Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Scoring Scores

When I first discovered that my listening pleasure was something that was not dependant on the calculated tastes of a radio DJ or bump producer for MTV; that I could actually purchase music and listen to it I found this to be a remarkably freeing thing. I was not into music until I decided to partake in the consumption of sounds in their neat genre specific tid-bits. My first experiences with music were in the forms of soundtracks. So I decree that this weeks them shall be film scores.
Now there are all sorts of sounds in films diegetic, those that belong in the world of the plot and non-diegetic. Most soundtracks take the form of the latter category. This music is composed and scored to a finished film to guide and in some cases manipulate the emotional cues of the audience. A film without a soundtrack is a rare thing and usually has a flatter effect.
For my money most musical scores are overly sentimental and corny. However there are a few cases where the composer has managed to get in tune with the movie and add something to it without becoming "too much".
For me there are a few good examples. James Horner in the early part of his career did the soundtrack for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and forever know as the Star Trek with the greatest amount of both wrath and Khan (essentials to making a good Star Trek film). What Horner did with his classical and romantic era style of musical composition was create grand and epic sounds to fit the scope of this film as a space opera about sacrifice, duty, family, and friendship. There is one core melodic theme that pervades the film it works as the Enterprise is shoves off from space dock and when Spock makes the ultimate sacrifice. Each time evoking the intensity of the moment and the scope of the event or the object. We do not have synthesized new wave sci-fi backing up this story we have something more elegant as a score something identifiable as familiar and classic.
For capturing the innocence and unadulterated adventure of childhood imagine John Williams has worked well to support Spielberg in such films as ET, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Hook. In each of these films the issue of being a kid with the youthful exuberance and joy of curiosity and adventure that Spielberg is dealing with in the subject matter of his films is greatly reenforced by Williams’ use of strings and playful tunes to build fun crescendos that time to imagery that can be powerfully melancholy, completely fun loving, and generally uplifting. In this team we can see how the careful orchestration (pardon the pun if you like) of director to composer can work to make stuff that audiences will sincerely connect with to the tune of millions of dollars. Like in the scene in ET when the common melodic theme (ET’s theme I suppose) kicks back in after sputtering to a stop after the aliens demise. The flower goes from a wilted flaccid weed to a bright blooming celebration of life and the music tells the audience that everything is going to be ok.
Danny Elfman and Tim Burton is another teaming that has produced some great sonic successes. Elfman’s scores for Edward Scissorhands, and Batman to name a few mesh well with Burton’s aesthetic sensibilities and darkly quirky storylines. With his use of chorus voices, sweeping melodies, church bells, and industrial like sounds Elfman, like Burton, is able to create a score for an environment that is exaggerated and yet strangely familiar. In listening to the score you stay in Burton’s specific world but you are not assaulted by music that is aggressively foreign. It is strange but fun and irreverent.
Most good scores do not stand alone on their own without the potency of the images associated with them and natural the opposite can be said of the images on the screen without the power of the music to underscore ( this pun is ok) their significance. A good score is something that should only occur to a careful audience member with a good ear after pondering elements of the film over time and multiple viewings. After citing some of my favorites I can realize that they were not the biggest concern to me at the time when I first saw the film but later upon reflection these great scores emerge from the illusion of the cinematic process and stand as a vital part of the piece.


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