You already knew that film music was in trouble when Lars Von Trier (the director of The Idiots, Dogville, etc) and his friends came out with that manifesto called Dogme stating they will not have any music in their films unless it happens as part of the action. It's okay, they said, to have 'source music'—a band or a busker or a jukebox playing on screen—but it's not okay to have 'underscore', that is, music written specifically for the film and played 'invisibly' on the soundtrack.
Why don't these people, among the best and brightest of current film makers, want scored music? Because, they said, just like sets and studios, costumes and make-up, it interposes a layer of inauthenticity between the audience and the film experience. Emotional wallpaper, they call it.
(Never mind that they almost immediately started shoving music in wherever they could, it's the thought that counts in a manifesto...)
And you are reminded that film music is in deep trouble when the hip theory-based academics of film in the cultural studies departments tell you that the composed score is 'symptomatic of the patriarchal society.' Film scores, according to Linda Kassabian (in her book Hearing Film) do the thing that nineteenth century novels did: provide a closed world view, a set of preconceived attitudes from which to judge and put into order all the varying experiences that the film has opened up. We don't like film music, they say, 'because it tells us what to think.'
And your sinking feeling about film music hit the depths when you heard about director Wolfgang Pedersen sacking his composer Gabriel Yared (Betty Blue, The English Patient) from his would-be blockbuster Troy, after Yared had been working on the score for nearly a year, hiring in his place James Horner (of Titanic fame,) and giving him a mere two weeks to re-score the entire picture, and nobody seemed to think this was a ridiculous thing to do.
In case you didn't notice, it happened again the next year. On one of the biggest movies of 2005, just a few weeks before the international release date, they threw out the music.
For professional filmmakers this is close to catastrophe. But these are hardly amateurs we're talking about. The film is Peter Jackson's King Kong, and the composer is, or was, Howard Shore, the Oscar-winning composer for Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. After three massive blockbusters together and after Shore working on the Kong music for a year or more, you would think that between them they'd have worked out what was happening with the music.
Worked out not, it seems.
(This is an excerpt from Jackson's press release: 'Howard and I came to realise that we had differing creative aspirations for the score of King Kong. Rather than waste time arguing with a friend...we decided amicably to let another composer score the film.' It's a bit reminiscent of those days in the seventies when bands broke up—and people still cared about things like that—and the reason given was always 'creative differences.')
Film music, like making records, is not an easy thing, even for experts. Shore walked, and Jackson called in well-known film composer James Newton Howard, who, with an army of assistants and orchestrators, completed the mammoth job in time for release. You could see how much of a rush it all was if you examined the in-theatre promotional displays. Shore's name was still there when I went to see the film in Canberra. But it wasn't his music on the screen.
These are, of course, far from isolated cases.
Music for screen narratives is a problem. And it seems to be becoming more of a problem. Film/Music is a collision of two different art forms and as in many a black-spot accident zone there's more than a few hit and run stories. Right now, somewhere, a film composer is getting sacked, another is tearing her hair out, another is up all night wondering if she's got it 'right' yet.
Every leading film composer, from Jerry Goldsmith to Michael Nyman, has stories of scores being thrown out.
It's part of the way they make movies.
It's a striking fact that when people talk about film music that they like, they often refer to the imaginative use of an already existing music. Kubrik looms large in these discussions: his juxtapositioning of Johan Strauss's Blue Danube waltz with the orbiting planets and space traffic in 2001: A Space Odyssey; his use of Ligetti's haunting Atmospheres in the same film; of Pendereski in The Shining or of Beethoven and Purcell in Clockwork Orange: these are seen as brilliant insights, as if the filmmaker had discovered something in the music that wasn't already there, something modern.
Or else it's Scorsese or Tarantino and the contrast in their films between visual images of violence with the sounds of comparatively innocent teen romance ballads.
What is less often admired, except by afficionados and filmmakers themselves, is the music that is actually written for the screen, the score. The composed score has been part of mainstream filmmaking practise since the nineteen-thirties.
Think of the times when music in a film does the thing we want it to:
The moment in Akira Kurosawa's Ran when the director turns off the sound effects and lets the battle scene run on Toru Takemitsu's music alone.
Michael Kallasso's maddeningly repetitive waltz playing over and over in Wang Kar Wai's For Love Alone.
Michael Nyman's music for Peter Greenaway's film while they spell out the terms of The Draughtsman's Contract.
Anton Karas' zither music when you first see Orson Welles emerging from the shadows in Carol Reed's The Third Man.
BT's sample-driven trance-inducing funky soundtrack for Go.
Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong in High Society singing Now You Has Jazz, Jazz, Jazz.
Jon Brion's endless orchestral loops swooping in and out of Amee Mann's songs for PT Anderson's Magnolia.
John Williams' astounding opening to Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or his faux-groove track for Catch Me If You Can, or the first ten minutes of any Indiana Jones movie.
Jerry Goldsmith's confronting work on Alien, his killer romantic score for Basic Instinct, his noir-ish Chinatown, and a score of others.
The sheer fun of Bernard Herrmann's work on Hitchcock's North By Northwest, or indeed the bleak gorgeousness of the same composer's score for Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
There's a lot of ways that music can muck up a story. When it goes wrong, the score can crowd the film out of all proportion. When it pushes audiences to react in a forced way it only draws attention to its own failures. But when it works, film music offers a rare transcendence, combining with scenario, dialogue, actors, effects, and the image in the frame, to make the nearest thing to a complete work of art that contemporary culture has to offer us. When it works, whether in the cinema or the 'home theatre,' time is, for the moment, overcome.
If only we could make it work every time...
So what's the problem? Why does it so often not work?
'Film music' is two things. It's music, and at the same time it's part of a film. As music, it's subject to all the ways in which we experience music; the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic judgments we make about music. As part of a film, music is subject to another kind of logic. We only judge it by the way it helps us or hinders us from experiencing the world of the film. The problems of film music, and it is a problematic, stem from the conflicts between the two logics involved.
Think about what is great, what we love, about music. Look at three kinds of music: Classical, Jazz and Pop. What is the thread that links The Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss with Thelonius Monk's Ruby My Dear and Nelly's Hot in Here?
The answer has, I think, something to do with freedom.
Classical music (in which I include all musics where notes are written out for players to play, according, more or less, to the rules of the western art music tradition) draws its strength, holds its time-transcending appeal because of the logic of the musical argument. Whether written by Orlando Gibbons or Karlheinz Stockhausen, art music goes where it will according to design of the composer, but always in accord with the premises laid down at the start of the argument. The genius of a Bach or a Debussy is to continually surprise and tease the ear within the logic he has defined for that particular piece.
This is not to elevate logic above the sensual element of beauty, but to insist on its place as a component of our appreciation of beauty.
More modern works play with the paradigms and introduce contrasting logics within the one piece (I'm thinking of Charles Ives but there are plenty of examples from Stravinsky to Alfred Schnittke and Thomas Ades).
Art music reached its highest expression in the century from Beethoven to Webern, when, freed from its service to functions of Church or State, it was able to express nothing but itself. The essential thing for music in this tradition is the autonomy of the design. And it is precisely this autonomy that film denies its music component.
In film, music is reduced once more to its functional role, supporting story, plot, character, action, mood, as defined by the visual narrative. That's why academic musicians are always a bit snooty about film scores. Unlike the situation in the concert hall or the opera house, music is not the boss. It cannot go where it will. It must go where the film wants it to go.
In the end, it will not even be the composer who decides where the music goes, but the filmmaker, who might throw out half the composed music and play around with the order of what's left, or perhaps just repeat one cue over and over if she feels that that is 'what the film wants.' Such an abrogation of the composer's 'plan' is at once so intrinsic to the filmmaking process and so antithetical to the spirit of classical music, that it's no wonder that many classically-trained musicians run a mile from involvement with the world of film.
In Jazz music the prized paradigm is that of invention. Within the harmonic context of the chord changes (or lack of them) and the constant but shifting polyrhythmic pulse, jazz allows its players the freedom to investigate all timbral and harmonic possibilities. In fact, the freedom of the jazz players to improvise on their instruments parallels what the classical composer does in her imagination. In classical music the musicians are not at all free but the composer is free in the extreme. In jazz the players are freed as well. Jazz is the emancipation of the player.
Without the freedom to pursue the line, the texture, the tone, jazz has no reason to exist. And to find that freedom takes time. But there is no freedom in film music. There is no free time in film music. Film time is determined by how many frames it takes to tell the story. Each shot is weighed up and measured by the editor, every scene is made up of these discrete shots of fixed length, and each scene is in turn ordered and given a subordinate rhythm within the whole. In such a circumscribed, not to mention compromised context, how can jazz exist?
The pop song from any era encapsulates in three minutes or so one clear feeling set to a dance rhythm. The lyric may be more or less clever, the melody and beat more or less hummable and foot-tappable, but from Let's Do It along The Long and Winding Road to Fuck You I Don't Want You Back, you are not in any doubt about the emotional state the singer wants you to identify with. Even if it's as simple as Let's Dance!
This simplicity gives the pop song a directness and energy which is prized by filmmakers and always has been. The earliest public 'silent' cinema performances invariably included a musical accompaniment, usually a piano, and usually consisting of the reproduction of hit tunes of the day alternating, as the mis en scene seemed to deem appropriate, with classical favourites. Long after composers started writing custom-built scores to mirror the storyline, producers still wanted, and continue to want, contemporary pop tunes incorporated into the film, to lend to the narrative their energy, that recognisable and irresistible emotional identification that made them hits on their own account. Scorsese, Tarrantino, and their followers gave a new life to the practise by ironically juxtaposing scenes of violence and mayhem with feelgood pop hits (Billy Epstein's Stuck in the Middle With You playing while Michael Moore cuts off the captured cop's ear in Reservoir Dogs) but Hitchcock was doing something similar with Doris Day back in The Man Who Knew Too Much. These are highlights. More often, a plodding chase scene or a formulaic driving sequence will be enlivened with a screaming Guns and Roses track; or two girls walking in and out of clothes shops will have a bouncy bit of Britney Spears accompany them, to remind us all that shopping is terrifically good fun.
There's no harm in this. It's certainly good for the music publishers (as the income from CDs shrinks due to internet downloads, so the income from film company fees and royalties goes up;) but, overused, the technique is surely as tiresome as the overblown orchestral score of years ago.
How can film music be free?
Well, it can't. It's always supposed to sound as if it is free, following it's own logic. But it's not. And when filmmakers want the jazz thing or the classical thing to sound truly authentic the only thing to do is to record the music first and fit the film to the music. Or, like Kubrik, to find recordings they like and, again, cut the film to fit the music.
The music director has two choices: One: hire a jazz band to play what they play, then choose the bits that feel right against the picture, then either cut the film to the music or hack the music around until it fits, (as Louis Malle did with Miles Davis and his group for Ascencion a l'éfachaud.) Two: get the studio session players to play what the composer has written in a jazz mode, and hope they've got the chops to cut it (as Henry Mancini did for The Pink Panther movies, or Elmer Bernstein for The Man with the Golden Arm.)
Unless you can find a composer who is able to find freedom within the form, or at least enough freedom to flex the muscles, stretch the wings, take off into the space of invention, create beauty within limits that makes you forget that there ever were any limits. Just as Bach did within the Lutheran chorales, or Webern within the rules of his own system, or Robert Johnson inside the 12 bar blues or Bob Dylan within the folk song.
It can be done. There are not many film composers working who can transcend the requirements of the film business and create true music within the circumscribed space of a screen narrative, but those who can are highly prized. The Delerues, Coriglianos, Williamses, Rotas, Morricones, Goldsmiths, Deplatts, Barrys, Brions, Armstrongs, Gordons and Skubiswewskis of this world might not hit the nerve truly every single time they go out, but they do so often enough to make the directors who find them hang onto them; and to make audiences immerse themselves in and enjoy the more the films they are watching, without, often, even noticing what the music is like. While those who do notice salute and revere these unseen heroes in the engine room of culture.