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Movie music is the classical music of the late 20th century, say record execs who are signing a growing number of film composers to deals designed not only to promote their film music but also allow them the freedom to write in other forms.

John Williams and James Horner have contracts with Sony Classical, while John Barry and Michael Kamen have been signed by PolyGram. Other labels have less formalized but ongoing relationships with composers, such as Maurice Jarre and Howard Shore at Milan and Jerry Goldsmith and Joel McNeely at Varese Sarabande.

“It is essential for the survival and future well-being of the classical record business, and classical music in general, to open up the doors to accessible, melodic classical music,” says Sony Classical president Peter Gelb. “And composers of (that) music are more often than not found in Hollywood.”

New classical music has, for much of the past half-century, been the domain of “inaccessible composers,” adds Gelb — complex, atonal, often dissonant music that turned off many listeners. “The result has been that new music released by classical record labels in the last 10 or 20 years has had very little audience success,” he says.

Nancy Zannini, senior VP of soundtracks for PolyGram Classics & Jazz, puts a historical spin on it: “The major symphonic composers of the 19th century — the Liszts, the Strausses, the Wagners — wrote music that was based on literature, poems, stories or paintings. And if there had been films, they probably would have been writing music that was based on films, too. We don’t see this as a break from our classical tradition.”

Says Toby Pieniek, chief operating officer of Milan Records: “It’s really a recognition on our part that the film composers of today are really the classical composers that will be recognized in the 21st century. If you go back to the 18th century, music was written for courts or for dance or to accompany theater. We think of it as music strictly to listen to, but it was music to accompany various entertainments. They were the pop composers of that era.”

Five-time Oscar winner John Williams has been with Sony Classical since 1990, recording several albums in his former role as conductor of the Boston Pops but, since then, recording such concert works as his bassoon concerto and last year’s best-selling “Cinema Serenade” movie-theme collection featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Last year, Sony Classical signed James Horner to an exclusive contract — “exclusive” in the sense that his movie scores may go to other labels but that his “home” will be at Sony Classical. “They’ve pretty much issued me a sort of carte blanche in terms of being open to anything that I would approach them with,” explains the composer.

Unlike Williams, however, Horner has no interest in writing a concerto or symphony. “I spent so many years in academia and conservatories,” he points out. “I left that world, the world of serious music per se, quite a while ago, and I’ve really never been interested in returning.” Sony Classical has Horner’s current “Titanic” score, and has asked the composer to adapt his “Titanic” themes into a suite for a second album later this year. In addition, Horner says, “I would at some point love to write a piece for dance, or ballet,” because like film, it’s a mixed-media concept as opposed to a strictly concert-hall experience.

PolyGram last year approached John Barry with an invitation to write non-film music, something the British composer has done only once (his 1975 suite “Americans”). He responded with “The Beyondness of Things,” a 55-minute collection of original instrumentals that PolyGram’s London Decca label will release April 14. The same label has already released his current film score, the romantic “Swept from the Sea.”

Barry, a five-time Oscar winner (“Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves”), enjoys being associated with a classical, rather than pop, label. “They have a whole different attitude toward you. They say, ‘We’ll make it work. We’re going to give it our best.’ They’ve already done unbelievable promotion on ‘Swept from the Sea.'” Next up: possibly “a compositional jazz album,” Barry says.

Adds PolyGram’s Zannini: “We view our deals with John and Michael Kamen as opportunities to do parallel projects. To hopefully have the first look on their film projects, and at the same time allow them to do things outside of film. In the classical world, where we are always trying to expand our audience, these names are friendly and familiar.”

London Decca will release “Michael Kamen’s Opus” March 10. With a title reminiscent of one of his best-known recent scores, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” it’s a collection of his music for films, “all very melodic and very romantic music for full orchestra,” says the composer. Themes from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Don Juan DeMarco,” “Circle of Friends,” “The Winter Guest” and others are included.

Kamen believes that this trend marks a shift in thinking by the people in charge at classical labels: “Film music is a serious form of music for this century… What we are all writing in one way or another represents a new school of thought in terms of orchestral music which has been missing for the last 75 years: really melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and relevant.”

Kamen’s “Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra,” featuring Japanese guitarist Hotei, is scheduled for release later this year; London Decca will also release his “Millennium Symphony,” scheduled for a 2000 premiere in Washington, D.C. Also on the drawing boards: a tone poem for narrator and orchestra based on the writings of American Indians.

Milan has released Maurice Jarre’s concert work, including “Lean by Jarre” and “Maurice Jarre at Abbey Road,” as well as such popular Jarre scores as “Ghost.” It also has Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “1996” as well as his score for “Little Buddha” and a series of Howard Shore albums including “Crash,” “Copland” and “Naked Lunch.”

Windham Hill recently signed TV composer W.G. Snuffy Walden (“thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life”) as an artist and will release his first album later this year. Varese Sarabande has no contractual deals with composers, according to producer Bob Townson, but it regularly sends Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Joel McNeely and Cliff Eidelman abroad to re-record classic scores (such as Goldsmith’s “The Sand Pebbles” and Bernstein’s “The Magnificent Seven”) and theme collections.

McNeely’s “Shadows of the Empire,” an original symphonic work based on a “Star Wars” book, spent nearly a year on Billboard’s classical-crossover chart. And a collection of Shakespeare-inspired themes included Eidelman’s 17-minute overture based on “The Tempest,” written specifically for the album.

“What we would really like to see,” says Sony Classical’s Gelb, “is to have classical music return to the status it once had, of being — if not the pop music of its day — relevant and connected to popular culture. That’s our goal and that’s why we are working with composers who are in touch with what’s really happening in the world.”