March 2, 2015 at 2:00 pm #181862
I’m posting this article by Alex Ross, which in part discusses this year’s nominees for original score, for no particular reason other than that as a performing musician and movie buff I find it fascinating, and I’d like to share it.
FEBRUARY 27, 2015
Composing for Hollywood
BY ALEX ROSS
A few years ago, I heard a film composer tell of a director’s reaction to his labors: “O.K., now make it twenty per cent more Cuban.” Such is the humble lot of composers in Hollywood: they enter the creative process late, they write on dire deadlines, and they grapple with all manner of vague or arbitrary demands. The scourge of their existence is the “temp track”—the temporary soundtrack of preëxisting musical selections that is used to assemble a rough cut, and that the composer is then encouraged to mimic. Temp tracks help to explain why Hollywood scores are too often a lazy Susan of fixed formulas: in fantasy movies, metallic percussion clanging over horns and male choruses in the minor mode; in romantic comedies, a one-handed piano noodling behind a scrim of strings; in period pictures, neo-Baroque arpeggiation in the manner of Philip Glass. Granted, the limited palette of film scores sometimes results from the limited abilities of the practitioners, but almost any Hollywood tunesmith could achieve more distinctive results if the iron fist of cliché were to relax just a little. If you think you have John Williams pegged, listen to his angular, questing piano suite “Conversations,” which Gloria Cheng has recorded on a new disk titled “Montage.”
This year’s Oscar nominations for Best Original Score did the field few favors, overlooking some significant work. Jonny Greenwood, increasingly known as much for his film music as for his contributions to Radiohead, has yet to be acknowledged by the Academy, despite his idiosyncratic, imaginative collaborations with the director Paul Thomas Anderson, most recently in “Inherent Vice.” Jason Moran deserved a nod for his “Selma” score, which oscillates between subdued moods of hope and dread, avoiding the telltale gestures of the great-man bio-pic. (The Aaron Copland trumpet of lonely American power is in abeyance.) Most baffling was the omission of Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin,” which, like Greenwood’s work for Anderson, moves from seething dissonance to eerie simplicity and back again. The Academy’s snub notwithstanding, the music of “Under the Skin” is taking on a life of its own; in January, the Los Angeles-based new-music collective wild Up and the New York-based Wordless Music series joined forces to provide live accompaniment for two screenings of the film at the Regent Theatre, in downtown L.A., with rapt crowds in attendance.
The scores that did make the cut—Hans Zimmer’s for “Interstellar”; Gary Yershon’s for “Mr. Turner”; Jóhann Jóhannsson’s for “The Theory of Everything”; and two by Alexandre Desplat, for “The Imitation Game” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (the winner)—reflected the Academy’s familiar bias toward British-accented period pictures, with “Interstellar” being the obvious outlier. Desplat is an expert purveyor of wistfully churning post-minimalism, suitable for the evocation of a sepia-tinted past; in the past couple of years, he has also given us “The Monuments Men,” “Philomena,” and “Unbroken.” In 2011, Jóhann wrote majestically dark-toned music for Bill Morrison’s found-footage documentary “The Miners’ Hymns,” but “The Theory of Everything” is a more generic effort, parts of which could have been plopped into the parallel math-genius narrative of “The Imitation Game” without anyone noticing the difference.
The most substantial work of the five is Yershon’s spare, pensive score for “Mr. Turner,” in which solo woodwinds cry out over an unstable harmonic background; it seems to pull tones from Turner’s darkling skies. Yet what sticks in my mind is a passage in Zimmer’s “Interstellar” score, which makes thunderous use of a pipe organ—the Harrison & Harrison instrument at Temple Church, in London. The pivotal sequence is one in which Matthew McConaughey’s character is seen driving away from his home in a pickup truck; the hurtling motion gives way to a rocket countdown, as the hero is blasted into deep space and beyond. Zimmer’s cue begins with high wispy figures, and then the organ and orchestra begin to roar, in harmonies that waver between major and minor. The symmetry is neat: one of the loudest of man-made sounds is matched to the loudest of instruments. If only there had been more variety in the remainder of the score; as Richard Brody points out, Zimmer’s cosmic imaginings fall far short of the György Ligeti soundscapes that Stanley Kubrick employed in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the overpowering model for Christopher Nolan’s picture.
Kubrick’s brilliant assemblages of extant music, in “2001,” “Barry Lyndon,” and “The Shining,” perfected a different approach to movie music. Here the director curates a meta-score from many sources—a temp track at an exalted level. It has its counterpart in the artful pop playlists that knit together the films of Quentin Tarantino. For decades, the movie-music community has militated against such methods, and understandably so; they have undercut the livelihoods of hundreds of Hollywood musicians. (A few veterans of the scene appear in my 2010 Profile of the composer Michael Giacchino, a devotee of the old traditions.) Still, there is undeniable power in the Kubrickian approach. Two modern masters of the practice are Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, who routinely insert familiar classical repertory, notably orchestral music of Wagner, into unexpected contexts: the Prelude to Act I of “Parsifal” haunts both the burning Kuwaiti oil fields of Herzog’s “Lessons of Darkness” and the spiritually scarred prairie landscapes of Malick’s “To the Wonder.”
This year’s Best Picture winner, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” happens to feature both of these film-music modes, the composed and the curated. On the one hand, Iñárritu hands over much of the soundtrack to the drummer-composer Antonio Sánchez, who supplies propulsive, pummelling accompaniment for the film’s long-take sequences. (Following the obscure, mutable logic that had previously disbarred Greenwood’s score for “There Will Be Blood” and Cliff Martinez’s for “Drive,” the Academy declared Sánchez’s score ineligible for an Oscar.) At the same time, Iñárritu draws liberally on classical recordings: not only such canonic fare as Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Rachmaninov’s Second, and Mahler’s Ninth but also the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” from John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which, last fall, caused an uproar at the Metropolitan Opera three days after “Birdman” opened. Sánchez’s drumming evokes the mental frenzy of Michael Keaton’s character as he attempts his comeback; the classical pieces serve as doorways to his fantasy world, with “Klinghoffer” ushering in his vengeful superhero avatar.
A disclosure: my name appears in the credits for “Birdman,” in the miscellaneous-thank-you category. Last summer, Iñárritu, having read some of my writing, called to ask my opinion of recordings of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and company. Although my stray thoughts had no evident effect on the final product, I enjoyed serving as a sounding board for a director with a sensitive ear. I’d played this role once before; in 1999, Michael Almereyda showed me footage from his modern-dress film of “Hamlet,” starring Ethan Hawke, and solicited musical suggestions. In this case, too, the director ended up following his own counsel—probably for the best. But, as I experimented with a putative “Hamlet” soundtrack, I was fascinated to see how a neutral image—say, of Hawke riding a motorcycle down a curving road—could be transformed by disparate musical choices: grandly melancholy, with Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”; apocalyptically menacing, with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Die Soldaten.” A classic bit of YouTube silliness— a trailer for a romantic comedy called “The Shining”—illustrates the same principle.
As compelling as curated soundtracks can be, they have their limitations. When preëxisting recordings are imposed on movies, they tend to have a cooling, distancing effect: we know, whether or not we recognize them, that they are emanating from another place and time. Whereas, when a film composer hits a sufficient vein of inspiration, the images are charged with a feeling of newness, of unprecedented action. In a further twist, the deliberately inscrutable ending of “Birdman”—we’re not sure whether the Keaton character has committed suicide or flown away into magical reality—is heightened by a layering of musical signals: Sánchez’s nervy drums intrude upon Rachmaninov’s sumptuous lyricism, and sounds of the city steal in as the credits play. Even as we puzzle over the final shot, the injection of “live” sound gives us the feeling that we have been kicked into the present moment, as the best film music invariably does.
Alex Ross has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1993, and he became the magazine’s music critic in 1996.March 3, 2015 at 12:38 am #181864
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