A reader recently commented: “A friend of mine in ‘the business’ vented to me that as society cuts art and music from schools you see it being cut out of the budgets of film and television.”
I don’t know if there is a direct cause and effect going on here, but it’s an interesting notion. It raises the two-pronged question: “What is the value of an arts (i.e. music, theater, dance, etc.) education in today’s world?” and “Does the lack of such an education directly contribute to the ‘dumbing down’ of the scores we hear in films and on TV these days?”
Notice I said “the scores we hear” not “the scores that are composed”. What the audience finally gets to hear is at the discretion of people who often don’t have the most robust musical education or knowledge. This is one of the hardest lessons that new (i.e. young, inexperienced) film composers learn when they get started in the biz. Not only do they not own their finished product, their score often ends up being a musical camel (an animal thought to be a horse designed by committee) by the time it hits the big or small screen. The film editor and music editor’s temp score, the director and/or producer’s CD collection, the songs contributed by the music supervisor, the test audience’s comments all have a role in shaping the score. Add to this the fact that many decision-makers don’t know the difference between a flute and a bassoon (by sight or or by sound) and you start to wonder about the value of music as art rather than commodity.
OK, before I get too high up on my
camel horse and do the lofty preaching thing, let me say that I came long ago to the realization that I work in show business. It always was and always will be about the bottom line. No studio head in history ever green-lit a movie because he/she thought that it would become a piece of cinematic history. From the studio’s perspective, movies and TV shows have one job function: earn more money than they cost to produce – period. Many movies and TV shows have gone on to stand the test of time and, viewed through the wrong end of the telescope looking back, can now be considered great art but that is a by-product, not the goal.
So, as long as the music supports the story and the emotion of a scene, does it really make any difference if it’s composed by a musical genius and played by an eighty-piece orchestra with human musicians or performed on a synth rig entirely controlled and programmed by someone with little-to-no formal music education but a great musical imagination? That all depends on who is in charge.
Steven Spielberg and Matt Groening both have a deep appreciation for orchestral music played by live musicians. Matt made it a stipulation that THE SIMPSONS needed orchestral music because he knew money and time constraints would mean that the animation wouldn’t be of the highest quality and felt strongly that the music would go a long way to spruce things up in the eyes and ears of the viewers. All of Spielberg’s blockbusters have an orchestral score with hummable themes composed by John Williams.
But for every Groening and Spielberg there are twenty others who aren’t as invested in the process, only the final result. In my 25 years as music editor I have witnessed many head-scratching encounters between producer/directors and composers (I will omit the names to protect the innocent … mainly myself).
One time, after a rousing, patriotic cue with brass blazing, the composer came into the booth to get the director’s reaction. The director lowered his eyes, shook his head and said, “I don’t know.” The composer responded, “OK, what?” The director grabbed his own crotch, like a baseball player adjusting his cup and said, “It just doesn’t get me right here.” The composer was speechless for a moment because it was a pretty stirring cue. But knowing that the director is always right asked, “What can I do to make it better?” The director answered, “I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that question then I’d be the composer!” The magic and the misery of music. Two people can hear the same piece of music and have polar-opposite emotional reactions to it. I don’t get Elvis Presley’s music. I don’t hate it, I just don’t get the overwhelming popularity of it. Millions and millions of people out there would think I’m just plain crazy. Anyway, not only did the director have a very different reaction to the cue than anyone else in the room, he had no vocabulary to express to the composer what to do about it.
Another time we were on the dubbing stage listening to a final playback. At the end the executive producer had only one question about the entire movie. He asked the composer if a particular cue in the movie as exactly the same as the cue the composer had auditioned for him a few days earlier. The composer answered “yes”.
Sidebar: If you’re not aware, one of the big changes in movie scoring over the past twenty or so years is the use of the “mockup” as an auditioning tool. In the days before the computer and synthesizer became mainstays in the studio, a composer would usually compose at a piano and if someone wanted to hear a sample of a cue, the composer would play as much of it as he/she could and would also hum some of the melody all the while shouting out “and the strings will take it here, now the french horns have the melody here” and so on. Now with “orchestra-in-a-box” programs a composer
can is required to produce full mockups of the cues so the producer/director can hear (without relying on imagination) what it will “really” sound like when the cue is finished. On lower budget projects, the mockups become the final score but if there is enough money for a live orchestra the mockups serve as samples of what is to come.
After the composer said “yes” an interesting thing happened. The executive producer actually challenged the composer’s honesty, on the dub stage in front of everyone! The essence of the argument boiled down to the executive producer believing that the composer had made changes to the score after the mockup had been approved. The composer swore that not a single note had been changed. What I (and I’m sure the composer) was thinking at that moment was that, in fact, every note had been changed. Not their pitch, nor their rhythm, nor their tempo. But the mockup was all synthesizer and the final score was all live orchestra. As good as the instrument “samples” on synths have become they still don’t go all the way toward fully replacing an organic instrument played by a human. The argument became so churlish that the composer was called into the executive producer’s office after the dub for further discussion. The composer came armed with a CD that had recordings of the mockup and of the final cue to prove that the two cues were identical. The composer later confided to me that the exec finally dropped the matter but was never fully convinced that the exec believed him.
Will more funding of music education in schools help future directors be better musical communicators? Or help future executive producers have better ears to discern electronic from organic music? Or help future studio heads approve bigger music budgets so that more live orchestral music will be used in scores? If I knew the answers to those questions then I’d be the director … or executive producer … or studio head …
What do you think?