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Book Review -Film Music by Mark Russell and James Young: Film Music CD Reviews- January 2001

January 2001 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Book Review

Film Music by Mark Russell & James Young
Book comes with a special 13- track CD inlaid into the cover comprising representative samples of the film music of each of featured composer.
RotoVision ISBN 2-88046-441-2
Purchase from:  Amazon UK  Amazon US

Like waiting for a bus, it's amazing how after a protracted period without something you'll get several seemingly at once. There have been a pleasing number of film music related books published in the last few years. A common factor in most is a large basis on interview material. It causes this reviewer to yearn for something to come from the pen of a composer directly, but we should be grateful for what we get!

This latest is a collection of a dozen interviews and 1 overview (the late Bernard Herrmann). It distinguishes itself from everything preceding it in presentation. A large colourful affair, it dazzles with a plentiful supply of film stills. If anything, these are the work's only letdown. What weighs in the hand like a solid work on the subject actually filters down to less than a quarter of its size in pure text.

The interviews offer the occasional surprise revelation in anecdotal remembrance. Each begins with a biographical introduction that will probably seem overly familiar to soundtrack collectors, but ought to be seen as essential information in swaying the opinion of those who perceive film music guardedly. The 13 composers featured do (for the most part) collectively present impressive educational credentials and awards.

The composers in question are:

Bernard Herrmann (retrospective article)
Elmer Bernstein,
Jerry Goldsmith
Maurice Jarre,
John Barry
Lalo Schifrin
Michael Nyman
Gabriel Yared
Philip Glass
Howard Shore
Danny Elfman
Zbigniew Preisner
Ryuichi Sakamoto

Those choices ought to convince that some care has been taken in selecting a cross-section of 'old-school', avant-garde, international, and fringe dwellers. I'll let you decide who's who!

Quite a fine balance has been achieved between technical explanation and general emotional inspiration. There's a glossary at the end for anyone who gets too lost. With score pages, extra quotes accompanying photographs, and an illustrative CD (culled entirely from the Silva Screen catalogue), this is without the most deluxe packaging of the art to date.
Paul Tonks

Ian Lace adds:

As Paul says this book (in Rotovision's impressive Screencraft series) provides a very interesting overview to the subject, with some remarkable comments. Of the process, there appears to be a certain mystique. Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most skilled and versatile of film composers admits, "When I'm sitting and writing something, I can't explain why I do it or how, it just happens. It's a feeling. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but the more I think about it the more trouble I get into. So I just react to what I see. One comes away with the impression that film music is often very much an intuitive marriage of sound and vision based on rhythm and pace.

Often one reads of careful research and preparation before the creation of material only to find the music used, by the director, in an altogether different way or sequence to the one the composer envisioned. Michael Nyman in talking about his work on The Draughtsman's Contract observes ruefully: 'Being set at the end of the 17th century, it had to have a 17th century content…Since we were dealing with drawings, frames and something that was fixed it seemed logical to use ground basses… a 17th century concept yet it is also timeless…because one of the attractions of that form is a sense of being locked into the musical frame. For the first drawing, I built music from the ground upwards: the bass part, then a bit more detail, and more again, until the sixth version which was to represent the finished drawing. But Peter [Greenaway] heard this sixth version and thought "it's amazing we have to start the film with this". So, as they're tramping across the fields with all the drawing paraphernalia in the heavy mist, instead of rather hesitant opening music, you get this great fanfare which I'd intended to represent the completed drawing in all its glory. Another time, I used the bass as a melody and overlaid multiple cascading harpsichord arpeggios. Greenaway used this music to accompany drawings being burned. I think that's a fantastic representation of burning yet it was totally unintentional…'

Interestingly, a number of the scores quoted through the book were written before the editing process sometimes even before filming so that the actors could be put in the mood and the editing process organised to the rhythm and tempo of the music.

There are one or two misleading statements. For instance, Maurice Jarre, whose earlier career was spent working for MGM, is rather cavalier in saying, "In each studio [in the days when many major studios had their own music departments] there was a guy who specialised in main titles, even if you had different composers there was always a special orchestrator. If you listen all the main titles of that period they all sound alike." That may well have been true of MGM, but at Warner Bros, for instance, Max Steiner composed his own Main Titles music (even though they might have been orchestrated by Hugo Friedhofer) and the music of that studio had a distinctive sound -- so too did the less ambitious music from Universal a studio that did not rate music at all highly, used scissors and paste compositional methods, and employed under-nourished orchestras. The Main Titles music sounded alike, across the studios, only in as much as they were all, of necessity, grandiose and imposing.

Film Music on the Web readers might recall that our Award for Best New Score 1999 went to Danny Elfman for Sleepy Hollow. I was therefore most interested to read his contribution. 'I love writing for choir - it's just another instrument for me, ' he comments. 'Batman may have been the first time I used a choir as strongly as I did…I will never forget the excitement of hearing [it]…I have been using choirs ever since then - I suppose it has become one of my signature devices.' Although Elfman came to film music from a rock background he enjoys classical music. 'The choral music of Mozart, his Requiem of Carl Orff and of Fauré were all very big influences on me, as was the exciting propulsive music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. I seem to have a strong Russian and Eastern European bent that I can never totally remove myself from. After Batman, a lot of people asked me about my Wagnerian influences and my answer was that I never really listened to Wagner. On the other hand, I was very influenced by other composers such as Korngold, Tiomkin and Steiner and I think they were very much influenced by Wagner, so I probably was indirectly. Many of my musical influences are classical which have been filtered through other film composers.

I must be Film Music on the Web's oldest reviewer. I make no apologies for the fact that my age reflects my tastes. My monthly Editor's Choice invariably is given to a score from Hollywood's Golden Age (or Silver Age). Personally, I find most new scores, these days, arid and devoid of themes and depth of structure or development. I was therefore most interested to read Elmer Bernstein's parting shot: "I've been blessed all my life. I was lucky to be there in the halcyon days of film scoring. Even though the art of film music is in abysmal state in the United States, with music designed to be specifically commercial rather than germane to the dramatic work, it'll probably turn itself around. These things usually do I'm an optimist". I do hope that he is right.

Ian Lace

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