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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Music to my ears!

I’ve been a fan of film music since the 1960s. So I was very interested and pleased to view three programmes on TV (BBC4) recently. Presented by composer Neil Brand, the series celebrates the art of cinema music and demonstrates how great soundtracks work.

Neil Brand
Neil Brand has been accompanying silent films for nearly 30 years, regularly throughout the UK and at film festivals and special events around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, America, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, and, in Italy, the Bologna, Aosta, Bergamo and Pordenone festivals where he has inaugurated the School of Music and Image.  

Training originally as an actor, he has made his name as a writer/performer/composer, scoring BFI video releases of such films as South (Shackleton's Journey to the South Pole), The Ring by Alfred Hitchcock, the great lost film The Life and Times of David Lloyd George and Early Cinema, avant-garde cinema and Russian pre-Soviet cinema. New DVD releases for the Danish Film Institute and Lobster Films, Paris as well as a highly acclaimed jazz score for the 1927 Anna Mae Wong movie Piccadilly which premiered live in September 2003 at the Lincoln Centre, New York and the Barbican concert hall in March 2004. His most recent DVD scores are for Silent Dickens, Silent Britain, The Cat and the Canary (1927) and the Laurel and Hardy short ‘You’re Darn Tootin’.

Brand has toured to Finland’s ‘Midnight Sun’ Festival, Padua Opera House, Kilkenny comedy festival, the Middle Eastern International Film Festival and throughout the UK and abroad with his ‘hilarious and touching’ one-man-show ‘The Silent Pianist Speaks’. He has written the title music and many scores for TV documentaries including Silent Clowns, Silent Britain, Great Britons, The Real Stephen Hawking, The Crimean War, In The Wild: Pandas with Debra Winger, Great Railway Journeys as well as scores for over 70 Radio 4 dramas including War and Peace, the Box of Delights, Brideshead Revisited, Showboat, and Sony award winner A Town Like Alice.

In his overview of cinema music, Brand tells us that the movie score is intended to make the audience hear what you need to – altering the emotional effect the movie makes by the sound attached. Brand moved through the silent era, where films were accompanied by a piano, orchestra or an organ, through the invention of the ‘click track’ to the point in 1933 where Max Steiner made film history by underscoring King Kong.
King Kong (1933)

There were many interesting insights – the simple sequence of notes that signifies a particular character (latterly, the character’s theme), the way Erich Wolfgang Korngold utilised three different themes in a single scene to illustrate the shifting mood of a conversation in Nottingham Forest. Then there is the score of Bernard Hermann for Psycho, with the violin line for the shower scene slashing sharply down the page, in time with the knife cuts – ironically, Hitchcock hadn’t wanted any music for this scene, but Hermann overrode him!

Thanks to composers like Korngold, Steiner and Hermann, classical style of music dominated the movies for many years. Brand then looked at how jazz and pop music became acceptable for soundtracks. John Barry was shown, emerging from his pop incarnation, The John Barry Seven, to Oscar-winning composer.

And finally, Brand showed how synthesisers took over. Not least, the Theremin, invented by a Russian of that name in 1928. This instrument was used by Miklós Rózsa in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Bernard Hermann in The Day the Earth Stood Still, which led to the sound being adopted for almost all science fiction movies thereafter!

We were treated to interviews with some of the movie soundtrack greats – though never enough are included, inevitably. Richard Sherman, talking about his Mary Poppins music, Vangelis talking about Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, and Hans Zimmer discussing how his music affected the opening scene of Gladiator (I think he was robbed at the Oscars!). It was an audio-visual treat for any film buff.

Sadly, I feel that the music in many films (for TV or the theatre) now compromises the film, instead of complementing it. Recent films such as The Dark Knight Rises, A Good Day to Die Hard, TV’s Dr Who, and many US TV imports (though so far not Game of Thrones); the list is becoming longer. Usually, the pace of a film means that information has to be imparted ‘on the run’ so to speak, as there are few quiet moments, so drowned out exposition can ruin a viewer’s understanding of the plot and character motivation.

I get really irritated where a character is saying something in a dramatic moment but I can’t hear what was said. The music is dominant, drowning out the words, time and again. The blame must lie squarely with the director, who has the final say. The director knows what has been said by the character, so he doesn’t actually ‘not hear’ the words, they’re lodged in his head anyway. If I was the actor or scriptwriter for those drowned out scenes, I’d be mightily miffed.
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Footnote: If you enjoyed this short overview, maybe you would like my book of 16 short stories, When the Flowers Are in Bloom by Nik Morton (Solstice Publishing). Many of the tales are prize winners and several are based on true events. One of the stories, 'The Busker of Torrevieja', won an international prize and concerns musicians and the love of music.



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