What is film music innovation?

A debate on Hans Zimmer and the Serviceable Film Score

By Andrew Carr

Jason Comerford's recent Film Score Daily article (10/13), lamenting the demise of innovation in film music, makes an interesting point about the current state of the industry. However, he makes several comments worthy of further discourse.

The article lacks a clear definition of film music innovation, instead making a blanket statement that it has all but disappeared from today's scores. What exactly is innovation? Is it the use of technology to produce unconventional sounds and effects? Is it the composition of memorable themes? Is it the creation of musical irony by scoring a shootout with 'Over the rainbow' (Face/Off)? Is it the composition of an atonal score that would make even Schoenberg cringe? Is it scoring an action film with a tuba and tin whistle? Is it merely deviating from compositional norms or current trends? Is it the ability to accommodate a director or producer's demands, whilst writing a score that is personally satisfying? Is it (God forbid) the use of rock songs in place of a conventional neo-classical score?

For the purpose of this article, innovation is defined as a variation on, change in, or departure from current compositional norms and/or the "classical" Hollywood practice. (Gorbman's 'Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music' (1987) succinctly defines the principles of this practice.)

If a score is not innovative, does it automatically constitute what film music "enthusiasts" would call trash? Innovation should not be automatically equated with "greatness", and these two elements should be kept separate when discussing a score. (Some of the best scores I've heard stick closely to the classical Hollywood model.) Digressing for a moment, this raises a side issue of the disturbing trend of reviewing a score out of context i.e., evaluating it as "straight" music rather than film music. To review a score without reference to how it integrates into the film is unfair to the composer and reader alike.

Of equal concern is the criticism of "brand name" composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer and the description of their music as "serviceable music score[s]." I would suggest that they are, in fact, two of the more "innovative" composers working in Hollywood today, and their ability to work within the confines of drastically different musical styles is the reason behind their success.

Zimmer is particularly innovative with the use of synthesizers in his music. I would not call it groundbreaking, for electronic film music was pioneered by others (Jarre, Vangelis, Goldsmith, etc), but his music has been and still is, to a degree, unique. Over the past few years, more and more composers seem to have jumped on the synth/orchestral band wagon, not that that's a bad thing, but invariably there is a degree of overlap or "sameness" amongst these scores, and "brand name" composers unfairly take the rap for it.

At the time of writing, neither The Peacemaker nor Air Force One have been released here, so I will briefly discuss Zimmer's Broken Arrow, arguably one of the more innovative action scores of the 1990s. Rather than composing a pure symphonic or classic Morricone-style western score, Zimmer fuses Wagnerian motifs with techno beats, choral music and his trademark "weird noises" and 7/4 time signature. The overall effect, you'd have to agree, is somewhat unique. Recently, a non-musical friend labelled the music "absolute crap" which is, obviously, a gross and unjustifiable generalisation. It does, however, reinforce the point that the score is innovative to the extent that it made this person sit up and take notice of an element of filmic discourse which goes unnoticed by so many.

Again, innovation does not necessarily equate with "greatness" and one must be careful not to like a score purely on the basis of who wrote it (an all-too-common occurrence in online discussions). Whilst I enjoy listening to the score, I am undecided on its suitability for what is essentially a modern Western. As a general rule, Zimmer scores demand to be listened to at least twice before forming a judgement on the quality of the music. With each listening, new bits of the score that previously slipped by unnoticed seem to leap out of the speakers. That said, and after numerous listenings, Broken Arrow is possibly the only Zimmer score on which I am undecided, mainly due to its distinct and innovative style.

The Power of One is another example of an innovative Zimmer score. Not content to throw in a few stereotypically 'African' sounds to serve as a geographical anchor for the score, Zimmer works with native choirs to create a truly unique combination of African rhythms and melodies, with a dash of Western orchestral influence. Recent scores of Hollywood films set outside North America lack the verve and inspiration of Power of One. Two spring to mind - 'The Devil's Own' (James Horner), and 'The Ghost and the Darkness' (Jerry Goldsmith). Both have been discussed to death, suffice to say that Horner merely goes through the motions and Goldsmith arguably writes a predominantly Western score with African references that doesn't come close to the "authenticity" or innovation of The Power of One. (A disclaimer is in order at this point; the cinema in which I saw 'Ghost and the Darkness' had an incredibly poor sound system, colouring my judgement of the score.)

However, the issue is not which score is better, it is whether Zimmer has written more than simply "serviceable" scores and whether or not he is innovative, for they are the accusations levelled at him in Comerford's article. It is reasonable to say that the majority of Zimmer's scores are well above "serviceable", and that he has been at the forefront of film music innovation for the past decade.

The article also takes a somewhat derisive attitude towards Zimmer's policy of apprenticeships. This, if nothing else, is innovative insofar as giving little-known composers a shot at the Big Time and introducing a wealth of new ideas and creativity along the way. How is the industry going to move forward (innovation?) without the input of upcoming composers, when the only way to break into the Major League is to send demo tapes to the door of every studio executive in town? The concept of apprenticeships and/or theme-writing can only benefit the industry, and Zimmer should be congratulated, not mocked. As well as giving someone the breakthrough they need, it prevents experienced composers from spreading themselves too thinly, at the same time allowing them to keep an eye on other projects, acting as quality assurance, if you will, for the filmmakers.

The exact definition of innovation will long be debated in film music circles. By any reasonable definition, it is clearly present in the music of Hans Zimmer, whose distinct musical style has produced some unique and memorable scores. Whilst innovation should not be automatically equated with "greatness", Zimmer's music is well above the level of a "serviceable" film score and it is unreasonable to single him out as an example of the "unrelenting sameness of...composers today."

Andrew Carr can be reached at acarr@rubix.com.au

This HTML document was created by Yumbo.