Bending tradition

Unorthodoxy bonds classic, modern scorers

The desert sands drift by, lovers’ passions rise, and a plaintive, then rapturous scirocco of music blows in. The effect of a score such as Gabriel Yared’s for “The English Patient” recalls nothing less for the movie fan’s ear than Maurice Jarre’s music for David Lean’s epic films, and yet, the similarity is deceiving – and points to a fascinating paradox shared by many of the film composers with strong work in 1996.

Some may be ripe for Oscar consideration, such as Yared, or James Horner for “Ransom,” Ellliot Goldenthal for “Michael Collins,” Alan Menken for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Rachel Portman for “Emma” and “Marvin’s Room.” Some, given the sometimes staid ways of the Academy music branch, may be overlooked, such as Daniel Lanois for “Sling Blade” or Mark Isham for “Fly Away Home.”

And while some of these film composers opt for a grand movie tradition – the powerful, under-the-skin approach of Horner, the epic sweep of Yared, the varied song score of Menken – others go for non-traditional settings (Portman and Isham) and moods (Lanois).

None of them, however, view themselves as movie composers exclusively, and some even evince a deliberate ignorance of other movie music. “Truly, I have only heard a couple of Jarre’s scores, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ and them just faintly,” says Yared. “I’ve given my life over to music, reading it, learning it, because I was self-taught. I usually don’t go to the movies.”

“I got sidetracked into films. It was never, ever a goal of mine,” says Portman. For Isham, the whole notion of scoring for movies didn’t occur to him until he received a call in 1982 from director Carroll Ballard, who asked him to try his hand at “Never Cry Wolf” – a collaboration extending up to the present with Ballard’s “Fly Away Home.” After an illustrious career as a musician and partner with Brian Eno and producer for such groups as U2 and Luscious Jackson, Lanois is coming fairly late to movie scoring – “Sling Blade” is his first solo film project. For Horner, “No movie composers have influenced me, because I was never a movie fan. For me, it’s been a way of writing classical music.”

Yet here they are, exploring the elusive art of making original film music that, at its best, stands on its own, while never calling attention to itself, supporting – and often saving – the movie.

The new wave of movie composers happily shunning the old movie music traditions may give off the whiff of elitism to some, but their grounding in classical, jazz and rock traditions seems to have given these composers the edge when it comes time for directors and producers to select a composer. Isham is a striking case of this phenomenon: A trumpet-based musician with jazz groups Rubisa Patrol and his own Miles Davis Tribute Band, electronic music guru Morton Subotnick and Celtic soul legend Van Morrison, he suddenly saw himself in demand for the movies after “Never Cry Wolf,” and in more demand than ever after earning an Oscar nomination for Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It” in 1992.

“I realized that I had this new career,” Isham, looking back at the dozens of film scores he’s completed in the last 14 years. “I wondered if I should study the technical aspects of film scoring, such as synchronization, elements of mixing, and so on. But I realized this would be a mistake, knowing that what strength there is in my music came from my point of view, which is what directors wanted.”

“Breaking the rules, that’s it,” reckons Lanois. “The danger is there in movie scoring, like it is in the recording business, and that is getting kind of too professional, too slick, like it’s a job. Sometimes the guys who come from outside the form can take a fresh approach that’s needed.”

Perhaps reflecting his longer span of experience in the film scoring studio, Isham, unlike Lanois, accepts certain facts about the business – such as the composer’s ultimately handing control of the score over to the soundtrack mixer, who integrates the separate dialogue, sound effects and music tracks into a composite. “The director is the leader,” notes Isham. “I’m philosophical about that.”

Lanois, though happy with his collaboration with “Sling Blade” writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton, is less pleased with the film’s final soundtrack mix, and wonders if “it’s necessary to give up control of the sound of your score to a complete newcomer (the mixer), for whom it’s generally just another job. Their heart isn’t in it. Besides,” adds Lanois, a veteran of many an album mix, “what’s the big mystery of mixing various tracks for a movie?”

Yet the composer’s best friend can be a sound technician, particularly if, like sound designer Walter Murch on Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient,” the technician also views himself as an artist. “I had a magician in Murch,” Yared says, “who made the music flow better than, I feel, what I wrote.” And echoing Isham’s stress on the role of the supportive music editor, Yared says he wishes he could take along music editors Robert Randles and Ling Ling Li for on every future film project.

As tradition-breaking as many film composers may view themselves, there is no escaping certain kinds of forms and techniques that inform the Hollywood movie score. More than reviving the Broadway musical, for instance, Menken says, “I would really like to revive the Hollywood musical, the kind of song score in which it’s impossible to think of the movie without thinking of the music, and conversely, when you hear a certain song from the movie, the images come back to you. Even more than the conventional supportive film score, the composer of the song score is in a naturally more pivotal position for the movie.”

Part of this tradition, adds Menken, lies in the tricky art of “finding themes associated with specific characters and points in the story that, after the first statement, can then be used again more subliminally.”

Horner wonders if viewers of Ron Howard’s “Ransom” would even notice his score, which is actually an intense stirring of moods, but is constructed in the classical Hollywood style known as “underscoring.”

“I was able in ‘Braveheart’ to weave a spell and address many different issues of love, heroism and history,” he says, “but in ‘Ransom’ the task was far subtler. The most important concept was to explore the anxiety of parents losing their only son and not knowing what to do about it. In underscoring, you can never lead the actors or the action, never make music that says, ‘They’re in jeopardy, get it?”‘

A master of underscoring like Jerry Goldsmith, suggests Horner, has often gone unnoticed by the Academy precisely because of this subtlety.

With the advent last year of the original musical or comedy score category, Menken (who won it for “Pocahontas”) believes, “the song-based and lighter, character-based score can be recognized.”

This may be good news for a composer like Portman, whose sense of untraditional instruments like clarinet and treatment of ironic comedy has made her a Hollywood favorite. “I will hear a voice for the film that’s right,” she notes, “but it also blends with my own voices. My classical training informs that, so I tend to go more for bassoons or clarinets than strings.”

This taste for unusual settings, combined with comedy, creates its own trap, though: “I was definitely typecast after ‘Benny & Joon’ as the quirky, witty composer with heart. Every movie with odd, sweet characters came my way after that, but you have to resist. So by leaning toward unconventional voicings, which independent filmmakers like Mike Leigh give me more freedom and time to explore, I think I’ve been able to avoid repeating myself.”

So, is the old-fashioned, fat orchestral sound threatened with extinction, thanks to composers wanting to break the rules? Not so fast, suggests Isham, who found ways of incorporating his own personal tastes into a traditional-sounding “big” score for “Fly Away Home.”

“I put a little ensemble of odd instruments ranging from dulcimer to accordion to soprano sax, and then wrapped a full orchestra around it,” Isham explains. “This gave me great flexibility, for the great, huge scenes of the geese in flight on one hand, and the small, intimate moments with the girl and her chicks on the other. I could pull out one instrument for a solo, or small group, or the full orchestra, based on what the scene called for.”

Just as these composers try to bend and tweak the traditions, they insist on being as removed as possible from the annual awards buzz. Horner says he does it by never answering his phone machine after 3 p.m., not reading the newspapers and not knowing what his colleagues are up to. “Yet no matter how much you try,” he adds, “you do get wrapped up in the tornado of the Oscars.”

Yared takes Horner’s distancing strategy a few degrees further. Making his base on an island off the coast of Brittany certainly helps. It becomes, he says, very easy to get wrapped up in your work, leading him to observe, “I know I’d been nominated for a Golden Globe. But I don’t know what that means. What is this Golden Globe?”

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