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 Oslo in 1977, then (mostly) brought up in Grimstad in the South of Norway before I moved back to Oslo in 1996 at the age of 18. I’ve lived there ever since. I delivered my master thesis on film music in 2004, and subsequently worked as assistant professor in Media Studies at the University of Oslo in 2007. Anxious to try something more practical outside academia, I then worked a few years in television as a casting agent after first having appeared in a television series myself before I started writing for the Norwegian film magazine montages.no in 2009. In June 2013 I started Norway’s first and to date only webcast about film music – celluloidtunes.no.
My discovery of film music is really divided in two – first is the discovery of film music as one out of many tools in the collaborative art form that is film. This was a gradual discovery over the years, as my film interest grew. Second is my love of soundtrack albums, which grew more out of my love of concept albums in prog rock, art rock, electronic music and other instrumental genres. Ironically, these two interests have nothing to do with each other. They are very separate, but both took shape in the early 90s. I think one of the first soundtracks I got was TWIN PEAKS on a copied cassette, ca. 1991, which then inspired me to write a whole novel. But JURASSIC PARK a couple of years later remains my favourite score to this day and the one that really started this whole fascination.
How did you begin your website? Tell us a little about its history, and what you do now in terms of film music journalism.
My journalistic history prior to 2009 is scattered across various publications. Perhaps the most ambitious and relevant project was the Danny Elfman Buyer’s Guide for Film Score Monthly in 2005 (first part in their last print issue, second part in their inaugural online issue). In 2009, I was asked by the then-newly-established film magazine montages.no to cover film music for them in addition to regular film articles, whether interviews, festival reports or feature articles.
In June 2013, I established celluloidtunes.no, the first-ever film music webcast in Norway. Since then, I’ve done 12 episodes covering everything from fantasy films to Ridley Scott to Christmas film music to French film music to Danny Elfman etc. By far the most ambitious episode was the 1-hour James Horner special, where I went to Vienna for their annual Hollywood in Vienna concert and got the opportunity to talk to the man himself, in addition to the conductor and composer David Newman. Over the years, I’ve also done interviews with and talked to other composers like James Newton Howard, Elliot Goldenthal (twice), Johan Söderqvist, Hans Zimmer, Angelo Badalamenti, Pino Donaggio and Abel Korzeniowski.
In addition to the endeavours with Montages and Celluloid Tunes, I try to keep up-to-date by participating in multiple film music forums and doing lectures, seminars, audio commentaries, interviews and so on to heighten the awareness of film music in Norway. We still have a long way to go. On a personal level, I still dream of doing interviews with John Williams and Danny Elfman. However, getting an interview with Williams, in particular, seems more difficult than taking the Pope out for a beer.
What, in your opinion, are the things that are necessary for a film score to be successful?
Again, I must make a distinction between film scores and soundtrack albums. For film scores, there is really only one main criterion and that is to follow the director’s creative vision. Beyond that, there are obviously several sub-criteria involving emotional colouring, mood, spotting, narrative significance, audiovisual symbolism etc. Of course, we as the viewers can decide whether a director’s creative vision is to our liking, as well as the musical approach, but I feel that far too many critics judge a film or score without taking the film’s objective in mind. I think that is wrong, regardless of the autonomy of the text. If I have one personal preference, it’s that the music sometimes hits you in the face during specific set pieces – an argument against the all-too-ubiquitous prejudice that ‘the best film music is the one you don’t hear’; a rather passive notion, in my opinion.
Now, as far as soundtracks are concerned, there is a different set of criteria in play, mostly to do with the musical content itself. I’ve always felt drawn to theme-driven scores, but over the last years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by slower, more ambient and textural soundscapes. I really like film music from all eras and in all styles. But for me, a soundtrack album is only successful if it takes me on its own musical journey divorced from the film, with a fluid listening experience similar to concept albums. This is why I tend to prefer rearranged album programs over the complete and chronological presentations which seem to be all the norm these days.
What is your opinion of the film music industry as it stands today, especially in Norway?
I think we’re living in a Golden Age of film music, both in terms of older soundtracks being released and reissued from a broad range of specialty labels and in terms of the broad versatility in styles. We seem to have everything from classical symphonic scores to electronica- or pop/rock-influenced styles to smaller, more chamber-sized pieces. Whatever you want, you can find it – both inside and outside Hollywood. Of course, there will always be particular trends – like the prevalent ostinato style in action movies, or the challenges of temp tracks – but trends come and go and it’s really only a small part of the overall scene. I don’t share the cynicism of many of my fellow film music enthusiasts and think there is much to rejoice over in today’s film music industry.
In Norway, we release a small number of movies every year compared to many other nations, so the competition is rather fierce among the few film music specialists that we have (few of whom actually have agents or a big PR apparatus behind them), but most of them can find extra employment in other musical venues. We also tend to import composers from abroad and from other genres. But the skill level is high, and we rely less on Hollywood trends and more on our own musical history. We even got our first education program in film music recently. Overall, I would say we are more reserved in our musical approach. Is there a Norwegian or “Nordic” sound? I don’t know; that’s a question that still needs to be charted.
Who do you think are the best film music composers, historically and working today? What is it about their music that appeals to you?
My three favourite composers are John Williams, Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal. Whether they are schooled or self-taught, they all display an immense knowledge of the symphonic idiom and with a trademark sound or style that is easily recognizable. I like composers that showcase originality of this kind, even if their modes are sometimes traditional or even based on pastiche. Many of the same reasons apply to other veteran composers that I like (living or dead), including Jerry Goldsmith, Georges Delerue, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Basil Poledouris, Alan Silvestri, Thomas Newman and James Horner. In recent years, some of these composers have been trendsetters or composed music based on trends, but their own voice always shines through in some form or fashion.
Among the younger composers, I have particular keen eye towards names like Dario Marianelli, Abel Korzeniowski, Cliff Martinez, Clint Mansell, Johan Söderqvist, Jóhan Jóhannsson, Federico Jusid, Fernando Velazquez, Max Richter and most recently Laurent Eyquem – just to name a few. As an electronica buff, I’m also excited about the import of artists in that genre, like Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, Orbital or M83. Originality and emotional immediacy are what ties all of these together, regardless of style and approach.
Read Thor’s reviews at Celluloid Tunes, or follow him on Twitter at @soundtrackfan.