Perfect Sound Forever

"Classical" versus Film Music

by Gregg Wager
(December 2004)

Whether they were playing Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" on a harmonica or trying to make a ventriloquist dummy sing "Stranger in Paradise," musicians in the 20th century always had the dour, pouting, great European masters looking over their shoulders. Thanks to a simplification of today's diverse culture, we now call what those dour fellows did "classical" music, apparently having given up on more confusing terms like "serious music."

Of all the diverse musical camps in the 20th century, film music remains one of the closest cousins to classical music. The layperson usually associates film music with classical music because to them, orchestral music is orchestral music, whether by John Williams or Beethoven. In fact, many film composers famously maintain one of the most rigid distinctions between "high" and "low" culture: they like the idea of being heirs to Beethoven, and might cringe at the thought of their wares being seen in the same light as their traditional archrivals, songwriters (who in the old days received about 1000 times more royalties for one minute of music, since film scores were considered mere background music).

This article explores Hollywood film music, but more importantly illustrates how postmodernism has changed things. Postmodernism is a topsy-turvy topic with more paradoxes and contradictions than an MC Escher illustration; it's supposed to be for music what Brown v. Board of Education was for desegregation: the acceptance of a diversity of musical styles, such that crossover artists are now practically the norm instead of the exception.

How many times have you heard someone say, "jazz is America's classical music." Contrast this sentiment with Igor Stravinsky's dictum (or his ghostwriter's): "jazz is not music." At the height his career, George Gershwin tried to get music lessons from Maurice Ravel, and was refused. John Lennon held that the Beatles' music was just as good as Beethoven's. You can even find Townes Van Zandt in one of his deeper, contemplative moods comparing his love songs to Plato.

At first glance this seems to be a no-brainer: who could be against the smashing of musical barriers in order to broaden everyone's tastes? It's not difficult to recognize how petty bigotries have steered tastes and trends throughout the last century, needlessly compartmentalizing music into exclusive camps; it can make enjoying music one neurotic and tough task.

Today, we're not only crossing over into each other's camps: we want to bring down the distinction between "high" and "low" art. No more ruling class. Postmodernism in music clearly emerged out of an intellectual debate by "high" composers, who never questioned their "high" art status, but have willingly given up their inheritance, sharing the wealth with their cousins. Will the inclusion of the extended family really end decades of bad blood, or curb the deep-seated vanity of out-and-out obdurate purists? Could it make things worse?

If you want a good example of bad blood between musical camps, watch the Oscars. Vangelis won in 1981, for his score from Chariots of Fire. Vangelis is self-taught, and can't read a note of music.

A bit of recent cinema news reveals a new wrinkle to film music in our postmodern era. Last summer, the first American release of Zhang Yimou's 2002 Chinese martial arts spectacular Hero exceeded box office expectations, spending two weeks in the number one slot. Under the moniker of Quentin Tarantino, who put up the money for an American release and is a well known as a martial arts movie connoisseur Hero (nee Ying xiong) received critical acclaim: an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film in 2002 and a heavily promoted DVD release. Sony Classical later released the Japanese soundtrack in America.

Between myriad kung fu chops and CGI effects, filmgoers might have missed Hero's film music, by Tan Dun, as well as any politics behind it. To understand how unorthodox the film music for Hero is, first think of that old Hollywood bugaboo, typecasting. Tan Dun's previous film score his first try won him an Oscar, for Ang Lee's stylish crossover smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2000. If you're making a modern, stylish, Chinese martial arts movie, Tan Dun is your man.

One has to recognize that Tan Dun's collaborative score, backed by the famous Japanese percussion ensemble KODO, and none other than violinist Itzhak Perlman, is also the brainchild of Peter Gelb, president of Sony Classical records. Gelb represents something crucial, and a new trend in film music and today's classical music world, where Tan Dun is well established. Hero wan't the first movie for which Gelb pulled together a dream team of famous classical musicians. For Crouching Tiger, Gelb teamed up Tan Dun with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who made a bestseller out of Appalachian folk melodies played on the cello (for Sony Classical), much to the chagrin of both cello and Appalachia lovers.

Gelb also masterminded John Corigliano's music for the 1999 film The Red Violin, which matched up a well-established classical music composer (who already had an Oscar nomination for Ken Russell's Altered States) with a popular classical violinist and recording artist, Joshua Bell. These packaged Sony Classica film soundtracks Red Violin, Crouching Tiger, and now Hero were designed in part to boost sales for soundtrack recordings, but they exceeded all expectations and won Oscars, two years in a row, for best film score: Corigliano in 1999, and Tan Dun in 2000.

Had the Oscars gone to Gelb himself, the average filmgoer could have matched a face and name with an award; a star would have been born. Instead, Gelb has emerged among insiders as a secret kingmaker, not to mention someone who has successfully popularized classical music, if little gold statues are any indication. How Gelb has avoided the Hollywood buzz radar is difficult to fathom, unless one considers that Gelb's collaborations are much too innovative and complicated for anyone but the most astute insiders to notice.

Some insiders did notice, but respect Gelb's anonymity. Call it professional courtesy, call it loyalty to the powers that be; in any case, Gelb and his friends know that if he were ever given credit as a creative force behind putting famous classical artists together, his collaborative projects might be dismissed as a marketing ploy, or worse, a gimmick.

Whether ploy, gimmick, or stroke of genius, Gelb must have originally gotten the bug to design film soundtracks when James Horner requested his Oscar-winning film music for Titanic be released by a classical music label. Gelb took on the Horner project under the Sony Classical banner, and the release went to number one in the 1997 charts. 1997 was also the year that Sony Classical released Tan Dun's Symphony 1997, amidst rumors that Gelb had sacrilegiously asked the composer to tone down his modern style, so that the recording might be more popular.

So, some burning questions for postmodernists: why did Horner want a classical label? Did academy members want to give a public nod to an undisputed "high" art form by voting an Oscar for scores by "classical" composers Corigliano and Tan Dun, or was the music for Red Violin and Crouching Tiger really so memorable? (Memorable as, say, Vangelis's music for Chariots of Fire?)

Two things should be established here before encomiums of "marketing genius" or "hit film composer" are bandied about. First, rarely does an original film music soundtrack climb to the top of the charts unless it contains a hit song (or two). In the case of Titanic, obviously, Horner's purely instrumental music (that is, "background music"), despite its merits, could not have sold as well as it did had it not been for Celine Dion's performance of "My Heart Will Go On," and the promotion that song received via its MTV video. Fans will of course buy an entire album for just one song.

In 1990, Maurice Jarre's music for Ghost similarly climbed the charts, although that probably wouldn't have happened had the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" not been included on the soundtrack album. Most recently, the soundtrack for Garden State climbed as high as #18 on the Billboard charts because of its pop songs, not the original score by Chad Fisher.

Directors might have a composer in mind when they conceive their films, but more typically, film composers are matched to projects by other, supposedly more informed people. In Hollywood, the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency represents close to 100 of Hollywood's regularly working film composers, including Corigliano, Tan Dun and Horner. They are certainly chummy with people like Gelb, but more importantly, set their own standards as to which film composers are the best in their field, and which are inferior. They also have an opinion about who in the classical music world is good and recruit them (mind you, not just good for film music, but "good" overall). The powerful agency runs a tight ship: when Tan Dun accepted his Oscar for Crouching Tiger, the first person he thanked at the podium was Michael Gorfaine. Tan Dun went on to describe himself as a classical composer, which may have been a typical Hollywood faux pas the majority of film composers in Hollywood want to be considered the heirs of a musical world originated by the great classical composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. Corigliano, who is better versed in the American standoff between classical music and film music, probably wouldn't commit this faux pas to an auditorium of film aficionados, let alone to his other colleagues in the concert music world. Nonetheless, Corigliano and Tan Dun were "classical composers" to the Academy, and perhaps their Oscar victories reflected just how much the Hollywood film world longs to show the world that they too can appreciate the classics.

Like Gelb, the Mike Gorfaine/Sam Schwartz allegiance remains by and large invisible to the public, even to those who might want to appreciate film music and all of its extra-musical intricacies (and gossip). For example, when I was granted audience with the otherwise inaccessible Sam Schwartz, and told him that I was a critic for the Los Angeles Times specializing in new classical composers such as Philip Glass and Karlheinz Stockhausen, he very casually but firmly told me he hated that music (although, in all fairness, that was 15 years ago).

The case of Philip Glass is a rather sticky one to kingmakers like Gelb and Gorfaine/Schwartz. It is, however, a good reason why our postmodern world might not be as universal as it has to be in order to mean anything. In other words, it only takes one dissenting voice to poop the postmodern party.

As a genuine musical maverick who nonetheless fits into the "classical" mold just as deservedly as Corigliano or Tan Dun, albeit much differently, Glass has composed several successful film scores, most notably for Godfrey Reggio's -qatsi trilogy of experimental films (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Noqoyqatsi), but also for two films that earned him Oscar nominations: Kundun in 1997 and The Hours in 2002. Despite Glass's admirable success as a film composer, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein found Glass's score to The Hours so distracting that he tried to have it removed (an opinion no doubt in line with the Gorfaine/Schwartz "hate"), according to an article in New Yorker Magazine.

Another composer who might fit better into the same maverick category in which Glass belongs, as opposed to the Gorfaine/Schwartz standard of film composer, is Michael Nyman, who scored Jane Campion's The Piano (1993). Nyman was famously snubbed of an Oscar nomination, despite the special task he took on, writing a portfolio of piano music that the lead character might play (the movie won two Oscars: best actress, Holly Hunter, and Campion for the screenplay; Nyman received nominations in the British Academy Awards and the Golden Globes). Similarly, the trio of composers who scored The Last Emperor in 1987 Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su enjoyed a coattails effect come Oscar night, but Byrne admitted that he felt that the academy was deliberately voting for outsiders that year, somehow to prove that they were not completely inbred. Go further back, and find that Aaron Copland won an Oscar (in 1949 for The Heiress; he was nominated three other times), even though he was clearly from an era that distinguished between "serious" music and everything else (despite Emerson, Lake and Palmer's covers of his "Ho Down" and Fanfare for the Common Man versions that Copland declared went against his tastes). Others from the "classical" music world to receive Oscar nominations: Ernst Toch, Kurt Weill and, believe it or not, even Dmitri Shostakovich.

The process of writing a film score varies, but has always been more of a collaborative effort than concert music. Most film buffs don't realize that the conventional process often involves lots of credit-grabbing and politics behind the scene. A very talented orchestra leader often goes unrecognized, if not entirely without a credit at the end of the film. There are music arrangers and music editors, yet somehow, the composer sits at the top of the heap. Still, fame sometimes even eludes him (or her).

What we're finding out now is who will dourly look over the shoulders of 21st century musicians. It's a perfect time to revise the history of the 20th century, challenging earlier music historians and their purist ideals especially their tendency to only consider "high" culture and downplay the importance of jazz, rock and film music.

The deaths of Jerry Goldsmith (July 21), David Raksin (August 9), and Elmer Bernstein (August 19) earlier this year was a major news story. News of the "end of an era" echoed across various news sources, very similar to how musicologists interpret the 1750 death of J. S. Bach as the end of the Baroque era. Meanwhile, the death of Fred Karlin (March 24), who ought to rank as high as any veteran film composer, went practically unnoticed.

It's difficult to believe that good intentions don't guide either postmodernists or purists, no matter how difficult it appears to get a handle on common sense. Respecting tradition can be useful, but it can also be constricting. If we have clung to the past too much in the last century, let postmodernism compensate. Then again, we don't need another Shakespeare, because you can only invent the English language once. Likewise, Beethoven inspired the development of the modern orchestra, but that can only blossom once as well. Pretending you are pulling as much historical sway as these early innovators is remarkably pretentious, to say the least.

Music is changing, so is film, and thank goodness. Culture can still nurture creativity, it's not just a case of coming up with different ways to market old ideas. If it took something called postmodernism to take the myth out of musical styles or even "high" and "low" culture, so be it. It certainly allowed someone like Gelb to experiment with new approaches to both film music and recording projects, even if, for whatever reason, it's been a secret.

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