Are there things you can write in a film score that you can’t write for the concert hall? Paul Chihara

Are there things you can write in a film score that you can’t write for the concert hall? Paul Chihara

Photo by Robert Millard

I wrote my first feature in 1974 for Roger Corman (Death Race 2000), which was also Sylvester Stallone‘s first Hollywood movie. (We have both worked in the movie business continuously ever since!) At that time, I was completing my last teaching year at UCLA, where I had just resigned my position as a tenured Professor of Music. I continued to write concert music, however, as the composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (under Neville Marriner) and the San Francisco Ballet (under Michael Smuin), as well as fulfilling commissions from the Boston Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And shortly thereafter, I began working on Broadway (Sophisticated Ladies in 1980). Thus began a bi-coastal and a tri-commercial experience on Broadway, Hollywood, and the concert world. Of these three worlds, the toughest without question is Broadway, though potentially the most rewarding artistically. The time pressures on the composer vary wildly, as does the size of remuneration, for each different type of project. In Hollywood, I became accustomed to hearing “We want it yesterday,” whereas in the concert world, a year to fulfill a commission was not uncommon. Broadway’s demands were often artistically impossible, financially devastating, and uncompromisingly idealistic. I worked diligently for ten years with James Clavell and John Driver on Shogun, The Musical, which opened at the Marriott Marquis in 1991.

And then there is television. Doing a weekly series (China Beach, 100 Centre Street, etc.) is the most exhausting of all the projects I have undertaken. The single biggest difference I see in comparing Hollywood to the concert world is the interaction with a director (or producer). Movies are a collaborative effort, and the composer is part of an expository team, as well the principal “emotional colorist.” Often, I was told to make someone’s performance believable or emotional, when the actor failed to do so. In the concert world, I cannot hide behind any directorial fiat. The composer creates his world and is its principal (and only) actor. It is always center stage there, with no excuses for failure or lack of communication. Stand-up comics often refer to their feelings of vulnerability when performing before a live audience, of being “naked from the waist down.” Composers should always feel that way, even when working exclusively in the recording studios (as we do more and more these days, even in “serious” music). Do I feel bipolar working simultaneously in these different fields? Yes, and occasionally I think this is reflected in my music. I am not sure this is a bad thing. In fact, it is what is happening to a lot of contemporary composers—very good composers.

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