(Film) Music

I’m currently working on a commission that is a collaboration with a videographer and we’re both creating our parts simultaneously—I’ll give her a chunk of music or she’ll send me a clip of video, and those glimpses of what one of us is doing will inspire the other to either dig deeper in the same direction or fling us wildly around to an unexpected place. This particular process is both maddening and exciting, since so much of what I’m doing is contingent on what someone else is doing—and often I have no idea what that is! I’ve written briefly about working with collaborators as well as my own adventures in Hollywood in the past, but this new project has not only forced me to remember methods I haven’t used in years, but it’s gotten me thinking about how film scoring techniques can fit within a concert composer’s toolbox.

One of the issues that composers who don’t have experience with film music run into when they try their hand at scoring is form. They may try to break down a scene or cue in the same way they would a short movement of a concert piece, creating a formal structure that makes sense musically but that has very little to do with what’s going on in the film. It is only when they forget the traditional concepts of form and allow the action and dialogue on the screen to dictate the wax and wane of the music that the two will fuse effectively. On the project I’m currently composing, I’m forcing myself to not create a strong formal structure with recaps and complex developments because I can tell already from the clips I’ve seen that any pre-formed structures will simply clash with the natural flow of the visuals.

Conversely, it is very easy to fall into the trap of creating the equivalent of aural wallpaper. (Composer Jack Smalley is known for calling this technique “Scotch Tape music” because it sounds like whoever wrote it taped down a tone or chord on their synth and went out for coffee during the scoring session.) During his seminars at USC, Elmer Bernstein would rail at our class to never let the energy or the intensity of our music relax, and his words not only resonated at the time but stuck with us; whenever I find myself allowing my music to lag too much, I imagine Elmer in one of his many turtleneck shirts smiling benevolently and saying, “Never let up…always keep going!”

What to do with thematic material seems to be one of the biggest challenges in transitioning to film from the concert stage for composers. Whereas with concert music many composers will emphasize the development of musical thematic material over statement or restatement of such material, in film music one generally finds the opposite to be true. An old saw from the “Golden Age” of film goes something like, “If you think you’ve repeated your theme too much, that’s a good time to repeat it again!” A more traditional composer’s reaction to this can be seen with Elliot Goldenthal’s early take on his first forays in film music—he said that the experiences were primarily great ways to experiment with orchestration. While I wouldn’t suggest utilizing this “rinse and repeat” technique verbatim—there are way too many examples of cut-and-paste music out there already—one aspect of film music that concert composers could always look at is the naked statement of a theme itself while being unafraid to bring that theme back in its entirety (albeit in different guises).

Members of our own audience, including potential composers, grow up with film and (increasingly) video game music. It only makes sense then to look at these fields not as curiosities and targets for scorn, but as genres rich with tradition and techniques that could easily be incorporated into a contemporary composers’ palette.

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