Celluloid Symphony

published in Beomag (The Bang & Olufsen Magazine), Winter 2003, Melbourne
Howard Shore

Film music could be any style, any genre, any period. But for most, it is something like Star Wars. To those who religiously praise the film, John Williams' score is majestic, heroic, glorious. To those interested in moving beyond Richard Wagner's powerful 19th Century operatic models, Star Wars has unfortunately become an impediment to the forward momentum of original film music.

The big budget aura of a symphony orchestra certainly satiates a mass audience concerned in gaining value for their cinema dollar. But to serious lovers of music, the Star Wars effect in film music has determined an unfortunate sameness in Hollywood's bombastic symphonic kitsch.

Hollywood gives people what they want - but that does not translate to something for everyone. Rarefied tastes, niche markets and marginal interests can be just as successfully catered to without edumbing down' musical creativity. Two New York based composers who have battled in this musical scenario are Howard Shore and Carter Burwell.

Howard Shore has worked predominantly with director David Cronenberg. Maybe Cronenberg's work is not to everyone's taste, but Shore's close collaboration with the director has nurtured a distinctively modern voice in their joint work. From the brooding use of six electric guitars and three harps to create the shimmering riffs of Crash, to the heady sensual orchestrations which wrap around the Ornette Coleman trio in Naked Lunch, Shore's scores lean toward an erotic abstraction.

In his scores to Videdrome, Ed Wood and Copland, Shore's search for a sonic 'shock of the new' is insatiable. As he declared when performing Crash live in Melbourne in 1998, "I find myself listening mostly to new contemporary music. I want to know what people are creating now."

Carter Burwell may appear more melodic in comparison to Shore, but no less inventive. Burwell has enjoyed a close working relationship with Joel and Ethan Cohen, having provided a rich harmonic fabric to Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and Fargo among other Coen films. "My music draws an audience into situations they would otherwise want to avoid" said Burwell when here in Australia just after Fargo was released. "Due to the Coens being such technical masters of filmmaking, musical ewarmth' can get you past that."

Burwell's monumental score for Fargo is his best case in point. The film's mix of humour and tragedy hinges on Burwell's ironic yet empathetic use of majestic melodies which intensify the spiralling fate which befalls its characters.

Burwell and Shore's work stems from the premise that these are irrevocably modern times in which we live. We might want our entertainment to be retro space operas like Star Wars, but our emotions, dramatics and psychological schisms are far more demanding in their portrayal. Both composers have openly declared the influence they bear from earlier composers committed to musically excavating the human psyche: Bernard Herrmann, Toru Takemitsu and Ennio Morricone.

If we removed all of Bernard Herrmann's scores and just left him with one - Alfred Hitchock's Psycho - he would still be a formidable figure in film music. Herrmann composed music for seven Hitchcock films, including The Wrong Man, North By North West and Vertigo. For Hitchcock he conducted a seductive dance with sex and psychosis - all before the 60s kicks in. As Herrmann has infamously claimed, "Hitchock only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him."

Herrmann was one of the first composers to alter microphone placement in the recording sessions (similar to what Sergei Prokofiev initiated in Russian cinema of the late 30s). This allowed him to create new tonal colours for his orchestration, based on the idea of 'zooming in' on an instrument's identity. This can be heard in Herrmann's scores for Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jason & the Argonauts and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Having been a composer/orchestrator for Orson Welles, Herrmann was notorious for his heated and uncompromising views while working within the Hollywood system. A later generation of filmmakers greatly valued Herrmann's contribution to film music. In his late career, he worked with Francois Truffaut (Farenheit 451), Brian DePalma (Obsession) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver).

Toru Takemitsu has composed eserious' modern works for orchestra as well as providing equally uncompromising music for the cinema. His landmark scores include Akira Kurosawa's epic Ran - the ultimate in vainglorious symphonics - and Masaki Kobayashi's ghost story Kaidan - possibly the most modern score in the history of the cinema.

Takemitsu is capable of generating deep beauty and abject terror - often simultaneously as befit Japanese aesthetics. His rigour in acknowledging his avant garde predecessors from Igor Stravinsky to Karlheinz Stockhausen marks his music as compelling and sophisticated. In a documentary filmed prior to his death in 1996, he stated his approach eloquently: "I deal with sound."

Ennio Morricone is possibly the most renowned of all modern film composers today. He has scored 375 feature films (unbelievable yet true) and has been a major force in modernising movie music. Ever since an electric fuzz guitar twanged boldly in his score for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, film music has had occasion to welcome the electric, the noisy, the dissonant, the wild.

Wholly dismissed back then as gross, inappropriate and artificial, Morricone's music has gone on to strengthen these supposedly negative qualities. Citing Stravinsky as a key figure whose approach to orchestration rather then composition alone created new 'sound colours', Morricone consistently finds unique combinations of instruments. He also heavily directed the recording process, making him as much a music producer as a film composer.

Which Morricone films to listen to from the 375? Going backwards from today, try Mission To Mars, Cinema Paradiso, Frantic, The Mission, Order of Death, Rampage, The Thing, Days of Heaven, Exorcist II, Moses, Once Upon a Time in the West. Each is entirely different from the other, yet absolutely Morricone.

Like a spaghetti western show-down, the battle still rages in film music today. There is film music entrenched in the romantic tradition of pastoral evocation, lush description and narrative accompaniment; music that is often 'beautiful' but just as often aimless as and unmotivated. Then there is film music that aims to actively debate and dialogue with the screen images; music that generates tension and counterpoint with what the images are already stating.

These latter concerns have been embraced by many lateral creators in modern film music around the world. Interestingly, they tend to come not from classically trained environs, but from the worlds of rock, world music, folk, electronica, jazz.

Phillip Glass imported his operatic minimalism with verve in Koyaanistqatsi, Mishima and The Candyman. Overwhelming to some, his compositional style is deliberately so, imbuing his scores with a deep fatalism and cosmological breadth. Elliot Goldenthal's score to Michael Mann's Heat is executed by a wall of electric guitars fused with the Kronos Quartet. Its massive sound adds to the film's epic quality while still retaining a hard electric edge.

Ry Cooder's work on films like Paris Texas and Trespass are distinctively rootsy and evocative. Both are recorded live without multi-tracking, and Trespass particularly extols a tantalising spatialization. Peter Gabriel's work on films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Rabbit Proof Fence fuse World Music traits and aspects with Gabriel's own distinctive atmospherics and electronic ambience.

Angelo Badalamenti's music for David Lynch from Blue Velvet to Twin Peaks to Lost Highway to The Straight Story is highly melodic and equally postmodern. Recouping the syrupy sound of 60s easy listening and 50s mournful echoic ballads, Badalamenti reveals a dark under bed to their supposedly saccharine tones.

Jon Brion's scores for P.T. Anderson's Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love suggest a new 'sono-musical' terrain for the film score. From the richly oppressive palpitations of strings which drive Magnolia to the schizophrenic switches between drum kit improvisations and lush symphonic waltzes - both recorded in surround mixes - for Punch-Drunk Love, Brion's scores have nothing to do with 'film music' but everything to do with how wonderfully complicated all music has become.

Then there's Henry Mancini, John Barry, Lalo Shiffrin, Quincy Jones, Jack Nitzsche, David Shire, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Michael Danna, Simon Fisher-Turner, Bill Lee, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Stewart Copeland, Danny Elfman, Zping Zhao, Joe Hisaishi, Kenji Kawai, Michael Nyman, Jocelyn Pook, David Holmes. Film music certainly is a rich field.

Today, film music is being appreciated as something more than mere scores for movies. The amount of contemporary recording artists who have subsumed an ambient, diffused and 'cinematic effect' into their music production grows each year.

Music lovers are also finding hidden listening treasure in the bountiful re-issues of film music around the world. Quality CD re-mastering now brings the cinematic experience into one's personal quality listening space. Film music - freed of song formatting, vocals and other 'pop' conventions - opens up new fields of listening pleasure. A million show rooms are still blasting excerpts from Star Wars to sell their home theatre equipment. You can find a more distinctive kind of experience waiting for you when try out some of the near-50 scores mentioned here on your own speakers.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.