Film composers have always provided the all-important sonic glue of a movie, with or without the proper acknowledgment for their work. These days, film composers are often called in at the last minute, asked to adapt to scores full of pop songs and cope with music-insensitive directors. But it hasn't always been thus.
Giving due credit is the underlying premise of the seventh annual UCSB New Music Festival, going on through Saturday. Festival director William Kraft corralled an impressive crop of composers for the festival, which includes screenings of classic films (with classic scores), a panel discussion Friday morning at 9:30, and, significantly, nightly concerts of music by film composers, but not necessarily written for cinema.
Most film composers have also written in the concert arena and elsewhere. There's where the New Music connection enters in.
In town will be David Raksin ("Laura," "Bad and the Beautiful"), Laurence Rosenthal ("Becket," screening Friday morning at 11:30 at the Cinema Theater, "The Miracle Worker," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "Raisin in the Sun"), Leonard Rosenman ("East of Eden," "Rebel Without a Cause," screening this morning at 11:30 at the Cinema Theater; "Barry Lyndon") and younger composers Stephen Endelman and Cliff Eidelman.
And then there is Elmer Bernstein, the active veteran in our midst. Bernstein, whose resume of 200-plus films includes "Man With the Golden Arm" and "Magnificent Seven," has lived and, whenever possible, worked in his adopted hometown of Santa Barbara for many years.
At 76, Bernstein is still very much engaged in his craft, his work in the film "Twilight" having recently been heard in theaters.
The '90s have been good to him, starting with a few juicy projects connected with Martin Scorsese. Bernstein created the sumptuous score for Scorsese's "Age of Innocence," the brassy reworking of Bernard Herrmann's score for Scorsese's creepy remake of "Cape Fear" and also the brilliant little score for "The Grifters," the Stephen Frears-directed film produced by Scorsese.
The work continues. On Monday, Bernstein will start recording his latest score, for "The Deep End of the Ocean" with Michelle Pfeiffer and Whoopie Goldberg. Next up, a score for a summer comedy directed by Barry ("Men in Black") Sonnenfeld.
A less happy recent experience was Bernstein's work for the Walter Hill film "Last Man Standing." After he finished the score, it was replaced by a new, moodier one by Ry Cooder. That's not an uncommon experience for film composers, one famous example being Alex North's unused score for "2001," for which director Stanley Kubrick ended up using classical works by Strauss, Ligeti and the like.
"We all get scores tossed," Bernstein said. "What you have to do to figure that one out is that I did a score, and then they went from me to Ry Cooder. My goodness, if it was a Ry Cooder kind of score they were interested in, they definitely had a very wrong number with me. It wasn't like going from me to Jerry Goldsmith. They made a mistake by hiring me, obviously."
One of the clear points of the festival is to show the breadth of artistry among film composers. Leonard Rosenman, for example, was grooming to be a concert composer when James Dean, whom he was teaching piano at the time, talked director Elia Kazan into hiring him to score "East of Eden."
That groundbreaking score (recently issued in a sparkling new performance on Nonesuch, conducted by John Adams) incorporated atonal elements from Rosenman's training with Arnold Schoenberg. Rosenman feels residual frustration in having been more or less banished from the concert music world he was gearing up for.
Bernstein, on the other hand, settled happily into the world of film music, and continues to appreciate its importance. As Bernstein pointed out, "A great quantity of music in the 20th century has been cranked out in the media of film and television. It is an art form. And, as in all art forms, there's some good stuff, and some that isn't.
"An interesting development in recent times is that the major orchestras have suddenly shown an interest in the fact that film music is a popular music art form of the 20th century, and is worth paying some attention. Certainly, Esa-Pekka Salonen has made that connection with the Los Angeles Philharmonic," referring to the Philharmonic's recordings of film music and the new "Filmharmonic" project, matching film composers with newly commissioned short films.
This week's New Music festival, as well, is evidence of the pact between film and art music circles. On Saturday night, the festival's concert will include a performance of Bernstein's score for the short film "Toccata for Toy Trains," made by the notable designers Ray and Henry Eames. Santa Barbarans heard an orchestral arrangement of the piece years back played by the Santa Barbara Symphony.
Bernstein's history is full of unusually healthy creative collaborations, including his work on "To Kill a Mockingbird," to be screened Saturday morning at 11:30 at the Cinema Theater.
"It was a wonderful film to begin with," Bernstein said. "There isn't a single dated thing about that film. I had a very close relationship with Alan Pakula, the producer, and Robert Mulligan, who was the director. In those days, it was a whole different ballgame. We talked about the film before they even shot a foot of it. We had tremendous, continuing communication throughout the entire process. It was the ideal way to work.
"I didn't have very much of that kind of process again until I worked with Martin Scorsese on 'The Age of Innocence,' or with Francis Coppola on 'The Rainmaker.' That was a wonderful experience, having to do with communication."
Generally speaking, such free-flowing communication is a rarity in today's filmmaking environment. Composers have less flexibility than ever and are often the last link in a creative process that imposes tight deadlines and expressive limitations.
What happened? Bernstein has theories about the troubled state of the film composer's art.
"One of the things that militates against that better kind of relationship is ignorance on the part of filmmakers," he said. "Much more today, you get the phenomenon of the first-time director who hasn't been brought up with four years of doing B movies and learning his craft. We have a lot more of that.
"Also, there is a tendency to over-control on the part of directors. I think, to get the best out of any artist, and certainly a composer, you have to be given a great deal of room. If nothing else, you have to be given the room to be wrong. To be good creatively, you mustn't be afraid. If you're over-controlled, you begin to be afraid and you then become very cautious and you rein yourself in. Of course, that's a very bad thing in an art form.
"It's very difficult. I'm very glad that I'm at my stage of my career," he said, laughing. "I'd hate to be starting out today."
* UCSB New Music Festival, today through Saturday. Concert tonight at the Music Academy of the West, concerts on Friday and Saturday nights at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall at UCSB; (805) 893-7001.