Tell us a little about your background, both personally and professionally (in terms of film music). How did you first discover film music?
Thank you for this opportunity. I was born in August 1954 in Detroit, Michigan, of Sicilian and Irish parentage. Worth noting is that my surname, Lysy, is Belgian, as my father was adopted. At one year of age we moved to St. Clair Shores, a suburb of Detroit located on the shores of Lake St. Clair. My father owned a roofing company and my mother worked as an accountant. Neither of my parents had a musical background although they were both accomplished ballroom dancers.
My education was Catholic parochial and I graduated from Austin Catholic Preparatory School in 1972. I attended Michigan State University and graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. Given my mother’s life long struggle with asthma, I chose to pursue the medical arts. I attended the University of Chicago Hospitals and Clinics and obtained my Respiratory Therapy credential in 1979. I moved to California to seek my fortune in 1980 and have never looked back! I have worked in the field for 35 years, the last 34 with Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, where I supervise a department of 102 people. I take great pride in my work, and derive immense satisfaction in tending to the people entrusted to our care. My hobbies outside of film scores include Golden Age films, chess and tending to my roses. Lastly, and most importantly, I am married to a wonderful man Segundo Estrella, and we will celebrate our 20th anniversary in February 2015.
My musical journey commenced in 1965 when as a wide-eyed nine year kid I sat entranced in front of the TV as the film To Kill A Mockingbird played. The beautiful piano and flute-carried main title just captivated me, and I have been an ardent lover ever since. For months thereafter I checked the TV guide to see when the film next played. After nine months it reprised and I got a tape recorder and recorded the score’s finest moments. I replayed the tape often until it finally broke a year later. I was heart-broken but recovered quickly when my mother bought me my first LP record, John Barry’s score for Born Free. This too I would play to death. In 1966 I discovered and fell in love with the exciting scores by Sol Kaplan, Alexander Courage, Gerald Fried and Fred Steiner from the original Star Trek television series. Yet it was not until high school that I slowly began collecting LPs in earnest, as I was only making 50 cents an hour working for my father! I made the switch to CDs in 1982 and now at last count have over 4,500 film scores. As of 2009 I have acquiesced to the inevitable and begun acquiring digital downloads, although as a collector I prefer the CD.
I have no formal musical training and do not play an instrument, a regret I will take with me to my grave. I am completely self-taught, having acquired my knowledge from extensive reading of the history of music and musical theory. I have studied traditional and exotic non-traditional instruments of the orchestra and dutifully learned the terminology of music. My favorite section of the orchestra is my beloved woodwinds, with the oboe being my favorite. I am truly blessed being a resident of Los Angeles as it affords me many opportunities to attend both classical and film score concerts alike.
Tell us a little about what you do in terms of film music journalism.
In 2004 I began to seek out film score internet sites in search of kindred spirits. I had the good fortune of meeting Jon Broxton in 2008. We realized that we were both local LA guys and so agreed to set up a meeting. We first met over a cup of tea at the Northridge Borders book store and talked for almost 4 hours about our shared passion – film scores. It was an instant connection that has since evolved into a truly wonderful and rewarding friendship. Jon had suggested to me on a number of occasions that I consider reviewing and launching my own site. If I was in my twenties and single I would have taken him up on both in a heartbeat, but at 56 and married, the timing and investment was just too ambitious. But on the matter of reviews, I decided to accept Jon’s generous offer to write for Movie Music UK.
I am honored and gratified to collaborate with Jon, who has one of the finest film score sites on the internet. As an associate reviewer, I asked Jon to allow me to “look backwards” and focus on Golden Age scores. This resplendent age has a wondrous bounty of what I call buried treasure. It was poetic that my first review was the score that began my journey, Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I understood that many of our newest film score fans are in their teens and 20’s, having joined the community due to the recent works of John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer. I believed that I could serve as a guide who reveals the great film scores of the past, of which they may be unfamiliar. I am captivated by this era and my efforts are possible because I have many scores from this period and several record labels are again releasing and/or rerecording many Golden Age scores. Lastly, after a year Jon said he was pleased with my reviews and so expanded my portfolio to include re-recordings and archival releases of contemporary scores.
Recently Jon has allowed me to embark on three ambitious projects. The first concerns an exploration of Academy Award winning scores, which offers an astounding journey. The second project, which I call “The Road Less Traveled”, offers reviews of obscure scores from 1950s and 1960s science fiction B-films. What fascinates me about this unique niche is that more often than not these scores offered superb quality, often transcending their flawed low budget films. Lastly, we have my “Fathers of Film Music” series where I seek to introduce new generations of film score lovers to Golden Age composers. I provide a biography, filmography, award history, a discussion of compositional style, legacy, and score recommendations for those that wish to explore the life and times of these Titans. Supporting these efforts is the current renaissance in film score art as a multiplicity of labels are restoring, reissuing and re-recording scores from our past. For me, this is a Golden Age for collectors of film scores!
Regarding my film score reviews, I take a different approach than my peers. I link every score cue to its attendant film scene, which often requires more extensive writing and that I revisit viewing the film. I do this because I believe that the composer was tasked with providing music for a specific purpose – to support a film’s narrative. As such, I provide commentary regarding the attending scene, cinematography and the emotional drivers that animate the interpersonal interaction of the characters. By doing so I believe my readers gain a full understanding of the cue and a greater appreciation of the composer’s efforts. Allow me to provide an example. In my review of “Flesh + Blood”, two men contest for the love of Agnes, and for each pairing Poledouris provided a love theme. In the cue “Prepare for Battle” an angry Martin confronts Agnes, and a plaintive oboe plays as she attempts to assure Martin of her love. But Poledouris plays against the screen imagery to reveal the unspoken emotional sub-text. Outwardly, Agnes would seem to be affirming her love for Martin, yet Poledouris informs us of her true feelings by emoting her Love Theme for Steven. A review of the score alone with no linkage to film context would not captured the brilliant, nuanced and insightful scoring provided by Poledouris. Moments like this in film scores inspire me and offer testimony to a composer’s mastery of their craft.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
Regarding the proper role for score, Max Steiner explained that there were two fundamental challenges that faced a composer. The first was basic – where to start and stop the music. Too much music and you overwhelm the film and dialogue, too little and you lose the emotional dynamics. He counseled that one needed to find the critical balance point. Second, he stated that the music must be subordinate to the film. If the composer’s motivation was personal aggrandizement or composing concert pieces, then he counseled that the concert hall was better suited for his venue. In the final analysis Steiner explained that his theory of film score music was that the score is best when it is felt, not heard. I take one exception with my beloved Steiner, in that I believe a score should be both felt and heard!
I believe that the purpose of the score is to assist the story-teller (the director) in expressing a film’s narrative. For it to succeed, it must find synergy, that singular and quintessential balance point that exists between excess and insufficiency. An unbridled score overwhelms and a score too reticent leaves us wanting. Structurally I believe a score’s expression is ternary in manifestation; it must support the film’s setting, characters and provide ambiance. By setting I speak of the film’s physical location, geography, historical age, culture and mythology. Just as the actor’s manner of speech, clothes, beliefs and customs express these elements, so too I believe should the composer’s music. An example, a heavy metal rock band would not have been a congruent choice for Zeffirelli’s period piece Romeo and Juliet, but for a modern retelling of the classic tale in a gritty urban setting, this approach could work.
The second level of expression revolves around the film’s characters. Composers of the classic school like Steiner felt that every character should have a leitmotif. Just as an actor’s clothes and behavior assist in establishing their film persona, so to I believe should the score join in to inform us of who this character is and what drives them. Instructive is Alfred Newman’s theme for Caligula in The Robe, a grand marcia pomposa, which immediately informs us of the insufferable egomaniacal nature of this pretentious boy who would be emperor. In Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace Williams creates a tender theme for Anakin that speaks to us of his gentleness, youth, purity and essential goodness, yet embedded within the notes is a subtle yet portentous allusion to the sinister Darth Vader’s Theme, what the boy is destined to become. This insightful and prescient nuance by Williams is testimony to his genius. Additionally I believe the score must assist a film in expressing character interaction and interpersonal dynamics. Time and time again in film we have seen love like no other emotion sweep characters away like leaves carried in a raging river, powerless to resist its torrents. Illustrative is John Barry’s exquisite love theme for The Scarlet Letter, where he masterfully weaves together a truly heart-wrenching pathos of sadness and passion, which informs us of the tragedy soon to unfold for Arthur and Hester’s forbidden love.
For the third manifestation I speak of ambiance, the composer using music to establish a feeling or mood much in the manner of a cinematographer with their lighting crew. A masterful example is Bernard Herrmann’s Main Title for Psycho. He set the tone for the film with his now famous, chilling and driving string ostinato. Herrmann stated that this prelude was portentous, a promise of the violence soon to unfold with all its horrific and twisted ugliness. Within its contrapuntal writing he sought to instill naked and raw terror. He succeeded! Also instructive is the shower murder scene, where I believe Herrmann gained immortality. He used sharp shrieking violins that mirrored the savage rending knife slices to sow blind terror. Yet his genius continued, as we see Marion bleed out and her life slowly ebb, the slashing strings descend in register, slow and finally pulse, mimicking her fading heartbeat until we at last see her life pass in the swirling now bloodless drain waters. Each of these examples demonstrates how the score can be used to express emotions that do not find their genesis within the characters.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today?
I believe our industry here on this side of the pond is healthy and experiencing a renaissance. Most interesting is that it is not the film score genre that is driving this rebirth but other mediums. The growth and proliferation of video games has provided fertile ground for dozens of composers who have been waiting in the wings for their shot at a feature film. The benefits of this expanding genre are that it potentiates a great unused reservoir of composer talent desperately seeking expression. I am frankly astounded by the quality of work coming from these composers and truly believe that their music expands our film score base by drawing in new admirers. Scores such as Neal Acree’s Revelation, Russell Brower’s World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, Jason Graves’s Burning Skies: Resistance and Grant Kirkhope’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning all offer testimony to the exceptional quality of writing overflowing from this genre. I just cannot get enough!
I also perceive a growing trend of formal scores returning for the vibrant and expanding television market. Cable TV and its expanding array of specialty and niche channels also provide opportunities for many rich and exciting projects. Whether it is historical dramas, science fiction, mysteries or intimate character dramas, television has basically something for every consumer. Bear McCreary’s DaVinci’s Demons, Jeff Russo’s Fargo, Jeff Beal’s House of Cards and David Buckley’s The Good Wife are fine examples this year of the versatile, innovative and quality writing coming from this genre. This medium is expanding much like the video games and so provides employment for many other composers. For me as a lover and collector of musical scores, this is a great time to be alive!
For film scores I believe the state of affairs to be under duress with a steady decrease in the number of films being made coupled with greater intrusion and creative interference from investors. I have had the opportunity to discuss this issue with a number of composers in person and on panel discussions. Too often the composer-director relationship has expanded to include an unwelcome committee of investors, many of which are clueless regarding the role of music, yet all of which insist on creative input. One composer related to me that after he made all the changes demanded by his several investors, that he could no longer recognize his score as his handiwork! I am very critical of this trend. As a manager I understand that the best method of managing people is to trust in the talent of the people you were wise enough to hire! For a project, you sit down with them, get their input and ideas, discuss the goal and your expectations, and then trust in their gift. Nothing is more de-motivating to your staff and destructive to their creative process than micro-managing them. Tier one composers such as Williams are immune from such interference, but those in the ranks below him are not. I think investor intrusion is a sad commentary and that it needs to stop.
I believe that three primary schools are thriving in today’s feature film market; the neo-classicists championed by John Williams, the Remote Control group created and led by Hans Zimmer, and the post-modernists such as the team of Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. All three have very distinct sensibilities and in the final analysis, I believe there is both value and room for all three schools. I do not believe artistic expression should be restricted or forced into rigid conformity. Ingenuity, innovation and creativity are all vital elements that directors and composers alike should feel free to explore and express. Niche scores where the composer employs a pop, hard rock or country ensemble are rare, but I believe welcome variations of traditional film scores that are also worthy in their own right. Lastly, we come to musicals, which sadly for this lover, seem to be a dying art form. Recent incarnations such as Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera were most welcome, but far too infrequent to satisfy the longing of this ardent lover.
My last observation is that the Remote Control sound pioneered by Hans Zimmer seems to have established dominance in the blockbuster category. Many directors believe that this loud, muscular and ‘modern’ soundscape is cool with their younger target demographic. Composers such as Brian Tyler in Battle Los Angeles and Christopher Young in Priest have successfully adapted and integrated this new idiom into their style to meet director demands, but composers such as Javier Navarette in Clash of the Titans and Patrick Doyle in Thor have been less successful, sounding awkward and losing themselves in the process. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Zimmer’s seminal score for Crimson Tide, which launched the Media Ventures-Remote Control scoring methodology. I believe that its inherent limitation of tools and devices has run their course and that it is a spent force. Even its creator Hans Zimmer has stated that he is abandoning his precious drum loops and celli ostinato perpetuo and moving on to new approaches for his latest film, Interstellar. For me, this is most welcome news!
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
For me there are the three Titans; Max Steiner, Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann. I will begin with Max Steiner, the Father of film score art. Steiner’s compositional style may be described as melodramatic; unabashedly forthright emotional expression. There was never ambiguity to be found in the notes, as the audience was quick to understand the characters, the setting and the circumstances. Long flowing melodies were his signature and over time countless directors would come to marvel at his genius of capturing the emotional core of their films with a single theme. Illustrative is King Kong. Steiner understood that the story revolved around an emotional connection formed between the beauty and the beast. Given Kong’s inability to express himself in language, it was necessary to humanize him by transcending the limitations of his instinctual nature. As such we hear in his music an expression of Kong’s fascination and affection for Anne. In The Letter, the story revolved around its central character Leslie, played by Bette Davis. Leslie was a raging cauldron of fierce emotions and her theme was the film’s primary identity. Steiner correctly understood the nature of Leslie and emoted her raging mercurial temperament by setting the tone of the film in the opening credits, which outwardly informs us of her fierce and passionate nature, but inwardly speaks of sadness, not malevolence. We gain understanding of Leslie in the notes, long before she utters a single word. This is why Steiner has earned his place in film score history and his handiwork continues to reverberate through the passing years. Whenever you explore a Steiner score you will never be confronted with ambiguity, just wonderful long flowing melodramatic themes that will live on with you forever.
I believe Rózsa successfully adapted and translated his superb classical sensibilities to provide a unique and singular voice within film score art. Although he left Hungary, the Hungary in him never left. The native folk music of his homeland became an integral part of his own musical language and he relates that he often found his own melodies arising from out this rich ethnic milieu. It suffices to say that this unique culture had an indelible effect upon him, and in fact over time came to be encoded into his compositional DNA. His formal training at the Leipzig Conservatory instilled an ordered discipline to his compositional approach, which was perfectly joined by his innate understanding and mastery of instruments, orchestration and counterpoint. And finally, his choral training and residency under Karl Straube, the renowned Cantor of the Thomaskirche resulted in his mastery of the use of the human voice, which often elevated his scores to sublime heights – the finale of Ben-Hur. Like Steiner, he repeatedly demonstrated that rare and supreme gift of capturing a film’s emotional core with a defining melody – the timeless love theme for Spellbound. Illustrative of his genius is the epic El Cid. His grand and sweeping lyrical score featured the El Cid march, one of the finest marches ever written, outstanding battle music, a sumptuous love theme and an inspiring finale where thanks to his use of a massive organ, El Cid achieves a stirring on screen apotheosis. His gift for providing rare and timeless melodies, often accompanied by propulsive rhythms, inspired chorus and complex contrapuntal writing for me secure his musical legacy and earns him immortality.
As a composer, Herrmann saw himself as a crystalline prism from which his pure creative white light made manifest the orchestra’s countless array of colors. His compositional expression often utilized a progression of whole and half notes, which served to create a dark, brooding and dramatic soundscape. He also employed rising and falling chromatic patterns that were unsettling in that they never achieved resolution. Herrmann eschewed the long-lined, florid and melodramatic lyricism of his contemporaries, preferring instead short succinct phrasing, which he believed was more adaptable and flexible to modulation throughout the score. He also demonstrated an affinity for tonal harmonies through the use of conventional chords as exemplified by his frequent use of minor triads and half-diminished sevenths. The harmonic language of his music was characteristically tertian (stacked thirds) in nature, often articulated as block chords. Indeed, repetitive forms such as the now popular ostinato became a signature technique for his scores. Herrmann desired to bath the audience in sonorities of kindred instruments such as four flutes joined with alto and bass flutes as a choir. His choir of ten harps to emote the aquatic landscape of Beneath the 12 Mile Reef and his choir of twelve flutes that provided the haunting ambiance of Torn Curtain are classic examples of sonorities in his scores. Lastly, Herrmann was an audacious innovator, someone that pushed boundaries and dared to try new approaches. Illustrative is his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. His approach was to eliminate the string section and to create an unsettling, otherworldly ambiance by adding an electric violin, electric bass, Theremins, vibraphone, four pianos, four harps and a massive 30-player horn section! The film was both a critical and commercial success, earning Herrmann acclaim for his avant-garde and innovative score. For Psycho, Herrmann made an audacious decision early on to only employ a string orchestra. This choice removed the many tools composers traditionally used for horror films, including cymbal rolls, ominous horns, percussive strikes and shrieking woodwinds. Yet strings have the greatest versatility of expression of all the orchestral groups and Herrmann used them all to great effect.
Moving into the realm of contemporary composers, three come to mind; John Williams, James Horner and Alexandre Desplat. For me, John Williams epitomizes the Neo-classicist tradition, which I believe he single handedly resurrected with his seminal Star Wars score. Time and time again throughout his career he has demonstrated the supreme gift of creating iconic melodies, which have resonated with the public and embedded themselves into our collective consciousness. Whether it is the Star Wars anthem, the Raiders march, Hedwig’s theme, or the five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, audiences young and old instantly identify and respond to his music. His sold out concerts at the Hollywood Bowl every year offer testimony to the enduring quality of his music and public affection. Like the Golden Age composers from whom he descends, Williams’ native gift and innate talent allows him to discern and capture a film’s emotional core. Whether it be the heroica of Star Wars, the wonderment of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial or the pathos of Schindler’s List, Williams’ music joins in communion with the film’s emotional narrative, a joining that often achieves a sublime synergy. Like the Titans of the Golden Age, I worship at this great man’s altar.
For me, James Horner is the reincarnation of Max Steiner, which explains my admiration and affection. Like his famous antecedent, Horner’s compositional style is melodramatic and unabashedly forthright in its emotional expression. His music is highly expressive, thematic and unambiguous, allowing audiences’ immediate insight into a film’s characters and setting. Most interesting, is that like Herrmann, Horner speaks of his music in terms of ‘orchestral colors’, which he uses to impart scene ambiance, but also the emotional dynamics required by the film’s narrative. What draws me to Horner is that time and time again we are graced with long-lined melodies that recapture the glory of the Golden Age, such as exquisitely romantic Tristan’s theme from Legends of the Fall, the tearful and aching “Diego’s Goodbye” from The Mask of Zorro, and the inspired and sublime “Entre La Luz y El Pecado” from For Greater Glory. With Horner you feel wonder, heart-ache, joy, a smile and yet a tear. The capacity to move people so deeply sets Horner apart for me and speaks to why I cherish his canon and long for each new effort like a desert flower longs for water.
This brings me to the newest object of my affection, the wonderful Alexandre Desplat. The man caught my ear in 2003 with his exquisitely beautiful The Girl with the Pearl Earring. What draws me to him and what fascinates me are the rhythms, intricacies and complexities of his writing. His note rich scores display artistry, sophistication, and an elegance of style and form, which appeals to my aesthetics. Indeed like few other composers, I often have to have multiple listens of his scores to take in all that he has to offer. For me, Desplat is the antithesis of the simplistic RC methodology. He stands as a man seemingly displaced in time, a stranger to modernity. What also earns my praise and admiration is his versatility. Just for a moment, contemplate his output this year; Monuments Men, a rousing homage to the Golden Age, the quirky and kaleidoscope like score The Grand Budapest Hotel, the awesome primal power of Godzilla, the elegant rhythmic intricacy of The Imitation Game and finally the dramatic heroic power of Unbroken. Such mastery of form and genres offers testimony to his supreme gift and mastery of his craft.
As a Golden Age expert, can you talk a little about the differences as you see them between music composed in the 1940s and 1950s and today, especially with regard to the environment in which they were composed?
For me what sets the composers of this period apart are the sophistication, elegance and complexity of their composition. I believe film score art achieved its highest expression during these years and that the Golden Age epithet is well deserved. Time and time again the composers of this age offered thematic writing with counterpoint and contested interplay, which enriched and elevated their films. The use of leitmotifs and themes provided unity and continuity to a score and drew inspiration from the model that Wagner had pioneered in the 19th century and whose tradition was carried on by the renowned German opera composer, Richard Strauss. Another characteristic of this age was that stylistically the music had strong forthright expression and unabashed emotional overstatement. I have no doubt that many modern critics would take these composers to task for daring to use their music to manipulate us, to tell us how and what to feel. However I would beg to disagree, because at the end of the day the music that we remember, that we hum when leaving the theater, that touches us and so changes us, is born of beautiful melodies – the beating heart of music. Indeed, actors emote to make us feel, the cinematographer creates the shot to make us feel, and so why should not the music also contribute to evoking our feelings? There is indeed something to be said for being genuine and of wearing your compositional heart on your sleeve.
I offer some examples of the brilliance born of this remarkable age. Take one of Herrmann’s masterworks, Citizen Kane. The score is a masterpiece of both conception and expression. He provided two recurring five-note leitmotifs, both of which drew inspiration from the liturgical “Dies Irae” chant. The chant speaks of the Day of Judgment, which devout Christians believe the righteous will ascend to heaven while the accursed will descend unto the fire pit of Hell. We therefore can discern from Herrmann’s reference to the chant, a commentary on Kane’s moral bearing. The evocation of Dies Irae within the Power Motif informs us of a judgment of Kane’s ambitions and actions throughout the film. Now most interesting is that like the Power Motif, the Rosebud Motif also contains five notes and so is kindred in its construct. Yet its fundamental expression and its color juxtapose the Power Motif. While the Power Motif is emoted as a tritone or minor third, the Rosebud Motif ends with a falling fourth, which imbues it with a subtle radiant aura of hopefulness. The Rosebud Motif therefore is intrinsically linked with the happy childhood moments in Kane’s life, embodied in his cherished sled Rosebud, times for which he still longs. This score is testimony to Herrmann’s genius. For contemporary films, character leitmotifs are still used in some quarters, but employing two to emote the complex psychology of a single character, rarely seen anymore.
Bear witness to Herrmann’s score to North By Northwest. The Overture and Main Title is without a doubt one of the most dramatic, complex and powerful openings in the history of film. Completely modernist in construct, it derives its intense kinetic potency from a recurring clash between competing and rhythmically antagonistic motifs that are overlaid a repeating two-measure figure. Most interesting and ingenious is the fact that the first motif is minor modal, the second major modal, with each articulated with different tempi, 3/4 and 6/8 respectively. Time and time again Herrmann elevated his films with complex writing such as this, enduring testimony to his extraordinary talent. I am pained to recall any contemporary film, which opened in such fashion.
For the tragic story of Sunset Boulevard, Franz Waxman offered a complex psychological narrative that explored unrequited love (Norma for Joe and Max for Norma), delusion, deception, manipulation, exploitation and betrayal. This placed great demands on Waxman for his score to support and speak to the intersection of these powerful emotions. He created leitmotifs for the three principle characters. Joe’s Theme is born by saxophone and has a jazz identity; cocky, youthful and confident, which reflected a young guy out to make a name for himself. Norma’s Theme, in contrast is more ambiguous, sensual, alluring and a study in minimalism. Within the paucity of its notes, its brevity, resides both mystery and a potent strength fully emblematic of its mercurial namesake. How Waxman modulates his themes for these two as their co-dependent relationship spirals towards tragedy are simply remarkable and a testimony to his genius. Next we have Max’s Theme, which offers a simple rhythmic identity that conveys a both his unrequited love and unrewarded toil. Waxman’s efforts to Billy Wilder’s film and raised it to greatness.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s The Alamo provides another fine example. “The Battle of the Alamo” commences the final battle sequences where we bear witness to the score’s apogee, an extraordinary tour de force! It features a wonderful contrapuntal interplay of themes that pits the Mexican Santa Ana and El Degüello Themes against the Texan Heroic and Eyes of Texas Themes. I must say that this is a horn lover’s dream come true as their competing lines and themes clash in a duel that will resonate through time. Like the besieged Texans, their themes struggle valiantly for life against the relentless assault of the Mexican motifs. In the end they succumb with the death of Jim Bowie, which is marked by a last refrain of The Eyes of Texas Theme followed by a gong clash. I believe the complexity, boldness and richness of this cue earns Tiomkin immortality.
Alfred Newman’s The Robe is a brilliant masterwork. The film’s primary Christ Theme, which resonates with a profound spiritual power, displays his genius as a composer. The theme and Marcellus are intrinsically bound together and both change over the course of the movie, reflecting Marcellus’ evolution as a spiritual being. The theme opens the film with solemnity and reverence, yet it becomes discordant and tormenting as Marcellus’ struggles with guilt from his role in the crucifixion. Ultimately the theme becomes refulgent and transcendent as Marcellus finds forgiveness and spiritual liberation with his embrace of Jesus Christ. We see Newman’s genius with the score’s greatest theme, the Love Theme, which speaks to Marcellus and Diana’s love. This theme is a masterpiece in conception, exquisite in its sumptuous beauty, and earns Newman immortality. The construct of this complex ternary theme offers testimony to Newman’s mastery of his craft. The masculine A Phrase consists of a primary and an echoing horn line, which are emblematic of Marcellus military bearing as a tribune of Rome, the feminine B Phrase is a gentile woodwind and harp line, which is emblematic of Diana, while the culminating C Phrase of lush and swelling lyrical strings emote the joining of the two. Tell me anyone today that writes ternary love themes!
Sadly I believe that contemporary American film scores have to their detriment, by and large abandoned the traditions of the 19th century European symphonic sound practiced by Golden Age composers. The complexity and richness afforded by the utilization of leitmotifs, counterpoint and thematic lyricism has become a casualty to the now standard practice of using “temp tracks”. Bruce Broughton eloquently offers a damning commentary in his article “The Evolution of Style in the Hollywood Film Score”;
“One other reason for the dilution of uniqueness is to be found in the ubiquitous use of the “temp track,” a temporary score compiled from any useful musical source, mixed and fitted together to give an impression of how a film will play during test screenings. Composers are often asked to replicate the temp track, simply because the filmmakers have either gotten used to it or because the film tested well in previews with it. How do composers avoid recomposing the temp track? Some don’t avoid it, some are cleverer than others at hiding the source of their inspiration, and some refuse or skillfully use the temp track as a starting point for creative conversation.”
Also of importance is that while the development of digital technology has advanced film editing, it has also produced unintended consequences, which have proven harmful to film score art. Harmful in that they work against long-lined thematic statements and complex thematic interplay. Digital editors can now easily edit scenes quickly and produce several variants for viewing, which allows directors greater ability and opportunity to adjust and tinker with their films. The challenge posed to the composer is being tasked with constantly rewriting cues for ever changing scene time indexes. I have spoken to composers who relate to having written eight different versions of a cue because of the editor’s relentless digital edits! Adjusting a complex thematic musical statement to fit the new time index can be maddening and sometimes thematically futile. In Steiner’s day editing reels was tedious and not as many edits were made. Not so today, which explains why RC composers more easily thrive in this type of cut and paste environment; there is greater ease in truncating or extending a cello ostinato perpetuo line with simple chords shifts and drum loops than rewriting an intricate long-lined theme with A and B phrases. Composers have related that given the relentless assault of edits and time crunch of finishing a score, that simplifying and dumbing down their music often becomes a matter of survival. I believe composers such as Steiner and Rozsa would not have been able to thrive in this type of environment.
In summation, despite the aforementioned challenges, I believe modern film scores, with the exception of American blockbuster films, continue to thrive. But for me, artistic expression for a multiplicity of reasons that includes investors, digital editing, temp tracking and marketing demographics has lost much of the refinement, elegance, richness and complexity that came to define the Golden Age. Yet Hope’s flickering flame remains, warm and tremulous within wonderful throw back scores such as Philippe Rombi’s Angel, Alexandre Desplat’s Monuments Men, and Dario Marianelli’s Jane Eyre. I take solace in the fact that the spirit of the Golden Age lives on in scores such as these, testimony to the magnificence of the human mind, God’s greatest handiwork.
Read Craig’s reviews at Movie Music UK