I'm sorry, venerated composer
Scoring a movie is a seriously weird task. I want to draw attention to the wonderful choices that great composers have made, the meh choices that meh composers have made, and most importantly, how these choices impact the story unfolding before your eyes. Through these examples, you might learn (or more likely, you'll watch as I learn) what film composers do to emotionally manipulate you and maybe how they could do it SO much better. I will honor each of the respectable composers discussed herein by throwing out their music and replacing it with a
relevant and poignant silly track of my own.
(Disclaimer: I don't claim ownership of any of this video footage, or any audio used in conjunction that has not been written/produced/published by me.)
sorry, John Williams (part two: The Fourth Awakens)
So when I first watched the second trailer for the new Star Wars movie, I cried. Maybe because of feelings, but also because of ol' John's frustrating awesomeness. He's all about leitmotif, that guy, and I felt ALL THE FEELINGS when he brought back that Force theme, but, wait there's more!:
The following paragraph is for NERDS. If you are not a nerd SKIP IT.
So you hear that Force melody in the key of G# minor, with a climax in E Major (the VI chord)... but then woah! He keeps pushing that melodic arc up and up, climbing the G#m scale - G#, A#, B, C#, and then D#, which is the 5th in G# or (more importantly) the major 7th in E!
NERD BIT OVER. The point here is that this new music honors the original and expands on it, using melody to draw out the same climax and push it even further. What if the whole movie is like that though just saying.
And then I got to thinking. A major trend in movie scores today is repetition, especially of harmony and melody, in order to leave room for, uh, "sonic impact" (read: BWAAAAA) and boy am I glad ol' J-Sauce refuses to cave. Some people might have you believe that he should have, because those people are sadly misguided, and this entire sentence is a link because, I mean, HONESTLY. I tried to imagine how such a thing would have came out. And then it, uh, came out.
(Featuring "Leia's News / Light of the Force" from Return of the Jedi)
Yeah, I know, but IMAGINE if those were real Inception brass whomps. Maybe it would be scarier, but fear leads to the Dark Side, right? The Light side (read: ol' Jonny Wills) reminds us that there's still plenty of emotion left in melody and harmony. Now I know there's a lot going on in that trailer, with the sound design and the visuals and those STAR WARS, but as far as emotional impact goes, it's all about dat MELODY. I can barely contain myself:
The Fourth Awakens from Alec Galambos on Vimeo.
Nerds, listen close cause you KNOW there's a sneaky C Natural in that EMaj7 chord. You can FEEL that major/minor clash because that's the FORCE, kid.
sorry, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Hollywood composers can be huge bitches, and man are they expensive. Peter Shaffer brilliantly dodged THAT bullet just by making a movie about a composer in particular, one whose repertoire is widely celebrated, recorded by everyone, and public domain. Crafty guy.
Turns out, Shaffer's Amadeus is not the only movie to use Mozart's music see the badass Nightcrawler-laden opening to X-Men 2 or a million other movies. Unbeknownst to him, Mozart wrote some damn fine film music. Mozart's late work combines calculated, precise, virtuosic writing with a sense of drama and darkness and a touch of sonic experimentation.
just like some great film music, and a whole lot like good EDM.
Amadeus rolls its opening credits to the 25th Symphony in G minor. This beastly piece takes us through the horror of Salieri's failed suicide and Salsburg's bleak cityscape - maybe I don't really even need to say it but it's my opinion that the orchestra is definitely the way to go for this scene. Good on you, Mozart.
There's just something to that combination of film and orchestra but for the reasons I mentioned above, I can't stop thinking that if Mozart were alive today, he would have mixed some dirty DnB. Electronic music is becoming increasingly used in movies, either in part (Hans Zimmer, Mychael Danna) or in full (M83 in Oblivion, Daft Punk in Tron, Trent Reznor in Social Network
..) but I'm not sure that it accomplishes the same thing. But EDM is so driving and intense and awesome, why wouldn't it work?
Sorry, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from Alec Galambos on Vimeo.
So maybe with electronic sound, a composer has ultimately more tools at his/her disposal - In theory, you can do anything when you're building sound from the sine wave up. But it turns out all orchestral film composers ARE sound designers that just use strings and such as their sonic palette; and these complex, nuanced instruments can do plenty when there's a good player involved.
So then the moral of the story: there's a reason Mozart's music is so widely used in film. What's more emotional, powerful dramatic: a master of his craft that truly understands the orchestra as an instrument (Mozart, or many living film composers!) or... an obnoxious hipster with a MIDI sequencer (me)?
Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
sorry, John Williams (part one)
John Williams is perhaps the most prolific (and successful) film composer ever, and one of the most well-versed, thoughtful, and talented musicians of our time. End of discussion.
One of my favorite J-Will scores is for the way underrated Speilberg sci-fi (and "neo-noir"...?) movie Minority Report (2002). So many subtle, emotional moments in a score that uses a broad pallate of techniques to create a modern, totally un-cliche sound, and, and, I want to be John Williams when I grow up. Feast upon this delicious action scene, and pay attention to how frantic and important it feels because of the music:
Turns out I haven't stopped seeking out sci-fi, action, or crime drama in any way (yes film industry, more of these please) but I've noticed a trend in the music. Maybe it's okay that trailers sound bombastic, epic, and driving; but some composers seem to be fixed on the idea that 4-5 notes, a chord or two, and a bunch of vaguely ethnic drums is all you need for your action scene, or maybe your giant "action scene" of a movie. Let's not "fake" intensity (with what can only be referred to as "Brass Whomps") when you can get it organically from great string writing and innovative orchestration. Okay so maybe just this one time:
(sorry about the egregious lack of sound effects coming up)
Sorry, John Williams from Alec Galambos on Vimeo.
Not naming any names, but you and I both know what's going on here. Don't let these hotshot hollywood composers swindle you with their big brass sounds (re: Whomps) and agressive bass drums. Take a step back and listen to some John Williams, realize how much more exciting it is, and then join me in brainstorming a way to make sure he lives forever.
(If it weren't on this blog, I'd think my track would be what you hear on loop while you're waiting in line for a roller coaster. But if you do like that feeling, get it here by itself.)
sorry, Bill Conti
In 1999, Bill Conti (also known for such awesome as Rocky and The Right Stuff) wrote a dynamic, beautiful score to The Thomas Crown Affair, a sexy movie starring James Bond and Rene Russo. The instrumentation varies throughout, but one of my favorite moments is right at the beginning. The opening credit sequence features a piece for multiple pianos, recorded as layers on top of each other:
For me, the multiple 'layers' of piano (and how they interact with each other) add complexity and depth to this scene, which focuses on the inner workings of Thomas "James Bond" Crown's mind. To try and understand what makes this track so great, I broke it down and rebuilt it using the most versatile, emotional instrument I know - the voice. Although, in lieu of a versitile, emotional voice, I used my own:
Sorry, Bill Conti from Alec Galambos on Vimeo.
Okay so maybe piano was a better choice here. The voice definitely draws attention to the complexity though - you can hopefully hear the individual layers a lot more clearly this way. Maybe this means I should eventually look at an example of how multi-part vocals can actually work really well in a score... (cliffhanger!)
(If you'd like to see how this works, here is my written score for Bill Conti's original track, and my standalone vocal recording.)