Scoring Some More Respect

Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

For its seventh annual edition, the UC Santa Barbara New Music Festival, which has previously concerned itself with such locales as Mexico, Asia and Britain, turns its attentions closer to home, focusing on the movies and the fine art of film scoring. More to the point, the festival, which includes screenings, concerts and seminars over five days, seeks to emphasize the fact that film scoring is a finer art than it is sometimes given credit for.

Festival director William Kraft, a composer, former Los Angeles Philharmonic percussionist and an occasional studio musician, knows all about the uneasy dialogue between concert music and film music. Kraft devised the festival, with the help of veteran film composer and teacher David Raksin, as a forum for composers who have made their mark in Hollywood, and who have also felt the sting of ostracism from art music circles.

"It's ridiculous," says Raksin, who composed the scores for "Laura" and "The Bad and the Beautiful," and is now a film professor at USC. "We've been condescended to over the years, and our only partisans have been people like Aaron Copland. As someone who wrote for film, he knew something about it, and Shostakovich did, too. I found out that Toru [Takemitsu], who wrote 90 film scores, knew a lot of my music."

Besides Raksin, the festival roster includes big-name veterans Elmer Bernstein, 76, ("The Ten Commandments," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Age of Innocence"), Leonard Rosenman, 73, ("East of Eden," "Barry Lyndon," "Bound for Glory") and Laurence Rosenthal, 71, ("The Miracle Worker," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "Raisin in the Sun"), as well as younger film composers Stephen Endelman and Cliff Eidelman.

The four "elder statesmen" will get together during the festival for a panel on the state of their art. In separate interviews, they previewed that colloquy for us.

Question: Conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen are recording it, the record companies are hyping it: Is this a golden age for film music?

Raksin: Yes, and it's a big kick. Two or three of my scores have been issued on CD--one is the music from "The Bad and the Beautiful" and one is music from "Forever Amber." I did a thing about a month ago for the Society of Composers and Lyricists at the Director's Guild Theater. We expected 60 or 80 people, and the place was absolutely jammed to the doors.

Bernstein: It's a mixed bag. On the one hand, you get a tremendous interest in the reissuing of old scores. [But], teaching at USC, I have a lot of proteges out in the field trying to get themselves started. My observation is that the more classically oriented, better-trained composers have a much tougher time than, let's say, someone who comes from the rock and roll world or the synthesizer world. This goes side-by-side with a revival of interest in the old scores, with CD reissues, that nobody will let you write anymore.

Q: There will be both concert and movie music, written by you and other film composers, on display at the UCSB festival. How do you see the relationship between the two?

Rosenman: The main difference is the form--and I don't mean an academic form, like sonata form. Form in concert music is created and comes out of the material. I find that film people, some of whom are very gifted, learned how to write in film and then began to write concert work. Unfortunately, they don't have their own style; they don't have their own sense of form. They copy from the form of some 20th century composer like Stravinsky, but there's no real creative aspect to it.

Rosenthal: When you write for film, you're like an actor, you play different roles depending on what the material calls for. I find that I enjoy the idea of wearing different masks, [although] I know that certain essential compositional habits will follow me wherever I go. My own kids tell me that they can spot one of my scores a mile away. They say, "Oh, that's a real Larry-ism."

But when I was commissioned to write "Songs to the Beloved" [a setting of texts by the Sufi poet Rumi, which will be performed at the festival on Friday] in 1986, I grabbed the opportunity. I thought, "Oh my gosh, here someone is actually going to pay me--a very modest sum, but that didn't matter--to write something over which I have complete control. I don't have to please any producer or director. I don't have to accommodate myself to any actor's voice. It's totally my own ballgame.

Rosenman: I have found, from the very beginning, that film music can really teach you about the kind of thing you want to write. You write something quickly [in film], and then you immediately get a performance. That's important. I changed my Violin Concerto when I got my performance, but that was seven years after I wrote it.

You learn that way. There is where film music really helps. Also, I have tried out various things through film music. It has been terrific in that way.

Unfortunately, though, my concert music career, which was very promising, went down the tubes as soon as I started writing for films--in 1954, when I did "East of Eden"--although it's often said that I brought film music into the 20th century. "East of Eden" was the first Schoenbergian score for film. Then, of course, people started to write 12-tone stuff in movies, but since they didn't study with Schoenberg like I did, they didn't really understand it.

But after that, I didn't get a performance in 20 years. Crazy.

Q: What's the impact of current digitized, multichannel, FX-packed sound, and how does technology effect scoring?

Rosenthal: The movies are really just catching up. In the early days of film, the musical avant-garde was already doing all kinds of extraordinary things. [But] producers completely fell in love with romantic music of the 19th century, and that established a kind of style that became known as the Hollywood style. It was a combination of Tchaikovsky and Puccini and Richard Strauss and so on. So they were already behind the times.

Little by little over the years, some very imaginative composers, like Jerry Goldsmith, pioneered using far more inventive sounds than just the traditional symphony orchestra. Today, with the use of synthesizers and the world of electronic sound, the composer's palette has really changed. [But] all the technology in the world is no substitute for two notes that really awaken something in your interior part that responds in an emotional way.

Q: What do you think of the "Titanic" phenomenon, with James Horner's score at the top of the pop charts?

Raksin: Jimmy's success has gone to his head. He thinks he's the greatest god------ thing that ever happened. [He laughs.] [But] I always say, "There can't be two of us."

Rosenman: The success has to do with the film, and not with the music, which is dreadful.

As Lenny Bernstein used to say, "Let's face it: just about all of film music is ghastly." He was criticizing it in terms of concert music, but it isn't concert music. The most interesting aspect is the dramatic aspect, the relationship between the story and the music. That's what it's all about. People appreciate it because of the film. If they don't remember the film, then they don't really appreciate the music.

Rosenthal: I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen the film, but I have heard the score. It would be improper for me to comment on it: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." I can say I think it is certainly very professionally done. I'm happy for him: The New Yorker said that he's now the most commercially successful composer of the 20th century.

Bernstein: I've always thought that Horner is a schooled and gifted composer. I would think that the success of the score is going to have a good effect. [It] makes symphonic music respectable again, so to speak.

My problem with the "Titanic" score was just that I couldn't hear it. It was mostly buried. [And] I had terrible problems with the film. I don't think any score could have helped that film.

Q: What is your general impression of younger film composers working now?

Rosenman: There are some that are very good, but there are a lot of them now who can't read or write music, who have ghostwriters. There are the hummers and people who use electronics. But they don't know anything about music. You also have people making films who have come from commercials and MTV. The result is that their entire concentration is no more than three minutes. The result is, of course, that they're [only] interested in scenes.

Raksin: I never say much about them, because some of them are my students. My students have always done well--guys like Bruce Broughton and Christopher Young, who does horror pictures. It's just that a lot of the scores have very little to recommend them, and the banality of the thematic material [can be] hideous.

Rosenthal: There are a few really talented composers around, like Elliott Goldenthal. He's the real thing, a really gifted composer. I think that Thomas Newman is another extremely inventive and imaginative guy. I don't think there are too many people around who can write a really good tune. I don't mean an old-fashioned tune, I mean any tune, who have a real melodic gift. George Fenton does some very good work and Richard Rodney Bennett, who I wish would write more film music. I love Dave Grusin's work.

Q: What do you want to be remembered by, your film music or your concert work?

Rosenman: Both.

Bernstein: The significant contributions that I may have made to music are in the area of film music. I've been lucky to have done some things that have been fairly seminal in their time, such as the first jazz score, for "Man With the Golden Arm," or "The Magnificent Seven," with its new way of writing western music. I've written about 210 films, and that's a lot of music. My ego doesn't run in the direction of being a star in the concert hall. I was a concert pianist to start in life, with plenty of being onstage alone in the concert hall. I feel satisfied. I've had a good time.

Raksin: I think it's all part of my work. There's a dangerous side to that, in that people who are not terribly discriminating will say, "See, that just goes to show, when he writes a piece for the Library of Congress, he writes film music." It's not true. Some of us try to get away from [film work] as far as possible, and they have my best wishes. I hope they live long, at least until tomorrow at noon.

Rosenthal: I've done so much more film music than concert music that it would be hard to say. My friend Bruce Broughton was saying to me, "I sometimes feel like I don't want to die as a film composer. I want to die as a composer, not always being the handmaiden of some director." I respect what I've done for films. When it's at its best, it's really good film music. I am happy to be remembered for that.

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"FILM COMPOSERS: THE WHOLE PICTURE," Seventh Annual UCSB New Music Festival, Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall at UC Santa Barbara, and the Music Academy of the West. Dates: Wednesday to Saturday, with daily screenings, seminars and nightly concerts. Prices: $7-$10. Phone: (805) 893-7001.

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