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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 10

Images and music: a happy marriage

by Lucie Renaud / July 1, 2001

Version française...

O n December 29, 1895, a symbolic date in the annals of human artistic endeavour, an enthralled audience was introduced to the images projected by the Lumière brothers’ cinématographe. This initial film experience didn’t take place in total silence. A pianist provided improvised accompaniment to the images on the screen not only to cover the disruptive noise of the projector, which had no insulating case in those days, but to plunge the viewers into a wonderful world that allowed them to escape their humdrum daily lives. From that moment on, music became a part of cinema.

Over the years, however, the language of film music has evolved in its own way. With the advent of “the talkies,” movie accompanists became obsolete. Now the background music accompanying the twists and turns of the scenario required a fixed score. But before writing a note, composers had to consult closely with the director in order to understand how music would relate to various film sequences. These initial consultations became crucial.

Film directors often express themselves in terms of images and colours (“I want blue music”), or impressions (“I want the viewer to feel the love of A for B, even if this has never been openly expressed”). For those who work in the field of sound, this kind of visual language can be a problem. Composer Anthony Rozankovik, who has worked on numerous films, such as L’Œil du loup (1997) and Les Contes du cimetière (a very recent project), has this to say.: “All filmmakers have their individual conception of the role of music. Some want music to emphasize the action, whereas others are looking for music that contrasts directly with the image on the screen. Some music merely provides background that enhances visual image.”

Relating to the screen

The impact of film music is often measured by how closely it relates to the image, not by its originality. Exceptions are the more developed hit tunes that audiences keep humming for years. One has only to think of the shattering opening of Star Wars, Lara’s theme by Maurice Jarre from Doctor Zhivago, or Henry Mancini’s hilarious Pink Panther title theme. The best film music is often the least invasive and adds depth to the image without overwhelming it. Music speaks to the unconscious above all.

Composers usually have to write a dozen or so themes for every one that finally makes it to the completed film. They readily admit that they aren’t always the best judges of how relevant one musical passage is, compared to another. In desperately trying to avoid musical clichés, composers frequently produce a less compelling result as far as the film is concerned. In the Champs Elysées on April 2 of this year, at the unveiling of a gold plaque honouring Ennio Morricone, the composer told assembled media people that he had sent ten or more themes to Brian de Palma for the triumphant return of Elliot Ness’s men in The Untouchables, specifically stating that the fifth version shouldn’t be used, as he considered it too weak musically. De Palma chose this very version because he felt it adhered marvellously to the screen image.

Technological developments are also changing the way composers work. The arrival of MIDI programming in 1982 has enabled them to use a single keyboard connected to a bank of synthesizers that can transform the music in any way they like, from reproducing “real” instruments (violin, clarinet, etc.) to the most eclectic electronic sounds. This simplifies conversations between composers and directors, since themes can be presented in a variety of registers, tempi, and keys by simply pressing a button. Composing software (the musical equivalent of a word processor) also makes it possible to print out a legible score for studio musicians. A notable feature of these studio sessions is that they are often conducted in the greatest secrecy. When recording the sound track for the latest Star Wars in London, no one was allowed to take scores out of the studio, and musicians had to sign a clause in their contracts agreeing not to reveal the material before the date of the film’s première.

A distinct art form

The world of film music is still evolving. “Serious” classical musicians talked of film music thirty or forty years ago with some disdain, viewing it as a third-rate activity. Today, the quality of film music no longer needs to be proven. Indeed, Rozankovic calls it “an entirely distinct art form,” even though he doesn’t devote all his time to it. We are moving further and further away from the syrupy violin music that once was the obligatory accompaniment to lovers’ passionate declarations, or the strident dissonance and diminished seventh chords intended to scare the wits out of horror film audiences.

Several famous composers find that film work offers a musically exhilarating challenge, for example, John Corigliano (The Red Violin), Gabriel Yared (The English Patient), or Tan Dun (who wrote the Oscar-winning music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Recordings sell very well and their impact is obvious. Without this music, the film as such might not even exist. As filmmaker Robert Bresson put it, “Music always evokes images, but images never evoke music.” More than any other art, music immerses those who hear it in an imaginary world, unequalled even by the magic of cinema..


Websites for film music fans

  • www.traxzone.com.: the French film music magazine. Abundant coverage, with interviews, special issues, CD reviews, and the latest news. A must-see if you can read French.
  • www.classicalrecordings.com/johnwilliams.: The unofficial John Williams homepage. Wide-ranging, with sound clips, discographies, and much more.


A perfect fit

How can we account for the fact that the best-known films are often associated with fine scores.? Some composer-director duos have made a name for their ability to get music and image to fit perfectly—notably Federico Fellini and Nino Rota, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini, François Truffault and Georges Delerue, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, among others. But the most enduringly prolific tandem of the last twenty-five years is definitely Steven Spielberg and John Williams. The hits keep piling up, from Jaws in 1975 to Schindler’s List in 1993, not forgetting Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, E.T. in 1983, Jurassic Park in 1993, and the impressive Star Wars series. Purists may claim that Spielberg’s films are aimed at a mass market and that the music of John Williams is too “Hollywood,” but it is abundantly clear that these two men have developed a rapport between image and music that speaks to the hearts of their multitudinous audiences.


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