Styles & Forms | Film Music & Soundtracks | Soundtracks & Theatre
Originating as a device to mask the sound of a whirring projector, film music has become so much more than ‘music from the movies’. Before the advent of video and DVD, the soundtrack was the most accessible way to return to a favourite movie. It has since evolved into a multi-million dollar industry and one of the most thriving forms of modern classical music.
A soundtrack provides the musical underscore to a movie, conveying what words or visuals cannot. Because it is a component of the bigger picture, it is not specifically written to be heard in isolation, and typically constitutes a series of short cues. But if – for the sake of argument – the movie-going public has little interest in movie editing or cinematography, why are soundtracks so popular? Perhaps the answer can be traced back to the purpose of the soundtrack: to form an emotional connection between the viewer and the film. And because the scope of cinema is so broad, the soundtrack can be transporting in itself. From the sweeping plains of the Old West in Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, to the galactic battlegrounds of John Williams’s Star Wars space opera, the soundtrack crosses continent, genre and generation.
It’s no coincidence that all-time best-selling soundtrack albums such as The Bodyguard (17 million copies), Saturday Night Fever (15 million) and Purple Rain (13 million) exclusively featured songs by established recording artists. However, the soundtrack enthusiast has little interest in modern ‘songs from and inspired by’ albums, and would rather hark back to the Middle European roots of film music. The 1930s were the Golden Age of film music, with Hollywood opening its doors to the likes of immigrants Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Captain Blood) and Max Steiner (Gone With The Wind), who provided melodramatic suites of romantic, sweeping score.
For King Kong, Steiner used leitmotifs, an operatic device that attributes a specific melody or tune to an individual character. However, much of that era’s music was a ‘wall-to-wall’ backdrop to the movie rather than an aid to the on-screen drama. In Russia, the classical composer Sergei Prokofiev was also bridging the celluloid musical gap between romanticism and modernism; instead of the composer scoring to cut the film, the director Sergei Eisenstein actually cut his films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan The Terrible to the composer’s scores.
The antidote to the richly textured Hollywood wall of sound came in the form of Bernard Herrmann, who brought modernism to the cinema. Widely regarded as the most influential of all soundtrack composers, he made his mark with Citizen Kane, by writing music that was specific to scenes and emotions. Frequently dissonant, repetitive and avant-garde, his peerless, groundbreaking scores paved the way for the hypnotic, modern, ‘minimalist’ work of Michael Nyman (The Piano) and Philip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi).
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