Passing the baton

The legacies reflected in current crop of composers

Three giants of 20th century film music — Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and David Raksin — died this year, leading some observers to suggest that their passing is the end of an era.

Raksin (“Laura”) was 92, Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven”) 82, Goldsmith (“Patton”) 75. Raksin’s first feature was in 1935, Bernstein’s in 1950 and Goldsmith’s in 1957. Between them, they worked on more than 700 film and TV projects — credited or not — a staggering output any way you slice it.

“In all three of these gentlemen, there was a powerful connection with the beginnings of what we do,” says five-time Oscar-winning composer John Williams. “Each of their contributions was unique and different. They were pillars, big beacons. We’re going to have a new generation, and generations beyond, who have been inspired by them.”

Adds five-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard: “Nobody can ever replace them. That knowledge, that experience, that connection is just gone. I think we all have a tremendous responsibility to work as hard in our art and be as appreciative of these incredible opportunities we’re given.”

The legacy of Bernstein, Goldsmith and Raksin — which includes the importance of melody, a reliance on classic orchestral arrangements, and the creative use of dissonance and more modern musical techniques — has been carried on this year with several scores written in a more or less traditional vein.

  • The ever prolific Williams scored two films in 2004. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” although third in the boy wizard series, boasts more than 90% new music. “The orchestral palette is very broad, and in this case led us further into the dark side of magic,” Williams notes.

    Included are a Hogwarts song (“Double Trouble,” with lyrics based on Shakespeare); the introduction of Renaissance sounds utilizing such early music instruments as sackbut, recorder and harpsichord; and a zany big-band piece for Harry’s wild London bus ride (which Williams informally tagged “concerto for hubcab and orchestra”).

    As for Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” the composer recalls that the key challenge was the theme for Tom Hanks’ character — “to give him a kind of melodic, textural or timbral musical identity that would color him and his exploits with a kind of Eastern European ethnic flavor.” The result was a virtuoso piece for clarinet soloist Emily Bernstein, backed with accordion, cimbalom and orchestra.

    Also featured is a jazz composition for Hanks’ passion for American music that doubled as a theme for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ flight attendant character.

  • Newton Howard spent five months on “The Village,” his fourth collaboration with director M. Night Shyamalan. “From a narrative point of view, what we wanted (musically) was to have a bucolic context,” Howard says. “These people have been living in a utopian kind of society and, all of a sudden, things are starting to come undone.

    “The other aspect (involved) these mythical creatures living in the woods. There I was really trying to communicate something very elemental, with almost a ceremonial quality to the music.”

    Most significantly, Howard cast famed concert artist Hilary Hahn as his violin soloist. “This was really a woman’s story — (the Dallas Bryce Howard character) is the protagonist,” explains Howard. “There’s obviously an intimacy to the instrument. One of the things about Night’s movies is if the orchestrations are too large in the wrong places, it really takes you out of the movie. Hilary brought a purity of sound, an energy. Her shading and artistry really elevated the score to another level.”

  • Edward Shearmur’s score for “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” set in a sci-fi reversioned 1939, demanded heroic adventure music a la Erich Korngold or Max Steiner. “It was really a process of discovery for us to find a way of translating some of those film music gestures from the ’30s and ’40s, but in a way that didn’t feel anachronistic,” Shearmur says.

    “We wanted a classic approach, and something that felt the music and movie were hand in glove. Also, it became apparent fairly early on that we needed to be light enough on our feet, in terms of humor and the romance, that we didn’t get bogged down in making the music too dark.”

    He was on the film five months and recorded with a 95-piece London orchestra.

  • Last year’s “The Lord of the Rings” Oscar winner Howard Shore reteamed with Martin Scorsese on “The Aviator.” As with his work on the director’s “Gangs of New York,” Shore’s challenge was to blend seamlessly with the remainder of Scorsese’s usual musical patchwork quilt of pre-existing source material, which in “Aviator” involved classical pieces and period-appropriate big-band tunes.

    Working initially from John Logan’s script, then from the film itself, Shore composed several pieces focusing on different aspects of Howard Hughes’ character: “his obsession with speed, his personal demons, his mechanical engineering. There’s a quirky theme that’s used for the brilliance of his mind, one that has a Spanish feeling to it.”

    Shore recorded with the Flemish Radio Orchestra in an old cinema in Leuven, Belgium, to achieve a dry sound that he felt reflected the period of the 1930s.

  • Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (“Unfaithful”) composed the delicate score for “Finding Neverland.” For the film about J.M. Barrie and his relationship with a neighboring family that led to the creation of “Peter Pan,” Kaczmarek reports that he needed to find a musical language that would carry those emotions, support what happens but not be overwhelmingly sentimental.

    The music needed to be very subtle, very gentle, mostly for strings and woodwinds, Kaczmarek says. He also incorporated unusual flutes (“Fantasy needs a smell of exotic things, imaginary sounds, not your everyday sounds”) and, briefly, boys choir (“because this is a story of four boys looking for adventure”), and other colors including accordion and mandolin.

  • Carter Burwell (“Fargo”) considers the assignment of composing music for “Kinsey” — his second film for Bill Condon, after “Gods and Monsters” — to be among his most challenging.

    He decided on the intimate sound of an 11-member chamber ensemble. Burwell found that the warmer and more traditional the music made all these pioneering and still controversial moves by Kinsey more approachable, and the whole experience of the film richer.

    “Associating these themes with his childhood really helped,” he adds. “You’re emotionally brought into his very Middle American background, so later on, when he’s pushing the boundaries of American culture, I use these very Americana-based themes to remind you where he came from.”

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