Soundtracks- Alma Boykin
So, a week or so ago the usual crowd got to batting ideas back and forth (before they ended up under the deep-freeze, as usual. The ideas, that is) and started talking about movie soundtracks as a gateway to classical music for the younger generation, much as certain films and books can be on-ramps to sci-fi and fantasy. Growing up steeped in classical, Boroque, and folk music, and Bugs Bunny, I tend to take for granted people meeting symphonic music from an early age, but apparently I’m an Odd. Which got me thinking about the history of soundtracks, and what works or doesn’t.
You can blame opera and the Romantics for the first soundtracks. The Romantic movement played up the idea of instrumental music setting a mood or invoking mental images and stirring certain emotions. At the same time in the late 1700s, composers began experimenting with the idea of using a certain pattern of notes or tones as a musical cue for the audience. Karl-Maria von Weber did it for his opera Der Freischutz, although Wagner took the idea and ran with it. He is often credited for what is now called the leitmotif, the motives linked to various characters that recur when the characters do. Other composers picked up on this with varying degrees of skill.
- Erich Korngold, the great swashbuckling-movie composer, introduced leitmotivs into symphonic sound tracks. Recall that in the beginning, movies had no set sound track. Often, the printed material accompanying the film canister included vague instructions to the movie-house pianist or organist as to what sort of music would work where in the film as she played along, but no one sent out a set of sheet music cued to the movie. A few college music departments still occasionally have “silent movie nights” where they revive the tradition, and it’s interesting to hear what the conductor picks for his “soundtrack.” But once sound came along, now movie producers could have music custom-written and played for the films. With the Errol Flynn Robin Hood, Erich Korngold assigned Robin, and a few other characters, musical tags. By the way, you can still find many of Korngold’s pieces on compilation albums. He did a bunch of the historical films like Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and others. The music made no pretense at being period correct, and 40 years later, when criticized for the score he wrote for LadyHawke, Alan Parsons shrugged and said that if he’d done a Korngold score like the critics seemed to want, he’d have only been 700 years out of date instead of 750. (But if you can track down the full soundtrack to LadyHawke, you will hear a bunch of “period music.” But listeners tend to recall the electric guitars more than the mandolins, lutes and chant. The liner notes and two versions of “The Chase, the Fall, and the Transformation” are fascinating insights into how movie scores are developed and sometimes changed at the last minute.)
After Korngold came Henry Mancini, who shifted from classical-sounding compositions to jazz. Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hatari, Peter Gunn, made saxophones and clarinets acceptable in major movie scores. But the idea was still to support the film, not overpower it. If people forgot the movie but whistled the soundtrack, the composer failed at his job. And so it was until 1977.
And then the Heavens opened forth and behold, a nice guy with slipping hair and a penchant for brass playing in perfect fifths appeared, and it was Very Good. Yes, John Williams, the man string players love to hate, who made other composers toss their pencils into the garbage and say “That’s it, then. I’m going back to selling encyclopedias.” Williams managed to make the score both support the movie and memorable in its own right. In the beginning there was Jaws, and a repeating pattern that still makes people give the sea nervous glances. Who can see Darth Vader appearing out of the smoke for the first time without hearing “dum dum dum dumdadum dum da dum” in their mental radio? Yup. Or see Luke and Obi Wan walking into a dim, dusty bar without the cantina band starting up? And he did it again with E.T., and Indiana Jones.
The next generation gave us Hans Zimmer and Howard Shore. I’d argue that Shore’s music leans more closely to classical and Romantic (in the music history sense) than does J.W.’s but they are scoring different things: space opera and high fantasy. Their tracks fit the movies and both contain the enormous feelings of the Star Wars epic, and the world of Middle Earth.
In the process they inadvertently, along with people like Alan Hovannes (The Mysterious Mountain is a good place to start), redefined classical to mean symphonic music in general, including contemporary composers, rather than music from the period between roughly 1780-1850. So John Williams, and Howard Shore, and Hovannes, are all good teasers to use to lure new listeners and players into a very rich musical world. And Williams, Shore, and Zimmer all have a certain “sound” that makes their compositions easy to recognize: Williams and the brass with their perfect 5ths (even though every time you write a perfect 5th, Bach’s ghost kills a kitten), Zimmer uses waltz figures (“The Black Pearl Theme” for example), and Shore’s sweeps of sound cut to a single theme, often played by woodwinds, before filling in again.
But what about the soundtrack? It is still supposed to support the film, TV show, video game, or commercial, to stir proper audience emotions, to give watchers and listeners cues about what’s going on (or about to go on) without overwhelming the action on screen. Some scores are so entwined with the film that you almost can’t have one without the other (Return of the King and How to Tame Your Dragon come to mind.) Others flop.
And then along came “Epic Music,” bits of soundtrack for movies that have not been made yet. Or trailer music, which is how Two Steps from Hell got started, before people kept asking where they could buy the singles of the trailers. One of the complaints I read is that the snippets on epic music recordings are too short – they are usually between two and four minutes long, like commercials and trailers. This is also changing, and it will be interesting to see how epic music develops, if we start having more symphonic recordings of soundtracks that never had a movie. Which takes us back full circle to the Romantics, and their sea symphonies and orchestral poems, operas without words.