May 10, 2013
I have been a great fan of film music for as long as I can remember. There is something magical about going to a theater, getting comfortable in those soft seats, and allowing the sounds and the music of a film to swallow you whole. When I decided to make film music a central topic of my research as a doctoral student, people would ask me all the time about the scores to certain films, especially those that I had recently seen. I can speak for hours about certain scores, and I think of myself as something of a connoisseur, but when I see a film for the first time, I try to de-activate that hyper-critical part of my brain. I want to allow myself to see and hear a film without an agenda. Like everyone else, I want to be transported by film, not fixate on whether the composer used an English horn or an oboe.
I was so into film scores as a kid that when I started studying music history in college, I kept noticing things from film scores popping up in music written in the nineteenth century. Well, of course, I was hearing the chain of influence backwards; many composers who wrote film scores in the twentieth century were influenced by the Romantics. All of the things I loved about film scores I heard in the music of Debussy, Berlioz, Strauss and others. In fact, Richard Strauss’s tone poems used music to convey narrative in a manner so similar to the film music I knew and loved, that I would just sit and listen to them and imagine the actions “on-screen.” The music was so evocative, so pictorial.
Film scores have a very interesting history. Music and film have always gone hand in hand, but in the early days, it was often the case that film music was left up to cinema pianists rather than standardized. Sometimes filmmakers would suggest cues or even provide scores for the individual musicians to play, but it took years for the idea of the pre-recorded original score to become popular. Not only was it a question of what was important to the filmmaker, but also what was possible in the technology. Without sound, a film couldn’t carry a pre-recorded musical track, which left the music in the hands of individual theaters. But eventually, filmmakers routinely commissioned original scores written expressly for a specific film. We’re at the end of our first century of original film scores, and in that time, a lot of milestones have passed: scores composed through electronic means, scores influenced by Jazz, atonal scores, pop music scores, minimalist scores, almost anything you can imagine.
LACO’s upcoming concert features an interesting new piece. Modern composer Hugo Gonzalez-Pioli has written a new work that is a response to a 1927 short film called, The Love of Zero, which was made by French filmmaker Robert Florey. Gonzalez-Pioli’s new piece follows the narrative, with musical ideas that correspond to the emotions and events of the film. What a fascinating idea! I’m very interested to see and hear LACO’s presentation of this piece. Responding musically to a film clip is not an uncommon assignment in film scoring programs, but Gonzalez-Pioli’s The Love of Zero takes this idea to the next level. It’s a fully realized work, artfully done, with great sensitivity to the material.
After decades of scores existing mostly as recorded entities, live performances of film music have become popular, especially in Los Angeles. In June, LACO is presenting their twenty-fourth annual Silent Film concert. This year LACO is featuring Buster Keaton’s 1923 film, Our Hospitality, with music by Carl Davis, conducted by Timothy Brock. It’s quite a thrill to watch a film and know that the score is happening live, in the moment. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2000, I’ve attended a few events like this, including LACO’s performance of the score to Charlie Chaplin’s -The Gold Rush_; a showing of the first film to win a Best Picture Academy Award, Wings, with live music conducted by the amazing Gillian Anderson; I’ve also enjoyed live accompaniment to Warner Bros. cartoons at the Hollywood Bowl; and, of course, nothing says summer like the music of a blockbuster (_Star Wars_, Superman, Harry Potter, or really anything else by John Williams) played with gusto by an orchestra under the stars.
Los Angeles is truly a great place to live if you’re a fan of film music. And seeing chamber orchestras (like LACO) and symphony orchestras (like the LA Phil) put film music into their programs shows how far film music has come as a legitimate art form. Once looked down upon as a lesser entertainment that could not possibly have its own artistic value, film music is now methodically studied and researched, and it’s performed by the best of the best.