Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Film Music

Roger Bourland has a post on the film music Oscars, and pleads the case for the full-service film score.

This is going to make me terribly unpopular with many of my composer colleagues, but in general, I think that music on film should be limited to that played by visible instruments or coming out of onscreen sound sources (Robert Bresson: "No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. The noises must become music" See also Bresson's notes on film sound), but I do make a major exception for genre films, space opera and the like, in which a kind of music has become part of the artifice we understand as "action".

An orchestral tutti in the vacuum of space is as implausible as the sounds of the artillery fire in space, and genre films constitute one of the few areas in which the west has a fairly complete and functional system of artifice and affect; at times, it's almost baroque in its subtle celebration of the implausible, but if the composer is too coarse, the whole thing falls apart. (If you don't believe me, watch Richard Rush's The Stuntman (1980), a brilliant film nearly destroyed by one of the least sensitive scores ever thrown together; on the other hand, the pairings of Hitchcock/Hermann and Huston/North are filled with still-revelatory examples of the use and creative misuse of musical affects. Both Hermann and North (especially when orchestrated by Henry Brant) were astonishingly economical composers as well.

Playwright Edward Albee, in an interview this week, spoke about the film of his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: "...I saw a rough cut, the movie was so much tougher before they put in that awful soppy music. I don’t like movie music, being told how to react."

If only more producer/artists/composers could summon the courage to not tell the audience how to react!


sfmike said...

"The Stuntman" is one of the best examples imaginable of a great film with a horrible score. I thought I was the only one who squirmed through that "lighthearted" music.

Still, how to explain the miracle of the score for "Battle of Algiers" by Morricone and the film's director, Pontecorvo? It's spare but it definitely tells you how to react. Though, come to think of it, I hated the Europop suspense music in the scenes where policemen are being assassinated in the French Quarter. But the rest of it is extraordinary.

Matthew said...

For a more studio-slick example, I'd also point out Franz Waxman's score for "The Philadelphia Story"—almost not there at all (maybe 15 minutes of music in the whole thing), but absolutely crucial to establishing and maintaining the tone. In this case, it's not so much telling you how to feel as establishing the intended range of emotional reaction.