Commentary: The L.A. Phil looks at the unexpected places film music is going

A woman in a black suit, microphone in hand, stands in front of black-clad orchestra members.
Oscar-winning Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir addresses the audience at the first concert in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Reel Change” event Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
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Film music has existed as genre for well over a century, back to the silent era, when it was unheard-of for a movie to be shown without the accompaniment of live music. Film music may be a genre, but all that means is music used in a film. Other than that, anything the director will let a composer get away with goes.

Still, we tend to have an idea of what film music sounds like and the commercialism it may stand for. Since the advent of talkies, “Hollywood” has been, in some serious circles, the pejorative antonym of “serious” music.

Tables, though, do turn. Hollywood has so seemingly little regard for film music these days that the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has demoted music to an afterthought at best. Meanwhile, film music has never been more warmly welcomed in the concert hall.


The orchestra closest to the film world geographically and artistically has always been the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Combining this with its commitment to new music, the orchestra mounted a three-part festival, “Reel Change,” last weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall that focused on a new generation of film composers born in the 1980s. Each night, a different composer curated a program of their music along with works by colleagues and classical composers, whether or not written for film, they found meaningful.

It was a seemingly diverse group of composers but with much in common. Hildur Guðnadóttir is a cellist and experimental composer who comes out of the hip Islandic new music scene. She won an Oscar this year for her score to “Joker,” beating out four longtime academy favorites. Her score for the video game “Battlefield 2042” dropped Friday, the night of her concert.

Also on Friday, the acclaimed film “King Richard,” which was scored by Kris Bowers, was released. A classically trained jazz pianist, Bowers curated the Saturday evening program that included the premiere of his “Concerto for Horn,” which was commissioned for the festival. Sunday afternoon belonged to Nicholas Britell, whose credits include the films “Moonlight” and “Vice” as well as the HBO series “Succession,” with its earworm theme.

All three are savvy, conservatory-trained composers well versed in classical music on top of current trends in new music and with a finger on the pop pulse. Each tried something different when faced with a traditional concert setting. In no instance was any music played along with the film it was written for. These were concerts about music, not film.

Still, there are unanswerable questions when it comes to listening to film music or discerning its purpose. It inevitably means one thing if you’ve seen the film and another if you haven’t. Moreover, a score might serve to create an atmosphere, reveal an inner something about a character, produce tension or release it, evoke a feeling that may or may not translate outside of its original purpose. The music can even exist in its own right, not telling you how to feel but asking you to think. No, Philip Glass’ music is not too loud in that picture. Crank it up.

Hildur took a global approach. She put together a fascinating program that relied heavily on non-film contemporary pieces by composers who influenced her. Most surprising for such a festival was Alvin Lucier’s surreal “Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra.” The “Orchestra” in the title is nothing more than a solo triangle, jingle-jangled by the stellar percussion soloist Robyn Schulkowsky. Once it is set vibrating, the unprepossessing instrument produces frequencies that seem to come out of nowhere and that commands the power of hypnosis. With sounds like these, who needs visuals? They’re all in your mind.


For the actual orchestra pieces, the young British conductor Hugh Brunt led a brassy, five-minute bit from Henryk Górecki’s Fourth Symphony (which the L.A. Phil premiered in 2015), Arvo Pärt’s palliating “Fratres for Strings and Percussion” and Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” (which created a sensation when used in “2001”). There was also more harmonic silver in a short movement from Kaija Saariaho’s “Nymphéa Reflection.”

The concert began with the lights out, as though Disney were a movie theater, for Hildur’s concert work “Under Takes Over.” Individual instruments come in and out with single tones, and like with the triangle, you can’t tell where the sound is emanating from. The evening ended with the intrigue of hit-you-over-your-head electronic and acoustic effects in Hildur’s “Battlefield 2042” music and “Bathroom Dance” from the “Joker,” two troubling minutes of getting more deeply into the head of a character too creepy for words but not, as Hildur reveals, the cello.

Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it, but The Times invites you to join us on a different kind of shared journey: a new series on listening.

July 15, 2020

Writing for film, Bowers explained to the audience Saturday night, is, for him, all about getting to the core a dramatic situation. Unlike Hildur’s approach, Bowers suggested that he needs to find the specific moment in a film that reveals its emotional essence as his starting point. That may come from improvising, where you begin with something you know and see where that leads you.

Bowers is an outstanding improviser. On the occasions when he did improvise or embellish at the keyboard along with the orchestra, which was elegantly conducted by Anthony Parnther, he gave whatever he played a new reason for being in the concert hall.

But he also demonstrated a film composer’s sometimes lamentable tendency to stay out of the way, not always to his advantage. The new concerto, written for the L.A. Phil principal horn Andrew Bain, takes its inspiration from the horn as an instrument of hunting, shaping the 15-minute concerto as a slightly mystical day in the forest. Moody and unsettling, it included mysterious, Ravel-like orchestral writing and rapturous horn calls that set a gripping scene. Bowers, however, undercut his own invention by adding filmic images of burning logs and the like, uninspiring a listener’s imagination.

He did himself even fewer favors to medleys from his own scores — “Green Book,” “King Richard,” “When They See Us” and “Bridgerton” — by providing new visuals showing various situations (a father, daughter and football for “King Richard”) less impressive than the original films. In yet another layer, recorded verses of poetry were narrated loudly (and not always intelligibly), partially drowning out the piano. I felt as frustrated as when watching a film in which a promising score is not heard prominently enough. Crank up the Bowers, please!


Britell treated the Sunday matinee he curated as a straightforward concert of movie music. Brunt, a rhythmically terse conductor, was again in charge of the L.A. Phil. As with the other programs there was a parade of short bits, which is one of the biggest obstacles of film music programs that all three composers faced. Still, it made for a compelling afternoon.

Two highly original film composers turned up on more than one program. Ryuichi Sakamoto was favored by both Hildur and Bowers. Also like Hildur, Britell chose Mica Levi, here her “Jackie” with its wonderful sliding strings at the beginning. Gary Yeshon’s theme for “Mr. Turner” was just as intriguing, with its saxophone seeming to imitate a shakuhachi, the traditional Japanese wood flute. In further striking choices, Britell included selections from Terence Blanchard’s wrenching score to “Malcolm X,” Jonny Greenwood’s gift of weirdness to “There Will be Blood” and brief excerpts from Kathryn Bostic’s “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”

Britell’s own music, featured in “Vice,” “The Underground Railroad,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Don’t Look Up,” cropped up in small moments. They gave the impression of a chameleon composer able to find just what is needed to enliven an imagination or activity, but not offering enough to get a sense of a composer’s voice. They proved a pleasure to listen to without the film, but these kernels might have been even more of a pleasure had they been developed into concert suites.

For his encore, Britell played the “Succession” theme — on a piano that was wheeled onto stage — with the orchestra. Heard as straight concert music, divorced from electronics or the ins and outs of the TV series, the theme sounded like its reason for being was to make a 21st century comment on Rachmaninoff, not unlike what Michael Nyman once did with Henry Purcell and Mozart. It got the most enthusiastic audience response of the weekend, similar to the thrill crowds have when hearing John Williams played by a great orchestra, with fine acoustics.

These instances, however, remain rare. Film composers have all along struggled to divide their careers between the soundstage and the concert stage. That goes all the way back to Korngold, who strove to be taken seriously after having invented the film score during the dawn of talkies. Only lately has his Violin Concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz and scheduled to be played this week by the L.A. Phil on its regular concert series, become a repertory favorite. Will the same happen with John Williams’ new violin concerto that the Boston Symphony premiered last summer? Likely not for a long time. The many already celebrated composers who turned to film — Glass, Copland, Bernstein, Vaughn Williams, the list goes on — are just that: celebrated composers who happen to have written for film.

There have been exceptions, Toru Takemitsu above all. But Hildur, Bowers and Britell represent a new generation ready to vanish those generic distinctions. They might actually have a modicum of help from the academy, which has commissioned an installation piece from Hildur. But let the real reel change be their return to the Disney stage with ever bolder certainty and vision.