Should Film Music Stand Alone?

Image from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

In evaluating what makes a great film score, writers, composers, and listeners must ask themselves if the function of cinematic music limits the form it has to take.

Clint Mansell

The Fountain OST

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2006-11-26
UK Release Date: 2006-11-20

Philip Glass

Koyaanisqatsi OST

Label: Antilles/Island
US Release Date: 1983
UK Release Date: 1983

José Serebrier and the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra

Shostakovich: Film Music

Label: Warner Classics
US Release Date: 2011-11-15
UK Release Date: 2009-08-03

In his recent interview with Jose Solís for PopMatters, Owen Pallett made an interesting remark that cuts right to the heart of what it means to write great film music. After Solís complemented his newest album, In Conflict, suggesting that the mood evoked by the music would fit well within an Alfred Hitchcock film. Pallett responded thusly:

[A]lthough I appreciate what you called me and I know it comes from a good place, I work hard to make my songs not cinematic. Movie music is functional, it sets action that goes on in the screen, when I work with film directors I seek to make a good movie with them, not a good score independent of the movie. I have always felt that cinematic music is incomplete, when people use those words to describe instrumental music, it’s disrespectful.

Not but a breath later, Pallett qualifies his remarks, saying, "I also say this coming from a new music background so it’s a lame insult, because film music is great." However, despite that bit of hedging, the opinion he expressed is one that remains fairly popular. Upon reading the interview with Pallett, my mind went to a comment someone wrote on my review of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns' score to Enemy, thus far my favorite soundtrack album of 2014. The commenter, using the name Malick Thegreat, writes, "[W]hat makes a soundtrack great is if it ENHANCES [sic] the film. That's the sole criteria for judging this art form. I've never listened to Psycho at home, but that would never detract from its brilliance".

Form and Function

As someone who holds the opposite viewpoint with regards to cinematic music, these comments were odd for me to read. The fact that there exist record labels whose sole purpose is the distribution of film music seems to prove that the opinion expressed by Pallett and Malick Thegreat is simply not the case. Naturally, the film scorer's primary job is to enhance the cinema she is given; there is little contestation on that point. Even when he is at his most bombastic, Hans Zimmer can't overpower the footage that he is providing aural backing to, as tempting as the unbridled power of a horn section might be. However, while form does indeed set limits on the function of a particular piece of music, function is not irreducible to form. Film music necessarily must bolster the cinema it accompanies, but its identity is not entirely bound to that purpose; its function need not limit the form it takes.

Another piece of writing on film music came to my mind as I was letting Pallett's remarks stew in my mind. In Brandon Stosuy's mixed Pitchfork review of Clint Mansell's score for Darren Aronofsky's 2006 meditative sci-fi masterpiece The Fountain, he writes,

But I've concentrated hard on the minor chords, pressed "play" dozens of times, retread the bowing and kneading and bubbling percussion, and it still doesn't do much more than stay perfectly within the lines of the film for which it was composed. It's a good, well-behaved soundtrack full of classicist, string-led flourishes. So, pretty, yes. Reminiscent of summers spent stocking shelves in the music section of Borders and helping old ladies locate the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack? Hell yes.

Stosuy sums up the thesis of his review after this passage, writing, "What we have is so predetermined, so closed... [sic] so obviously a soundtrack. I prefer soundtracks for the nonexistent, where you're forced to conjure, or otherwise work for the image."

I disagree with Stosuy on the matter of The Fountain OST's excellence; Mansell's incredible music was the subject of this column's first installment of The Great Scores series. However, I appreciate the implicit point underlying his criticism, namely that film scores have the potential to be more than what they were initially commissioned for. Though he personally was not transported by Mansell's minimalist tome, he nonetheless saw in it the possibility to take his mind to places beyond the admittedly expansive confines of Aronofsky's cinematic vision.

Stosuy's remarks are particularly salient in light of John Williams' Oscar-nominated score to the movie adaptation of Markus Zusak's popular novel The Book Thief. Williams' overly emotive cues are instantly recognizable, due in large part to his decades-long collaborative relationship with Steven Spielberg, and The Book Thief is a particularly bad case of those cues overwhelming the score. Listening to the soundtrack on CD, one's mind cannot help but imagine a tear falling down a face, a longing look, or any other physical manifestation of strong emotion. To use Stosuy's words, as of late the scores of Williams feel inescapably "predetermined". However, not all film music need be resigned to that fate.

Labeling music such as Mansell's work on The Fountain "film music" is a necessary move that has unfortunate side effects. Of course, the music would have likely never been were it not for the specific visual images that Mansell got inspired by in creating the score. Unfortunately, the result is that, in contrast to the chamber minimalist pieces of Steve Reich or Philip Glass—which The Fountain OST bears a lot of similarity to—Mansell's work gets relegated purely to the film world, viewed as an achievement only in its cinematic context. This myopic view of film music is one that Mansell himself rejects; in my interview with him for The Great Scores piece, he said, “I have never subscribed to the theory that film music shouldn’t be noticed".

A Symphony or a Score? How About Both?

A name like Glass' is an important one to bring up in this discussion, as he is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a living composer comfortable both in the classical and film music realms. His work for Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy [Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002)] ranks in the upper echelons of film music, especially the score to Koyaanisqatsi. Juxtaposing any of those scores with any of Glass' other work, be it symphonic, chamber, or solo piano, one can see identical compositional traits in each category. While it is the case that Glass must respect the requests of the directors he works with when writing music for film, it is not as if he ceases being the composer he is in doing so. The medium of cinema informs but does not monopolistically control Glass' composition.

This fact is not surprising, given that some of the most legendary film scores are written by composers that did not limit themselves exclusively to that subgenre. With the benefit of having hindsight over the composer's entire career, it can be said that some of Dmitri Shostakovich's best work can be found in his contributions to the cinema. Shostakovich's pieces for piano (his Bach-indebted 24 Preludes and Fugues, his Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor) and symphonies (No. 5 in D Minor) are sterling achievements of 20th century classical music, but so too are his film scores. The range of his film music is impressive, spanning playful dance pieces (the "Folk-Feast" or "Spanish Dance" from The Gadfly) to bombastic numbers that utilize the orchestra to its fullest extent ("Scene" from Pirogov). Certain themes and motifs remain popular to this day, such as The Gadfly’s “Romance”—that film’s “Overture” is also identifiable as the progenitor for many of the grandiloquent themes written by the likes of John Williams (see the music to Star Wars).

Though there are many impressive recordings of these pieces, those interested in diving into the breadth of Shostakovich’s film work ought to listen to the three-disc recording Shostakovich: Film Music, which features José Serebrier conducting the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The voluminous box set includes both full performances and selected pieces from The Gadfly (1955), Pirogov (1947), Hamlet (1963), King Lear (1970), Five Days, Five Nights (1960), Michurin (1948), The Fall of Berlin (1949), and Golden Mountains (1931). In many of these cases, it is Shostakovich’s music rather than the original movie that has survived longest in cultural memory; The Gadfly, in particular, has not seen a large audience outside of Russia. Shostakovich’s The Gadfly Suite, in contrast, remains one of his most delightful creations.

There are many reasons why, in retrospect, it seems easier to view the scores of Shostakovich as more refined than the scores of the present day. Many of the films at the time when Shostakovich began writing movie music were silent films, which by their nature require music to enhance their mood. (Shostakovich’s most notable works for cinema, however, came well after talkies became commonplace.) One of the most beautiful songs written for a movie in recent memory comes from the score to Michel Hazanavicius' 2011 ode to silent cinema, The Artist, composed by Ludovic Bource. The song, the solo piano piece "Comme une rosée de larmes" ("Like a dew of tears"), plays as the protagonist, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), nostalgically watches some old footage.

Dujardin's excellent performance is compelling in its own right, but with Bource's deft touch the piano piece elevates the scene to even greater emotional heights. Because the score for a silent film has more room to flourish, many of the composers in Shostakovich's time had more room to flush out arrangements. (Similarly, actors in silent movies to the contemporary audience appear to be overemoting because they have to make up for the lack of the ability to speak).

Additionally, the movie industry during Shostakovich's years as a composer is far different than the one composers have to deal with now. Whereas in the present day a revered composer like Glass will write for cinema on occasion, generally speaking tends to be a bifurcation between those composers who work in film music and those who write for the symphony. While this may be beneficial in terms of having a pool of composers who are experts at writing scores, an unintentional side effect of this division is that film scorers rarely get appreciated in the way they ought to. Merely having Best Score awards at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes is simply not enough to recognize the unique achievements made by film music composers. Events like the Tenerife International Film Music Festival have done a fine job in raising the profile of film scorers, but on the whole the field remains a deeply underappreciated one. Yet, oddly enough, orchestras the world over have no problem performing a Shostakovich score, any more than they would his illustrious symphonies. There is a disconnect here, but it's one for which there are many solutions.

A Humble Suggestion

The thesis of this piece is not that symphonies and scores are identical. As stated previously, function does to some degree determine form; it's hard to imagine any film being backed by, say, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, for the music would certainly overpower in its marvel and bombast. Music whose purpose is adding to the depth of cinematic storytelling does have to fall in line with the requirements of the filmmakers. Moreover, some movies just don't require elaborate music that can be listened to outside of the theatre. While there are exceptions, it is usually the case that big-budget action movies and low-brow comedies aren't accompanied by music that is all that memorable.

What becomes problematic, when one takes a view like Pallett's, is when cinematic music gets reduced merely its function. John Williams may not hold a candle to Beethoven, but it says something that his "Imperial Death March" leitmotif has a grasp on the culture not unlike the similarly portentous notes that open Beethoven's Fifth. When film music reaches majestic heights, as it does more often than its composers are given credit for, the effect can be very much like a great concerto or symphony. Admittedly, this can be easy to miss in the movies, given that the impact of the music is hard to judge out of its visually context. But the benefit of living in an age with numerous record labels devoted to putting out film scores and soundtracks—Milan and Varèse Sarabande are two fine examples—is that listeners have the opportunity to appreciate the music both in and out of its context. It's an opportunity that anyone serious about this kind of music should take as frequently as possible; while there are plenty of scores that feel flat without any celluloid to back it up, there are numerous ones that are successful in standing alone. All these scores and their composers need is the chance to be evaluated on their own terms.

So: should film music stand alone? The answer isn't an easy yes, but nor is it a definite no. Great scores, such as The Gadfly, Koyaanisqatsi, and The Fountain, both enhance the films they were commissioned for and evoke worlds entirely their own. Other scores don't achieve that feat, and in many instances they don't need to. Ultimately, then, it might be ill-advised to expect a score to stand alone; whether or not it should or can do so is entirely dependent on context. Still, even in those cases, it ought not necessarily be the case that the music be merely described as "functional". Even at its most rudimentary, film music does something truly wonderful.

Perhaps, then, the title of this column has the question wrong, for this issue ought to be discussed in potential rather than prescriptive terms. The question is not really, "Should film music stand alone?", but rather, "Can film music stand alone?" Given the tremendous legacy of cinematic music the world has been blessed with, it seems intuitive to me that the answer is yes. Close attention to and better appreciation of film music is an easy and rewarding way of raising the public's attention to those instances where a score leaps from the screen and becomes a compelling work of art in its own right.





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