Tell us a little about your background, both personally and professionally (in terms of film music). How did you first discover film music?
I was born in 1985 near Lucerne in Switzerland. At the age of nine, during my time at elementary school, I started learning to play the piano. After finishing elementary school, I attended high school at Alpenquai in Lucerne. There I decided to major in music, which meant that in 2004, as part of my final exams, I also had to take a music theory exam and present a piano recital with literature by Chopin, Bach and Debussy. This was the end of my musical education, because after high school I decided to study communication sciences at the University of Zurich. However, music continued to play a very important role in my life.
My enthusiasm for film music started at a young age. I loved the films of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, which I was allowed to go to see in the cinema in the company of my parents – among others “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” After visiting the movie theater, I always wished for the soundtrack CD of the respective film for my birthday or for Christmas. I listened to these CDs countless times – while I was drawing or while I was building miniature models of sailing ships. From “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” I also bought the Hal Leonard solo piano score books, which I was then allowed to bring to piano lessons and occasionally practice a piece from them. Admittedly, at the beginning, it was mainly the Disney songs that entertained me most. But in connection with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” I also increasingly liked the purely orchestral music – I even tried to transpose the piece Sanctuary for piano myself but failed miserably. From my enthusiasm for Disney film music grew my great and broad interest in film music outside of animated films. Soon I bought soundtracks to “Jurassic Park,” “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart,” “The Rock,” “Titanic,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and “The Mummy.” I was thrilled by the symphonic scope, the stylistic range, the emotional impact. I began to follow the current film music trends and also discovered film music from earlier years – above all from the Silver Age phase, sometimes back to the Golden Age phase. I was gripped by a veritable collecting mania – especially with regard to the film music of James Horner –, I visited film music festivals (including the International Film Music Festival in Úbeda) and began to write about film music. Which brings us to the professional side of things, because over the years my hobby was even allowed to develop into a part-time job (more on that later).
What else I do besides my part-time job with film music – professionally as well as non-professionally: In August 2018, I founded my own company, Böhni Communications (www.boehnicommunications.ch), for which I work on a mandatory basis in the field of marketing and communication – also outside the cultural sector. I also work as an editor for several magazines, and I am a member of the Swiss Media Composers Association SMECA (https://smeca.ch/). If you are interested: On my blog, you can also find articles and readings related to film music: https://www.boehnicommunications.ch/en/blog/.
How did you begin your career as a film music journalist? Tell us a little about that history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
When I started my studies at the University of Zurich (major: communication sciences; minors: film studies and management & economics), I started my writing career for the online magazine OutNow.ch. OutNow focuses on film and TV series reviews as well as videogame reviews. Back then, in 2005 and for a few more years, reviews of soundtracks were also part of their web content. I wrote my first film score review on James Horner’s “The New World.” The head of OutNow’s film music division at the time, IFMCA member Philipp Blumenthal, soon sent me promo releases to review – one of the first shipments consisted of “Lost: Season 1,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Hostel.” I got to know new works by composers unknown to me at the time and wrote away. It was Phil who asked me to write for the German-language magazine “CinemaMusica” – which I have been doing since 2007. I also still work with Phil today, although we no longer write for OutNow, but for Phil’s own online magazine FilmMusicJournal.ch. I wrote my first film music review for FilmMusicJournal in 2009 on the Varèse release “Russkies.”
But all this writing was and is purely a leisure activity. I was allowed to start building up a professional foothold in the field of film music in 2007.
In 2007 the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra invited composer Howard Shore to a concert evening with “Music of Howard Shore” at the KKL Luzern. As a freelancer for the “Luzerner Zeitung” (local newspaper of Lucerne) at that time, I immediately asked the concert organizer if there was a possibility to meet the composer Howard Shore for an interview. My request was answered positively, although they wanted to meet me for a conversation beforehand (probably to check whether I was not “just” an autograph-seeking fan). This conversation went well and so it happened that I could meet Howard Shore for an interview on March 15, 2007. After the interview, the producer of the concert called me and asked if I would be willing to have a similar conversation with Howard Shore again at a pre-concert talk the next day at the KKL Luzern. This of course made me very happy, with the excitement making me downright feverish. Thus began my collaboration with the then producer of the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra. For many years, I had the privilege of writing numerous texts for the program booklets, advertisements, flyers, website, and social media channels of the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra. I was also able to meet numerous composers who came to Lucerne for film music projects – including Michael Giacchino, James Horner, David Arnold, George Fenton, Patrick Doyle, Andrew Powell and the aforementioned Howard Shore.
In the meantime, there was unfortunately an artistic fallout between the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and the producer, but I continue to work with the latter, whereby we have been active under the name City Light Concerts (www.citylightconcerts.ch) since October 2018 and I am responsible for doing communications and marketing for their projects. The focus is still on film music concerts, but now performed with the newly formed City Light Symphony Orchestra, also in 2018. Concerts with classical music and cross-over projects expand City Light Concerts’ season program of around 25 concerts between October and June. For City Light Concerts, I write the content for program booklets (all program booklets (in German only) can be found online as PDFs at the respective concert in the concert archive: https://www.citylightconcerts.ch/konzertarchiv/) and promotional materials, manage the social media channels, and take care of the website. Recent highlights were certainly the meeting with John Powell including a joint pre-concert talk on the occasion of the live world premiere of “How to Train Your Dragon” in December 2018, but also the work on the debut album of the City Light Symphony Orchestra, “Spotlight on John Williams” (the liner notes in English can be found online here: https://www.citylightconcerts.ch/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/PROSP0012-CLC_JOHN-WILLIAMS_ONEPAGER_DIGITAL_PRE-AW2_WEB.pdf).
In addition, I occasionally handle smaller editorial and journalistic inquiries related to film music – besides my still voluntary writing work for FilmMusicJournal and CinemaMusica. For example, on September 29, 2021, I hosted a “Film Composer Talk” with composers Nora Baldenweg, Diego Baldenweg and Lionel Vincent Baldenweg as part of the Swiss and European film music conference SoundTrack_Zurich.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
Successful in the sense of suitable for the film, commercially successful, or corresponding to my personal taste? That’s a difficult question.
Personally, I consider a film score to add to the overall experience when it has a distinctive emotional impact. Then it works for me. When the composer opens up an additional narrative perspective and an expanded emotional level with his musical interpretation of the events. In other words, the music should manipulate me emotionally when it is present. This can work with large-scale, very present symphonic music in the style of Howard Shore’s “The Lord of the Rings,” but also with more intimate works accompanied by synthesizers such as “House of Sand and Fog” by James Horner or even avant-garde approaches such as “There Will Be Blood” by Jonny Greenwood. Admittedly, I enjoy film compositions with catchy themes and motifs, a distinct emotional narrative and performed with symphony orchestra, choir and soloists the most. However, it does not always have to be so “bold” and if a film benefits most from chamber music approaches or purely electronic sounds, then I am also able to gain a lot from these works, at least in a cinematic context. Even on a small scale, the “shattering power of sound” can be fully present – just think about Horner’s lengthy crescendo of dissonant string layer resulting in a single painful, tinnitus-like tone for the horrific ending of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” If a film score then also functions apart from the images as a pure listening experience, then this makes it even more successful for me as a collector.
I consider anonymous, interchangeable film music approaches, which at best lend a film acoustic spatial depth, but lack any emotion, to be less attractive. To put it casually: Give me the schmaltz, keep the technicalities. Not infrequently read statements such as “good film music is that which one does not consciously perceive” are not true for me.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today, specifically in Switzerland? Can you talk a little about the history of Swiss film music, and maybe some of its highlights?
In general terms, and from the perspective of a listener and journalist, I consider the current situation in the film music industry to be positive and exciting. In my opinion, film music has conspicuously gained popularity and attention among the general public in recent years, even outside my bubble of interest. I find this very gratifying, and I see this also in connection with developments in the industry. When my interest around film music flared up in the mid-1990s, outside of the movie theater it played predominantly in the private sphere. This has changed a lot, in my perception. Film music has become part of private as well as public (internet) radio stations as well as fantastic podcasts. Well-known orchestras worldwide have included film music as an integral part of their repertoire. The number of film music concerts has grown by leaps and bounds, and several multi-day industry conventions, major film music events and festivals have been established – Hollywood in Vienna, SoundTrack_Cologne and SoundTrack_Zurich, Krakow Film Music Festival, the World Soundtrack Awards at the Film Fest Gent, Úbeda Soundtrack Festival (formerly there was also the great International Film Music Festival Úbeda), the Braunschweig International Film Festival, the Filmmusiktage Sachsen-Anhalt, to name just a few here in Europe.
A short digression on this: If you want to get a first brief impression of the extent of concert performances of film music, you might want to take a look at the website MoviesInConcert.nl. The people behind this website list all concert events discovered and reported to them whose program includes partially or exclusively film music. This results in a tremendously long list that currently lists more than 2900 concert events through November 2023. The website registers far more than 2000 visits daily. From this it can be deduced that the interest in concert performances of film music is high. In response to this, the offer has been expanded for years, especially with integral live performances of entire cinema hits. Companies such as IMG Artists, Film Concerts Live, CinéConcerts, the Europäische FilmPhilharmonie (European Film Philharmonic), Schirmer Theatrical, CAMI Music, Disney Concerts or Tiberio Music Design & Publishing – to name just the biggest names – now offer dozens of film titles “ready to go” for such concert formats – whether in the original language with subtitles or in dubbed versions; whether with separate choir and soloist parts for live performances or choir and solo parts integrated via synthesizer programming. Concertante film music has gone from being a special interest to a global business, and with it comes an increased presence in the public eye.
I find such developments great and they have substantially increased the popularity and status of film music. People after having attended live-to-projection concerts regularly tell me, that they had no idea that there was so much music included in this or that movie. They’re in awe.
Personally, I see no reason for pessimism regarding the quality of contemporary film music (from a listener’s and journalist’s point of view; unfortunately, I cannot judge the industry from a composer’s point of view). There is always a prevailing mainstream, and some people get tired of it over time. However, in combination with film music compositions outside of the dominant blockbuster cinema, I still find a very diverse and exciting range of styles and ideas. Thus, as an enthusiast of thematic, orchestral film music, I have recently been repeatedly thrilled by works by Panu Aaltio, the Baldenweg siblings, Chad Cannon, Anne-Kathrin Dern, Federico Jusid, George Kallis, Philipp Noll, Yuri Poteyenko, Christopher Willis, Christoph Zirngibl… and new names of innovative, talented composers are constantly being added. In my opinion, there is no lack of talent and diversity. Let’s hope that, if those composers are interested, the major film studios will also open up scoring assignments for them and that they will gradually be allowed to breathe fresh air into the mainstream as well.
Another aspect of the industry concerns the characteristics in terms of distribution channels. As a longtime collector of CD releases, I naturally regret the fact that fewer and fewer current soundtracks are being released on CD. In contrast, vinyl releases are now increasing rapidly – those who want to can switch. The hurdles for releasing film music on digital channels are lower, as they are associated with lower costs, which means that more and more music for small productions is being made available on international platforms, which I think is great. In addition, digital releases no longer have to be limited to a running time of around 80 minutes, which is why long, or even complete versions of some new compositions are being released. This increasingly confronts listeners with the task of putting together a “compact” version themselves, which not everyone appreciates either (most recent example: the 4-hour release of Junkie XL’s “Justice League”). On the other hand, many fans always call for the expanded versions – no matter how redundant such can be in some cases. It should be fine with them that digital releases not infrequently present more than one CD program of music. As much as I, as a collector, regret the increasing disappearance of physical releases in relation to current film music, I also see advantages in the digital distribution channels – by necessity. And for us collectors, there are still active specialty labels like Intrada, La-La Land Records, Quartet Records, the Varèse CD Club, and Keep Moving Records that present outstanding releases of old and new soundtracks in complete and expanded form.
In other words, the bottom line is that I currently find it no less exciting and diverse to indulge in film music in all its forms.
Regarding Switzerland – viewed against the backdrop of a global film music industry – one can hardly speak of an actual industry. Of course, this is also directly related to the fact that Switzerland only has a relatively small film industry. But in my opinion, there are quite a few interesting developments happening since the mid-2000s. The offer of concertante film music performances has grown massively, several film music competitions and prizes have been created and more recently several film music projects with large ensembles have been recorded, which is exceptional here in Switzerland (so far).
The range of concerts with film music programs in Switzerland has become enormously diverse. Lucerne, where I currently live, has become a real hotspot. Here, the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and the City Light Symphony Orchestra, for which I currently work, alone present around 25 film music projects a year in the KKL Luzern, which together add up to around 50 concert performances. In addition, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and the Sinfonieorchester Basel (Basel Symphony Orchestra) now also perform around 2 to 4 film music concerts a year as part of their concert season programs, and the Musikkollegium Winterthur also plays film music several times a year. In addition, young orchestras such as the Zurich Film Orchestra ZFO, the Ensemble Cinéphonique Zurich or the Symphony Orchestra TiFiCo are committed to film music in the concert hall and the promotion of young, aspiring musicians. In this respect, Switzerland is currently spoiled for choice – from Chaplin musical evenings to classics such as “West Side Story” and world premieres of “The Hunger Games” and “How to Train Your Dragon.”
In terms of promotion and education, there have also been encouraging developments since 2000. In Zurich, Bern and Geneva, specialized study programs and courses focusing on composing for film, theater and media have begun to establish themselves, although these educational offerings are all still relatively young by international standards. In 2012, the Swiss Media Composers Association, or SMECA, was founded (https://smeca.ch/; I have been a member since 2021). It represents the interests of film and stage musicians. SMECA serves as a networking platform, advises in particular on legal and performance issues, takes care of pension perspectives and represents the political interests of its members. In 2005, the Forum Filmmusik was founded around the festival “Solothurner Filmtage” to promote the exchange between film composers and filmmakers as well as to sensitize the public for film music. The aforementioned Ensemble Cinéphonique Zürich developed out of this forum. In addition, the idea for an international film music competition emerged in 2007 from a film music workshop with composer Marcel Barsotti, who, among other things, composed the film music for the historical drama “Die Päpstin.” After several years of preparation, this has been held since 2012 as part of the Zurich Film Festival. During the 10-day Zurich Film Festival, the Swiss and European film music conference SoundTrack_Zurich, the “Swiss offshoot” of the well-known SoundTrack_Cologne, which will take place for the 18th time in 2021, will also be held. Since 2009, the prize for the “Best Film Music” has been awarded as part of the Swiss Film Prize “Quartz,” and since 2000, the Fondation SUISA has awarded an annual prize for the composition of the best original music for a feature film during the Locarno Film Festival. This has created a considerable number of platforms for practitioners and interested parties, which also open up new opportunities and awards with attached grants for young talents. Of course, I hope that this care and support around film music can continue and develop here in Switzerland. I would also be pleased if Swiss film composers were allowed and willing to make their work even more accessible to the public.
And one more current observation to conclude my selective remarks on the film music industry in Switzerland: In recent years, there has been an increase in film music recordings in Switzerland with comparatively exceptionally high production effort and therefor costs. For example, the siblings Diego Baldenweg, Nora Baldenweg and Lionel Vincent Baldenweg recorded their film compositions for “The Reformer. Zwingli: A Life’s Portrait” and for the short film “The Life Underground” with orchestra and soloists, respectively – in the case of “Zwingli,” choir and organ recordings were also included. In addition, the nearly 100-piece Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich recorded their audio brandings for the “Schweizer Filmpreis” (Swiss Film Awards) and Zurich Film Festival in August 2021. And the City Light Symphony Orchestra had the KKL Luzern concert hall available for film music recordings in September 2020 and June 2021, respectively, due to lockdown (the first album of these, “Spotlight on John Williams,” was released by Prospero Classical in April 2021; two more albums are to follow in 2022). Not that there have not been orchestral recordings of similar magnitude in Switzerland before – e.g. “Vitus” (2006; music by Mario Beretta) with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra or in 2010/2011 “Der grosse Kater” (2010; music by Patrick Kirst) and the “Lord of the Rings Symphony” with the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra –, but the increased frequency is definitely striking and leads to the hope that film music will be accorded a higher status in the film production process.
Looking at the history of Swiss film music, I have to admit to larger “blind spots.” The works of Arthur Honegger can be counted among the early Swiss film music, and I particularly like his orchestral compositions for “Pacific 231” (1924), “Der Dämon des Himalaya” (1935) and “Farinet ou l’or dans la montagne” (1939). But he also composed experimentally, for example for “Rapt” (1934). Around the mid-1930s, Zurich developed into a pioneering center of the “talkie,” as their film craft knowledge came to Zurich along with numerous European emigrants. The important film composers Robert Blum and Walter Baumgartner worked, studied and taught here. They scored some of the most famous Swiss films – including “Wachtmeister Studer” (1939), “Gilberte de Courgenay” (1941), “Heidi” (1952), “Uli der Knecht” (1954), “Polizischt Wäckerli” (1955), “Bäckerei Zürrer” (1957) – and were busy until the early 1960s. Swiss film music in the second half of the 20th century featured a lot of experiments with electronic music, sound design and (wordless) vocal music – a phase I still can’t get much out of musically, to be honest. Hence the aforementioned “blind spot.” My interest in Swiss film music resumed in the early 2000s – with “Heidi” (2001) and “Alles auf Zucker! (2005) by Niki Reiser, for example. I am curious to see how Swiss film music will develop with composers like the Baldenweg siblings, Raphael Benjamin Meyer, Sandrine Rudaz and Adina Friis.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
If I start by answering the first question, I come up with somewhat different names than if I prefer the second question. This is because, regarding the first question, compositional techniques and approaches that have defined and left a lasting mark on the craft of film music also seem important to me, while the second question leaves room for answers according to personal musical taste. In my case, the names here – as I must admit – are not congruent.
When asked about the “best film music composers,” there is no way around the “founding fathers” of film music – Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklós Rósza, Alfred Newman, Alex North, Bernard Herrmann… while I value their works and influence very much, I listen to them rather rarely or very selectively. This is probably due to the fact that I am still unable to grasp the Golden Age works in their entirety, despite or perhaps because of their enormous weight and their film-musical diversity and “density.” At this point I would like to make a reading recommendation: the 16-part series “Fathers of Film Music” (https://moviemusicuk.us/category/fathers-of-film-music/) by IFMCA member Craig Lysy, available on moviemusicuk.us. It is a great support to me in the retrospective discovery of Golden Age works, and Lysy’s enthusiasm for it is contagious.
For my part, I went “with my time” as a film music enthusiast, with the work of James Horner particularly inspiring me since early adolescence and unabated. In this my enthusiasm for his music also differs from that of greats such as John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer or Jerry Goldsmith. Williams, Morricone, Zimmer and Goldsmith have all written outstanding, iconic film scores in unprecedented careers – with Williams and Zimmer still actively composing – but for me there are aspects of their compositional style that leave me untouched. Not so with James Horner. Regarding the third question, I wrote laxly “Give me the schmaltz, keep the technicalities.” Horner’s works, in my opinion, always sweep the emotions to the fore, which is where I see their strength. Technically, his work was/is not without controversy – accusations of plagiarism, recycling of themes… However, I always found the result appealing and convincing in terms of craftsmanship. He combines symphonic power, soloistic intimacy, catchy themes, thrilling action, ethnic musical elements with a bluntly emotional narrative. This appeals to me. In terms of “seasoned” composers still at work, for years and for the same reasons as stated above, I have found particular pleasure in the numerous works of James Newton Howard, John Powell, Michael Giacchino, Fernando Velázquez, Debbie Wiseman, and Bear McCreary. Without exception, they too compose film music that touches and sometimes even overwhelms. And I am very curious to see how the work of the promising composers mentioned above can develop further.