Melding contempo genius with past

Modern composers look to classical titans for inspiration

From the movies’ silent era, the use of classical music and previously composed music has remained such a fixture that it’s often taken for granted. But it’s also represented a double-edged sword for the filmmaker: The familiar and universal strains of Beethoven can provide a shorthand to a story’s emotional state, but they can just as easily overwhelm what’s onscreen.

The other side of the classical equation for film music is the almost universal fact of life that film composers regularly and liberally borrow (some might say steal) from dead composers. It’s hard to imagine, for example, where much post-WW2 Hollywood composing would be without those twin towers of influence: Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber.

But what’s emerged this year is a case of a more judicious application of pre-composed music, sometimes adapted to the needs of the film, sometimes selectively edited from original recordings. Alexandre Desplat found himself in a familiar position when hired to write the score for “The King’s Speech”: Director Tom Hooper had deployed temp tracks of various Beethoven works during the editing phase, and so, like countless movie composers before him, Desplat found himself having to match a genius.

This is nothing new. What proved somewhat different with this project is that Desplat determined that not only Beethoven (2nd movement of the 7th Symphony, the 5th Emperor Piano Concerto), Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro Overture, the Clarinet Concerto) and Brahms (the 2nd movement of his Requiem) would be used as cues, but that his original music would deliberately echo and dovetail with these works.

“I wanted to bring my own music into this world,” Desplat explains, “without clashing with it. Now, clashing can sometimes be a good thing, but not on this film. The music needed a classical backgrounding to it in order to gel with the other music. It perhaps helped that Mozart is my favorite composer of all time, so it was a pleasure to live with his work and spirit. He creates a seeming simplicity and joy when in fact it’s complex and melancholic, and these are qualities to which I always aspire in my own music.

“When Tom and I discussed what would be the lead instrument, we decided that it would be percussive, and what better percussion than the piano, the only one which is a fully developed melodic and percussive instrument? Through much of my portions of the soundtrack and the selections, piano leads the way.”

As the future king of England on the eve of WW2, George (played by Colin Firth) painfully struggles to overcome his fear of public speaking that takes the form of extreme stuttering, and Desplat landed upon the idea of an insistently repeated piano note to suggest George’s inner agony.

“It’s a heartbreaking process, but I would guess that almost nobody in the cinema would notice this use of repetitive piano,” Desplat says, “while they all spot Beethoven’s 7th.” His score’s Mozartian motifs finally give way to this symphony, which Desplat rightly terms “cosmic,” when King George delivers his first wartime speech that climaxes the film.

“Those who heard his speech remarked on how incredibly slow and deliberate he was in delivering it,” says Desplat, “and this is exactly how Beethoven builds the 2nd movement, gradually, steadily, deliberately, step by step, until you move from despair to joy.”

These selections were orchestrated by Desplat and Jean-Pascal Beintus in order to fit within the confines of the film’s playing time — a seldom understood art in itself, though one with a long Oscar-related history that includes scores for “Barry Lyndon” and “Amadeus.”

“It would be brutal, even I would say ugly, to merely insert edited sections of previously recorded tracks of these composers,” Desplat says. “We had to tailor the pieces, with some restructuring, some editing of a few bars.”

Such was not the case of the surprise foreign-language U.S. b.o. hit of the year, “I Am Love,” a long-gestating collaboration between Italian director Luca Guadagnino and actor-producer Tilda Swinton about an industrialist’s Russian-born wife (played by Swinton) falling madly in love during a midlife crisis. In this case, a broad range of American composer John Adams’ oeuvre was selected for several scenes and sequences, each edited cue taken from original recordings.

Guadagnino had been given a CD collection of Adams’ music from a friend, and he and Swinton were immediately struck at how much of it fulfilled their musical ideas for the film.

“It was filling our earboxes as the final draft of the script was being finished,” says Swinton, “and we were very certain that Adams’ music was the soundtrack. We knew that we wanted to keep emotion out of the action, and let it come through the music. And John’s music reaches for Olympian heights of grandeur, and then can come back down to the street level.”

The catch: Would Adams, whom neither Guadagnino nor Swinton knew, grant them permission, especially since his work has seldom been used in films?

“We knew that we were in a dicey position of falling in love with his music without having any notion if he would be fine with it,” adds Swinton.

For his part, Adams says he “had no idea that they were in a panic worrying over my permission! When they approached me, I was deeply humbled at their regard for my work. It’s not often when a living composer is contacted from people in the film world to use your music.”

To be sure, Adams’ reaction to the use of cues in the film (they include selections from “The Chairman Dances” in his epic opera, “Nixon in China,” to “Shaker Loops” to a piece titled “Lollapalooza”) was initially mixed:

“It was a bit alarming at first to hear it against the images, because to my ears some of it felt like the music had been dropped in,” says Adams. “Whereas at other times it felt more organic and close to the meaning and purpose of the scene. But then I noticed that there was an original concept going on here.”

Clint Mansell, a longtime music collaborator with Darren Aronofsky, was faced with the monumentality of Tschaikovsky’s score to the “Swan Lake” ballet when Aronofsky asked him to write a score for “Black Swan.”

“It wasn’t going to be like anything else I had done for Darren,” Mansell notes, “since there was this other composer in the room, and his name was Tschaikovsky, for God’s sake!”

“A clue early on in the film is that Vincent Cassel as the ballet director describes his version as visceral and raw, and would explore the black side of the swan. In my own mind, I linked this up with (Brit choreographer) Matthew Bourne’s recent version of ‘Swan Lake,’ which was so incredibly physical that it was like watching a sporting event. I realized that I had to reference the Tschaikovsky original from time to time, but make it my own. It’s the choice of either being in awe of a master, or take a more punk approach and say, ‘All right, I’ll make this better. It’s arrogant, but you have to go that way.”

Mansell’s process was to absorb Tschaikovsky’s score with repeated listenings, then put it away and begin to compose with a subliminal sense of the original. The final effect on the soundtrack is a remarkable morphing of the original into something verging on music horror, a sort of Cubist rendering that re-imagines “Swan Lake” as a living nightmare.

“My job was to put the viewer inside the mind of a prima ballerina obsessed with landing the role and delivering the perfect performance, with a desire that’s all consuming,” Mansell says. “Tschaikovsky himself sounds obsessively mad in this work, and so these two aspects come together here. The intention for perfection can produce demons, a warping of good intentions into something destructive.”

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