It's a shame the article is a few years old. I'd like to know if the author has anything to say about Stranger Than Fiction.
What about it do you have in mind, Cloudschatze? I've seen the film, but I don't remember the score all that well, so you'll have to remind me.
Leia's Theme is never used in love scenes with Han; their love has its own theme.
Ah, that was my problem. I had entirely the wrong theme in mind: the love theme, as you said, NRS. Clearly it has been too long since I last watched Star Wars or listened to the music. A brief refresher shows me that you are quite right about the actual Princess Leia Theme serving as a damsel-in-distress-type ruse. Obviously I haven't had time to consider all the places where it crops up in the films and how congruent or incongruent each appearance is, but it's an interesting point that I'll have to keep an ear open for if and when I watch the films again.
What Grossman fails to see is that with music for films, the composer doesn't have the audience's full attention because the music listerner is also a dialogue listener, a sound effects listener and a viewer. Composing for symphonies doesn't have that problem, and opera only marginally so.
This problem requires the music, in order to be effective, to be more straightforward in its symbols, and thus often more congruent.
Right. The most interesting of his ideas, to me, were the ones that struck me as most likely to be appreciable to the audience. Several others seemed like they would mainly please the lucky graduate students who could use them as fodder for their theses.
He babbles on about "subversion"; I don't even know what that means in this context. Subversion normally means overthrowing a government or used metaphorically, overthrowing established beliefs. I don't know what film music is supposed to overthrow and why it is supposed to do that.
Yeah, that's where I really think he just means overthrowing musical associations that have become conventional. That's why he gets so unreasonably excited at the prospect of, say, scoring Alien with African music. Not because it brings out heretofore unrealized hidden dimensions in the film itself, but simply because it's unusual (and, therefore, apparently good) to score a sci-fi/horror film with African music.
I truly wished to believe that he did believe such atypical associations would reveal something latent in the film, but whether he consciously believes that or not, it is clear that unconsciously he does not. How else can he propose that the reason Stravinsky would be a richer alternative to Mozart in Amadeus is because hearing the progression of Stravinsky's career "would first crush Mozartian classicism, and then rebuild it in the form of the neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s late opera". Maybe so but 1) you could hear this progression equally effectively just by listening to Stravinsky separately from the film altogether 2) Amadeus has nothing whatsoever to do with the breakdown and re-invention of Mozartian classicism. If he had suggested that using Stravinsky would illuminate something about the incompatibility of genius with the rest of society, the favoritism of God, how the seed of envy is admiration, or any other idea that could reasonably be claimed as a theme of the film, I would understand. The Salieri example might even have accomplished this, though I still argue this depends too much on the intervention of the intellect, but the author seems less enthused with this possibility because it only expresses the psychology of the character. Stravinsky, apparently, allows for the attitude of the director to be expressed, but it would be a pretty poor director indeed who would squander this musical opportunity by using it to express an attitude on the development of Stravinsky's career when that is clearly so irrelevant to the film's other intentions. Similarly, I hope the film Leaves from Satan's Book that he mentions actually has something to do with the American Revolution; otherwise, I have the same complaint. I don't see the virtue of having the music lead the listener off into the contemplation of tangents.
To be clear, I have nothing against seeing what would happen if African music was used for Alien. It might actually work quite delightfully. But if it did, it would be, in my opinion, because of the aptness of that music's rhetorical effects (what people usually call its emotional effect, but I think emotion is too narrow an account of what it does to the listener) to the dramatic intentions of the film. It wouldn't be because it makes people contemplate the intellectual incongruency and then come to some epiphany about Africa and aliens.
Also, when proposing this alternative to the Alien score and other such fancies, he raises a question that I think he would have done well to answer:
"Will the meanings of a musical non sequitur be an antirealist, antinaturalist liberation from adjectival consonances, or a muddy pathway to consonances yet to be conventionalized?"
Eliminating the pretentious jargon from his language I take this to say: "If a composer comes up with an atypical musical association for a certain type of scene or film, will it help to free us from our bondage to cliched musical associations, or will it just become a new cliche in the long run?" Grossman doesn't answer this, and instead moves on to his litany of such possibilities, but historically the answer seems pretty clear. Yes, such atypical associations eventually become typical (we've heard the same thing before), then conventional (we now expect it to be this way), then cliche (we are desperate for something new). Not always, of course, because not every innovation is imitated, but consider:
1) Thomas Newman's quirky percussive accompaniment to American Beauty, which was a convention-breaking choice at the time, but which style quickly became a mainstay of (supposedly) edgy Indywood pictures. Arguably, this was just a reapplication of stuff Newman was doing in the 80s for comedies like Real Genius, just moved to a different film genre, and played on world instruments instead of synthesizers. But dramas had not, up to that point, been scored this way, unless you count passing moments in earlier Newman scores like The Green Mile.
2) Use of the theremin and other electronic instruments in 1950s science fiction films. (Incidentally, the first use of a theremin in film had an entirely different association. Miklos Rozsa used it in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend during the binging alcoholic main character's hallucinatory dream sequences. It was still a signal of the strange and otherworldly, though.)
3) Tan Dun-like percussion added into action sequences following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a brief fad that seems to have ended, but worth noting).
4) There are probably many better examples to be found amongst older genre scores, but I'm not well-versed enough in all this history to say. For example, did western scoring conventions change at all after Elmer Bernstein's score to The Magnificent Seven?
Certainly that doesn't mean such innovations are pointless. They do at least temporarily reinvigorate their genres and broaden the scope of what film scorers will do. But a lot of best loved scores are just innovations that, by the luck of the draw or by the difficulty of emulation, happened not to be imitated so much that they became conventional:
1) Elmer Bernstein's "a child's adult music" for To Kill a Mockingbird, if that famous phrase helps you figure out which aspects of that score I'm talking about. Basically, not the Aaron Copeland-esque stuff, which is much more conventional, if still nice.
2) Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western music, which is easier to parody than it is to re-apply to other films, so my impression is that it hasn't been that heavily imitated with serious intentions.
3) Bernard Herrmann's music for the 60s Hitchcock films. This is probably the one where it surprises me the most that it wasn't more often copied. It gets an "homage" now and then, like the opening credits of Signs, but not such consistent imitation that it has become the conventional way to score psychological thrillers.
4) Jerry Goldsmith's avant-garde approach in his earlier years to films like Planet of the Apes and The Omen.
5) The chanting, somewhat tribal, somewhat industrial symphonic suite that Geinoh Yamashirogumi (an ensemble, not an individual) created for Akira.
And so on.
Such film scores greatly enrich the field, but ironically the very thing that prevents them from being run into the ground through imitation will also of course prevent them from changing the course of film music at large, won't it? We will naturally see much more influence from easier-to-emulate composers like John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer (in Media Ventures/Jerry Bruckheimer mode, especially) than we will ever see from scores like those above, which are either just plain harder to emulate or, more likely, narrower in their appropriateness so that no one finds the right films in which to emulate them. I'm not saying this predominance of the conventional is a good thing or a bad thing, just that it seems inevitable to me.
The more innovations we can come up with to broaden the palette of film scoring the better, in my opinion, with the crucial qualification that such innovations must then be appropriately applied so that they enhance rather than detract or distract from the film. However, I'm not expecting these innovations to come in huge revolutions, only in small assertions of independence. To me, that just makes them more worth celebrating when they happen. And, in the meantime, it doesn't necessarily make more conventional approaches as artistically vacuous as the author seems to fear.
I wonder, if this weren't so focused on the Grand Academic Idea, whether two more interesting and more practical essays could be written on related themes:
1) What the industry would need to do to encourage more individual creativity among film composers
2) How to decide about the kinds of congruence or incongruence we might want for a particular scene or an entire film