Tell us a little about your background, both personally and professionally (in terms of film music). How did you first discover film music?
I’ve been around film music my entire life. The earliest music I can remember latching onto was a cassette of Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra playing the music of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. According to my parents, I would dance around to the Cantina Band music from Star Wars, and that probably formed a big part of who I am. I grew up playing piano from the age of 5, oboe from the age of 10, and percussion from the age of 13 (all three simultaneously in high school). My mom was a serious handbell player, so I was involved in playing handbells as well. Throughout my youth, I loved the great themes of John Williams, from the Star Wars films, to the Indiana Jones films, E. T., and some of the lesser known themes from 1941 and The Cowboys. When I turned 16, I received my first CD player and CD – John Williams’s score for Far & Away. I spent most of my money on music, collecting scores like James Horner’s Field of Dreams, Randy Newman’s The Natural, and Basil Poledouris’s The Hunt for Red October. Even though I had a very strong musical background, I never wanted to be a performer. I began college as a science major at Illinois Wesleyan Uiversity, with designs on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. The second semester of Organic Chemistry made me realize that I wasn’t particularly interested in science, and was far more interested in music.
I majored in Percussion Performance, and went to graduate school to study music theory. I did my MM in Music Theory at the University of Arizona. My master’s thesis compared Ralph Vaughan Williams’s score for Scott of the Antarctic with his Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No. 7). I got to travel to London to do archival research at the British Library. Vaughan Williams had written a brief note that was on the top of his Scott score that said (paraphrasing) Under no circumstances should anyone be allowed to compare this score with my Seventh Symphony. He didn’t want people to know how much of the film score became a concert work. The answer is about 95% of the film score is the Seventh Symphony, with only new transitions added to connect the film material. The keys are even the same between the film score and symphony!
I got married and moved to Texas to continue my graduate work, earning a PhD in Music Theory at the University of Texas at Austin. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Dmitri Shostakovich’s film music for three literary adaptations: The Gadfly, Hamlet, and King Lear. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, the only way that film music was taken seriously in the academy was through “real” composers or Bernard Herrmann. Since I completed my degree and began life as a full-time university professor in 2005, I’ve written articles and book chapters on film music as diverse as Shostakovich’s Hamlet and King Lear, Elmer Bernstein’s music for The Magnificent Seven and ¡Three Amigos!, the use of Ludwig van Beethoven and Frederic Chopin’s music in the films of Peter Weir, and music theory articles based on chromatic mediants and narrative associations. I’ve also written a book titled James Newton Howard’s Signs: A Film Score Guide, published by Scarecrow Press in 2016 as part of their Film Score Guide Series. It was a massive task, but I got to sift through over 1000 pages of MIDI and final orchestral score. As of now, I currently have two book chapters awaiting publication in late-2021 or 2022––one on post-tonal film music and one on music in the animated television series The Backyardigans. I’ve been at Oklahoma City University since 2005, where I teach courses on chromatic harmony, musical forms, music since 1900, a course on film and television music analysis, and an Honors course on Shakespeare and film.
I’ve essentially retired from academic writing, but continue to tap on the keyboard. My upcoming project is writing a book on John Powell’s music for the How to Train Your Dragon films. Both John and Batu Sener have been instrumental (ha!) in getting materials to me and have both been extremely kind and supportive of the project. I’m using Doug Adams’s book on the music in the Lord of the Rings films as a model, and hope that I can successfully navigate the space between too academic and not musical-theoretical enough. I have a sabbatical lined up in the Fall of 2021 to do much of the work, but don’t count on seeing it published in the next 24 months!
How did you begin writing for FSM? Tell us a little about what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
I never planned on becoming a film music journalist, but it’s been extremely rewarding. In 2017, I answered an open call for writers for Film Score Monthly Online and was quickly accepted into the fold. It was somewhat fortuitous because Doug Adams had recently left, and FSMO was looking for a “resident musicologist,” a position I was able to fill. I’ve been writing feature articles and reviews for just over four years now, have been lucky enough to have written the cover article over half-a-dozen times, and it’s an absolute joy to work with Jon Kaplan and Kristen Romanelli, two of the best editors anyone can hope to have.
Since I joined the IFMCA in 2020, I’ve been doing more reviews than I had been doing before, and have taken over writing the quasi-regular column “Soundtrack Obscurities 2.0,” where I highlight forgotten albums, rarer works, and unfamiliar scores from countries that most American film music fans haven’t heard. I hope to move into conducting interviews, too, and view Tim Grieving as the type of film music journalist I’d like to be. Tim is also extremely kind and generous with his time, and that’s extremely meaningful; he’s a terrific role model.
Joining the IFMCA corresponded with my shift away from academic writing and toward popular and public writing. I think my writing is best in this arena, as I can bring my musical background and academic knowledge, but disseminate it in a way that can be understood by those without musical training.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
The paths to a successful film score are plentiful, and there’s no single element or group of elements that define success. The scores that I find to be most successful have two things working in tandem. The first is a strong theme or group of themes. I’m using the term “theme” in the broadest sense. A theme can be melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, or even textural. I want to be drawn into the film and the narrative by something I hear. As a percussionist and music theorist, percussive and dissonant music doesn’t surprise me in the same way as most film viewers, so I can find musical elements in places that could be considered unexpected. The second thing that I need to hear is thematic development. I want to hear a theme or themes change with the narrative situation. Without the development, the music becomes a simple “naming theme,” announcing a character and becoming static. Every film score has something to offer the listener, and just the fact that it is present in the film makes it successful. No scores are worthless. Even scores that are somewhat generic and anonymous contain positive elements. I know not everyone views film music this way, but that’s what I want from my film music.
A great example of a successful film score from 2020 was Anne-Kathrin Dern’s Fearless. It had a great heroic/swashbuckling theme introduced in the main titles and was developed through different timbres, meters, and harmonies throughout the film. The score also contained excellent secondary themes and fun action and tension music. It was one of the best animated film scores of 2020 (it was an IFMCA Nominee for Best Animated Film Score in 2020) and made my personal Top 10 list of 2020.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today
I don’t believe we have ever lived in a time where we have created more consumable television and film music, nor have we ever had as much access to recorded music. We’ve never had a need for as many composers as right now. Composers new to film/television/game music composition are in demand, yet breaking into the field is so challenging. The need to have experience working with DAWs is almost more important than studying composition in school, where DAWs are rarely taught.
Like any field, the film music field feels very top-heavy, where most of the bigger films are scored by “name” composers. However, that group of top-tier composers continues to expand, not contract, which I think is a good thing for the field. The amount of media means that so many more people have an opportunity to work, and more interesting and unique voices and perspectives enter into composition. One of my favorite things about the IFMCA is discovering new voices and new composers. Composers like Michael Abels and Marcus Paus began as concert composers and shifted into film. Composers like Nainita Desai began in sound design before becoming film composers. Composers like Philip Klein worked as orchestrators and “additional music contributors” before becoming film composers.
At any given time, a certain “sound” dominates Hollywood scores. For a time, it was big orchestras. Then, jazz and popular music. A certain style of music featuring ostinatos and repeated patterns has been ubiquitous for a decade. But we will always hear voices like Christopher Willis, whose work is absolutely brilliant and relies on historical models. We will always hear voices like Mica Levy’s and like John Powell’s. I am optimistic about the opportunities for film music, despite the ongoing pandemic, and I look forward to getting to hear so much wonderful music from so many different composers from around the world.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
So, now we’re going to get folks riled up, eh? Alright. My “Mount Rushmore of Film Composers” would be (in no particular order): Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, and James Newton Howard. I know, how can I leave Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, or Elmer Bernstein off the list? Well, I think Goldsmith, Herrmann, and Williams don’t need me to make their respective cases. For Howard, I think his brilliance is in his flexibility, his familiarity with all styles and his ability to write outstanding music for any genre. He can write rhythmic music and melodic music. His music for Disney films and his work with M. Night Shyamalan is extraordinary, and I hope he wins the Oscar he so richly deserves.
Some of my favorite composers working now include Alexandre Desplat and Christopher Willis. Both come from a background in concert composition, one from the French tradition, and the other from the English tradition. Desplat’s music has a sense of elegance and refinement that I rarely hear in film music, particularly in his waltzes. I so wish he’d been able to score Rogue One or Black Widow. Willis can channel Dmitri Shostakovich, nineteenth-century Germanic composers, twentieth-century minimalists, and can write cartoon music for Mickey Mouse and four-voice fugues. There’s no limit to his compositional abilities, and I eagerly await his forthcoming work. Of course, James Newton Howard is my guy, and he’s rounding back into his best form, with News of the World, and especially Raya and the Last Dragon. I hope it’s the beginning of a flurry of the high caliber of work that I expect from such a fantastic composer.
Read Erik’s work at Film Score Monthly Online, and follow him on Twitter @erikjheine.