Thomas finds his own way

It seems almost too perfect.

The Newman music family. The legacy of the triumvirate of Alfred, Lionel and Emil carried on by the younger generation of Randy, Thomas, David and Maria. The spanning of decades of great movie music, from “Street Scene” to “The Shawshank Redemption.” Continuity in a business of quick-buck hacks. Son Thomas inheriting father Alfred’s Pacific Palisades studio as his own creative playroom.

Nice as all of this is, the Newman story is more complicated, and Thomas’ part in it is especially complex. He is not simply carrying on the family business; you can’t, he says, “learn music through legacy, or just because your parents did it. You find your own way, driven not by the need to carry on what your father did, but because you need to find your own place inside music.”

Indeed, the overarching characteristic of the younger (now 41) Newman’s film work is a penetrating mind exploring different music combinations, patterns and dynamics. Where another composer might have gone loud with certain dramatic passages in the Oscar-nominated “Shawshank” score, Newman often opted for quiet, low-register tones. The indelible, distinctive pairings of electronics and acoustics, strings and unconventional percussion in such scores as “The Player,” “The Rapture” and “Flesh and Bone” produce the uncanny effect of music getting under the movie characters’ skin.

Contrary to usual notions of film music, this effect is fairly rare on screen. Most of the canon of lauded film music — Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho,” Ennio Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Sand Pebbles,” Elmer Bernstein’s “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” Jerome Moross’ “The Big Country,” Alex North’s “Spartacus” or Alfred’s own work on “All About Eve” and “How the West Was Won” — consists of composers responding musically to the images on screen. Newman’s scores tend to go beyond response; they let the listener burrow inside the images, whether it’s the domestic handiwork in “How to Make an American Quilt” or the eccentric mindsets in the Oscar-nominated score for “Unstrung Heroes.”

Yes, Newman confirms, he had early piano training, but as a kid he was more likely to be playing baseball or football than a keyboard. “I really didn’t have that close a link with my uncles Lionel and Emil, and most of my memories of my father were of an older man who grew ill. He died when I was 14. Since Randy was older, he remembers them more in their prime. I was really following along with my music training because it was expected. But I think because of my father’s death, perhaps reflecting on what he accomplished — or as much as a teenage boy could — my serious interest in music began.”

His studies included a music degree from Yale under Jacob Druckman’s and Bruce MacCombie’s tutelage, and private studies with George Trembley and “Laura” composer David Raksin. “But my prime mentor,” he recalls, “was Stephen Sondheim, whom I met through Hal Prince at the Musical Theatre Workshop. Besides being selflessly supportive, Stephen urged me to think about how music makes drama more interesting. He never wonders, ‘How can I be different?’ He just thinks differently, and that’s the key to freshness in music.”

Newman’s tastes gravitated not to the romantic tradition embraced by the earlier Newman generation in their scores, but to the 20th-century music of Alban Berg, Charles Ives and John Cage, “perhaps because it’s of my time, I related to it psychologically. Ives’ value for me wasn’t that his work is cinematic — it isn’t — but how referential it is of other music, and how American it is. I think we’ve all been a product of Cage’s world, how he transformed all music, the wry way he degraded the role of the composer-as-God, the freedom he expressed of finding music on a street corner, in a forest.”

A typical Cage strategy Newman loves is exploring his studio, “searching through all the instruments I’ve collected over time, and finding the right sound for a moment of screen time. Movie composing allows me the freedom to use a symphonic palette if I want, or to strike a metal bowl, if I want that. I’m fascinated how you can make noises with certain instruments without much technique.”

Such serendipity, Newman explains, is how he became interested in electronic instruments: “They provide a different color, the same way a wood instrument differs from a plucked string,” which is precisely the unconventional combination heard in his stunningly nuanced, pianissimo score for “Flesh and Bone.”

It was this score that convinced director Gillian Armstrong to hire Newman for “Little Women” and “Oscar and Lucinda,” now in post-production: “His work is full of atmosphere, tension and layers like no other composer I know of,” observes Armstrong. “My sound editors tell me his music has ‘air’ in it, meaning he understands the need for music to play alongside sound effects. Above all, he thinks about storytelling, how music can carry subtext, and subconscious meanings.”

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