I’m writing these words from my basement studio in a peaceful sector of Harlem, New York, looking west out over the trees of Riverside Park. The word “peaceful” is, of course, relative, because this is Manhattan, which buzzes with energy wherever you are, any time of day or night. But compared to Midtown, where I had four studios over the past 25 years, this is an oasis: a raw, stone-walled space with gentle, refracted afternoon light, filled with old sofas, oriental rugs, artwork, my Chickering baby grand, and the “brains” of my production activity—the workstation. I needed a place which I could really call my own, where I wouldn’t have to worry about the sublet ending and would have enough space to correspond with all the spaces in my mind devoted to film scoring, concert composing, and teaching—a home where I could park my music library and my instrument collection, and could set up stations as needed for multiple simultaneous projects without losing my mind. It’s not without its challenges, especially the street noise, but I find myself embracing that: periodically throughout the day people stroll past my four Riverside Drive windows, blaring boom boxes—usually salsa or reggaeton—and often singing loudly in accompaniment. The stereo movement is like its own timekeeper, slowly sweeping from one side of the studio to another. It’s a gentle reminder that life goes on outside my urban retreat, moving in its own never-ending cycles.
The largest space in my mind lately has been taken up by the revising, rehearsing, recording, editing, and mixing of several chamber pieces that are slated to be released on CD this spring on Innova Recordings. Two of the pieces—my string quartet Chthonic Dances and my percussion quartet with live electronics Hall of Mirrors—were composed in the last few years, after almost two decades of focus on media scoring. The third piece, Into Light for clarinet, viola, and piano, pre-dates my film music years, yet connects conceptually to the later pieces. One of the reasons I rented this uptown space was to gain the focus to finish the CD. As of this writing, the finish line is clearly in sight; it’s a good moment to take a breath and consider where this CD fits in my artistic trajectory.
Frankly, I’ve never understood why there has—until recently—been such a demarcation between genres in music. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enormously responsive to music, independent of genre. I know I’m not alone in this, especially in today’s eclectic musical environment, but for many people, classical music’s vaunted tradition excluded an appreciation of popular or folkloric forms—and heaven forfend that any classical composer should write something as shallow as film music! Fortunately, my open nature allowed me to at once love rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Brazilian samba, and South African popular styles such as mbaqanga (township music), and hold a particularly reverent fascination with Indian forms, while immersing myself into the vastly diverse realms referred to as concert or classical music. I believe this enabled me to survive the shark-infested waters of the classical establishment, especially at Columbia University, where I received my doctorate in composition, and Tanglewood, where I studied with 12-tone icon George Perle. Of course, these institutions weren’t fatally dangerous, and I basically ignored any insinuation that my love of “non-classical” forms was a kind of intellectual or artistic weakness, because they were wrong: it was a sign of creative strength and somehow, in my heart, I knew it.
So it was not really that much of a leap for me, soon after completing my DMA at Columbia, to move into film composition. I knew that I was taking a career risk, and that American society wasn’t built to accept an artist who crossed between such divergent musical fields. It was not like Japan, where composer Toru Takemitsu was revered as a deity in the film community and equally worshipped for his stature as a concert composer; nor was the USA like France, where composers from George Auric to Jacque Ibert and Arthur Honegger moved seamlessly between the movie house and the concert hall. Yes, there were notable exceptions, such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, but their film scoring activity was seen more as a diversion from their classical music career than as an integral part of their artistic output. And some highly acclaimed concert composers, most prominently Arnold Schoenberg, tried to make a go of film composing and fell short; he legendarily met with MGM producer Irving Thalberg in 1935 to discuss a possible scoring assignment for a movie based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth. Schoenberg devised themes and composed some sketches for the story, but ultimately was turned down by the studio; some anecdotes recount Schoenberg’s feeling of relief that he was off the hook.
So I knew that I was venturing into somewhat unknown territory when I decided to throw my hat into the film scoring ring. But one thing I was pretty sure of was that I would not be sacrificing my artistic soul in the process. I knew that certainty may be tested, but because of my conviction that ultimately both activities would be drawing on the same creative source, I felt that I could maintain my identity as an artist no matter which direction—film or concert—I was pulled in.
This is not to say that there are no differences between film and concert composing. The point is, it is all composing. Nonetheless, let’s discuss some of those differences—and similarities—here.
One difference is that media scores are often made up of small snippets, sometimes only a few seconds long. When woven together, as they were in my recent soundtrack Emmett Till for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, they may constitute a longer entity (see my first post in this series, “Requited Music: Anatomy of a Scoring Gig”), but as often as not, a film cue makes its brief statement and is gone.
This discussion of the difference between film and concert music brings up a question: what defines concert or classical music? (You can see that I’m using the terms interchangeably.) For me, it has nothing to do with style, musical language, or instrumentation, and everything to do with structure. In classical composition, works tend to be in forms long enough that they are able to take you on a journey within a structure that is integrated unto itself, unfolding with a feeling of inevitability and providing an ending that brings one to a sense of completion. Of course, one can go to any number of new music concerts where these traditional elements are subverted or avoided. Or, one can find uncounted pieces of music from any other system or culture, be it hip hop or bebop, that can be said to fulfill those expectations. But hey, that’s the trouble with definitions, especially in music—they define, they de-limit. So, I’m speaking here in generalities, and I’m happy whenever a creative person redefines the parameters.
But as I indicated in “Tearing Down The Wall,” concert music develops out of its own materials; it unfolds and transforms from its first statements forward. Even music written for dance, opera or art songs will usually follow the conventions of Western composition, taking the listener on a transformative journey within the musical plane, and in those cases, music’s role is typically much more prominent than the subliminal role it often plays in film. Conversely, the structure of film music must be responsive to a myriad of stimuli: the sound, pitch, and rhythm of the dialog and Foley; the narrative that is being depicted on the screen (and the feelings that go along with it); the lighting, editing, even the overall tone and mood of a film are contributory to compositional decision-making. In addition, there may be stylistic considerations for the composer to adhere to. Thus film music includes techniques not normally taught in composition class: selections may end on an unresolved harmony—in fact, they usually do. There are abrupt, unprepared key changes, and/or changes of texture, instrumentation, and rhythm. Depending on the situation, there may be no development at all, just…sound. Some say film music should not have more than three layers going at once; the observer’s mind can’t apprehend any more than that at any given time, what with picture, dialog, and story flying by. True or not, it is something for the film composer to be aware of.
Film music also has its own conventions, its own tropes. I’m sure you’ve all heard the ubiquitous use of the Lydian mode in Hollywood scores, used for every sentiment from wonder to quirkiness. Perhaps in this way film music is similar to concert music, which, depending upon which world you live in, has its own conventions and clichés as well. They’re just different from film music clichés, for the most part. And although I tend to avoid cliché in any of my music, concert or film, I realize that you can learn from them, and if the scene really calls for it, try to make them your own.
What do the fields of film and concert music have in common? Primarily, the essence of the compositional process. In both, you are imagining and creating themes, harmonies, rhythms, meters, and orchestrations. You are functioning, musically, at a very high level, with a heightened sense of time and flow. To reiterate the Michael Giacchino comments I paraphrased in “Tearing Down The Wall,” what’s ideal is when film music can achieve the sense of formal integration that one finds in the most compelling concert pieces; therefore, the film composer, at his or her best, is working with antecedent/consequent phrase and sectional relationships, with a global sense of registral and harmonic direction, flexibly moving in the moment while keeping an eye on the whole (and all in service to the film). A good film score will connect thematically and structurally from the beginning to the end as an integrated piece, as does a good concert score.
But for every item on my list of what film and concert music should or shouldn’t do, one can give examples of the opposite. There are some extremely short concert pieces (such as Webern’s Op.11, #3 for piano and cello). Some concert composers operate according to structural concerns that may be foreign to the classical canon. Who says a concert piece can’t have unresolved harmonies or unprepared key changes? Who says it has to be integrated and have a sense of directionality? Why can’t a concert piece just…be? Can a composition just be a texture or a rhythm, with no real beginning or end? Steve Reich or Dan Deacon may have interesting answers to that question. (Dan Deacon, by the way, scored Francis Ford Coppola’s last feature film, Twixt.)
My point is that as one goes deeper into any musical realm, one discovers artists who break the traditional modes and who are crossing beyond genre with their own statement, their own voice. Jonny Greenwood is a legitimate contemporary composer who is also the guitarist for the band Radiohead; his first score for director Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, was like a marriage between Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Takemitsu’s soundtrack to Women in the Dunes, with disturbing textures of crisscrossing string glissandi. Today there are many more examples of concert, rock, and jazz composers working in film than there were 20 years ago; I do not feel like so much of a standout any more. In fact, in terms of pure creativity, I feel that we are living in a golden age of musical composition—and storytelling. I’m hearing more individual musical voices in film and television music, especially via such border-bashing platforms as Netflix and Amazon, than I heard even five years ago—and I’m also witnessing an extraordinary explosion of activity, beyond genre, in the new music world. And I think there is a reason for that: a deep, atavistic human need for fresh, cutting-edge music that reflects and relates to our current lives.
So when I returned to concert music after years of just working in film, that was not too much of a leap either. In fact, I came back to it stronger than before. Doing film music, I’d spent a large percentage of my life developing musical and production skills that are not taught in the DMA program at Columbia. And film scoring brought about a new sensitivity to how music acts on the unconscious, showing me some different perspectives on how to structure concert music. Film music’s freedom from the expectations of concert form allowed me, as a film composer, to often write and produce music that I truly loved—at times with a rocking, cathartic groove. And that freedom carried over into my return to concert composition. So in the end, the names we assign to the different forms of music wind up being less useful than understanding that there is an interaction between musical forms on the societal level, and in my case, the personal level as well. And that diffusion creates new languages, which are tools for communication—for bringing people together. That is what is actively happening in music right now, and I’m lucky to be part of it.
Here is an excerpt from Hall of Mirrors, with Jeremy Smith, Brian Shankar Adler, Christian Lundqvist, and Brian Shank on percussion; Rick Baitz on laptop and MIDI controller: