Culture Club

If the title of this post gave you pause, don’t worry, I’m not going to break out in a Texas-twanged rendition of “Karma Chameleon.” (Though I bet you won’t be able to get that song out of your head the rest of the day now. You’re welcome.) My buddy Tim Greiving wrote a blog post the other day called “Film Music vs. Concert Music: Prelude” that inspired me to look at one small but very major portion of the post–“the seeming snobbery from the high-browed classical orchestrati towards film music,” or what I call the “culture club.”

As I stated in 10 Film Music-Related Things You May Not Know…, I don’t go to film music concerts. The programs for those concerts are usually not meant for avid film music fans–all right, I won’t speak for the rest of you–for THIS avid film music fan. The “greatest hits” mentality understandably results in the most generic, audience-friendly program possible. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If it turns more people on to film music, great. But, generally, these concerts aren’t made for “us”. If it bothers you, just remember that every time you pay your hard-earned dollars to attend one of these concerts, you’re telling an orchestra’s marketing department exactly the information they want to hear and those very same programs will be repeated again and again. Now, I’m not suggesting that you don’t attend. Go, enjoy yourself. Just be aware of what your dollars are buying in the great scheme of things.

As for hearing film music as part of a regular subscription concert, fat chance. If you’re lucky, you might hear a Copland suite or John Corigliano’s Red Violin Concerto snuggled in between more traditional fare. But don’t count on it. Hell, we still have to justify the inclusion of Korngold’s Violin Concerto some 60-plus years later simply because many of the themes are taken from his film scores. That’s a sad state of affairs.

In fact, if you look at this season’s calendar for what used to be called “The Big Five” orchestras in the U.S.–Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia–the outlook is even bleaker. Chicago has programmed the Korngold and has some monthly Friday night concerts devoted to certain scores–PSYCHO, Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH and a tribute to Roger Ebert–but that’s the closest you’ll come to finding anything resembling film music in the major markets other than a special “Holiday Movie Magic” concert in Cleveland. The title alone makes me cringe.

To make matters worse, you’ll seldom see a major orchestra tackling a full evening of film music with the resident conductor. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. If you have John Mauceri or John Williams on the podium, you at least get conductors who know and appreciate the genre. But without the support of the Grand Poobah, the music director, why should the culture club give a damn either?

When I came up through the ranks as an undergrad and grad music student in the early to mid-’80s, film music wasn’t even discussed. Even the thought of programming clarinet works by film composers like Miklos Rozsa or Bernard Herrmann on a recital was frowned upon. The Copland Concerto was as close as you dared go. And unless you’re attending Berklee, USC, or UCLA, your chances of finding anything other than the most rudimentary film music course are slim at best. Without the background and education in the schools, musicians are not taught to appreciate the genre. Their disdain (or complete lack of thought) for the genre carries over into their professional careers and oozes down into the audience.

The situation looks unlikely to change. We can’t expect audiences to learn and appreciate film music if their “teachers,” the musicians, are unwilling to share that supposed knowledge (that they still don’t have). Forgetting academia for a moment, as long as film music is treated like a day in the park or bowing to pop culture (if only the musicians and culture club knew how far from pop culture our geeky world of film music is), then expect this long-standing tradition of dismissal to continue. If film music continues to be relegated to pops concerts and outdoor fare, then expect it to be treated as something that requires wine and crustless finger sandwiches to appreciate.

Then again, why should we care about the approval of the culture club? Do we want film music to be part of that rarefied, stuffy atmosphere of concert music? Sure, it might be kind of fun to have a gaggle of blue hairs discussing the finer points of Goldsmith, Desplat or Newman. But if the concert world were to suddenly implode tomorrow–a situation I certainly do not wish for–film music as an art form would not be any worse for wear. The sudden influx of musicians scrambling for session jobs might be another matter.

Instead of trying to convince an ever-shrinking number of wealthy patrons and Juilliard-trained musicians that film music is “good for you”–because, have no doubt, the moment it is accepted in the concert world, that is the message that would be broadcast to audiences–let’s use our energy to share our love of the genre with as many people as possible. Let’s explain why film music matters to us and why it should be celebrated, not just by a small group of geeks and elite individuals.

But to become ambassadors of film music, we need to be discerning in our knowledge and discussion of the subject matter. If we don’t take it any more seriously than the everyday fan, we can’t expect others to do the same. We need to know the good from the bad and stop celebrating mediocrity. Sorry, AMC and TCM, just because a film is old doesn’t make it a classic. And in much the same way, so it goes with film music. Just because a particular score is written by your favorite composer does not mean it is great “music”. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy whatever music you choose to enjoy, but know what makes a great film score great.

I, for one, don’t give a damn if film music is ever accepted in the concert world. As Groucho Marx said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Content with annual performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms–and who can blame them–the “culture club” of today doesn’t want us as members. If some day acceptance should come to pass, I doubt it’ll happen in my lifetime, perhaps not even in yours.

What I do care about is that film music is taken seriously–inside and outside the industry–and that starts with our community. The more we put the word out–the consistent word out–the more people begin to listen. You’ll likely not change the minds of many, if any. But if you can get their minds to a state of open readiness, they might be more open to exploring film music. Rather than creating our own club or catering to some academia-approved or outdated 19th-Century notion of culture, let’s spread the word. To paraphrase an old Elizabeth Taylor fragrance ad: “Passion…it’s catching!”

8 comments

  1. Great post, Jim. This is clearly something you and I are both quite passionate about.

    On one hand, I don’t care one lick about the acceptance of the culture club. Any stuffy group of codgers who stick their noses up at John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith isn’t a group I want to be a part of. I like the kind of grassroots groundswell (am I mixing metaphors?) that the film music community has, and the semi-geeky camaraderie we share. There’s quite a lot of us out there; it’s a wacky and diverse group of music lovers, and some among our number are downright brilliant.

    The reason I would like to see film music accepted by the “powers that be” is simply because I believe it deserves it. I think the best film music should be given the same respect and treatment as the best music in the classical tradition. That means more thought, scholarship, money, and performance devoted to the genre. There’s nothing in the world like hearing a great symphony performed live by a talented orchestra. I’m more or less with you on the lameness of pandering “Hollywood’s Greatest Hits” concerts; but imagine the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing the complete score of Shire’s Return to Oz as the top billing on a program. Or how about this program: The Omen—Intermission—The Final Conflict? Now do I have you? ;)

    It would just be nice to see the divide between the two worlds bridged, and for both the academic world and the performance/musician world to embrace film music as, what I consider, the rightful heir of the classical tradition.

    1. We both certainly are quite passionate about this subject, Tim. My issue with the “powers that be” is that why is that the be all and end all to aspire to? Will film music really have arrived if it is accepted and respected by that particular group? I’d argue that no, it wouldn’t. It would move the music out of its populist roots and into another realm that just might shut out the fans who had supported it up until then. Maybe that’s a good thing to shoot for, maybe not. I certainly don’t have the answers.

      I do, however, agree about more thought, scholarship, money and performance devoted to film music. Well said! Wish I’d thought of it. LOL

      I do like the idea of RETURN TO OZ as the capper of a program. However, oddly enough, as much as I personally would love to listen to an evening of OMEN music, it still sets the music apart. To be taken seriously as “music,” segregation is not way to go. But if there IS an evening of OMEN music, I just might have to break my rule and buy a ticket. :)

      I think the two strongest points you make are bridging the divide and embracing film music. I still have strong doubts it can happen, but stranger things have happened I suppose.

  2. I agree with you Jim. I also don’t care for film music concerts for the reasons you stated. I only went to the John Williams Music of the Movies concert at the Hollywood Bowl during the Fans of Film Music Gathering because it seemed like the perfect type of event to attend as part of that weekend and I wanted to see John Williams in person at least one time. I never got to see Goldsmith, my favorite, unfortunately. I really don’t like the popular, war horse tune mentality of programming, but that’s what puts thousands of butts into seats.

    For example, during the concert after some generally non popular material such as a suite from Sunset Boulevard and a couple of cues from Spartacus were played, the audience basically only politely clapped. I overheard several comments from those around me such as “When will they get to something good like Star Wars or Raiders?” and [sarcastically] “This first part must be for the more mature crowd.” I knew for sure I was in the wrong place, especially since I thought the Sunset Boulevard suite was the best performed and generally most interesting piece of the night. I also thought the choice of Spartacus was great although the performance was not up to snuff, but at least they gave it a shot. So when the program ventured outside of the norm to perform something less well known by the crowd and not a popular tune, the audience response sent a message that it’s not what they wanted to hear.

    Of course this was a big, fun, outdoor concert, not a hard core film music affair, but still a clear picture can be drawn from it. Folks like you and I want something different for our film music concert experience, but we’re clearly in the minority as we know how small of a group we are. So I’ve given myself over to the fact that film music is rarely going to be performed in concert the way I would like it to be so I just don’t even factor it into my concert choices. I guess if I lived in LA perhaps there would be more opportunities for the types of concerts I might attend, but I like a lot of cues from a single film to be put together for a cohesive listen and I don’t think that type of programming is all that common, although I’ve seen program lists for some that have been done that way, but it does seem rather rare.

    Anyway, I take it for what it is and am quite content with my CDs and LPs when it comes to listening to film music. Perhaps things will one day change along the lines you suggest. Stranger things have happened!

    1. Those comments about “when will they get to something good” and “more mature crowd” made me so sad when I read them. Even at a film music concert, the crowd is stratified between populist listeners who can “only” appreciate STAR WARS and, if you equate “more mature” with “educated,” what equates to the concert hall version of a classical snob. (And, yes, I’d probably put myself in the snob category, much as I’m loathe to admit that flaw in myself.) I don’t know why the remarks surprised me, but they did.

  3. I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about concert impresarios making film music de riguer for symphony orchestras, and the general audiences that attend a so-called “night at the symphony”. It probably would have happened during the “Golden Age” if it was meant to be. I also feel that most film-music afficionados really don’t care – since the recorded product is the essence of the art. I’d speculate that most of us will be limited to a small assortment of memorable live performances of film music in our lifetimes.
    Nevertheless, it must be noted that great evenings are not as scarce as some might think when it comes to film music concerts. I’ve seen Mancini, Jarre, Morricone and Barry concerts that were so much more than an evening of “Movie Music”; and don’t ever pass up a chance to hear Michel Legrand in concert – sweeter sounds are seldom heard.

    1. You bring up an interesting point, Gary. Is live performance of film music even that important since, as you say, “the recorded product is the essence of the art”? Maybe all this speculation about being accepted into the concert world, foolish as it may be, is basically moot anyway. I’ve always heard great things about Legrand in concert. I missed his last performance in NYC a year or so ago. Hopefully I can catch it next time around.

  4. The SUNSET BOULEVARD suite is probably what I’d have been the most eager to hear. And I don’t think that necessitates applying a pejorative label like “snob” to myself. Or, therefore, that you, Jim, should consider your preference for a deeper and more comlex musical experience anything like a flaw. Casual conversation about the day’s weather can be pleasant, harmless, with a stranger or an acquaintance. It just isn’t likely to be as stimulating as one about philosphy or history or sex, assuming the participants are knowledgable, articulate, and in the mood.

    As for snobbery among the concert world establishment, I adjudged it self-delusional long ago when I considered how much serious music has been inspired by the doctrines and liturgies of organized religion. Given that since the early part of the last century movie theater attendance at least rivals attendance at houses of worship, I think it can be argued that the mythology of cinema has come to occupy as prominent a place as the mythology of religion in audiences’ minds – acceptance or rejection of such a concept probably being dependent on one’s place along the spectrum from non-theist to fundamentalist.

    The provenance of a musical work is a poinr of interest. The excellence of a musical work is the point of listening.

    And now I’ll take down my soapbox.

  5. “The provenance of a musical work is a point of interest. The excellence of a musical work is the point of listening.”

    Interesting concept. I need to mull that over for awhile to think up an intelligent response. Don’t be surprised if I never come back. :)

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