Classical Music Review: New Releases

Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks by Jon Burlingame. New York: Billboard Books, 2000.  244pgs.

One of the biggest problems classical composers face is getting their music performed. Sure, you can get a commission, but once your piece is played it will probably drop from sight, and even musicians as celebrated as Pierre Boulez have this problem, which is why they conduct their own work. Film composers don't have to worry about live performances. They do however have to deal with phenomenally tight deadlines, unmusical directors and moneymen, and the fact that concert hall composers don't take them seriously. How could anything as functional as sound married to image be good? Well some of the best and certainly most accessible music in the last century has been written specifically for film, and Jon Burlingame's new book is a knowledgeable and affectionate guide to a sizable portion of that repertory, which began almost with the inception of sound when Bell Laboratories produced the 331/3 rpm discs for William Axt's music to John Barrymore's Do Juan in 1926. Pianists or theatre orchestras had sometimes accompanied silents but a synchronized score to a talkie was a huge technological and potentially lucrative step. And producers and record executives both then and now were never loath to make money on their product.

Burlingame charts the ups and downs of the industry --he focusses almost entirely on the American one -- and how that has affected the art. One of the biggest threats to film composers was the rock and roll invasion, and pop music, which now includes such genres and subgenres as hip hop, industrial, techno, and acid jazz, hasn't diminished that threat. And it's a sad fact that composers today are in a far worse position than ever -- even more impossible deadlines for pictures with astronomical budgets -- so why would anyone want to be original? As the revered film composer Alex North once said -- "If you're not daring in your art, then you're bankrupt". It's tempting to think that musicians of his era -- the Silver Age of film music -- did more innovative work and I think that's generally true.  Art today is pretty bland, and lots of it, including music, is pretty generic too.

Still there are fine younger composers working now and the author discusses a lot of them like Christopher Young (1957-) whose subtle blues-inflected score to last year's The Hurricane is the only reason to see this studio product. Howard Shore (1947-) and David Shire (1937-) are also doing interesting work -- the former's stark score to Seven (1995) increased its atmosphere while the latter's concise music to All The President's Men (1976) was more like a theatre score -- sparse, subtle, never intrusive. And surely one of the most gifted dramatic voices in the biz today is that of Eliot Goldenthal whose knockout scores to Interview With The Vampire (1994) and Michael Mann's masterpiece Heat (1995) added even more atmosphere and tension. Burlingame also includes the work of French composer Philippe Sarde (1945-) whose music is always sophisticated and evocative. A serious omission is any mention, let alone discussion of Richard Robbins, whose usually dreamlike music for director James Ivory makes his often claustrophobic dramas feel less so.

The author gives the lion's share of his space, and rightly so, to the inventors of the Hollywood style like Alfred Newman (1900-1970) -- who's often underrated -- Max Steiner (1888-1971) -- who's often the reverse -- (Bette Davis said "Max knew more about drama than any of us") Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) -- a marvelous craftsman. Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995), and the always distinctive Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). More subtle though equally versatile figures like Hugo Friedhofer (1902-1981) -- his desert battle sequence in The Young Lions (1958) is quietly phenomenal, and Franz Waxman (1906-1967), and worlds to themselves like Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) also get their due.

Burlingame also singles out the efforts of film composers like Elmer Bernstein(1922-) and David Raksin (1912-) who've gone out of their way to see that film music is taken seriously, taught and recorded. Also mentioned are the efforts of small labels like Varese Sarabande who have recorded late and recent classics , especially masterpieces like North's 1968 2001, and Williams' complete Superman (1978), and Citadel which releases old ones.  Burlingame also contributes a quite extensive bibliography of serious books on the subject of film music. With works like this the art, if not the business, can be seen in the full light of day as one worthy of respect, and an honorable way to make a living in a market-driven world.

Michael McDonagh
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