I am not, generally speaking, a big fan of movie music although the ability to produce useful art on demand appeals to my lifetime hack sensibilities.  I don’t think Bernard Hermann and Miklos Rozsa are overlooked concert hall geniuses who might have been among the greats had they not traded their souls for big houses in Beverly Hills.  They are what they are.

Writing for films is a craft, not an art, but it is a demanding craft that not every composer–even a great one–can do.  In Andre Previn’s memoirs of his Hollywood years (which is called No Minor Chords because Irving Thalberg once degreed that no MGM picture should ever contain music with a minor chord), Previn writes of having taken one of the big moguls, Louis B. Mayer, I believe, to the Hollywood Bowl to hear the Sibelius Violin Concerto.  Afterwards, he asked him how he liked it.  “Well,” Mayer said.  “It was good but he couldn’t write for pictures.”

I suspect Mr. Mayer was right.  Many “serious’ composers (and writers, too, think of Faulkner) are not good at writing for pictures.

The latest example of underachievement in the category of film music is Osvaldo Golijov, whom Francis Ford Coppola specifically commissioned to write the music for Youth Without Youth, Coppola’s recent comeback film which was seen by absolutely nobody.  On the surface, Golijov’s enormous multicultural sound palette would seem perfect for film.  Alas, the result is more insipid than limpid, if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame nails his film debut with the score for There Will Be Blood.   The music has to be pretty dramatic to match Daniel Day-Lewis’ over-the-top, spit-slinging, snot-dripping performance as a rabid early oil man but Greenwood pulls it off.  So he’s channelling Penderecki, Gorecki, and Messiaen, originality is less important than conveying mood in film music.  Like Ry Cooder, another unexpected star of film music, Greenwood shows himself to be a master of atmosphere and shifting physical and mental landscapes.  If he wants to give up his day job, he’s probably got a future in Hollywood.

17 Responses to “You Ought to Be in Movies”
  1. Chris Becker says:

    “…composing-to-pre-existing-media doesn’t usually require that aspect of the craft of composition, hence there can be more originality in form in more autonomous music.”

    Jerry, I think the preconditions you talk about can stimulate compositional ideas that might not have appeared to the composer otherwise. The composers I know who work with dance and film (two totally different mediums of course…) do so because they want to stretch their very definitions of music.

    I guess I’m trying to describe an attitude that a composer takes toward such work. But it may be that I find such collaborative work and its results more stimulating and satisfying than other people. I can understand that.

    I am speaking more from my experience composing for dance so I should bow out of this thread I think…

  2. Jerry Gerber says:

    Chris Becker,

    Your comments about film music’s contribution due to the necessity to adapt to visual edits is insightful and true, many odd tempo combinations resulted in making music work with those very edits!

    When you doubt that concert music can be “richer” just because there are no visuals or dancing, I think I see what you mean if by “richer” you mean richer in meaning, harmony, texture or orchestration, which concert music is not necessarily. But in reality any music that is purely instrumental can follow its own innate musical logic more completely than when it set to a pre-existing medium as film. Its not the concert hall vs. the film theater, but rather a particular type of collaboration that visual images require. In this case there are usually pre-existent patterns that the composer must work with. This affects structural and developmental craft decisions; composing-to-pre-existing-media doesn’t usually require that aspect of the craft of composition, hence there can be more originality in form in more autonomous music, at least that is my current thinking about it.



  3. Chris Becker says:

    Jeff, compromise isn’t the same as collaboration. But to be fair, my post mixes up the too. Then again, that’s the world where I walk the walk (instead of talking the talk).

    And you’re about as funky as a hater can be.


  4. Jerry Gerber says:


    It’s very different. Saying to a composer “write a 40 minute piece” doesn’t determine form, other than that the form has to exist within a 40 minute period. Having to compose every film or TV cue in a score timed to a tenth of a second has a definite (too definite mostly) effect on structure and form on a level that really does change composition to that of an autonomous art to one that is co-dependent on a pre-existing medium of expression. I really cannot judge this good or bad, right or wrong. We composers seem to believe that concert composing (I would say instrumental music for its own sake) is either artistically or morally superior. This is really dangerous ego-building stuff that produces suffering. The world is insane and most of the entertainment business is a reflection, and nothing more, of that insanity. If one is satisfied with that, ecch! If one is not satisfied with that, they will evolve in art, craft and life.


  5. Jerry Gerber says:

    Chris Becker:

    One of the great limitations of film music is not that it cannot be artistically and masterfully done, but rather the form and structural elements are dictated by extra-musical considerations. So much so that every cue is written to the 10th of a second to picture. My own experience is that the most serious contribution of film music is in the area of orchestration and texture, certainly not in the area of structural and thematic development. I don’t judge film composers. They have to make a living like everyone else (I could have said “we” but I haven’t scored in 10 years).

    Jeff Harrington: Your observations about compromise in film music is well taken, there are musical compromises that certainly have to be made. But to say that there are always ethical or moral compromises, that’s simply not necessarily true, sometimes there are, and sometimes there are not. I never had to sleep with anyone or kiss anyone’s behind in order to get paid for composing. It is easy for those who’ve never scored film or TV to trash it (out of envy or bitterness) but it beats working in a bank any day of the week as far as I’m concerned. Of course I’d rather do art music (which each person defines independently I hope) and I’d rather write music for its own sake any day. But if I am up against poverty and my kid needs new shoes I’ll do what I have to do. Unless any of you are willing to pay me to write my 7th symphony…


  6. Rodney Lister says:

    Well, I’m not sure that movie music is necessarily more compromised that other genres. It’s worth remembering that Tschaikovsky was given the lengths of the numbers in his ballets before he wrote them. They turned out all right. I’m not sure that’s so much different than music for movies. It might be the kind of problems that a composer might find stimulating. As I recall Vaughan Williams wrote an article about just that aspect of composing for films.

  7. Heh, the only problem I have with all this and frankly it’s the elephant in the room is the idea of extra-musical compromise. It’s the only reason I ever turn down this type of work. Why should I cut my piece for you? Why don’t you lengthen your GD movie around my score! 🙂

    I like my music too much to take anybody’s orders. Except that is for pianists, flutists, vibraphonists, harpists, violinists, cellists… heh you get the picture. But that doesn’t count! 🙂

    Film music is the music of compromise and the compromises are driven by non-musical concerns. Thus, if it does work on it’s own it’s a freakin’ miracle and likely just a visceral, or emotional cool spot, and not a good piece in its gestalt.

    We’ve had this arguments a zillion times already. But everybody is just so hungry for this type of work it seems, that they’ll do almost anything for it. Kiss ass, sleep with ugly people, buy stupid expensive fancy clothes and go to stupid parties. All to get get their music stepped on and ultimately dissed by us ‘real composers’. HA!


  8. Chris Becker says:

    Many “new music” composers have appropriated freely from the techniques developed by film and TV composers (Golijov is actually a great example of such a composer). Pacing, inventive chamber orchestrations (combining electric and unamplified instruments) and a very contemporary sense of time (coming from film edits) have precedent in the work of many ground breaking film and TV composers from the 60’s on up to the present day (both in the realm of the avant-garde and the popular). These techniques are a part of the contemporary classical rep as much as any other music.

    As a composer who writes a lot for dance (and who has composed film and television cues), I can tell you that collaborative multi-media work has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for those working in the realm of the concert hall. To say a collaborative work with artists from other mediums is somehow less artistic (or honest) and ultimately suffers from commercial forces than another is just inaccurate.

    Quincy Jones’ autobiography talks a lot about this especially in the chapters describing his musical work for television including a score for Alex Haley’s Roots (which was pulled). The commercial minefield one has to navigate in the world of film and TV doesn’t strike me as all that different from the world of concert music here in the U.S. What is the difference? If you compose for the concert hall with no images projected behind you or noone dancing you somehow end up with a richer musical result? Please!

  9. Daniel G. says:

    My point exactly Jerry Gerber. If the film is “art” than the music probably is. I’m thinking more “Transformers” or “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” or some other typical Hollywood flick. No doubt the composer was/is skillful in making the music work for the film, but calling art is a different thing all together.

  10. Jerry Bowles says:

    It occurs to me that Korngold might be an exception to the Faustian trade off between art and commerce. He really could have been a contender.

  11. david toub says:

    It’s been many many years since I saw it, and I don’t remember anything but the music and a bunch of subtitles, so maybe it wasn’t silent. Whatever—that’s not the point, Rodney.

  12. Rodney Lister says:

    Just one thing–Alexander Nevsky is, in fact, NOT a silent movie. So presumably not many people are aware the music was written for one.

  13. Jerry Gerber says:

    Wait a minute, not so fast. It is true, as Daniel said, that a composer can work on a symphony for 15 years (the 6th one I finished took a year and a half) and a composer is usually very rushed through a score to the point where someone else has to help out (when I scored over 700 cues for Gumby I was always rushed with 10 hour days, 6 days a week). But whether film music is a craft, or an art and a craft, can depend on whether the film itself is art, or whether it is merely craft. Is someone here arguing that film is not an art? If so, I cannot add to this discussion. But if it can be agreed that film itself can also be a fine art (watch The Lives of Others, The Red Violin or All the Mornings of the World), then so can film-scoring If the director has the vision to take it that way and gives the composer all the necessary time and aesthetic dynamics to develop the score. Of course this seldom happens, but with the advent of digital film making and decentralization of the film making process, it could begin to happen more often. It is true that abstract composition for its own sake is more difficult. For one, the problem of formal development, and the paradoxical artistic necessity of creating a sense of unpredictability and inevitability at the same time hardly exists in the soundtrack score because the film is usually edited visually before the sound is added. But this is not a fixed law. If a director took a pre-existing piece of music and made a film to it, or if a director worked with a composer to create the piece as a gestalt from the ground up than we might see art both in the music and the film. Granted, this doesn’t occur often, but there is nothing that says it cannot on will not.

    Film can be art and craft, or have neither, as can music. The only thing we can say about music is that it’s been around much longer, and has had more time to evolve.


  14. Daniel G. says:

    I agree Jerry. Writing for film takes a certain professional, not an artist. Artists can take there time working on a symphony for 15 years…film composers have to work on extremely tight deadlines, pander to the producer, and sleep at night knowing that their best may end up on the cutting room floor.

    On the other hand, most film music I hear is very unartistic. A film composer can be professional and artistic, but I don’t expect it. (and by “film composer” I mean someone in the employ of a MAJOR Hollywood studio…not artsy fartsy Sundance films.)

  15. Adam Baratz says:

    Jonny Greenwood wrote original music for Bodysong (2003). The few bits I heard were good. They were also in a Penderecki/Gorecki/Messiaen vein, for what that’s worth.

  16. Matt says:

    Wow. Did you really just say that writing for films is “not an art”? I agree that many of the revered film composers are no match for the old masters, but that’s a pretty sweeping generalization. Multi-media collaboration can definitely be art, for example: ballet.

  17. david toub says:

    I agree with your assessment, Jerry, that folks like Herrman were what they were, although they were really great at what they were. And not every composer is going to be great at film music. Glass has done well with it. Feldman was once fired for it (although he did go on to produce a few scores intended for films). Prokofiev and Shostakovich were both good at it, but not always. And how many people even are conscious of the fact that Alexander Nevsky was written for a great silent movie?

    To me, one of the best integrations of “serious” music and film is Koyaanisqatsi. The visuals and the music are nearly inseparable, at least to me.

    I also wouldn’t minimize what “film composers” do. Whether it’s a craft or an art is debatable, I think. I don’t know if I could do it, or do it well enough. I suspect it’s got to be very tough, especially in terms of reconciling one’s compositional integrity with the requirements and demands of the film and the director. I would suggest that’s an art unto itself.