TOPIC: The position of scores within society.
Welcome to the outskirts of music! I intend to cover material not present in the latter two parts of this commentary, thus some material represented in the latter express my own sentiment.
To the average person that is exposed to score music, the level of appreciation would most likely be limited to 'background music'. I believe this is basically the result of the way in which it is marketed and therefore accepted by a 'conditioned' audience. My interest in this topic reflects my purpose to raise the awareness of the merits of score music as a full music discipline vis-a-vis pop, rock, death metal etc; to elevate its status, and appreciation by the average person.
I guess I should mention that I have an ambition to work in cinema; have experience in the sound field industry; have worked on CHR FM radio and national AC AM radio. And that a substantial portion of my CD library consists of soundtracks.
What is a score? Generally, a score is music for theatrical presentation or movie music; its creation is initiated for that purpose. It basically consists of instrumental and ambient passages, and generally has a conventional format. However, due to the lack of promotion of scores, they largely go unnoticed and thus innovative and exceptional scores suffer the same fate.
'Contemporary classical music' is how I would define score music, and if one thinks of the way classical music is 'commonly' regarded, I regard score music in much the same way. There is a grey area when it comes to defining classical music per se; classical music is generally known to be the group of compositions from pre-twentieth century Europe, which is characteristically romantic, grand and orchestral amongst other things. On the other hand, recent compositions have been classed as classical - "The Piano" by Michael Nyman and "Schindler's List" by John Williams are two that come to mind. (Incidentally, they both happen to be scores.) What makes them classical pieces, being only composed recently? And secondly, why aren't they just scores or why aren't more if not all scores labelled as classical music; a recent trend is Sony Classical rostering many scores under their banner.
The following discusses extracts from a column titled 'Endnotes' from Sight and Sound magazine - a British movie industry publication. The article is a highlight on recently released scores and compilations with a review.
It contains the comment: "What makes Herrmann's music so compelling is the way it utilises new technology without abandoning traditional instrumentation"; a view I share in respect to current industry leader Hans Zimmer's work. Bernard Herrmann is best known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, and was recently given prime recognition in a documentary shown on SBS highlighting scores. At present, movie composers are more likely to be noticed if they consistently collaborate with famous directors, and hopefully win a few grammies or oscars. Such is the case with Maurice Jarre who composes Peter Weir's films and especially John Williams who Steven Spielberg commissions for his movies.
The above quote is a major factor in the 'crossover' ability of score music in 'music' terms. The 'likeability' of score music is enhanced when modern instrumentation and rhythms are involved: "It is a marvellous marriage of the electronic and the acoustic, the modern and the traditional, the known and the unknown." As a music listener, I started off listening to my parents music and the only radio station. This consisted heavily of AC (Adult Contemporary) music. Later on my uncle introduced me to the American Top 40; thus began my keen interest in CHR (Contemporary Hard Rock) radio and its music. The introduction of an FM station stretched it even further. Such was my exposure to music and its limitations. As an avid listener and collector, naturally my interest was proportionate to my exposure. Now my interest covers almost the entire spectrum of recorded music - something others would describe as eclectic. In addition to this, my interest in the audio industry gave me a technical criteria in appreciating the recording of music. My 'initiation' into score music was with "Rainman" by Hans Zimmer - a b-side of a pop cassingle. This was made easy with repeated listening (as with pop radio) and a modern 'frame' to the piece. Billy Corgan of the grunge/metal/rock outfit Smashing Pumpkins made the point quite succinctly, "If anybody likes music, they should like it if it's good....not like it if it's bad" (Rage, ABC tv 1996), referring to criticism of their change in style. That is the view I hold in explaining my wide interest in music.
The "Endnotes' article has some comments on the other hand which point to the non-mainstream nature of scores: "Great film music does not necessarily make great albums", "Like John Williams and John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith is an institution in the world of Hollywood music". The latter indicates the common point that music styles are categorized, having inherent exposure limitations due to being subject to the discretionary media that exposes them - the significant ones being TV, radio and the newspapers.
However, in terms of good music, Mark Kermode of 'Endnotes' has more positive score comments like: " ...adding colour, suggesting menace and building character", "...abounds in positive chords fluctuating around an infectious main theme".
The next article was the 'Commentary' feature in Billboard by Michael Whalen who is a composer. He titled his piece 'Soundtrack Composers Deserve Credit'; a like supporter with a cause to promote scores. He states that scores 'are reaching an unprecedented new audience'. He implies that such is good news for the music industry 'as there is obvious market potential inherent in such an appreciative and receptive new consumer niche'. Broadly, he also says that scores 'can be effectively translated to the masses' through motion pictures and television. That scores contain 'a lot of thoughtful, serious work being produced...work to which attention should rightfully be paid from a critical and marketing perspective. Whalen argues his case with John Williams' "Star Wars" as the pioneering representation of scores that appeal to the masses; 'a romantic, postmodern score with superb melodic lines (that helped elevate the film to a genuinely spiritual level). In marketing terms he verifies that the score sold 4 million copies before the video came out, making it 'one of the largest-selling non-pop albums ever. The music was powerfully transforming, and audiences responded.' He further argues that 'there are many encouraging examples of audience pleasing, "critic proof" orchestral soundtracks from recent films (in comparison to the accepted classic scores of epics past). John Williams' "E.T." and John Barry's "Out Of Africa" are mentioned as two compelling examples; 'the rich, dramatic scores for "Jurassic Park", "Chariots Of Fire", "Field of Dreams", "Star Trek", "Henry V", "Dances With Wolves", and "Bram Stoker's Dracula" are still others.'
He claims that the success of several TV series 'benefited substantially from memorably lush soundtracks that were integral to the mood and power of the overall productions. And that 'the consumer market for scores is now extending significantly past "collectors"...'. This is corroborated by a comment published by Varese Sarabande Records (the most prominent score label) - "The past few years have seen an ever increasing popular interest in film music as a genre unto itself." Whalen relates that because of such, co-operation is occurring between the movie and music industries. He explains that a very successful movie has the ability to propel soundtrack sales and also vice-versa. He uses the example of "Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves". An altogether successful project with an otherwise entirely orchestral soundtrack adjacent to Bryan Adams vocal rendition of the theme. The latter phenomenon can be seen somewhat in "The Bodyguard" project.
However, he makes the important realistic point that it isn't easy being a score composer. Whalen explains that unlike other musicians, their work has to be done in a short span of time, and the production process is condensed in terms of staff and facilities due to enormous competition for commissions. He also notes that directors are fond of existing 'temp' tracks that hamper the creative process. In terms of recognition of their profession, he acknowledges that they are unfairly seriously low-profile. An opinion reflected by a choral musician last year - "They are the lowest of the low." He attributes this to the fact that most composers are unsigned and therefore the record companies have no reason to promote the artists.
A recent 'Commentary' article added further discussion to the score issue. John Mauceri - conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra - questions the definition of classical music and its implications. He relates that classical music has a wide following and points out that it is effectively used in a lot of movies. He then makes the point that score composers form their own work using the 'classical' format, and even publish 'classical' music. However, these efforts are generally rejected as not being 'classical'. Thus, the added judgement by newspaper editors to not classify scores as classical, results in score music going unrecognised and receiving less exposure. Mauceri does mention audience behaviour to the contrary in the then No. 1 and No. 2 classical crossover albums being film scores. He describes critics as insulting, 'small-minded, sensationalist and negative who claim to be protecting and defining classical music'.
The conductor goes on to showcase the 1994 phenomenon of "The Lion King". The music created by Elton John, Hans Zimmer, Lebo M., and Mbongeni Ngema, inspired by African rhythms and Mozart's Requiem are sung and played by a symphony orchestra, and had sold 6 million copies in the US alone (10+ million currently). Incidentally, the only album to do that in that year and in only a 4 month period. However, he says that it is unlikely to be given status as a significant piece of classical music. Using his other arguments, Mauceri ascertains that the public will continue to generally view classical music as elitist. He maintains that until writers cover 'worthy artistic efforts' and do not insult audiences and belittle performers and composers, the public will be denied 'music that is eternal, and that communicates to anyone whose heart and mind is alive and open'. He concludes that there is a danger that the existing music that is defined as classical will suffer.
Movie scores have been seen to warrant academic attention as evident by the following extracts. This in effect, supports the arguments of Whalen and Mauceri. Victoria E. Johnson wrote in Film Quarterly about the progression in score style and traditions. She explains that generally music in films was incorporated 'in order to construct and maintain an audience of passive consumers to whom the soundtrack is usually invisible'. Film music served the purpose of enhancing the desired seamlessness of the narrative. The 'conventional' score is typically characterised by several elements, 'including a strong orientation to 19th century European Romanticism, which prioritises melody, lush sound, and full orchestration, and a frequent reliance on leitmotifs, which are variously associated with specific themes or characters. Music is used to orient and hook the spectator', 'to convey messages that the film can only hint at' (Geoff Leonard, 1993 Silva Screen Records). She implies that music is appealing to the youth audience or teen demographic market, and that the mainstream form is a somewhat form of political and ethnic expression; and this spills over into other forms of mainstream entertainment such as cinema. If we reverse this explanation, we can assume that scores could be seen as mainstream music.
She continues her revelation that soundtracks have progressed in relation to mainstream music's progress. 'Previously subcultural forms of music' have come into their own and is reflected in such offerings as "Juice" and "Menace II Society". Johnson's prime example for her article was Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing". The use of such modern orientation can be seen in the nature of scores such as Axel F, The Top Gun Theme and The Miami Vice Theme to name a few, which reflect mainstream music of the time. This, in addition to the fact that all those scores were commercially successful, shows that scores aren't that inaccessible to listeners as it is commonly thought.
Charles Merrell Berg in his 1973 book, An Investigation Of The Motives For And Realisation Of Music To Accompany The American Silent Film, 1896-1927, states the origins of the use of music in drama, theatre and performance. He found that such music usage went as far back as the classical Greeks. From 10th century Catholic liturgies through to 16th century English Renaissance tragedy and pantomime, music prevailed. This provision paved the way for 'incidental music' for the silent film; used for a variety of purposes - to create atmosphere, fitting background, a sense of tragedy, increase tension, supernatural effects, and to drown out distracting noises. The usage precedents are attributed to the basis of opera. Berg mentions that composers such as Beethoven, Bizet, Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Liszt, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Grieg wrote music for plays, effectively scores or incidental music. This revelation implies that today's composers are no different and therefore should be classed as classical composers.
The book further relates that at the time, film music and its awareness had growing importance, and therefore it warranted a dedicated column 'Music for the Picture' in the "Moving Picture World" newspaper. The "Moving Picture News' then started 'Picture music' in 1912.
Atmosphere, expression and physiological reactions are terms that simply sum up the aura of scores and their purpose.
The above have been various insights into the world of scores; it is acknowledged that they form a subculture at best for the present but like reggae, punk and rap, they are expected to receive mainstream status if current events are allowed to continue, if not more. When one thinks of James Newton-Howard (keyboardist for Elton John), Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits), Stewart Copeland (of The Police) and Danny Elfman (lead of Boingo - formerly Oingo Boingo), the image of successful pop mainstream artists comes to mind. Fact is that they have all prolific score portfolios. What a pop song does to a music video, a score does the same for a movie.
Scores can do much more in transporting the listener because of their wider scope and like what Tori Amos does for the angst-ridden listener that is fed up of formulaic pop songs, scores can do a lot for 'classical' angst-ridden listeners, if not everybody that appreciates good music. Try Hans Zimmer for starters.
And an easy way to begin a new experience can be found at my website at:
Johnson, Victoria E., "Polyphony and Cultural Expression", Film Quarterly, Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 1993-94, pp. 18.
Kermode, Mark, Endnotes, Sight and Sound, June 1994, pp. 71.
Whalen, Michael, Commentary, "Soundtrack Composers Deserve Credit", Billboard, 1st January 1994.
Mauceri, John, Commentary, "What's So hard About Classical Music?", Billboard, 10th September, 1994.
Berg, Charles M., An Investigation Of The Motives For And Realisation Of Music To Accompany The American Silent Film, 1896-1927, Arno press cinema Program, 1973.
Jennings, K., Lectures - personal communication. Uni. of South Australia, 1996.
Frith, S., Music for Pleasure, London, Polity Press, 1988 pp. 205-225.
Sally Stockbridge, "Rock Video: Pleasure and Resistance", from Brown, ME, Television and Women's Culture, Currency Press, 1990.
Charles Acland, "Look what they're doing on TV", Wide Angle, 10, 2 pp. 4-14.
Dave Laing, "Music Video: Industrial Product, Cultural Form", Screen, 26: 2, Mar-Apr 1985, pp. 78-86.
The Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary, Bay Books, 1986.