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Miscellaneous - Film Composition: A Tribute

  by Mark Rowland

published: 4 / 7 / 2012

Miscellaneous - Film Composition: A Tribute


In the latest in his 'Rock 101' column, Mark Rowland looks at writing music for cinema, and what makes an effective film score

The worlds of film and music have always been linked, since the dawn of cinema. Initially the use of music was born of necessity; piano players and organists (and occasionally, an orchestra) were employed by cinemas to play along with a film in the days before sound. They only had a cue sheet to work with, and were relied upon to play something appropriate to accompany the film. Most of the accompaniments at the time were pieces by famous composers, including studies, collected in catalogues of photoplay music. Although original pieces had been written for some films, it wasn’t until the rise of German cinema in the 1920s that the film score as we know it came into its own. Fritz Lang’s 'Die Nibelungen' and 'Metropolis' were accompanied by original full orchestral, leitmotific and piano scores by Gottfried Huppertz. Friedrich W Murnau’s films, such as 'Nosferatu', also had original scores written for them. Others mixed original compositions with library music or folk songs. From that point, the film score was here to stay (though Fritz Lang rarely used film scores after the introduction of sound). Film composition sits in an odd place in the music world. While the average composer writes music to elicit an emotional response, a film score composer is trying to translate a visual piece into music, stripping a film down into its emotional beats. They are also writing to fit someone else’s vision – possibly more that one person, as often the director, producer and even the editor might have some thoughts about the score. “It really isn’t important how pretty the music is,” said composer David Grusin in William Goldman’s book on Hollywood, ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’. “The film isn’t about music; the score isn’t about music. What matters is how helpful the score is to the film.” Grusin wrote scores for films such as ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Days of Heaven’. It’s doubtful that many people could hum them if asked in the street, but the music Grusin wrote in those films had a subliminal effect on the viewer. He described the most effective film scores as those that subtly manipulate the audience. Of course, there are the famous scores - 'Jaws', James Bond, 'The Third Man' – that we could hum, but what we tend to remember isn’t necessarily the piece of music as a whole, but a key phrase or motif from the score – the bits that seem to sum up the film in a few neat bars. For a good score to work, however, the bulk of the music should blend seamlessly with the rest of the film. “Every film has a characteristic feature, which can be suggested by the director or ‘felt’ by the composer,” said the legendary Ennio Morricone in an interview with music production magazine 'Mix'. “This characteristic must remain, and the music is born from that certain feel, typical feature or style that the composer grasps. Each composer reacts personally to the film's action and style — the director's ‘poetics,’ the images, story and key sequences or scenes. So, in theory, ten composers will write ten totally different scores for the same film and they could all be good — if the composers are.” All very interesting, but what am I getting at? The process of writing a film score can be restrictive, with composers reined in by the film itself, by the will of the director, by the time and budget allocated to the score. And yet, in this environment full of restrictions and limitations, a composer can break new ground. They can create some truly brilliant pieces of music. They can also reach more people than many big selling records ever will. Take 'Jaws' as an example – John Williams’ distinctive two-note theme gave the shark its presence for most of the film. The shark puppet itself was unconvincing and prone to malfunction. Director Steven Spielberg wisely decided to keep the shark off screen for much of the film. Williams’ iconic score was a necessary replacement, alerting audiences to the presence of the shark as well as upping the tension. Spielberg even said that without its score, 'Jaws' would have been half as successful as it was. Today, 37 years after its original release, Williams’ score is known and loved by a vast number of people of varying ages and backgrounds, each of which are taken back to the moment they first saw 'Jaws' – for many, a pivotal moment in their childhood. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t know that piece of music. John Williams is one of the most famous composers in the history of cinema, though I expect that even his name is not widely known among casual moviegoers. Film score composition is an often unsung element of contemporary music, serving a very specific function beyond pure enjoyment for its own sake. But film scores can embed themselves into our memories and experiences, soundtrack our own lives, and often without us knowing it – a sure sign of the technical and emotional skills required to write a truly great film score.

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