To varying degrees and at different times, “film” has been a dirty word among the classical community, and film composers scoffed at as muzak creators, plagiarists, or second-tier hacks. Composers who devote their energies to scoring films have either fought for acceptance among their concert hall colleagues—by defending the integrity of their scores or penning their own concert music—or resigned themselves to the low opinion of the other side.
And while “film music” is much too broad an umbrella to make completely general statements, the fact is that film score commissions are just another collaborative, work-for-hire application of talent descended from the opera, the ballet, and the court. Some of the music written for film has reached the sublime, not only ingraining itself in the pop culture consciousness, but now and then ascending to the heights of all-time musical achievement. By programming music written by six prominent film composers (John Williams, Randy Newman, Bruce Broughton, Michael Giacchino, Don Davis, and Alexandre Desplat) in her upcoming Piano Spheres recital, pianist Gloria Cheng is, in a small way, helping turn the tide against the unfair denigration and taboo of film composers in a “high culture” setting.
I asked three of the recital’s featured composers, who all spoke to Arts Alive for this Saturday’s program, to weigh in on this topic. John Williams—who has fought the stigma of film scoring for the past 40 years and has also written a large body of concert work—recognizes the disparity between the two worlds, but sees reason for optimism. “There is certainly still a divide in the functions and a divide in the requirements of the two fields,” he says. “There are a few people who manage to do very well in both areas, but precious few I think. Some of our greatest composers still feel very constrained by—and they’re right to—the limitations and restrictions in writing for film. And it takes a particular touch and affinity, I think, to be able to do many films well.”
“One difference between now and earlier decades,” he says, “is that many of the brightest young people studying composition, or the brightest young composers, are interested in audio-visual couplings, and film music if you like. They think of it as part of their toolbox. This was never the case decades ago. They want to know how it’s done, they want to test themselves, I think, in doing it, and whether they want to write for ballet or theatre or choral music or media film music—whatever—many of them want to be familiar at least with the challenges and even the techniques of all these varying aspects of writing music. And as a result of this, many of these things are actually taught at universities and conservatories—unknown thirty or forty years ago. So the attitudinal differences certainly have changed somewhat, I think, but these other differences are profound ones, I think. Profound differences.”
Michael Giacchino (Up, Star Trek) has written horn concertos for USC and the occasional concert piece, but has mostly focused his energies on the small and silver screens. “You know, everyone always says, ‘Oh, the classical world looks down on film composers,’” he says. “I have never really experienced that myself. I really look forward to listening to new classical pieces or new pieces of music that are written for modern orchestras. I love that myself—it’s really interesting—and I also admire the people that get to do that for living, that spend their life coming up with things they want to say.
“I do think, as film composers, we’re not so different from the classical composers of the day in that, you know, we’re hired to write something for a specific purpose. Mozart was hired to write a mass by a specific cardinal or whoever—these were guns for hire in a way, and they were always out there looking for the next job. I would never compare myself to any of those guys, but I do love to look at the similarities between the jobs. You know, the church has been replaced by the studio. And you'r now writing these pieces for this specific event, which just happens to be Star Trek or something else.”
Bruce Broughton (Silverado, Tombstone), who has written dozens of concert works and teaches orchestration in USC’s film scoring program, is a little more cautious, having experienced the scald of prejudice. “It’s true,” he says, “if you work in the movies there’s a certain amount of illegitimacy that you have to be accustomed to when you go out into the other world. There are people who will look down on your music just because you work with movies. I’ve had reviews of pieces where they go to great pains to take my worst credits and point that up as being the guy who wrote blah blah, you know, and now he’s thinking he’s going to be a composer.”
“It may be kind of hard to sit and just listen to the pieces as they are, by themselves,” he says about the upcoming recital, “regardless of who wrote them—whether it’s me or John Williams or Michael Giacchino or Randy Newman...whoever it is. But if you can divorce that and just listen to it as music by itself, I think that’s the way to go. And I think that’s really what [Gloria] intends. She has a healthy respect for all the people she’s playing, otherwise she wouldn’t be wasting her time. She’s playing new music, it’s not standard repertoire. She has to learn all this music, and she has to perform it—she has to make it come off. So it’s a real job for her, and she’s not a silly person. She’s very serious about what she does.”
Whether the upcoming recital is a sign of increasing “legitimacy” granted to film composers by the classical community, or whether it’s the opposite—segregating these particular concert pieces into (as one composer joked) a “film music ghetto”—is difficult to say. But it can only be a positive step for composers known for one medium to try their hand in another, and for audiences who rarely do so to sit and listen to the work of “film composers,” some of the most talented composers alive.