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 someday 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!”