strategy of postponement, setting up expectations and delaying their fulfillment, but a film composer has to deliver the goods quickly.
A memorable example of instantaneous evocation comes in Copland's score for ''The Heiress.'' The heroine waits for a lover who will never arrive. When preview audiences laughed at Olivia de Haviland's predicament, Copland added a sudden gust of whirling woodwind music, which perfectly captured her state of nervous expectancy. The music feels like a muscle spasm. (Did someone ask Copland to whistle a muscle spasm?) The film creates suspense by keeping us waiting to see if the caddish Montgomery Clift will ever show up; the music makes the woman's agony real, and in a matter or seconds.
HERRMANN said he did not have time for an eight-bar tune; he built his film scores from two-second motifs that could do their job no matter how brief a musical cue might be. But for concertgoers used to waiting 20 minutes for Beethoven to answer his own musical question, a succession of cues does not add up to a symphonic experience, especially when they are detached from the images they serve to amplify.
The concert hall automatically gives its own composers an edge. Some, when they cross over, conceive the concert version of their music simultaneously with the film score, as Copland did with ''The Red Pony'' and Mr. Corigliano did with ''The Red Violin.'' Herrmann's ''Psycho'' Suite is a more complicated example, for the film score made use of a previously composed symphonic composition, but most listeners are just waiting for the shower scene anyway.
Blame postmodernism or technology, but our expectations of symphonic structure have diminished; we live in an age of short attention spans and sound bites, after all, and delayed gratification is so 19th century. We also live in an eye rather than an ear culture. Many orchestras are talking about using some kind of video even for their classical concerts: the MTV-ization of the concert hall. When that happens, and it won't be long, everything really will be film music.
David Schiff is a composer on the faculty of Reed College in Portland, Ore.