Monday, June 05, 2006

"Concert with attached visuals"

That metaphor is invoked in this list of twelve "noteworthy" filmscores (describing the film North by Northwest). I see this list via Scott Spiegelberg, who offers it as food for snark. But I don't see the list as all that snarkworthy, maybe because it's just called "Twelve Noteworthy Scores", which I take to mean, "Here are twelve of the better scores that have been written". Rather than snark about this list, I could as easily offer up another list of twelve noteworthy scores.

So here's another list of twelve noteworthy scores:

1. The Adventures of Robin Hood, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
2. Spellbound, Miklos Rozsa.
3. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bernard Herrmann.
4. Spartacus, Alex North.
5. The Ten Commandments, Elmer Bernstein.
6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service, John Barry.
7. Chinatown, Jerry Goldsmith.
8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, John Williams.
9. Ran, Toru Takemitsu.
9. Interview with the Vampire, Eliott Goldenthal.
10. Legends of the Fall, James Horner.
11. Quo Vadis, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
12. The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore.

Scott also links an article about how bad film music is these days. I've read this kind of thing over and over and over again in my years in film music fandom, and nothing said here is really any different: today's composers rely too heavily on computers and keyboards, too few are classically trained in orchestration, too many are lacking in extensive knowledge of harmony and thus rely on small numbers of chord progressions, the nature of filmmaking has reduced the creative role of the composer to a staggering degree, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

But then I recall other things I've read in the past: critical opinions of the music of the past, at the time when the music of the past was the music of the day. There has never been a period when you couldn't find people arguing strenuously that their own contemporary music was disastrously bad and that it had never been worse and so on and so forth, which is why I rarely take these kinds of articles all that seriously. Fifty years from now, there will be some unquestioned masterpieces of film music recognized from our era, and they will be written by composers like Elliott Goldenthal, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard (whose abilities are far in excess of the lukewarm reception his King Kong score received), Gabriel Yared, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, Michael Giacchino, and others.

Of course, this particular author lost me completely when he "defies anyone to whistle a theme from any of the Lord of the Rings movies". Well, if this guy has an hour or two, I'll whistle -- well, hum, actually, since my whistling sucks -- a ton of 'em. Anyone who is going to use those particular scores as Exhibit A in their "Today's composers suck" argument isn't going to get very far with me. I consider those scores to be magnificent achievements that stand up among the great scores of all time.

Besides, "Whistle me a tune from movie X" is a stupid argument, anyway. The fact is that very, very few melodies become cultural milestones that most people can whistle or hum or recognize upon hearing. If you ask random people on the street to whistle the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, you'll probably get a pretty decent rate of success. But I'd wager that rate would drop like a rock if you then say: "OK, now whistle any of the melodies from Beethoven's Seventh." That doesn't make the Seventh a lesser work in some way. And film music is quite the same: a tune does not a filmscore make. Everybody knows those first foreboding notes of Jaws, but does anyone aside from score freaks know the "Shark Cage Fugue", which is another bit of extremely effective scoring from later in the movie?

Finally, I note that the article quotes a Warner Bros. executive who is apparently angry at the current state of film music. Well, to this executive, I'd point out that maybe if he feels that strongly about it, then maybe he could use his power in the business to stop throwing assignments at the Hans Zimmer's of the world; to stop rejecting scores simply because the movie isn't doing well in post-production; to roll back the fetishization of sound effects that drown out the music; and basically to push the pendulum back in the direction of respecting the music more. For this guy to take the "Blame the composers" position is too easy.

Is film music dying? It's certainly changing. But so is all of music, and I'm still finding gems every year. I'd rather celebrate those.

1 comment:

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

So, what's your take on the Shore score getting dumped from King Kong at the last minute? And will we ever get to hear what Shore had in mind--by my reckoning, the score must've been close to completion. Enough for an edited "commercial soundtrack CD" release, at the very least.