In conversation, I usually find a strange idea that has fed itself into the public consciousness. It seems that people feel there is a strong connection in what they hear played in cinemas and the historical canon of Western Art music.
But are the two linked?
Well, of course. With an ever growing awareness and production of multicultural platforms within society, fiercely intertwined through the ‘magic’ of the internet, it would be impossible to argue that the past hasn’t at all affected the present and won’t affect the future. It seems everything has been caught within its web.
Indeed the history of film music is derived certainly from the classical canon. If we push down our lens onto its history we would struggle to see any originality at all. Performers usually drew from ‘Fake books’ rather than original material. From these books performers could draw specific pieces from the classical canon to fit the mood of a scene and play accordingly to the pace of the film as a guide.
As we fast forward in time we begin to see a different agenda in film through the advancement of ‘the talkies’ from silent cinema, and with this, the relationship of music (not just the notion of it but the process of creation, its use, the way it was captured) appears to change.
When we reach out and grasp for composers easily in the public’s ears (at this moment in time) we now tend to find composers who defy this idea of unoriginality. Composers like Bernard Hermann, Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone, John Williams or Hans Zimmer are viewed as easily recognisable for their own unique sound. We don’t associate them with those who copy and paste (even though arguably to an extent, they themselves have done so). They have an identity that we can grasp as they usually have an extensive working relationship with specific directors.
Hermann with Hitchcock; Elfman with Burton; Williams with Spielberg; Zimmer with Nolan and now Morricone seems to have found Tarantino. It is the combination of a specific aesthetic with a specific sound to create a specific style in cinema. The mixture of image and music sharing two perspectives and disciplines to create a united point of view in story telling. These styles scream out despite the genre they are pertaining. When you watch a Western by Tarantino, it is not simply just a Western and if you watch a piece of Science fiction by Nolan it is simply not just Science Fiction.
However despite this sense of originality, this is of course lost with the notion of popularity. Copy cats are bred and weave together notes from the ‘new sound’ to create a tapestry of cliche. From this I feel we begin to find where the confusion pops up. An original take on music derived from a blend of styles becomes itself a starting point for people to draw upon. A style of music within itself.
What once was something new becomes overused and recycled until it transforms the status quo. From this new found clay, we form it into something noticeable and pudge it together with the rest of the statue already formed but the more we add, the uglier it looks.
We don’t quite recognise it anymore. It doesn’t make sense.
All the composers I have mentioned above have had their music performed by orchestras – large ensembles formed of instruments that we associate with the ‘classical repertoire’. Their music is played in concert halls that attempt to replicate the art form’s original settings – forming a tradition in not only a repertoire of sound but of cultural norms too.
These actions, these instruments, when performed together in context, can evoke a time before us and a sound that literally represents our musical history but that doesn’t mean that through their mere use they produce ‘classical music’. None of these composers are strictly ‘classical’ nor are they ‘electronica’ or ‘jazz’ or ‘reggae’ or any other label you may care to think of. When it comes down to it, they are not beacons of style: they’re people.
The point is, film music isn’t classical music but it can fit the mold if we so wish. Of course its origins lie within its history but this doesn’t solely inform film music’s boundaries – the limits are down to the filmmaker’s intentions, the composer’s abilities, the technology available, the project’s time scale, their financial limitations etc – not within the understanding of a historical framework. Though the music itself should not, and clearly is not, restricted to be played in cinemas. Orchestras regularly hold film music events – which I feel is where we can pinpoint a sense of confusion.
It’s a difficult point to argue that the majority of John William’s popular output isn’t classical music, or at least writing with the techniques of the canon, especially as it’s found to be performed regularly in concert halls. Though the ultimate use of music doesn’t tell us at all what category of style/genre we shove it in nor should it inform the limits of its use. We regularly hear Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ or ‘Firebird Suite’ , Wagner’s overture to ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and music from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Nutcracker’ played out of their original contexts.
To suggest that somehow music from films can’t be played out of context by orchestras, as is done with ballet and operas, is ridiculous. There is little weight to arguments bound in a sense of traditionalism, especially when it’s caught in contradiction. But where does this leave us? Is now John Williams a classical composer and therefore all his music classical music? No. He’s John Williams and he sometimes writes ‘classical music’ which is used in movies. When music finds multiple functions we should not seek prohibition, we should enlighten ourselves to its possibilities.
Though the performance of film music isn’t the only issue we have.
I think more confusion has festered through perhaps what one may call a new style of instrumental music that is used frequently in modern films. It’s like some kind of postmodern jumbo pot and sometimes has more in common with sound design than our preconceived notion of music. Phrases like ‘electronic orchestral hybrid’ have become definitions which have risen to popularity but I wonder how useful they are. They appear to neglect a deeper sense of identity in composition with the intent of trying to fit everything under the umbrella rather than just letting it rain. Though without an easy definition, will large audiences ever gather to hear the noise? (Cue the Ragnarok -like debates of artists and promoters here).
I remember attending a masterclass with the bass player/composer Steve Lawson (You can find a link to his website at the bottom of this article). He mentioned something interesting about how he defined his own music. Steve creates music through the use of his bass as well as using a series of pedals that he uses to loop material. He creates layers of ambient sound in his work, all through the use of his bass, that he builds upon to create full pieces of music. He needed a phrase to help people understand what he was doing and the market for ‘Solo Bass music’ isn’t exactly a big one. He decided to go down a different tact and looked at how he could define his music in another way so his audience could understand it in another way too.
He chose to define his music as ‘Film Music’. In many ways it certainly is not. He’s not writing for film and if film music were indeed to be classical music, then he is certainly doing something very wrong. Over recent years, a type of music has formed that finds itself in film. It’s atmospheric and usually is prided on not being noticed underneath the dialogue and action on screen. I’ve often heard people say the best film music is the music you don’t notice. It doesn’t overtake the scene. This idea is new and of course not gospel. Danny Elfman in the 2015 Hollywood reporter composers round table rebuts interviewer Kevin Cassidy as he tries to make a distinction between Rock and Film music.
Kevin Cassidy tries to make a differentiation between Rock Music which he defines as ‘Loud and Front of center…. it’s supposed to grab you’ and Film Music as ‘..the opposite’. Elfman disagrees.
‘No I wouldn’t agree with that… if you look at the last 75 years of film music there is a lot that would counter that, that’s a contemporary thing that I’ve heard very frequently.’
Elfman continues to explain that rather such an idea has more to do with the particular needs of individual films rather than a hard and fast rule. He discusses the history of film music that intrigued his ears as a child citing Bernard Hermann as an influence. Explaining ‘I noticed every note’, he makes a distinction between this idea being far less than a fact and more of a modern trend. His contemporaries appear to agree with him too and really so should you – that’s the most important point here.
Steve Lawson noticed this trend of ‘background ambient sound’ meaning ‘film music’ being set. This music formed heavily (but not exclusively) from a blend of electronica and orchestral sounds found itself being called ‘film music’. In a way it’s both useless and useful. Steve noticed it and used it to his advantage. Instead of film music literally meaning ‘Music created for Film’, it has found itself becoming much more of a sound within itself, a style of music in of itself. Now this perceived formula that spacious, droning music always equals film music or that orchestras always play classical music is not helpful and just wrong. Yes, it is likely that you’ll find these sounds in films or concert halls but this is just a commonality cloaked in perception of tradition – it’s temporary, not consistent.
Sometimes when we seek to define things in art we forget that they’re formed in reality. Film and music are both created through people, ideas and creativity but also through money. Capitalism doesn’t define art but it does shape how we interact with it. If things are popular and sell money – they’ll probably crop up a lot and stuff is a lot easier to sell if it’s easy to understand. They’ll be promoted and shape the architecture of the time within the life cycle of that particular trend. Our idea of film music is momentary – not finite.
And though we live in a ‘portfolio culture’ where you have 5 seconds to sell something ultimately the thing we need to realise is that there is no such thing as ‘Film Music’ rather ‘Music written for Film’ or even ‘Music that happened to be used in a film'(even if that idea doesn’t come naturally to us or even it’s not financially sane in these times). Of course in a world of shorthands, slang and texting such a niche problem as making sure you acknowledge that there is no one unified idea of film music in general conversation isn’t something you should worry about – please don’t think I’m asking you to act on this. Worry about paying the rent or feeding the cat or making sure you share this article to all your friends and family and tell them how great it is. All the important things.
But if there is something I would want a reader to take away from this, it would perhaps to be curious of the way we/you think/talk about the music you like. Let’s try not seeing things coming down a tunnel, starting where others have stopped. Try seeing it all like one huge canvas covered in paint. All the colours you can possibly imagine are mixing in with each other but you can trace them all back to their place of origin if you so wish. The point isn’t always where they come from or where they are going, rather sometimes there’s more fun to be had in what we choose to focus in on and what we choose to bring as an audience.
Also, don’t forget to check out Steve Lawson and music below!