Emotions stirred sitting in the dark

Film Music
July 13, 2001

When Alfred Hitchcock looked at the rushes of his masterpiece Psycho , he was so disappointed that he thought it might be best to turn the project into a television drama. It was the film composer Bernard Herrmann who persuaded him to think again. Herrmann could sense the potential of images that, when combined with music, would create one of cinema's most powerful works.

This story is just one of the many revealing anecdotes included in Film Music by Mark Russell and James Young, the third in the ambitious Screencraft series of introductory books about various aspects of feature film-making.

Film Music is devoted to 12 film composers: Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Michael Nyman, Gabriel Yared, Philp Glass, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, Zbigniew Preisner and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Their work is presented in their own words from edited interviews.

Herrmann has a chapter of his own, at the start of the book, written by Mervyn Cooke. Herrmann is often acknowledged as the master of the film soundtrack, an original who was first and foremost a creative artist, unwilling to bend before Hollywood's commercial pressures. He worked with Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and many other great directors. Cooke's essay benefits from a historian's detachment, providing the context that is in many cases absent from the living composers' first-person contributions that follow.

These personal accounts vividly communicate the excitement of the collaborative process. This is a work that trades on a sense of immediacy and access rather than depth. Its engaging quality is enhanced by excellent design, typography, paper quality and photographic reproduction. The look of the book is clearly aimed at a young readership: film and media studies students will enjoy it as an easy and accessible introduction to the subject. The coffee-table proportions allow for good-sized film stills, most of them in colour where the film's original print demands it.

There is also a useful CD of musical examples. If it were not for the hideously high cost of rights, it is possible to imagine in the future a companion DVD, with extracts of films that would show more clearly than any text how sound and image combine to work on our emotions and make meaning.

Listening to the CD straight reveals the essential limitations of the movie soundtrack. Even if Glass's minimal and non-linear score for Koyaanisqatsi appears at first totally different from Bernstein's music for The Magnificent Seven , or Nyman claims to write music that is independent of the film, the CD examples have something in common: while styles may vary and individual scores evoke a range of moods or historical moments, the uniform functionalism of most soundtracks is inevitably determined by the music's preponderant role as support to the film's narrative. This causes most of the scores to sound dangerously like "film music", rather than reflecting the originality or brilliance of each individual composer. Unfortunately though, authors Russell and Young do not provide even the basic elements for a critique of film composition.

What distinguishes soundtracks from "programme music"? Movie scores fit somewhere between the eight-hour cycles designed by the Muzak Corporation to heighten and dampen the moods of factory employees to fit the metabolic peaks and troughs of the working day, and the narrative basis of much post-Romantic music. Soundtracks are required to deliver a relatively limited range of psychological responses and most composers seem to be bound by a musical language heavy with cliches. In the worst cases, film music manipulates the audience mercilessly, underscoring what is obvious and driving home emotional responses that are best left to the imagination of the individual spectator.

As David Thomson points out when writing about Herrmann in his illuminating Biographical Dictionary of Film , "nearly any music works in the dark with any film". By saying this, he acknowledges the ease with which music can be made, through the manipulation of a relatively restricted palette of melodic, harmonic and textural devices, to shape our emotions.

It is Herrmann's music that provides the drama and terror in Psycho 's shower scene, for the images on their own are not that horrific. In the right hands, music may be used to broaden the range of our response, as in Herrmann's score for Scorsese's Taxi Driver , where it provides a subtle antidote to the overt violence of the film's images. Herrmann and the best soundtrack makers have distinguished themselves by breaking the rules and transcending the limits of a medium that perpetually reworks stock themes and stories.

The music on the CD that accompanies Film Music is largely characterised by a dream-like lushness. This may be because cinema is best enjoyed in a state of reverie, but this otherworldly quality is often exaggerated and predictable, perhaps not surprisingly, as film music is a language predicated on the delivery of familiar experience.

Cinema is first and foremost popular entertainment. The essentially melodramatic qualities of the feature film have been well served by many film composers' debt to the post-Romantic tradition, the emotional overdrive and bombast that characterises some of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss; and even more so the music of Erik Korngold, a protege of Mahler who ended up working in Hollywood and playing a key role in shaping the style and feel of mainstream film music.

The authors of Film Music do not adequately place film music in the context of music history, but the composer Danny Elfman explains that "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 composers such as Korngold, Tiomkin and Steiner and I think they were probably very much influenced by Wagner so I probably was indirectly."

Elfman's score for Tim Burton's Batman is about as excessive as they get, relentless and over-dramatised, but the comic-book subject probably demands it. Other scores are more subtle. A good soundtrack is characterised by a combination of sharply pinpointed effectiveness - a question of finely assessing mood changes, timing and the relationship of musical phrasing and picture editing - and discretion.

As Howard Shore, who has worked with David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme and David Fincher, puts it: "It's not so much about hearing the music in the cinema when you're watching the scene; it's that you can feel it". That companion CD should not really be listened to - like Muzak, this is not music you should be "hearing" at all.

Each of the composers featured tells a slightly different story: we learn almost as much about different directors as we do about the process of fitting a soundtrack to the picture. Shore communicates his sense of discovering "what the film needs" very vividly. He picks his projects and directors very carefully, and draws from a wide range of influences, from Webern to jazz. He gives the impression of a composer who likes to innovate and seeks out directors who share his enjoyment of risk.

Although the Hollywood norm demands that a composer should come in when the film has been edited, Nyman has always provided Peter Greenaway with music from early in the film-making process, in some cases before shooting begins.

Composer Elmer Bernstein studied with Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe and worked with Cecil B. DeMille ( The Ten Commandments ), Otto Preminger ( The Man with the Golden Arm ), John Sturges ( The Magnificent Seven ), Edward Dmytryk ( Walk on the Wild Side ) and most recently Martin Scorsese ( Cape Fear , The Age of Innocence and Bringing out the Dead ).

Bernstein's score for Bringing out the Dead is exemplary in its reserve: sparse orchestration and understatement packing a deeper emotional punch rather than melodramatic excess. He describes Scorsese as "one of those directors who will talk you through the sequence and the way he would like the music. He said that listening to music is what made him most want to become a director". Film sense and a musical sensibility are obviously closely connected: the strength of a film depends so much on rhythm and pacing, on a visual and narrative equivalent of phrasing and an instinctive feeling for the overall shape of a work.

Focused as it is on "key composers", Film Music fails to include a number of significant collaborations: Louis Malle and the magnificent soundtrack for Lift to the Scaffold , improvised by Miles Davis as the film was projected in the studio; or Ravi Shankar's scores for Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. Neither does the book really discuss the often very powerful use of existing music, from the stripped-down rigour of Bach's "Suite for Unaccompanied Cello" in Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly to the evocative pop soundtracks of American Graffiti , Easy Rider , Trainspotting or many other films. Some important giants are conspicuous by their absence: Georges Delerue and Nino Rota do not get a mention. And would not Ennio Morricone have been a more relevant choice than the much less influential Gabriel Yared?

For all its glamour, this book is a little hit-and-miss: there are far too many spelling mistakes (Ernest Krenick instead of Krenek, Bill Hayley instead of Haley, and a glaring "undoubtably" on the first page of the introduction). But more important, the book suffers from a lack of critical distance and contextualisation, particularly if it is to serve as a companion to serious film study. There is little here to help a film enthusiast develop a more discerning appreciation of the use of music in films.

We have, it would seem, a critical blind spot when it comes to film music. This may arise from a "second nature" familiarity: the central place of film score cliches in our mediated experience of the world. Much as we are haunted by the myths and persona of film, soundtracks play in our minds, in association with moods and images from favourite movies. Hollywood composers are often encouraged to write in the style of past box-office successes, while others consciously imitate Korngold or Herrmann.

Composing for film is to a large extent about pastiche. Perhaps not so paradoxically, given the cultivation of self-reference that characterises the postmodern condition. That these issues are not explicitly raised by Russell and Young is a pity, but neither should this detract from their book's value as a basic introduction to the subject of film composition.

Mark Kidel is a documentary film-maker specialising in music. His most recent film was Alfred Brendel: Man and Mask and he is currently working on a film about Ravi Shankar.

Film Music

Author - Mark Russell and James Young
ISBN - 2 880464412
Publisher - RotoVision
Price - £29.95
Pages - 192

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