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More on Jack Sullivan and Film Scores

This morning, I came across an article entitled "Conversations with John Williams," by author Jack Sullivan, whose book Hitchcock's Music I mentioned in my post on "Hitchcock and the Art of the Score." The article is published in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, which means you'll need a subscription in order to read it. For those who don't have a subscription, here's a little bit about the essay.

Sullivan tells us that John Williams, "Hollywood's premier composer," echoes the arguments of "[h]is predecessors Erich Korngold and [Bernard] Herrmann," who believed "that film music helped keep classical alive..." Williams "is convinced this phenomenon is now truer than ever."

"Purists will not like that," he admits, and he himself is emotionally torn. "As musicians, we don't like to think we need visual aids to project music. It should be able to engage us aurally and intellectually without a visual distraction. I'm painfully aware of that problem, but as you and I have discussed before, we are visual addicts, stimulated by computer or movie screens. People have their eyes glued to something all the time. For that generation, it's hard to listen to Beethoven and be completely engaged in a way that we would prefer them to be. But I think to ignore that fact is to ignore a reality that is with us; the audiovisual coupling as expressed in film music is something that is really with us to stay because of the way we live."

Sullivan reminds us of what I'd call the "snob factor" among some classical music buffs, concerning film score composing:

The classical intelligentsia once openly ridiculed film composing, using it as an instant metaphor for anything shallow or sentimental and scoffing at concert composers who wrote for the movies on the side. Stravinsky panned Rachmaninoff's symphonic works as "grandiose film music." Otto Klemperer, upon hearing that Korngold was writing for Hollywood, sneered that Korngold "had always composed for Warner Brothers, he just didn't realize it." Current critics tend to be more accepting of the field, but they practice a curious doublethink, one that is often unconscious. "Sounds like movie music" is still a common way to dismiss a new concert work, even among reviewers ostensibly friendly to the genre. ...
The stakes are high, for film music is uniquely situated to disseminate symphonic culture at the moment many commentators worry about that culture's impending collapse. In Williams's view, our multinational age presents an opportunity for classical music to reposition itself and for young composers to find an audience. "For better or worse, the audience for film music, even in an unconscious way, is multinational and enormous. If there is such a thing as global music, it's probably coming from film, where it's less attached to one particular vernacular. As a unified art form, a successful film, if it has a score that people will embrace, really can, in the atmosphere we live in today, reach across those boundaries. Film music can therefore be very important even to the history and development of the art form of music itself."

Sullivan makes important points, I think, about the significance of film scores. "Common sense should tell us that the divide between film music and classical is artificial, as silly as the schism between symphony and opera." Williams is among those composers who have kept symphonic music alive, the kind of music that features a "grand, Romantic, sweeping style..." That style was sure on display the first time I saw Williams conduct the New York Philharmonic, back in February 2004, and again in April 2005 (in an appearance at Lincoln Center that featured special guest violinist Itzhak Perlman), and yet again in May 2006.

I like the fact that Sullivan focuses on Williams's vast talent as both a composer and arranger ("he orchestrates his own scores, every note and instrument, down to the last string harmonic or harp glissando, working with pencil and paper"). Williams was deeply influenced by composers as varied as Haydn (his favorite), Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók, as well as Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The latter influence really shows, I think, in Williams's score for "Catch Me if You Can," pieces of which were performed brilliantly at the May 2006 Avery Fisher Hall concert I attended.

In any event, having argued for the musical integrity of film scores many times in the past (see here, for example), I really enjoyed this Williams interview, and, as I said the other day, I'm looking forward to reading Sullivan's book when I have the time.


"Common sense should tell us that the divide between film music and classical is artificial..."

Some probably do underappreciate film music as an artform. But they ~are~ fundamentally different animals. Of course it depends somewhat on how the creators (composers, directors, etc) conceive of the score's function, but typically a score plays an obviously supporting role. It's there to enhance moods and provide certain cues. And as such, it often needs to be simplified/made quickly recognizable so as to touch off the right feelings in the audience at the right moment while not distracting them with particularly complex melodies or structures. We might say integrating music with visual action is an artform in its own right, but it is different from creating music meant to be appreciated on its own terms.

~My~ favorite film composers, of course, are the ones who strain at the bit and do draw more attention to the music. I love finishing a movie and thinking "God, the music was fantastic." But sometimes a movie isn't best served that way. Sometimes it's best not to be able to remember the music. It depends on the movie.

As always, good and provocative observations, Austen. And oh how I know the feelings you've described!

I do think they are different animals, to some extent, but the lines do fudge. For example, while the cues for various scores serve a definite function, the totality of the best of film scores often provides us with a kind of instrumental "opera" that evokes a whole "story" that can be appreciated on its own terms. (It's no coincidence that one of the most important composers to impact upon the whole genre of film scoring is Wagner.) Listen to the full soundtracks to "Ben-Hur" or "King of Kings" by Miklos Rozsa or "Spartacus" by Alex North or Jarre's "Lawrence of Arabia," or, in a different genre, Johnny Mandel's "The Sandpiper" (which, quite honestly, is actually better than the film for which it was written), etc., and you'll get a totality that can indeed be appreciated as an end-in-itself.

What I wonder, however, is how we deal with the supporting role of music in other integrating genres. It can dramatize a story (in opera) or provide the backdrop for dance (ballet, etc.) Many composers of opera and suites for ballet have worked closely with those who have written the stories or who choreograph the dance, changing things here and there to accentuate this or that syllable, this or that movement. So I wonder how we evaluate the role of music in these art forms.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome!

Well, we don't ~have~ to separate out a category for "unintegrated music," nor, in any case, does snobbery against any musical genre make much sense, as each genre comes with its own unique constraints and challenges. Rozsa's "Ben-Hur" isn't "less" of an achievement than Rozsa's violin concerto. And I'd say anyone who thinks so hasn't thought about it enough.

I find an "unintegrated music" category useful & important, though, however vague its boundaries. There's something special about that creative space where music is intended to be the sole object of attention. That space both liberates the composer and raises the expectations of the music per se. And, which is natural, I think the most "strictly musically interesting" work tends to happen there.

Opera and ballet, and musical theater for that matter, and thickly programmatic concert music for that matter, differ from film in that they're inherently musical, and most or all of whatever language there is is sung. Indeed, in ballet the dance expresses the music as much as the music supports the dance; in opera, a libretto needn't be the organizing principle for the score, the reverse works too. There's greater story-music balance in those genres than in film. Which is why Verdi can basically make an aria as musically compelling as he wants to, and Ravel can write an arrestingly lush ballet like "Daphnis and Chloe" -- and such pieces do almost always hold up on their own, musically.

Since films tend to be more like plays, there's a pressure--not always or necessarily, but often--against music that might distract more than support. Not to mention that a music track on a film invariably gets broken up into short and incidental fragments; not much room for complex development, unless the score is fleshed out, rearranged and repackaged on a CD, but then we're no longer talking about much of an "integrated genre", are we? I think these pressures on film composition are fine & good, but they are limiting factors on the music.

That's my wordy offhand sense of it, anyway...

Personally I'm inclined to agree that any perceived distinction between movie scores and "proper" classical music is wholly artificial.

The British radio station Classic FM (the only station in the country devoted to ~purely~ classical music) openly embraces the work of Williams, Morricone and Rozsa as a vital part of the classic music heritage, and Williams' Star Wars scores (purely for example) sound right at home alongside symphonies and operatic excepts* from the likes of Beethoven, Bach and Puccini.

It's true that there is a distinction between actual symphonies on the one hand and music for opera and movies on the other, in that the latter two forms are written to accompany visual events on stage or screen.

But, symphonies can convey just as much emotion and meaning as operatic music or movie scores. To my mind, Morricone's scoring of the climax of The Good The Bad and The Ugly (listened to as music) is just as stirring and powerful as say Beethoven's Third and Ninth Symphonies.

*Classic FM has not as yet aried any full length opera performances. BBC Radio 3 (otherwise known as Music Snobs 'R Us) on the other hand includes live opera broadcasts as part of its classical output but barely seems to touch film music with a barge pole.

Thanks for the additional thoughts on this topic, gents.

FYI, the list of Academy Award-nominated scores and songs is finally available at Oscar.com. Check it out here.