December 1999 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

The Score - Interviews with Film Composers By Michael Schelle 430 pages; softback Silman-James Press, Los Angeles $19:95 £12.10

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We apologize for the poor scan quality.
It was the best we could get from the cover.
Interviews with:-
John Barry
Elmer Bernstein
Terence Blanchard
Bruce Broughton
Paul Chihara
John Corigliano
James Newton Howard
Mark Isham
Daniel Licht
Joel McNeely
Thomas Newman
Marc Shaiman
Howard Shore
Shirley Walker
Christopher Young

This is a book that is well overdue. It is an inside look at the working life of the people who compose for films against ruthless deadlines and the dictates of production teams who, more often than not, are motivated by the responsibility of ensuring commercial profit over ever-spiralling production costs, rather than by aesthetics.

Out of a 430-odd pages book I will just mention a few of the things I highlighted as I went through it.

The interview with John Barry is absorbing. He makes many interesting points. Commenting about writing behind dialogue, he observes that the personalities of the characters and the actors have to be taken into account. He quotes Gregory Peck's 'wonderful deep voice and very slow delivery with marvellous cadences…you write music to that central [part of its range] voice - under it, over it…How the dialogue is recorded is critical to where the music fits in: is the dialogue what I call " front screen" right in front - or is it off to the left or right?…The instruments can move actors - push them back or move them forward. By being aware of dialogue duration and distance, you can create a cushion behind the whole thing…I always like to use a large orchestra behind dialogue scenes. With a large orchestra playing softly, you get weight and depth on the screen. A small group dwindles down to nothing by the time you take it back against dialogue. And believe me, they're going to do that." Later in the interview, Barry discusses the question of where music should be placed. "Choosing where you put the music or where you lay out are the big discussions with the director. I absolutely believe that those choices will make the difference between a good score and a bad score, not to mention help make a good movie or ruin it. Sometimes the director can get foggy because he is seeing the scene in an uncut version, and probably carrying some emotional baggage about musical thoughts he's had long before the composer arrived on the movie. So its up to the composer to say, 'I think you're wrong. I think this scene is working beautifully up to this point, and the music needs to wait until here." The good directors will be very responsive…" In the context of balancing sound effects and music in the final mix, Barry can often suggest restraint, even absence of music. He says, "In the five-minute buffalo hunt in Dances with Wolves, for example, they initially laid a very loud temp track over the entire scene, but I pushed for beginning it with only the sounds of the buffalo, which were such terrific sounds in themselves, without music…"

Bruce Broughton remarks about the composer's working relationship with the film's production people "…you are the guy who comes in at the end. They are very suspicious of you because they have already had the marketing blitz - they have their numbers, and they don't want you to screw it up. You know, "We need music, just don't do too much. We got this fifty-million-dollar investment don't blow it… don't do this…don't do that.. don't be too emotionally big, don't change the emotions here, don't say too much there, don't be too overt, don't be too mysterious, don't be too energetic…" It's not like it was even a few years ago…" Yet Broughton does appreciate the duties of the directors and the plight of the writers who often recognise little of what they had originally penned. Broughton goes into revealing detail about his composition routines, how he organises his written scores showing all the instrumentation and information notes to the copyist etc. When asked , "Is it common to find directors who are musically confused?', Broughton candidly and openly replies, "Not really. There are times when the director tells you exactly what he or she wants and you have to hope that you are not translating. I have been in situations where I have stepped into it up to my chin, and the director suddenly says, "No, not that. I wanted such and such," which was exactly what he wanted all along, but I had translated wrong - I had thought he wanted something else. So I had to rewrite it.' And he goes on to observe that film music is all commercial music in that it is written to be criticised and altered, whereas nobody would dream of wanting to alter a composer's work for the concert hall.

James Newton Howard has the happy knack of being able to write beautiful tunes. "I suppose they're effortless in that they're essentially part of an unconscious process…I approach most scores from the "theme is king" perspective. Yet he is not entirely satisfied with this emphasis. "As I look back on some of my older stuff…I just find some of it is too melodic and melody-driven, which is a form that has become kind of boring to me. I think that I'm only lately getting away from that or becoming able to write more freely. I think that it is really all about counterpoint - more counterpoint and less melody. Just dig into the texture of the music rather than the melody or the theme." He goes on to discuss his music for such films as Pretty Woman, Prince of Tides and, particularly, Falling Down (the film in which Michael Douglas as a well-intentioned individual reacts with increasing violence to the world [suburban Los Angeles] that is crumbling around him). For this screenplay, he felt he had to restrain and contain the music except for a few brief manic outburst in the climactic scenes and even use a little mordant humour to ease the tension.

The interview with Mark Isham included a section on the composer's Academy Award-nominated music for A River Runs Through It. We learn that Redford already had a score which he rejected before Isham came on the scene. Isham comments, "When I saw the film, I immediately said, 'I know what will work on this.' And, luckily I was right.' Redford confirmed his hunch when he suggested that a Malcolm Arnold Scottish Dance and a Jean-Pierre Rampal recording of Celtic music was something like what he was after. So Isham wrote five beautiful "Celtic" melodies, almost like folk songs, and orchestrated them in different ways. "The music had to have a poetic quality because the film had a poetic quality. You have this beautiful narration all the way through the film, which is a very high-aesthetic film and a very subjective film. The guy (Brad Pitt) gets killed, but, other than that, everything else is sort of up in the air as to what's really happening. The film never really explores on the surface. It's like poetry. And so the music had to operate on that level."

Joel McNeely talks about his classical music, and 'Golden Age' film music inspirations. "Yes we all have our inspirations, and then we outgrow them…I think it is important to stand on broad shoulders - it's a musical food chain. I have done my growing and learning in public… I am now starting to amass a lot of different kinds of knowledge. I am starting to find out who I am and what it is I want to say…" Further on in the interview Schelle raises McNeely's award-winning conducting assignments for Varèse Sarabande. Speaking about Vertigo, McNeely observed that Herrmann did not conduct the film's score himself; it was done in London during a musician's strike. "Since Herrmann was not allowed to conduct it, the tempos in the score are sometimes wildly different from what ended up in the movie. And sometimes, mostly from an expressive point, there are moments in Herrmann's score indicating that it is to stretch and stretch, but in the film they really blew right through those moments. So I was determined to stick to Herrmann's performance indications throughout…It took a lot of work. It was also very difficult to record because a lot of it was very high, and you know how difficult it is for players to sit for long periods of time being really quiet and playing really high…"

Thomas Newman (eldest son of the celebrated Alfred Newman) offers some thoughts on film music composers conducting their own music. "It took me quite a while to put together a sense of who I was and how I was to deal with musicians. I'd had some experience just talking to players, and I was told, "You get on the podium and you kind of talk Italian - whatever Italian you know." I remember the first time I got on the podium to conduct, it was just wow! Then you realise that it's not that big a deal. A musician friend of mine once said, 'You get out on the podium and you look at all those players and you think they're looking at you as if to say, 'Now what do you want us to do?' But no, they're asking themselves, 'When's the next break? When's lunch!" Newman talks about his composition processes. "The danger of working with abstract sound is that it can be anything for any amount of time. Sometimes I wonder how deep down into this well I dare dive, discovering my own instrumentation, my own orchestrations along the way. It is a discovery process. And that's good and bad. It can be very time-consuming; you can do five hours of work for ten minutes of result. Newman is keen to experiment to use synths well, for instance. "God, there have been some amazing things written before any electronics or sound processing existed! But I want to be a product of my own time…Sometimes I think film music is an opportunity for people to justify their own conservative natures."

Marc Shaiman likes to use the themes he creates for his characters in interesting and meaningful ways. "I wrote my main theme for the Meg Ryan character [in Sleepless in Seattle] as a counterpoint to the song "An Affair to Remember" from the movie An Affair to Remember, the movie that she keeps talking about. When she is running to the Empire State Building, we're hearing the theme that we've been associating with Meg Ryan, her main theme, and "An Affair to Remember" - the themes from her movie and her life -playing together." Schelle observes that Shaiman uses that technique in First Wives Club too. At the very end, when the ladies are singing "You Don't Own Me", Shaiman's original themes for each of them are blended in. Schelle also notes that during the opening credits for An American President, Shaiman's patriotic tune modulates and arrives at a surprising new tonic key at the very moment his name appears on the screen, a trick that reaches back to the films of Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, and numerous others.

Shirley Walker went through the mill co-composing, orchestrating and conducting and, it appears, she collected a number of scars on the way up. When asked, "Do you use the sound effects as part of your musical atmosphere, she agreed "absolutely" and said that she had learnt that music and sound share the soundtrack and each have a contribution to make. "I love writing around sound. My music is capable of having a transparency even though the architecture of the composition might be dense…I'm not going to have a timpani going as a car rolls up, because that's what the sound of the motor's going to do. It's already going to be there."

Now for what I personally think is the down side of this book.

The ordinary music lover with limited technical knowledge may well be stumped when encountering questions like this rhetorical one to Howard Shore: "In The Fly, the harmonisation of the principal motive is atonal but moves in parallel thirds and by root-third relationships."

Interviews with leading A list composers are few: no contribution from John Williams, nothing from James Horner, nothing from Jerry Goldsmith. Is it significant that the interview with Elmer Bernstein is the shortest? [Although it touches on some interesting points like Bernstein's relationships with his teachers, Aaron Copland, Stepan Wolpe and Roger Sessions, his attitude to the emotional content of scores, and his discovery and varied use of the Ondes Martinot.]

For me, opportunities have been missed. For a complete perspective it would have been instructive to interview descendents of, or those who knew the greats of the Golden Age. Why not, for instance, speak to John Waxman about his father Franz Waxman to gain some idea of what it was really like to work under the old studio system - that had the music department dictating the music rather than directors? Perhaps it might have been more preferable to have worked out specific themes for each interview and concentrate on those rather than attempt scatter shot questions that cover a lot of ground, but at the same time, the same sort of ground. Might it not have been better to have focussed more tightly on fewer more high profile films and TV scores rather than on so many obscure ones that many readers will not be aware of and are therefore unfamiliar with the music. This unfocussed style makes reading this book heavy going; I have to say it wearied me more and more as I progressed through it. One of the requirements of the interview style of presentation is that the interviewer edits what is said to tighten, elucidate and ease reading.

Perhaps for a future edition Mr Schelle might consider adding a CD with musical examples to make points that much clearer?

For the more technically-orientated film music college student, this book will be indispensable. The ordinary lover of film music, although thinking it good, even very good, on the whole, might have rather too many reservations for comfort.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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