9 Questions For the Film Music Community

Maybe I’m just a cantankerous ol’ cuss or perhaps it’s residual holiday misanthropy, but I’m starting 2012 with more questions than answers. But, oh, do I still have opinions. So I thought I’d devote this month’s “9 on the 9th” post to some of those questions.

The questions I pose are my personal observations and the opinions I give are strictly my own. Agree, disagree, or don’t give a damn. Whatever your preference, I’d honestly like to hear your feedback.

ARE WE LEMINGS?

Most of us want to “belong,” to be a part of something, myself included. And one of the primary joys of the internet is the discovery and friendship of film music fans all over the world. Long gone are the days when we’d listen to our favorite film scores in relative seclusion, unable to discuss or share our passion with anyone else. Now that that barrier is gone, we can discuss film music to our heart’s content. But I don’t understand the herd mentality, never have. I don’t want to follow the crowd just to realize there’s a cliff ahead and I’ve got nowhere to go but plummeting into the ocean. Would it really make me feel better to know that 40 people I know love Jerry Goldsmith? Do I have to rush out and purchase GREMLINS because 30 people on Facebook said how good it was? Maybe, like Groucho Marx, I just never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. By all means, listen to the people you trust and admire, but make up your own mind.

DO YOU LIKE IT? DO YOU REALLY LIKE IT?

Because of what I do with film music on this site and elsewhere, I want to know what people think. I want to hear suggestions of scores I may have missed, as well as constructive debate about the merits of particular scores and composers. But that “like” you just clicked on Facebook? Sure, it’s great—if it’s directed my way, I appreciate it, truly—but it doesn’t mean squat. It’s like multiple “follow Friday” lists on Twitter or giving a gift card. It says, “I made the least amount of effort to show I care.” Express your appreciation for the work someone has done or what they have written (and I don’t necessarily mean me), but take the time and add something relevant to the discourse beyond a phatic response.

WHEN DID THE MESSAGE BOARDS BEGIN TO INFECT FACEBOOK?

While message boards can be excellent avenues for information and debate, we all know that they can bring out the basest of human behavior. The “privacy” of cyberspace and the relative cloak of a computer screen provides some users with more moxie than they might have in real life. We’ve all had run-ins with leeches and trolls who get their jollies raining on our parade. Slams and strikes on niche message boards get even more personal as more of the inhabitants communicate on a first-name basis with one another (even if they still hide behind foolish, decade-old screen names and gravatars). Over the last year those trolls seem to have migrated into the light, exhibiting their d-bag behavior on Facebook and other social media. It’s 2012. Haven’t we moved past this yet?

DO WE WEAR BLINDERS?

By not recognizing the good or ignoring the less pleasant aspects of a particular score or composer, we limit our own growth as we all hopefully continue to discover the wide range of film music. Take James Horner, for instance. Thousands of words over the years have been written about Horner’s self-plagiarism (that damn danger motif) and his lifting of melodies and chord progressions from classical composers like Prokofiev. I don’t mean that as Horner-bashing. By all means, enjoy Horner’s work (and any other composer) if you already do. But things like this matter. Dismissing them with a “yeah, but…” diminishes your argument and the impact of the composer’s work even further. Demand more…for yourself and for the artform.

WHAT IS THE OVERWHELMING LURE OF NOSTALGIA?

Maybe I’m just a cold-hearted snake (thank you, Paula Abdul)—or perhaps I’ve lost those particular brain cells by now—but I’m seldom afflicted with nostalgia for the past. Sepia-toned memories tend to revise history, giving far more prominence to certain films and scores than they might have otherwise, primarily due to the rose-colored glasses we all wear. Sure, I’m fond of films and scores from childhood and teenage years, like THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE OMEN, STAR WARS, etc. But I’m not deluding myself that something like the 1978 Frank Langella DRACULA, for example, is a classic. Sure, it has its Gothic moments and an excellent score by John Williams. I’d love to see the score reappear on CD at some point (especially since my LP is long gone). But I’m not going to rewrite history and turn the film into something it’s not any more than I’m going to pine and whine for the CD. My life has gone on very well without it and it won’t make or break the rest of my existence if the score reappears or not. Perhaps it would profit the community more to appreciate the bounty we’ve been given and stop always wanting more, more, more. There will never be enough.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE GOLDEN AGE?

Yup, that tired old argument… Film music is still a relatively new artform that has remained basically unchanged since the early 1930s. Sure, the musical styles have morphed, but a composer is still writing for a film. If the tools with which they practice their craft have changed, the overall basic process has not. So if you love the artform, why wouldn’t you want to know more about it? Why would you exclude its creation and nearly 30 years of its history? Maybe my music education makes me more open to discovering all the various periods of film music, or maybe that’s just me acting uppity. You certainly don’t need training in music to appreciate film music, or any other genre of music. But limiting yourself to a set of composers, a sub-genre, or a specific period of film music, especially an artform with such a comparatively brief lifespan, stunts your knowledge and your enjoyment. Ageism seems to exist even in the arts.

DOES FILM MUSIC HAVE TO BE LISTENABLE ON ITS OWN?

Not necessarily. Its primary concern is to work within the scope of the film. That’s the job the composer was hired to do. To have the music survive as a stand-alone listening experience is icing on the cake. Ideally, film music should be good “music” as well within the context of what the composer is writing. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyable to listen to. Its effect on the ear—good or bad—should not diminish its quality.

SHOULD YOU HAVE TO WORK AT LISTENING TO FILM MUSIC?

By all means, yes. In my book, film music is important, above and beyond the simple joys of pure listening pleasure. I personally don’t want to be an innocent bystander just letting it wash over me. If that’s all it is good for, then I might as well use it like a warm bath and sit in my own liquid filth. A composer toiled to create that piece of music (probably under tight budgets and tough working circumstances). The least I can do is give it my attention. If it doesn’t deserve warrant the energy past that point, so be it. But lazy listening offends my ears.

WHAT IS OUR ROLE AS A COMMUNITY?

The way I see it, our job is to not only support the composers and record labels, but to educate and support each other. If we don’t take this artform that we love seriously, we can’t expect anyone else to either. We can engage in meaningful dialogue without patronization. But participating means more than chiming in with “I like that score too” (or not). For me, unless I asked, I don’t care. And maybe even then, I still don’t care. I want to know if you can tell me why. Be firm in your convictions and stand your ground. Your opinion is valid. Film music demands our respect. If we are not actively listening and participating, we are sitting on the sidelines. I’d rather be in the game.

And there endeth the soapbox. What do you think?

14 comments

  1. Now this is what I’m talking about! Great questions Jim, just hope I don’t break the comments section with my answers :)

    ARE WE LEMINGS?
    I remember when I was 19 years old, everyone had a mobile phone except me. I finally decided that it could be useful so I wanted to buy one. At that time, everyone had a Nokia phone so I definitely didn’t want that one because that would just make me another sheep. I bought a Panasonic mobile phone and was happy with that for a while, bu came to regret it as it didn’t have all the cool features the Nokia phones had. That experience taught me something: By all means go your own way, but never ever base your decision on what other people are doing and certainly don’t get the opposite of what everyone else have just because everyone else has it. It does feel better to know that 40 people I know love Jerry Goldsmith and you don’t have to rush out to buy anything just because 30 people says it’s cool. I have a feeling that you might belong to the I-stay-away-from-popular-stuff-because-its-popular group or am I wrong?

    DO YOU LIKE ME? DO YOU REALLY LIKE ME?
    Yes and yes Jim. Keep up the great work you are doing and I’ll try to chip in once in a while.

    WHEN DID THE MESSAGE BOARDS BEGIN TO INFECT FACEBOOK?
    The trolling has just begun I’m afraid. As more and more people get computer savvy (and the users getting younger), we will unfortunately see a lot mor of this. The film, game and music industry is certainly not helping by trying to find ways to let people enjoy their content in any way they want. This means new ways of hiding and sneaking around will be developed and it creates a mentality that it’s ok to hide, it’s ok to bend the rules and do whatever you want to do. I think private social networks will keep us sane in the future, kind of like what Facebook used to be. That’s why Path is very popular now and part of the reason why I keep soundtrackfans.com private.

    DO WE WEAR BLINDERS?
    Yes! We will fight and defend our greatest composers until the day we die. Loyalty can be a terrible things sometimes as you can see on various film music forums where one bad word about a composers will see the flamewars begin. Doesn’t take much. This has another aspect of it though, it’s very subjective isn’t it? We like what we like and I for one will defend my right to like what I like, even if the world thinks it is trash. I hope that just because someone is a James Horner fan doesn’t stop him or her enjoy other music as well. When I started out enjoying film music, I quickly became a fan of Vangelis for example and was blinded by that for a long time. In recent years I have broadened my perspective quite a bit and I’m enjoying it a lot.

    WHAT IS THE OVERWHELMING LURE OF NOSTALGIA?
    Nostalgia is great sometimes and terrible too. For example I remember getting scared and enjoying Nightmare On Elm Street when I was 10. When I watch it now, there are so many roll-eyes moment that I think I am permanently scarred. I grew up in the 80s so I am a big fan of 80s pop/rock music, but I am equally a big fan of a lot of post-2000 as well. When it comes to film scores, I am actually more of a fan of post-2000 than 80s/90s scores, quite possibly because I can buy an mp3 album dirt cheap these days and get hold of “everything” while back then I Was lucky to get 1 score a month. Not everything was better in the old days :)

    WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE GOLDEN AGE?
    Here’s a fact: Film music in the golden age and film music these days sounds light years apart. Sure, the notes hasn’t changed, but there’s definitely a shift in melody and methods. I’ve listened to a lot of scores from every era and I can easily tell what I like and don’t like. I definitely like modern music more, but I frequently listen to older scores just to get something different.

    DOES FILM MUSIC HAVE TO BE LISTENABLE ON ITS OWN?
    Definite yes for me. About 80% of the scores I listen to (I listen to around 2-300 scores per year), I never see the film itself. I also almost exclusively listen to scores before I see the film and base my opinions on that. I’m aware the composers are hired to create music for the scenes within the film, but I honestly can only remember one score that hasn’t matched what I was seeing. In every film I watch, I enjoy the music too, even though I hate it when I listen to it on my own. If I was reviewing film scores as listened to while watching the film I would probably have an average rating of 9.7/10 of all scores ;)

    SHOULD YOU HAVE TO WORK AT LISTENING TO FILM MUSIC?
    Yes and no. There’s nothing wrong with just hitting the couch and enjoy film music as it is. I can do that, but I love to analyse it while I am listening to film music. Maybe I think too much, but I think it’s part of the fun being a soundtrack geek.

    WHAT IS OUR ROLE AS A COMMUNITY?
    Well said Jim! My biggest hope is that in the future we are more tolerant and patient. I go to various forums once in a while, but I am a lurker because I don’t want to waste time arguing my views. It is that which is the biggest enemy of us as a community. I want to write freely, like I can do in the comments section of your great site and know that my views are respected and not attacked with every opportunity. We all love film music don’t we?

  2. Jørn, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Don’t worry about the formatting. I’m sure it’s something to do with the backend of the theme for my site.

    I appreciate you taking the time to answer each question. That’s exactly the response I was hoping to get and hopefully it will spur other readers to do the same. Let me answer some of the questions you put to me.

    Yes, I’m definitely part of the “I-stay-away-from-popular-stuff-because-it’s-popular” group. Adamantly so. I don’t know why. (Wait, don’t I NOT want to belong to groups? That’s too trippy for this early hour of the morning.) While it often means I don’t get around to watching/hearing things until long after their pop culture shelf life, it also means that it separates the wheat from the chaff and the things that are truly worth discovering are still just as good.

    I’ve gone back and tweaked the “like” question. I realize that it may have looked self-serving instead of the Sally Field Oscar speech spoof it was supposed to.

    Thanks again for your response.

  3. ARE WE LEMINGS? I love to sample the popular stuff — occasionally you find something really great. But my tastes tend to be different enough that I never rush out to pre-order something based on popular opinion. No preview = no sale.

    DO YOU LIKE IT? DO YOU REALLY LIKE IT? I was resistant and very late to the whole social networking train so maybe I’m not the right one to answer, but I’ve never viewed Facebook “likes” to indicate anything meaningful.

    WHEN DID THE MESSAGE BOARDS BEGIN TO INFECT FACEBOOK? This will never change. See John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

    DO WE WEAR BLINDERS? It’s really easy to find something or someone you like, and sit happily in that box. I hope most would grow out of this, after listening to film scores for enough time. Unfortunately, certain composers have no reason to change — most of the film-watching masses don’t care, and the various awards ceremonies are usually equally happy to pat them on the back for more of the same.

    WHAT IS THE OVERWHELMING LURE OF NOSTALGIA? At 25, I haven’t got much to be nostalgic about yet. There are some recent good-but-not-great scores which went out of print in a flash, that I was never able to obtain. I can certainly see myself excited in 10-20 years if Varese or FSM or the like re-release them, but I do hope I won’t fool myself into thinking they’re better than they are.

    WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE GOLDEN AGE? To me, the big problem is in recording quality. There are exceptions, but to me many older recordings sound almost muffled, and have a very poor soundstage. It quickly becomes tiring for me to listen to, even if it’s a fantastic composition.

    DOES FILM MUSIC HAVE TO BE LISTENABLE ON ITS OWN? I can appreciate music which is only good within the context of the film, but I definitely prefer to listen to it on its own. Like Jørn, for a lot of my collection I’ve never heard it with the film.

    SHOULD YOU HAVE TO WORK AT LISTENING TO FILM MUSIC? Yes and no. I love music I can listen to a dozen times and still find something new and interesting in. I love music that has an intellectual quality about it, begging for further analysis. But I’m not always kicking back in a comfy chair with my eyes closed giving full attention with good headphones. A lot of the time I’ll have music playing in the background on while doing other things — as I write computer code, as I read or play games, as I type this.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Cory. Let me respond to two things. First, I forgot about the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Hell, the title alone is brilliant.

      As for Golden Age recording quality, I understand the challenges there. I’m used to it and even I have problems with it sometimes. But bringing the work to light is important so I guess I’m willing to focus a bit more effort there if necessary. I usually find it’s worth the effort and after a few minutes, I don’t even notice the scratches and grooves…or maybe my ears just adjust. But it definitely does take some work. Other Golden Age recordings are in pristine condition. It’s a miracle when that happens.

      We’ll see if if 10-20 years if you’re still nostalgic for stuff from your teen years. If you get excited by a complete HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS then, yeah, nostalgia will be kicking in. ;)

  4. LEMMINGS? It’s best to find out that your favorite things are appreciated by many others – not vice-versa.

    DO YOU LIKE ME? Most of the time…hahaha.

    WHEN DID THE MESSAGE BOARDS BEGIN TO INFECT FACEBOOK? I don’t know. I’m not on Facebook.

    DO WE WEAR BLINDERS? I find film music fans and collectors tend to be among the most versatile of music lovers.

    NOSTALGIA? Oh yes! For the 50’s when CinemaScope and stereo were new…for the 60’s when film music reached a zenith…for the 70’s, when it turned to junk and was wonderfully rejuvenated by LucasFilm and Johnny Williams…not for the 80’s, when it became crass corporate product…and not so much for the pre-processed muzak that began to dominate craftsmenship in the 90’s…the verdict is wide open for the new millenium…

    THE GOLDEN AGE: I’ve been hooked since Charles Gerhardt revived it in the seventies. I’d also mention that recent recordings of 60’s epics like EL CID, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, TARAS BULBA and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE blow away any of the scores created for so-called epics of the last 25 years or so.

    FILM MUSIC WITHOUT THE FILM? I highly recommend it. I certainly don’t need the movie when listening to a jazz score. Henry Mancini made recorded movie music into a genre of it’s own with his wonderful RCA sessions back in the 60’s. I’ll let you know if it’s entirely feasible after a marathon listening of the BERNARD HERRMANN AT 20TH CENTURY FOX collection…hahahahahahaha.

    SHOULD YOU HAVE TO WORK AT LISTENING TO FILM MUSIC? Not if you don’t want to, but there are few pleasures better than a dedicated home theater or music room with the largest speakers you can afford preventing any activity but concentrated listening.

    WHAT IS OUR ROLE AS A COMMUNITY? You’ve summed it up perfectly for me.

    1. Thanks for your responses, Gary. Always nice to see how others feel about film music. As for the “do you like me,” note that I changed “me” to “it” as I was unclear in the original posting. (And I’d rather not know how much people DON’T like me. LOL Not that I ultimately care…)

      I’m so envious that you’re not Facebook. :)

  5. Sorry for being late to the party … me, my laptop and I ;( …

    ARE WE LEMINGS?
    Yes- You could have learned that in school ;). Personally, it’s more of a “If so many people like it, there has to be something with it?” and “Why doesn’t anybody else like this, there must be something wrong with me?” thing.
    I tend to not doing that, but I’ve learned to deal with the additional nasty side comments concerning odd likes or dislikes back in school too.

    DO YOU LIKE ME? DO YOU REALLY LIKE ME?
    Not when you’re bashing James Horner or adoring John Williams I’m not ;).
    Seriously though, I think some people are too shy to comment. I used to be too. If you just “like” something but can’t put up an argument for it, you’d rather not say anything at all. And if it’s commenting on a well-written article like yours are – compliment here ;) – then you would be required to write something more insightful than “I like this too”. And more stylish … well you get the point. I don’t think all not-participating (lurking) comes from not liking something enough.
    (I also tend not to join discussions where people are overly private with one another or drift off but you don’t do that so I’m not going into that.)

    WHEN DID THE MESSAGE BOARDS BEGIN TO INFECT FACEBOOK?
    Good Luck with finding an answer to that; I don’t know it either. Also, it’s not just message boards, it’s becoming more and more normal to talk to other people like that, even in the streets.
    I think it’s the job of all the people on one board to keep it clean of things like that. If I don’t want insults, I shouldn’t do it, and should prevent others from doing it as well. So, you’re doing quite a good job with that ;).

    DO WE WEAR BLINDERS?
    Yes. And I think we should. Not in a sense of not seeing new things. But in a sense of still liking what we used to, although we can see the weak points. I don’t need to keep reminding myself that James Horner tends to be repetitive ;), I know that. I can say that once about an album, and then I can enjoy it because I love the music and don’t need to keep talking about it.
    But like I said, I still keep my ears open for other things hat might interest me ;).

    WHAT IS THE OVERWHELMING LURE OF NOSTALGIA?
    Can’t answer that. None of my friends are doing it either, but that must be a German thing. The media is nostalgic enoguh, no need for me to be that, too. Up to a point where I might see the artistic value of something, and still don’t like it because I can’t find my way to it, which might be a bit radial, but at least it’s not nostalgic ;).

    WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE GOLDEN AGE?
    I agree with the text itself. But since the question was phrased like that, I’d count the fact that today’s scores are easier to come by. Therefore it would be easier to enjoy them since they’re available. If I have to try to find a way to get something for ages (like I did with INKHEART), my enjoyment is seriously dampened.

    DOES FILM MUSIC HAVE TO BE LISTENABLE ON ITS OWN?
    I’m undecided about this. But in case it’s “just” great with the film and doesn’t tell a story on its own, I’d say it wasn’t all that great to begin with. If it tells a story on its own, and I just can’t bear to listen to it (which I would ten still say it’s “un-listenable”), then that is my problem but I’m alright with it.

    SHOULD YOU HAVE TO WORK AT LISTENING TO FILM MUSIC?
    I’d agree with you point, although I objct to that filthy sentence ;).
    I do listen to some scores while I’m working but that is after I’ve concentrated on them at least once, and because I know they can inspire some great ideas ;).

    WHAT IS OUR ROLE AS A COMMUNITY?
    Well put. ;). I’d also say we need to explore all the different aspects (like different periods, different countries), because if the community is not diver, then the wider recognition won’t be either.

    1. Hi Anne, thanks for commenting.

      “If you just ‘like’ something but can’t put up an argument for it, you’d rather not say anything at all.” I agree totally. I also like what you said about lurkers. I’m a BIGTIME lurker. I give my opinion enough in my own head that I usually don’t want to comment unless I really feel strongly about something, good or bad. You can learn a lot by lurking. And learn that words have power and meaning. But just because we say something doesn’t mean it’s important. LOL

      If Germany is immune to the nostalgia thing, my Corgi, my pug and I will be on the next plane over there. :)

  6. Please ignore all the mistakes. It’s not my PC, and I seriously dislike any keyboard but my own.

  7. Interesting set of questions to pose. Taking the last one first, I have always been conscious of people who do not respect film music as an art form (especially classical music lovers). Our role is certainly to support this art form as people still too often think of bad scores from the 30s, 40s and 50s if they think of film music at all.

    Here I will add my age, 61, which I mention since I started collecting film music soundtracks around 16 and have seen the explosion of interest and available scores. (In the late 60s it was virtually impossible to find the score for Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, never mind even dreaming about the complete score for 55 Days at Peking or Battle of Nevetra- talk about blowning one’s mind!)

    But back to my original train of thought. It’s now like having access to all the art in art museums and perhaps we are just reaching a point where we can develop a perspective (Lemings) and develop opinions on listenable scores, or working on listening to them because they worked so well in subtle ways.

    Again, from my perspective, With so much available I can now reject or be critical of scores of my favorite composers, such as Tiomkin and Goldsmith, when they did not put much effort (for whatever reason- money- bad film- too busy) in them either. Their good stuff stands out even more.

    Finally, I have hesitated to join in these discussions as I am aware of my owner blinders being raised on Golden Age scores. I am frankly very underwhelmed by a number of contemporary composers who treat film music as wallpaper and do not seem to make much effort (e.g. Desplat more often than not, but others whose names I cannot think of).

    To the extent I can remove my blinders, I enjoy hearing from others about scores I am not familiar with or did not appreciate.

    1. Hi Roger, thanks for your comments. I’m always glad to read of other film music fans who have learned to use critical judgment. Sometimes just liking something for our own sake is enough. And ultimately, that is what matters. But on a bigger scale, that critical judgment helps us hone in on what is important in life, and not just in film music.

      As for the wallpaper effect of a lot of contemporary film scores, I’m not sure the composers are always to blame. But that’s a discussion for another time… :)

      I wonder how many film music fans are willing to dig deeper for the subtlety in a score. Or if a pretty melody or a rousing action cue is enough. Some of the simplest scores are the most challenging. But I get the feeling that we as human beings generally don’t like to be challenged. Probably that’s an oversimplification.

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