Film music has been around as a genre for over a century, in the silent era, when it was unheard of for a film to be shown without the accompaniment of live music. Film music might be a genre, but all it means is the music used in a film. Other than that, whatever the director will let a songwriter get away with goes.
Still, we tend to get a sense of what film music is like and the commercialism it can represent. Since the advent of talking movies, “Hollywood” has been, in some serious circles, the pejorative antonym of “serious” music.
The tables, however, are turning. Hollywood apparently has so little regard for film music these days that the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has demoted music at best to an afterthought. Meanwhile, film music has never been so warmly received in the concert hall.
The orchestra closest to the world of cinema geographically and artistically has always been the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Combining this with its commitment to new music, the orchestra hosted a three-part festival, “Reel Change,” last weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which focused on a new generation of film composers. born in the 1980s. Each evening a different composer organized a program of his music as well as works by colleagues and classical composers, written or not for a film, which they found significant.
They were a seemingly diverse group of composers but with a lot in common. Hildur Guðnadóttir is an experimental cellist and composer from the hip New Icelandic music scene. She won an Oscar this year for her score on “Joker,” beating four longtime academy favorites. His score for the video game “Battlefield 2042” fell on Friday, the night of his concert.
Also on Friday, the acclaimed film “King Richard”, which was scored by Kris Bowers, was released. Classically trained jazz pianist, Bowers hosted the Saturday night program which included the premiere of his “Concerto for Horn,” which was commissioned for the festival. Sunday Afternoon belonged to Nicholas Britell, whose credits include the films “Moonlight” and “Vice” as well as the HBO series “Succession”, with its earworm theme.
All three are savvy, conservatory-trained composers, well versed in classical music above current trends in new music and with a finger on the pulse of pop. Everyone has tried something different in the face of a traditional concert setting. In any case, no music was played with the movie it was written for. They were concerts about music, not movies.
Yet there are unanswered questions when it comes to listening to film music or discerning your purpose. It inevitably means one thing if you’ve seen the movie and another if you haven’t. In addition, a score can be used to create an atmosphere, reveal something inside a character, produce tension or release it, evoke a feeling that may or may not translate outside its original purpose. Music can even exist in its own right, not telling you how to feel but asking you to think. No, Philip Glass’s music is not too loud in this photo. Ride it.
Hildur has taken a holistic approach. She put together a fascinating program that drew heavily on contemporary non-cinematographic pieces by composers who influenced her. The most surprising for such a festival was the surrealist “Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra” by Alvin Lucier. The title “Orchestra” is nothing more than a solo triangle, punctuated by stellar percussion soloist Robyn Schulkowsky. Once set into vibration, the unattractive instrument produces frequencies that seem to come out of nowhere and command the power of hypnosis. With sounds like these, who needs visuals? They are all on your mind.
For the actual orchestral pieces, the young British conductor Hugh Brunt conducted a five-minute brassy piece of Henryk Górecki’s Fourth Symphony (premiered by the LA Phil in 2015), “Brothers for Strings and percussions ”by Arvo Pärt and“ Atmosphères ”by Ligeti. (which caused a stir when used in “2001”). There was also more harmonic silver in a short movement of “Nymphéa Reflection” by Kaija Saariaho.
The concert began with the lights off, as if Disney were a movie theater, for Hildur’s concert work “Under Takes Over”. Individual instruments come in and out with unique tones, and like with the triangle, you can’t tell where the sound is coming from. The evening ended with the intrigue of breathtaking electronic and acoustic effects in the music “Battlefield 2042” by Hildur and “Bathroom Dance” by “The Joker”, two unsettling minutes to delve deeper into the mind of Hildur. ‘too scary a character for words but not, as Hildur reveals, the cello.
Writing for a movie, Bowers told audiences Saturday night, is, for him, getting to the heart of a dramatic situation. Unlike Hildur’s approach, Bowers suggested he needs to find the specific moment in a movie that reveals his emotional essence as a starting point. It can come from improvisation, where you start with something you know and see where it takes you.
Bowers is an outstanding improviser. On the occasions when he improvised or embellished on the keyboard with the orchestra, which was elegantly conducted by Anthony Parnther, he gave everything he played a new meaning in the concert hall.
But he also demonstrated the sometimes lamentable tendency of a film composer to stay on the sidelines, not always to his advantage. The new concerto, written for the main horn of LA Phil Andrew Bain, draws inspiration from the horn as a hunting instrument, shaping the 15-minute concerto like a slightly mystical day in the forest. Cranky and unsettling, it included mysterious Ravel-style orchestral writing and delightful horn calls that set up a captivating scene. Bowers, however, undermined his own invention by adding filmic images of burning logs and the like, without inspiring a listener’s imagination.
He did even less service to the medleys of his own scores – “Green Book”, “King Richard”, “When They See Us” and “Bridgerton” – by providing new visuals showing various situations (father, daughter and football for “King Richard”) less impressive than the original films. In yet another layer, the recorded verses of the poetry were told aloud (and not always intelligibly), partially drowning the piano. I felt as frustrated as when I was watching a movie in which a promising score is not highlighted enough. Ride the Bowers, please!
Britell treated the Sunday morning which he organized as a mere concert of film music. Brunt, a rhythmically laconic conductor, was once again in charge of the LA Phil. As with the other programs, there was a parade of short tracks, which is one of the biggest hurdles of film music programs that the three composers faced. Still, it made for a fascinating afternoon.
Two very original film composers have appeared on more than one program. Ryuichi Sakamoto was favored by Hildur and Bowers. Like Hildur too, Britell chose Mica Levi, here her “Jackie” with her wonderful sliding strings at the start. Gary Yeshon’s theme for “Mr. Turner” was equally intriguing, with his saxophone appearing to mimic a shakuhachi, the traditional Japanese wooden flute. In other striking picks, Britell has included selections from Terence Blanchard’s heartbreaking sheet music to “Malcolm X,” Jonny Greenwood’s Strange Gift to “There Will be Blood” and brief clips from “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am “by Kathryn Bostic.
Britell’s own music, featured in “Vice,” “The Underground Railroad,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Don’t Look Up,” appeared in small moments. They gave the impression of a chameleon composer capable of finding just what it takes to spark an imagination or activity, but not offering enough to capture a composer’s voice. They turned out to be a pleasure to listen to without the film, but these cores could have been even more of a pleasure if they had been developed into concert suites.
As a reminder, Britell performed the theme “Succession” – on a piano that was brought on stage – with the orchestra. Heard as pure concert music, separated from the electronics or the ins and outs of the TV series, the theme sounded as if its raison d’être was to make a 21st century commentary on Rachmaninoff, much like what Michael Nyman once did with Henry Purcell and Mozart. It got the response from the most enthusiastic audience of the weekend, akin to the thrill crowds felt when hearing John Williams played by a large orchestra, with fine acoustics.
However, these cases remain rare. Film composers have always struggled to divide their careers between the soundstage and the concert stage. It goes back to Korngold, who struggled to be taken seriously after inventing the music for film at the dawn of talkie cinema. It is only recently that his Violin Concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz and due to be performed this week by the LA Phil as part of its regular concert series, has become a repertoire favorite. Will the same happen with John Williams’ new violin concerto that the Boston Symphony premiered last summer? Probably not for a long time. The many already famous composers who turned to film – Glass, Copland, Bernstein, Vaughn Williams, the list goes on – are just that: famous composers who wrote for film.
There were exceptions, Toru Takemitsu above all. But Hildur, Bowers and Britell represent a new generation ready to do away with these generic distinctions. They might in fact have minimal help from the academy, which ordered a piece of installation from Hildur. But may the real change be their return to the Disney scene with ever bolder certainty and vision.