The Soundtrack Stands Alone

film_reel2Film composers are required to be extremely thoughtful and versatile artists. Strictly speaking films are two dimensional; vision + sound. The director has a lot of tools in the tool box when it comes to visuals; light, color, movement, pacing, costume, editing, etc. Sound has a much more limited palette; voice, sound effects and music. Therefore, the composer has the potential to command as much influence on the audience as almost anyone else who is working on the project. Great composers go where the story is trying to go. They are able to bring out a character’s feelings, foreshadow the plot, or paint the overall emotional canvas of the story in music. They usually don’t have much time to write and record the music, as the window between a rough cut and final mix is often quite short.

As a cinema enthusiast and a music fan, I pay close attention to the music in films. I’ve been collecting soundtracks for over 30 years and have developed a connection with many composers. I seem to gravitate to the more somber styles that go deep into the psyche of a character’s motivation. The film experience is a solitary one for the viewer. There is great power to be had if one can help the viewer identify with the on-screen character. For me, the score succeeds when it becomes the connective tissue between character and viewer. It doesn’t matter if it gets the viewer to love or hate or understand or sympathize with the character. Success is measured in the degree it was able to accomplish any connection.

fsmbrscore95bHere’s a sampling of tracks from films that have won my appreciation. In some cases the film is superb, in others. average. I rate the music of a film on how effective it was in advancing the story, explaining characterization and establishing the mood for me, the viewer. As you listen to these tracks you will hear a sameness. They have quietness in them, the dominance of one instrument, a build towards climax, and are singular to the point of being lonely. But when you overlay the visuals of the film on the music they are strikingly different. Have a listen. If you haven’t seen the film, well, there’s Netflix.

Alone in A Crowd from Pollock (2000) – Jeff Beal

Last Dance from Last Dance (1996) – Mark Isham

Main Titles from Grand Canyon (1991) – James Newton Howard

Rather Lonely Thing from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Theme from Taxi Driver from Taxi Driver (1976) – Bernard Herrman

Angels in America (Main Title) from Angels in America (2003) – James Newman

Midnight Cowboy from Midnight Cowboy (1969) – John Barry

Casting Presbyterian Style from A River Runs Through It (1992) – Mark Isham

U-Turn from U-Turn (1997) – Ennio Morricone

This year’s Academy Award nominee list for achievement in music written for a motion picture is diverse. It ranges from the animated love story Wall-E, to the pounding realism of Slumdog Millionaire, to the big picture score written for Defiance. We’ll see who’s picked. In the meantime, enjoy the movies and maybe now you’ll pay a little more attention to the music in them.

Audio clips remain the property of their original owners.

3 comments

  1. Your analysis of film score structure leads to an interesting possibility.

    What if a protagonist and/or story were written to the same characteristics you attribute as common among film scores? Each having a quietness. Each dominated by a single theme. Each being singular to the extent of loneliness.

    What becomes of the film score then?

  2. You’ve got me thinking…

    I believe that there are many stories and characters with these attributes already. The great themes have been repeated and repeated. The art comes in in how the story is told and who tells it. Which could help explain why so many scores share common sonics.

    You may have noticed that studios who are anxious to promote a film early on use music from another picture, as the trailer’s soundtrack, since the final product is not complete. No one’s the wiser (except me). Like most artists film composers have their signature sound. For Mark Isham it’s his incomparable horn. So you are bound to get overlap.

    I don’t think the composer’s job changes at all under your challenge, but I want to keep pondering.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  3. Hi Steve,

    I like the way you describe the importance of music to carry a subtext through the film – I am a composer and I write for film occasionally too – it is true of the impossible deadlines – but for me I try to work on lending more depth to the character and scene – a subtext that is unspoken and unseen – of course I corroborate my feeling of this with the director – in all instances. fortunately, my understanding of human behaviour has allowed me considerable credence in working on the music – and yes, there is a certain quietness that I too seek in my music.

    Cheers!

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