by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 9, 1998.
A man named James Horner has just become one of the most commercially successful composers of the century. He wrote the music for the film “Titanic.” The general “Titanic” hysteria, which has boosted four “Titanic”-related books and a fittingly slender biography of Leonardo DiCaprio onto the Times best-seller lists, has put Horner in many homes. A recording of his “Titanic” score has sold ten million copies, according to Sony Classical, and has held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard pop chart for six weeks. No original orchestral piece has reached the top of the charts since “Dr. Zhivago,” in 1966. One may have to go back to the days of Richard Strauss to find a more or less classical composition that has made so much money so fast. Strauss built his mountain villa with the proceeds from “Salome.” Horner may be ready to make a down payment on a very big house.
So who is he? Many people, it turns out. He is a composer who is generous enough to assimilate into his own music the work of less fortunate predecessors. In his score for “Aliens” he sampled the opening of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony. In his score for “Willow” he helpfully simplified the first theme of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. In the title theme of “Glory” he took the “Humming Chorus” from Prokofiev’s “Ivan the Terrible” and grafted on Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” Up to a point, such borrowings are not surprising: Hollywood composers work under cruel deadlines and sometimes take creative shortcuts. But Horner goes beyond the pale; he is a kleptomaniac who recycles not only others’ work but also his own. Lately, he has switched from classical bric-a-brac to a New Age Celtic sound, with cooing pipes and electronic choirs. When this material appeared in Horner’s score for the Scottish epic “Braveheart,” it was roughly apt, but in “Titanic” it causes confusion. You wonder, when you first see the ship with Horner’s accompaniment, whether the Titanic will set sail from Belfast rather than from the usual Southampton, or whether Leonardo DiCaprio is going to try an Irish accent. In fact, the music is too vague to be associated with any particular place or mood; it’s reminiscent of that deracinated vocalise you hear in overpriced boutiques.
Teen-age “Titanic” fans may not swoon for long to this music once they’ve taken it home. Horner, who studied at the Royal College of Music and then graduated to Roger Corman’s B-movie shop, is set to become the biggest phenomenon in the history of used-CD stores. Of course, it’s not the job of a film score to become a permanent recorded masterpiece. If a score is inordinately interesting—if it draws attention to itself—it has failed in its purpose. A few crossed signals aside, the “Titanic” music does accomplish one basic task: it manages to be innocuous, to stay out of the way of the raw impact of the film. But it offers nothing else: it does not reinforce the film’s deeper emotions or grander images, and it offers no satisfying detail. Movies, in a way, are like Gothic cathedrals: a lot of meticulous labor goes into obscure corners of the structure. When the score, the editing, the sets, and the rest are excellent in every part, the experience of the film grows. You can keep ambling through it and finding minor beauties. Great scores helped make great films of “Vertigo,” “The Godfather,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” and “Chinatown,” among others; music becomes a second landscape in which to roam. “Titanic” aimed for that greatness, and Horner insured that it would fall short.
What does Horner’s windfall say about the artistic health of Hollywood composing? If he wins an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, prospects for the art will seem bleak. Then again no one should be surprised to know that the Academy Award voters seldom do justice to this category. Film scoring is, like editing or costume design, one of those “below the line” industries whose practices remain arcane, even to many in the movie business. And in truth composers should be judged not only by what they produce but also by what they must put up with. They arrive late in the process and must churn out an hour or more of music in a few weeks. Their work may be rearranged back to front, or chopped into fragments, or thrown away altogether. It takes a rapid, inventive mind to thrive in such conditions and still stay honest. The four other nominees this year—Jerry Goldsmith, for “L.A. Confidential”; John Williams, for “Amistad”; Danny Elfman, for “Good Will Hunting”; and Philip Glass, for “Kundun”—measure up, for the most part, to that standard. They have written music that underpins the images and lingers in the memory. Who deserves to win? And how does contemporary movie music compare with its sometimes glorious past?
Film fascinated composers right from the start. The new medium looked like a new kind of opera, without tenors. None other than Camille Saint-Saëns, the grand old man of French music, inaugurated the genre, in 1908, with a score for a silent called “L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise.” A magnificent roster of composers wrote for film in the twenties and thirties: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Arthur Honegger, Erik Satie, and a dozen other famous names. Back then, film composers had more freedom than they are given today; often, they were more famous than the directors. Sergei Eisenstein reëdited certain sequences of “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible” to match what Prokofiev had composed, and Abel Gance was similarly respectful of Honegger. Only a handful of directors in the sound era have developed that kind of close creative relationship with a composer. Sergio Leone began shooting “Once Upon a Time in the West” after Ennio Morricone had written his score, and Alfred Hitchcock shot extended, uneventful sequences that were little more than molds for the musical fury of Bernard Herrmann. “I have left Reel 3 for you,” Hitchcock would say to Herrmann.
Within a few years of the introduction of sound, Hollywood had built a production line for orchestral music. The first master of the business was Max Steiner, a tune-spewing Viennese who immigrated to America in 1914 and to Hollywood in 1929. Steiner’s score for “King Kong” showed that music could play as powerful a role in talking pictures as it had in the silents. “King Kong” also set a pattern that continues to this day: sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres allow composers the most freedom. Steiner inserted Schoenbergian dissonances in his score which would have dismayed a concert audience of the day. A contemporary adept like Jerry Goldsmith has written some of his best music for movies like “Alien,” “Capricorn One,” and “The Omen.”
In 1934, Warner Bros. took movie music closer to high art by hiring Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the composing wunderkind of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Korngold seized control of the Warners orchestra and turned it into a topflight ensemble. Alfred Newman, the patriarch of a musical family that still wields influence in Hollywood today (through his nephew Randy and his sons Thomas and David), created a similar environment at Fox. Korngold set the tone for film music of the thirties and forties; his sumptuous harmonies and octave-leaping themes put a Wagnerian nimbus around the swordplay of Errol Flynn. Already celebrated for his opera “Die Tote Stadt,” Korngold raised the profile of the Hollywood composer significantly. He insisted, for example, that the composer, and not the studio music executive, receive credit at the Oscar ceremony, and when his score for “Anthony Adverse” won a pseudonymous Oscar in 1937 he angrily responded that a film score “equals a symphony in volume and length.”
Korngoldian romanticism flourished in the hands of others, notably Miklós Rózsa and Franz Waxman; it reached an apex with Max Steiner’s grandly swooping title theme for “Gone with the Wind.” But after the Second World War producers asked for a harder, more modern sound. In 1951, Alex North wrote a pathbreaking jazz score for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and David Raksin and Elmer Bernstein adopted an angular, jazz-inflected idiom in such movies as “Force of Evil” and “The Man with the Golden Arm.” Leonard Rosenman atonally accompanied the adolescent writhings of James Dean. The greatest of all was Bernard Herrmann, whose career stretched from “Citizen Kane” (1941) to “Taxi Driver” (1976). He declined to illustrate every twist of the action, as Steiner and Korngold had done; instead, he shrouded images in augmented chords, fragmentary melodies, and low-lying orchestration. His textures functioned as an emotional ground bass to the action on the screen. (The Varèse Sarabande label has recently been rerecording Herrmann’s scores with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. “Vertigo” and “Psycho” emerge as free-form masterpieces, half familiar and half unknown.)
In the sixties and early seventies, the symphonic score went into decline. Rat Pack and Elvis movies, “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Easy Rider,” and other fusions of film and pop created a fad for song-heavy soundtracks. Synthesizers were also coming into fashion. The studio system began to break up, and so did the studio orchestras. But Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, with their reverence for the thirties swashbucklers, stopped the decline by giving the composer John Williams a major role in their blockbusters of the mid-seventies—“Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Here, again, was a Korngoldian approach, in which music swamped nearly every frame of the movie and commented alertly on the action. Williams signalled his awareness of the past by modelling his “Superman” theme on Korngold’s “Kings Row.” Unlike James Horner, however, Williams re-creates more often than he imitates; he is an accomplished pasticheur, able to make music of any image thrown his way. As such, he is a master of his art.
In the nineties, movie music finds itself enriched by a long history. The most innovative composers know that history and fight against it. Here’s a common scenario: Before the composer arrives on the scene, the director has been editing his rough cut with what is called a “temp track”—a temporary assortment of cues drawn from preëxisting scores. Very often, the director grows fond of the temp track, and the composer is essentially told to duplicate it or supply a smattering of original touches. This practice of musical inbreeding is particularly endemic to action movies. Composers for the likes of “The Rock,” “Con Air,” and “Face/Off” draw on an increasingly limited set of devices—static minor-key sequences, monotonous electronic beats, pompous male choruses, and pseudo-baroque patterns that heavy-metal guitarists would find tedious. Sensitive dramas, meanwhile, are given greeting-card music, with tinkling piano. Still, a fair number of composers—Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, and Elliot Goldenthal come to mind—have managed to resist these formulas and write music that sounds fresh with each picture. Hornerism is not yet triumphant.
The first thing to be noticed about the music nominations is that the Academy has divided one category into two: members now vote for Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. (A contributor to Film Score Monthly, a magazine that covers the business incisively, has proposed a third category for Horner: Best Adapted Score with Original Material.) The division was made last year, evidently because Disney musicals were winning almost every year. Second, one notices the inevitable citation of John Williams. You can applaud Williams’s expertise and still wonder at the Academy’s habit of nominating him for simply showing up. He has been nominated thirty-one times since 1968; not even Max Steiner, the Benzedrine-addicted author of three hundred scores, reached that number. Williams did produce one unusually fine score this year, “Seven Years in Tibet,” with ornate cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma and some soulful experiments in the style of mystic minimalism. But he was nominated instead for “Amistad”—a less distinctive piece of work.
At least a couple of Williams’s Oscars should have gone to Jerry Goldsmith, who, after forty years in Hollywood, has been recognized only for “The Omen.” He has brought various modernist devices into film music—aleatory passages in the manner of the sixties Polish avant-garde, atonal passagework on the piano, all manner of exotic percussion—while pulling off the basic melodic seductions that a potential blockbuster requires. His score for “Chinatown” remains his best work. It ranges from a broad, bluesy trumpet theme to Henry Cowell-like strummings inside the piano, yet the whole is somehow vitally Californian, in tune with the complex period sensibility of the film. (It’s tempting to imagine the synthesis that Goldsmith might have produced for “Titanic”: the disaster has rich musical associations, from the bittersweet classical kitsch played by the ship’s band to the bitterly funny African-American ballads that tore into the Titanic mythology.) Goldsmith’s music for “L.A. Confidential,” which the Academy nominated, is typically excellent, although, like the movie, it leans too much on the example of “Chinatown.” Stronger was his tense, martial score for “Air Force One,” which he wrote in three weeks, after a Randy Newman effort fell flat.
The nomination of Philip Glass for “Kundun” signals an intriguing recent development: a give-and-take between Hollywood and the world of classical music. Both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein tried to make such a connection after the Second World War, but backed off after writing, respectively, “The Heiress” and “On the Waterfront.” Now Glass, Michael Nyman, John Corigliano, Elliot Goldenthal, and Tan Dun are giving it a try again. Whether they will be able to sustain a “double life”—to convince Hollywood and concert audiences alike—remains to be seen. Certainly Martin Scor-sese, a director with a very sharp ear, knew what to expect when he hired Glass for “Kundun”: the composer’s trance-inducing minimalist style is ready-made for the meditative rhythms of the film, and the film may have been edited with Glass in mind. If anything, the match is too nearly perfect: hypnosis causes drowsiness. Nyman, the English minimalist, had a similarly beautifying, enervating effect on “Gattaca,” an arty sci-fi film that appeared and disappeared last year. (Still, “Gattaca” did offer one fine musical joke: it showed, as an example of genetic engineering run amok, a twelve-fingered pianist playing a creepily embroidered version of Schubert’s G-Flat Major Impromptu.)
Danny Elfman, the former leader of the New Wave group Oingo Boingo, came to prominence in Hollywood with his scores for Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” and “Batman.” His rock origins and lack of classical training raised doubts at the start; some established composers considered him a “hummer”—Hollywood slang for a would-be composer who can’t read music and relies on ghostwriters. (Charlie Chaplin was a hummer.) Elfman’s double nomination this year—for “Good Will Hunting,” in the Dramatic category, and “Men in Black,” in Musical or Comedy—suggests that he has finally won respect. Elfman is an expert parodist: in comedy scores—as in his “Simpsons” TV theme, for instance—he favors a kind of off-kilter oompah music spiked with wrong notes and uneven rhythms. Prokofiev’s ballet music and Nino Rota’s surreal scores for Fellini films are his models. Yet he’s also capable of richer, darker sonorities. His “Good Will Hunting” score takes second place in the movie to the wistful indie-rock ballads of Elliott Smith, but it contributes at crucial points to the story’s smart, surprising sentimentalism. Elfman sets out some placid-sounding chord progressions and then tweaks tones of the scale up and down, creating a static yet unstable texture. He thus seems to get inside the mind of the title character, a brilliant, difficult kid resisting the assurances of therapy.
The major omission in these nominations is Howard Shore’s eerie score for “The Game.” Like Elfman, Shore has the disadvantage of coming to Hollywood from commercial pop—he was the music director during the first years of “Saturday Night Live”—and he has also specialized in the Academy-unfriendly genres of horror and gruesome crime. Shore, however, may well be the most imaginative composer who has worked in Hollywood since Herrmann. His signature sound is a distant, slow-moving procession of mostly dissonant chords, which are low enough in volume not to intrude upon the consciousness of filmgoers yet dismal enough to stir unconscious feelings of alarm. The disquiet that the serial-killer epic “Seven” induced in audiences owed as much to Shore’s soft clusters as to David Fincher’s glistening, chilling images. A similar texture is heard in “The Game”: it fixes the downward spiral of the Michael Douglas character, whose life is being destroyed by a campaign of pranks. Shore also adds a fast, quiet stream of polytonal figuration on the piano, a kind of unravelling arpeggio that seems to mirror the unravelling of Douglas’s life. All that menace is a foil for the movie’s shocking comic ending, in which Shore’s pop panache is let loose in an explosion of swing.
I have been browsing through stacks of film-score CDs in search of other glimmers of quality. For the most part, it’s a depressing exercise. There is a pathos in listening to, say, John Frizzell’s “Alien Resurrection,” which tries to compensate with sheer volume for the weakness of the film. Those testosterone thumps sound silly in my living room. As Hollywood history had led me to expect, however, I made interesting discoveries in the sci-fi and horror departments. For example, I had all but given up on Michael Kamen, an erratic composer who began brilliantly in the eighties with a theme-and-variations score for Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” but who recently churned out Windham Hill piano goo for “The Winter Guest.” I put on the soundtrack for “Event Horizon” and found Kamen liberated: he’d fashioned imposing but distant-sounding orchestral textures and combined them with electronic noise from the ambient group Orbital. Another sci-fi score I liked was Joel Goldsmith’s music for the television series “Stargate SG-1.” I had not been aware of the existence of a “Stargate” series. It may not be worth searching out for the musical contributions of the junior Goldsmith, who is Jerry Goldsmith’s son, but I liked his plowing, Prokofievian ostinatos and sinuous chromatic lines.
These scattered surprises in the wildly uneven world of movie music remind me of something Bernard Herrmann said in an interview with the film scholar Royal S. Brown, in 1975, a few months before his death. He said: “I gave a talk at the British Film Institute. I told the audience, ‘Remember old maps, before World War I, how the world had big white spots every now and then? You looked down below, it said “White, Unexplored.” That’s film music. It’s all unexplored.’ ”