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The Last Twenty Years: The Film Music (Re)Evolution

by Alan Vallely

Film score Monthly
Film Score Monthly

There is always difficulty when trying to research contemporary topics. If there is any literature devoted to a current trend or popular style, it tends to be found in magazines and news sources. To find any truly critical study, one has to wait quite a few years until authors are able to record, analyze and release work based on that trend. Film music is no different, with the majority of literary sources focusing on the 1970s and before, with little concentration on the present. Thus, when new literature concerning contemporary film music is released, it is invaluable for a period of time, until it too becomes a work with its focus on the "past."

While there may not be very much or, at least, much very accessible literary work written on the past two decades of film music, it does not mean that it is any less important a period of study than any other. The last twenty years, for many students in universities and colleges, is their entire life. These individuals have been influenced by and have helped to form the media and the culture of this period. Looking at the last twenty years as a lifetime, there have been many vital changes in the way motion pictures are scored, let alone how movies are made. Film music, over the last twenty years, has taken many forms and gone in many directions that were not thought possible.

For many, the "birth" of contemporary film music occurred in 1977 with a movie called "Star Wars." John Williams, the composer, took the traditional symphonic style, and applied it to a science fiction epic film. Symphonic scores had gone "out of style" in the 1950's and 1960's, and Williams reintroduced them to a new generation that had not had much contact with this genre. Williams comments on "Star Wars"' influence,

"Well, I don't know if it's fair to say the Star Wars films brought back symphonic scores per se. It's too useful and too successful not to have it back." (Byrd)

Williams and director George Lucas chose to have individual themes for each character and setting, so that the music is able to tell the story almost as well as the visuals. By combining these two together, it creates associations between a character and that person's theme, between themes of interacting characters, and emotionally charges the themes depending on what the character is going through. An example of this is found in the duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in "The Empire Strikes Back," the second in the Star Wars Trilogy. In this mere four minute music cue, "The Duel," five character themes are utilized: Darth Vader's at 0:40, Yoda's at 1:41, Lando Calrission's at 2:00, and Han Solo's and Princess Leia's themes, at 2:16 and 2:54. This is done so expertly by Williams that the music is extremely memorable, yet is not consciously listened to by the viewer during the movie. It may seem somewhat humorous to state that the Star Wars Trilogy, at the beginning of the last twenty years, is the "defining score of this generation," but in many respects, it rings true. It is one of the most well known scores, and anyone who has seen one of the movies even once can hum at least a couple of its themes.

A less popular, but critically brilliant film score appeared in 1982 with "Conan The Barbarian." The composer, Basil Poledouris, had attained a degree in Film Studies as well as Music, and had the ability to direct, write, edit, and compose (Mullhall). He chose to stick with composing, and was hired onto the "Conan" project by his friend, director John Milius. Milius' aim was to have the movie "marinated in music," and Poledouris was given extra time and extreme freedom to do so. The resulting score is a "music drama," much like "Star Wars," where the music communicates the characters' themes, underscoring their emotions and struggles.

The "Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom" music cue contains Conan's emotional base and "civilized" feel. The dramatic contrast comes when Conan's family gets slaughtered by the Doom Riders. This clarifies his "barbarian" approach to life after this point in both the movie and the music. The next cue, "Gift of Fury" contains some incredibly emotional music to represent Conan's mourning, as well as the evil Thulsa Doom's secondary theme. This cue is actually one of the most famous of all Gregorian chants, the "Dies Irae."

The effective use of symphonic and choral sources clarifies why these scores are seen as some of the greatest of the last twenty years, and are also examples of the more traditional genre of film music. It is likely that their popularity is somewhat due to their familiar style, finding its roots in classical music as well as 'classical' Hollywood scores.

After hearing "Conan The Barbarian"'s score and feeling its emotional and stylistic links with the past, it would seem rather ridiculous to imagine "Conan"'s score to be assembled from 1980's Pop music, but it almost happened. Producer Dino De Laurentiis believed that Pop music would have a greater appeal to the younger generations. Other movies, however, have defined themselves around Pop music, and have been successful because of it.

Basing a movie's music on popular music was a trend that emerged in the 1980s. Movies like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" were completely defined by the Pop music that played during the film. While it is likely these movies had at least some elements of a composed score, this was not released on the soundtrack of the film, and much of it was more "filler" background music than actual themes. A modern example of a Pop soundtrack is the movie "The Saint," a remake of the 1960's spy television series. This movie released two soundtracks, a "Music From The Movie" soundtrack and an "Original Motion Picture Score" soundtrack, but it not very likely that the score could be found in music stores. The most striking music from this movie is found on the "Music From The Movie" soundtrack, with the band Orbital doing a techno-dance version of the original 1960s Saint theme. The other songs on this music soundtrack are from the recent "electronica" wave of popular music. European artists who have created this type of techno-dance music have streamed into North America in the past year as this "underground" music genre has surfaced onto the popular scene.

While Orbital still classifies as a Pop music group, they are closer to the other end of the Pop movie music spectrum. They took a composed piece of music and re-performed it through electronics. This is closer to the rare extreme where, instead of the Pop music enveloping the score music, the score envelopes the Pop music. An example of this is the extremely fascinating score to David Lynch's "Dune." The Pop band Toto was brought in to create a score for the movie. This created a strange amalgamation between the two styles, creating a serious, yet thematic Pop music score. Listening to this soundtrack, the music cuts continually "flip-flop" from Pop to score, and it is successful at keeping both elements relatively intact.

Many people complain about Pop music's "interference" with the score in a movie, and even more complain about how the soundtrack to the movie always tends to be "Music From" rather than "Score From." Kees Hogenbirk, a reviewer for an online film music magazine called "Field of Dreams,"

Even if Pop songs may have a purpose in the motion picture, mostly they are heard for only such a short time, that their prominent place on the soundtrack albums is too much honour.

This is a complaint of almost everyone at some time when shopping for music, with the most notable example being Prince's "Batman" album being mistaken for Danny Elfman's "Batman" score. They look similar, yet are completely different albums. Pop music will always influence the movie industry, but hopefully Pop music will not overshadow the equally, if not more, important musical score to the movie.

There is a form of "electronic movie score" that should not be confused with the popular music medium. As soon as electronic instruments such as synthesizers and computers evolved far enough to be able to create music, it was introduced into scoring. One of the most impressive synthesized scores for its time was Vangelis' "Blade Runner," released in 1982. Vangelis was able to capture a futuristic atmosphere and style by using electronic instruments and samples. Though it does sound dated by today's standards, it is nonetheless a very effective score that captures the themes of the movie and constructs an aural landscape equal to that of the visuals of "Blade Runner." This score is likely what influenced the film makers to hire Toto to compose for "Dune."

The further development of electronics and sampling devices allowed composers access to a remarkable range of instruments from pianos to dog barks to samples that sound like nothing ever heard before. Jerry Goldsmith, a composer who has composed over 150 films, including "Patton," "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," "The Omen," and "Alien," seemed to gravitate towards the sampling capabilities.

A prime example of a score he composed that combines both orchestral and synthetic music elements is "The 'Burbs," in 1989. This is a very bizarre but yet entertaining score to listen to. It fits the movie's sense of bizarre and twisted humour, and even toys with Goldsmith's "Patton" score to some extent. Kathryn Kalinak, author of "Settling the Score," acknowledges synthesizers,

Dubbed "the mockingbird of instruments," the synthesizer has an almost limitless ability to create sound, unique and otherwise. They are often exploited in sci-fi and futuristic genres to create an otherworldly effect. (188)

There are many scores that combine the elements of orchestra and synthesizer, and Jerry Goldsmith's scores almost always illustrate that.

By the 1990s, electronic instruments began to "mature." Computers and synthesizers have by now become so advanced and complex that a composer does not really need an orchestra to perform an orchestral piece anymore. Some opt for a combination of the two, while others compose completely for orchestra or synthesizer. It has now become very difficult to differentiate between what is an orchestral performance and what is a synthesized orchestra. A good example of this is Hans Zimmer's "Crimson Tide." This score is completely synthetic, except for a solo trumpet part and a boys' choir. Debate will always continue as to which is better, the orchestra or the synthesizer, but in this movie the music speaks for itself. "Crimson Tide" is able to evoke powerful emotion and excels at creating tension during the movie. The sound has a tendency to at times become louder than one would expect and such variations mirror the movie's plot of keeping the viewer on the edge of his or her seat.

Electronic music has proven itself in today's films, and is an impressive tool if used properly. With the computer technology of the present, even computer games can have, and are beginning to demand, professional music scores. Michael Land, a composer for "Lucasarts," has composed music for many games including an adventure game called "The Dig." The score to this game, which was released as a soundtrack CD, has the same potent atmosphere as Vangelis' "Blade Runner," and in many respects is the equal to a film score. 'Film scores' are no longer confined to films, and this allows more composers to enter the industry and to advance it.

"Atmospheric" scores, already mentioned in regard to "Blade Runner" and "The Dig," are a growing trend in film. It would appear that contemporary film makers are afraid of silence. There has to be dialogue, action, thematic music, or at least atmospheric music to prevent silent portions of the film. A definition of atmospheric music is simple: music that does not directly relate to any character or action on the screen, but rather emphasizes the setting, and is an alternative to silence. Atmospheric music can have themes, but is confined to the background at a low volume. Examples of atmospheric music include Alan Silvestri's "Predator," or James Horner's "Aliens."

In many movies, the score contains too much of this atmospheric music and not enough thematic or "main stage" music. This may work well for the film but is not very 'listenable' on a soundtrack CD without the movie visuals. It is a trend that seems to be growing yet does not work well with the simultaneously growing trend of releasing soundtrack scores to the consumer on CD. "Star Wars" is a much better score to listen to, mainly because it has character themes, but it also does not fill the background with "atmospheric" music. Rather, composer Williams continuously reworked the themes so that the music was always identifiable. Though unintentionally, he created a score that is closer to classical music and tells a story. Atmospheric music works for the film, but it shouldn't be released as audio alone.

It is rare that a studio "creates" a musical style, but this is the case with Disney's animation features. At the end of the 1980s, Disney decided to make animated movies that are partially comedy/drama and partially musical. This seemed to be a significant change for many, and it certainly attracted crowds to Disney movies. Patrick Leeanders, a reviewer for "Field of Dreams" and a "pro-Disney" individual comments,

But I do honestly think that Disney deserves credit for their songs, which many times are quite good. Menken and Rice manage to write songs, then form a score out of it.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been criticized for awarding Oscars to Disney films almost on a "default" basis. This, as well as Leeanders' comment should be taken into consideration. But the important point is that the music works. With the music composed by Alan Menken and the lyrics by Tim Rice, movies such as "Aladdin" are incredibly catchy and enjoyable. Two cues from "Aladdin"'s score, "One Jump Ahead" (singing) and "Street Urchins" (instrumental) demonstrate how the music and the vocals complement each other and function as a unified whole. Musical themes from the vocal parts continually work themselves into the instrumental score in effective ways. Much like "Star Wars" blends themes and repeats them, so does "Aladdin." Disney may have overdone and abused the formula by the present time, but the original scores: "Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King" all demonstrate the variety and ability of such a style.

An area in which one would not expect actual composing to exist is in movie trailers. When movie previews come on to the television screen or preview reel at the theater, one would not usually think to question if the music from the trailer is not the film's own music. Most times it is not and the score used is from a different film. A composer may even be hired to compose music for the trailer itself. In many cases, composers work up to the last minute on a score for a movie. Trailer composers have less time to produce something just as good. John Beal, a composer who composes music for trailers, comments on the hectic jobs he gets,

Times have come when I've been given a project at midnight for a 6 am dub next morning. And they come back and say, "You know the guitar line in that one spot, when we take away the dialogue and effects and listen to it all by itself, we can tell it's not a real guitar." And I try to explain to them diplomatically that at midnight it was a bit difficult to find a decent studio rhythm section.

However crazy it may seem, John Beal and other composers who do trailer composing enjoy it, and continue to do it. Surprisingly, Jerry Goldsmith composed a trailer for "Judge Dredd." Goldsmith, who is primarily a score composer, chose to give it a shot, and it sounded so good that it was included on an annual soundtrack compilation CD. Unfortunately, John Beal and the majority of his colleagues do not have their work released on CDs, but with the continually growing market in soundtracks it is likely this will occur in the near future.

There have been many trends and variations on soundtracks in the past two decades, and many soundtracks that are primarily classified under one genre heading have elements of three or four. "Dune" can be classified under Pop music, electronic music, and even atmospheric music. It is inevitable that scores and composers are influenced by multiple trends and not necessarily even aware of it. If one looks at the last twenty years, new styles, instruments, careers, and even other mediums have influenced and expanded film music. Some soundtracks have even become commercially successful, like James Horner's "Titanic," which was number one on the charts for a significant time. But even through all of this, the best soundtracks maintain a link to the past. This connection is 'the familiar'. Classical music is still at the root of film music scoring, and it is likely that this will still be the fundamental tie twenty years from now.

Alan Vallely Film 251E
Professor Haltof

Republished from: Film Score Monthly
v. 1.2, Release date: February 19, 1998
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