Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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My cinemusical evolution

Alexborn007 posted an interesting topic on the message board. The thread was titled, "How have you "evolved" as a listener?."

He had bought Miklós Rózsa's score from Ben Hur and was wondering if he would have been in any way interested in this music when he first started collecting film scores. He had to admit that he would probably have been bored by it back then, but that now he is entranced. Each poster who responded outlined how their tastes had changed and broadened over the years.

Naturally, I responded.

Now, those of you who read my LJ, or at least scroll past it on their friends page know how verbose I can be. I didn't used to be, but I am out of practice with that type of interface. I did edit it somewhat, but it was still of a length to make Ayn Rand jealous. I will say that the post has already recieved positive feedback, so I don't feel quite so bad.

The thing of it is, while I was analyzing how my tastes had developed over the years, I found that I was actually putting into words ideas that had been floating around in my head for a long time.

The Post

I want to say that this is one of the best topics I have seen on the board in a very long time. Seeing people outline their personal journeys with this musical genre is wonderful because of how much it is reflected within my own experience and the others on this board. It's the sort of thing that makes this type of interaction more personal. Thanks a bunch, Alex, for starting it.

This post started out being much shorter than it has become, but as I went on, I began to fill in more and more. I apologize for the self-indulgence, but I actually found myself forced to contextualize much about what I love about film music in the process of writing this. It has therefore been quite therapeutic to write this, and I hope I'm not too boring.

I also provided links to my own reviews. While this may be even more self-indulgent than the length of this post, my reviews go into detail as to why I feel the way I do about the scores in question, so I think it's germane to the topic.

Of course, you can always skip my post. Sob.

My own film music experience started, like so many others, with John Williams' romantic contribution to Star Wars. The film came out in 1977, when I was three, and my mother bought the soundtrack album. She can't remember a time when I wouldn't walk around humming the themes from that film. There was a brash, in-your-face element about that score that caused a lot of people to sit up and take notice of it, and I, as a youngster, was incredibly impressed.

The first soundtrack album I ever got was purchased for me by my father. It was the LP of John Barry's The Black Hole, and it was full of music that my parents couldn't understand why I liked it. The overture and "Laser" were easy to figure out, they were brassy and bold. Even the title theme made sense to them, because it was so catchy. The fact that I was intrigued by tension cues such as "Start the Countdown" was beyond them.

Despite the fact that the Star Wars and Black Hole LPs played such a huge role in defining what type of music I liked, I never really associated film music with albums. I loved movies, and didn't really listen to much music at all. I loved the music from the films, but it never actually occured to me to look for LPs of it.

My next soundtrack album would be many years later, when I was already a teenager. I found myself in love with James Horner's music from Star Trek II, and then, gradually, I started to really appreciate Jerry Goldsmith's score from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The latter film had long sequences without dialogue, and I started taping them (it was around here that my interest in home theater began, as taping music off of a videocassette was a problematic question until I graduated to stereo video). I had a friend who was also a Trek fan, and he got a tape cassette of the soundtrack album. That was when it clicked in my head... I could, in fact, listen to film music out of the context of the movie itself if there was an album of it.

This solved many problems, as I already had started liking scores for films that I didn't think were all that good. I began to look for my favorites, and gradually started amassing many tapes. I graduated to CDs with Jerry Goldsmith's Total Recall, and at the moment my collection is gargantuan.

Looking at how my tastes have developed over the years, I have to say that there are several milestones I would point at.

When I first began, I was interested mostly in music for films that I liked very much. I sort of ran into a wall with The Terminator, though. I loved the movie, but I didn't much like the soundtrack album. Part of the reason was because half of it was songs. The other reason was that the score had already dated significantly. I liked the title track and "Love Scene," but found the rest of the score to be somewhat lackluster. I thus learned a good movie does not necessarily a good score make.

Over time, as I began to listen to more and more soundtracks, I gravitated towards several composers, Jerry Goldsmith begin one of my favorites. It was thus a great surprise when I saw Planet of the Apes, noticed that he had scored it, and was fascinated, if appalled, by the music. This was one of the first times I found myself really intrigued by music that I found wholly unattractive.

Danny Elfman's score from Batman managed to hit every button. I had liked his music from Beetlejuice, but this was something else. It was big, it was gothic, it was fun. To be frank, while I liked the film, it wasn't all that I hoped it would be, but that music kept roping me in. The film/music interaction was amazing, striking a strange balance between the epic and the frenetic, fitting Tim Burton's world like a glove. (it reaches a sort of apothesis with "Up the Cathedral," a cue that I still think is one of Elfman's best), but the album was addictive.

I picked up the MCA tape of Basil Poledouris' Conan the Barbarian, mostly because I liked the title theme from Conan the Destroyer. I hadn't seen the first movie in quite a while, and I was disappointed that the title theme wasn't in the first film. At first, I thought "Anvil of Crom," the battle music and "The Orgy" were great, but the rest of the album was... well it certainly wasn't what I was expecting. I found myself listening to this tape over and over again. There was something going on here that I didn't quite understand. I couldn't stop listening to it. Every track began to develop a life of its own in my head. While this is another case where I think that the film/music interaction is outstanding, it is as a purely musical work that I appreciate it the most. That tape never sounded all that great to begin with, but by the time the Varese CD came out, I had almost completely worn it out.

When I first saw Spartacus, my reaction to Alex North's music was that it didn't sound right. I mean, the notes didn't seem to fit together properly in my head. I didn't like it. And yet... I could tell that the music was supporting the drama in a way I hadn't really heard before. Over time, I began to pick out the themes, and realize how they were developing over the course of the score. I also began to realize that once one got beyond the harmonic language of the score, it could be enjoyed in a way very new to me.

A huge change in my musical tastes occured when I started working at Tower Records. My interest in film music is what got me the job, but it was there that I began to listen to other types of music. The films/shows section was in the classical room, and I started listening to baroque, classical and romantic because they had the most in relationship to the orchestral film scores I liked. I found, however, that absolute music was a very different animal than film music. In general, because absolute music is intended to be heard by itself, it tends to have a more vertical construction, while film music, because it must fit the film, is much more linear. The closest relationship that film music has to another genre is ballet.

Working in the classical room broadened my palette immeasurably, but it also caused me to see through some of my favorite film composers. James Horner was obviously one of the worst offenders at the time, but I also found myself gravitating away from the more formulaic scores (although I still liked them when they were done well), and more towards material that was more through-composed. Working at Tower got me into such gems as Howard Shore's Looking for Richard, Akira Senju's The Mystery of Rampo, Debbie Wiseman's Wilde, and many other scores that I would not otherwise have come across.

However, working at Tower meant that I also was exposed to rock and roll, reggae, jazz, blues, and other types of music that I never paid much attention to before. I found that my tastes were broadening beyond the orchestral. I can not stress how important this was to how my musical tastes have developed. Listening to music that is so different from what I was used to gave me a perspective that to this day I find invaluable. Miles Davis' Bitches Brew was one of the most eye-opening musical experiences of my life. I didn't know music like that was possible. I got into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Soundgarden, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on. Film music was and remains my favorite genre. It is not the only genre in my life, however.

That has had an interesting effect on how I view films that have songs in them. Before I actually got into other types of music, sound soundtracks were the bane of my existence. I loathed them with every fiber of my being. I still hate most of them, but I began to understand that film music was not just about scores. Films are about people, and people listen to other kinds of music. Certainly a film like Goodfellas would not be served by a conventional score (of course, Martin Scorsese understood how film music works, which is why he got Bernard Herrmann to do Taxi Driver - although I have no idea how Gangs of New York ended up happening).

One of the first times I really noticed a song being used well in a film was when Stanley Kubrick used the Rolling Stones' classic "Paint It Black" as the end credits of Full Metal Jacket. Never before had I heard a film's message and tone so perfectly encapsulated by a song.

While I am still disgusted how song albums are often "music from and inspired by the deals by the different companies to put a film's title on an album and try to promote the movie," I have to say that it is not necessarily evil to have songs in a film, or even to have a song compilation connected with the film. The Forrest Gump album is actually a very concise overview of American popular music of the era depicted. The song album for Wonder Boys is actually quite a good collection of singer/songwriter tunes (although I also liked Chris Young's jazzy score) that perfectly reflects the character of Grady Tripp. Almost Famous is about rock music, and it is a perfect snapshot of a particular moment in Cameron Crowe's life.

The other aspect of listening to other genres of music is that it allows one to really pinpoint what it is about each genre that you like. Being into so many other styles of music forced into sharp focus the element of film music that is why it is my favorite:


What I love about film music is that it is dramatic. It is about weight. It is about stuff happening. I am a sucker for thick textures and intricate thematic development, and no other type of music can deliver that specific effect. Film music has its own language (an aspect of the genre that accounts for why people into superficially similar forms, such as classical, romantic and modern orchestral music don't really get it), and it is unlike anything else.

My understanding of this fact is what gave me the perspective to be able to appreciate film scores on several different levels. There is the emotional response, which is the primary function of most music in general, and film music in particular. There is the film/music interaction, a subject I find absolutely riveting. There is the nature of the music itself, that is to say what it sounds like and what it is doing. Film music can also be a fertile ground for experimentation in sound and form. There are other elements as well, but those are the main ones that I turn my critical eye towards when listening to music.

This outlook also allowed me to appreciate how the music works in a film I'm not particularly fond of, or how an effective score may not be what I necessarily go for. I also make a strong distinction between music that I like and music that I respect. Most of my favorites fall into both categories, but not I also have personal taste. There are some scores that I admit are fluff, but I enjoy them. There are also some scores that I have never really cared for, but I have to give critical props to. An example of this is the music of Leonard Rosenman. He is a composer whose work I respect, but I have never really warmed up to his music.

My musical horizons were broadened similarly by Royal S. Brown. I initially took his class in reading film music at Queens College (the manuscript edition of the as-yet-unnamed Overtones and Undertones was the textbook), and he made me aware of many of the deeper implications of film music. I began taking his classes every semester (the subject material kept changing, so I could still get credit for it all), and he turned me on to the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Altman and many others.

I can trace my great love of the music of Bernard Herrmann to Royal, as well as my earlier appreciation of Howard Shore, whom I had the opportunity to meet when Royal invited him to give a short talk in the film studies office (he is a really nice guy, by the way). Royal is also primarily responsible for my interest in Golden Age scores, as it was in his class that I first saw The Sea Hawk, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music for which remains a favorite.

Over time, I have lost patience with quite a bit. James Horner was a quick casualty. I don't want to start Horner-bashing, I'm just saying that his continued lack of originality drives me nuts. I followed Hans Zimmer for a while in the mid-eighties, but he represents everything I hate. I am a firm believer that it is perfectly possible to have art and commerce co-exist. As a filmmaker, an inspiration has always been Alfred Hitchcock, who made very entertaining films that have great artistic value. What I do not like is blind formula. Idiom and style are one thing, and it is to be expected that composers may have commanalities from score to score. They may even repeat themselves from time to time (John Williams uses the same motif every time he scores a scene with a snake, for example. Does this bother me? No. That's what he does for snakes), but the fact that there are a myriad of Horner and Media Ventures scores that are "insert tragic trumpet theme here" or "insert Iron Chef theme here" and have no identity of their own.

On the other hand, I agree that there are problems with the state of film music today, but on the other hand, there is plenty out there that I like very much. For example, Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is, in my opinion, film music's response to Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. Elliot Goldenthal continues to impress as well. I have also found myself dipping deeper into film music's past, which is possible in today's day and age because of the abundance of recordings available.

So, that a brief history of Josh's obsession with film music. Yes, it is brief. I actually cut quite a lot out of it before posting. Once again, I am quite sorry for having posted something this long.

I can't sleep.

It seems that Suit has a thing for Sue from Bad Santa. She's everything he wants in a woman. She's cute. She's a bartender. She's fast. I saw him looking at a catalogue for Santa suits.

Tags: film music
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