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Five composers who stand alone

“There’s something about doing that first score for a film,” says composer Carter Burwell, “that is maybe the most exciting moment you’ll ever have creatively. You have nothing in your musical training to fall back on, because film scoring is like nothing else, and everything in front of you is possible.”

Burwell’s point, however, isn’t nostalgic. What he’s driving at is what links five of the most adventurous, continually inventive composers in the movies: “After that first score, the challenge is reviving that original excitement for each subsequent score. It comes down to asking yourself the question: Is it interesting?”

For Burwell, as well as Michael Nyman, Howard Shore, Stewart Copeland and Mychael Danna, the answer is, almost invariably, “Yes.”

Inevitably in the film business nearly all artists have had their less-than-fulfilling projects or associations with maligned movies. Nyman, for instance, readily admits that director Diane Kurys “didn’t have a clue what she wanted for the music” to her 1994 bomb, “Six Days, Six Nights,” and so, Nyman says pointedly, “the results didn’t work.” Shore had, in the eyes of some, the dubious task of scoring the much-ridiculed Demi Moore vehicle, “Striptease.”

But it is precisely in these underwhelming projects where such composers display their mettle. Nyman’s skittering, nervous soundscapes for “Six Days” remain haunting on CD. (The film, like several other Nyman-scored titles such as Volker Schlondorff’s “The Ogre,” starring John Malkovich, has never been released in the U.S.)

Shore plays against the easy comedy of “Striptease” with resourceful use of regional instruments from the story’s Southern setting.

And if there’s a dominant characteristic that unites this composing quintet — one which flies in the face of dominant film scoring tradition — it is the urge to write accompanying music that refuses to egg on the viewer’s emotions by merely emphasizing what’s already on the screen.

“I really dislike the tendency to underline emotions,” says Danna, who, after a steady decade of working with fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, is enjoying a breakthrough year in 1997 with scores for Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” John Greyson’s “Lilies,” and Mira Nair’s “Kama Sutra.”

“I find it more interesting,” Danna adds, “to create a parallel theme which runs alongside the film.” For “The Sweet Hereafter,” Danna collaborated with the Toronto Consort to create an Early Renaissance score matched in a startling way to the film’s contemporary time period. In a similar way in “The Ice Storm,” Danna selected both the ancient sounds of an Indonesian gamelan orchestra and Native American flutes to play against the film’s 1973 Connecticut setting.

“The medieval sound in ‘Sweet Hereafter’ is a very centered, cohesive, symbiotic music that’s human and harmonious, which was ideal to convey the small town in the movie,” explains Danna. “The gamelan and Native American sounds in ‘Ice Storm’ were an attempt to convey nature, and how these people ignored nature at their own peril.

Danna, who drew upon the Latin Mass with the Hilliard Ensemble for his “Lilies” score, sees such old musical styles as God-centered. “I think we hear them now, perhaps feeling the absence of God in the modern world, and sense a loss,” Danna says.

These are not the words of your old-guard movie composer. It may be because today’s compelling composers come from non-movie backgrounds, theorizes Shore.

“I come out of jazz, having trained in it at school, at the Berklee School of Music, and touring with my own combo,” says Shore, whose 1997 lineup is astoundingly eclectic, from David Cronenberg’s “Crash” to “The Game” and “Copland.”

“Musicians like Stewart (Copeland) come from rock with the Police, Mychael (Danna) has a serious world-music background, Nyman has a ton of classical-contemporary recordings and concerts with his group,” Shore says. “You also see this with people like John Corigliano and Elliot Goldenthal. I’m sure this is a key to making their film music really distinctive.”

Burwell has taken an even odder route to the movies, which may explain his idiosyncratic style. This Harvard grad didn’t even major in music (architecture and animation were his fortes). And when he did get into music, it was through punk rock in the late ’70s. Rookie filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen wanted an equally rookie composer for “Blood Simple,” and Burwell and the Coens have been together ever since.

“There’s room for such range with the Coens that I’m never aware of repeating anything with them,” Burwell says. “You know, it can be yodeling for ‘Raising Arizona,’ or crazy Khatchaturian-style orchestrals for ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ or Scandanavian folk ballads for ‘Fargo.’ (Burwell will not reveal what new sounds he’s come up with for the Coens’ upcoming “The Big Lebowski.”) You just can’t hope to get that with anyone else, and it gets infectious.

“Other producers who hire me keep wanting me to do the sort of thing I do for the Coens. But what sort of thing? I wonder. That’s the thing — it’s always different.”

Variety is everything, agrees Copeland, who made a seemingly flawless transition in the late ’80s from drummer for the Police to workhorse film and TV composer.

“I began to chafe under the rock format after awhile, because it’s so structured and limited by verse-chorus-verse, with romance as the subject matter — unless you get political,” Copeland says. “In film, though, I can do all-synthesizer scores, full symphony works, raging rock scores, or a small score with piano and flute.”

But, like his upstart peers, Copeland has been condemned by the musical old-guard for his rebellious ways.

“I dropped by this film composing class a singer I was working with was taking, and the teacher held me up as the paragon of everything that must be avoided in film music! ‘Wall Street,’ for which I did an all-synthesizer score, was held up for special wrath by this guy.”

Nyman too, despite his heralded scores for dozens of Peter Greenaway’s films (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and “Prospero’s Books” among them) and for Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” remains the object of scorn by music critics in his native England. Phrases like “the usual Nyman chug-a-chug-a-chug” and other dismissals pepper British reviews of the work of a man who was once himself a music critic.

Although he was the first to apply the art term “minimalism” to music in his writing about composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, Nyman’s own minimalist music has yet to receive the British music establishment stamp of approval — an appearance at the annual Proms concerts series.

“I am removed from them, which makes writing for film such a marvelous outlet,” says Nyman, whose first Hollywood-made score appears this week in Andrew Niccol’s futurist drama, “Gattaca.”

At the same time, Nyman feels compelled to write concert music for the Michael Nyman Band (his longtime ensemble) even while he’s composing for a movie.

“I did this with ‘Gattaca,’ for which I worked on longer than any other film project,” Nyman says. “I would switch back and forth between writing ‘Gattaca’ and my concerto for sax and cello, though I would deny any thematic or stylistic spillover from one work to the other.”

In the era of the auteur, Nyman and company appear to thrive, working so steadily with a single director for a decade or more that is hard to imagine the director’s films apart from their composer’s music: Danna and Egoyan; Shore and Cronenberg; Burwell and the Coens; Nyman and Greenaway, until their public split after “Prospero.”

And though Copeland can’t claim such longevity with one filmmaker, he has collaborated with a bevy of signature filmmakers, ranging from Boaz Yakin (“Fresh”) and Ken Loach (“Raining Stones”) to Oliver Stone (“Talk Radio” and “Wall Street”) to the director who gave him his first screen break — Francis Coppola (“Rumble Fish”).

It isn’t that these filmmakers are musical geniuses, argues Copeland,
who disputes Danna’s claim that “the best scores are usually made working with the directors with the best ears for music.”

“Why is it that when a director is fired off a project that everything gets out of sync?” Copeland asks. “Because the director has to have the vision for the film. Whether he has musical ability or not, or is able to explain in precise musical detail what he wants in a scene, isn’t that important.

What a director needs to do for the musical score to be successful is convey to the emotion, the tone of the scene.

“That’s probably why today so many directors and composers work closely over a long time,” Copeland says. “They understand each other.”

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