I’m always proud to say that I’m a pure product made in Normandy! I was born 1974 in Rouen, then spent my childhood in Alençon, and finally followed studies at the University of Caen. Even now that I live near Paris, I still remain attached to my native country. For the rest,I can say that I grew up into a classical music environment, my father was at the time clarinet teacher and occasionally soloist. I personally have learnt cello for twelve years.
As far as I can remember I was always keen on orchestral music. I clearly remember singing all the time the great symphonic works by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Dvorak, etc., especially in my parents’ car when we went on holidays. In fact, they used to say that they didn’t need a car radio! And then I also discovered cinema. I’m not a Star Wars child like many others, rather an Indiana Jones one since the first non-animated movie I saw in a theater was The Temple of Doom in 1984; I was almost 10 then. But before that I already had strong memories of three movies seen on TV: the 1933 version of King Kong, Forbidden Planet and, particularly, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I had nightmares all the night! But I was definitely fascinated.
Oddly enough, despite my deep love of music and my strong interest in cinema, I didn’t really notice film music until I was 18. Of course, as anybody else, I knew some great ‘tunes’, like the James Bond theme or John Williams’ great hits for instance, and I even sometimes recorded my own voice singing melodies by Vladimir Cosma or Raymond Lefèvre, heard in some popular French comedies, just to remember them. But in fact it was not before January 1993 – some people would say very late – with Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula that I truly realized the power of music on screen. I remember I went out of the cinema with one and only desire: to get the CD! From that starting point I knew there was a whole musical world to discover, and a very stimulating one to my ears.
My first chance was then to meet a soundtrack collector who took care of the soundtrack section in a great CD store. He gave me advice, he helped me in my first choices, and I will be grateful to him all my life. My second chance was to hear of the existence in Caen, where I followed studies in geology, of one of the very few film music associations which existed in France at the time. It was called Cinéscores and I got on well with the team very quickly. Soon they asked me to write my own CD reviews for their fanzine, and later I occasionally took part in their local radio show. For some reason they decided to stop their activities after only ten issues or so, and then I contributed to the creation of another little association called Colonne Sonore. Unfortunately, after some very promising issues, it ended as well.
How did you begin your website? Tell us a little about its history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
UnderScores is first of all a true friendship’s story. I met Olivier Desbrosses – who is also an IFMCA member – around year 2000. When I still wrote for Colonne Sonore, we found ourselves doing the same interview with composer Michael Kamen, who was guest at a film music festival in the little town of Lunéville. Olivier and I became close friends very quickly, and for years after that we met as often as possible to talk about music and cinema, and share our different points of view.
At the end of year 2007, we finally talked about the opportunity to create our own website, because at the time we couldn’t find a real satisfaction in what was being done in French on the web. But I must admit it was just a dream for me then. Nevertheless, Olivier said some months later that he really wanted to do it, and then we decided to carry out the idea. We developed the website together in terms of content and design, and then Olivier took charge of the technical side while I wrote the very first texts. We finally launched UnderScores in September 2008. Our initiative was welcomed, not only by collectors and film music lovers, but also by some professionals. Our discussion board became quickly the most active one in French about the subject. After six years our team grew up, and I must say it’s a marvelous collective adventure which I find personally very rewarding today.
UnderScores is a sort of webzine, so basically we offer all kinds of articles: news, short or extended reviews, interviews, composer appreciations, obituaries, biographies, thematic features, festival or concert coverage, etc. Two years ago we also launched a distinctive column especially for collectors who are more interested in standalone listening experiences: it’s a kind of buyer’s guide in which seven of us share with only some words our feelings about 25 to 40 score albums per month. So potentially you can find for each title seven different opinions. I think this is something quite unusual. But let me insist on the fact that our foremost goal is, of course, to talk about how music works intimately against pictures. So we usually never review score albums but scores as they are heard in movies. This is something crucial in our editorial policy.
Besides the website, I personally had the pleasure to be part of the first book in French devoted to John Williams, published in 2011, and for which I wrote a short essay entitled An American Composer, about the place of the composer into the American musical world. Finally, I’m also currently one of the contributing writers for French label Music Box Records, managed by friends Laurent Lafarge and Cyril Durand-Roger. They both gave me the opportunity to write my first liner notes for some of their releases, and this is something I’m very proud of, because I think that to launch a new label really needs a real courage these days, and I’m happy to support them and to take part in their success, even modestly.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
That’s a real difficult question because the connection between image and music is a true alchemy: subtle, exacting, complex by nature, especially since music is a full language by itself. Basically I think you can’t claim to do the perfect film music score if you don’t solve these two crucial problems: first, the full understanding of the needs of the picture, considering what you want to do with it; secondly, the right use of the means at your disposal to construct a musical speech which is both structured and coherent, whatever the aesthetic chosen: full orchestra, chamber orchestra, jazz formation, rock band, electronics. This is something which requires not only the composer’s skills but also the director and/or producer’s intelligence.
To be perfectly clear, I think that every contributor to a score must keep in mind that music, in every aspects and whatever happens, is and remains a motive power in a movie: it can support the image, intensify it or on the contrary weaken it, impair or alter its significance, deeply pervert it, etc. It also implies that the choice to not appeal to music is an artistic decision in itself. In short, you must answer to a single question, constantly throughout the whole movie: for what purpose do you put music? And here, no matter the final quantity of music, the restrictions due to budget limitations, nor even the complexity of the final musical writing.
It’s only later that the result will be inevitably judged in the light of some other criterions, like the quality of the orchestrations, the choice of the electronic sonorities, a possible inventiveness, every aspects which here directly depend on the composer’s talent and musical knowledge, but also on the aesthetic tastes of each of us. But you had to be honest: a composer can write the most perfect and complex music imaginable from a technical point of view, he can produce the most inspired melodies of his entire career, if he doesn’t work close to the picture, in practically every single moment, maybe it will make a good CD to listen to at home, but it certainly will not make a true good film score.
Let me give two examples. Someone explained to me once that John Williams’ score for Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone’s is of course musically impeccable and melodically inspired, but that there’s also too much music in the movie without another real reason but to fill the sound environment. I entirely subscribe to this point of view and I think it sums up well my own way to grasp a film score. Nevertheless, I would lie if I didn’t admit that I always take a great pleasure to listen to this music on CD. Paradoxical?
Hans Zimmer’s recent scores (and perhaps a lot of RC productions) are themselves another very interesting case to consider, partly because they are at the heart of almost all debates today. Even if I must admit I’m not personally fond of Zimmer’s current aesthetics, this is not the main problem to my eyes: it’s obvious that he regularly brought really great ideas to the screen (and I think here is the real key of his public success). But despite everything I’m rarely convinced by the way he found to develop (or rather not develop) them from A to Z ! And I’m convinced that the problem comes first from his working habits. In my opinion even the best musical idea in the world can be worthless if it is not correctly exposed and fully used. Did I say before that this question is complex ? Well…
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today, especially in France?
I often admire and always keep in mind what was done in the past, but that doesn’t mean I think things were better before. Not really. Every period has its own problems. I agree to say that it’s certainly more and more difficult to find satisfying prospects in most Hollywood blockbusters today. Standardization always existed in the Hollywood film music world, like anywhere else: the same recipes repeated again and again, and not for the good of movies. You can regret it, of course, but it’s almost inevitable, and even understandable for some reasons. There’s something in it both comfortable and reassuring for producers and directors. But I suppose that this standardization is never more flagrant than ever today, partly because there are more and more composers whose musical talent is sometimes very questionable in my opinion, and partly because post productions are interminable nowadays, and are less and less good for music and composers. Fortunately there are notable exceptions. What is not in today’s blockbusters, you can find elsewhere, especially through the vitality of the US independent cinema scene.
In fact, I remain very optimistic, because I’m convinced that in film music today still exists a real abundance of different styles, approaches, musical personalities, not only in the US but all around the world And when I use the expression ‘film music’, I also include TV series, documentaries, video games scores, etc. Music and image is in fact an endless world with an infinity of different landscapes.
Historically in France a sort of intelligentsia operated for many years in our country to harm composers who didn’t adopt some specific aesthetical habits. And, of course, film music was very quickly discredited, and even claimed to be useless. For a long time, to work for cinema in France was considered as something very suspicious, the most vile way imaginable for a composer to earn money. What a strange and sad situation in a country which saw the birth of cinema!
Fortunately there have always been great composers and great film scores in France, and it’s still the case today. But, as I suspect you can say the same in many other places, I think there exists a lack of trust in what music can do for the good of movies. Directors are still too often afraid of music, frightened by the simple idea to let their babies into composers’ hands. But things change, slowly but surely, for the best. We can see the most encouraging signs: for example, the fact that new French orchestral ensembles are now specialized into recordings for cinema, television and video games. You can also find today film music teachings in some universities, music and cinema schools. Concerts are also now regularly planned. It was almost unthinkable only 15 years ago! Don’t forget that Maurice Jarre, in a famous example, left France time partly because of musicians’ non-professional attitude towards what was for them “only film music”!
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
I often say that film music (as we know it today) had historically two fathers. I admire a lot American composer Max Steiner and French composer Maurice Jaubert because they both found at the same time – the very beginning of the 30s – a very different answer to the same question: “what can be the function of music in a movie?” The first, as you know, is a pragmatic model based on a more or less consequent and standardized orchestral voice, a plentiful musical presence, an almost continuous narrative style which isn’t afraid of redundancy, for scores whose efficiency can be found first in the rigor of the construction of the musical speech. The second (who was moreover a wild opponent of Steiner) has a style which advocates the simplicity, a little musical presence, for scores whose efficiency can be found first in a kind of poetic counterpoint face to face with the screen. And I like to think symbolically that, consciously or unconsciously and whatever their nationality, the next composers are going to follow and combine these two different ways according to their own musical sensibility, obsessions and influences.
Basically I think it’s more suitable to reason in terms of scores which brought new prospects: Steiner’s King Kong and Jaubert’s L’Atalante first, then Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, Walton’s Hamlet, North’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Bernstein’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Satô’s Throne of Blood, Shankar’s Apu Trilogy, Delerue’s Le Mépris, Rosenman’s The Cobweb, Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes, etc.
But to answer your question I would say that the best composers in film music history are those who didn’t content themselves with just following a path opened by others, but on the contrary constantly improve the art of film music and bring a feeling of uniqueness in their music. Here my choices will be obviously led by my own aesthetic tastes, but I instinctively name Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North, Miklós Rózsa, Georges Delerue and Maurice Jarre, along with veterans John Williams, Philippe Sarde and Ennio Morricone who are still working today. It doesn’t mean that each of their works is a masterpiece, of course, but generally speaking I admire their musical voices, their versatility, their inventiveness, and how they solved the puzzles constantly offered by the marriage between music and image.
For the same reasons I follow with highest interest today the careers of active composers Bruno Coulais, Marco Beltrami, Alexandre Desplat, Philippe Rombi, Howard Shore, Michael Giacchino, Fernando Velázquez, Patrick Doyle, Debbie Wiseman, Roque Baños, Joe Hisaishi and Pascal Gaigne. I also keep an eye on promising newcomers like Nuno Malo, Zeltia Montes, Bear McCreary and Austin Wintory. Of course it’s too early to know who, amongst them, is going to leave his mark. History will judge.
That said, I want to make myself perfectly clear. As a film music critic, I do my best to stay constantly open-minded to every aesthetic from all over the world. Do you remember the animated movie Ratatouille, and the way the culinary critic finally understand the signification of Gusteau’s motto, “anyone can cook”? In a similar way I would like to say that a film music masterpiece can come from anywhere, at anytime and from anybody, without warning, even from a composer I usually don’t like the musical habits, even from a musician who will write just a single film music score in his entire career! This is something you have to keep in mind.
To give a simple example, one of the very best scores from the ten last years was in my opinion written in 2010 for Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, by Dutch composer and cellist Ernst Reijseger, who usually works in jazz and contemporary classical music: this is something that I would never have anticipated !
Honestly: isn’t it stimulating?
Read Florent’s reviews at Underscores, or follow him on Twitter at @FGUnderscores.