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Views And Reviews: Film Music – Servant of the Silver Screen

…Think of paint – it sticks to almost anything, and makes it prettier. Roughly speaking, music does a similar job. You want to make your party go with a swing? Get some bright “red” music. You want to make the mourners weep buckets? Get some dark “blue” music. Oh, and apply liberally, preferably in two coats!...

Paul Serotsky wrote these words to introduce a concert given by Slaithwaite Philharmonic.

To read more of Paul’s alluring introductions to great music please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/


This was written for another of those “Family Concerts” given by the Slaithwaite Philharmonic.

Music is for listening, right? Well, perhaps not. In the overall scheme of things, music that’s just for listening has been around only for a few hundred years. Before that, stretching back into the mists of history, music was always part of something else – primitive ritual, religious service, ceremony, courtship, dancing and festivity, drama and other spectacles, even battle. Music has been the servant for far longer than it has been the master and, for the most part, that’s true even today. Why? Well, think of paint – it sticks to almost anything, and makes it prettier. Roughly speaking, music does a similar job. You want to make your party go with a swing? Get some bright “red” music. You want to make the mourners weep buckets? Get some dark “blue” music. Oh, and apply liberally, preferably in two coats!

Anyway, before we get carried away and start chorusing “just like it says on the tin”, maybe we should get down to business. Let’s think about “film music”. Music affects our emotions. It excites us, and it can create – or magnify – moods. You might wonder just how it works these wonders, but save that for later. Right now, all we need to know is that this is what music does. It ices the cake of just about any form of entertainment, so it’s perfectly natural to want music with your films. After all, the silver screen is simply another sort of “stage”.

Most people would say that film music evolved from the incidental music composers wrote for stage plays. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that it evolved from ballet! Why? Because it wasn’t until 1929 that the “talkies” came along, and before the sound-track was invented, films were “silent”. This made them just like the stage action of ballet, and for exactly the same reasons that silence was filled with music.

Ah, but what sort of music? The obvious choice was to do the “ballet” thing, and commission composers to write music specially for the films. The French seem to have been most enthusiastic about this option: one of the very first film-scores was written in 1908 by Saint-Saëns, and his lead was followed by a host of eminent composers like Honegger and Milhaud. However, from its birth the infant “Kinema” was seen as a down-market form of entertainment. So, by far the most common option, to keep it nice and cheap, was to employ a lone pianist. He would sit before the screen, armed with an entire arsenal of snippets and sound-bites gathered from all corners of the world of music. These, he hoped, would cover every conceivable situation. From his pile of assorted threads he had to weave a living musical tapestry, underpinning the on-screen action as it unfolded – and he had to keep the music flowing non-stop. Now, there’s a real high-pressure job!

The pioneering director D. W. Griffith mixed the two options together. In 1915, he’d spent a fortune making his three-hour epic Intolerance. A lot of the money went on building a mile-long set of the “Great Hall of Babylon” and populating it with 16,000 extras! To cap it all, for showings of the film he replaced the pianist with a full symphony orchestra, playing a mosaic of specially-selected, synchronised snatches of classical music. The film was a landmark in cinema history, but that didn’t stop it being a financial disaster.

A Slip of the Soundtrack

Ah, but the visionary Griffith and the hard-pressed, jobbing pianist had something in common: they both knew what was the right stuff to get the punters’ pulses pounding. When soundtracks came along, film directors followed their lead – and made a bee-line for the “classics”. However, on the whole, just lifting extracts from recordings of the classics proved to be a Big Mistake! The reason was simple, and it’s all to do with this “master” and “servant” thing. Although it was easy enough to find a classical extract to suit your required mood, the music followed its own agenda, not the film’s. A director was very lucky if the music meshed with the entire sequence for which he needed it. Either his scene or the music – or both! – then had to be hacked about to fit. The results were rarely worth the effort: they both sounded and looked “hacked about”.

Sound Solutions?

There turned out to be two possible solutions to this problem. The first was to “choreograph” their film scenes to fit the chosen music. However, this was really a case of the tail wagging the dog, because by and large you don’t want to arrange your storyline just to suit the music. Even so, occasionally there are going to be happy coincidences. Sometimes a piece of music might just happen to be present in the plot, like Mozart on the gramophone in Out of Africa. Maybe a piece happens to be spot-on as title music, which is how Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” fitted into (or rather, in front of) “A Room with a View”. Ah, but that doesn’t make those works film music, any more than it makes Mozart or Puccini film composers! On the other hand, some directors have found in pieces of music their inspirations for dramatic scenes, and the music becomes part of the action. Then, it’s not only worth the trouble, but it can be the making of the movie.

The classic example is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey”. Kubrick, it seems, had originally wanted Malcolm Arnold to write the music, but it was Alex North who ended up doing the job. Apparently, the exacting Kubrick wasn’t at all happy with the result, and instead turned to pieces by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II (who are not related!), Aram Khachaturian and Gyorgy Ligeti. By the time Kubrick had finished blending his images with their music, it was hard to believe that they weren’t “meant for each other”! His “choreographing” of the whole of the Blue Danube waltz, as a “ballet” of orbiting space stations, shuttle-craft and even a rotating weightless biro, is simply stunning.

This is all well and good, but 99% of the time it doesn’t work. Enter the second alternative, which was to go back – to the “French way”! Rather than having to hire cart-loads of musicians to play live in the cinema, you could record the music for the soundtrack, so this was now a much less expensive proposition – the dog wagged the tail, everybody was happy, the floodgates opened and, in its own right, film music took off in a big way.

From the late 1930s onwards, a whole generation of film composers emerged. In the USA, we had pioneers like Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Miklos Rózsa, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin. The earliest British film composers were not specialists, but top-flight composers like Bliss and Walton. It was only after World War II that composers like Malcolm Arnold and William Alwyn made film music their “bread and butter” jobs.

A “Musical” Diversion

All along, we’ve been thinking about “film music”, but what about “musical films”? Originally, “musicals” were Broadway musical shows transplanted onto the Silver Screen. Early on, a “show-biz” plot was a good enough excuse to parade some staged musical numbers that themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the unfolding drama. Later, musicals became increasingly something akin to opera, with songs and dances that were part of the unfolding drama. That said, even the likes of South Pacific and West Side Story were still only filmed stage shows. The only difference was that a film version could “spread its wings” as wide as it pleased (and its budget would allow). Entertaining and inventive these could be, but they weren’t really film music. A film like “Chicago”, which cunningly combines songs and music with film techniques to “pull focus” on the characters and their relationships, maybe points the way to the future. We’ll have to wait and see.

From the Silver Screen to the Symphonic Stage

A film is a combination of many different things, like dialogue, action, scenery, and special effects. It demands the co-operation of lots of different disciplines, like writing, acting, carpentry, graphic artistry, lighting, photography, image processing, sound engineering, editing – the list seems endless. The music is just one cog in this increasingly huge machine. It is very much a servant, its job often planned to the last single bar. Generally, a film score will have some relatively extended “movements” (for example, the “main title” music), but mostly it will consist of dozens of little snatches. Some of these will start then fade out, some will fade in then finish, and a large proportion of these bits will be hopelessly uninteresting heard out of context.

On top of that, because the music is recorded, composers are able to call on any selection of instruments – no matter how weird and wonderful – and can even call on the services of the sound engineers to further extend their musical palettes. When you think about these things, you do wonder how it is possible to have a concert of film music, even if it was worth the bother.

Well, let’s also think about this: as “blockbusters” like our old friend “Star Wars” bust ever bigger blocks, and the music has to be scaled up to suit, to what do composers turn? Oddly enough, not to synthesisers and other high-tech., computerised thingummyjigs, but to the symphony orchestra. Why? Because it’s still the most wide-ranging and expressive musical machine we have, and it’s made of real people who put real feelings into the music. It can also make passable imitations of most other types of bands, like the macho big band sound of the “James Bond” movies. It can have you dodging the Mosquito Fighter-bombers of “633 Squadron” and yet be pared down to a single, haunting violin for “Schindler’s List”.

Practically, what this boils down to is that, if you want to hear a wide-ranging programme of film music, a symphony concert is your best bet (so, it seems you’ve come to the right place!). All that’s needed are arrangers – composers who can really get under the skins of original scores and re-create them in other forms. In some cases, the arranger might only have to make minor adjustments, tweaking the orchestration and doing a bit of “topping and tailing”. In others, where the original music is very bitty, the arranger would have to work it up into a convincing “concert fantasy”. In any event, to be successful he or she must – above all else – make sure that music born as the servant of the silver screen mounts the symphonic stage as its own master.

© Paul Serotsky


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