December 15, 2016
Hearing what you see
Over at Popular Mechanics, Avery Thompson explains "Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like." Or rather, he presents the following arguments from the "Every Frame a Painting" blog and Dan Golding.
The former begins with man-on-the-street interviews, asking if anybody can hum a few bars from Star Wars. Everybody can. But what about the theme from any blockbuster Marvel movie made in the last decade?
The culprit in this case is the "temp track." While a movie is being edited and the music is still being composed, the director uses excerpts from
existing compositions, often movie soundtracks, as stand-ins for what he expects the final product to sound like. Then he tells the composer: "I want it to sound like this only different."
When The Simpsons sets out to parody a musical but doesn't want to pay the royalties, the composer (usually Alf Clausen) will arrange melodies that are different enough legally while still being completely recognizable.
Similarly, many temp tracks end up sounding like the finished version. And some careless directors even forget about the "different" part and end up using the original temp track "by mistake." Either way, the result is an utter lack of originality.
Then again, counters Dan Golding, maybe not. Artists borrow from each other all the time. Or as Picasso (and Steve Jobs) put it, "Great artists steal." For Star Wars, John Williams borrowed from classical composers like Holst and the scores from old Hollywood westerns. Golding instead points to non-linear editing as the root cause.
Instead of a composition composed for an entire cinematic work, soundtracks can be created and performed digitally, and inserted in discrete units: five seconds here, ten seconds there. The soundtrack thus becomes another sound effect, creating mood and ambience with orchestrated sound, not telling a story through melody.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Then again, memorable movie soundtracks that spring to my mind do often predate the fully digitized non-linear era that came of age in the mid-1990s. Along with Star Wars (1977) by John Williams, Patrick Doyle's Henry V (1989) and Last of the Mohicans (1992) by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones.
Chariots of Fire (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) by Vangelis were unique in being mostly digital scores that mostly predated non-linear editing.
On the other hand, the music in the original Star Trek television series is, well, "noisy." And it was orchestrated the old-fashioned way. Yes, the opening theme is timeless, but the stuff in the middle is often too loud and intrusive, manipulative and simply redundant.
Given the choice, I'll take the minimalist mood-shaping approach, music that creates ambience without encouraging you to pick up a baton or choreograph a marching band, even it means composers aren't using all the emotional arrows in their musical quivers.
Producers have concluded that if they're not making a musical or doing the American Graffiti thing, where the movie accompanies the soundtrack, less is more. And most of the time, they're right.
But that sorely lessens the chance of a composer and director coming up with the perfect combination that hits you right in the emotional solar plexus. As with Patrick Doyle's score, slowly building beneath Kenneth Branagh's Saint Crispian's Day speech, the right movie music has the power to raise a scene to a state of transcendence.
And speaking of borrowing from the classics, here is Bill Pullman's "Saint Crispian on the Fourth of July" speech from Independence Day. You won't remember the music but it heightens the impact of the words without overpowering them.