Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Contemporary Classical Music at the Movies

As a class, we’ve been writing and talking a lot about film scores recently: Nate and Aimée already posted on this topic this week, and I just finished my Wikipedia article on composer Richard Wernick, who has written both for the screen and the concert hall (unfortunately, there do not appear to be many sources documenting Mr. Wernick’s film career; I only have anecdotal evidence that he wrote music for The Bullwinkle Show).

Most of our thoughts on this topic have involved music written for the screen. Can film music stand alone as composition? Are pops concerts featuring movie music cheap populism or real outreach? Have film scores made the general public more receptive to the “dissonance” of contemporary classical harmony?

However, it’s also worth considering the instances in which music moves in the other direction, from the concert hall to the screen. Certainly there are plenty of examples of the standard repertory being used in film, but what about contemporary music? Penderecki’s concert music has been appropriated by many filmmakers, usually in horror films (The Shining, The Exorcist) or works that exploit the viewer’s sense of the surreal or the uncanny. Likewise, Ligeti’s music is featured in The Shining, Shutter Island, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (though it stands in sharp contrast to the better-known Strauss quotation repeated throughout the film). Here again, contemporary music augments the unsettling aspects of the film. It becomes unclear whether the filmmakers are doing the composers a service or not. On the one hand, these films present otherwise niche works to a mass audience; on the other hand, the compositions are being pigeonholed into relatively limited frames of meaning. We recall Hewitt’s critism of Stockhausen’s electronic works, that they seem unable to suggest anything other than space travel and dystopian angst. If these are the only images we are left with for such composers after their work has been used on screen, the notion of a free-standing work is destroyed. Of course, sometimes the problems go beyond aesthetics: Stanley Kubrick never secured the rights to use Ligeti’s music in 2001.

These examples suggest many of the same problems that arise with listening to music written for film as classical music – can the music retain an essential (authentic) identity, regardless of context?

1 comment:

Talya said...

The soundtrack to the movie "Troy" is an interesting story to bring up when talking about movie music. Gabriel Yared was the original composer and he was given an entire year to research music that would have been native to the cultures displayed. You probably know the story, but when it was played at an early screening of the movie the audience and the movie staff did not like it. One story is that the audience thought that it was too old fashioned, and the other was that it was believed to be too accurate to the culture and therefore "unrelateable" to American audiences. James Horner was then given a about a month to produce a score that not only resembled many other scores that he had created previously, but also quoted many other famous compositions by Britten, Barber and Holst just to name a few. In this case, I do not believe that there was any semblance of true individual thought in this composition, it was simply a means to an end. It was something created for a deadline using as much of other's music as possible to get by. This cannot stand on its own as a classical composition because it is a scrapbook of other pieces. (Sorry for the long-windedness!!!!!!)