Thursday, April 11, 2013

On not being a film composer

I'm from Southern California, east of L.A. and grew up in in environment where film, no, movies had a deep presence.  I loved (and love, though parental responsibilities have slowed down the pace) going to the movies and watching old favorites or new discoveries on late night TV (for which German TV can be good.) Sometime in high school, something clicked and I suddenly had a revelation that movies could be more than just entertainment, they could intersect with the real world in unexpected ways and use the manipulation of time, sound, and image to tell me things about the world, sometimes shocking things, that I didn't know before.  The could help make the world more interesting and lively, creating opportunities for reflection and action.  Movies became almost as exciting as music.  What I liked, and like, most about watching film was/is paying close attention to details:  a line of dialogue written and executed supremely well, an uncannily timed cut, secret depths in sound design (done well, polyphonic sound design can contribute more to making the most implausible world believable than the most detailed visuals), the wallpaper in a Feuillade serial. or an obscure and curious object unreasonably situated in an otherwise unexceptional film set.  I can recall hundreds of favorite lines from films and probably as many favorite bits of editing, both sound and visual, and have some very strong opinions about how films work or don't work.  I can go on for hours about my favorite Bresson, Buñuel, Huston, or Ozu.  I can even spend a half hour trying to convince you that O.C. and Stiggs was exactly three technical mistakes short of being Robert Altman's masterpiece with a darkly paranoid subplot shared with Nashville.

Although I have, from time to time, done some sub-contracted emergency orchestration work for overdue film scores and have enjoyed the money (when it's actually been paid), I've never seriously considered trying to get a gig to write a film score.  I could make an intellectual argument (following Bresson) that I only really believe in diegetic music (the "real" music that incidentally takes place on screen), but I do really like a film score done well.  But I don't think I have the aggressiveness required to promote myself into that business and, to be honest, I'm not sure I have the composing speed to produce a score in the time frame required for a film (the score usually comes late in the process, after a director's provisional edit, and thus has to be done (= short score -> orchestration -> recording) quickly (weeks, days, quickly) and I, perhaps to my own career detriment, like to ponder, no, ruminate on, musical ideas for a good long while. The movie business doesn't pay composers for ruminating.  Also, a film composer needs to have a very rare balance between solid self-promotion on the business side and the ability to complete submit her or his ego to the fact that a film is a corporate production and the score and its author(s) have to adjust to the overall design and working atmosphere; again, although I've done orchestrating according to the strict guidelines handed me, but beyond that limited piece-work, I'm not sure I could hold my own ego back as required. 

But more than any of that, and not unrelated to the issue of holding one's ego back, although I can sometimes produced good Imitat, I probably don't have the stylistic chops to be a Hollywood composer. Hollywood film scores tend to emphasize similarities over differences and incorporate innovations only slowly  (it's interesting to note that some smaller film scenes, like Britain in the 50s and early 60s, or the GDR, actively employed contemporary composers working in idioms more akin to contemporary concert music.)  I can understand this conservatism, in that a film is a big investment and the producers have to balance risks, in this case the possible attractions of musical novelty against the security of audience-proven musical tropes. Fortunate is the composer like Philip Glass who can come into a film composing career by being sought after on the basis of his concert work. And unfortunate is that producer who turned down a Morton Feldman score for its accompanying a scene of violence with quiet strings and a celesta, likely a cold and ironic move on Feldman's part that the producer couldn't accept either because it didn't pass in the accepted catalog of film music figures and affects and was unwilling to risk the possibility that it might — and powerfully so — extend that catalog. 

My old friend Jonathan Segel recently, and correctly called out the Game of Thrones TV series on the cheap production quality of its score, although given its budget*, I find it's still, musically speaking, an improvement over, say, Lord of the Rings. Why do these pseudo-medieval fantasy films (you know the ones) always have to go pseudo-symphonic in the first place? How about imaging the kind of instruments and musical material that would have been current to the local time, place, and technology instead of trying to pull a full Korngold (which no one presently working in Hollywood has the technical chops to do anyways)?** The deep irony, of course, is that sound design, as a whole has become very interesting territory for experiment and complexity (don't believe me?  Just listen, sometime, eyes closed to Ren Klyce's sound track for The Social Network — the whole film could have been done to a blank screen and would've worked), while the musical track has declined so badly (yes, if I see the name Hans Zimmer on opening credits, a composer reliably producing yardage good labeled as music, I immediately head for the exit lights.)
* Yes, it's TV and TV is still not film, but it is a area of some formal experimentation, particularly in the long-term series, that has welcomed some interesting music. The score for LOST by Michael Giacchino, for example, focused on ensembles of strings (often with extended techniques) and trombones,  with some airplane fuselage percussion, creating a wealth of material that extended well over the first few seasons and, in the total sound design, contrasted spectacularly well with the diegetic music.   
** Yes, there has been some diegetic music along these lines in the series, but it's not been great stuff and has not played compellingly with the line between the diegetic music and the musical score.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Speaking of diegetic music on TV, I caught some 17th and 18th c. ambient music worked into the plot of.....The Borgias, which is set between 1492 and 1503.

Daniel Wolf said...

Lisa, that's not so uncommon. My favorite near misses are all the films that use Balinese music as generic Asian music. Entering a Chinese back alleyway in the 1920's? Turn on the Gong Kebyar. One wishes, however, that the more humorous misses would more often be intentional (think the Count Basie Band in Blazing Saddles!)

Henry Holland said...

Excellent post. I first got in to Korngold via his operas and then I discovered his film scores. One of my very favorite movies is the hard-to-find The Sea Wolf with Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield and the gorgeous Alexander Knox, score by EWK. It's from 1941, EWK was in full pomp as a film composer, the score is fantastic.

Nice shout-out to Michael Giacchino as well, as a total LOST fanatic one of my favorite aspects of the show was his music, the way he used leitmotifs for the main characters, how he could subtlety color a scene with just a few notes or sounds.

Hans Zimmer *shudder*

Daniel Wolf said...


I agree about the Sea Wolf. Maybe even better (as music, not necessarily as music for the particular film) is Korngold's near contemporary score to Kings Row (yep, the one with Ronald Reagan), in part an anticipatory plagiarism of some very famous scores from the 70s. In both scores: wonderful writing for inner voices, some shocking transitions and orchestration, and an interesting stylistic mix -- plenty of Wiener Espressivo (one of the last composers to get away with portamento strings) and, at the same time, forward looking (that vibraphone!)

mrG said...

and what about Bernard Hermann ;)

Charles Shere said...

We saw a very good production of A Streetcar Named Desire the other day, staged by Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. I liked virtually everything about the production and its performance — except for the incidental music, written for jazz trumpets, piano, and bass, and played via a recording piped way too loud into the hall, and completely in thrall to the marvelous film score by Alex North. I've never witnessed this problem before, and I sympathize with all concerned, but if you can't get the original, replace it with another original, is what I say…