Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Classic / Cinematic / LA Confidential / Quiet City

"The best artists don't invent; they steal." 

This has been one of the semi-apocryphal adages in the arts for a generation or three. Each generation of makers builds on the shoulders of the one preceding, so it goes, or ransacks history for inspiration not immediately available in the present. The best kind of inspiration is often an immersion in the many examples of the past, which fill your imagination with fresh approaches. This has been true across the artistic spectrum. Ultimately, we cannot NOT know about things that have been done in the past, though certain works or texts may be forgotten or neglected, only to be "re-"discovered at a later date. Combinations of forms or ideas can lead to new inventions--this principle was the basis for a diverting BBC/PBS series called Connections, presented by its Author james Burke. Though Burke was primarily interested in science and technology, the same kinds of synergistic principles he discussed apply to art and literature. One thing leads to another, and different applications of one idea may open up a whole area of research and experiment. 

On a very basic level, cross-fertilization in the arts is a commonplace of our time. Musical composers in the classical tradition may try their hand at composing movie music, or theatre music. In this instance, a very skilled cinematic composer, Jerry Goldsmith, whose rap sheet includes hundreds of full movie scores, in addition to straight orchestral music, was active for over 50 years in Hollywood ; during his career, he was nominated countless times for music and movie awards, and won several. LA Confidential [1997, Regency/Wolper/Warner Brothers]was a surprisingly faithful adaptation of James Ellroy's hard-boiled contemporary noir account of the Los Angeles Police Department corruption during the early 1950's, seen through the eyes of a smut-raking "police gazette" journalist, and two competing department lieutenants, one a tough no-nonsense muscle-guy, the other an ambitious by-the-book self-promoter.

The story is filled with violence and sex, and Goldsmith's score addresses those themes directly; but the lyrical central theme owes much to the "urban romantic" styles of the 1930's, and you can clearly hear his back-channel inspiration in a piece like Aaron Copland's Quiet City [1940, for trumpet, English horn and strings]. Other mood sequences from Goldsmith's score can be heard here (particularly the conclusion 'The Victor').     

Composing for the movies requires a clear comprehension of the part that music can play during narrative action. There's seldom time to lay out an unfolding musical line of any length, since the focus of the audience's attention is on the story, not the music itself. In addition, a movie composer hasn't the luxury to apply just the preferred stylistic trope he might feel most comfortable with; he has to be familiar and skilled with all kinds--classical, jazz, folk, pop, advertising, and novelty. All may be used in a single production, and the most successful in the field usually must adapt to the projects they're given, rather than having the advantage of choosing what to work on. 

Some modern classical composers have tried their hand at movie music. A good example would be Aaron Copland, whose did scores for The Red Pony [Republic Pictures, 1948], Of Mice and Men [Hal Roach Studios, 1939], Our Town [Sol Lesser Productions, 1940], The North Star [Samuel Goldwyn, 1943], The Heiress [Paramount, 1949], in addition to writing for the ballet [Appalachian Spring, 1944], and the theatre. All these pieces, I suppose it should be noted, belong to a certain period in American art when nativism and social conscience were important commitments. In the movie business (as well as in the musical theatre), the bottom line has almost always been more important than the underlying production values. 

Is it possible to make great art under conditions of commercial pressure? We know that it is, though the factors legislating against it can seem insurmountable. In Goldsmith's case, the ability to make important scores is subservient to his record, and the opportunity that only comes with a reliable reputation. If you've not proven you can provide a decent product, new ones aren't likely to come your way. Making a musical score for a movie that's never completed is really wasted work; it will almost certainly never see the light of day; whereas, a "pure musical" composition may still exist in time, not needing its initial scaffolding of visual expression. 

Certain works may transcend the medium to become pure musical experiences in their own right. That's true of Copland's scores, which are concert hall pieces now. Though rare, certain original movie scores may also deserve concert hall versions. The score for the cinematic epic Braveheart [Icon Entertainment et al., 1995] [soundtrack here on YouTube], composed by James Horner, has become something of a concert hall favorite, contrived into two separate suites [1995, 1997]. The film, filled with a myriad of historical inaccuracies, was successful to a considerable degree for its effective romantic score.

The score for Gladiator [2000, Scott Free/Dreamworks/Universal], one of the most successful films of the post-modern era, benefitted from a score (by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard), whose originality was challenged by the Gustav Holst Foundation for plagiarism (of Holst's concert suite The Planets [1914-1916]). 

Normally, straight adaptations of existing musical material are acknowledged as a legitimate endeavors by the Motion Picture Academy, but purportedly "original" scores must pass the originality test for consideration for awards. Clearly, there is a degree of cross-fertilization between media, legitimate (and acknowledged), or not.

I've discussed this issue of programmatic versus pure music before, and will doubtless do so again. Nearly all musical expression has some kind of programmatic content. So-called "pure" music--i.e., Beethoven's Quartets or Bach's Brandenburg Concertos--may simply be more abstract in the way the listener's meditative space is opened and elaborated. Music may be song, or dance, or ballad, or elegy, or march, or anthem, or even narrative. Certain kinds of music may inevitably key certain kinds of feeling or events or actions. Tradition may be nothing more than a series of well-worn clichés, which we accede to without question. 

Creative innovations may suggest new kinds of sensibility, or new ways of thinking about how old "sounds" really "sound". The electronic age has opened up many new kinds of musical elaboration, but it hasn't done much to change our characteristic response to familiar associations. 

Sound may be produced through impact upon a rod or shaped object, or by friction against a string or cord, or by air forced through a tube with alternate fixed or variable stops (or holes). Music is vibration, transmitted through air to our vibration-sensitive ear-drums, interpreted by our brains into sequences of changing degrees we call notes. Systems of such notes along a spectrum organize themselves into fixed relationships we call tonality

Recently, I heard about an instrument that had been invented by Leonardo da Vinci, the viola organista or piano-cello. This instrument was "invented" 500 years ago, but wasn't built until now. How many other kinds of instrumental inventions await us in the future? Though technically the viola organista doesn't make new sounds, exactly, it does permit new ways of organizing and presenting stringed music. My Kurzweil synthesizer acts in much the same way, allowing me to "play" violin and guitar and choir sounds by way of a keyboard, though the sophisticated nuances of each instrumental sound are severely limited.

Classical music seems to be on a shallow decline lately, as musical reproduction shifts from material to digital access. Symphony orchestras, concert halls, dance companies, etc., are under financial pressure as society's attention is re-focused and re-organized around the new internet media. But the ways that musical ideas are used and reinterpreted are not limited by venues alone. A movie can be a kind of symphony in sound and imagery, just as the naked symphony once served as the public's official entertainment. Pure music once told a story too, albeit one less specific and narrational. 

They still wear wigs in the British Courts of Justice--in a style that went out 200 years ago. 

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